As a scientist, broadcaster, author, coach and athlete, Dr. Greg Wells has dedicated his career to understanding human performance and how the human body responds to extreme conditions. Dr. Wells is an Assistant Professor in Kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an Associate Scientist of Physiology and Experimental Medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children. At U of T Dr. Wells studies elite sport performance, and at Sick Kids he leads the Exercise Medicine Research Program where his team explores how to use exercise to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic illnesses in children. Previously, he served as the Director of Sport Science at the Canadian Sport Institute, and taught elite sport coaches at the National Coaching Institute. Dr. Wells appears regularly on national television and radio and makes ongoing contributions to newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes. Known for making complex science accessible, interesting and fun, Dr. Wells is helping us all sleep, eat, move, perform and live better.
How did you get into the health and wellness industry?
I started almost by accident. Right after I graduated from University, I met an executive from a major bank and told her about my idea to bring my sport and kinesiology knowledge to the business world. She thought it was a great idea and asked me to start on Monday morning with her team! She gave me a desk, computer, and access to all the bank’s training programs, and in return I coached her people for six months and built a great program. I eventually went back to school to upgrade my training and knowledge, but that’s how my career started.
Tell us about The Wells Group/Superbodies. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
During my Masters and PhD training at the University of Toronto, I was consulting for Canadian Olympic team athletes and coaches as a physiologist. Then in 2010, I was asked to join the Canadian TV broadcast team covering the Vancouver Olympics as their sport science analyst. We built a series called Superbodies that used some very cool CGI graphics to explain how these athletes are able to do such amazing things. The segments were a hit, and I then wrote a book called Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes where I used the science of human performance to show general readers how they could apply these techniques to their own lives to be healthier and to perform better. I formed The Wells Group after 2010 to get back into the corporate human performance world, and we are now using sport science principles to help people in business.
The primary success factor for The Wells Group has been to get world-class people to develop scientifically-based content that we use in our education programs. I have also pulled together a highly skilled and experienced advisory board for expert support in areas like finance, strategy and legal. From a business strategy perspective, The Wells Group has really focused on making science understandable and accessible.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
People are now much more willing to embrace exercise and nutrition as part of their lives. When I first started, the idea of taking time in the day to go to the gym was pretty radical. Now that people understand that exercise can lead to better problem solving, creativity and concentration, executives are more willing to take care of themselves. People now understand that to do well at their jobs and improve the bottom line, they need to be healthy and fit. That’s a huge change in the corporate world and a very welcome one.
You can always be better.
Your greatest success as founder of The Wells Group?
The greatest success has been to reach a point where the company is growing at a rapid pace and our clients are engaging with our programs consistently and getting fantastic results. It has taken almost 20 years to get here. Our next dream is to make Canada and the US the healthiest, fittest nations in the world, so we have our work cut out for us.
Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
The most difficult moment happened very early in my career. I was 24 years old and presenting to a group of senior executives at a bank about stress management. One of the executives interrupted me with a series of questions: “Do you have a family? (No) So you don’t have children? (No) Do you have a mortgage? (No) Are you going through menopause? (Uh…. No) So what could you possibly tell me about stress?” The room erupted into laughter, but she was quite serious. I took a moment and then explained how my knowledge of the psychophysiology of stress got me to the Olympic trials 14 months after I broke my neck. I showed her how my physiological response was identical to one that she would feel if she was presenting to her shareholders or entering into confrontational negotiations. I placed the science of the body in a business context, even though I was way too young and inexperienced to be in the room in the first place. That woman ended up hiring me to work with her team.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Dream big and start building your companies now. Don’t wait. Even if you fail, you will learn something that will help you in the future.
How do you motivate your employees?
I don’t have to. I have found professionals who love what they do. All I do is provide them with the opportunity and the tools to change people’s lives.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
When I was riding my bike through Kenya in 40 degrees C (120 F), I found a little shack in a village in the middle of nowhere that for some miraculous reason had a freezer full of ice cream bars. There was no running water, but there was ice cream. I have never tasted anything so good in my life. Subsequently, I now have a serious problem with ice cream. So if I could only eat one thing, that would be it.
What literature is on your bed stand?
J.R.R. Tolkien to help me sleep, Richard Branson to help me dream, and The Way of the Peaceful Warrior to help me live better.
Role model - business and personal?
My personal role model has always been Olympic swimmer Victor Davis. His incredible passion and drive had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager and has stuck with me ever since.
Professionally, I have been reading a great deal by Richard Branson. He takes the time to help create a culture of entrepreneurship around the world. He is very active on social media and offers a tremendous amount of information and guidance to people. I also like that his companies are based on a consistent philosophy across all its brands.
Ironman triathlon. I had a heart infection in 2012 that severely damaged my health and capacity to exercise. I needed something to bring me back to life, and training for Ironman has been it. And now that I dedicate more time to training and sleep, I am far more effective at work. So training has been great for me personally and professionally.
What's next for The Wells Group?
We are expanding from the corporate world into the academic world. Mental health is one of the biggest social challenges, and some of the answers lie in the science of human performance and health. There is tremendous interest now in helping students learn better by improving their eating, sleeping and exercise habits. Children and our youth are the future, and we’re really excited about the opportunity to help improve performance and health in our schools and universities.
Throughout his career, Dr. Wells has coached, trained and inspired dozens of elite athletes to win medals at the Commonwealth Games, World Championships and Olympics. He has studied athletic performance in some of the most severe conditions on the planet. And he has personal experience with the challenges and opportunities of adversity and human extremes.
Late in his high school career, Greg broke his neck in a freak accident while swimming in the ocean and was in a halo brace before undergoing neurosurgery. Told by his doctor that he would never perform as an athlete again, he went on to compete at the international level in swimming. He has competed in events such as the Nanisivik Marathon 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Ironman Canada, and the Tour D’Afrique, a grueling 11,000-kilometre event that is the longest bike race in the world.