Conversations in the Courtyard: Toby Wiseman

The editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine talks to The Royal Exchange about how good health can optimise performance

10 January, 2020


THE ROYAL EXCHANGE:
So, Toby, welcome to The Royal Exchange. I wonder if you could start by telling us what has changed in the arena of health and fitness over the past few years?

TOBY WISEMAN (pictured above): Well, thanks for inviting me. So, when I started at Men’s Health it was all about “mirror muscles” – looking at what fitness could do for you aesthetically. It was a bit of a niche, and then the industry expanded massively as health and nutrition became mainstream. But now it is becoming something of a niche again, but in a different way. Put broadly, it’s become about training and hacking mind and body to enhance your performance as a human being.


TRE:
Like creating a superman?

TW: Well, successful people, and people with power are obsessed with health and wellbeing. Take Silicon Valley for example, where someone like Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, is not just content with coming up with the world’s best algorithm, he wants to improve people’s lives through curing disease. It’s the same idea that people like Bill Clinton and Bill Gates have – wanting to end suffering and poverty – but this is different. It’s exploring how we can live better, healthier and longer lives – in its most extreme form; how we can live forever.


TRE:
So health and fitness as a kind of cure?

TW: Absolutely. It goes hand in hand with the new diet fads: Bulletproof coffee, or the Keto diet, where you basically live off protein and fat. People within new media, or working in start-up culture, they are looking at health as medicine, at being able to cure oneself from within. This is so different to the old idea of fitness – of the six-pack. A six-pack doesn’t do anything. The desire for it is purely aesthetic. It just looks good. Now it is all about working from the inside out.


TRE:
Is a six-pack no longer the aim then?

TW: People still like the idea of how it looks, but the six-pack is a consequence of having loss of weight and training your core. It just appears when you do these other things. A six-pack doesn’t equal performance. It is a by-product. Whereas now what we have is an absolute explosion of what I call functional fitness. Are you fit for purpose? Are you able to perform? Are you able to actually do something with the body you have created, rather than just show it off?


TRE:
Apart from diet and nutrition, how does this manifest itself?

TW: Through data and performance. Think of how wearable tech has developed. From Fitbits to smartphone apps and smart watches – companies like Amazon, Nike and Apple are trying to infuse everything with their tech ability, while more luxury fashion brands are developing high-performance fabrics for new technical sports collections.


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TRE:
Is tech the new frontier for health and fitness?

TW: Absolutely. It’s strange, because what it does is something both very modern but also old-fashioned. Because the people who love data include the older, middle-aged cyclists in Lycra who love being on Strava [social fitness network] comparing their performance. In this way, tech creates a virtual community. For men in particular, who are comparing performance online, this has real appeal. These online communities on Strava, MyFitnessPal, and Peloton, they are all about competition but also about providing a support network. There are precious few places for men to actually support each other.


TRE:
The competitive element is crucial though, surely. Is the new idea that you become nutrition-educated and fit enough to do half-marathons and 100km cycle rides so you can beat the competition in both the sporting arena, and at work?

TW: Well, to an extent that was already there. The idea of the competitive game of squash at lunchtime, for example. But what is new is this idea that there is a connection between physical health and mental health. There is a clear link between exercise and a reduction in the cortisol hormone, so it is a stress-reduction measure that is going to make you perform better in the workplace. Equally you can link exercise to the management of many other types of problems and so by promoting a healthier lifestyle, you create somebody who is fit for purpose, somebody who is fit for going to work and actually performing at an optimum level. In the City, this has created a fascinating shift from a culture that was about who can stay out the longest, and who can survive with less sleep and still make their targets, to a new idea: who can actually be the smartest in the way they live their lives, so they can outperform their colleagues.


TRE:
If you had to give some advice for those thinking of optimising their performance what would it be?

TW: It’s about nutrition and diet, but also exercise. The culture of green juices and avocado shows that people are thinking that what you put inside your body can enhance your health. Though I don’t think that really cuts it completely. Nutrition has to go hand in hand with the exercise element. And for that, I would always say get on a bike or go for a run. Something like that is cardio-based and will produce all of the kinds of endorphins, hormones, and neurotransmitters that will probably put your mind in the best possible position to make more level-headed judgements.


TRE:
Should people still join a gym?

TW: Gyms are good, and are changing. Some, like Equinox, are all about using technology and science – there you have treadmills that are pumping out pure oxygen, rather than just air, to increase your lactic threshold. But then there are places like The Ned – just opposite where we are today at The Royal Exchange – where they have a nice pool and equipment, but have also brought in elements like a boxing ring and sandbags, where fitness can be linked to more functional activity.


TRE:
And is the new idea of performance fitness a cross-generational thing, or just for younger people?

TW: What we tend to notice with Men’s Health magazine is that you have two broadly different kinds of readers, and I think these are typical of what you will find in the City too. There are the under-35s, who is far more interested in performance exercise, racking up high scores (miles run or cycled, or repetitions of exercises) through physical exercise. And then there are the over-35s who are more interested in looking at long-term health: things like heart health and weight loss, and using nutrition as a means to do that. What’s interesting is that while of course there will be a 22-year-old guy who wants to be Ryan Gosling in Drive, we’ve now also got an over-50 Alan Sugar type who realises that his body is not cashing the cheques that it did 20 years ago, but rather than giving up the goal and retiring to the suburbs, he is getting back in shape to compete with the younger version of himself.


TRE:
What do you see the future looking like?

TW: More emphasis on performance. Scientists are now looking at the human genome and at cheaper and more rapid sequencing of DNA, which has paved the way for new trends in wellness for biohacking, where we are aiming at optimisation of behaviour. It’s being driven by the tech generation, and this new bio-hacking trend aims to create an upgrade to a human being through the marriage between our current understanding of genetics, and tailored approaches to improve mental performance. It really is a new frontier.

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Toby Wiseman is editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine, the UK’s biggest selling publication for men. He is also the Style Counsel columnist for The Sunday Times. In 2014, he won the BSME Editor of the Year award for men’s magazines

Conversations in the Courtyard is a monthly series that brings together today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas at The Royal Exchange in the City of London