In the wake of loss, David Harris took his health into his own hands.
In our series My Body Experiment, we ask high performers to tell us about major changes they’ve made in diet, fitness, and general wellness. Here, they chronicle the results of their trials, positive and negative.
Sometimes life presents obstacles that derail even the fittest among us. In 2013, David Harris, vice president of health and human performance at Equinox, lived through a loss that caused him to put his health on the back burner for five years. After taking several gene tests and a telling fitness assessment, he decided to use his new knowledge to optimize his health. This is his story.
We’ve been interested in genetic testing and physical assessments for a long time at Equinox. I got my first test in 2006, but back then people couldn’t see how genes and the gym went hand in hand. Today, trainers can look at these results and optimize their clients’ fitness based on that information.
Even though I’ve learned more and more about my genetic makeup in the past decade, it wasn’t until January 5 of this year that I decided to upend my routine to reverse the negative trends in my results.
In 2013, I lost my best friend and partner after a long struggle with prescription drug addiction. In our six years together, I flew more than 300 flights between New York and Los Angeles, where he lived. I managed a relationship, a career, a family, two homes, and two time zones. The fractured sleep, constant germ exposure in plane cabins, and the stress of travel put enormous physical pressure on my body.
With his death, I had to give up the home we shared and place our four beautiful dogs with families that I knew would take good care of them. The journey of accompanying the person you love most to their end is deeply affecting. This was a multidimensional loss that sent me into a deep depression. It was as if I were sleepwalking for five years.
Coming up against this enormous wall of loss was bewildering. It forced me to confront the reality of powerlessness: We can control our choices and nothing else.
To make matters worse, I ruptured my right quad tendon while running across the street to catch a taxi in 2015. Two days post-surgery, I ruptured it again when I tripped getting out of bed, requiring a second surgery. Not long after, in a full cast from the knee surgery, I got hit in the back of the head with a paintball in Central Park. My left toe drove into the concrete, ripping the nail right off.
I was in rehab for years trying to restore full function to both of my legs. I continued to train through all of this in a limited fashion, mostly doing bodyweight movements focused on core stability and joint mobility, and basic push-and-pull TRX exercises for my upper body. These were mostly structured as HIIT routines.
I couldn’t load my legs with more than my body weight. Having been a sprinter in high school, then a long-distance runner in my late 20s, and a bodybuilder in the 1990s, I took enormous pride in my legs. Seeing them atrophy was difficult, but it remained important to me to stay physically engaged outside the rehab setting to reinforce a sense of continuity and accomplishment.
In terms of nutrition, I took in far too much sugar from breads, potatoes, the occasional cookie or glass of wine, and other processed carbs. I didn't want to admit that my dietary discipline had gone into the trash, but it had. HIIT and a high-sugar diet don’t mesh well: High-intensity exercise causes you to burn carbs (not fat) for fuel, so all that excess sugar I was eating wound up being stored as fat.
The Tipping Point
You really have to be ready to change. Something has to flip that switch in your head to make you say, “I’m ready to do this.” Everybody has their own tipping point; it’s just about discovering what it is.
You don’t know what you’re made of until you have to face the most existential questions. This process was about finding out whether or not I wanted to continue to live.
On January 5, I went through the Lab100 assessment at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, which analyzes your body across a range of categories. This test became that switch for me. My blood levels were good, but because of my past injuries (which made even basic movements like sitting down, taking a shower, and getting in and out of cars more difficult), my single-leg balance, grip strength, and trunk stability were still compromised; I even had less-than-stellar results in some cognitive tests due to the constant sleep disruption I endured for so long. (So often, we forget that sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on brain function.) It was extremely humbling and taught me to never take my ability to move and think clearly for granted.
My results suggested that this downhill trajectory would continue if I didn’t tackle it. I’ve dedicated so much of my efforts in life to being in shape, so seeing the stats opened my eyes and I decided that I didn’t want to go down that road. Based on my Lab100 results and my comprehensive DNA results from orig3n, a biotech company in Boston, I optimized my routine so I could optimize my health.
But my decision to finally prioritize my health was about way more than changing my body composition. It was about regaining ownership of my body and my mind. I wasn’t inhabiting them. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to inhabit them anymore. You don’t know what you’re made of until you have to face the most existential questions. This process was about finding out whether or not I wanted to continue to live.
The Test Results
I found out that I’m gifted in VO2 max, flexibility, and joint strength and health. I also have a rare gene (MSTN) found in only eight to 10 percent of the population that shows strength training comes easily to me. That means I can build muscle and achieve peak power contraction with the right exercise and nutrition programs. (Typically you see a decline in testosterone in men over 40, making it more difficult to gain mass, but at 58 years old I can still put on muscle fairly quickly.)
I’m also predisposed to excel in anaerobic sports and I have the sub-gene for being gifted in endurance sports. My genes explain why I could excel as a sprinter, long-distance runner, and bodybuilder.
The Lab100 results were more bleak. They showed I had an unhealthy 27 percent body fat, higher than it had ever been. As a direct result of my injuries, my grip strength was weak and my balance was severely impaired.
All the negative trends in my health could be corrected if I committed to living healthfully again. This confirmed that even in the shadow of enormous loss, I had a reason to keep living.
My orig3n test showed that I carry a vitamin D receptor (VDR) gene variant that makes it harder for me to gain mass, because the nutrient impacts phosphorus and calcium levels. To capitalize on my ability to build muscle thanks to the MSTN gene, I need to take in enough D through sunlight, supplements, and food. Knowing how to reconcile these two genes was key for me.
Folate and vitamin B-12 are critical for building red blood cells, but to get the benefits your body needs to absorb them in a process called methylation. The orig3n test revealed that I lack this ability; I have to take pre-methylated vitamin supplements, which allow for easier absorption through the cell walls.
Recovery is a huge indicator of how you perform physically. I have gene variants that show I’m able to sleep for a long period of time and that I’m more prone to being a light sleeper. That may sound contradictory, but it’s not. These results just indicate that if I want to take advantage of my ability to sleep long hours, I need to manage things that could interrupt my sleep, like alcohol and screen time.
The New Routine
For a while, I wasn’t lifting heavy weights because of my injuries. Re-introducing that was like giving me a drug. I do lots of heavy bent barbell rows (160 pounds) and dumbbell presses (85 pounds), and weighted carries and lunges (with 14-kilogram kettlebells) to strengthen my grip.
If I’m going to have a treat, I’d rather drink it: I like my red wine and tequila—on weekends only.
Every week, I do one day of pure strength (with lower rep counts and more weight), one day of bodyweight training, and one day of endurance-based resistance (more reps with little rest in between sets). I also do a lot of mobility and stability exercises to get rid of the lingering imbalances in my body. Three times a week, I do an hour of low-intensity cardio, keeping my age-related heart rate between 100 and 130 so my body can mobilize fat metabolism and burn fat for fuel.
Here’s what a day of eating looks like for me: I wake up and have a tablespoon of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, which increases ketone production. After I train, I eat breakfast. Usually it’s eggs and the sea buckthorn bowl from abcV; the fruit has a great regenerative effect on the kidneys and liver.
For lunch, I’ll have grilled chicken, half a cup of brown rice or quinoa, and roasted root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. Sometimes I’ll throw in broccoli, asparagus, or peppers. Later in the day I’ll have a protein shake and for dinner, I eat vegetables and protein, like steak or fish.
I take vitamin B in methylated form. At night, I have drops of vitamin D and magnesium (to ease cramps from frequent travel) in water. I’ve gotten rid of almost all the empty carbs in my diet. If I’m going to have a treat, I’d rather drink it: I like my red wine and tequila—on weekends only.
My lack of regen was causing me to hit a plateau, so I pay more attention to my circadian rhythm. I have to wind down between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. If I miss that window, my system reawakens and I can’t fall asleep for another three hours. Now, I eat dinner by 6 p.m., avoid fluids two to three hours before bed, and stop looking at screens at 7 p.m.
It takes a lot of planning to set yourself up for success at night. I’m more mindful of that now than I was before.
Since January 5, I’ve lost 25 pounds and 15 percent body fat. When I’m doing everything right, I sleep an hour more each night than I used to. That’s like an eighth night of sleep per week. As a result, I’m in a more restored position, which allows the body to be more metabolically efficient.
I’m not finished yet. Just this week, I got a full genetic report from Health Nucleus in San Diego. The long and short of those results is that I have no incipient disease, no elevated risk factors. I’ve been given a clean bill of health, and if I live a life with good habits, my chances of having severe health issues are minimal.
The grieving process was incredibly difficult, beyond anything I could ever imagine, and I was very lucky that the worst physical outcome was that I wound up with 27 percent body fat and structural injuries that I could recover from. If that’s the worst that happens and I’m able to reverse a lot of the damage in five months, I count that in the win column.
My injury really saved me in the end, because it forced me to focus on the most fundamental things, my body and functional capacity, instead of my depression. Gaining control of my body set me on a therapeutic path.
It’s still a long journey, but I feel a zest that I haven’t felt in years. I’m finding new meaning in my career and I feel like I would be open to having someone else in my life. For the longest time, I didn’t. All of that says I’m ready to continue. Even though I miss the elements of my former life tremendously and always will, it’s good to wake up and feel like that again.