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Through his CNN Fit Nation Team, Dr. Gupta shares his passion for triathlon and guides others down a life-changing path.
As CNN chief medical correspondent and practicing neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta is dispatched to far corners of the globe to provide a human face to some of the world’s biggest health crises, often as a result of a natural disaster. He reported from the front lines of 2010’s devastating earthquake in Haiti and flooding in Pakistan, the tsunami in Japan the following year, and, most recently, the Ebola outbreak in Africa. But despite a dizzying schedule of international travel and intense job demands, Gupta still manages to carve out time to exercise every day, resolute in the pursuit of his own fitness goals and undeterred in his mission to get others to embrace the multisport lifestyle.
“Training is a little bit challenging because this job is very unpredictable,” explains Gupta, 45. “You have to be nimble and figure out how to get your workouts in wherever you are. If I’m covering the Ebola crisis in the middle of West Africa, it makes it a little challenging if you go for a run out there.” Not to mention, he adds, there can be a cultural disconnect. “When you go running in Central or West Africa, people immediately look behind you to figure out what you’re running from.”
Gupta says he’s rotated through various fitness programs over the years—“from my own modified programs of Body For Life guy [Bill Phillips] to Tony Horton to P25 stuff.” He travels with stretch bands for a convenient on-the-road workout. “I’ll do a lot of isometric stuff in a hotel room—push-ups, sit-ups,” he says. “I try to do the things that I don’t do that much when I’m back at home. The top of my IT band is a problem area for me, so I’ll do hip/adductor exercises.”
Gupta, formerly a recreational runner, targeted his first triathlon—the 2010 Nautica New York City Triathlon—as the figurehead of the CNN Fit Nation team, an anti-obesity initiative he launched in 2005. Six viewers were selected to tackle their first triathlon while cameras documented the process. “I had never done one before so I did a lot of homework on it, not only on the mechanics of it but also medically,” says Gupta. “We wanted to know how safe it was for people who hadn’t had that level of athleticism in their lives, and psychologically, if the training was doable. There was a lot that went into thinking about this program.”
Team members receive a road bike, uniform, wetsuit, training and nutrition coaching, and training trips with appearances from the likes of Chrissie Wellington and Paula Newby-Fraser. The program culminates in a triathlon (since 2012, the Nautica Malibu Triathlon).
With help from CNN Fit Nation team coach and pro triathlete April Gellatly, Gupta and the team completed the 2010 Nautica New York City Triathlon, and the program has seen a 100 percent finish rate every year since. “I felt like it was a reset button,” says Gupta. “I’d been moderately athletic in my life but never thought I’d be doing something like a triathlon. I hadn’t swum as an adult. What I realized is that besides offering an incredible sense of accomplishment, psychologically it was very empowering.”
In addition to his high-profile TV job, Gupta serves on the faculty at Emory University School of Medicine, is associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, author of multiple best-selling books, and is a husband and father to three daughters. Instead of further complicating an already very full life, Gupta feels that triathlon has the opposite effect. “What makes triathlon enjoyable for me at this station in life is the fact that I can do it at all—that I can go out for an hour and get in a run or a bike ride,” he says. “It gives me a sense of control over my schedule.”
But more importantly, Gupta says, he sees the sport as a vehicle for healthy, lasting personal change. “People pay a lot of attention to things that can be easily shown in the media—quick weight loss, shrinking of inches, whatever—but we needed to show the more subjective, nuanced gains that people make, and frankly, that keep people hooked. With triathlon it was the camaraderie. When I train and then race with these people—when you’re out there at zero dark hundred getting your transition area all set up—you’re having conversations about real things, and how to improve yourself. We live in a society where it’s all about disease management, and here we say, ‘I’m not talking about disease management, I’m not even talking about wellness, I’m talking about being the best that I can possibly be. I’m talking about optimization.’”
It’s that “third level” of how he looks at healthcare overall. “I’m not just trying to stay healthy here; I want to be the best that I can be. I think that is inspiring to people and will get you rocking out of bed in the morning. It’s very addictive.”
Having just learned how to swim a few years ago, Gupta spends a lot of time practicing his swimming and sighting and making sure he’s comfortable in the open water. He’s also learned the value of smart pacing: “When I get on the bike I think my competitiveness hurts me a little because I go too hard initially. So I read more about focusing on negative splits and pacing myself a little bit better. As much as I study this stuff and academically understand it, I think because of those competitive juices I end up shooting myself in the foot a little bit. That’s an area I need to work on.”
Post-race, Gupta says he becomes a student of the sport, eager to identify ways to keep improving. “I’m an academic sort of person, and after a race if I had a problem or didn’t perform well, I’ll start trying to understand what happened. I’ll read about it, and ask people about it,” he says. “We’re lucky because we get to meet people like Chrissie Wellington and ask them for advice and they’re fantastic.”
At the 2014 Nautica Malibu race, Gupta finished seventh in the celebrity division, but he’ll tell you the real reward was seeing his teammates—individuals who’ve struggled with significant challenges physically and otherwise—achieve what initially seemed like an impossible goal: finishing a triathlon. “When you see these people come across the finish line … people don’t get experiences like that that many times in life. It’s incredible.”