For my entire life, I have always been drawn to and in love with sports. One of the earliest pictures my parents have of me as a baby is when I was about 9 months old. In the picture, I was standing up in a pack-n-play baby play pen. I had one hand held on to the side of the pack-n-play and the other had a ball in it with my arm cocked back ready to fire. I was throwing before crawling and walking! From as far as my memories go back, all I ever wanted to do was to play Major League Baseball.
As I grew into a boy and a teenager, I did not love most of the same things that most other kids did. I occasionally would build things or play games like capture the flag, but I never got into coloring or Legos or video games like most kids. My wife still rags on me for missing out on so many things during my childhood. I never rode on a roller coaster, went camping or had sparklers on the 4th of July. And with me not partaking in all of those things, what did I spend my time doing? Take a guess…. SPORTS! The vast majority of my time spent outside of school was used to play sports. Organized sports, pick up sports, self-invented sports and practicing sports.
When I was about 13 or 14, I realized that while I was better than all of my friends at the skills of sports, I wasn’t as big and strong as most of them. I was an extremely lean kid, bordering on scrawny. Every rib in my ribcage was visible with my shirt off. I didn’t love this part of me and I was determined to do something about it. This desire to become bigger and stronger was my first attempt to focus on and improve some part of my health.
My dad was never involved in many organized sports, but he did get into weight lifting when he was in college. And lucky enough for me, he saved a lot of his weights and set them up in our basement. They definitely were not state of the art as some of the barbells and weights had duct tape holding them together. But weights are weights, as long as you lift them with consistent and progressive intensity they will get the job done. That’s just what I started to do! I had a place in my basement to go everyday to get stronger and develop more muscle as a means to help me perform better on the field and court. My dad showed me some exercises and things he knew to give me a start and I fell in love with it. When I played football as an 8th and 9th grader, I got even more into lifting weights because I was tired of getting beat up on every tackle.
During the next couple of years, I started to notice that the strength training was paying off. I did go through puberty late which made me develop physically a lot slower than I would have liked, but I was seeing some results from all of the weightlifting. I was able to jump higher and run faster on the basketball court and throw harder on the baseball diamond. Around that same time, I also tried to get bigger and stronger in the kitchen. I unfortunately had next to no knowledge about proper nutrition and how to gain weight. What I did have was a huge appetite and I was willing to eat and eat and eat until I felt like I would explode. My younger brother Mike and I used to look at each other after we ate and hold our hands somewhere between the middle of our chests and our necks to indicate how full we were. This was classic teenage nonsense paired with uneducated nutrition at its finest! My mom was and is a great cook and I am so thankful that she provided home-cooked meals for us almost every single night. Shout out to Janice Ahmed, thanks Ma!! Most of the meals were fairly healthy in nature with some vegetables, meat and a carbohydrate option. This was a great start for a young kid but the rest of my nutritional intake was not so stellar. I drank more hormone and antibiotic infused milk than a baby cow… ate tons of ultra processed snack foods… consumed lots of ice cream and candy… and crushed Gatorades, Powerades and all other kinds of sports drinks and sodas filled with tons of sugar and artificial chemicals. All I thought about was calories, calories and more calories. I had no concept of the quality of the food I was eating and what it was doing to my body. Around this time I began to develop terribly painful stomach aches that seemed to always occur during the middle of the morning while I was at school. I had no clue why and never once thought that it could have been from eating Toaster Strudels, Lucky Charms or other poisonous food like substances for breakfast. I wish I knew then what I know now! It could have saved me from lots of pain and discomfort.
I entered high school at about 5’6”, 125 pounds and I finished high school 6’1” weighing in at 175 pounds. Still skinny, but I had gotten much stronger from lifting weights and eating a ton of food. When I went off to college in the fall of 2008, I went to UConn as a recruited walk on to play baseball. I had no scholarship but an opportunity to try to make the team my freshman fall. At UConn, as part of the baseball team, I was introduced to a strength coach who was looking to turn boys into men. Meet Zak Penwell. A retired Air Force officer and college football defensive lineman. He was big, intimidating, demanding and never accepted any excuses. I gravitated towards his intensity and passion for the weight room as did most of our team. Our workouts were insane, borderline tortuous at times with someone puking almost every lift or conditioning session. We lifted like meatheads and I started to put on strength and weight. I was becoming a beast, squatting well over 400 pounds by the fall of my sophomore year. Although I was getting stronger and stronger by the week, my body was also breaking down because of my lack of good functional movement and other poor health habits. I began to develop severe patellar tendonitis in both of my knees and had lower back pain that was debilitating at times. I learned that strength training was great but not if done with improper technique, lack of mobility work, poor nutrition and minimal sleep to help me recover.
As a college student, my nutritional habits became even worse than when I lived at home in high school. I had an unlimited meal plan in college, meaning that I could go to any dining hall on campus, any time of day and eat as much food as I wanted. Pizza, ice cream, tall glasses of chocolate milk and French fries were staples in my diet. I ate lots and lots of poor quality food, devoid of any real nutritional benefit while the dining halls were open. When they closed, my roommates and I routinely ordered things like fried chicken sandwiches, calzones and our favorite late night snacks from a place called Husky Pizza. We all pretty much had the same order. Double bacon cheeseburger with a large side of fries. These got nicknamed “Greaseburgers” and were eaten weekly all through college.
Another really negative aspect of my college lifestyle became sleep deprivation. With no parents around, no mandatory bedtimes and suboptimal time management skills, I began staying up late all the time. Getting up early for workouts and classes was always a struggle and I routinely would doze off in the back of the lecture halls. Not my proudest moments… I’ve always been a night owl and that was accentuated in college.
Despite a lot of poor health habits, I worked extremely hard at becoming a better baseball player and was fortunate to be on an amazing team. On June 7th 2011, I got drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the MLB Draft. My dream was beginning to come true and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity I was blessed with. I was now a professional athlete and I began my journey to the big leagues. My mindset was there is no plan B. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from reaching my potential. I began to dive more seriously into health and nutrition to try to gain every single edge that I possibly could. As with anything in life, becoming healthier is a journey. I still had many flaws in my approach to health. As a 22 year old minor league baseball player, high quality nutritious food was scarce in the clubhouse. Actually, I never saw healthy food being consumed. Guys lived on PB&J’s and fast food. For me, I was trying to cook sometimes and eat healthier but as a lean guy I was still most focused on weight management and calories. One of my health flaws during this time will be seared into my mind forever. After games in Lynchburg, Virginia playing High A minor league baseball, I would routinely stop at McDonald’s on the way home. That’s right, Mickey D’s… But at Mickey D’s I tried to make healthier choices. I know, that’s a somewhat comical mindset because there is nothing remotely nutritious at McDonalds, but I truly didn’t know any better at the time. I skipped all the burgers and fries and greasy food in favor of chocolate milkshakes with a maraschino cherry on top. I was slugging down milkshakes left and right as a means to make sure I didn’t lose too much weight during the season. Unbelievable! I still had no idea that loads of sugar, low quality dairy and artificial ingredients were poison to my body. I had a lot to learn.
Things have changed a lot for me between then and now. I have studied, researched, read and experimented with countless different time tested strategies and cutting edge ways to maximize my health, performance, mindset and recovery as a professional athlete. I have dealt with and overcome serious injuries and healed myself from chronic health issues to be able to now experience incredible health! I have also been extremely blessed to work with and learn from some of the best people in the world in the health and performance industry. Now, I am fully immersed in and obsessed with maximizing my personal health and the health of my family. I eat organic and regeneratively farmed foods, prioritize optimal exercise, practice healthy sleep strategies and use recovery tools and modalities. I also have created thriving relationships, have a strong mindset, engage in proactive stress management strategies and most important of all, I have a great relationship with God. I don’t have everything perfectly figured out, but I have learned about and implemented so many life giving practices. Along the way, I have become a resource for family members, friends and teammates who have questions about all aspects of their health. They know that I do lots of research and would never recommend something that I don’t do myself. I have been blessed and fortunate to have found favor with people in this way and one of my passions in life is sharing what I have learned with others to help them live healthier lives. That is why I founded 7 Pillar Health & Performance – to share what I have learned in a way that empowers others to own their health and unleash their potential.
A quick search of the internet can lead to conflicting and overwhelming information. My goal is for 7 Pillar to be a one stop shop for people to come learn about all aspects of health, with practical strategies and trusted science. I invite and encourage you to come along for the ride!
Action Items To Begin Or Improve Your Health Right Now:
- Take some time to self reflect and honestly assess where you are and what you would like to improve about your health. Write these down.
- Start Small: Pick 2 of our 7 Pillars that you want to improve and create one new habit for each of those 2 pillars.
- Stack those habits together in a time of day that will allow you the best chance of sticking with them in the long run.
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