Phillips: It’s never too late to change your patterns

One thing that is nice about living in the shadow of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic is there are so many experts nearby who share their expertise with the community and world.

Dr. Michael Joyner is a physician-researcher at Mayo who is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance and exercise physiology. He has made major contributions to understanding muscle and skin blood flow, blood pressure regulation and human athletic performance.

An anesthesiologist who also happens to be a very good athlete, he has been a consultant to the National Institutes of Health and NASA and has held leadership positions with prestigious scientific journals.

I’ve often seen him quoted in popular magazines, too, as writers have sought him out for his knowledge on athletic performance. His name often pops up in Runners World, for example. I’ve also seen his input included in national newspapers that run stories on running as well as articles on fitness and exercise in general.

His name showed up just recently in many newspapers and magazines after a Mayo Clinic study concluded that cardiovascular exercise, which includes running, biking and other activities that are often thought of as crucial to heart health and weight loss, is also good for brain health. Specifically, it helps the brain’s gray matter and total brain volume, which are both brain regions involved in aging-related cognitive decline.

I met Joyner once when he was a speaker at an annual banquet of a local running club where he brought his extensive knowledge to the local community. Although most people attending were runners, some competitive, but most social runners, the banquet was open to the public so anyone with an interest from the community could attend.

His talk was on the potential fastest time of the marathon runner, which was before the two-hour mark was recently exceeded. Although none of us in the audience had potential to even come close to the two-hour mark in the marathon, his talk was very entertaining and he was able to explain the science in terms we understood.

The science is useful even to runners who are aiming for three-, four- or five-hour marathon times as many of us want to improve our performance. Others who just want to live healthier lives also got something out of his program.

Since Joyner has accomplished so much in his career, I assumed at the time he was always a top-of-his-class, boy genius type of person. However, I was shocked to learn that wasn’t the case when I heard some biographical information about him while listening to a podcast on exercise last week.

As usual, Joyner was one of the main experts interviewed for his insight on the physiological benefits of fitness for this report. Also as usual, the interview delved a bit into his past as he is a gifted athlete who ran a 2:25 marathon, which is close to an Olympic qualifying time, and has excelled as a masters-level swimmer.

This interview, though, also went back into his academic history. Joyner said he was a poor student in high school and his first year of college at the University of Arizona. He was considering dropping out of college in the late 1970s after his first year to become a firefighter.

However, Joyner, a walk-on to the university’s track and cross-country teams at the university, was approached after a race by Eddie Coyle, a graduate student and later a noted physiologist who studied Lance Armstrong. Coyle talked Joyner into volunteering in a physiology experiment as an athlete for researchers to study.

Joyner thought “why not,” and agreed to be a subject. Once he showed up to the study, he became fascinated with the scientists, the lab and the research. He decided to stay in college, started volunteering at the lab and recommitted himself to his studies. He earned his undergraduate degree and then his medical degree in 1987 from the University of Arizona and completed his residency at Mayo Clinic.

Joyner is a fascinating individual, but his life story with the academic reversal seems particularly fascinating since it doesn’t fit the stereotypical timeline of the “smartest person in the room.” He wasn’t the high achiever from the day he entered school as his life took some unexpected turns.

Joyner’s research always has thoughtful recommendations. For example, after his most recent study, he tells older people that it is never too late to start exercising.

His life example has equally comforting recommendations to younger people: It’s never too late to change your behavior.

Young people are often told that one poor choice can ruin their career, even their life or that their youthful pattern may doom them for life, but Joyner shows that isn’t always true.

This isn’t something I’ve ever heard Joyner say, but his life is an example of how a change in attitude can make a world of difference. Joyner’s almost decision during his first year of college wouldn’t necessarily have been a poor one, but we would have been deprived of all the knowledge he is now sharing with the world.