Diet and exercise are key components to staying healthy and Dr. Robyn Odegaard, who made a name for herself as a competitive beach volleyball player, understands this better than anyone. She had spent her life using goal-achievement psychology to inspire and motivate her towards success in her career. Dr. Robyn earned a certificate from the Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell University which she uses to help others achieve their goals and attain healthy lifestyles; typically though good diets.
Dr. Robyn is married to Russ Bruzzano, a former competitive body builder who was known as a skilled trainer on the Mr. Olympia tour. Together, they founded the Whole Food Muscle Club and collaborated on a book titled “How to Feed a Human: The Whole Food Muscle Way” which was released in April of 2019.
Dr. Robyn and Russ recently granted an exclusive interview where they discussed their career in sports, journey into authorship, experiences as entrepreneurs and the merits of a plant-based diet and lots of exercise to achieve a truly healthy lifestyle.
MM: You both started out being professionals in the sporting fields. So, how did you get into your sports of choice and what were the highlights of your career?
Dr. Robyn: I started playing volleyball at a church league for the exercise. That morphed into playing on competitive teams and meeting my beach volleyball partners, one for co-ed tournaments and one for women’s tournaments. I never made enough money playing to pay the bills, so I always had a “real” job. I had some great times playing tournaments on weekends and then dragging myself into work on Monday morning!
One of the highlights of my career was showing up to play a women’s tournament and learning there weren’t enough teams, so the event was being cancelled. I asked the organizer if the men’s tournament, happening at the same time, was still on. When he said, “yes,” I immediately asked to participate in it. At first, he gave me some pushback, but eventually he let us play.
Near the end of the day, my partner went into the sand for dig. I was going to set her, but I saw she wasn’t coming out of the sand. I put it over on two — scoring the point. I turned and she was still on her knees and elbows with her head on the sand. I got down on my knees and put my face close to hers. She told me, “I can’t. I don’t have anything left.”
I said, “You can and you will.” I put my arm around her and stood bringing her up with me. I said, “Just give me what you’ve got. I’ll do the rest.” And we played out the game.
Later her boyfriend, who played mixed doubles with her, told me he had never seen her come out of the sand and continue to play once she was down like that.
We ended up finishing fourth. But we had beaten the teams that finished first and second in early pool play. I honestly believe we could have taken that tournament if it had been a little bit cooler and we hadn’t had to wait so long between pool play and the final matches. I was really proud of us that day.
That experience was when I realized I can motivate and inspire people to go farther, do better and achieve more than they believe they can. That is a big part of the support I offer to our clients.
Russ: I was chunky as a kid and always dreamed of being the muscle guy in the ads in the back of comic books and magazines. As a pre-teen I got myself a set of plastic, cement filled weights from Sears. I would roll them out from under my bed to workout.
As soon as I was able to drive, I joined a local gym. The guys there were bodybuilders. I started learning about proper form, proper nutrition (I know better now), isolating muscle groups and competing.
I started competing myself in my early twenties, eventually winning the New Jersey Gold Classic.
The highlight of my career was taking my knowledge and helping others achieve their goals. Being a trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour and helping my client win two competitions in Europe set the stage for me to support our clients on their health and fitness journey.
MM: What made you decide to retire from sports and how did that background lead you into the field of health and nutrition?
Dr. Robyn: I didn’t “retire” so much as realize my brain thought I could play at the level I always had and my knees knew differently. When I moved and started college at the age of 32, I no longer had my network of partners, practice and tournaments. I played pick-up games and even a tournament after that but I never had regular partners again.
Having been an athlete certainly influenced my decision to include sport psychology in my college curriculum. The decision to work in the field of health and nutrition was predicated by my feeling like my body was betraying me after I turned 40. I had always eaten what I thought was pretty well and I still got a good amount of exercise. However, I was gaining weight and my cholesterol was going up. When I talked to my doctor about what I was doing wrong, she responded that I just needed to accept these changes as normal with age and suggested I see a psychologist to address my “body dysmorphic disorder.” (Interesting note – I’m more qualified to diagnose that disorder than she is.)
I KNEW that it couldn’t be right that the human body is designed to be fat and sick as we age. I decided to put the research skills I’d learned in college back to work and figure out what was happening and how to fix it. I read, listened to, watched and attended anything and everything I could find about the science of health, nutrition, exercise and how psychology applied to all of it.
My studying culminated in a certificate from The Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell University. More importantly, I learned how to easily shed my twenty extra pounds and drop my cholesterol back into the healthy range without medication.
That is when people started asking me if I could help them with their health goals and I had to decide if and how I would incorporate wellness coaching into my business. The Whole Food Muscle Club was born, followed by our book, “How to Feed a Human: The Whole Food Muscle Way.”
Russ: I retired from competitive bodybuilding because I realized I enjoyed helping other people get ready for shows more than just doing it myself. Since I had always enjoyed sharing my knowledge, moving from athlete to coach was an easy transition. When I met Robyn our mutual interest in working out and nutrition took things to the next level.
MM: How did you meet? Was it before or after your sporting careers had ended?
Dr. Robyn: How we met is a funny story. It was long after either of us was competing, but we were both still working out five or six days a week. I joined the gym were Russ was lifting. I had to ask him out four times before he said yes! He’s pretty focused during his workouts and wasn’t really paying attention. It’s a good thing I was just asking if he wanted to hang out and I didn’t have any ego about it. I didn’t take it personally. I just thought he didn’t want to do the thing I was inviting him to do. When I had something else to do, I’d ask again. Eventually he said yes to going to a grand opening for a new restaurant in the area and the rest is history.
MM: Dr. Robyn, what was it like to attend Cornell and earn a certificate from such a prestigious school?
Dr. Robyn: I have always loved to learn. Prior to enrolling at the Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell, I had taken numerous courses in nutrition from various universities around the world. Earning the certificate from Cornell seemed like icing on the cake. I didn’t really think about it while I was taking the classes. I was intently focused on taking in and retaining all the material.
It really hit me that I had a certificate from a prestigious school when I added it to my LinkedIn profile. At that moment, I let myself absorb what a big deal it was and how proud I felt of myself.
MM: What is it about plant-based diets with exercise that makes them so remarkably healthy?
Dr. Robyn: When you consider that humans evolved foraging (exercise) and most of what they ate was plants, it’s not surprising that our bodies are healthier when we move them and get the nutrients we need. Since we made the switch, we have better workouts and faster recovery, not to mention we are leaner and healthier.
The human body has 37 billion (That is 37 followed by 18 zeros!) chemical reactions every second. Each of those reactions requires nutrients. Plants are the most nutrient dense food we can consume. Plus, you can eat until you feel satisfied rather than trying to use portion control to tell 2.5 million years of evolution to eat less.
We are starting to see more and more professional athletes move towards a plant-based diet because they realize it gives them competitive edge. The challenge that most people have when they want to start eating this way is how to get started. That’s where the Whole Food Muscle Club comes in.
MM: What foods/meals do you consider to be the healthiest and which exercises do you most recommend?
Dr. Robyn: The amazing thing about eating mostly plants is the huge variety of foods there are to eat. There is no “heathiest” option. We have found that steel cut oatmeal with fruit, nuts, seeds and spices is a great way to start our day. Just for fun, we counted the calories once and found we eat almost 1000 calories just for breakfast! If that’s not evidence that calories in/calories out isn’t the whole story, I don’t know what is.
We don’t think people need to be overly focused on eating specific meals. It is much more important to be able to tell real hunger from toxic hunger and only eat when you are actually hungry. Unfortunately, our culture has normalized eating three meals a day plus snacks and most people have no idea what it feels like to be hungry or satiated.
It is also important to give your body a break from digesting food. It’s the only time it gets to do repair and clean up to remove cells that haven’t replicated correctly and may turn into cancer down the road.
The exercise we recommend is the kind someone will do consistently. Too many people think exercise has to be grueling and exhausting or it’s not worth doing. That simply isn’t true. With our Whole Food Muscle Club clients, we start where they are and help them develop a fitness plan that they can sustain. We start someone who is new to regular exercise in a different place than a competitive athlete looking to take things to the next level.
Weights are great for your muscles and bones and cardio is good for your heart. Everyone should do at least a little bit of both. In our book, “How to Feed a Human: The Whole Food Muscle Way” we have a few beginner workouts that include both weight lifting and cardio.
MM: You are known as being the founders of Whole Food Muscle Club. How did that come about?
Dr. Robyn: The Whole Food Muscle Club came out of our desire to be able to help as many people as possible bridge the gap between wanting to be healthier and HOW to actually do it. We asked ourselves, how can we share what we know with the most people? The answer was to create an online support system and make it accessible to anyone who wants to take back control of their health.
MM: What was it like to collaborate on a book and how did you find a publisher?
Dr. Robyn: Because this is my third book, I took the lead on writing this one. Russ and I spend a lot of time together talking through ideas and plans. Even our daily walks are spent brainstorming and working through business plans. I pulled together an outline of what would become the chapter titles and then we worked together to tweak it. I think we changed the order of the chapters four or five times. We even removed and replaced several chapters. We put the name of each chapter on a sticky note and shuffled them around until we thought we had it settled. Then we went through them and rearranged them one more time after all of the chapters were written.
I’m really fortunate because Russ is patient with my writing process. I tend to talk about a lot of ideas in rapid fire. I’m sure it sounds scattered and all over the place. He adds thoughts and bounces ideas back at me, but he never gets frustrated with the chaos of it.
After the book was written and our editor was done with it, we had two people proofread it. Once that was done, I passed it over to Russ to put his graphic design skills to work. The cover and layout are all him with just a little feedback from me.
I had shopped around for a publisher and realized that the time it takes to get it to market just isn’t viable in the fast-paced reality of entrepreneurship. Our clients wanted a book now —not two years from now. I had been successful publishing my other two books myself, so we decided to publish “How to Feed a Human” through Champion Performance Development as well.
Russ: Collaborating with Robyn on this book was super simple for me. We talked about what should be included and how to organize it. Robyn did all of the typing. Her feedback on the cover design was really important. I and our other team members thought the cover was done, but Robyn really pushed for a tweak that she wanted. In the end, she was right. The cover is better after making the change she wanted.
MM: What are your biggest goals for the future and what is coming up next for you?
Dr. Robyn: Our big goal with the Whole Food Muscle Club is to help at least 100,000 people improve their health in the next five years. In addition to the Whole Food Muscle Club, the book, our speaking opportunities, one on one coaching and doing corporate wellness events, we are looking at adding health and wellness camps where people can cook, eat, workout and learn with us for a few days or weeks at a time. There is so much demand for the truth in health, nutrition and fitness that we feel like we would be doing a disservice to people who want to know the truth by keeping this information to ourselves.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
Dr. Robyn: When people first hear about the Whole Food Muscle Club, they often feel overwhelmed by the learning curve. Because this isn’t a fad diet that you do for a few weeks and then fall off the wagon, it’s not a change that has to be made overnight. It’s a health journey with new ideas being learned and implemented in succession. Because our clients feel better with each step, they are excited to move to the next one. In that way, it is easier to sustain than other lifestyle changes.
Any step on the Whole Food Muscle Way is a step in the direction of better health. You don’t have to get to 100% to start seeing benefits. We encourage people to start with a small choice. Climbing the highest mountain starts with the decision to find your shoes. Your health journey can start today with the similarly small decision to just learn more about us and what we do.
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