Image credit: Physiology First
I had the great honor of sitting down with David Bidler, the President of Physiology First. Physiology First is a nonprofit that focuses on educating and building a community that centers around educating others through various metabolic and movement strategies.
What David and his team are doing is nothing short of revolutionary. They are creating a classroom in which the foundation of knowledge comes from knowing yourself. That means knowing your body cues, your sleep patterns, your hunger signals, and the various signs and symptoms that something is going well or, alternately, that perhaps something in your life needs to be tweaked. David’s not only teaching his community about physiology and movement patterns, but he’s also building a team of coaches and practitioners who can help practice and spread the work he’s doing.
And, as you’ll see, David also discovered Dr. Palmer’s Brain Energy. After noticing his personal experience with his students matched up with Dr. Palmer’s clinical experience, David began integrating Dr. Palmer’s book into his work and it’s become a valuable resource for himself and his team to synthesize the connection between mental health, mitochondrial health, and overall physiological health.
If you’d like to know more about or get involved with Physiology First, all the links and information will be located at the bottom of the interview. I hope you’ll be as inspired by David’s work as I was!
Margaret (M): I think it’s amazing the work that you’re doing at Physiology First. I imagine there are probably some people who have never heard of Physiology First, so, in a nutshell, how would you explain what you do to someone who’s just been introduced?
David (D): First of all, thank you so much for the opportunity to share our work. I would tell them that we’re working to create a revolution in education. We’re working to build an educational system that puts brain and body health first, which will take a proactive approach to improving mental health. I think that we have been waiting for young people to feel angry and depressed before we start to show them how to optimize the health of the brain. We want to flip that script entirely and build an educational alternative that puts the health of our minds and our bodies at the foundation of the learning process.
M: Do you see mental health as being a symptom of something else that’s going on in the body?
D: I see mental health as a term developed in the early 1900s. The origin and first use of the term “mental health” was in 1908. It’s now 2023 and we didn’t have the opportunity then to look at metabolic health, nutrition, sunlight, exercise, hydration, and this modern world of technologies that all fundamentally impacts how our brain and body functions.
We always say to students, “I don’t know what it is to have a healthy mind because your mind is what you think with.” We all have diverse perspectives and diverse opinions, and we have a lot of autonomy in how we navigate the landscape of the human mind, but we can certainly measure baseline metrics of physiology, heart health, lung health, brain health, micronutrient deficiencies, breathing, sleep, and exercise.
As Dr. Palmer points out brilliantly, mental health is metabolic health in the 21st century, and if we can show young people how to improve their metabolic health, I think we can create a paradigm shift in improving the health of the body and allowing young people to shape the landscape of the mind.
M: Fascinating. So what inspired you to go down this route and start Physiology First?
D: Physiology is the study of life, and it seems to me like we could look at a 21st-century system and critical questions like:
- What should young people learn?
- What should we as adults learn?
- What is a lifelong learning journey?
It seems like studying the basic fundamentals of what we are, what the human brain is, how we learn how to assimilate memories, how we improve cognitive function, and how we can feel amazing in our bodies and minds would be valuable in the modern world. That would be the foundation that we would build, educate, and evolve with.
As a longtime coach and somebody who helps people pursue their goals and improve their physiological health, I see the entire human transform when the basic physical needs are met, yet we aren’t having a conversation about that on a large-scale level, so we at Physiology First want to build a healthy alternative to the educational system.
That said, your hydration, sleep, movement quality, and ability to optimize physical health is the foundation for how your brain will learn. From there, you get all of these wonderful upsides of cognitive optimization and academic performance. More than that, you get young people who are fulfilled and feeling like they want to do big things in the world. That’s what inspired us to build the organization.
M: That is pretty amazing. So how young do you start when working with your clients?
D: You know, it’s really cool because we have whole families coming to our campus. We built a first-of-its-kind campus for health and fitness education. Our goal was to go far beyond the concept of a gym and build an educational center where people, families, and kids could learn about their mind, body, and brain through experience.
Because of this model we developed, we have families coming to the center, bringing kids as young as five years old. These kids are growing up in an environment where sauna, cold plunge, exercise, and community is not antithetical to the everyday norm. It’s just normal to be healthy and around healthy people. I’d say five or ten years old is when they start to actually integrate into and learn with us in a more formal setting.
We have a lot of high school students because we have a free program for all students. They can come before or after school. Ultimately, our goal is to make this the alternative to school those who want to learn in a healthy environment.
M: I’m curious: at what point in your journey did you discover Dr. Palmer’s work? Are there any specific ways that inspired you to integrate something new into your program?
D: So I visited Dr. Andrew Huberman’s lab a couple of years ago. I’m a huge fan of what he’s doing to elevate the conversation on brain and body health. It was in a conversation with Dr. Palmer on Andrew Huberman’s podcast that I first heard Chris describe the Brain Energy model and what he was doing with it. I heard the results he had seen and I thought, “This is the synthesis of much applied neuroscience. It was true in his example, which took place in a clinical setting. And it was true in our example, which was in a non-clinical educational setting.” That brought to bear this fundamental revelation that the way that we fuel our brain matters a lot. If we could convey that to young people, they could realize that it’s an opportunity and a responsibility to learn how the human brain works.
M: It sounds like Dr. Palmer’s work really reinforced and validated what you’d seen in your own practice: that your work is having this systemic effect.
D: I don’t feel like we’ve really been taught that our brain requires proper food. The mental ailments that we call mental health ultimately come down to brain metabolism, to a large degree. When we can make these small changes that impact how our brain performs, suddenly, we feel mentally clear, our food is elevated, and we feel capable of reaching our goals.
Dr. Palmer’s book is the book that, if we could have had his expertise and his experiences, we would have loved to have created such a book that synthesized brain health. He went and not only did it, but he knocked it out of the park. It’s our number one resource about brain health that we share with adults.
M: I love how you connect movement with a person’s entire physiology, how movement can affect your brain function, how it can affect the way that you live your day-to-day life. Are there any movement patterns that you’ve seen that are especially helpful that people can more consciously integrate in their day to day lives? Or some sort of regular practice that you found is pretty consistently helpful across the board?
D: I’d say breathing, hands down. People have agency over their breath and it’s powerful to teach others how our brain and breath are connected. I think, sometimes, we hear, “Just breathe,” and it makes breathing seem like a panacea, but it’s more than that. Breathing actually impacts every bone in the body. It impacts our posture, it impacts how our brain functions from the standpoint of memory acquisition. All of these things are ultimately fundamentally interlinked. And if you can get someone breathing better, you have someone not only better, but feeling like they’re at the other physiology. It gives them agency.
M: It’s the foundation of our physiology, something we had even before we were born.
D: Yes. We can breathe all day long. When you can give somebody that again, the ability to take a breath, it changes them.
M: Are there any movement patterns or any modalities that you have found that aren’t helpful? Or that, across the board, are perhaps harmful to some degree in someone’s physiology?
D: I would say that the red flags that I’ve seen in 10 years of the world are movements that aren’t in alignment with someone’s goals because we haven’t been taught about the physical adaptations of training.
So often, someone’s heading in one direction, where they want to go with their health, but they aren’t moving in a way to get them to that goal. That can be incredibly demotivating, but when we understand the physiology of exercise, we have a sense of how to self-direct that adaptation. We see people put a lot of effort trying to create an adaptation, but doing movements or styles of training that don’t necessarily lead there. I feel like the more that we understand how the brain and movements we do impact hormones, we train in a way so we don’t end up exhausting ourselves or training to the point that it’s deleterious to our health.
The third thing to mention would be that I’ve seen people with a stress problem create more stress through their movement patterns. They’re stressed after work, then they drop a stress bomb on their system and they become more physiologically stressed. At some point, it just doesn’t help someone become a thriving human.
I guess the fourth and last thing to mention would be that I’ve seen people do the opposite, where they do too little movement and too much recovery without giving their body a really powerful stress to recover from. What we like to do at our campus is help people build their training in month blocks so they can put physiological lessons into practice. This allows someone to self-assess and say, “Okay, I achieved that, and now, how do I want to adapt in the next season?” That allows people to try and progress in their goals on a schedule.
M: That’s so cool. So you’ve talked about where Physiology First started and where it is. What are your future hopes and plans for Physiology First?
D: We’re in Mexico at the moment planning our next seminar, which will happen on February 20, 2024. Our plans are to continue to train leading-edge practitioners across the board in health and fitness education. We want to build a team of 21st-century educators who put health and fitness first.
As we evolve our organization, we’re training people to make an impact on several fronts. One is to bring it into home through precision fitness. We want to bring the practices we teach at Physiology First to people’s homes and families so it’s right at their doorstep. Number two is offering free community workshops for students. Our program is a free educational offering that can pop up in any neighborhood and it teaches young people about the brain and body through experience.
Then, the ultimate goal is to take our flagship campus in Freeport, Maine, which is the first-of-its-kind nonprofit health education center for families, and we want to scale that model into something that exists in more communities. We want to give parents and young people the opportunity to try it if they want to try something else in education, if they want to try a healthy alternative where sitting is not the norm and movement is the norm, where physicality and physical connection is the norm, and where brain health is at the foundation of the educational process. We would hope to measure the results of that and see if we can’t produce thriving young people who are getting ahead of this youth mental health crisis by actually being proactive in brain and body health education. Our goal is to take that model and build campuses around the globe.
M: Well, it sounds like you are on your way. We are so grateful for the opportunity to share the work with you at Brain Energy.
D: It’s been such an inspiration for me personally and for all of us in Physiology First.
M: And it’s been wonderful to get to talk with you today. Where can people find you or get to work with you and your team?
D: We’re very active on Instagram @physiologyfirst. You can always send us a DM there. You can also see what we’re doing with our curriculum and our certification program as we build a team of leaders. People can also go to our website, physiologyfirst.org, to learn more.
Margaret Hoffman is a writer, editor, and script coordinator. She’s written for various online companies (Revero and Mental Floss) as well as for television (with Netflix, Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, Hellosaurus, and Sutoscience). She uses various metabolic strategies to help with her anxiety and loves helping people understand big ideas in fun and easy-to-understand ways.