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March Wellness Hero Khoa Vo March Wellness Hero Khoa Vo

The Art of Longevity

“If you want to enjoy life, if you want to be there for your family, your grandkids, if you want to keep your mind sharp, you have to stay healthy.” – Khoa Vo

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Khoa Vo, BSN, RN: Behavioral Health Nurse, Stafford Clinic

March 2024

As a child, Khoa was encouraged to stay active by his father, a martial artist. But it wasn’t until he was in high school that his competitive spirit spurred a lifelong wellness journey. Now an accomplished martial artist himself, Khoa is passionate about fitness and nutrition as a means to living a long, fulfilling life.

How did your childhood influence your wellness journey?

My father was a kickboxer in Vietnam, so I grew up in an environment where he was teaching people martial arts in our home. I was an only child, so my play place was at home when he’d teach. I’d play on the mat and start hitting and kicking the punching bags, mimicking moves I watched in fighting movies. I enjoyed the social aspect of it. I didn’t start taking it seriously until high school and became competitive. I wanted to prove that I was technically skilled and better than the people who were bigger and stronger than I was.

So, were you always healthy then?

I was actually a chubby kid most of my life. I was active, but I ate a lot. I was really only active for the social aspect. When I moved across the country without my dad while in middle school, I didn’t have anyone pushing me to do anything. I became pretty overweight. I was eating junk food, playing video games, and getting sick a lot. My immune system was weak. Once my dad moved back in with me, he got me back into martial arts and I actually started enjoying it. I started getting stronger, more athletic, and healthier.

It sounds like your father was your main influence.

Yes, he’s 70, but people don’t believe it. He still looks great and moves well. He always told me to have heart. In Vietnamese, it translates to ‘have a liver.’ But it means don’t be fearful; don’t be afraid of things. Be gritty. Don’t give up. Be fearless. I keep that mentality in everything I do.

Now that you’re older, has martial arts become a regular part of your life?

I’ve made it a lifestyle. If I don’t do it, it throws me off. It’s my motivation. One of my main reasons for finishing nursing school was to have enough money to pay the monthly cost of jiu-jitsu classes. I competed in and won a kickboxing match during nursing school and competed in a Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament after graduation. I stuck with martial arts because it’s made me who I am. I owe the mentality and grit that I have to martial arts – attacking life, not giving up, not losing hope, persisting when times get rough.

You’ve been a big influence on your coworkers. What kind of advice do you give them?

Some of my coworkers aren’t very active and haven’t exercised in a long time or never have, so I don’t tell them to go do some crazy workout. I tell them to go on a walk. It could just be 10 minutes. Then incrementally build that up. Start slow and build it up. In terms of nutrition, people have a habit of going to get fast food because it’s convenient. I tell them to cut out the junk food. If you don’t have time to cook, an air fryer is the best thing ever. Just season your food, put it in there, come back in a few minutes and it’s ready.

What does a typical day of eating look like for you?

Almost every day for work I bring shredded rotisserie chicken and broccoli. It’s just become so habitual; I don’t even think about it. For me, it’s fast and convenient. I do indulge on the weekends, though. I think there should be a balance. I don’t think you should be so uptight about your nutrition that it controls your life and you become irritable and can’t socialize. I think you should let loose a little bit when you hang out with your friends and family.

What is your motivation to keep on top of fitness and nutrition?

My motivation changes as I age. Before I was 30, it was a desire to be competitive, but now it’s about longevity for the sake of enjoying life. I see people who are always tired, have headaches, their back hurts – all they do is sit. Sitting is a silent killer. A lot of health problems come from sitting down all day.

So, what would you tell someone who says they’re too busy or tired to work out?

People say, ‘I’m too tired to work out.’ Yes, at first, it’s going to be tiring, but eventually it gives you more energy in general. If you stick with it, you’ll feel less tired. It gives you focus and elevates your mood. Also, find something fun. If you can rotate your exercises, it’s more fun, and that will motivate you. My routine includes strength training with body weight and weights, and also cardio, which could be running, sprinting, jogging, walking at an incline, swimming, cycling – you have to mix it up.

How do you find time to exercise in addition to work and martial arts classes?

I’ll go to a park at lunch and bring my lunch. I’ll eat there and walk or run the trail. They have a bunch of fitness stations in the park. If I don’t work out during my break, I’ll work out at home. People say they don’t have time, but I’m sure you have 10 minutes. Just do 20 burpees, then rest, and do three sets of that. That’s 10 minutes. Do high intensity for a short amount of time. Working out doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym. Set up a home gym. I have one in my garage. Watch YouTube videos and look for workouts. That’s all it takes.

As a mental health professional, do you think there’s a mental aspect to staying healthy?

I feel like people like to separate the mind and body, but it’s really one thing. How you eat affects the way you feel and whether or not you’re motivated. Being physically healthy helps with being mentally healthy. It keeps your energy up. When you work out, it releases endorphins. It’s proven that exercise makes you feel better. When you feel better, you’re more motivated to spend time with your family, get work done, be more positive, and be productive.