Body Hack’s Todd Sampson on how he’s teaching his girls to be brave

TV presenter and documentarian Todd Sampson on the lessons he’s gleaned from other cultures, the times he’s hit his limit, and what knowledge he hopes to pass on as a father. 

As the host of Network 10’s Body Hack, Todd Sampson puts himself through immense physical and psychological challenges in an attempt to better understand cultures from all over the world. He has hunter-gathered with tribes in Tanzania, worked as a sherpa in the Himalayas, and put his body to its limit cage fighting in Mexico.

This Tuesday, Body Hack returns, so Body+Soul caught up with Sampson to find out what he’s learned and what does he hope to teach his two daughters.

Body+Soul: You recently turned 50. How did you celebrate?

Todd Sampson: With nothing! I see birthdays as “mother’s day”. Because the person who really did something great on that day is the mother – she pushed you out and took that risk. And it was the first birthday I had without my mother; she died last year. To me it’s an emotional, more spiritual thing than a celebratory “look at me, I’m 50 now” thing.

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As an adventurer, you’re used to putting your body through its paces. How do you prepare for a gruelling series like Body Hack, where you immerse yourself in cultures all over the world?

I’ve been preparing physically for a very long time, ever since I was in my 20s, or even 18. I’ve used the gym as a physiology lab, a way of testing me and preparing me for different adventures. Being a mountaineer [Sampson has summitted Mount Everest], I learned about my body in the gym. I love it. It’s like therapy. And I’m completely dedicated to it. I believe that your physical ability allows you to go and do things. It’s like a key, it’s not the only key, but it is a key.

Do you ever have a moment of “I can’t do this”?

In every episode. In the demolition-derby episode [in Utah, US], I got injured on day two. I have such empathy for people in car crashes. I wanted to quit. In the voodoo episode [in Benin, West Africa], I didn’t want to kill the animal. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years. But it was also offensive to not be a part of it or to omit it. We walk in their shoes and try to understand them. Sometimes their shoes are uncomfortable. I’m not justifying it or glorifying it; I’m just documenting their culture.

The premise of the show is to explore extraordinary people around the world and see what we can learn from them. What have you learnt?

If I had to nail it down, I’d say it is three things. Firstly it’s about your physical health. Not everyone has the opportunity or the gift of being healthy, but everyone can be healthier than they are. The big learning is to cut out a third of your diet, because in the West, we overeat by a lot. This whole notion of intermittent fasting is a good one. The next two things are related. Almost all the extraordinary people I’ve ever met do some form of meditation, some form of awareness of their body through breathwork.

The final thing is visualisation. In the case of the Iraqi soldiers [whom Sampson stayed with], it may be visualising the moves they need to do under pressure so they’ve laid down the patterns in their brain. Those three things are a part of every culture.

As a dad to two daughters [Jet, 13 and Coco, 11], what do you hope to teach them?

In our household, Neomie, my wife, is the hero. They follow her. I’m the comic relief. I try to be a role model and I get a lot of criticism for that. People go, “How can you go to a war in Iraq or to Gaza when you have small kids at home?” If Coco said to me, “I want to climb Mount Everest,” I would be like, “Yes, go for it.” In our society, we teach boys to be brave and girls to be nice. Bravery is a learnt skill, not something you’re born with. I’m teaching my girls to be brave.

Todd Sampson’s Body Hack starts Tuesday 15 September at 7.30 pm on Network 10