Five saucy strategies

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Flavour is hugely important to us when it comes to food. So often I’ve heard clients say that they’d like to eat more healthily but they’re worried that this means eating bland food and taking up an eating routine that they can’t sustain.

And when it comes to eating more healthily, many diets will encourage you to ditch the sauce and dips. It’s not bad advice in the sense that they are often the source (pun very much intended) of many additional calories. As you know though, the balance mentality is that being healthier doesn’t have to require living a monastic lifestyle, banishing all of your food pleasures permanently.

Here are a few strategies that can help you reduce your calorie intake from sauces and dips in a more balanced way…

1) Have the ones you love

An increased amount of choice leads to an increased calorie intake. Think ‘all you can eat’ buffets, pic n mix, or mezze platters and you get the idea. Our brains are terrible at counting the calories we’re consuming and if we’re given a choice, we don’t like to miss out, so we choose EVERYTHING.

Pick your absolute favourite sauce or dip and make sure that’ all you have available in your cupboards. Without even trying, you’ll decrease your calorie intake.

2) Are you eating it just out of habit?

Routines can be both helpful and unhelpful. Do you automatically reach for the sauce when you eat out, or do you always order a sharer starter with lots of dips? Do you always buy the biggest back of Doritos and a range of dips every time your friends come round? Analyse your eating habits and see if there are any times or places where you’re overdoing it and make a plan to overcome it in future. If you can’t think of anything, track your eating for a week or two and you’ll likely uncover some times when you could go easy on the condiments.

3) Plan your portions

As I mentioned earlier, we’re very bad at knowing how much of something we’ve had. In a study of people’s eating behaviours in a restaurant, Brian Wansink monitored how much of the free bread put on the table people consumed. They watched them via CCTV and afterwards, surveyed restaurant goers to ask how much food they had consumed. Over ten per cent of those who’d eaten some of the free bread didn’t even remember doing so!

So let’s relate this back to you. You place your dinner on the table and take the entire bottle of sauce with you. Whilst you’re eating, you chat away with your family or friends and don’t notice your hand automatically reaching for the bottle to add more sauce to your plate three or four times throughout your meal. Maybe you eat whilst looking at your phone or watching TV; your mind is distracted and the Ketchup or Reggae Reggae just slips in unnoticed.

Now I could tell you to always be conscious of exactly what you’re eating, but life doesn’t work like that. You can however put strategies in place to eat less without even trying. You could always eat at the dinner table, away from your phone or the Gogglebox, you could put some sauce on your plate and then put it back into the fridge before you sit down to munch, or you could steal a few of those little sachets of sauce when you eat out and limit yourself to one or two with your meal.

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4) Don’t have it in the house

If you can’t trust yourself to control your portions, don’t. Make sure you never have the dips and sauces at home and then you’ll only be able to have them when you’re eating out.

5) Spice it up a bit

Sauce isn’t the only thing that can add flavour to your meals. Maybe swap it out for a spoonful of your favourite spice or some fresh or ground herbs. Whilst they still contain calories, they tend to pack a punch and so you only need small amounts to ramp up the flavour in your food.

Hopefully there’s an idea here you could try, or maybe it’s inspired you to come up with a plan of your own. Either way, as ever choose one small step to do and help yourself find a little better balance.

Habits to help beat depression

I’ve given many sessions over the years on mental health and wellbeing; it’s part of the courses I teach to Personal Trainers and I’m often asked to talk on the topic in workplaces too. I’ve written articles on it and done numerous pieces on social media, and in all of them, I’ve always argued that the statistic that 1 in 4 of us suffer mental health issues is just plain wrong. It’s undeniably 4 in 4; we all face challenges at some point or another, we don’t have or not have mental health problems, they simply slide up and down a scale. Sometimes we cope with them comfortably, at other times it’s harder.

In recent times, I’ve experienced what it’s like to be much further along that scale, challenged to the point that on some days it has gotten the better of me and I’ve felt unable to defeat it. Other days haven’t been so bad, and some have started well and got harder or started badly and become easier. I guess that’s the thing about it; the scale can move constantly.

What I have had to do though is to use my resources, the knowledge I have about things that might just help me move to a better place on the scale and bit by bit, I’ve found myself moving in the right direction again, back towards a better balance. Here are some of those things that have worked for me…

1) Do something small

One of the most powerful things about depression is its ability to leave you feeling flat, paralysed, unable to do anything. Even the most mundane of tasks can seem like a challenge and you can experience whole days unable to get anything done.

At this point, setting big, challenging goals might not be the best idea as they’ll often take sustained effort and it’s easy to lose motivation along the way, even when you manage to have a good day or even a good few days. Try instead using micro-goals, tiny stepping stone challenges you can set yourself to provide a sense of achievement. The great thing about achieving things, however small, is that your brain recognises it and fires off pleasure-giving chemicals as a reward. That’s why when people make lists, they put things on they’ve already done so they can tick them off straight away and get the feel-good factor response!

This reminded me of the ‘making your bed’ speech from the US Navy Admiral that went viral in recent times. His point is very clear, start small and take it one step at a time. If you have five minutes and you’ve never seen it, I’ve included it below for you. It’s well worth a watch.

2) Move

For people with mild to moderate depression the NHS says that exercise is known to have definite benefits. Studies suggest that the benefits, in particular of cardiovascular exercise, are comparable to medications or talking therapies. Depression often goes hand in hand with fatigue, but by using low-to moderate intensity exercise that you enjoy, you can actually increase your energy levels. Strange isn’t it? You’d assume that if you’re tired, exercise would only exacerbate this, but as long as it’s kept to a sensible level, it has the opposite effect.

There’s no need to worry about exactly what to do or how much to begin with, just pick something; it could be walking, dancing, jogging, swimming, yoga, weightlifting, gardening or anything else you enjoy. Aim to gradually build to up towards the 150-minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise recommended (if you work harder, every minute done counts double towards this target).

3) Even better, move outside

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  • Two thirds of volunteers for the Wildlife Trust, given tasks like helping to dig ditches or make bird tables, reported improved mental wellbeing within six weeks

  • A Norwegian study of 30,000 participants found that just 1-2 hours movement outdoors each week could prevent depression

  • In one study of those with depression, a short outdoor walk fared much better than an indoor session on an exercise bike, with participants larger reductions in depression and fatigue

  • Exercising in green spaces has been shown to reduce the perceived difficulty of the exercise, increase people’s perception of their own health, leads to lower blood pressure after the workout when compared to exercise in urban environments, and also decrease stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol post-session too.

  • Some studies have shown increased rates of depression in the darker months of the year and shown strong correlations between vitamin D levels and the ability to predict episodes of depression. Exposure to sunlight also affects hormone levels, your body’s ability to utilise energy stores, cell function, blood flow and your body clock, all of which can impact energy levels and mood

  • Streams, rivers, lakes and the sea can also boost your mood. A study in Hong Kong showed that people who spent more time by natural water reported greater wellbeing and had a lower risk of depression. A review of studies into the subject identified 35 others that backed up these findings, consistently showing positive mental health and stress-reducing effects

Basically, my point is, get outside into natural light where there are trees, plants and water. Your body, and your mind love it!

4) Spend time with friends

When you’re feeling low, it’s common to withdraw. A 2012 study of 100 adults found that 20% had no contact with friends, 33% never interacted with their neighbours, 35% lived alone and 50% never attended social groups. The study supported these people to become more socially active through things like going to see a film, a play, a concert, visiting museums or simply going out for a coffee or a bite to eat. ALL of the 100 participants reported feeling better about themselves, having more confidence and experiencing less symptoms of depression.

People are ok, most of them anyway! ;-)

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5) Choose healthier food and drinks whenever you can

A wide range of foods and drinks have been linked to depression, for better and worse. Things that might be helpful to increase include:

  • Plant foods - fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, herbs and spices (aim for your 5-a-day)

  • Nuts/seeds - 1-2 handfuls per day

  • Oily fish - 1-2 portions per week

  • Wholegrains like unrefined rice and other grains, and lean proteins like chicken, turkey, eggs, yoghurt and soya produce - make these a staple part of most meals.

Minimise the more processed foods although there’s never a need to cut these out completely, it’s all about balance remember.

Summary

There are a range of habits that can help prevent or improve symptoms of depression. You can take actions that over time can lead you to a better place. Start small, remember that progress isn’t always linear, sometimes we have better days, sometimes worse, but that just the feeling of doing something can in itself boost your sense of confidence , mood and self-worth.

Why do habits stick?

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Behaviours are things you do; habits are behaviours that you get into the ‘habit’ of performing time and again.


I’ve written a lot recently about the importance of building healthy habits in order to find your balance. That’s because health and fitness aren’t permanent, they improve as your health behaviours do and they worsen if you start to spend less time down the gym and more time up the pub.


Essentially, all of my work with clients is in helping them work out how they can increase their healthy behaviours, decrease their less healthy ones and turn these new actions into habits. But what is it that makes this most likely to happen?


The three bits of habits

Habits share three things in common:

1) They’re triggered by certain cues

2) After the cue, the behaviour (doing bit) occurs

3) They stick long-term because there’s some sort of reward for doing them


Cues (and behaviours that follow)

When you see a traffic light change to red, you hit the brakes and come to a stop (hopefully)! The colour of the light is the cue for your habit of pressing the middle pedal.

Cues come in various forms:

  • Times - for example, it’s likely that most of you will brush your teeth just after getting up and going to bed, and when we eat certain meals and types of food is cued by the time of day

  • Places - the dancefloor in your favourite club is likely where you’ll bust your moves, less likely is that you’ll get your groove on in the Post Office (unless you’ve watched the Full Monty recently)!

  • People - it could be that your mate at work is the trigger for you to go for a pint after work, or your nan could be the trigger for cake consumption. Equally, you might have a running or gym buddy who’s a trigger for healthier habits

  • Emotions - food and mood for example are inexorably linked. In fact, there are two types of hunger - homeostatic hunger is what you feel when you actually need calories; hedonistic hunger is when you want to eat because of your mood, it could be stress, tiredness, being upset or even feeling great that triggers you to chomp down the calories.

  • Rituals - it’s Monday, you get up in the morning and go to work. You don’t debate it, even though you’d like to, you just go. Going to work has become a ritual and you have plenty more things that you just do because you always do. Some are routines that you do on autopilot because it’s much easier to spend most of your time not having to think about what you’re doing - driving being a great example. You change gear when you need to, indicate when required and know to put the handbrake on when you park.

Every day you’ll receive thousands of cues that lead you to respond in an almost automated way. You’ve programmed yourself to carry out specific behaviours in response to each one, and they’ve become habits.


Rewards

Rewards come in many guises; medals at the end of a race, the tingling of your taste-buds when you eat something you really like, the sense of satisfaction when you complete a challenging task like decorating a room, the happiness you get from helping others, that sense of relaxation when all the things on your to-do-list have been ticked off, or the buzz on your phone that lets you know your friends have contacted you.

They can be tangible things or feelings; and they may not always appear obvious. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what they are, as long as you feel they bring some gain, something positive to your life. When a behaviour leads to a rewards, much like in the original Pavlov’s Dog experiment, we repeat that behaviour hoping for and eventually expecting, the same outcome.

This reward mechanism is what makes certain habits so addictive; drugs, alcohol gambling, sugary foods - they all lead the brain to fire off a series of powerful chemicals including neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids. The latter have a role to play in mediating the effects of cannabis, hence their name and are also thought to play a significant part in ‘runner’s high’, the state of euphoria that many people feel from exercising. And by the way, the reason why they can become addicted to it and over-train - they love the reward so they repeat the habit regularly.


The three bits of habits in action

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Take brushing your teeth as a simple example of a habit that sticks for most people. What are the cues? Well, early in life when the habit isn’t as well embedded, one of the main cues is your mum pestering you to brush your teeth. There’s also the visual reminder of the toothbrush and paste often sat in the glass in front of the bathroom mirror. You’re bound to see it when you visit the bathroom in the morning and before you go to bed, and it acts to remind you what you need to do. There’s also the time of day; you probably don’t brush your teeth when you go to the loo mid-morning do you, but the same visual cues are there, it’s just not the right time for the teeth-brushing thing.

On the rewards side, there are a few reasons why you continue to brush your teeth. The smile is a hugely important part of body language, hence why marketing companies have been able to sell us more and more things that help to keep our teeth white and our breath fresh. We like to be seen to have white teeth, it’s a sign of beauty and health; we want fresh breath when we’re talking to colleagues at work, when we’re with our friends and if we’re out on a date. So brushing your teeth might reward you with confidence, with self-esteem, with a successful outcome at a job interview, or on that date! You’re also rewarded by doing something to move away from the fear of having yellow teeth, or worse still, no teeth at all. Fear of cavities and gum disease is a big part of the reason why we brush twice a day. Then of course there’s the knowledge that your mum would be proud of you!!

What does this mean for your health?

We often focus our efforts on the specific health behaviour that we want to work on; drinking less alcohol, going to the gym more often; eating more vegetables, but maybe we spend less time on the other two parts of the habits triad - the cues and the rewards.

Try the following:

1) If you have a specific behaviour that you’d like to turn into a habit, create a cue for it. Here are a few ways you might do that…

  • Anchor it to an existing habit. Your physio gave you some calf raises to do to help with that sore Achilles. She suggested doing them twice a day but you just haven’t gotten round to doing them. Try linking them to something that you know you’ll definitely do twice a day, like for instance, brushing your teeth.

  • Use visual or audio reminders. Post-it notes, phone alarms, placing fruit on your desk at work or a water bottle on your bedside cabinet. Better still, put stuff in the way - kit bags in front of the front door, fruit on your car seat so you have to move it to sit down; anything that makes it impossible to ignore.

  • Get others to cue you - go to exercise classes with a friend so that they’ll text to ask if you’re going or pair up with a work collage to act as support partners in the fight against the office cake culture.

2) Next, spend some time ensuring there’s a strong reward system in place for your new behaviour…

  • List the rewards that you’ll get from doing the behaviour and remind yourself of these regularly. You can even print them out and stick them somewhere you’ll see them - that way they can act as both the cue and the reward

  • Be accountable to someone - and make it someone who you want to impress. Being able to tell them that you’ve been doing well will fire off all this mood-boosting chemicals, rewarding you with your own happiness high

Get these two things in place and the behaviour itself is much more likely to happen, until eventually you perform it instinctively and then you’re in the habit.

Stay balanced,

Paul :-)

HIIT isn't just for the superfit

HIIT training, or High Intensity Interval Training has become hugely popular over the last ten years, with numerous scientific studies showing it can improve health, fitness and assist in weight management as effectively, if not sometimes more so, than steady exercise.

Nothing is ever perfect of course, and HIIT has its potential downfalls, one being the increased risk of injury from such an intense workout, the other being that many people don’t like to push themselves that hard, they feel uncomfortable, unwell and generally fearful they might do themselves some harm. And rightly so, overdoing it certainly can lead to muscle and joint injuries and health issues.

The meaning of HIIT

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When you thought about HIIT, I bet you pictured fit people sprinting, jumping, throwing heavy pieces of metal about and generally things that are HIGH intensity. Here’s the thing though; what does high really mean? High based on what? Compared to what? Measured how?

The general assumption is that HIIT is reserved for the ‘fitness freaks’, those lovers of exercise, Instagram selfies and ‘motivational’ quotes, protein shakes and Lycra. I’m going to try to change your mind on that right now.

When doing their qualifications, Personal Trainers learn about variables, the things that they can change to make workouts easier or harder, or in other words to make a low intensity workout a high one and vice versa. They learn this because people are not all the same, what is hard and therefore high intensity for one person may actually be low intensity for another. There are tonnes of variables that can be played with to ensure you’re working clients at the correct intensity. Here are just a few…

  • Time (seconds or repetitions) - how long does each exercise last or how many do you do?

  • Resistance - commonly referred to as the ‘weight’ lifted, it might be a heavy dumbbell, a band or just your own bodyweight.

  • Sets - how many times do you perform each exercise?

  • Rest - just giving someone a little longer between exercises alters the intensity.

  • Exercise - changing the exercise itself or the piece of equipment used can make a substantial difference.

We can also change the angle at which an exercise is performed, the length of the lever (by bending the arms for example), the tempo (pace) at which movements are performed, the base of support (feet wide, narrow or even on one leg) and much more. Basically, any exercise can be adapted in some way to meet the needs of every human being on this planet.

How high?

Now we’ve established that we can change exercises in a multitude of ways, that means it’s possible to create a High Intensity workout for anyone pitched at the right level for them. We just need a simple way of describing what ‘high’ means, something universal that can be applied to Joe Bloggs who hasn’t exercised since school, or Mo Farah, who…well…hasn’t exercised since a few hours ago.

Here’s one such tool, the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale, or RPE.

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The scale is designed to allow you to judge how hard you feel you’re working during exercise. For HIIT training, aim for a 7-8 on the scale if you’re new to it; keen beans can push to 9 and even 10 once they’ve built up their fitness. If you have a medical condition, it may still be possible to do some high intensity work for you at around a 5-6, but you should speak to your medical practitioner before doing so, to make sure it’s right for you at this stage.

How will you know you’re at a 7/8?

You’ll be breathing hard and you will start to feel tired as levels of lactic acid build up in your muscles. Don’t worry though, that’s a good thing as you’re burning calories and challenging your body to get fitter, meaning next time it won’t feel so tough. No challenge, no change as they saying goes, it just has to be the right one for you.


Workouts to try

Those of you who’ve seen Insanity or Joe Wickes in action will be expecting some routines here full of burpees, sprints, jumps and lunges. They’re cool if that’s right for you, but the following workouts have been taken down a notch to provide high intensity sessions for those of you who’d love to give it a go but feel that Insanity is insane!

Cardio - hill or stair climbs

Warm up with a 5-10-minute walk, getting gradually quicker until you feel warm and a bit breathless. Find a hill you consider quite steep or a big set of stairs. Walk up briskly for 10-20 seconds getting to the point where you feel like it’s hard to talk, then slowly back down. Repeat 4-8 times depending on how you find it.

You can do it on the flat too as long as you walk at a pace that challenges you.

Weights

This routine is created for absolute beginners to HIIT training. Do each exercise for 30 seconds with as little rest between them as you can. You only need to do the circuit once, but if you’d like to go round again, have a 3-minute rest before repeating.

1) Standing Press-Ups (with your hands against a wall)

2) Sit Down-Stand Up

3) Seated Band Back Extensions

4) Band Wide Rows

5) Floor Bridge

Here’s a little video with a few rep’s of each exercise as a demonstration for you…

You can of course make this harder by changing any of the variables I talked about earlier; harder versions of each exercise, increasing the time to 45 or even 60-seconds per exercise or repeating the workout three times. Whenever you progress, do so gradually; make sure the workout feels comfortable a few times in a row before making it more challenging.

Hopefully it helps you HIIT some of your goals and take you one step closer to balance.

Paul :-)

Love your heart

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I’ve had this blog piece in mind for a while and I thought, what better time to write about the heart than on Valentine’s Day. The belief systems of both the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed that the heart was connected to the soul, with the latter believing it was the seat of reason. During Roman times the Greek philosopher Galen built on these ideas, arguing that emotions came from the heart, rational thought from the brain and strangely, passion from the liver!

In Mediaeval times, the symbol of the heart began to appear as a sign of love, although originally the image much more closely resembled an anatomically correct diagram of the heart, something that most of us wouldn’t find too romantic these days.

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The use of the image continued and was gradually adapted to look more like the heart we know today. Martin Luther, the major figure of the Protestant Reformation, used the image of a traditional love heart surrounded by a white rose as the symbol of Lutheranism from around 1530, and by the Victorian era, the practice of sending love notes on Valentine’s Day was born.

The Lutheran symbol - reproduced from https://stainedglassinc.com

The Lutheran symbol - reproduced from https://stainedglassinc.com

What your heart can tell you

Anyway, enough of the history lesson, the real reason I wanted to create this blog was to show you how you can use your resting heart rate for all sorts of useful things.

Your heart is a muscle and just like those in your arms and legs, it contracts to create movement. Its job though is to move blood around your body, pumping used blood back to the lungs to be topped up with oxygen and freshly O2-enriched blood out to your muscles and organs where oxygen is in constant demand to keep you functioning. It has some unique properties that distinguish it from the muscles of your skeleton:

  • Unlike skeletal muscles, it’s involuntary, meaning you don’t have to think about it for it to beat. It would be slightly annoying if approximately every second your train of thought was interrupted whilst you remembered to contract your heart and keep oxygen-rich blood passing round your body.

  • Instead, it is switched on automatically by its own electrical current. This passes through continuously, causing your heart to fill, contract and push blood around your body, then refill.

  • Your heart muscle, or to give its fancy names, cardiac muscle or the myocardium, has to have oxygen to work. Your skeletal muscles can for a short period work anaerobically, or without oxygen, but this is bad news for the heart, one of the reasons why it beats continuously to ensure it gets what it needs.

Here’s how you can use your resting heart rate to learn more about yourself.


1. Fitness and health

Like the muscles attached to your skeleton, with exercise your heart becomes fitter. Regular cardiovascular exercise; walking briskly, running, cycling, swimming and gym work, causes the cardiac muscle to grow, in much the same way as your muscles grow if you lift big weights often enough.

As the heart grows in size and strength, that means it can pump out more blood with each beat and in response, it can perform its job more easily and not have to beat as often. This why measuring your resting heart rate is a good marker of your health and fitness. You can test it by feeling for your pulse in your wrist or neck using two fingers (don’t use a thumb as it has its own pulse), or many sports watches these days will provide data on your heart rate constantly, including your current average at rest.

Make sure you take readings when resting, having drunk no caffeine or alcohol, done no exercise and ideally not when stressed. First thing in the morning when you get up is a good time.

Here’s a guide to what the scores mean

60-80 beats per minute: a good resting score, well within the normal figures and showing that your heart is working at a normal level whilst at rest

Less than 60 beats per minute: If you’re active and generally lead a healthy lifestyle, this shows that your heart is strong and not having to pump too often to meet its demands. If you’re overweight and live an unhealthy lifestyle e.g. drink or smoke excessively, it’s worth visiting your GP to discuss this as low resting heart rates for you can be a sign that it’s not quite working as it should

Over 80 beats per minute: your heart is having to work hard even at rest. If you live an unhealthy lifestyle, you might want to consider what you can do to lose weight, increase your health or fitness and visit your GP to get a check-up. If it’s over 100, you should definitely see your GP to discuss actions and lifestyle changes.


2. Recovery

Resting heart rate will vary constantly by a couple of beats, but if you notice that yours has increased by 5 beats or more, it’s likely that you’re a bit fatigued. It could be that you haven’t recovered from a hard training session (or late night), or it could be a sign that you have a cold coming. For example, mine was hovering at around 45-48 last week, then all of a sudden it went up to 60 and was followed closely by a bout of man-flu.

Monitoring it daily can help you to keep an eye on training intensity, knowing when to ease back, and also to help you evaluate whether you’re on top of healthy habits like fruit and veg intake, water and sleep.


3. VO2max and other markers

Some of the fancier sports watches use something called Heart Rate Variability. Basically that’s the time-gap between your heart beats. When you’re fit and well, not too tired, training at the right level for you and free from colds etc, your heart naturally speeds up and slows down. That means that the time-gap between beats naturally changes too. Some watches can measure this change and actually use it to calculate an estimate of your cardiovascular fitness, known as your VO2max

V = Volume

O2 = Oxygen

Max = the maximum amount you can take in

The watch can provide you with a score, likely somewhere between 30 and 80 depending on your age and fitness, that shows you approximately how many millilitres of oxygen you can take in per kilogram of your bodyweight every minute. Fitter people can get more oxygen in, hence why they can work harder during exercise without getting tired.

You can find out more about VO2max here.

Love your heart

As you can see, your heart is a wonderful thing that can tell you all sorts about how well it’s working with some simple checks. Give it some exercise a few times a week, it loves it when it can see its muscles growing! ;-)


Stay balanced,

Paul







Going wild

Ever since I took hold of Optimus (my wonderful Transporter Kombi van) a few months ago, I’ve wanted to use him to get away for a weekend of adventure, wilderness and training. So what better time of year to do it than January; I was bound to get some glorious weather, right?

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

I’d been checking the weather all week and it wasn’t looking great, but it wasn’t awful either (for January). Late Friday afternoon I loaded up Optimus with the bike, sleeping bags (two for extra warmth), roll mat, a lot of thermal and waterproof clothing and just a few essentials I’d be needing - torch, map and a book.

My plan for the Friday night was to head for Appledore on the north Devon coast. I’d read that you could pay £5 to park your camper-van overnight right on the banks of the convergence of the Taw and Torridge rivers before they make their way out into the Bristol Channel. It looked like a stunning spot and I’d figured that on a cold, dark night in January the carpark would be deserted. I was surprised when I arrived to find plenty of grand campers, some stylish Transporters and some more weary looking converted vans already in place for the evening. There was still a spot though right next to the water and I grabbed it.

I’d already checked out Google Maps and knew there was a fish and chip shop just a few hundred metres away. I was imagining opening the boot, sitting in the back and listening to the sounds of the waves as that glorious odour of salt and vinegar-covered chips filled my nostrils. The first blow to this was when I discovered that the parking meter only took cash, of which I had none. No matter I thought, I’ll find a cashpoint, get my fish and chips then use the change to pay. Google Maps kindly revealed that the nearest cash point was in Bideford, a good drive back the way I’d just come.

Off I went, returning and, led by my nose, heading straight for the purveyors of battered cod and golden brown fried potatoes. I arrived just in time to witness the door being locked from the inside and, looking longingly through the window like Charlie salivating over the promise of a golden ticket, was greeted with an apologetic but helpless look in return. I’d spotted a decent-looking pub opposite the water and so headed there instead. You never know what sort of pub you’ll be walking into in the more remote parts of our great isle and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it looked cosy, not a single patron’s head swivelled in my direction as I walked through the door and I received a friendly welcome at the bar. There was only one thing on the menu I could choose; fish and chips with mushy peas. OK so it came on a plate and not in paper and I had only the slightest glimpse through the window of the water, but it tasted good nonetheless.

I returned to the van content, some of my fellow happy campers busy organising things in and around their vans. And organised they seemed, far more so than me as I hung sheets over my windows with electrical tape to act as curtains. They had foil-lined blinds that fitted each pane of glass in their vehicle perfectly, making them looking like some sort of Mars Rover vehicle. Makeshift soft furnishings in place, I lay my roll mats and sleeping bag on the floor of the van, using the other as a pillow as I felt surprisingly cosy, and fell asleep next to the bike.

Am I in a horror movie?

I woke to the sound of clanging metal and was instantly aware of the presence of a large number of people around the van. Peering through the sheet taped to the rear window, heavy with condensation, I could see a group assembling what looked like a makeshift fence blocking off the back of Optimus. Alongside me was parked one of those open-backed monster trucks so common on our roads these days and what I thought was a speedboat attached to the rear. I was already hemmed in at the front by another camper-van and for a moment I was concerned that I’d ended up in one of those low budget horror films where all of the locals are in on it. Was I going to be surrounded, set on fire and burned as a sacrifice to the local god of the sea? Nervously, I slid open the side door and climbed out, concerned I may be greeted by a mob wielding planks of two by two full of nails, pitch forks and rag-covered torches, dipped in oil and burning intensely.

Instead, what I found was a large amount of people milling about in wetsuits. An older gentleman, for some reason surprised to see me emerge from the van (there were at least 15 similar ones in the car park interspersed with actual camper vans) said good morning, and I asked him what was going on. Turns out, there was a sea rowing gala that morning (rather them than me) and he politely offered to get them to move the mini-marquee they’d been erecting which was blocking my escape…I mean exit route. With the van out of it’s temporary prison, I readied myself for the day’s ride and set off looking for something to eat. The Golden Arches reared their head at the side of the road and I took the opportunity to enjoy a sausage and egg mcmuffin, hash brown and a tea, safe in the knowledge that I’d be burning it off very soon.

The sun begins to rise across the water

The sun begins to rise across the water

An uphill start

I knew there weren’t many long-term parking spaces in Braunton where the Tarka Trail began, a 30-mile traffic-free cycle route that follows the Taw estuary and a section of disused railway line. It’s one of the longest traffic-free cycle paths in Britain and had been on my adventure bucket list for some time. The lack of parking meant i had to head a few miles out of town to the beautiful Saunton Sands, a huge expanse of beach popular with surfers and used for numerous films and pop videos, including that end of evening/wedding/party or any other event for that matter, classic, Angels by Robbie Williams.

I’d forgotten that the road down to the car park was a steep, slippery concrete track full of speed bumps, not the easiest start to what was planned as a gentle ride. Having parked up alongside numerous Transporter vans clearly belonging to surfers rather than cyclists, I mounted the bike and successfully climbed the hill back up to the main road without incident and I was on my way. A downhill stretch into town with the wind behind me made for a fast and easy start, the incredible vast and grass-tufted sand dunes of Braunton Burrows undulating their way to the shoreline on my right.

Saunton Sands with the beginning of the endless sand dunes behind

Saunton Sands with the beginning of the endless sand dunes behind

I found the signs for the Tarka Trail as soon as I entered Braunton and on the other side of a pay & display car park I found the beginnings of the route proper. The path was well maintained and headed out alongside marshland and then the perimeter fence of the former RAF Chivenor, now home to the Marines. It brought back fond memories of my childhood when I remember visiting for an airshow; we parked in a huge carpark and my dad said that we should remember that we were by an orange VW camper van. Upon leaving the show, we discovered that there must have been around 50 orange VW campers in the car park and it took us some time before we located our Nissan Bluebird. Strange that one of the reasons I was now visiting was to have my own adventure in my VW van, I wondered as I rode along how much of my desire to own the van stemmed from this memory.

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The path reached the water and then skirted along its very edge, the waves lapping against the low wall to my right. It was Saturday morning and the path was alive with families on bikes, dog walkers and joggers. I’d forgotten my bell and this turned out to be an oversight. In my mind I was going to be travelling along completely alone in the wild, but with the path heading towards the busy town of Barnstaple, this proved to be far from the case.

Rising to meet a bridge busy with vehicles, I crossed in the cycle lane that ran alongside the main road, briefly jolted back into reality as the traffic streamed in both directions, before dropping back down to the estuary on the other side and instantly back into my peaceful cocoon accompanied by the sounds of the waves and the numerous birds swooping by and digging for their brunch on the banks of the estuary. The joggers and dog-walkers soon subsided and I was left to enjoy looking out for signs of what must once have been one of the most beautiful railway lines in the country. I was also left with the incredibly strong headwind buffeting me and making it feel as if I there was a tug-of-war rope wrapped around my waist and a local rugby team consisting mostly of ginormous farm workers pulling me backwards as I attempted to cycle away. My average speed plummeted as did the gear I was cycling in, and I accepted that my lot for the next 20 miles or so was to drag the entire squad of Old Bidefordonians along for the ride.

The great thing about going so slowly was that it gave me time to take in my surroundings. The bleak but beautiful natural environment and the constant reminders of the area’s rich industrial heritage kept me fascinated throughout and when I reached the old Bideford station and a pub that sat alongside the platform with a sign promising cream teas lured me in. I assume the sign sits outside all year round as when I asked at the bar, I was told that all they had was chocolate bars and crisps. A KitKat, a bag of salt and vinegar and a pot of tea later, it was time to head back out into the wind.

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I continued along the line, passing over the same river time after time as it meandered through the countryside with numerous oxbows. Long forgotten canal locks, an impressive stone aqueduct and grand industrial buildings gradually gave way to thick forest and with this, so the quality of the path deteriorated too, evolving from the smooth tarmac surface I’d been riding for over 20 miles into compacted gravel with jagged slithers of bedrock poking through. On the cross bike this would have been fine, but my old-school 23mm road bike rubber wasn’t ideal for the job. And then it started to rain.

At 25 miles and still about seven from Meeth where the cycle path ended, I decided to turn back. I was more than happy that I’d get 50 miles in for the day and I was looking forward to turning round, knowing the wind would be behind me most of the way back. I figured I’d make good time because of this; I figured wrong. Not long after the tarmac returned, I felt my front tyre soften and upon inspection, I realised I had a slow puncture. I also realise that the torrential rain, 50mph winds and temperature of around 4 degrees had made my hands so cold even through my waterproof gloves, that I was unable to get the tyre off the wheel to change the inner tube. Pumping it up, I rode a few miles steadily, paying close attention to how it felt beneath me and so the routine was set for the journey back. Some time, I’m not sure how long exactly, and numerous tyre inflations later, I made it back to the van. A quick change and clean of both the bike and myself, a cup of tea from the beach cafe and I was on my way to my next planned overnight stay.

No room at the inn

The road towards Lynton and Lynmouth involved a series of ever-steepening hills, and I knew that when I got there, the steepest of all was waiting. Driving alongside the river, the road descended steeply, with signs warning of 25% sections, into the village of Lynmouth, a place once destroyed by an epic flood. It was easy to see why, flanked as it was by steep forested hills with powerful rivers careering downwards toward the harbour and the sea beyond. Climbing once again out of the village onto Countisbury Hill, I recalled the numerous times my family had visited during my childhood and how in my head, the hill seemed to be of epic proportions. It turns out, my childhood memories were accurate; Countisbury Hill was as steep as I remembered, with more 25% signs and to add to the sense of peril, the road clung to the cliffs, dropping away hundreds of feet at what seemed like an almost vertical angle to the rough sea below.

The top of the hill was to be my overnight stay…sort of. It was a 1.5-mile walk to my accommodation once I’d abandoned the van on the top of the moor. My plan had been to get there, settle in, then take a walk along the South West Coast Path back to a pub I’d already scouted out. The long day and the wild weather (it was by now a wind of proportion usually reserved for houses falling onto witches) dissuaded me and I chose to stop at the pub on the way. The pub was the kind you dream of finding in the countryside, flagstone floors and a roaring fire with an empty table right beside, hearty food and a fine selection of craft beers. Having warmed up considerably by the fire, satiated my hunger with the best steak and ale pie I’ve ever had (a real pie at that, one completely surrounded in pastry, not one of those pretend pies with a ceramic base that is disappointingly inedible) and rehydrated with a fine craft beer from Bath Ales, it was time to head for my…ahem…hotel of sorts. I had considered asking if the pub had any rooms left, or even if I could lay my sleeping bag alongside the dog bed nestled next to the fire, but my plan was already made and it was the main part of the adventure for the weekend.

From the car park, a narrow tarmac path led out across the moor into the darkness. It was pitch black; Exmoor is in fact Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve, the lack of artificial lights protected to allow you to enjoy the true wonders of the cosmos. As i gathered my things, the clouds parted and above me I could see the distinctive band of the Milky Way traversing the night sky. The only light came from my bike light, a powerful USB rechargeable one I purchased a few years ago that allows you to actually see as opposed to just be seen like many basic bike lights. There was not a soul or sound, except for the wind which occasionally blasted me sideways across the narrow path; no cows, sheep, nothing. The path began to descend sharply in a series of twisting hairpins, down into a gulley which I knew only from studying the map beforehand, eventually made its way down to the sea. Originally flanked by thick gorse, as I descended further the valley sides were covered in rockfalls, piles of rubble that looked as if some village had been blown up and the ruins left where they lay. It was as close to being on the moon as I guess I’ll ever feel.

The walk seemed to take forever, the darkness never allowing me to know where my destination lay, but as the path straightened out I finally spotted my hotel for the night, a stone bothy. Bothies were originally places of refuge for farm hands or estate workers but these days are more commonly designated as refuges for walkers, mountaineers and others looking for adventure. This one is owned by the National Trust and for a paltry £22 you can stay for the night. After the usual challenge of getting into any holiday accommodation, which always reminds me of a Crystal Maze challenge, involving 4-digit codes and hidden key-safes (except with this one, there’s no automatic lock-in, just a permanent lock-out if you can’t solve it), I was in. Accommodation was basic, a wooden bunk-bed on which I could lay my roll mat and sleeping bag, a sink with cold-water tap, a few candles and a composting toilet that involved venturing back outside and mastering another door lock.

The door to the bothy had two parts, a sturdy outer barn-door shutter made of solid wood and an inner one with a single pane window. Once in and with the outer door closed, I was completely shut off from the outside world. The only light came from the few candles and my head torch which allowed me to sit and read my book, the tale of a man who decided to cycle the entire route of the 2000 Tour de France, albeit in twice the time as the pro’s, before settling down for the night. A peaceful night it was not; I frequently woke as the wind increased in strength, buffeting the outer wooden door and whistling across the tin roof, but I’ve never felt more alive. I felt like Ray Mears, Bear Grylls or my hero, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

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Short and windy

The wind was still going strong when I rose, and as the sun began to rise I took a walk further down the path to the lighthouse that I knew lay just around the headland. The whitecaps, the foam crests that sit atop the waves, were buffeting against the cliffs before falling away, and the wind was making it hard to stand. The view was breathtaking.

My plan had been to dump the kit in the van, get the bike out and get straight onto the country lanes of Exmoor. The wind however seemed so wild as to be dangerous, and after climbing back out of the gully, I drove down into the fishing village of Porlock for breakfast and to wait it out for a while.

I sat in the cafe, run by another Brummie who’d escaped to the south-west and checked the weather app. It looked as if the wind would ease slightly; already seeming lighter as I walked around the town, but I couldn’t tell if that was just because of the sheltered position at the foot of the fabled Porlock Hill. The steepest A-road in the UK was certainly not on my list of things to cycle that day, but there was a toll road that ran parallel and wound its way through the forest at a much gentler gradient of around 6 or 7%, not unlike many Alpine climbs. The toll road was just over 4 miles long and I figured it would be a good challenge to ride up and down as fast as I could.

Fuelled by tea and some an apricot jam-filled shortcake, I finally replaced the inner tube on the front wheel and I set off. The toll road split off just as Porlock Hill reared its ugly head and I gently rose out of town past the final few houses. The gradient changed gently up and down but never kicked too much, allowing me to push from the start. The road was strewn with branches and pine cones, requiring me to to weave in and out of them like some sort of Atari computer game. I felt strong and thought I was making good progress, only to look at my watch and realise that I wasn’t even halfway. I reached the toll booth, just £1 for bicycles and deposited my coin in the honesty box, watched over by the man I presumed manned the toll booth, from his kitchen window opposite. Just checking I was being honest I suppose.

The last section was the hardest, the loss of tree cover meaning I was hit full on by the winds again and about half a mile from the top, a hailstorm added to the sense of drama. It was also the steepest and I pushed hard to maintain my pace. After crossing a cattle grid I could see the junction with the main road ahead and knew that was where the Strava section came to an end so I put on a little sprint finish a la Tour de France and then slumped over my handlebars trying desperately to draw in air without ingesting a hailstone. My only choices to get down were to take on the nearly 30% main road, follow a cycle path through the forest which was a green line on my Sustrans map (green lines can mean everything from off-road but still beautifully laid tarmac, through to a vaguely distinguishable route through the swamps of Mordor), or to retrace my steps.

Descending the toll road I picked up speed quickly, leaning into the gusts of wind each time they hit to avoid being blown across to the other side. Not that it mattered, on the whole ride up and down, the only people I saw were the toll booth guy from his kitchen window and a woman out walking her dog. I wondered how much it was for dogs to use the road. I was conscious of the slippery surface and the remnants of evergreen lining the route, but i was also invigorated by picking up speed easily after a tough ascent. Whilst it took me over 27 minutes to reach the top (6th fastest on Strava this year), I was back down by the van inside 11 minutes (3rd fastest in 2019). I was pleased with these stats, until I saw that the fastest ascent ever had been made in 14 minutes, nearly twice as quickly as me and only a little longer than it had taken me to come down. I later realised that this was because the Tour of Britain had used this road so I was less disappointed.

The end of the adventure

With the bike safely stowed in the van, that was it, my mini-adventure was over. I drove the coast road back to Bristol, passing through places full of childhoods memories; Minehead where walks along the seafront and ice creams were common place, as well as searching for golf balls with my dad in the bushes and sand dunes alongside the links course. Car Hampton, where I consumed numerous sausage and chip dinners in the Butcher’s Arms after tiring myself out climbing up and sliding down the fibre glass house in the shape of a boot, long gone now likely for health and safety reasons. Blue Anchor bay, where we’d enjoyed weekends and school holidays in our static caravan, Watchet, its famous centuries old harbour and the place where, every summer Bank Holiday, we’d enjoyed taking part in their window-spotting competition.

This didn’t involve looking for panes of glass, oh no, it was far more complex than that. As part of their summer fete, the locals organised the competition and all the businesses took part. Their task was to place something in their window that didn’t belong there, often as simple as a staple or a coin but sometimes more complex and sneaky. Holiday-makers would traipse around the town with a paper form and pen, staring shoulder-to-shoulder into the windows. When one family member spotted the mystery item, hushed murmurs would signal it was time to move on, before cupping their mouth and whispering the item into the ear of the pen-holder, so as not to give the game away to fellow contestants. I can’t remember what the prize was, a free meal at a local pub or similar, but answers were treated with the secrecy of a coded message outlining the plans of D-Day. The fete had two other memorable features; a parachute display team would be dropped high above the Memorial Grounds where it took place and upon landing, would pick up the nearest square of numbered cork on the field. These had been placed there earlier in the day by entrants into what was a cross between a raffle, spot the ball and an RAF training exercise.

But most of all, I remember the annual Town Crier contest, I believe it may have been the UK championships, where men (and occasionally women) from all over the country would come dressed in their ancient garb, ring their bells and bellow out announcements, always beginning with ‘Oyez, oyez’ (pronounced Oh-yay) to get onlookers attention. These days it would resemble a sort of shout-off between Brian Blessed, Alan Dedicoat the ‘voice of the balls’ and Peter Dickson of X-Factor fame.

I climbed out of the town and headed for home on the twisting road wedged between the sea to my left and the Quantock Hills rising away to my right.

Had I enjoyed the adventure I’d set out for?

Oyez, oyez.

A heads up

The other day I shared a brief piece on Facebook about correct posture in common gym exercises, so I thought I’d expand a little more on it for those of you who may find it helpful. Nothing complicated, no fancy words, nothing too technical, just one key piece of advice that covers pretty much all exercises and will help to vastly improve posture during exercises, decreasing your risk of injury and making the exercise much more effective, meaning greater results.


Use your head

Your head is pretty heavy, around 8-12 pounds on average according to various reports. That’s a fairly reasonable chunk of your overall body weight and so its position can have big consequences for the rest of your body. It’s always going to be on top of your shoulders (hopefully) but how you align it during exercises might be more important than you know.


‘Head up’

If you’ve watched any fitness DVD, YouTube workout or spent time in a gym, you’ll no doubt have heard the trainer saying ‘keep your head up’ and that’s sort of right, sometimes, but not always.

Your head shouldn’t be up as such, rather it should be ‘in line with your spine’. The top part of your spine, known as the cervical spine, joins with your skull. The top two vertebrae, the ones directly underneath your head, are known as the atlas and axis, and they’re the ones that allow you to move your head up and down and left to right.

Atlas because it’s named after the Greek God that held up the world, just like this vertebra holds up your head. Axis because your head can rotate around on its axis.


What does this mean for movement?

As your head is so heavy, if it drops forwards, this can pull your spine out of its natural curve, rounding your upper back. If it tilts upwards, again you’ll alter your natural curve, this time by excessively arching the lower back.

In everyday life of course you need to move your head up and down; maybe to tie a shoe lace or to look at a bird in the sky, but when we’re loading the spine during exercise, it’s important to keep it in its natural curve and therefore your head position is key.

Let’s give you a few examples of where I see it done wrong and what you’re looking for instead…


Press-ups

You’ll often see someone doing a press-up and lifting their head so it faces forwards, maybe so they can check themselves out in the mirror, or maybe because that’s what the YouTube video showed them to do. In this exercise, the body is parallel to the floor and therefore the head should be the same, facing down and in its natural position above the spine.

Here’s a video of me and Vic doing some press-up variations. notice how the head stays in line with the spine whatever angle we perform the press-up from.

Squats and deadlifts

Similarly in squats and deadlifts, the head should stay in line with the angle of the spine. The difference here of course is that when you do these exercise, the bend at your hips causes your body to fold forwards slightly. That means your head should follow this movement, rather than tilting the head back to continue looking forwards like I see every time I visit a gym. If the neck tilts back, this forces the spine out of its natural alignment and places greater stress on your lower back. Aim to look forwards not up, like in the video below.

Core exercises

The same goes for crunches, back extensions and planks. The head should follow the line of the spine.

Crunches - as the spine bends forwards, the head should follow; at the top of the movement there’ll be a gap between chin and chest about the size of an orange and you’ll probably be looking at roughly the angle where the wall meets the ceiling. People often feel discomfort in their neck during sit-ups and one of the reasons is that they strain from the neck forcing the head upwards toward the sky, out of line with the spine which has flexed.

Plank - just like press-ups, the body is parallel to the floor so the head should stay down, eyes looking at the floor directly below.

Back extensions - in the video below, notice how it’s the lower back that does the lift. Your head does not move, it just stays in line with your spine.


If you’re after one simple way to remember it, that last tip is it…’head in line with spine’. Your head should simply follow where your spine goes, it has to because it’s attached to the top of it. Use your head right and you’re in for a much safer, much more effective workout with less stress on your neck and lower back in particular.

Stay balanced,

Paul

The 52 habits of balance

Part 2: eat

Last week I introduced you to the 15 habits that make up the think element of balance.

This time I’m going to give you a taste (pun very much intended) of the food and drink habits that I work on with my clients, highlighting seven I’d term ‘big rocks’, major behaviours to focus on. Some of them are about things you might want to do more often, whilst others are about things to consider doing less frequently.

Nothing is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, only better or worse. No foods are banned and you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re not perfectly balanced for all of the habits…very few people are (myself included).

So let’s go, score each habit and then afterwards, pick one that you feel you can work on to improve your balance.

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Habit 1: Get your 5-a-day

Whilst there’s debate about how many portions of fruit and veg you should have, there’s good evidence that your health improves the more you get. Aim for a minimum of five portions a day, and get a good variety of types and colours over time.

Score:

1 point if you rarely eat fruit or veg at present

3 points if you often get close or sometimes you get your five, sometimes you don’t

5 points if you’re diet is always the colours of the rainbow

Habit 2: Go nuts and get a little seedy

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Nuts and seeds provide a wealth of nutrients; protein, fibre and a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Recommendations suggest we should have at least 1-2 handfuls every day.

Score:

1 point if you rarely eat nuts or seeds at present

3 points if you do so occasionally

5 points if nuts and seeds are a staple in your diet

Habit 3: Get the oh so mega Omega3

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The essential fats found in high quantities in oily fish as well as flax and chia seeds, walnuts and soya beans, are as their name suggests, vital to your health. Healthy fats help to strengthen your immune system, prevent inflammation and help your brain to function at its best. We should aim to get at least 2 portions of fish every week with at least one of them being an oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring or sardines.

Score:

1 point if you rarely eat fish, seeds or soya produce

3 points if you get one portion a week or don’t consistently have two

5 points if you regularly have two or more portions of fish a week or get your Omega 3 from alternative sources


Habit 4: Munch your wholegrains

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Providing you with slow-release energy and plenty of fibre, wholegrains have been shown to keep your heart healthy, lower your cholesterol, look after your digestive system and help with weight management. An easy way to ensure you get the right amount is to aim for 6-8 cupped handfuls each day. That can include breakfast cereals, bread, rice, pasta, couscous, quinoa and other grains.

Score:

1 point if you rarely consume wholegrains

3 points if you have better and worse days or you have some every day but don’t hit the required portions

5 points if you regularly get your 6-8 portions a day


Habit 5: Daily dairy & alternatives

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You’ll get plenty fo great things from dairy or alternatives like soya and alternative milks; protein, healthy fats, vitamin D, calcium and lots of other micronutrients. Research links them to better weight management, healthier bones and teeth, lower blood pressure and gut health. Aim for 3 portions a day, with a portion of milk or yoghurt the size of a clenched fist, and cheese equivalent to two thumbs.

Score:

1 point if you rarely get your daily dairy

3 points if you get some or hit your 3 portions on a few days each week

5 points if you’re king or queen of the dairy (or alternatives)


Habit 6: Hydrate and feel great

We all know we need to drink enough water. It makes up around half of your body and you’ll find it in every cell you possess. Figures vary on how much you need, with the average being around 1.6 litres for women and 2 litres for men, but food can contribute and exercise, age and environment can affect your needs. The easiest way to know you’re well hydrated is to check your pee colour. It should be light or straw-coloured; if it’s darker that suggests you’re dehydrated.

Score:

1 point if you know you don’t drink enough and your pee looks like Guinness

3 points if sometimes you’re well hydrated but not always

5 points if your water-bottle is like an extension of your arm


Habit 7: Alcohol

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Some studies suggest that in small quantities there may well be cardiovascular health benefits but there’s much debate about this. What we do know for sure is that there’s no harm in not drinking and there’s definitely harm from having too much. A few years ago the guidelines were altered to be a maximum of 14 units per week for men and women, spread over the week with a few drink-free days.

14 units is roughly:

• 6 small glasses of wine

• 6 pints of standard strength beer

• 5 pints of standard strength cider

• 14 single shots of spirits

Score:

1 point if you are often over the 14 units per week, tend to drink lots in one go or rarely have drink-free days

3 points if you have better and worse weeks

5 points if you consistently meet the guidelines


How did you do?

Add up your scores, what was your total?

7-16: Out of balance at the moment

17-26: On the way to balance

27-35: Well balanced

Whatever you scored, if you feel there’s room for improvement and you’d like to do something about it, write down your answers to the following questions…

1) What is the one habit you’d like to work on?

2) What could you do to achieve that? List all the ideas you can think of, no matter what they are.

3) Pick your favourite three methods and number them 1, 2 and 3 in order of preference. This week, try method 1 and see how it goes. If it works then great, if it doesn’t, you have a ready-made back-up plan.

You know me by now; change is challenging and it requires a little effort on our part. Just by working through this you’ve shown you want to do something so good work. Give it a go and slowly work towards a better balance for you, it’s all about turning those behaviours into habits over time.














The 52 habits of balance

You may have read my recent blog on what balance is and what it isn’t. In that piece, I included the three fundamental principles of balance, including the first…

You are the sum of your most frequent, recent behaviours.”

Essentially, your health, fitness and happiness is most impacted by your habits, the things you do day in, day out. When interviewed, highly respected American Cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones cited research showing that even people over the age of 65 with existing heart disease could reduce risk of heart attacks by 45% through healthy habits.

The analogy I often use when explaining this to clients is the bullet and the gun. Some people have a higher genetic risk for certain medical conditions than others, with illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes common in their family. What this means is that the bullet is already loaded in their gun. For the bullet to be dangerous though, someone has to pull the trigger. The triggers in this case are lack of exercise, a poor diet, stress, alcohol, inadequate sleep, smoking and other behaviours. Leave the trigger well alone and you have a much higher chance of remaining fit and healthy.

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Fifty two is a magic number

The number of white keys on a piano, the number of playing cards in a pack, the number of weeks in a year and now, the number of habits that make up the balance method.

I’ve spent years looking into all of the behaviours that could impact your overall wellbeing and as it stands, this is my total. They’re broken down across the four elements of balance; think, eat, live and move. Some are habits of the brain, some to do with eating and drinking, some from all aspects of your life from work to sleep, learning to socialising and some are exercise-related.

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i’m not saying without a doubt that there aren’t more than 52, that would be naive and set me up to look foolish in future if and when I discover one. I remember reading the Stephen Covey book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, (which by the way, is an awesome book) and then being somewhat disappointed a few years later when a sequel entitled ‘The Eighth Habit’ came out. I’ll keep looking and add other behaviours to the method if and when I find them, and you’ll be first to know of course!

Go on then…what are they?

I figured by now that you’re thinking ‘come on, get on with it, tell me what these healthy habits are then’. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do; just not all in one go. Fifty two things is a lot to take on board in and you know me, I'm all for breaking stuff down into more manageable chunks.

Over my next four blogs, I’m going to provide you with a short quiz where you can score yourself against the habits for each of the elements of balance. As everything always starts with a thought, in this first one we’re going to look at ‘think’, the 15 mind habits I’ve identified; the thinking and planning behaviours that those who successfully make lifestyle changes use to great effect.

The scoring system is simple; give yourself the following points based on whether there’s lots to be done, you’re getting there or you’ve got it nailed:

  • Out of balance = 1 point

  • On the way to balance = 3 points

  • Perfectly balanced = 5 points

A score of 15-29 points means there’s a fair bit of work you can do, 30-55 points suggests you’re on the way to a good balance, and 56-75 points means you’re well balanced.

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Before you even decide to make a change…

1) Do you have a clear idea of your values? By this I mean the things most important to you in your life. You’re likely to be more successful with attempts to get fitter and healthier if you make sure that any changes you make are in line with your values. If they conflict then it’ll be much harder to stick with them.

2) Are you really sure that you want to change? Sounds like a daft question doesn’t it? Thing is, sometimes we do want something different, but part of us also wants to cling on to the habits we have now. We know we need to cut down our alcohol but we’re concerned we’ll lose our social life, we want to stop smoking but it relaxes us, or we want to do more exercise but we’re embarrassed about joining a gym. That’s why I made this one of the habits; it’s important to spend a little time weighing up the pros and cons of change and making an informed decision. It doesn’t matter whether you decide to change or not at that time, but you know the decision is the right one.

When planning for change…

3) Do you have a goal that is clear, challenging and exciting? Knowing exactly what you’re after and being excited about what it will be like to achieve are great for motivation. It’s important that your goal doesn’t feel too easy either; studies suggest that something we really have to work for pushes us to strive harder to make it happen.

4) Do you know where you’re starting from? Do you take some form of measurement that you can track over time; weight, shape, fitness, mood or something else that let’s you know how far you have to go and if you’re making progress?

5) Do you focus on the process? Many people will have a clear idea of what they want, but it’s equally as important to know the actions to take to make it happen. These are known as Process Goals, for example, Usain Bolt wanted to be the fastest man on Earth but his process goals were set around how many training sessions he should do a week, the foods he should eat, hours sleep required and the other habits he had control of that could ultimately influence the outcome.

And when you’re actually making a change…

6) Do you do one thing at a time? Knowing the actions you need to take is one thing, prioritising which you need to work on is another entirely. Often, especially at this time of year, we make all sorts of commitments to change. It’s easy to be overconfident or just want to change so much that we try to do too much in one go. Focusing on just one thing at a time is a surefire way to increase your chances of success.

7) Do you identify the challenges you might face along the way and plan ahead for how you’ll deal with them? Pre-empting what could go wrong and identifying solutions can give you confidence when it doesn’t all quite go to plan. Many will fall at the first hurdle, but if you know it’s coming and have a way around, under or over it, then it’s much more likely you can stay on track.

8) Do you create an environment for change? What do I mean by this? Do you set things up that make it easier to change and harder to stay the same? For example, if you want to do more exercise, do you get your gym kit ready the night before and put your bag right in front of the door so that you’ll definitely pick it up on the way out? Or do you make sure there are no crisps in the house if you’re looking to cut down?

9) Do you use nudges or reminders to keep yourself on track? This could be post-it notes, alerts on your phone, pictures on the fridge or whatever it is that keeps your goal and actions right at the forefront of your mind.

10) Do you check your progress regularly? I mentioned taking starting measurements earlier; do you also have a schedule in place for checking how you’re getting on? Weekly weigh-ins, monthly fitness tests, or apps to track your food or exercise daily?

11) Do you get by with a little help from your friends? Do you have a support crew in place? People who can assist, remind, cajole, motivate, encourage and sometimes kick you up the backside? It’s much more likely you’ll succeed when you don’t go it alone.

12) Are you accountable to someone? Much like having a support crew, having to check in with someone about your actions or progress can be a fantastic tool for success. None of us like telling someone we’ve failed and so having a little pressure on you can make a major difference.

13) Is there an element of competition? It could be against yourself or someone else but competing is another way of helping you to up your game when it comes to achieving your goals.

14) Do you have rewards in place for success? Regularly rewarding yourself for reaching milestones along the way is a great idea. It gives you a boost of the neurotransmitter dopamine, making you feel good and increasing your confidence and desire to keep going. It also helps to make a big goal feel smaller with clear marker posts en route. Just be careful not to reward yourself too much with tasty stuff; using food and drink as a reward can lead to a cycle where you feel you need them to feel good.

15) Do you have bouncebackability? For me, this is the biggest of all the habits. The ability to keep going even when it’s not gone as you’d liked recently, to adapt and try a new method should the previous one have failed, is the difference between success and failure. It’s going to take time, it won’t be straightforward but you will make it if you persist.

How did you do?

What are the scores on the doors? Whatever you’ve scored, is there one behaviour that you feel you could do more often, turning it into a habit that will make you fitter, healthier and happier?

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Three tips for balanced New Year's Resolutions

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Here we go again!!

Christmas has been and gone and it’s January, the time of year when we we all feel like we should decide to do something differently. Maybe it just seems like a good time for a fresh start; the past can be filed away under ‘well, that was last year’ and new goals, opportunities and dreams feel like things that can take its place.

But you’ve heard the scare stories right? People fail when they set New Year’s resolutions. One often quoted piece of research from Scranton University claims that just 8% of people stick to resolutions, a poll for BUPA in 2015 reported that about 12% of Brits successfully kept to resolutions that year, with 66% giving up inside a month. Then Strava said last year that the second Friday in January was the day when motivation was likely to wain, lovingly referred to in the press as ‘Quitters Friday’.

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It’s as if they’re trying to tell us that goals set at the start of a year are somehow less likely to succeed. Why would that be? What mystical powers does the month of January hold that doom our plans to fail? Maybe our resolutions are over-reactions to a few weeks of unhealthy behaviour; we determine to banish ourselves of these heinous habits and then, after a few weeks of doing so, balance is restored and we simply return to the middle ground. In that sense, we’re not failing, rather we’re balancing out (mentally at least) the unhealthiness of December.

Or maybe it’s how we’re setting the resolutions. Maybe we’re being overly optimistic and trying to change too much in one go. Possibly we’re not being clear enough about what we want and so it’s hard to judge if we’re being successful or not. Only you’ll know the reasons why yours have or haven’t worked, but below I’ve offered three suggestions that might help you to be a little more successful with this year’s attempts.


1) Have a good reason

If you’re going to make significant changes to your lifestyle and stick to them, you need strong motivation to do so. Setting yourself a challenging goal for the year ahead can kick your bum into gear to do the things you need to. It might be entering a race of some kind, setting a weight loss target, a strength goal or health-related. If there’s an important reason behind it; raising money for a charity close to your heart, building your self-confidence or staying healthy so you can enjoy time with your family, there’s a strong driver at the wheel steering you towards your goal.

2) Forget New Year’s Resolutions; think Weekly or even Daily instead

One of the things I like most about New Year’s Resolutions is that they’re generally focused on things we’re actually going to do. As you know, one of the three key principles of balance is that you are the sum of your most frequent recent behaviours; put simply it’s the things you do regularly that determine your health, fitness and wellbeing.

The problem is that by thinking of them as tasks for the year ahead, they begin to feel daunting. A year seems a long time and so our confidence in sticking to resolutions is often low. This is where the art of ‘chunking’ comes in to its own, breaking the year down into smaller, more manageable parts. Not eating chocolate for a day or taking part in Dry January all seem a bit more doable and there’s lots of evidence that people who take part in shorter challenges tend to continue behaving more healthily after they’ve finished.

I’ve set myself a target to cut down on the sugary foods I enjoyed daily over the Christmas break, targeting no more than 3 per week. My first and only goal is to achieve that this week, then I’ll evaluate ahead of the following week.

3) Be like a rubber ball; develop bouncebackability

Another of the key principles of balance is that there is no failure, only feedback. Giving up always guarantees you won’t get what you’re after, but by utilising the chunking technique I’ve just discussed, you can wash over bad days and even bad weeks, reset and go again. Say you only manage to drink more water on three days in the first week, that’s still three more than before. Next week target four, and so on. If you’re halfway through a week and the plan has gone horribly wrong, challenge yourself to see how many times you can achieve it in the remaining days.

Groups like alcoholics anonymous often use the ‘one-day-at-a-time’ mantra and it’s brilliant, it means that every day can be New Year’s Day, a fresh start.

I wish you all the very best with your goals and challenges in 2019. If I can be of any help, please do get in touch. Oh and if you fancy taking on a fitness challenge, remember we have a range of walks and rides you can take on and help raise money for some fantastic charities in the process! Check them out here.

Here’s to a balanced year!

Paul

What is balance...and what is it not?

What is balance?

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 What does balance mean? In the dictionary it’s defined as…

         ‘a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’

or

                  ‘to put something in a steady position so that it does not fall.’

Both are important in describing my concept of balanced living. My original PT business at the turn of the century was called motiv8; it was the in-thing at the time to use numbers in place of letters! I was young, keen to inspire people and I was very focused on high energy sessions with lots of encouragement. At my busiest point, I worked 16 hours a day Monday-Friday, 12-16 sessions a day on average, and I often worked Saturday and Sunday too. The 80-100 hour weeks took their toll, with me sometimes cramming in flapjacks or pasta whilst my clients warmed up, just to get some food on board, and often running 10-20 miles a day with clients too. I picked up injuries and eventually burned myself out, becoming completely exhausted. I’d lost my balance.

I learned a lot about my own body from this experience and my clients also helped to educate me through my work with them. I learned that what worked for one person didn’t always work for another, that different things motivate some but completely put others off. I learned that there were so many factors that went into whether someone succeeded or not and that my job was to be a sort of detective, listening out for the things that seemed like they may be important for that person. I also started to understand that each of our perceptions of health, fitness and wellbeing is different and that my job was to help someone achieve theirs rather than push my own or someone else’s belief’s onto them. I learned that exercising hard wasn’t always the best option; in fact I learned that sometimes exercise wasn’t even the best option! Clients who’d had emotional days were exhausted and needed a cup of tea and a chat rather than a workout. I learned that the recommendations for exercise are just guidelines, a framework on which to build. I had one lady who used to do 15-minutes with me every week, not hard but just something. She rarely did anything on her own in the week and a number of the PT’s used to ask me what the point was. I guess in my head the point was, that was what she felt she could do at that time and that something is always better than nothing. What was the alternative? To tell her not to bother doing any exercise at all? Or encourage her and gradually help her improve on it over time?

Through all of these experiences; with my clients and learning how my own body responded to exercise and tiredness and stress, the word ‘balance’ seemed to keep popping up. I’d talk about it in conversations about diet and exercise programmes, about sleep and workload. I started to work on some writing about it, which went on to form the majority of my book The Complete Guide to Weight Loss.

Over the years it developed into a sort of philosophy, with key pillars and principles and when I launched my second business in 2012, there was only one possible name for it. Ever since, I’ve used them to help many people get themselves fitter, healthier, happier and most importantly, stay that way. In that sense, just like the dictionary definition, it is very much about helping you not to fall, and also about how to help you get back to better balance if you do.

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So what is it, and what it is not?

Let’s start with what it definitely is not. It most definitely isn’t

  • Based on fads, gimmicks and quick fixes. There’s no 9-day, 21-day, 28-day or 12-week plan that suddenly comes to an end and leaves you wondering, ‘what now?’

  • Being on a diet you don’t enjoy, where foods are banned or restricted and you know you won’t stick to it. In fact. it’s not about anything that makes you feel bad or guilty or not worthy.

  • Treating foods and drinks as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they’re neither. Some are worse for us if we have too much and some are better and we should have more of them. Genetics and the situation both impact whether a food is better or worse for you; for example, someone at risk of diabetes needs to eat less high sugar foods, but a Mars Bar becomes a good food 20 miles into a marathon

  • Doing exercises that you hate or feel uncomfortable with. There are many ways to get fit and as long as you follow the principles of a balanced routine, you can choose the one that works best for you

  • Getting fit or lean at the expense of health. No extremes required here

  • One size fits all. As you’ve seen in the previous points, we’re all different, so balance is more about general principles than rules. I’d look incredibly stupid very quickly if I told you that this definitely works and that doesn’t, because one of you out there would be able to provide evidence to the contrary from your own experiences.

Instead, this is what balance is…

It’s based on three key principles…

1) You are the sum of your most frequent recent behaviours

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Certain things you should do more often, like exercise and eating your greens, whilst some need doing less, like drinking alcohol or sitting down, if you’re to achieve health, fitness and happiness.

Consistency is key. It’s about doing them day in, day out, as without this your health and fitness starts to fall away, and it’s why making small, gradual changes is better as it means you’re much more likely to stick to them. No behaviours are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, only better or worse. For example, smoking one cigarette isn’t great, but it won’t cause you much long-term harm if you never have another. Foods and drinks aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ either, what’s helpful for one person may not be for another, we know this from the uniqueness of food allergies, as the saying goes ‘one man’s food is another’s poison’ and from how some achieve great success on one type of diet, whilst others find it doesn’t help them at all. As with other behaviours, eating one chocolate bar or cake, or even one occasionally, isn’t the problem, it comes down to the amount we consume and how frequently. All health behaviours sit on a scale, with better or worse alternatives. The aim is simply to do the better ones more often.

The behaviours encompass a holistic approach. For total wellbeing, you need to work on your mindset, nutrition, lifestyle and exercise, which is why I created the ‘think’, ‘eat’, ‘live’ and ‘move’ pillars that underpin the balance approach. Balance always uses the available research to provide information on all of these areas that is considered trustworthy and current best practice, but always ensures that it’s relevant to you, jargon-free and easy-to-understand.

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2) You have the power

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but there is always a way to change your behaviours. That way will be different for everyone and based on your situation, what motivates you and what’s within your capabilities at that time. The balance goal is to act like a sherpa, guiding you towards the right behaviours and helping you to understand the things you need to do to make them happen, but never being too prescriptive or telling you that you must do it this way or that. I know from experience that adults are the biggest children; they don’t do what they’re told! With the right guidance and support though, anyone can achieve better health, fitness and wellbeing.

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3) There is no failure, only feedback

As there’s no right or wrong way, there can be no failure, only learning over time. It would be naïve to think with such a wide range of health behaviours and complex lives that the first thing we try will always work. What is absolutely true though is that giving up NEVER works; as you know it’s all about finding a way to carry out the better behaviours more consistently over time, that way lies the path to better balance.

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How do you know when you’re well balanced?

Firstly, think of it like a scale, something that you move up and down rather than something that you either have or don’t. If you’re moving further along the scale towards better balance, then you’ll be in a place where:

  • you look the way you want to, feel good in yourself, have energy and self-confidence

  • both your physical health and mental wellbeing are good and you feel in control, able to maintain it and get back on track should something get in the way

  • you sleep well and wake feeling rested and energised on most days

  • you have the energy to do the things you love and spend quality time with family and friends

  • you eat what you want because you want it, not because you’re tired or stressed or feeling low. It’s about really enjoying foods free of guilt, knowing you can say no to food and understanding that you can eat and drink anything if consumed in the right amounts

  • you feel able to cope with the stresses in your life, finding ways to switch off from them and have mechanisms in place that relax you and keep you healthy

  • you have a good mix of exercise that you really enjoy and that fits into your daily life.

Most of all, you know when you’re well balanced when you have the right balance of behaviours that give you the outcomes you’re looking for and when those healthier behaviours begin to feel like a natural part of what you do, a normal and actually essential part of your routine and who you are as a person. When they’re not there you don’t like it and so getting back to them becomes easy.


I hope this was interesting and helps you to understand the philosophy I try to bring to everything that balance does.

Please do write in the comment box below to tell me what balance means to you and how you know when you’re feeling well balanced. Your thoughts and comments inspire me to improve what I do and come up with new and better ways to help in future.

Stay balanced,

Paul

Choice: The good and the bad

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Eighteen years ago, a much younger me (with less grey hair, and much more of it) did a Fitness Instructor qualification and began working in a gym for the princely sum of £5 an hour. At the time, I was under the impression that my courses were about gaining knowledge - learning about diet and exercises and that I'd then be able to go out into the world, tell people what to do and they’d get fitter and healthier as a result…

How naive and wrong I was!

Adults are essentially taller children. If you tell them what to do, they rebel just as much as their five-year old son or daughter would. Over the years I read everything I could about behaviour change, psychology and neuroscience, trying to understand how the brain works and I how could apply this knowledge to help people change. I came to the conclusion that my job was to let people choose their changes for themselves, so I started balance to coach them through this. I was convinced that my job was never to tell people what to do, just to be there to support them in making choices for themselves…

How naive and wrong I was!

What I’ve essentially discovered is that choice is hugely important to people and that any programme where you are told what to do will eventually fall down, but that providing people with too much choice can be overwhelming and leave them feeling paralysed…it’s all about finding the right balance. Here we’ll take a look at why choice can be both good and bad, and how you can use this knowledge in your quest for balance.

The bad

The amount of information we process in our brains each day has increased to unbelievable amounts in recent years, more than five times what it was just 30 years ago. Estimates put it at the equivalent of 174 newspapers every 24 hours…that’s a lot of reading! Comparing to computers (which of course, your brain is an extremely high-tech model of), it’s though we each process around 34 gigabytes of data a day. As a kid, my dad would have salivated at the thought of owning a device so powerful…which funnily enough, he did, it was just between his ears.

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Right, that’s quite enough extra data for your brain to process, what’s my point? Even the highest quality computers begin to work more slowly when they’re overloaded with data. Have you ever gone shopping and been unable to choose between the 78 different breakfast cereals on offer, the 146 different loaves of bread, 24 different suntan lotions and 16 types of apples? It gets worse if you shop on the internet. Many a time I’ve tried to buy a new pair of trainers, book a hotel or a holiday and spent an hour or more trawling through comparison sites, links to special offers, Amazon, Google searches, eBay, villa listings and the myriad of other sites where choice is endless. All i often end up with is a headache. Back in the day, there’d be a handful of trainer brands and I could choose between black ones or white ones. With holidays, I’d go to a travel agents where they’d do the searching for me and narrow it down to about three for me to choose from. All this meant that my brain hurt a bit less.

It’s clear that choice can be bad. In fact, it can be paralysing. When you try to multi-task, your brain repeatedly switches between each of the things you’re trying to do; back and forth, back and forth, and each time it uses energy to achieve this, making it very tired. In much the same way, having to switch from option to option, trawling through page after page of 3-star hotels in central London, hoping to save £20 or get the nicest looking room and breakfast included, fatigues your brain and makes choosing seem much harder.

If you’ve watched Kirsty and Phil on Location, Location, Location, you’ll know what I mean; they’re often introduced to couples who’ve seen 50 houses or more but, as of yet still haven’t been able to pick one to live in. And if you’ve sat in a restaurant where the menu is so vast you don’t even know where to begin, pawing over it for some time before eventually choosing the dish you always have because it requires less thinking, you’ll know what I mean. Choice can be tiring and lead to inaction. It’s no coincidence that people who are stressed often talk of being unable to make decisions; their computer is full and no longer has the processing power.

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It’s no wonder then that diet plans and exercise programmes that restrict choice are hugely popular, they save us having to make yet more choices about what exercise to do or what to eat for breakfast, mid-morning, lunch and dinner every single day. The problem is that one of the fundamental traits of being human is our innate desire to control our own destiny. And when we feel like the ability to choose has been taken away, we rebel. We don’t stick to the calorie-controlled diet, we don’t continue to cut out caffeine, alcohol, sugar or whatever else it is we’re not supposed to be having, and we don’t do the exercises our personal trainer told us to. We choose to take back control…isn’t that what the whole Br**it thing is about?


The good

As I’ve just mentioned, we don’t like to be shackled. We’re independent creatures and our desire for free will means we like to make our own choices. Choice is empowering and it also helps recognise that we know ourselves best and can often decide what’s in our best interests. Choice allows us to do things that fit with our values and beliefs, it allows us learn and to change things when they’re not working

The fact that each of us has our own unique genetic blueprint and our own mind creating unique thoughts every second of the day means that choice is a must. Because humans are all unique, programmes designed for the masses can never exactly fit our needs. I could no sooner write an exercise programme now that would work for 50 different people as I could walk to the moon for a nose around.

The balanced approach

So what takeaways are there from this very deep, philosophical wandering of mine?

1) Choice can be both helpful and unhelpful, so choose your choices wisely.

If you waste all of your brain power deciding what brand of couscous to buy in the supermarket, you’ll have very little left for making decisions like which mortgage to get, who to marry (if anyone) and the other big stuff!

Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, suggests limiting less important choices to a set number of options, say three. Browse the stationery sections of three websites for a new diary and pick one from the selection that best suits your needs. It might not be perfect, but unless you design your own, it probably never will be, but it’ll save much needed energy for other big decisions and it’ll prevent you walking away with nothing.

In the context of health and fitness, you might weigh up two or three choices of gyms, footwear, trainers or apps and go for the one that seems right. The great thing is, if it’s not right, you can always choose to change your mind.

2) Delegate choices to others who can help

Joining Weight Watchers or hiring a PT is doing exactly this; you are choosing to pass on some of your choices to someone you trust. They can then provide you with the diet or exercise routine to follow so that you don’t have to make all of the choices. You have 34GB of data floating around your head so there’s no room to pick between the rower and the cross trainer or the myriad dinner options in the supermarket.

The growth of the meals delivered to your door industry is evidence of this delegation of choice; either you get something that’s ready to go, or you get all the ingredients and a recipe card, no need to think, just follow the instructions. If you love your exercise classes, you’re choosing to be told what to do, maybe because it just removes the stress of choice.

The key comes in point 1; take time to choose the best person or service that will meet your needs, that’s the most valuable choice. And hey, if you chose the wrong one, don’t be afraid to choose another.

I myself am using this knowledge to guide the structure of my latest book, working title ‘Think: How to achieve changes and make them last.’ In the past, I’d have left it completely open to you how you worked through it and that may well have left you overwhelmed by choice. This time around there’s a set, step-by-step structure to follow, allowing you to be guided through the process of change without having to make too many choices. The option to rebel and read it in a different order will of course always be there.

A balanced take on the scales: weighing up the pros and cons

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Weighing scales have been around for millennia (if you’re a geek like me you can read more about their history here). They’re probably the most used health measuring tool on planet Earth (and maybe other world’s too, who knows), and they’re responsible for their fair share of strong opinions, heated debates and full-blown arguments. Many swear by them, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession, whilst opponents, particularly from the modern-day fitness world, espouse throwing them out of the nearest window or banishing them to far-away lands.

I thought then that it was high time for a balanced view on the matter, so I’ve weighed in with this blog (couldn’t resist, sorry), dedicated to guiding you through whether you should use them at all, and if so, how often.


Weighing in weekly…or even daily

I’ll be the first to admit, for many years I would discourage my clients from this approach, rolling out the justifications we’ll review in a minute. I’ve mellowed in my old-age and those of you who’ve worked with me or been taught by me on a course will know that one of my favourite sayings is ‘it depends’. That said, I’ve never gone as far as thinking that weighing yourself daily was a good idea, especially as I once worked in a gym with a PT who weighed herself in ounces (something I thought was only reserved for the ingredients of Bake-Off contestants) and would be devastated at the tiniest changes.

Imagine my surprise then this week when, whilst researching for the next balance book/online offering (titled Think: Developing a mindset for lasting success, part 1 of The Art of Balance: How to be fit, healthy and happy), I came across a decent amount of research suggesting that weighing yourself daily might be highly effective. My flat world had just become round!!!

One study of 294 college students found that people weighing themselves daily lost significantly more weight over a 2-year period than those who weighed in daily. Another began with a single weight-loss seminar, after which, half of the 162 attendees were asked to weigh themselves daily, whilst the other half were offered no advice on weighing regularity. Over one year, the men asked to weigh daily lost significantly more than those who were not given advice on weighing frequency. There was no difference for the women though. In the second year of the study, the half originally not advised on weighing frequency were also asked to weigh-in daily and again the men in this group went on to lose significant amounts of weight whilst the women’s weight remained constant.

A review of a wide range of studies on the topic found that both daily and weekly weigh-ins were equally successful, regardless of the other features of the weight loss programme, and one study of over 11,000 participants in Israel discovered that when people visited their GP’s or dietician frequently for weigh-ins on a weight management programme, they were up to 13% more likely to lose a significant amount of weight, in this case at least 5% of their starting weight. This figure is commonly used in the medical world and is considered a decent marker of success.

Consider my eyes opened to new possibilities. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Weight Watchers (now WW of course) and Slimming World had so much success built around their weekly weigh-in models. Regular weighing may of course not be right for everyone, so here’s some guidelines that might help you to decide if it’s right for you.

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Weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

  • You know you’re impatient for results and become demotivated without them. Regular weigh-ins can help provide focus by providing evidence of quick wins. See my recent blog on why so many people love quick wins here.

  • You need a disciplined structure to keep you on track. One of the other big reasons for the success of Slimming Clubs is the public weigh-in; it’s nice to get praise for success and equally it’s nice not to feel like you’ve failed in front of others. If you know this works for you, join a club or replicate it by weighing in with colleagues at work, family or friends. I was amazed by the successes on a weight-loss challenge I helped run for the Bank of Ireland a few years ago which contained a weekly weigh-in and a competition element, people like to win and hate losing (except weight of course).

  • You’re ok seeing progress in smaller chunks. You may have a goal of losing a few stone and daily or weekly weigh-ins will see you chipping away at this pretty slowly, sometimes not at all if weighing daily.

  • In fact, only weigh daily if you can always keep the big picture in mind, the long-term goal. Weight is affected by so many things; hydration levels, food in your stomach, whether you’e been to the loo or not, the menstrual cycle and more besides, that it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a consistent drop in weight. If you’re happy to look for trends over time but need that regular check to keep you on track, it can work for you.

  • You use other monitoring methods alongside it. For example, you might weigh-in daily but do a waist measurement every 1-2 weeks as well. You can also use other tape measure readings, clothing fit and body fat tests if you have access to them. Often if people perform exercise whilst attempting to lose weight, muscle mass increases and so can weight. That doesn’t mean you’ll end up big and bulky though; muscle is very dense and so you actually get firmer and smaller the majority of the time, which is what most people are after. Changes to size and muscle mass will definitely be gradual so performing them fortnightly or even monthly is better.

One of my favourite food psychology researchers, Brian Wansink, suggests that if you do weigh weekly, Wednesday is a good day to choose. Presumably that’s because it’s as far away from the weekend as possibly and you’re more likely to be in the middle of a more structured eating routine. If this isn’t the case for you, just be sure to pick a consistent time and day to make the measurement more consistent. First thing in the morning before food and after going to the loo is always good, and keep clothing consistent (or don’t wear any…unless the scale is on the gym floor)!

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Do not weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

  • You’ve suffered from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, suspect that you might do, or feel that doing so could become obsessive and negatively impact your mood.

  • You’re motivated by seeing bigger changes; some people like the fact that they’ve shifted 7-8 pounds as opposed to just one or two, bigger numbers might be better and if they are, weigh-in less frequently for a higher likelihood of success.

  • Weight is the only measure of progress you are tracking; it’s too easy to get disheartened with the frequent fluctuations caused by other factors.

If this is you, consider weighing less often and pay particular attention to the following essential points…

1) Choose a frequency of weighing that achieves the right balance for you; enough to keep you motivated but no so much that you get disappointed by slow progress or fluctuations from day-to-day

2) Use scales as just one tool in your armoury to track progress. On their own, they only tell a tiny part of the story. Use tape measures, clothing size and body fat percentage alongside these. That way, if your weight increases but you’ve lost fat and you’re smaller, you’ll know you’ve built lean muscle and you can stay happy and motivated

3) Remember to track the process too. Often we focus on the outcome, the weight or shape we want, and forget that it’s the things we do each day that will get us there. One of the three key tenets of the balance approach is ‘You are the sum of your most frequent recent behaviours.’ In other words, if you’re doing the right things, it will happen.

4) If you’ve had or have body issues or an eating disorder, always discuss options for tracking your progress and behaviours with your GP, counsellor or dietician in the first instance. They can help you to find a balanced approach that’s right for you.

Please do pop me a message or post on the balance Facebook page if you have questions about what you can do to track your progress, I’m always happy to help anyone find a little better balance.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

This fella is definitely big and hairy. And it appears that maybe your goals should be too.

In their book about building habits that last, James Collins and Jerry Porras believe there’s a huge amount of benefit in setting powerful, bold, life-changing goals that take you outside of your comfort zone. It should be a clear, compelling goal that literally inspires you.

A famous example of one of their so-called BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) might be America’s desire to put the first person on the moon. Of course you don’t need to travel into outer space, but you do need something that’s equivalent to shooting for the stars.

Make sure your goals are HARD

You’ll be very familiar with the SMART acronym commonly used with goals, the A of which stands for Achievable. We’ve long been told to set goals that we know we can achieve, and whilst we need to believe we can do it, it appears there’s a lot to be said for being a dreamer.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham conducted a review of years worth of research into goal-setting; indeed across the studies they looked at, 40,000 people had set goals of some kind. What they uncovered was that difficult goals consistently led to higher levels of performance in a wide range of settings, indeed they note that…

the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance.”

It’s thought that setting tougher goals helps us to focus our mind on the task at hand, filtering out other things that may distract from the main target. They also act to energise us, increasing our drive to succeed, and they help us to develop persistence as they can’t be achieved overnight. Finally, they appear to make us use our brains more, increasing ingenuity.

You’ll know you’ve set yourself a HARD goal if it is:

  • Heartfelt: Do you have extremely important reasons for wanting to achieve your goal?

  • Animated: Can you picture yourself clearly having achieved the goal? What’s it like? What does it look, feel and sound like to you?

  • Required: Have you worked out clearly the tasks you need to do in order to achieve your goal? more on these shortly/

  • Difficult: Have you identified the knowledge and skills you need in order to make your goal a reality.


Focus on the process

Because BHAG’s can take time, focusing solely on the outcome can be demotivating as even if you’re making progress, it can still seem like a long way away.

This is where you need to mix your gigantic goal with more frequent stepping stones. Process goals are ones where you set yourself targets around what you’re going to do as opposed to what you want as a result. So for example, when NASA wanted to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, they had to set themselves hundreds if not thousands of smaller goals around things like rocket design, fuel to be used, coping with G-Force, designing a moon-landing craft and of course getting the astronauts home safely.

Process goals should be at the forefront of your mind at all times, giving you daily tasks to achieve to inch your way towards the dream. Make a list of all the things you need to do and then identify the very first one you need to do. Once done you move on to the next and so on. Think of it as project management; you’re moving one step at a time towards completing your mission.

If you didn’t get chance to read my blog earlier this week on quick wins, make sure you take a look at it here as there’s more on process goals to help you.


So, dream big and you might be surprised what you can do.

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Why is your brain so addicted to quick wins?

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You may have seen my post on Facebook yesterday about that moment when you achieve something that wasn’t even on your to-do list, add it to your list and then tick it off straight away! It seems ridiculous doesn’t it, but there are powerful factors at play here that lead you to behave this way, and these things also heavily influence your approach to your health, fitness and wellbeing. Before we go on, here’s a link to the Daily Planner I took a picture of yesterday to use alongside my post, as there seemed to be a lot of love for it!

Ok, hands up, who clicked on the link straight away? Keep your hand up if you bought it. Why did you do that? Instant gratification. It’s highly powerful, addictive actually and it influences the fitness regimes you choose and your love for online shopping. Plus it was half-price so your brain loved it even more!!!!! Here’s what happens…

Your brain is hard-wired to look for quick wins and it loves stuff that’s shiny and new too. If you can get something done quickly, like buying an organiser with 1-click so that you feel like you’ll be more on top of your busy life, or you can lose four pounds in a day just by using the latest weight loss programme, a part of your brain known as the nucleus acumbens in your limbic system lights up. It’s the same part of the brain that lights up when you reach the next level on that addictive game, the same part that lights up when you tear open that chocolate bar and wolf it down in one go, the same part that lights up when a gambler wins a bet, the same part that lights up when a drug addict takes cocaine, and the same part that lights up during orgasm.

In any of these situations, you release a neurotransmitter called dopamine; often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’. Put simply, it makes you feel good, and boy do we like to feel good. Daniel Levitin, in his wonderful book The Organized Mind, notes the addictive nature of this response. He talks about gamers in China and South Korea who were so compelled to keep playing and receive their next dopamine hit, that they died having gamed non-stop for up to three days. He refers to this desire for a quick hit as hyper-immediacy and notes that it is an ever-increasing phenomenon in our technology-driven modern society.

Take your phone for example - the perfect place for quick wins. It lights up, beeps or plays a cheerful little jingle when you receive a text, email or any one of a raft of announcements. You often feel compelled to reply instantly to messages and you’re rewarded with a different sound when you do, the swooshing of that text zapping across cyberspace in an instant. And how do you feel? You feel like you’ve achieved something and so as a reward, your brain provides a nice little shot of dopamine. You get an even bigger rush when your clear your email inbox, you feel like you want to parade around the office holding your laptop aloft and throw an impromptu party.

This why tech can be so addictive. How many times do you check your phone to see if someone has liked or responded to your social media post? It’s the desire to send off that little rush of chemicals and make you feel good. And this desire for quick wins now pervades all aspects of society.

Take the email or text thing; do you get frustrated when someone doesn’t reply immediately? That wouldn’t happen in days gone by as the expectation that it was possible simply wasn’t there. Nobody posted a letter and expected a handwritten reply the very next day, nobody ran out to intercept the postman early in their rounds, wrestled them to the floor and tore open every envelop addressed to them in the desire for the response. They waited patiently; it probably took them a while to write it and get it sent off and so the same speed was often applied to reading the reply once it arrived.

Not today…compose message…send…stare at screen (hoping to see the little dots come up at the bottom to tell you the other person is reading it NOW…get frustrated if those dots disappear and the person hasn’t replied immediately). They may be trying to escape a burning building at the time, wrestle a bear escaped from the local zoo, be in the middle of a work meeting or making dinner for three kids, but that doesn’t matter to your limbic system, it wants that dopamine hit now!

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What’s this got to do with your health and fitness?

Health and fitness goals are no different; you’re not daft, you know that what you want will probably take some time, but that’s not exciting for your brain as it doesn’t offer the instant gratification it has come to crave and expect.

So it’s no wonder we continuously fall for ‘9-day detoxes’, ‘lose 2-stone in a week bootcamps’ and ‘6-pack abs in 6 weeks’ articles in magazines. Those things light up your brain in the same way that your over-zealous neighbour lights up the entire street with a Christmas display to rival Blackpool illuminations.

You’re not daft, you’re not really fooled into thinking this is the solution I’ve been craving, but you can’t resist the gratification you’ll get from quick results. And for the PT industry, sometimes we struggle to understand why people continuously choose the path of least resistance. But why wouldn’t you choose quick and easy over the long road? It’s far more pleasurable after all and so when the quick fix falls by the wayside, you think, ‘I won’t do that again’ but then that 21-day detox comes along and your nucleus acumbens just can’t say no.

Don’t think that us PT’s don’t do it too; over the last few years there has been an explosion of fitness business gurus and online courses offering ‘6 easy steps to £100k a year’ or ‘earn what you want in just 8 hours a week’. And guess what, PT’s get lured in as their brain reacts like Charlie when staring through the window of the chocolate shop, tongue out, anticipating the instant pleasure from that Wonka Bar and the chance to get his hands on a golden ticket.


Becoming a ‘Haretoise’

Is there a more balanced approach, one that blends the addictive power of quick wins with something healthy that yields lasting results? I think there is, and here’s what I’d suggest.

Do you remember Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare? Well then you know that the tortoise is content to take things slow and steady, aware she’ll get there in the end (in the spirit of modern times, I’ve made the tortoise female as she’s the sensible one who’s good at long-term planning). In the same way, you can use your inner tortoise to good effect. Identify the desire, the long-term or big goal - whatever it might be…losing a stone, dropping two trouser sizes, running a half marathon or lifting 100kg for the first time.

The problem with this of course, is that it’s going to take some time, and your nucleus acumbens isn’t going to stand for that, it wants satisfying much more urgently.

So you break the big desire down into smaller chunks. Why do you think Weight Watcher’s and Slimming world have been so successful? Because there’s a weekly weigh-in, a chance for gratification for your efforts every single week.

But even that’s too log these days, so you need to invoke your inner hare and ensure he’s getting quick wins every single day (yep the hare is a man, short-term thinking for instant gratification required). How can you do that? Here’s where you can use your behaviours to good effect. Most fitness and weight loss regimes focus solely on the outcomes; your brain lights up when it sees the scales tell you you’re lighter or you see your ab’s poking through when just a few weeks before it was more like Play-Doh. You can get the same sense of achievement by setting and achieving daily targets around behaviours, as long as you bring a few tricks into play:

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Let’s use cutting down alcohol as an example. You set yourself the challenge of booze-free weekdays and you use the following tools to get that dopamine release you need to stay motivated and keep going towards your long-term desire (the boring health and weight-loss one that the tortoise is slowly plodding towards).

1) Record it visually - it might just be a piece of paper stuck to your fridge or desk that you can tick each day. You get a pleasure hit from the act of ticking it and even more when your family or colleagues see it too and give you praise or the odd high-five

2) Go high-tech - You might prefer to use an app, like the DrinkAware one, that allows you to set goals, track what you’re doing and gives you awards for achieving them. If you’ve ever used a Fitbit, you’ll know how addictive it can be to hit your steps and get the fireworks display on screen or receive a new badge for total distance covered or floors climbed. That’s because the same fireworks are happening inside your brain at that moment

3) Share goals and updates with a family member, friend or colleague - why do you think people post their latest run on social media or Strava became so popular? People like getting recognition; it keeps the hare happy with quick pleasure hits.

4) Check on the progress of your tortoise - much like Weight Watchers (sorry, WW as of recently), the progress check provides you with another source of feedback that can set off your happy chemicals and keep you on the path to success.

If you can strike the balance with the quick wins for the hare, whilst allowing the tortoise to move along gradually towards her big desire, you have a recipe that satisfies your brain and allows you to achieve lasting change.

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An introduction to Bristol Animal Rescue Centre

Here’s a little more about one of the fantastic charities we’re supporting over the coming year, including a look at the work they do, their key priorities and how support from the balance family can help.

Bristol Animal Rescue Centre (Bristol A.R.C.) has been caring for Bristol’s lost, straying, injured and neglected animals for over 130 years from its Centre on Albert Road in Bristol. On average, the charity re-home around 500 dogs, cats, small animals and exotic pets each year. The 24/7 clinic cares for animals belonging to individuals facing financial hardship, animals brought in by RSPCA Inspectors who have been removed from situations of cruelty and neglect, wildlife, and injured and sick strays. The charity relies completely on donations from the community to keep its doors open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 

Their current work

Bristol A.R.C. is currently offering completely free microchipping to any cat in the Bristol area that is over 4 months of age to help ease the stray cat crisis in Bristol. In 2017, 352 stray cats arrived, and of these only 15% had microchips! As well as offering free chipping at their Clinic, the charity is also popping up in the community, offering free chipping close to people’s homes. The first two chipping clinics will be in Horfield and Knowle at the beginning of December.

 

How can you help?

As well as the work surrounding cat chipping, the charity is currently working towards reaching its Winter Appeal target for 2018: Heating Hearts Appeal. This appeal aims to raise enough money to heat the animal residences through the winter. The love from Animal Carers comes free, however heating does not and the charity needs support to help them pay for their rising heating bills. Donations can be made here: https://www.bristolarc.org.uk/get-involved/heating-hearts-this-winter/

It costs £19 per day to look after one of the many animals in their care and as mentioned earlier, they’re entirely funded by support from the public. There are so many ways that you can get involved with helping them to pay for this care…

We love our animals very much and hope you can help us to help Bristol Animal Rescue Centre keep doing its amazing work over the coming year, so that they can look after and re-home hundreds more creatures, great and small.

Welcome to the new Weekly Wellbeing Challenge

I’ve been doing lots of reading recently around the psychology of change; what it is that motivates us to do things differently. One thing that consistently comes up is competition.

I shared an article on a scientific study on this very subject this morning on the balance Facebook page. The authors of the study created an 11-week exercise programme and split the participants into either competitive or supported groups. Amazingly, those in the competition groups had a 90% higher attendance rate, a huge difference.

This got me thinking that maybe I could set you all some challenges each week where you could compete against yourself, or others if you wish. Here’s the first…

The Fruit & Veg Alphabet

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Below are 26 fruits and vegetables, starting with every letter of the alphabet (I’ve had to be inventive with certain letters).

Your challenge for the week ahead is simple; see how many of these you can eat:

Apple

Banana

Carrot

Dates

Eggplant (American name for an aubergine)

Fennel

Grapes

Haricot beans (baked beans are allowed)

Iceberg lettuce

Jerusalem artichoke

Kiwi fruit

Leek

Mushroom

Nuts (yes, they are actually fruits!)

Olives

Peas

Quince

Raisins

Satsuma

Tomato

Ugli fruit

Vine leaves

Watermelon

Xingzi (I’m cheating here but this is a Chinese word for the apricot)

Yams 

Zucchini (courgette)

Here’s how the scoring works:

0-7: There’s definitely room for improvement

8-14: You’re on the way to balance

15-20: You’ve balanced your week well

21 or more: You’re a master of balance

By getting as many of these fruits and vegetables into your diet as you can, you’re providing yourself with a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other brilliant nutrients. Hitting your 5-a-day might just reduce your risk of heart disease and strokes by as much as 20-25% compared to those eating less than 3 portions. That plus a review of the research into fruit and vegetable consumption found that those with higher intakes potentially decreased their risk of gut health problems, constipation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and free radical damage to the blood vessels, osteoporosis, blood sugar imbalances, eye damage, respiratory disease, mental health problems and weight gain…pretty good stuff then!

I’ll be sharing my progress on Facebook across the week so please do join in and let us know how you’re getting on and share any hints and tips you have to get more fruit and veg into your diet.

Good luck!

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Lessons from a long run

As many of you know, last weekend was my marathon in Frankfurt and I was excited to be feeling fit and going for a PB. You might also know that it didn’t really go to plan, and I wondered if there were some lessons I could share that might be useful for you in your own quest for better health and fitness.

This isn’t a blog about running marathons necessarily, or even a blog about running. I thought I’d focus more on trying to perform at your very best, the important things to consider and what happens if it doesn’t quite work out this time around.

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When you’re trying to achieve something, be that a race time, a new strength PB, a weight loss goal or even personal and life goals like running a business or learning a new skill, it’s unlikely that you’ll have success every time.

Often, we have lots of success in the early stages as we start out from a low level of skill or knowledge. With my marathons for example, last Sunday was my 6th and up until now, I’ve run a PB every time I’ve done one. Sometimes only by a matter of seconds or minutes, but the improvement has been gradual. As you reach the peak of your abilities though, it becomes less likely that you can simply get better every time you do something. You’re bound to have failures along the way.

At this point, you essentially have two options as far as I can tell:

1) Give up trying to get better

2) Review what went well (repeat this in future) and what didn’t go so well (change it next time).

If I think about the run last weekend, there were loads of good things about it; I had zero issues with uncomfortable chaffing which I’ve never achieved before, so I know my clothing, footwear and voluminous application of vaseline were right for me. I never felt hungry or thirsty which has always been a problem for me, so the plan regarding food and drink was good.

Even when I started to break physically, my mental state remained relaxed. I never became frustrated, I just kept my focus on one mile at a time (something I’ve never mastered as well before), blocking out the fact that there were more to come afterwards. This allowed me to re-evaluate every mile and meant that once I had broken, I was able to just relax, hobble on home and enjoy the music and the ridiculousness of marathons. I’d love to say I could enjoy the scenery, but apart from being flat and good for quick times, Frankfurt marathon is actually a bit dull in terms of spectacles. The skyscraper skyline is the main attraction, but the truth is that in marathons it’s often busy around you and looking up is not really an option, you have to do quite a lot of staring at the floor to ensure you don’t trip yourself or anyone else over.

My training went pretty much to plan, managing more than I’d done before and at faster speeds. Vicky’s expert planning also meant we were only a few hundred metres from the start so I could warm-up in the hotel gym beforehand and crawl back quickly afterwards (more Vicky’s wonderful organisation than mine but I credit myself for marrying her)!

So all in all, there were a lot of positives to take and that’s why I’m not disappointed. When something you’re trying to do goes wrong, list the positives from the experience. If you can frame it as learning rather than failure, it starts to feel useful.

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Ultimately, I didn’t run the time I wanted and so, whilst it’s important for me to take the good stuff from the day, I also need to evaluate what stopped me getting what I wanted and do something about it for next time.

What was it? My issue lay in my biomechanics. By 12 miles, I was feeling tight in my left hip and lower back, by 14 miles this had stopped me being able to bend my left knee properly and not long after that, this led to my right hip and knee hurting a lot as they did more of the work. I believe the problem stems from the major injury I sustained when I was 18, tearing my right quadriceps off my leg completely. The muscle re-attached itself, half way up my leg and by the time I’d discovered exactly what had happened, I was told that surgery could likely cause more problems and I should learn to live with it.

I’ve spent the last 19 years feeling discomfort in my neck, back, hip and leg on the opposite side, essentially because the muscles of the left leg are longer and more of my weight shifts to that side. I never actually have a problem with the muscle I tore. Over the years, I’ve managed it pretty well and achieved some cool things fitness-wise, but running marathons has always seemed a bit too much for it to take; it’s always joint discomfort on this side that slows me down as opposed to fitness or fatigue. I think this time I was too optimistic that it would be ok; often I can manage it pretty well but a few weeks before the race my back locked up and I should have seen a masseuse or osteopath to release it. Better late than never though; I’ve spoken to an osteopath friend and I’ll see him ASAP, and I’m considering seeing a specialist to see if I can re-balance my stride through having some orthotics made.

The point here is that if you’re trying to achieve something and it goes wrong, you need to look for solutions. In performance terms, we’re only as strong as our weakest link, which in my case is my wonky leg. To be as fast as I want to be, I need to be less wonky! For health and weight loss, it’s about looking at the thing or things that are holding you back. It might be that you’ve improved consistently, but now you’ve stopped. What’s the next step that can take you to the next level?

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Here’s where we have our choice; I could feel dejected, stop doing all the good things I’ve been working on and know for sure that I’ll never achieve my marathon goal, or I can persist, try to sort my mechanical issues and see if that’s the difference that makes the difference. The only thing that we can ever guarantee is that we give up, we won’t achieve what we set out to do; if we try again, keep the good bits, learn from the not so good and change things, maybe, just maybe, we might.

I will caveat this from a performance perspective by saying that you also need to listen to your body. There will come a time when the risk of pushing yourself to the max for a given event, carries more risks than benefits. I personally don’t think I’m there yet, but we’ll see how it goes once I’ve worked on my biomechanics.

You’ll also often spend the weeks following a race that didn’t go to plan considering doing another one straight away! I'll be honest, I’ve already looked at the marathon calendar to see if there’s something in November or December to try. From experience though, this is often a bad idea, especially after longer races. Your body is tired and a bit broken and it needs time to heal, especially if it was some sort of injury that stopped you reaching you goal. Let it go, regroup, rebuild, recover and then try again.

Remember…

1) Even when it hasn’t gone to plan, highlight the positives - what’s good that you should keep doing?

2) Change from a mindset of failure to one on learning - what can you alter for next time?

3) Persistence pays off - the only true way to achieve what you want is to keep going.

A balanced approach to IT rage

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Technology is wonderful, but these days we have so much if it and use it so often, that occasionally it won’t work as well as we want it to. I can rarely go a week without some sort of issue with computer, phone, iPad or watch and it leaves me feeling like IT is s*IT. It also leaves me feeling frustrated, stressed and angry, so I thought I’d share with you a few ways that we can all manage our IT rage.

1) First of all, try not to do this.

It’s probably going to be a very costly way of getting your stress levels down.


2) What about swearing and shouting?

There are mixed theories on this. One side of the argument suggests that it’s better to let your anger out, but a lot of recent work suggests that it can in fact make anger a learned behaviour, the way you respond when something stressful happens. I’ll be honest, this was my common response when my laptop crashed or phone froze and I lost a big piece of work I’d been doing in the process. Hearing me go nuts at my computer however was not a very pleasant thing for Vicky to experience and so I’ve been working on some alternative solutions.


3) Walk away

If your computer has frozen or isn’t doing what it should, get up and make yourself a cup of tea (a good brew solves plenty of problems), do another task or even go for a short walk. Moderate exercise is great for stress management, especially if you get outside as it can burn off some of the excess adrenaline you’ve built up and being in natural surroundings is known to relax you and improve your mood. When you come back, the problem may or may not have resolved itself, but even if it hasn’t, you’ll find the urge to break the Laptop Shot-put world record may have subsided.


4) Re-boot

In a similar vein to walking away, shutting down and re-starting can have a positive effect. It’s the golden solution to many IT problems anyway, but it also just allows you a pause to calm down a little.


5) Plan ahead

One of the best things I’ve done to make IT failures less stressful is to put in place a series of back-ups to prevent it being a problem. This ranges from more technological solutions like storing back-ups of all files in the mysterious and ethereal ‘cloud’, changing settings to ensure documents are auto-saved as frequently as possible and can be restored and updating software more often, to more simple techniques like copying text from any post I’m about to make to Facebook in case it freezes and I lose it. Even if it does go wrong, it then doesn’t take much to recover or re-do what I was working on.


6) Try some progressive relaxation

Starting at your shoulders, tense them as much as you can for a couple of seconds, then breathe out slowly and focus on relaxing them as you do so. Work down your body, one muscle group at a time; spend a few minutes doing this and you’ll be feeling calmer in no time.


7) Laugh

Watch or listen to a few minutes of comedy; the hormones released can help to leave you feeling better already. Alternately, joke to a family member, friend or colleague about the situation, it may help to take the tension out of the situation.


8) Reframe

More than anything, what we can all probably do better these days is realise that more often that not it just isn’t the end of the world. We can re-do whatever we were working on, we can sometimes recover lost files and it often spurs us into doing something to prevent it happening again in future or trying a different approach. Frame it as learning rather than an annoyance and you may find it helpful instead.


Do any one of these and you’re on the way to slightly better balance.


Paul :-)

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Seven amazing things we're taking you to see next year

If you didn’t see it, yesterday I posted a sneak preview of all of the events we have planned for next year. One of the things we pride ourselves on is taking you to see beautiful views, places that inspire awe and wonder. Sometimes, they’re miles from anywhere, but at others, they’re literally on your doorstep and you may pass them daily without giving them a second glance. We’ve got so much lined up for you, here’s a glimpse of what’s in store…

1) Castles and fortresses

We’ll cross Offa’s Dyke, the 50-mile long earthwork defence built by the Mercian king of the same name, at both its southern and central points, giving you amazing views and a good sense of how powerful his kingdom was over 1,200 years ago.

We’ll also pass fortresses and residences in various states of repair, from castellated stately homes like Cyfartha Castle in the valleys of Wales, to grand but well preserved ruins like those at Chepstow, towering above the Wye as it does, right through to those now clinging on to their few remaining stones like Montgomery and Newport Castles, but no less impressive for it.

Chepstow Castle’s grand entrance

Chepstow Castle’s grand entrance

2) Places of worship

As well as castles, you’ll get to see how religion has shaped our lands for centuries, from Wells cathedral, making the city the smallest in England, to neighbouring Glastonbury Tor, fabled for its connections to Arthurian and Grail legend. Have lunch next to Tintern Abbey, a once great and powerful monastery sitting on the banks of the Wye and many others besides.

The imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey,

The imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey,

3) Hills and mountains

Cheddar Gorge feels almost prehistoric with its steep-sided cliffs and forested sides; you still wouldn’t be surprised if you saw dinosaurs roaming as you pedal through, whilst Cranborne Chase with its chalky down hills lets you know for sure that you’re on England’s southern slopes. Further north you can enjoy the dramatic nature of the Brecons, passing alongside Pen y Fan, the highest point in southern Britain, or the even more imposing figure of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia National Park as you cycle the valley floor below alongside a dark and mysterious lake. Climb atop the Cambrian Mountains on a road so peaceful you’d almost think civilisation had ceased to exist, or back in England, enjoy the sharp, cragged rocks of the Stiperstones or the 360-degree views from the Long Mynd, both found in the Shropshire Hills.

About to descend the Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia in the distance

About to descend the Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia in the distance

4) Lakes and reservoirs

Chew Valley & Blagdon Lakes, both at the foot of the Mendip Hills Area of Natural Beauty kick us off on our first ride of the year, the former a peaceful spot where you can watch boats sailing as you enjoy fish and chips from the fashionable Salt & Malt restaurant, and there’s plenty more to come with Pontiscill and Talybont Reservoirs nestled between the high peaks of the Brecons, or my absolute favourite, the Elan Valley, a series of reservoirs in mid-Wales that have an almost ‘moon-scape’ feel at the top but that give way to Alpine-like descents along winding roads through thick forests.

The reservoirs of the Brecon Beacons

The reservoirs of the Brecon Beacons

5. Rivers and seas

Follow the Wye Valley high above the river on our half-marathon walk and catch glimpses of the Severn Bridges beyond as the water makes its way out into the Severn Estuary, Bristol Channel and Atlantic Ocean beyond. You’ll also get the chance to ride at the very opposite end of the rivers Severn and Wye, through the mountains from which they first begin their journey and not far away ride alongside the picturesque Dyfi estuary looking out into St George’s Channel and the Irish Sea beyond. Enjoy the prehistoric feel of the The Avon Gorge from on high, not far from where one of the first dinosaurs on British soil was discovered, and follow it upstream through cities, villages, parks, meadows and forests, or join us as we cycle along the River Taff, the waterway that gave the Welsh people their overly used nickname.

Cycling the Dyfi estuary

Cycling the Dyfi estuary

6. Towns and cities

Pass through major places of heritage and history, from Bristol’s harbour-side, once the second most important port in the country after London, to Bath and its famous abbey and Roman spa, or smaller cities like Wells and Glastonbury, rich in history and the latter now a centre for free-thinkers due to its links with myths, legends and a certain music festival. At the other end of the scale, we experience smaller market towns like Brecon and Machynlleth, little fishing ports like Aberdovey, the village of Cheddar, a tourist-heaven famed for its caves and cheese, or Shaftesbury, which whilst sitting in the heart of southern England, has a famous cobbled hill once used by Hovis in an advert for their bread supposedly set in northern England. Even more bizarrely, the advert was directed by Ridley Scott!

7. Industrial heritage

Walk or ride along one of the many disused railway lines now converted for our leisure use and enjoy the escape from traffic and towns en route, or watch the old trains of the Talyllyn Steam Railway as we ride alongside. Pedal the Monmouth Canal with its ingenious lock systems and endless stone hump-back bridges, plus ride past the Cyfartha Ironworks and Goytre Wharf and marvel at their size and how they’ve changed from places of noise, fire, smog and dirt to green, peaceful ghost-like brickworks. On our walks get the chance to see Brunel’s most famous works including the Clifton Suspension Bridge, SS Great Britain and Temple Meads Railway Station, see the former Fry’s/Cadbury’s chocolate factory now converted for luxury retirement living, or marvel at the Palladian style of Pulteney Bridge, over 200 years old and built with grand shops running its full length on every side.

Clifton Suspension Bridge at dusk, still hugely important after 150 years

Clifton Suspension Bridge at dusk, still hugely important after 150 years

Hopefully you’ll join us for one or two of the days so that you can get to enjoy what Bristol, the south-west and the surrounding areas have to offer to help you find some balance.

Thanks,

Paul