The important stuff - how your values impact your health and wellbeing

In the last few weeks I’ve been working very hard on the upcoming balance book. There’s been a lot of planning, writing, editing, re-writing, researching and tea drinking. The structure is now complete start to finish and I’m busy filling in the bits of content.

I thought I’d share some of these bits with you as I go along, to give you a flavour of what the book is like and to offer you some useful help with your health, fitness and wellbeing. This first piece comes from the very start of the book as it has the potential to impact everything you do from setting goals to making changes. It’s all about your values; I hope you find it helpful.

dots and pics long WHITE v2.png

Values - what’s important to you in life?

“Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance.” 

Brian Tracy

  

What is important to you in your life? What do you believe in? What guiding principles do you wish to live by? These might seem like strange questions to ask here, but they’re hugely important to the lifestyle changes that you are considering making. Why you might ask? Let’s take a look.

 

A former client of mine, Emily, wanted to lose a stone. We’d agree targets and actions but when we came to review her progress, she’d never achieve them, saying she just felt that she wasn’t the sort of person who could lose weight. This went on for a while, until in one of our sessions, she mentioned that she had a young daughter who’d suffered with an eating disorder, although she was now much better. 

We discussed how the impact this had on her and she realised that she was worried that her losing weight might set her daughter off on the wrong path again. To Emily, her daughter was the most important thing in the world and she constantly worried about her. She realised that she was so concerned for her daughter that, whenever she was around, she would eat in order to try to encourage her to do the same. 

We talked about how eating too much and being overweight could also be unhealthy, and she said that she would talk to her daughter about her weight-loss goals. As it turned out, her daughter wasn’t worried about it in the slightest and actively encouraged her mom to get fitter and healthier, which she duly achieved over the next few months. Emily’s strong family values had at first hindered her progress because she hadn’t found a way to reconcile them with her other health goals. Once she had, she was in the right place to achieve them.

 

What I saw with Emily was the she placed the thing most important to her at the top of her list. Her daughter was more important to her than her own health. And it’s the same for everyone; we all have things in our world that are vitally important to us. For some people, it’s family, for others it may be friendships, success, health, wealth, trust, adventure, compassion, or learning. The difficulty comes when we want to do something to improve our health, fitness or wellbeing, but we feel in our heads that this may in some way negatively impact on our values. 

 

Not everyone places health high up their values list, nor should they. Your values are unique to you; they began forming at a very early age through life experiences and the influence of those close to you and changing them is hard. The great news is, you don’t have to change them, all you need to do if you want to get fitter and healthier is find a way to balance the changes you feel you should make with your values. For example, if relaxation is an important value for you and you currently smoke to help you relax when things are stressful at work, giving up smoking may not work unless you find an alternative way to unwind. Equally if career success to ensure you can look after those dear to you is your most important value, it can be hard to find time to fit exercise and healthy eating into your daily routine. Recognising that being fitter and healthier can help you achieve career success through increased energy, concentration and motivation is an important step, as is making changes that still allow you to work as hard as you feel is needed. 

 

Interestingly, I know that my own values often cause challenges for me in a different way. I place being fit and healthy at the very top of the tree as I feel it helps me with everything else, but sometimes I’ll prioritise doing a workout over my tax return or getting more sleep over meeting a deadline. The key is to find the right balance.

 

What are your values?

 

Step 1: Check out the task in the link below, created by William Miller and colleagues. Miller, along with another colleague called Stephen Rollnick, created a form of coaching known as Motivational Interviewing which has been hugely successful in helping people to change, with a recent review of the scientific studies done on the topic stating that it ‘outperforms traditional advice giving in the treatment of a broad range of behavioural problems.

You can add any values that you feel are missing, or even skip the task and simply make a list of the things you feel are extremely important to you in your life.

Whichever way you do it, you should finish by selecting the FIVE most important values to you overall.

https://www.guilford.com/add/miller2/values.pdf

  

Step 2: Look at your five most important values. Might they in any way negatively impact your health, fitness and wellbeing?

 

Step 3: Do they positively impact your health, fitness and wellbeing at all?

 

Step 4: How might being fitter and healthier help you to live more in line with your values?

 

 

You should now have a good idea of what’s important to you and understand how these things might be both problematic and beneficial for your health, fitness and wellbeing. Being able to link any lifestyle changes back to your personal values can be a fantastic tool to motivate you to stick at them and maybe even make more changes in future.

A balanced afternoon

Question marks shutterstock_310773080.jpg

Here's a quick quiz to see how balanced your afternoons are. Score one point for yes, zero for no.

 

1) Do you eat lunch away from work or stresses in a relaxed environment?

2) Do you get up and move for at least five minutes every hour during the afternoon?

3) Do you get outside for some fresh air for ten minutes or more across the afternoon?

4) Do you stop drinking caffeinated drinks by late afternoon?

5) If eating snacks in the afternoon, do you choose healthy options?

6) Do you feel alert and energised across the afternoon?

7) If you do feel tired, do you give yourself a short break to just sit quietly and relax or use power naps to give you a boost where you can?

8) Do you drink water, squash or herbal tea regularly through the afternoon to stay hydrated?

9) Do you have strategies in place to ensure healthy options should you suffer the common mid-afternoon lull?

10) Do you avoid sitting in the sun during the hottest part of the day, or at least where enough suntan lotion if you do?

 

Less than 3 points shows there's plenty you can do to improve your balance, 4-7 points means you're on the way to balance and 8 or more means you're well balanced.

The best afternoon tea recipes on the web

Photo courtesy of  Angello Lopez  on  Unsplash

Photo courtesy of Angello Lopez on Unsplash

The tradition of afternoon tea first began in the mid-19th century, when Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford found herself always hungry between her mid-day lunch and fashionably late dinners. She began to request sandwiches and cakes as a late afternoon snack and then started to invite friends to join her for this novel event. The idea spread through fashionable society, a new meal was born and its popularity has continued to grow to the present day.

In honour of this great British tradition, it's National Afternoon Tea week this week, so we thought we'd share a nice selection of recipes from the web to help you enjoy it to the full. Just remember to only do it once in a while; stopping work for an hour at 4pm every day for sandwiches, cakes, scones and tea probably isn't going to go down too well with your boss, and it'll likely be even worse for your waistline.

 

Tasty recipes

The ever wonderful Jamie Oliver has a host of recipes for afternoon tea here. Everything from cakes, buns, muffins and biscuits through to savoury treats like scotch eggs and breads.

This selection of recipes will leave you drooling, with a wide range of interesting ingredients, flavours and textures on offer to really mix up your diet.

And for those of you with a sweet tooth, why not try these Pimms scones from BBC Good Food, or this chunky apple, raisin, walnut and cider cake from delicious magazine.

 

Healthy options

If you fancy a more savoury scone, this cheese and pickled celery option from Great British Chefs may be more your thing.

You may of course want to put on a fancy spread, maybe the queen is coming to visit, or your mother-in-law! Whoever it is you're keen to impress, here are a few options fit for royalty:

Twinings tea also have some helpful tips on how to stay balanced whilst indulging in a few of your favourite treats.

 

Whatever you choose, remember the golden rules, keep it balanced and enjoy it to the full!

Having your cake and eating it...the psychology of portion control

If you know that yousometimes eat more than you need, here are some simple tips to help you control the size of your portions...

Food cupboard shutterstock_188402957.jpg

Portion it out first

A famous scientific study gave movie-goers a small or large portion of popcorn to enjoy whilst watching their film. Half of them received fresh popcorn whilst the other half received a bucket full of old, stale and bad tasting popcorn. What the researchers found was that both groups ate more when given the larger portion, even though those who ate the stale stuff found they didn't like it!

The message...as humans we're wired to eat what is there. Maybe it's something to do with our genetics when food was scare, maybe it's just that if we're distracted doing something else we continue to eat unconsciously. Whatever the reason, the message is clear; prepare your portions carefully. Rather than take the whole packet of nuts to work, pop some into Tupperware and leave the rest at home, rather than have the entire jumbo bag of crisps next to you on Friday evening, pour a few into a bowl. You'll often find your can't be bothered to get up to go and get some more.

Out of sight, out of mind

The food science expert, Brian Wansink, has carried out numerous studies on human behaviour and eating. He's noted that people tend to eat less chicken wings in a restaurant if the waiter leaves the plate of bones on the table rather than continuously taking them away, that if a bowl of soup keep refilling, people will continue to eat from it and that leaner individuals tend to sit facing away from an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Here are a few things you can try to put this research to good use:

• Put the treats away and make the fruit bowl clearly visible. Wansink notes that people will eat what they see, so having the biscuit tin on show continuously puts the idea of eating biscuits into your brain.

• If you've cooked too much, rather than put it on the table and tempt yourself into finishing it off, put it in some Tupperware and have it for lunch tomorrow or freeze it for a rainy night if you can

• Make it as difficult as possible to access those treats. Wrap them up, put them inside a box in another box, lock them away, whatever makes it a pain to actually go and get them

• Better still, choose your shopping carefully. It's been shown that on average, almost 75% of the food we eat comes from that which we have at home. That means if you don't have the worse choices there, you're much less likely to consume them.

Recognise the danger times and places

Lots of behavioural research in many different contexts shows that people who plan ahead tend to be more successful in what they're doing. The same is true in this instance; spend some time identifying when and where you're likely to go off the rails and build a plan to either avoid or cope with these situations. Planning prevents poor portion performance! ;-) 

Use smaller plates

I've mentioned this one numerous times before but it's worth revisiting. The same amount of food on a smaller plate appears more filling to the eye, or brain I should say. It's known as the Delboeuf illusion and it really works.

This picture, from my book, The Complete Guide to Weight Loss, shows how a larger plate (the black bit), can make a portion of food (the blue bit), appear smaller and therefore less filling.

This picture, from my book, The Complete Guide to Weight Loss, shows how a larger plate (the black bit), can make a portion of food (the blue bit), appear smaller and therefore less filling.

Remind yourself of your goals

People will work harder to achieve things that are more important to them. Firstly, make sure you've set yourself a goal that you REALLY want to achieve, one that has a powerful WHY behind it. Sometimes though, that's still not enough; life is busy and stressful and so it can be easy to be distracted from your targets and end up doing things you know won't help.

For this reason, it's important to do what you can to keep your goals and the powerful reasons for them at the forefront of your mind. Write or print them out and stick them on the fridge, on your desk, the dashboard of your car, or use a photo of them as your phone screensaver. It might make the difference in those moments of weakness.

Jump to it!

I love jumping! It's a fundamental human movement and it's great fun, it leaves you feeling alive and it has a whole heap of benefits. Most of us stop doing it in adulthood, thinking that it's something kids do and that it's risky for bones and joints.

It doesn't have to be though; it can be part of most people's exercise routines as long as we warm up thoroughly, choose a level of difficulty that's right for you and do a sensible amount. They are tough though, and there are certain instances in which it's better not to do them, or at least take some time building up to low level ones first. Don't do them if you have a lower body injury at the moment, you have osteoporosis, arthritis or balance issues. Depending on your circumstances, there may well be variations you can try; speak to a physio beforehand for guidance or get in touch and I'll happily help.

Here are a few benefits of adding jumps into your exercise routines:

  1. You'll improve performance of your fast-twitch muscle fibres, boosting speed and power in the process. Great for sports or if you just want to feel a bit younger again!
  2. Training fast-twitch muscle fibres can also help with balance and coordination, decreasing the risk of falls and helping with everyday tasks like getting out of a chair, up off the floor or climbing stairs
  3. It burns plenty of calories and helps to tone all the muscles of the legs and core
  4. All you need is some form of solid step or ledge; the bottom step on a flight of stairs, the edge of the decking in the back garden, a step or bench in the local park, an exercise bench or a purpose-built jump box. Just check it's in good nick and won't move when you jump on it
  5. It's great fun. You'll feel more alive and definitely put more of a spring in your step!!!

 

Here are two great exercises to get started with; the double-leg and single-leg jump. 

https://youtu.be/L5TaZxosvyw

Key things to remember:

1) Start as low as you need to. You can even begin without the step to get used to the movement.

2) Work on technique over height. Try to land as softly as a mouse and stand up completely upright once you've landed.

3) Warm up throughly before you do them. Spend at least ten minutes doing cardio and stretches until you're sweaty as the risk of injury is high when cold.

4) Do them at the start of your workout whilst you're fresh. As you tire, it's easy to lose technique so it's best to do them whilst you can perform at your very best.

5) No need for loads. 6 repetitions is plenty; if you're fit and experienced you might do 2-3 sets with a minute or so between each, but if starting out, just do it once. Add them into workouts once or twice a week when you haven't done anything too hard the day before.

Jumping shutterstock_65712352.jpg

Six steps to sleep soundly through a sizzling summer

Sleep troubles shutterstock_223663249.jpg

Higher temperatures make getting a good night's sleep much tougher. Here are six steps you can take to snooze a little better through the warm nights...

1) Keep the curtains closed in the day

Blocking out sunlight can help keep room temperature down. Better still, invest in blackout curtains so that you'll also be able to block out light at night too. Any light source, no matter how small, can cause you body to produce hormones associated with alertness, leaving you wide awake.

2) Shower before bedtime

Use tepid water to help cool your body down. Sleep is a time when we move from the more active (higher temperatures) of the day to the more restful (lower temperatures) of rest and recovery. It'll also leave you feeling clean and comfortable and help you to relax.

3) Invest in a fan

High quality fans can be used to lower the room temperature, and provide a source of white noise, which is known to help you nod off. You can also place them by windows to push hot air out and even stick a pop bottle full of water in the freezer until it's a solid block of ice, then place in front of the fan to drive temperatures down.

4) Opt for less layers

That means bedding and clothes. As mentioned earlier, you want to be cool to sleep well. That high tog duvet you bought for the winter is no use on a balmy summer's night. Instead, use multiple thinner layers and strip off the ones you don't need for warmer nights. On the warmest nights, often just a sheet will do. The same with your PJ's, swap out those flannel trousers for something a bit more comfortable, or you can always go 'au naturel'.

5) Go low

Warm air rises so the nearer to the ground you are, the cooler you'll be. In his book 'Sleep: The myth of 8 hours, the power of naps and the new plan to recharge your body and mind', sleep coach to the world's sporting stars Nick Littlehales suggests that you don't even need a bed, just a comfortable mattress that fits your body's needs.

There's no need to throw the frame out just yet; simply consider using airbeds or bedding on the floor if you're really struggling on hotter nights.

6) Try sleeping outside

Summer is the perfect time of year to have a little adventure; go camping or simply sleep in the back garden with the kids for a little adventure. The air is fresher and you'll feel refreshed and recharged because you've re-synced your body with its natural rhythms of daylight and darkness. Just don't go for the 'au naturel' option suggested earlier unless you've got really high fences, or you may prevent your neighbours from sleeping for months!

Try just one of these to start with and hopefully you'll feel less like this...

And more like this...

Leapfrog shutterstock_3276900.jpg

Refreshing foods and drinks for hot summer days

I heard this week that the sun has been shining continuously for over 50 days here in the UK and us Brits struggle to cope with all those powerful rays, we're just not used to it.

If you're feeling a little hot under the collar, here are six great foods and drinks to help cool you down...

1) Gazpacho soup

Most of us associate soup with cold winter days, but not the Andalucians from Spain. Gazpacho is best served chilled and packs in plenty of nutrients whilst also helping to cub hunger with its high water content, which also helps to cool you down.

Try Gordon Ramsay's recipe to make your own.

 3) Salads

The end of June bought a warning of lettuce shortages in the UK caused by high demand and wilting crops in the hot weather. 18 million lettuces were sold that week alone.

Salads are a popular choice as temperatures soar as many find their desire to eat hotter foods waning, or maybe its the lack of desire to stand in a hot kitchen. 

The choices are endless with so many possible ingredients and flavours to choose from; you can add fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, fish, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds or whatever takes your fancy.

Here's a super-tasty take on the British classic, the Ploughman's, coming in at only 400 calories.

5) Spicy food

It may surprise you to learn that hot food and drink actually helps to cool you down. That's because the heat produced leads you to sweat and as the air catches the droplets, it cools you down. It's essentially your built in air conditioning system. Here's how it works with a hot drink like a tea.

Soup.jpg

2) Iced tea

Another one that us Brits find strange; surely it should be served piping hot? Not in the USA, where 85% of teas consumed are served cold. Click here for Twinings top ten iced tea recipes. 

salad.jpg

4) Melon

Rich in water, melon is light, rich in antioxidants and a great low-calorie snack. In fact, watermelon has over 90 grams of water per 100 grams, hence the name. Just don't eat it like this guy

6) Water

Dehydration increases heat storage in your body and decreases your ability to tolerate heat. Staying hydrated with water, squash, milk, herbal and fruit teas or fruit juice mixed with water is therefore essential to help you keep your cool.

Athlete drinking water shutterstock_345583352.jpg

Think like a professional sportsperson to get fitter, healthier and happier

A&P brain shutterstock_83549866.jpg

This weekend sees the World Cup final, sadly without England, the finals of Wimbledon and the continuation of the Tour de France. You'll see men and women at the very pinnacle of their sports, performing at the highest level. It's not just physical ability that sets them apart; they're also mentally strong and have developed a range of psychological tools to help them stay focused, positive and calm when the pressure is on.

You might not want to be amongst the best athletes on the planet but you can still learn from them and use their techniques to help you achieve your health, fitness and wellbeing goals. So what exactly do they do that makes such a difference?

Chase your dreams

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that people who set themselves tougher goals were more likely to achieve them. The reason proposed is that tougher goals enable you to maintain higher motivation levels for longer. Don't just accept average, go after the dream.

Focus on the process

Whilst you might do better having a bigger goal to work towards, you then also need to be capable of focusing on the things you need to do to get there. Whilst Serena may say to herself that she wants to win Wimbledon, her first goal will be to get her first serve in. Mark Cavendish will set himself the target of being in bed early enough to ensure he gets enough rest ahead of tomorrow's stage, and we all know how Gareth Southgate got the England players thinking about their roles for every single set piece in the game. It's the repeated achievement of these smaller goals that makes the big one possible. For you it might be to have a healthy breakfast every day before leaving for work or making sure you've made your food and snacks for the next day the night before. It might be having your gym kit packed and having your lights out by 10:30 so you can be in the gym for 6:30. 

                "I was expecting a few more baby steps, but every time I go out there, I want to take a giant step forward, keep improving." 

                                 Serena Williams, on wanting to make small improvements after coming back from giving birth, but surprising herself by reaching the Wimbledon Final.              

Chunk it down

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. If you think about the epic goal you're working towards, it can feel overwhelming. How many times do you hear sportspeople say 'we'll take it one game at a time.' It sounds a bit boring when they keep repeating it, but it's true and it's this fantastic ability to make it seem smaller that helps them through it. Marathon runners don't think about the whole 26.2 miles, they just focus on getting over the crest of the hill. You can focus on just eating healthily today; worry about tomorrow when it comes. 

Show bouncebackability

Tennis players can be 0-40 down on their serve and fight back to win the game. Only the other day, Kevin Anderson came from two sets down against the mighty Roger Federer to win in five sets, taking the last one 13-11. He was only capable of this because he could forget what had gone and focus on the next point, and the next, then the next. 

You can do the same if you choose something less healthy for lunch or if you miss a gym class. Does it matter? Not if you pick yourself up and get back to it. It matters if you let it matter and get yourself on that negative hamster wheel - 'I ate something bad, I feel rubbish, so I can't be bothered to go for my run tonight - and that makes me feel down so I'll have a few drinks.' Athletes don't let the wheel start to turn; they recognise that something hasn't gone well, forgive themselves, forget about it and go again. You can too.

Use the power of words and pictures

Top athletes are very good at using their mind to good effect. They can visualise the successful outcome they're after. Jess Ennis-Hill used to picture herself performing the precise technique she was looking for and Jonny Wilkinson famously used to repeat the same routine before every kick, picturing in his head the feeling of the ball as it struck his foot and watching it fly straight between the posts. You can practice seeing yourself lifting the weight you've been targeting, getting into the clothes you want to feel comfortable in again, or crossing the finish line in that race. When you do, really take yourself there; imagine what it looks like, the sounds you'd hear and the smells, tastes and feelings you'd experience.

They're also great at positive self-talk. Many clients have told me over the years how they struggle to manage the voice in their head, the one that tells them to eat the packet of biscuits in the cupboard or have some more of that cake in the office kitchen to celebrate Jennie's birthday. And why not? You won't achieve your goal anyway so it doesn't matter. Instead, use mantra's like the pro's. Gwen Jorgensen, two-time World Triathlon champion and Olympic gold medallist, says to herself 'These are not sacrifices, but investments. I truly believe they will pay me back ten-fold.' This could just as easily relate to dietary changes for a weight loss goal as it does to the hopes of a gold medal.

Distract yourself

What about when you're exercising? What do athletes do to get through the hard training? Many people assume that they enjoy it because they're so fit but that just isn't the case. They get so fit because they can endure the pain and tiredness required to reach that level. And that means they need ways to distract themselves when the going gets tough. Here are a few things you can try to get you through those tough workouts:

1) Think about the process - if you've gone for a run and you're struggling, focus on the actions of moving your arms and legs, the soft landing of your foot, relaxing your shoulders, standing tall. If you're lifting a weight, talk yourself through the key technique requirements as you do it

2) Breath - hopefully that's a given, but sometimes focusing on your breathing, especially when doing cardio, can make a real difference. Try to make your breaths slower than your movements. In turn it will slow your heart rate and make it feel easier

3) Count - you might use your watch on a run to do some calculations in your head. 'If it's taken me this long to get here, it'll take another 7 minutes til I reach the corner'. Alternatively, you can break things down into numbers - 'I'll just do another 15 minutes on the bike', or simply count your steps or pedal turns - 'I'll just do another 20' and so on.

4) Drift off - especially helpful in repetitive exercise that doesn't need to much concentration, make your shopping list, plan your holiday or one of mine and Vicky's favourites, think about what you'll have for dinner.

 

Any one of these techniques done regularly can help take you a step closer to your goals. Give one a try, and if it doesn't work for you, don't give up, simply try something else until it does.

A wheelie wonderful weekend in Wales

Click here to sign up to our newsletter and get weekly help to get fitter, healthier and happier

The drive from Bristol to Wales on Thursday afternoon gave us a good indication of what was to come in the days ahead. The sun shone down from on high, intense and uninterrupted, not a cloud in the sky to stifle its powerful rays even for a second. After leaving the motorway, we wound through the farmland and rolling hills of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire before crossing the border into Wales. Quiet villages full of crooked, centuries old buildings lined the route, interspersed by farmland, rivers, forests and panoramic hilltop views.

We arrived into Newtown in late afternoon and after dropping Sam at her B&B, Vicky, Brian and I headed for our cottage. What greeted us was stunning, a collection of beautifully refurbished farm buildings surrounding the main house, a lake complete with fountain and even a couple of highly inquisitive llamas. A quick spot of unpacking and off into town to greet the arriving riders, get some dinner and watch England play Belgium. Unusually, we weren't too fussed by the latter because somehow we'd already won our first two games and qualified, so the debate was more about whether we wanted to win to maintain momentum, or lose and possibly get into the easier side of the draw (which as it turns out, we definitely did). After a short briefing on the first day's ride over dinner, everyone headed off for an early night ahead of the first day of cycling.

IMG_2558.jpg
IMG_2561.jpg

Day 1

By 8:30 the following morning, our group of riders had amassed outside the Elephant & Castle Hotel in Newtown. The sun was shining, it was already warm and after a few bike tweaks, a little air in the tyres and the usual remembering someone had forgotten something, they were off. Brian and Simon rolling out on the front to pace everyone sensibly, Tom roving in the middle to ensure everyone was ok and Vicky at the rear ensuring nobody took a wrong turn and that everyone was supported. It was my turn to drive the van and I was excited to experience a day supporting in the Transporter. There's an official balance one on the way later this year so we'd hired one for this trip and I was keen to see how useful it would be. Turns out, it's amazing!

IMG_2564.jpg

The route wound along the valley on a quiet B road for 15 miles, following the river and surrounded on all sides by green hills. It was a pleasant and steady start for the group and it didn't seem long before they'd made it over the first hill of the day to the water/feed stop in the market town of Llanidloes (roughly and poorly pronounced, Thlan-id-loice). Out of town and there was more climbing to do, this one long and in full sun but with great views of the valleys between the green peaks we were climbing. Driving along to catch up with the front riders, it appeared that the locals had decided to run a scrambling bike race on either side of the road, meaning that the riders had to join the main road and travel along for a good mile or two before continuing the race on the other side. With their race heads on, some were taking great risks cutting corners on the main road and I was pleased to hear Brian had given one of the organisers a piece of his mind. There's a lot of information in Brian's mind I might add, so I am sure the guy felt all the wiser for it!

The vast majority started their descent down into the town of Rhayader and I headed back to help with the first mechanical issue of the day, a faulty inner tube valve, which was causing Alex's tyre to constantly deflate. Vicky had waited for him so once we'd replaced it with a new one, they were off again. Tom had kindly waited for them in Rhayader so that they could work together on the climb into the Elan Valley. I drove off to head for a rendezvous-vous with the others at the lunch-stop but was quickly called back when Vicky rang to say her bike had broken. The hanger holding the rear mech (the thing that makes the gears change on the back cog) had snapped and it was unridable so she jumped in the van and Tom and Alex headed off again. Luckily there was a bike shop with the right parts literally round the corner and with Brian's mechanical expertise, she was able to get up and running again and ride as support crew on the Sunday.

Out of Rhayader and the road climbs at a constant but challenging gradient of around 8-10 per cent towards the Elan Valley. Built in the early 20th century, the dams that line the valley form a series of lakes that control the flow down from on high and still supply Birmingham with water to this day. Before the dams were built, the land was occupied by two large manor houses and a few small villages. All are now lost beneath the waters but you can discover more about them and their connection to the famous poet Percy Shelley, at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre. Once you reach the top of the climb, you enter a breath-taking moon-like landscape of heath, rivers and lakes. You can only imagine what it is like on a cold, windswept winter day; you probably don't want to know for real. But cycling around it in glorious sunshine is well worth the effort of the climb, and you're rewarded with a winding Alpine-like descent along the dam edges as you breeze effortlessly down towards the visitor centre.

A quick lunch stop at the visitor centre and it was time to head north again, briefly following the main road before cutting across onto a National Cycle Route that hugged the river. We topped up everyone's water and energy levels in the quaint little town of Llangurig and I opted to jump on my bike and accompany Alex and Tom for the last leg of the day. It was a real treat as I'd expected to be in the van all day but Vicky was keen to drive it too so it worked perfectly. Simon, Brian, Laura, Jason, Graham, Sam and Oliver set off just ahead of us and after another short, sharp climb up to the ridge-line, we reached a series of wind turbines. You'll find them dotted across the hills and mountains of mid-Wales and they're an awe-inspiring site, so huge in their construction and capable of a somewhat eerie sound as they're propelled around by an invisible force. The road back down the other side was completely traffic-free and we rolled along enjoying the views, seemingly a million miles away from the thoughts of daily life. No emails or calls to answer, no meetings or deadlines, just the scenery to enjoy and the hypnotic revolution of the pedals all the way back to base.

That evening we dined in the pub as a group and I handed out the awards for the day, the title of which are never decided until the day itself. Laura and Alex took the honours on this occasion, Laura for pushing Brian and Simon to ride harder than they'd expected with some great hill-climbing, and Alex for ensuring his bike suffered multiple mechanicals so that he could deliberately spend longer out on the road enjoying the beautiful countryside.

Day 2

Another sunny day lay ahead and this time we took a short drive to Llanidloes to commence the day from there. Vicky was on van duties today and I'd warned the group we faced a challenging start with a few big hills right from the off. I'd also said that their efforts would be rewarded with some stunning views and that was definitely the case. The day started with a blanket of cloud and after two steady climbs and speedy descents, we reached the Clywedog Reservoir, the tallest dam of its kind in the UK. It was amazing to think that the water we were seeing today and yesterday would flow over 100 miles downhill along the rivers Severn and Wye until it passed just a short distance from our house on its way out to sea. 

Birds of prey flew overhead, their imposing wingspans making it easy to imagine we'd travelled to a far-flung land that time had forgotten. In fact, as we climbed past Dylife onto the Plynlimon escarpment, part of the Cambrian mountains, Oliver remarked that other than the beautiful tarmac edged on both sides by bright white paint, there was almost no evidence that human beings existed at all. Not a building, pylon or man-made structure in sight. Instead we were greeted with jaw-dropping views of steep-sided gorges that would not look out of place in Jurassic Park and as we reached the top of the 3-mile climb, a panoramic of the mountains surrounding us, whilst in the distance lay the imposing peaks of Snowdonia. The descent into Machynlleth was joyous, rolling for mile after mile with barely a pedal turn, the only work to do to steer the bike when the occasional cross-wind gusted through the barren landscape. 

We descended the last mile into town, passing the links-style golf course, expect that this one lay at the foot of a mountain rather than on a windswept coastline. Over the cattle grid marking the return to civilisation, we regrouped for a feed stop in the bustling market town. Graham and Sam remarked that they were glad we'd come down that long descent instead of up it, and their expressions were one of surprise (and I suspect secret excitement) at the news I gave that we were indeed going back over it on the way home. 

Refreshed and refuelled, I offered the group the choice of routes to reach our lunch destination; a quieter road through a hilly forest or a flatter but more main road that hugged the estuary flowing into St George's Channel, which connects the Irish Sea to the Celtic sea further south. Whilst there would doubtless be a few more cars, my promise of less ups and downs and unforgettable scenery meant they opted for the latter. I was delighted as my recce just a few weeks before had revealed a road that hugged the coastline, with only one of the most daring railroads built in the UK separating us from the azure blue water. The sun was now shining through strongly again and that coupled with the pine forests to our right and the way the light reflected off the water to our left and we could have just as easily been descending down into Monaco as heading for the fishing village of Aberdovey. 

The miles ticked by in joyous calm until we reached our lunch stop. Aberdovey's brightly coloured houses and coffee shops sit opposite a small grassy park with views across the tightly packed masts of fishing boats and out to sea. It was a perfect to stop for sandwiches and pizza to balance out our morning exertions, contrasting so sharply with the wild mountaintop we'd been on just a few miles before.

One of the challenges of taking people to such beautiful places is getting started again, so after a leisurely lunch we headed north along the coastline and into Snowdonia. This was actually to be the flattest part of our day, taking a pass that ran alongside Tal y Llyn lake at the foot of the giant imposing figure of the mountain, Cadair Idris, all 2,930 feet of it. I'd hoped the group could rest up along here, enjoy the views and regroup before a reasonable climb and another long descent back into Machynlleth. It doesn't always work like that of course and instead we had to battle through a headwind. The support crew did their jobs, sitting at the front of each mini-group and allowing some relief for everyone. The climb to Corris didn't seem too long, or maybe it just felt short in comparison to what was to come, and soon we were gently descending to Machynlleth, back over the 300-year old stone bridge and enjoying tea and cake in the mid-afternoon sun. 

The biggest challenge yet lay ahead, nearly eight miles of climbing back over the Cambrian Mountains. As I rode alongside Simon, I quietly whispered that it was a brute of a climb, before dropping back to take up my position at the rear of the group. Long climbs on a bike are as much a mental challenge as they are physical. Dropping through the gears allows respite for your legs, but it also means it takes longer. Jason, Laura, Tom, Simon and Brain pushed off into the distance and Oliver, Graham, Sam and I remained fairly close together behind. The road starts at a fairly steady incline but as you near the top there are some steep sections and the effort shown by all was tremendous. It's a weird feeling when you're moving uphill, pedals sometimes revolving so slowly you're not sure they're still turning. Many wrongly assume that only the super-fit can do it, but as long as you have the right gears, a willingness to try and a little practice behind you, you can make it. One of the real joys I get from our events is the look on people's faces when they achieve something they were unsure they could.

IMG_2775.jpg
IMG_2779.jpg

It took us nigh on an hour to crest the mountain, but after more food and water, we descended the shorter side the wind in our faces and then turned off for a flatter route home, skirting the edge of the hills through the Hafren Forest in the dappled light of late afternoon, just above the banks of the the source of the River Severn. Legend has it that Hafren was a princess of ancient Britain and drowned in these waters, giving rise to the Welsh name for the forest and the longest river in Britain. Back in Llanidloes the group celebrated their achievements with a refreshing beverage and a few pub snacks.

Everyone headed to our converted barn later that evening, including Laura's husband Michael who'd joined us in Newtown and taken the chance to explore the mountains by foot and bike with their amazing dog Charlie sat in the basket whilst he pedalled, and we enjoyed fish and chips with a beer or a glass of wine overlooking the lake. Jason took the prize for the day for his timekeeping skills, but as it was the last time we'd all ride as a group with Alex, Oliver and Graham heading home the next day, everyone received their ride awards, specially designed beer or wine glasses with a little reminder of the importance of balance.

IMG_2856.JPG

Oliver has mentioned to me on more than one of our rides how everyone who comes along is always great fun and easy to get along with, and he noted how the nature of the events themselves were self-selecting; people who like people, like to challenge themselves but also don't like to take it too seriously and to balance out the hard work with great food and the odd drink. As we always say, the social side is as important as the exercise. We want you to come away feeling physically tired but mentally reinvigorated and refreshed.

Day 3

With long journeys home back to reality, everyone agreed they wanted to ride the shorter route on the final day. Setting out this time from the quaint Norman castle town of Montgomery, the staging post of many a border battle in times past, we acted like true Celtic soldiers and invaded England, the border just a mile or so to the east. I was back in the van today, Brian having done a grand repair job on Vicky's bike, borrowing a few parts from mine in the process. 

The group moved along at a fair lick and after catching up with Oliver, Graham and Alex for a farewell coffee in the town, I caught them up just before the only real climb of the day. They refuelled and headed up on to the Long Mynd, the most famous of the Shropshire Hills. More stunning scenery, more remote and peaceful roads to ride, this time the Portway, an ancient trackway that traverses the ridge line. Passing the glider club, the group descended a very steep road, up to 25% in places, before quiet lanes led them to Bishop's Castle for a well earned drink and snack. We timed it well as we ended up in the middle of the summer fair, enjoying an eclectic procession of carnival floats and vintage farm vehicles. After that, all that was left was a quick 10 miles back to the start and our long weekend was complete.

A balanced weekend

All in all, it was a perfectly balanced few days. Quiet roads in beautiful scenery, great company, lovely food and a good challenge. I realised over the course of the weekend that it's wrong to classify these weekends as events, they're more like mini-breaks; social occasions built around getting away from the hustle and bustle of life for a few days to make friends, challenge yourself, get a bit fitter in the process and find your balance.

Look out for our full schedule for next year coming in early September. We'll have more day and weekend rides and walks than ever before and a range of distances and challenge levels to suit everyone. We'll also be linking up with local charities so you can help others whilst pushing yourself, getting fitter, healthier, happier and finding your balance.

Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to know when we launch new events and breaks 

Hope springs eternal

As I ran in the rain this morning (yes the world has definitely returned to normal), I thought about the what-ifs of England's performance last night. What if Kane had taken his chance in the first half or Lingard had put his foot through the ball instead of trying to side foot it into the bottom corner? What if we'd managed to stop them delivering the ball from wide areas, or if the ref had decided that the equaliser was actually a foul for a dangerously high foot?

What I realised was that none of it really mattered. In fact, it wasn't even football that mattered. What counted was that the nation of England had come together with one thing driving them; hope.

Before the game yesterday, Goran Ivanisevic the giant Croatian tennis player had berated the English for their arrogance in thinking that we were already in the final, we'd already won it. Roy Keane did the same after the game in an entertaining spat with Ian Wright. Luka Modric accused England of not showing Croatia enough respect, but all of them missed the point, except Wrighty who captured the mindset of the English nation perfectly.

We didn't think we'd won it, we never even thought we'd make the final, we just hoped. And about three weeks ago, if you'd asked most people, they'd have said we had no hope. Listen to the lyrics of the rejuvenated Baddiel and Skinner song, most of them are about our disappointments, the moments when we lost hope. 'It's coming home' doesn't represent an arrogant notion that the Jules Rimet trophy will again be paraded through the streets of England on an open top bus, it just reflects our hope that one day, it might.

The performances, actions and behaviours of the England team and management reignited hope in the last few weeks. A hope we haven't seen in football for over twenty years. We've had it in the tennis, with Murray finally bringing a British victory at Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympics ignited it for athletics and sports rarely watched at other times. And look what happened there; Murray did it again a few years later and Team GB went on to better their 2012 medal tally in Rio 4 years later.

Of course, hope for the sporting performances of our superstars is one thing, but it's not in our control. We can only support them, cheer them on from the sidelines. But it's well established that sporting successes bring a feel-good factor to a nation, a stronger bond and a sense of identity that may sometimes be hard to feel, especially in a world of Brexit, Trump, terror and fear.

Science tells us that hope is a good thing. Positive language has been shown to be contagious; it literally infects the mind of others. Obama's famous slogan 'Yes we can' probably wouldn't have gained as much traction if he'd opted for 'Erm...well maybe we could' and Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream...but it's not very likely' speech wouldn't have gone down in the history books.

There's also work to suggest that optimism, which is closely linked to hope, can positively affect wellbeing. But optimism is different to hope. We were optimistic about England's chances for the first time in years, and whilst this positive feeling will have been acknowledged by the players, it couldn't directly affect the outcome. Yes it could have made them feel better, inspired them and therefore boosted performance that way, but there was no direct link. 

But hope about your own situations is different. If you're hopeful of achieving better health and fitness, science suggests you'll be more determined to get there and less likely to give up should the path to success not run smooth. And that's the key to health, fitness and happiness; the repetition of behaviours frequently over long periods of time. A few weeks of exercise followed by months of nothing, or 9 days of dieting after which you revert to unhealthy habits will not lead to balance. If you give up, you'll never reach your goals, if you keep going, you might just get there.

Hope appears consistently in human history, from the works of ancient Greece to Shakespeare, the romantic poets, Dickens and Tolkien, from politicians and influencers like Lincoln, Churchill, Luther King, Mandela and Lennon, it's ever-present. It's one of the key tenets of the Star Wars films and maybe its popularity endures because, at the end of the day, no matter what happens, there's always hope.

This is summed up brilliantly by two very different characters. Martin Luther King said "we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope", whilst last night in his on-air tiff with Roy Keane, Ian Wright repeatedly asked him 'why shouldn't we get excited about being in a semi-final?'

Be like Ian Wright, be hopeful, good things might just happen.

Impossible made possible shutterstock_111393362.jpg

 

 

Why we ALL have mental health problems...and what we can do about it

depression shutterstock_323422352.jpg

Mental wellbeing - more grey than black and white

According to recent statistics, one in four people in the UK experiences mental health problems, or rather, one in four of us gets diagnosed with mental health problems. What if though, WE ALL suffered from mental health issues?

In times gone by, you'd often hear talk of 'mental illness' and the simplified notion was that you were mentally ill or not. In reality, it's just not that simple. In the same way that physical health sits on a sliding scale, with excellent at one end and well, to put it bluntly, at death's door at the other, mental wellbeing can also be imagined on a continuum. It can fluctuate towards better or worse mental health and wellbeing on a weekly, daily and even hourly basis. And it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, where you live or how much money you earn, it does affect you.

There are of course differences between us, with some more at risk of sliding the wrong way along the scale due to genetic influences and uncontrollable life circumstances, but there are also many actions most definitely within your control that affect where you are on the continuum at any one time. It is these behaviours that form the focus of this blog piece and that are the target when I work with individual clients or when helping larger number of people through employee wellbeing initiatives. 

 

A few principles of mental wellbeing

When you think of mental health challenges, you might often conjure up words like stress, depression and anxiety. You may imagine these to be bad, and they certainly can be, but that's not always the case. Stress can be very good; imagine a lion escapes from the local zoo and appears on your driveway. The stress response that enables you to quickly run inside and shut the door is very helpful! Equally, exercise is a stress on your body; you know the saying 'no pain, no gain' or as I prefer to say, 'no challenge, no change', meaning that you only get fitter when you put your body under stress. Too little stress from exercise and you become unfit and unhealthy, too much and again you can get problems. It's all about finding the right balance for you. Depression and anxiety can have their place too; it's normal to grieve for a lost loved one and part of the healing process, and it's absolutely fine to be anxious about a big exam or interview, in fact science is quite clear that, up to a point it raises performance. 

The problems occur when the stress, anxiety or depression become too much, too severe and also when they go on continuously. Mental wellbeing is present when you have a healthy balance of emotions but if the balance is tipped too far, we can have issues. One of the big difficulties about recognising mental health problems is that for each of us, these issues can be different. This definition of stress by Hans Selye, a scientist famous for his work in this area in the mid-20th century, helps to explain this:

"Stress is the non-specific response of an individual to any demand for change."

What he was saying is that stress could be caused by a multitude of things, basically anything that calls for adaptation from a person. A new form to fill in at work, a house move, changes in job circumstances, a closed road meaning you must drive somewhere unknown or any other number of stressors. 

He was also saying that the way in which we all respond to this stress is unique. There might be a physical response like increased heart rate, sweating or trembling, or a mental response and for some that stress may bring about good changes whilst for others it might cause issues. 

This is what makes mental health problems so hard to recognise and understand. When you get stressed you may lose your appetite, whilst another may comfort eat. One might withdraw from their social circle whilst another might go out and party hard. One person may present with physical symptoms like poor skin or a raised blood pressure, whilst another may suffer psychologically. Always bear these two points in mind when thinking about mental health and wellbeing:

1) What leads to stress, depression or anxiety for one person may not for another.  

The triggers for each individual are unique; it doesn't mean they are weak or 'that's just them', it's a complex interplay of genetics, previous experiences and all of the things that are going on in someone's life at any one time. I've heard a number of times in a work setting, 'How can they be signed off with stress? I do the same job as them and I'm fine.' It simply doesn't work like that.

2) The unique response of each individual to mental health pressures can make them hard to recognise.

It's generally impossible to look at someone and see a mental health problem. Again I've heard lines like 'Well they didn't look/seem ill to me' when referring to colleagues signed off work, but as we've seen above, how the issue shows itself can differ from person to person and over time. Doctors will weigh up all of the signs and symptoms when making a diagnosis; sleep patterns, energy levels, mood, behavioural changes, appetite, thought processes and physical checks of heart rate and blood pressure are just a few of the areas that are factored in.

Load and resilience

mental health jug and and glass analogy.jpg

Your mental health and wellbeing can be influenced by two major factors; firstly, how much load or stress you are faced with at any one time. In the picture above, this is represented by the jug of water...the more that gets poured in the greater the challenge for you. The second is your ability to cope with these challenges, known as your resilience, represented by the glass. If you reach the point where you've poured more in than your glass can cope with, you overflow and, just like the water leaking over the sides of the glass, it can head in any direction, or in other words, it can represent itself in any number of ways unique to you.

This means there are two things you can do to stay well balanced with our mental wellbeing...

1) Pour less in (decrease the load) 

It's important that you're aware of just how much you have going on and ensure that you're never pouring so many challenges in that you start to overflow. That's easier said than done these days with lives business than they've ever been and the constant bombardment of tasks and information that come out us in all aspects of life. In the 'What can you do?' section below, you'll find a range of suggestions to help you lighten then load.

2) Work on your glass (increase your resilience) 

Alongside pouring less in, you can also work on coping better with what comes your way. This means upgrading your glass from a shot glass to a tumbler or even better still, a pint glass (don't race down the pub just yet)! There are many things you can do to help both your body and mind cope better with the pressures you face. You can also learn ways to tip a little of what's being poured in back out again. This keeps you from overflowing and helps you stay balanced.

 

What can you do?

 

Pouring less in - just being aware of the volume of stuff you have going on is a good start. Sometimes you'll find that you only notice you have too much going on when it's already overloaded you and you're struggling mentally or physically as a result. Being consciously aware of how much is going on is a great place to start. Remember too that even things that are enjoyable still count as load. For example, you know how much I love exercise and sometimes I forget that doing a long run or bike ride is still load being poured into my glass. I'll then try to also do loads of work on the garden, catch up on all my emails, write a new chapter of my next book, get my accounts up-to-date and catch up with friends. Then after all that, I'll wonder why I'm feeling exhausted! 

You have to learn some important lessons to get this bit right; how to prioritise some things at the expense of others and also, often, how to say no. You'll know how much you can pour in before you start to feel the effects, so have it in the forefront of your mind when you're planning the days and weeks ahead. This applies both to work and life; here's a little table going you some examples of how you might prevent overload in both situations.

Work and life stress overload management techniques.jpg

 

Making your glass bigger and tipping some back out - there are a myriad of tools you can use to do this and for simplicity, I divide them into four categories:

  1. Psychological
  2. Physical
  3. Social
  4. Recreational

Psychological tools are any that help to alter your mindset. This might include breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, counselling or learning to change your inner dialogue to be more helpful. 

Physical tools include all the things that help your body to cope better and be physically as well as mentally healthier; exercise, better diet, getting more sleep and reducing or quitting smoking and alcohol.

Social tools involve getting help from others. Generally, people are awesome and when it comes to mental health, being sociable is proven to make a difference. How you achieve this can vary from talking about your challenges to joining a club, helping someone else or doing something for a good cause. 

Recreational tools are all the things you can do for enjoyment like your hobbies, listening to music, reading books, playing games, learning and spending time with your pets (I often include this last one in with the social tools because pets are people too right?). All are known to have a positive impact on your mood and send you the right way along the continuum towards better mental health.

Here's a nice little summary of all of them for those of you who prefer pictures to words:

Behaviours to build resilience.jpg

There is without a doubt a crossover between these four areas; for example you might join a Quidditch team...yes you really can do that! That will give you some exercise, time with friends and you get to play a game which all help to distract you from the stresses of daily life and boost your mental wellbeing. The categories are simply meant to guide you towards the many possible tools you already have at your fingertips that can help you find more balance.

All of these tools work through a range of powerful mechanisms, including:

  • Altering the levels of feel-good chemicals in your brain that help to make you feel better
  • Distracting you from the pressures of daily life
  • Enabling you to escape, take a step back and maybe evaluate things in a different way
  • Getting help; as the saying goes...'a problem shared is a problem halved'
  • Boosting your self-image, self-worth and self-confidence

 

    Key considerations

     

    • There are lots of things you can do to improve your mental wellbeing. You do not have to do them all in one go; just one small change will make a difference and it really doesn't matter what you decide to do. Just pick something that feels right and that you think you'll be able to stick to. No matter if it doesn't work, pick something else and go again. 

     

    • Health comes when behaviours are repeated consistently over time. Try to do it just for a day at first, then when you've nailed that, aim for a week, then another week and so on until it's just a normal part of everyday life.

     

    • Managing your mental wellbeing is a constant journey. There is a principle in exercise known as reversibility. This is best described by the phrase 'if you don't use it, you lose it'. You know this well from fitness regimes and diets. If you stop doing your running after that 10k race you lose fitness; if you give up the diet you were following the weight can come back. The same principle applies to mental wellbeing too. If you stop practising the behaviours that help you to manage how you feel, you stop getting the benefits. Life will inevitably throw in challenges that mean some days and weeks aren't as good as others but the great news is, you can always start doing the right things again and get yourself back to balance.

     

    Please do get involved in the conversation below. What do you do that helps you balance your mental health and wellbeing? What tips would you offer others? Anything you'd like to share that helps people to be fitter, healthier and happier.

    Thanks, 

    Paul

    Headshot.png

    This blog was adapted from a seminar I gave recently for Origin Workspace, an exciting new co-working and start-up support business based in Bristol. You can find out more about them here.

    If you'd like to make sure you never miss a new balance blog, you can sign up to our newsletter for automatic updates and much more help to you get fitter, healthier and happier HERE.

    A balanced guide to hormones and how they regulate your weight

    A&P pancreas shutterstock_127654280.jpg

    Hormones are chemicals that the body creates to send messages around the body. They are capable of switching things on and off or speeding up and slowing down bodily functions. Adrenaline, for example, will speed up heart rate and breathing rate among other things when you need to run away from something. Glands are the things in the body, often organs, which produce hormones.

    Why do we have them?

    Your body works best when it is in homeostasis, or normal, balanced functioning. There are times though when it needs to work faster and others when it needs to slow down. Hormones are triggers that switch things on or off, speed up or slow down things like heart rate, and increase or decrease levels of things like blood sugar, dependent on what the body needs. Ideally the body will work in a balanced way, so it will be down as much as it is up and off as much as it is on. The right balance of hormones helps this to happen.

    How do they affect weight loss and weight gain? 

    Hormones have many roles in the body and a number are involved in the production and storage of energy, the regulation of appetite and in helping the body release energy when needed to for movement and exercise. These all have a bearing on how much fat a person stores at any one time and how much weight they lose or gain. The main hormones you should be aware of are identified below.

    Insulin and glucagon

    These two hormones, insulin in particular, play a major part in the storage of fat within the body. They are effectively complete opposites and should work together to regulate blood sugars up and down when required to keep your body functioning normally. 

    Glucagon is released when blood sugars drop. This may occur if someone has not eaten for a while or has exercised and their blood sugar levels have decreased as a result. Glucagon is released by the pancreas and through a chain of events causes the liver to release the body’s store of glucose (known as glycogen) into the bloodstream. This elevates blood sugar levels and enables the person to function properly. 

    In evolutionary terms, glucagon was a very useful hormone as it was needed in times of ‘fight or flight’ to elevate blood sugar levels. It also came into play if a person went a while without food. The brain needs a steady supply of energy, so if it couldn’t be supplied by food the body was able to dip into its back-up stores to increase blood sugars and give the brain the fuel it required. We have maintained all of these evolutionary functions and they are still useful in today’s world, although in Western society it is very rare for people to go any length of time without access to any food at all.

    It has not been shown that any discrepancies in glucagon levels bring about obesity, but it does appear that in overweight individuals, glucagon may not be as effective at raising energy usage as in normal weight people (Starke et al, 1984).

    Insulin is one of the most important hormones when it comes to weight gain and associated medical conditions, especially diabetes. It has a number of jobs but its major role is to decrease blood sugars if they get too high. These days this can happen a lot with our highly processed and refined, high sugar diets. Each time a person consumes a chocolate bar, some white bread or a can of fizzy drink, insulin is called into action as the level of glucose in the blood soars above what is required. The body responds by pulling this glucose out of the bloodstream and into storage just in case it needs it later. If stores of sugars are full then instead of wasting it, the body converts it to, and stores it as fat.

    If this happens regularly over time, the body becomes less sensitive to the insulin and blood sugars will stay high. In response to this the body releases more insulin to get the desired response. This keeps happening until the body becomes extremely insensitive to insulin and blood sugars remain high most of the time. This is diabetes type 2. It can get even worse; if the poor lifestyle persists the pancreas gets exhausted from having to produce so much insulin and effectively gives in. These later-stage diabetics aren’t just insensitive to insulin, they often don’t produce any and rely on injections to get what they need and help their body regulate its blood sugar levels. Coupled with this the high levels of glucose can cause damage throughout the body and weight control becomes extremely challenging.

    It has been argued by some that the insulin response and the body’s subsequent insensitivity are the major factors in the obesity epidemic (Taubes, 2013). This argument is commonly used in many of the high fat, high protein, low-carb diets that have been popular over the last 20 years that are reviewed in more detail in the nutrition chapter. There is a growing support for higher fat diets in science, especially for those people with diabetes where low-carb diets may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the subsequent risks. Guldbrand et al (2012) showed that over two years a low-carbohydrate diet containing 50 per cent fat and 20 per cent carbohydrate led to a significant drop in blood sugars in diabetic patients, allowing them to reduce their insulin medication. This was not seen in a group consuming 60 per cent carbohydrates and 30 per cent fat as per current government recommendations. Marshall and Bessesen (2002) however argue the opposite, noting that many studies suggest that high fat diets are shown to impair insulin function – and so the debate rages on.

    Leptin and ghrelin

    Along with insulin, another hormone that has received huge attention in recent years in relation to fat storage is leptin. It is produced mostly by the fat cells themselves and its job is to tell someone when they’re full. The opposing hormone, ghrelin, is made in the stomach when it is empty and tells someone when he or she is hungry. Together these hormones talk to the hypothalamus in the brain to regulate when and how much to eat. But if something goes wrong or they become unbalanced then gains in fat stores may be just around the corner as the fat storing tendencies of the body and a person’s appetite are increased.

    It used to be assumed that as people ate more their leptin levels increased and appetite was suppressed. This is certainly what should happen, but research has shown that if someone consumes too many calories and gains weight, they can become leptin resistant in much the same way they can become resistant to insulin. What this means is that ‘fullness’ signals don’t get through and someone is far more likely to keep eating.

    Myers, Cowley and Munzberg (2008) showed that leptin resistance is caused by a number of complex factors, including changes in chemical process and changes in signaling between cells, with the end result being increased hunger and weight gain. In contrast, when losing weight, the body reacts by decreasing leptin and raising levels of ghrelin, increasing hunger. This may be a very influential factor in the reason why so many that lose weight gain much or all of it back, and sometimes more on top. It has been suggested that rapid dieting may make this worse and increase the likelihood that all of the hard work will be undone. Some argue that a more gradual weight loss may help to prevent this and allow the body to gradually adapt to its new weight without reacting and bouncing back to its original start point as is seen in diets where rapid weight loss occurs (Amigo and Fernandez, 2007).

    Linked to this is the notion of the Set Point Theory. While the precise origin of this theory is difficult to pin down, various researchers have studied or made reference to it (Weinsier et al, 2000, Pereira et al, 2004). The theory suggests that a person’s weight is genetically predetermined, and that should they diet their body will increase various signals, including ghrelin levels, to ramp up hunger. This makes weight regain likely and research certainly shows that this is common.

    Wing and Phelan (2005) suggest that only around 20 per cent of people maintain weight loss after one year if losing 10 per cent or more of their original body weight.

    Set Point Theory has always been controversial, and arguments have swung back and forth between those who believe genetics leads to weight gain and those who believe it is due to poor diet or a lack of exercise. In reality, it is likely that both are true – with people having a weight and body fat that they would likely be naturally, but that today’s environment including poor food and sedentary lifestyles can drive people away from their natural set point to a higher level, resetting the set point and making it difficult to return to ‘normal’ (Müller, Bosy-Westphal and Hemsfeld, 2010).

    It’s known that people are genetically different in terms of body type, where they are classified as either ectomorphs (lean), endomorphs (higher in body fat), mesomorphs (high in muscle), or a mix of the three.

    Stress hormones

    The body has a number of hormones that are activated in times of stress, including adrenaline and cortisol. These are known as ‘fight or flight’ hormones, and are raised by:

    • Physical stress – this includes positive stress such as exercise, but also negative stresses such as fighting off an attacker or running away from a dangerous dog.

    • Mental stress – people don’t have to run away from something for their stress hormones to be activated. Tight work deadlines and stressful jobs are commonplace these days, arguments with friends and family, financial worries and a host of other reasons will send stress hormones soaring.

    • Hunger – this may surprise you, but hunger is a physical stress on the body. That’s why it releases ghrelin to drive people to eat; otherwise it can’t function properly. It’s even worse if people ignore these signals and don’t eat. High levels of ghrelin are also linked to increased adrenaline in the blood with the body getting stressed as it knows that the low blood sugar levels and empty stomach it has identified mean that soon the brain won’t have the supply of energy it needs to work effectively. The rise in adrenaline causes the liver to release stores of glucagon (stored carbohydrate) and blood sugars return to normal without having to eat. Of course, this means that the back-up stores are now running low so eating is essential to keep them maintained.

    • In fact, a stress is really anything that requires the body to move away from homeostasis, its normal state. This can include changes in temperature, chemical levels in the blood, fluid levels, pain, noise and a whole host of other factors.

    So how can all this affect your fat levels?

    There are a number of theories about this, with both physiological and psychological changes thought to play a part. Mood certainly effects eating behaviours, with research showing that stress increases the tendency to eat high sugar, high fat foods (Torres, 2007). This desire may stem from the fact that eating these ‘comfort’ foods is associated with pleasure and in the short term decreases the stress levels within the body.

    The stress response is however varied, with some people opting for comfort foods and gaining weight while others decrease food intake and lose weight in times of stress (Torres, 2007, Kivimaki et al, 2006). Physiologically, stress may increase the risk of weight gain through a number of different mechanisms including:

    • Changes in thyroid function

    • Changes in liver function

    • Worsened digestion

    • Impact on numerous hormones

    • Elevated blood sugars

    • Adrenal fatigue and exhaustion

    Many of the above can be linked back to changes caused by stress to:

    • The HPA Axis

    • The Autonomic Nervous System

     

    What are they? 

    The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal or HPA Axisis a feedback system linking the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, and the adrenal glands in the kidneys. Between them these three control the body’s response to stress and influence energy expenditure, digestion, mood and the immune response.

    The Autonomic Nervous System controls all of the ‘automatic’ processes that occur in the body without conscious thought, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion and the dilation and constriction of blood vessels.

    Drapeau et al (2003) noted that stress increases activation of the HPA Axis, which in turn elevates levels of cortisol. The higher levels of cortisol seem to increase hunger and promote fat storage around the visceral organs. Interestingly they also suggest that central obesity itself can be perceived as a stress by the body, causing further activation of the HPA axis and a vicious cycle in which stress causes obesity which in turn causes stress and so on. Coupled with a person’s desire for high fat and high sugar foods in times of stress, it is easy to see how this could lead to considerably higher levels of central body fat over time. As well as obesity, an overactive HPA axis and autonomic nervous system is linked to high blood pressure, insulin resistance and diabetes type 2, high cholesterol, and the other factors that together commonly referred to as metabolic syndrome.

    Happy hormones

    Many hormones serve more than one purpose in the body and a number can affect both our physiology and our psychology. This includes the hormone melatonin. It is believed to play a role in weight regulation; possibly through its importance in bringing about quality sleep. As you’ve seen, poor sleep affects appetite and melatonin is crucial for a good nights’ kip. It is thought that it may assist in regulating blood glucose and, as such, weight gain. It also plays a part in elevating mood along with a number of other hormones and neurotransmitters.

    Thyroxine

    As its name suggests, thyroxine, is a hormone produced by the thyroid gland, located in the neck. Together with triiodothyronine, they are known as the thyroid hormones and are responsible for increasing BMR and metabolising carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

    Thyroid UK (2010) say that two per cent of the UK population, most commonly women in their 40s and 50s, suffer from hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid. This decreases the body’s ability to raise BMR and increases the likelihood of weight gain. The major cause of this is iodine deficiency, sometimes from poor diet and lifestyle factors but also from genetic defects or medical conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune illness that attacks the thyroid gland, decreasing its ability to produce thyroid hormones. Increased intakes of fish or shellfish can help but some cases may require supplementation or even medication.

    There is a plethora of symptoms if somebody suffers from hypothyroidism, with weight gain, excessive tiredness, breathlessness, hair loss and poor skin amongst them. Instructors should signpost any client presenting with any of these symptoms to their GP.

    Other stuff

    As you have seen there is a big interplay of hormones working inside the body to store fat, burn fat, increase calorie burn or store energy away for a later date. But it isn’t just hormones that do this, other substances in the brain and the stomach play their part too. In the brain and central nervous system, neurotransmitters send signals from nerves to cells in the body.

    One important neurotransmitter, serotonin, has a well-known mood boosting effect but it has also been shown to regulate appetite. Serotonin regulates appetite through signals created from eating meals. It can suppress some substances that drive hunger such as neuropeptide Y, which controls appetite by monitoring the fullness of fat cells and suppressing ghrelin.

    Serotonin levels rise after eating carbohydrates, at which time they increase feelings of satisfaction and suppress appetite. Because of this, contrary to what many have said in recent years, it has been proposed that eating carbohydrates could be used as way of assisting weight loss. 

    The idea is simple; eat carbohydrates, increase serotonin and decrease appetite (Wurtman and Frusztajer, 2009). Some of their main suggestions include:

    • Take care not to consume too many carbohydrates. Eating poor quality and large amounts of carbohydrates could lead to weight gain.

    • Try eating a carbohydrate meal later in the day. This can help to suppress appetite in the evening when many tend to reach for sugary snacks. It may also help to improve sleep quality.

    • Limit proteins and fats with the evening meal, opting instead for breakfasts and lunches that are higher in concentrations of these. 

    They do however caution that consuming the wrong type of carbohydrates, namely highly processed, refined sugars, can be linked with stress and depression. Low mood means low serotonin – so the body reaches for foods that it knows will help put a smile on someone’s face. The problem here is that if sugary foods are regularly consumed to get the daily ‘happiness fix’, weight gain occurs, and insulin sensitivity decreases. In essence the high sugar lifestyle may become addictive – searching for a proper ‘hit’ – through the same mechanisms that lead to any substance abuse. So, while carbohydrates can be helpful, the quality of the food consumed has a major impact.

    Another neurotransmitter, dopamine, may also have a role to play. It also has links to mood and is involved in creating the smooth movement of muscles; Parkinson’s disease is an autoimmune disease where dopamine-making cells in the brain are destroyed impacting many of the body’s functions, especially movement. It is also believed that dopamine plays a role in telling the brain that it is time to stop eating. Epstein et al (2007) studied 29 obese and 45 non-obese adults to discover if their dopamine levels had any impact on their appetite. Their results show that people with lower dopamine levels found food more rewarding and subsequently consumed more calories, possibly explaining a mechanism for their weight gain.

    What about your genes? Is the reason for bigger jeans of the blue denim variety all down to genes of the deoxyribonucleic acid kind? Well, as we saw in the section on risk factors, hundreds of genes have been discovered that suggest an increased risk for some weight gain depending on their genetic code. Ravussin and Bogardus (2000) suggest that genetics may affect the respiratory quotient, a measure of the percentage of fat and carbohydrate a person burns when breathing. It may also impact food intake and metabolic rate, as well as influencing behaviours such as the desire to eat or the tendency to be sedentary.

    What is clear though is that genes alone cannot cause obesity. They merely make someone more susceptible, and major lifestyle factors like exercise and diet then influence weight gain more significantly. This is evidenced by the speed at which obesity levels have risen across the world. It takes thousands of years for changes in genes to occur, yet in 30 years levels of obesity have grown out of all proportion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013) in a review of genetics and obesity refer to the ‘thrifty genotype hypothesis’; this argument notes that the human body is in many ways designed to survive in times of famine by storing fat efficiently, but that in modern society where food is readily available this may be working against us, leading to expanding waistlines.

    Summary of key points

    • Numerous hormones have a role to play in weight management and levels of these are influenced by lifestyle behaviours.

    • Neurotransmitters may also play their part in affecting hunger and satiety, and indirectly affect food intake through changes in mood.

    Have we lost our balance when it comes to technology?

    Fitness tracker shutterstock_317544728.jpg

    The walk home from school was a short one, about 10-15 minutes, and even less if I ran back which I often did. If it was summertime and still light in the evenings, I’d disappear off to play football with my mates from Atcham Close and the surrounding streets. You could always be guaranteed of good numbers for a game, often way too many leading to a good pile of jumpers for goalposts. Occasionally we’d mix it up with ‘acky 123’ (a bit like tig/tag) or ‘tracking’, both great childhood games, or exploring on our bikes and climbing trees. It mattered little if it rained; you just got wet. 

    It was only in the very worst weather and during the darker months that we needed to occupy our time indoors. And that’s where the legendary Spectrum ZX came in to its own…well, sometimes. Games were all on cassette tapes and took an age to load, I’m not sure exactly how long as time seems vastly different when you’re a child, but in my mind, it seemed to take 20 minutes or more, watching the multi-coloured stripes roll across the screen, changing constantly like some sort of psychedelic art display. Quite often, towards the end of the lengthy loading process it would error, and my mom would say ‘never mind, it’ll have to wait until tomorrow’. The disappointment was short-lived as it normally meant it was time for tea!

    Computers at school were limited to Acorns, where we’d be given a sheet of commands to type in that would draw shapes on the screen. Outside of these ‘high-tech’ experiences, there was very little interaction with technology, except the original Atari and Sega video games in the arcades of Britain’s seaside resorts. They were fun but to be honest, we always ended up veering back towards the 2p slot machines, reserved these days purely for contestants on the decidedly average ITV gameshow, Tipping Point.

    Family holidays were instead spent walking, playing any number of sports, exploring castles, on the beach or if confined indoors again because of the less than reliable British Summertime, playing cards, board games, reading books or watching one of four TV channels.

     

    Today's tech-filled world

     

    Fast forward to 2018 and how different the world has become in just one generation. I suppose every generation says that, but I wonder how our technology legacy is affecting the physical and mental health and wellbeing of the current generation and those to come? 

    Don’t get me wrong; there are many wonderful things that technology has brought for society. The ability to keep in touch at a distance, business communications, medical advances, environmental benefits from the reduced need for paper, and assisting in running our increasingly busy lives. In fact, I recently read that 90 per cent of the jobs we have today didn’t even exist 30 years ago, largely because they’re so heavily reliant on new technologies, which must be good for the economy right? I do wonder though if we haven’t lost our balance in recent times. Technology once felt like it helped in our daily lives; now it feels like it runs them.

    Take a recent train journey home I was making from Birmingham as an example. I’d been teaching a Personal Trainer course and had walked to Fiveways station to jump on the train, avoiding the busier New Street. Stood on the platform I looked across at those waiting to head in the opposite direction and it is not an exaggeration to say that every single one of the roughly thirty people stood there were looking down at their phone screens. I considered the irony of pulling out my own phone to photograph the scene and decided against it. Now I doubt very much, that in times gone by, this group would be merrily chatting away to the strangers they stood next to; they’d likely have had their heads buried in a book or newspaper instead, but it seemed to me as if we’d lost touch with our surroundings and our ability to sometimes just stand and take in the moment.

    Technology, particularly our phones, is often credited with bringing us together, helping us live more sociable lives. We certainly can keep in touch with more people, or rather we can ogle the filtered versions of each other’s daily lives presented in the form of posts, photos and videos on ‘Twittergrambook’. 

    I’m a user myself, a self-confessed addict. Social Media is a huge part of my business and the main way I seek to reach and help people. Most likely you’re reading this because you clicked the link from the Facebook page so I’m certainly not preaching going off the grid completely. I just wonder if we’ve lost our balance a little; if we could spend more time disconnected. I know I certainly could. Did we once have better balance and better relationships with the fewer people we kept in touch through the ancient arts of letter writing and telephone calls? 

    The effort of writing a letter, card or postcard, scripting it, locating an envelope if needed, and back in the day licking the stamp, then making time to post it represents a huge amount of thoughtfulness on the part of the sender. Once sent you were content and certainly didn’t expect an immediate response; you simply got on with life and then one day had a pleasant surprise when you received a reply.

    Business social media shutterstock_193510199.jpg

    We live in an instant world. On a given day I’ll have text messages, emails, voicemails and Facebook messages all piling up, awaiting my reply. Even if the sender doesn’t intend it, you feel pressure to respond quickly, as if you’re being rude by not doing so. At its worst points, this has led me to check my phone almost constantly, concerned that I’ve missed a message from someone, and I’ve even suffered from ‘Ghost Phone’, that sensation that your mobile is vibrating in your pocket with a message from someone, when in fact it hasn’t. 

    Vicky has rightly admonished me on more than one occasion for checking my phone for news, football scores or messages whilst we’re out and about, at dinner or on holiday. It has become so endemic that we have a name for it; absent presence. It means we’re there in body, but our mind is away in our digital world. Take this current TV ad from Tesco mobile which states ‘Your phone is more than just your phone…it’s kind of your life.’

    ‘So what?’ you may ask. Well, overuse of technology can lead to a wide range of issues:

     

    Illness and injury

    Back pain shutterstock_50967766.jpg

     

    • Postural, muscular and joint problems. Spending too much time sat at a desk can lead to tight hamstrings, hips and shoulders, pulling you out of your natural alignment and creating pain and injuries everywhere from head to toe. Overuse of a phone and other handheld devices has led to the creation of a whole range of new injury terms including a few years ago ‘Blackberry thumb’ and more recently ‘Text Neck’. 

     

    • It’s not just your musculoskeletal system that can be impacted; your eyes can too. Computer Vision Syndrome covers a range of eye issues that are caused by too much screen time, with various studies reporting than between 50 and 90 per cent of us have been affected. 

     

    • In the news this very week has been the potential link between mobile phones and brain tumours. At present the stance of major organisations such as Cancer Research UK and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) say that there is no clear evidence of a link between phones and cancers, but that more research is needed for a definitive answer to be given.

     

    Mental health

    It’s not just physical ailments we need to be wary of when trying to find the right balance, there are mental health considerations too:

    • Loneliness and self-esteem issues have both been linked to the use of Social Media, but the picture is complex. Some studies show increased issues with greater use of Social media sites, whilst others show the opposite. The real answer as always likely lies somewhere in the middle, in finding the balance right for the individual. Studies have suggested that viewing others social media whilst not getting involved yourself, known as ‘social snacking’ may cause feelings of loneliness to be exaggerated afterwards, whilst comparing yourself with others can affect self-esteem. 

    Comparing yourself to others is not a new phenomenon and certainly not exclusive to social media. Before the popularity of YouTube and Instagram, it was magazines who courted much of the attention for airbrushing celebrities and publishing unrealistic lifestyles that youngsters tried but failed to copy. Wanting to be like others has always been an issue creating envy and self-esteem issues, technology now just heightens it through its ability to reach almost the entire planet.

    It’s not all bad though. Research in elderly subjects has suggested that having contact with others through social media helped to lessen feelings of loneliness and very recent studies have suggested taking a smiley selfie can boost mood and confidence.

     

    • There’s no off-switch. Phones and computers so allow us to connect with others, to take our work out with us wherever we are and to keep up with the latest news around the world, that can also mean we never truly switch off. It’s no coincidence that the boom in technology has also seen a growth in techniques like Mindfulness. Our brains are deluged with so much information on a daily basis that we desire, and need, the ability to shut down and process it all.

     

    • Read about any ancient culture, tribe or civilisation and one of the most common themes is an awareness of your own mind and body, and an inter-connectedness with nature. Yoga, tai chi, any number of martial arts, the practices of Shaman and wise tribal elders the world over are all evidence of a once strong connection between people and the nature which surrounded them. Just one example of how this has changed in modern times is the map. Once we studied these on pieces of paper, planned our routes and used them to guide us along when needed. This progressed to the printing of multiple pages of written instructions in the late 90s and early 2000s from the AA or RAC, where you’d sometimes forget how many roundabouts you’d gone straight over at and have to stop (or not) whilst you attempted to count them on the page to work out where you are. Today we don’t even bother to navigate at all; in cars we type in our destination and are told where to go, completely oblivious to our surroundings, whilst on foot we run the risk of ‘text neck’ and head-on collisions with others as we focus on the blue dot as it moves around the map.

     

    • Anger. This is one I definitely need to work on. The pace at which technology has developed has left many of us behind, meaning what we think it can do versus what we're capable of making it do don't always match up. Add to that the fact that technology is made by humans and we should realise it's as prone to error as anything else, yet when we can't get it to work it can lead to 'tech-rage'. As with all stresses, this stems from a lack of control and is a response to just how much we rely on technology to live our daily lives.

     

    • Safety and security. You can't have escaped the news headlines of recent times about the improper use of our personal data. Add this to online bullying, trolling, hacking and cyber-crime and there's a strong movement towards getting our identities offline for fear of the above. The pressure caused by recent events has led to changes for the better but many people are still fearful of the consequences of their online presence.

     

    Fitness and Energy expenditure

    Technology has affected our exercising too. When I started working in gyms I’d often notice people moving incredibly slowly or sometimes even stopping on the cardiovascular machines and standing stock still whilst starting at the screen, before starting again at a very laboured pace. I’d go over to chat and discover that the machine was telling them their heart rate was too high and they were moving out of the legendary fat-burning zone. I’d ask how they were feeling and they’d always reply to say they felt fine, not in the slightest bit breathless at all and I’d try my best to get them to ignore the data and go on how they felt, working to a point where they were warm and slightly breathless.

    More recently I’ve become a slave to fitness devices, evidenced by the Garmin on my left wrist and the Fitbit on my right. The Garmin is fancy and suggests how many hours of recovery I need before I can exercise again. Whilst useful, I know my own body and can disagree with Mr Garmin’s suggestions not to exercise for the next three days. I do however make use of the resting heart rate tool, knowing full well that when this is elevated by a few beats I’m a bit tired and if five beats more than normal, it’s definitely time to ease back. Again, it’s all about striking the right balance.

    The increasingly easy nature of our lives is most certainly connected to a decrease in health and fitness and increase in waist sizes across the planet. Gone are the days of walking miles to work in a job that involved hard graft and carrying our shopping home from the supermarket. One wonderful childhood memory I have is of Saturday mornings when I’d visit my nan and grandad. Their back garden had a gate that led right out onto the canal and from there we could walk along to the local shops, my nan with her trusty black leather and tartan trolley in tow, me racing along with the dog, stock up on supplies and make our way back in time for Grandstand.

    Today it’s different. Technology allows us to reduce calorie burn at every opportunity. We can order almost anything online and have it delivered to the door, drive to and from work and spend the whole day sat down, enjoy hobbies that involve nothing more than flicking our thumbs around a game control and even our cars these days save us the bother of turning on lights, windscreen wipers or lifting the handbrake. 

    We have learned to be lazy. Survival of the fittest has become more survival of the tech-savvy, or has it? All of those little calories we would previously have burned add up over weeks and months to weight gain and precede further health issues. Muscles become weakened and waste away, or to give it the fancy term, atrophy due to the lack of challenge they receive. This includes the most important muscle of all, your heart.

     

    How can you find a balance?

    Whilst my intention is not to paint a picture of some sort of dystopian science fiction future Earth where technology has taken over, it is to present an argument that we might need to make some changes and that these involve rediscovering things from times gone by, simpler forms of living. Here are my top tips for a balanced lifestyle when it comes to technology. I shall be working hard to practice some of them myself.

    1)         Make a stand. Avoid sitting all day at work; if you can, get a standing desk. The fancy ones allow you to lift and lower them as desired, so you can mix sitting and standing. If not, be sure to take regular breaks away from your desk and walk around. Speak to people across the hall rather than email them, make a drink, get out to buy lunch or walk in the park, anything that keeps you moving.

    2)         Set technology boundaries. This might be times of day when you won’t look at your phone or laptop, or maybe even ‘tech-free days’ for the whole family where you can enjoy active hobbies or relive times gone by with cards, board games or whatever takes your fancy. You can set most technology these days to silent or to power down between certain hours, so use the fancy features to help you find a better balance.

    3)         Consider how you communicate. Could you call or visit someone rather than text or email? Or if you’re feeling really nostalgic, write a letter or send someone a postcard.

    4)         Think about how you use social media. Is it a positive influence in your life or do you feel it affects you in a negative way? I’ve had positive experiences in the past by reducing the number of social media sites I use and also by vastly reducing the time I spend on my particular addiction, Facebook. 

    5)         Escape. Get out in the great outdoors, somewhere you’re surrounded by nature and just take in the present moment. Listen to the birds singing, the wind in the trees, the sound of the river flowing by and refresh and reinvigorate yourself. It’s also a great way to get your exercise in which is a sure-fire way to help you feel balanced.

     

    Yours in balance,

     

    Paul

    Balance shutterstock_223476832.jpg

    Take the squat test

    This is a great fitness test to try at home as it needs very little equipment. It's also great as you can record your total and aim to beat it over time; I've set out a simple training programme below that can help you to better your score in future.

     

    Why squat?

    There are loads of benefits to adding squats to your exercise routines...

    1. Research has linked being able to perform more squats with a lower risk of mortality...or put simply, dying. That's because they're a great marker of your overall ability to function; to get in and out of a chair, up and down the stairs or to have the leg strength to maintain your balance and prevent falls

    Squats outdoors shutterstock_321504203.jpg

    2. Another study in 2015 showed a link between brain function and leg strength. Twins were tested and the ones who maintained leg strength better over a ten-year period also saw a much smaller decline in cognitive performance. This may be because the leg muscles are the largest and therefore a strong indicator of overall health and fitness

    3. You'll tone and strengthen lots of muscles, including your legs, bum and core (in fact, you'll likely tone your stomach much more with squats than with sit-ups because of all the extra muscles utilised and calories burned as a result). Done regularly you'll feel and see improvements in confidence, health and sports performance.

    4. They're also a cracking exercise for keeping you mobile and strengthening bones and joints. They can help decrease risk of osteoporosis, arthritis and ankle, knee, hip and lower back problems, as well as manage existing issues if pitched at the right level.

    5. Add in the fact that they don't need fancy equipment and can be done literally anywhere and you've got yourself one truly balanced exercise!

     

    Test yourself

    Here's a simple squat test you can use to assess your leg strength and endurance. There are links to easier and harder alternatives at the end of this blog if you prefer.

    • Get a sturdy chair without soft cushioning (a dining room chair is ideal) and place it with its back against a wall.
    • Warm up for 5-10 minutes by walking, doing step-ups, marching/jogging on the spot or anything else that gets you feeling warm and a bit sweaty
    • Stand in front of the chair and keeping your heels on the floor, squat down until your bum taps the chair before lifting straight back up til you're completely upright, knees not locked out. Try a repetition or two to practice if you wish.
    • When ready, perform as many squats as you can until you need to stop and check how you got on against the tables below.
    Taken from the Australian College of Sports & Fitness

    Taken from the Australian College of Sports & Fitness

    Improve

    Here's a simple training plan you can follow if you'd like to improve your score.

    If you scored less than 30:

    • Do sets of 10 until you reach a number greater than your total from the test. For example, if you scored 17, do 2 sets of 10; if you scored 26, do 3 sets of 10.
    • Have a 30-second rest between each set.
    • Aim to do this 2-3 times each week and re-test the following week.

    If you scored more than 30:

    • Do sets of 20 until you reach a number greater than your total from the test. For example, if you scored 36, do 2 sets of 20; if you scored 51, do 3 sets of 20.
    • Have a 30-second rest between each set.
    • Aim to do this 2-3 times each week and re-test the following week.

    Each time you re-test, take your new total score and adapt the training programme based on the above guidelines. 

     

    Alternative tests

    This test is a little easier and was designed for people aged 60-94 year's old to assess leg strength: https://exrx.net/Calculators/SeniorChairStand

    This one is a toughie and a good choice if you're after a squat test that challenges you both physically and mentally: https://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/wall-sit.htm

     

    Be sure to share your score with us and we'll check in on your progress next week!

    Deskitis

    Desk posture shutterstock_135033461.jpg

    The average Brit spends 9 hours each day sitting

                                                              That's a big problem.

    9 hours each day sat down. Over a third of our day; it's such a big problem that when the government last changed their exercise guidelines they felt compelled to add in a line saying that we should minimise the time we spend sitting. It's no wonder we're all suffering from 'deskitis'.

    That's the term I give to the postures, pains and movement problems I see daily in clients who spend most of their day at work sat down. 

    Ideally, we should have a naturally S-shaped spine which is termed 'neutral spine', with a small inwards curve in the lower (lumbar region) and another outwards curve in the upper (thoracic region). This helps to spread load evenly between the discs of the spine, makes movement easier and prevents wear and tear.

    Unfortunately, sitting can cause tightness in some muscles and weakness in others and this leads the the spine being pulled out of this neutral alignment. Common problems include:

    • Tightness in the chest and shoulder area, causing the upper spine to 'slump' forwards. The muscles of the upper back become stretched and weak and we can get neck pain and pain all the way down the spine as a result.

    • An excessive forwards tilt of the pelvis, caused by tightening of the muscles at the front of your hips; the hip flexors, and those of the lower back. At the same time, your abdominal and bum muscles become stretched and weakened and instance of lower back pain increase.

     

    What can you do?

    Move final.png

    The first thing to do is move. As often as you can, rise from your desk and wander around. This will help loosen the muscles and restore the balance of tightness and length.

    If possible, work standing up when you can. Your postural muscles have to activate here to hold you upright.

    You can also perform certain exercises that target the muscles, loosening the tight ones and strengthening those that have become weak.

    Below is a link to a free online programme I designed recently for the lovely people at the Bank of Ireland. It's designed to help you move better but it also has exercise that'll help you tone and shape and improve sports performance too.

    There are varying levels in the programme so you can pick one that's right for you.

    AN IMPORTANT NOTE: if you have any medical conditions or injuries, aches or pains and have not discussed becoming more physically active with a GP or physio, please do so before starting this or any exercise routine and follow their guidance as to what is safe and suitable for you. If you have any questions or queries about any of these exercises, please do get in touch and I'll be happy to help.

    Click on the link for the programme below, it's completely free to sign up and you can download the exercise videos to use any time you wish:

    https://findyour.balancehealthandfitness.co.uk/courses/14/enroll

     

    Yours in balance,

     

    Paul

    dots and pics long WHITE v2.png

     

     

     

     

    A balanced take on stress

    Stress shutterstock_94267417.jpg

    Stress.

     

    It’s hard to escape it. Everything is so fast-paced these days and there are so many demands for our attention and time at home, at work and online. It’s thought we process 34 gigabytes of data through our brains each day, around 105,000 words absorbed through emails, the internet and other sources. It’s no wonder we sometimes struggle to cope.

     

    And we do struggle; in 2013, the mental health charity MIND reported that 34 per cent of people surveyed said that work was either quite or very stressful. Last year the HSE reported that 12.5 million work days were lost due to stress and it was recently reported that stress affects one in five of the working population.

     

    What if that last statistic was wrong? I’m going to argue that stress affects five in five of the working population and in fact, the population as a whole. It’s an inescapable part of life; in fact, it’s essential to your survival and needed to get you out of bed in the morning.

     

    Just what is stress?

     

    A very clever man named Hans Selye once defined it as:

             “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”

     

    Simply, it’s the changes brought about by something new that we’re not used to. As he rightly points out, these changes aren’t specific; they’re unique to the individual. Some of the changes are physical, some psychological and often we experience both. Here’s a short-list of just some of the possible changes that can occur in a stressful situation.

     

    Physical

    -       Increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate

    -       Sweating

    -       Dizziness and fainting

    -       Pins and needles

    -       Tight, achey muscles

    -       Indigestion

    -       Fatigue

     

    Psychological

    -       Unable to sleep

    -       Inability to switch off

    -       Changes in appetite

    -       Irritability

    -       Difficulty making decisions

    -       Restlessness

    -       Mood swings

    -       Loss of interest in activities and withdrawal

     

    There are many more and that’s what makes it challenging to diagnose and treat; we all get stressed in different ways.

     

    Good and bad stress

     

    How can any of the changes above be good? Well, let’s give you a simple example. You’re sat at your desk one day when a hungry lion, recently escaped from the zoo, wanders in. At this point, your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase, as do levels of stress hormones, firing you into action so that you can run away and hide in the store cupboard. Stress can be a real life-saver.

     

    The word stress comes from the Latin word ‘stringere’, meaning to draw tight or put something under tension or pressure. We all need a little pressure in our lives as that’s what brings about change. Exercise is the prime example; your heart only gets stronger when you challenge it with a run, bike ride, Zumba, Insanity, walk up the stairs, spot of gardening or whatever takes your fancy. Your skeletal muscles only get stronger when you challenge them with weights, Pilates, gigantic elastic bands or heavy shopping. In fitness, it’s known as the principle of overload, or as I like to say…no challenge, no change.

     

    Equally, in life, we need a challenge. Ever had a job that was so easy it was stressful? What did you do? You went and sought out a tougher job to get a bit more stress in your life, because you knew it would be good for you.

     

    This good stress is known as Eustress, and, as always in life, this is balanced out by the bad stuff, which is termed Distress.

     

    Distress occurs when stress takes us beyond our ability to cope, or rather sometimes, our perceived ability to cope. It may actually be that there is a way to cope; we just can’t see it at the present time.

     

    Our clever chap Hans Selye, who we mentioned earlier, identified three clear stages to stress, which he called his General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS for short.

    1) Alarm – our initial reaction to a stress. This might be a sudden increase in workload, or the lion entering the office, which leaves us with any combination of the signs and symptoms discussed earlier.

    2) Adaptation OR Resistance – Stage 2 is pivotal. We may discover a way to adapt to the new circumstance; maybe we can shift our working day around to fit in the work or discuss with our line manager that it can’t be done to the deadline being requested and agree a new date or get someone else in to help, or in the case of the lion, we run into the store cupboard, close the door and phone for help. At this point, the stress levels reduce.

    If we don’t do this however, that’s when resistance occurs, which essentially means we don’t find a way to adapt.

    3) Exhaustion - The lack of adaptation means the stress continues over time and that’s when the changes we’ve talked about become an issue; for example, blood pressure stays higher, our appetite is increased causing weight gain or our lack of sleep affects our mental and physical state and ultimately, our health.

     

    It’s vital to say here that what classes as eustress and distress is unique to everyone. Some people find a certain job, workload, task or process highly stressful, whilst another absolutely loves it. It’s why sometimes people find it hard to empathise with other’s stress; ‘but I do that job and it’s absolutely fine.’ That really isn’t the point here.

     

    What can we do about bad stress?

     

    Essentially there are three things we can do to lessen the likelihood of distress and deal with it better when it occurs:

    1) Increase our resilience to stress

    2) Decrease the amount of stress placed upon us

    3) Distract ourselves from the stress or learn to see it in a different light

     

    Resilience – here we build up our minds and bodies to be able to cope with more stress before it becomes distress. Imagine your body as a drinking glass, and stress the water that you pour in. The aim is to turn it from a small tumbler into a pint glass, able to cope with more fluids before it spills over. If you can increase your reservoir, you have the capacity to deal with more stress without being negatively affected.

     

    We can make both our minds and bodies more resilient to stress; here are just a few ways:

    Exercise – there are so many benefits of exercise for stress management. Your heart is stronger and healthier and more able to cope when placed under pressure, moderate intensity activity helps to control levels of stress hormones, it can act as a distraction from work and life, socialising with others whilst doing it is known to reduce stress and getting outdoors, particularly into green space or around water is a proven way to reduce stress levels.

    Healthy eating – certain foods and drinks can help with stress management. Reducing caffeine and swapping for herbal teas like chamomile or Rooibos is a particularly powerful technique, as is ensuring you get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other plant nutrients you need. This helps to keep your immune system on top form as it’s known that stress is particularly potent when it comes to lowering your body’s natural defences. If you can get your 5-a-day that’s fantastic; if not can you simply increase your intake by one or two above where you are now?

    Sleep – another powerful protector of your immune system, sleep is when your body repairs, recovers and files away the day’s stresses and challenges. It also helps regulate your mood, meaning you often find it easier to cope with stressful situations. Look to go to bed a little earlier, ensure the environment is calm, quiet and cool, and if you have stresses on your mind, attempt to wind down from them at least an hour before bedtime with a hobby or something more relaxing; music, reading, puzzles, it doesn’t matter so long as it works for you. Some find writing down tasks for tomorrow or current concerns helpful, as it means they won’t forget about them tomorrow but don’t need to deal with them now.

    Psychological techniques – there’s been a boom in recent years in tools and techniques to help us manage stress. Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation are all hot stuff right now and that’s because many people find them to be powerful tools.

     

    Here are a few simple tools you can try:

    Progressive relaxation – this is my go to technique. Sit somewhere quiet, just for a few minutes. Begin by taking a few deep breaths, then starting at your toes, tense the muscles for a second or two and then focus on letting them relax completely. Repeat the process for your calf muscles, thighs, hips, core muscles and all the way up to your shoulders, neck and even face. You’ll be amazed how much more chilled you feel by the end.

     

    Count your breaths – another one that’s quick and easy to do. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable, although you can do this stood in a queue for your lunch or in the post office too. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight, pause briefly then in through your nose for four. Repeat for around 60 seconds.

     

    Mindfulness – there are numerous mindfulness techniques; this one is great as it can be done anywhere. When you feel yourself getting stressed, pause and just focus on the things around you at present. Look away from your laptop or phone and work through your senses, noticing three things you can see around you at present, three you can hear, smell, touch and even taste. It’s a great little distractor to bring you back to the present.

     

    Affirmations – I often notice how my clients are their own biggest critics, but during our conversation, I’ve noticed a range of things that seem to be going extremely well. It’s easy to focus on the negatives and leave ourselves feeling stressed and down. When this happens, get a piece of paper and make a list – what have I done well today or this week? Give yourself some praise for these things and sometimes things feel a little better.

    Relax meditate shutterstock_154425812.jpg

     

    There are of course other tools and techniques you can use; here’s a link to a fantastic website with a whole host of others for you: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/stress/developing-resilience/#.WnReFq10dp8

     

    Decreasing the amount of stress we’re under

     

    This bit is all about taking stock; asking ourselves ‘can I do all of that in that time-frame?’ or ‘am I taking on too much?’

    If the answer is yes, here’s some stuff you should consider:

    • Do I need to have a conversation with my boss, colleagues, partner, friend or other person who can act as support crew about it? As Bob Hoskins once said, it’s good to talk and it often leads to solutions that can decrease our stress load

    • Look at where else we can reduce stress. I know when I’m super busy that trying to push myself really hard in exercise sessions doesn’t help. I need to work out for my sanity, but long runs, heavy weights and tough intervals are replaced by low-intensity, shorter workouts to help me stay balanced without becoming completely worn out. And to prove that I sometimes get this wrong, last week I was very busy with work and then at the weekend I decided to lift the heaviest weights I've done for some time and run the furthest I've gone in ages; result? I now have a cold. Well...man-flu and we all know how bad that can be! ;-) 

    • Always remember that change is possible – we’re never really stuck in a situation. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to change but there’s likely something that can be done to make it better.

    • Ask for help. Reaching out to someone, be it a medical practitioner, counsellor, manager, colleague or friend, is not a weakness, it’s a strength. And it’s the first step in reducing our stress levels.

     

    Distraction and reframing

     

    One of the reasons exercise is thought to be a great tool to combat stress is that it takes your mind off it. Whilst you're thinking about getting enough air into your lungs, making it up that hill, lifting that weight or getting that ball back, it's hard to also think about work deadlines and finances. It offers an escape.

     

    And there are other escape tools too; yoga, tai chi, meditation, listening to music, reading a book, socialising with friends, taking the dog for a walk, stroking your favourite pet, playing games; it really is whatever works for you. 

     

    There are of course less healthy distractions like smoking and alcohol. Don't get me wrong; they work to distract you from the stress but at the same time they add physical stress to your body so they aren't ideal long-term solutions.

     

    Reframing is the art of looking at something in a different way. Think about these two words:

    - Stress

    - Challenge

    The first is often thought of as being negative, whilst the second more positive, but they can actually mean the same thing. If you see a workload as a challenge then it's something you want to conquer and might actually enjoy whilst doing so. Are there any stresses in your life that you could reframe? Thinking about them in a different way may make a surprising difference to their impact on you.

     

    Important points to stress

    1) Can you build your resilience to be able to better cope with the stresses you face?

    2) Can you reduce the amount of stress you are under?

    3) Can you find a way to distract yourself or see the stress in a different light?

     

    Doing just one of these may help you to find a little more balance.

     

    Thanks,

     

    Paul

    Stress uninstalling shutterstock_147431102.jpg

    Developing better relationships with food

    Balanced diet 2 shutterstock_171498590.jpg

    If I could achieve just one thing for my clients, it would be to help them to enjoy a better relationship with food. It can be such a wonderful thing, so good for us and with so many tastes and textures to enjoy. It’s difficult though as there’s so much media coverage around food these days, what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for us, what we ‘should’ and ‘must not’ eat. Then there’s the pressures of society to look a certain way, the quest for the body beautiful and the insecurities brought about by seeing other’s ‘wonderfully perfect’ lives through the filter of social media.

     

    What follows are some things to consider when looking to improve your relationship with food. This is not designed to help if you feel or know that you have an eating disorder. In this instance, you should seek medical help as your health is at risk in the long term. Instead, it’s targeted at the largely unrecognised group in the community who have ‘disordered eating’; you have a poor, negative relationship with food which can strongly impact your mood, making you stressed about food choices and often guilty afterwards and lead to an unbalanced approach to what you eat and drink.

     

    1)        Recognise that you must eat and drink

    We must have food and water. Without them, we cannot survive. This means that far from being bad for us, they’re the stuff of life. This makes them very different from things like alcohol or cigarettes, where we may look to quit completely. Accept food and drink as an essential and inevitable part of your life and work to better your relationship with it from there.

    2)        Understand that no single food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’

     

    So often you’ll hear that this is bad for you and this is good for you, but the reality is that no food or drink is either when consumed as a one-off, then it’s just food. Things become good or bad over time when we have too much of certain things or too little of others. With that in mind, you can worry much less about what you have today.

     

    3)        Opt for a balanced approach instead of abstinence

     

    Did you ever see the episode of Derren Brown’s show where he placed the animal-loving lady in a room with a kitten inside a glass box? As he closed the door, he gave her specific instructions not to touch the button in the room or the cat would come to harm. There was even a big sign…’Whatever you do, don’t push the button.’ What do you think she did? Of course, the cat wasn’t harmed, but it went to show that human beings in their nature are rebellious. If we say ‘I won’t’ or are told, ‘you can’t’, then it’s probably more likely that we will. And after a period of resistance, we often end up overdoing it in response.

     

    If you know this to be true for you, tell yourself that you absolutely can have the less healthy foods, just recognise the consequences of having too much too often.

     

    There are a small number of people for who going cold turkey and removing a certain food from their diet works. This is usually because they have a very powerful motivation for it, so if you know that’s you then that is of course absolutely fine, you’re always free to do what’s best for you.

     

    4)        Eat consciously, because you’re hungry and stop when you’re full

     

    This is a big part of this step and the portion control step. Tuning in to your body helps you to understand if you’re eating because of hunger or emotion. Slow yourself down around food, become conscious of what you’re doing and you may find you eat less or even change your mind before you reach for the less healthy options.

     

    5)        Accept that you will slip up, and at this point you only have two choices

     

    As we said in point 1, you are going to eat on all, or at least most of the rest of the days of your life. That means it’s almost impossible to eat and drink well every day, nor do you need to. There are lots of studies to show that taking healthy eating to the extreme is unhealthy, it’s known as orthorexia and it can be harmful to your physical and mental health. Raw food diets and restrictive eating affect the digestive system and are linked with anxiety and depression.

     

    The key with food is that once you’ve eaten something less healthy, you only have two choices:

    1)   Get back to eating healthily most of the time and then it won’t have made any difference

    2)   Continue to eat poorer choices and then you know you’ll feel bad about it, your health will worse and you’ll likely gain weight

     

    Which choice would you prefer?

     

    6)        Work to remove the connection in your brain between food as a treat or reward

     

    This is ingrained in our culture and society so it won’t happen overnight. It is worth working on though. We often call less healthy foods ‘treats’ or label them as ‘naughty’ which in itself makes eating them an act of rebellion like we discussed in point 3. There are some simple things you can do though:

       Regard all foods and drinks as simply food and drinks. They’re not good, bad, treats or anything else. Each is simply a mix of the different nutrients – carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water

       When you set yourself tasks and goals and achieve them, reward yourself with things other than food and drink. Clothes can be a good choice as they reinforce the benefits of the new healthier you, as can experiences like days out, things that make you feel good without guilt.

     

    7)        Enjoy the less healthy options when you have them

     

    The worst thing of all is to eat something and feel bad about it. Make a conscious decision to have something, and if you’re going to have a less healthy option, choose one that you particularly enjoy, that you love the taste of and when you have it, savour it. Take your time with it, savour every last mouthful and then move forwards without regrets.

     

    Above all else, work on finding a balance that works for you.

    Have yourself a merry little Christmas

    christmas stocking.jpg

    We're approaching the end of another year and many of you will now be with loved ones as the festive celebrations get into full swing.

    It's a time for family and friends, traditional food and drink, and films and TV shows you've probably seen many times before. For many, it's a difficult time because of these things. There's a mixture of thoughts and feelings - you want to relax, unwind, celebrate and enjoy it, but at the same time, there's a worry about weight gain, health, energy, guilt and generally feeling bad. This conflict is always present but this time of year exaggerates these thoughts and feelings even more.

    The thing is, however you choose to spend your Christmas and New Year, remember that it's just a week. Health and fitness don't happen overnight and neither does being unhealthy or unfit. They are an accumulation of behaviours over time.

         "You are the sum of your behaviours."

    Eating chocolate or drinking alcohol isn't bad for you. It's bad if you do it too much, too often. So if you decide this week to go wild, the most important thing to do is to enjoy it and remember that you can't do great harm if you get back to balance afterwards. It's only an issue if the less healthy behaviours continue for longer.

    You may decide to enjoy a few less healthy things or you may feel that you'd rather have a healthier week so you come out the other side feeling positive and energised. The choice really is yours. Whatever you decide, here are a four ideas you might consider that can help add a little balance to your Christmas and New Year:

    • Go for a walk - even a small amount of exercise helps. Five minutes of walking outdoors improves mood as much as an hour-long workout, just 30 minutes of moderate intensity can decrease blood pressure for a few hours and control blood sugar levels for 12 hours. If you're feeling lethargic or sleepy it's a great way of getting a bit more energy.
    Walk up steps shutterstock_171334631.jpg

     

    • Drink water - dehydration is one of the major reasons why you end up with a hangover, so just try mixing in some water or squash in between the drinks.
    water.jpg

     

    • Eat something healthy - fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, there are lots of healthier foods popular at Christmas too, so just try to include some each day in between the festive treats.
    Apple doing bicep curls shutterstock_194981669.jpg
    • Enjoy it - the worst thing you can do is go for the less healthy options and then feel bad about it. If you're going to go for booze, chocolate, mince pies, christmas cake or christmas put, at least savour the moment. If you have in mind you're getting back on it after Christmas or once the New Year begins, you'll have 51 weeks to balance it out and all will be well.

     

    Whatever you do, I hope that you have yourself a merry little Christmas.

     

    Yours in balance (or out of it for a few days),

     

    Paul

    Join me for the 'One Step towards a Balanced Diet 7-Day Challenge'

    As the theme of this month's newsletter is all about making small changes, I thought we could try a little challenge to see if we can each make a small change of our own to our eating habits.

    It's like a very miniature version of the Ten Steps to a Balanced Diet online programme I'm launching in January, so my logical brain told me to call it the 'One Step towards a Balanced Diet Challenge.' 

    Here's me making my pledge to change one thing for one week. I'll be sharing it on Facebook in the coming days, and please do join in by telling me what small change you're going to make for the week ahead. You never know, that change may just stick and help you on the way to better health, better fitness, better weight and shape, and better balance. Small changes can lead to big results.

     

     

    Why Stoptober works...and what you can learn from it

    Stoptober is in full flow, with people quitting for 28 days initially.

    Stoptober is in full flow, with people quitting for 28 days initially.

    Recent years have seen a boom in one-month challenges, including Stoptober, the quit smoking for October challenge from the NHS, Dry January or Go Sober for October, Veganuary and the infamous Movember.

    So just why are they so successful?

    1) It's only a month.

    Quitting smoking or alcohol forever seems like a pretty daunting task. Take it down to just a matter of weeks and all of a sudden it appears much more doable. As Stoptober say on their website however, quitting for 28 days makes you 5 times more likely to quit for good.

    What can you take from this? When you want to make a change, why not do a trial run of it first, setting yourself a goal of doing it for a short period of time to begin with.

    2) In it together.

    Knowing that you're part of a group aiming to achieve a shared objective can be highly motivating. You feel like you don't want to let others down or be the one who falls first.

    What can you take from this? Find someone you can share your change joinery with, a friend or a family member, or maybe even a group of people. Helping others and getting help when you need it can make a real difference.

    3) Taking on and overcoming the challenge

    The public nature of these events leads people to tell others they're getting involved, and we all like to feel good when people praise us for achieving things. 

    What can you take from this? If you want to change something, maybe making it known to others will spur you on to make it happen, partly through a fear of being seen to fail but also because you'll feel great when others praise you for your efforts.

    4) Expert support

    Many of the charity challenges have advice and support on how to make the changes from qualified experts. This means you go into them knowing you have help from reliable sources.

    What can you take from this? Look for advice on making your change from a source you trust and who can help with your particular challenge.

    5) Raising money for good causes

    Charity can be a real motivator for change, and when people have sponsored you to do something, you often feel very motivated not to let them down.

    What can you take from this? Even if it's not a major charity fund-raising change, maybe you can add some value to it. Make a bet with someone that you'll pay for dinner or drinks if you don't succeed, and they'll pay if you do. Or reward yourself by purchasing something you want (it's best if it's not food as this can lead to a link between food and mood which isn't always helpful) or by putting money into a jar towards a bigger dream purchase if you manage to succeed. For example, you can put any money you would've spent on alcohol or cigarettes into a jar towards a holiday.

     

    If you fancy taking on a change, why not check out this month's 'eat' link in the newsletter, where you can join me and others on a 7-Day Diet Challenge.