Why is your brain so addicted to quick wins?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Becoming a ‘Haretoise’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An introduction to Bristol Animal Rescue Centre

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

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

 

Their current work

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

 

How can you help?

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

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

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

Welcome to the new Weekly Wellbeing Challenge

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

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

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

The Fruit & Veg Alphabet

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

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

Apple

Banana

Carrot

Dates

Eggplant (American name for an aubergine)

Fennel

Grapes

Haricot beans (baked beans are allowed)

Iceberg lettuce

Jerusalem artichoke

Kiwi fruit

Leek

Mushroom

Nuts (yes, they are actually fruits!)

Olives

Peas

Quince

Raisins

Satsuma

Tomato

Ugli fruit

Vine leaves

Watermelon

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

Yams 

Zucchini (courgette)

Here’s how the scoring works:

0-7: There’s definitely room for improvement

8-14: You’re on the way to balance

15-20: You’ve balanced your week well

21 or more: You’re a master of balance

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

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

Good luck!

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Lessons from a long run

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

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

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

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

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

1) Give up trying to get better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember…

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

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

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

A balanced approach to IT rage

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

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

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


2) What about swearing and shouting?

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


3) Walk away

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


4) Re-boot

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


5) Plan ahead

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


6) Try some progressive relaxation

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


7) Laugh

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


8) Reframe

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


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


Paul :-)

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

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

1) Castles and fortresses

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

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

Chepstow Castle’s grand entrance

Chepstow Castle’s grand entrance

2) Places of worship

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

The imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey,

The imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey,

3) Hills and mountains

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

About to descend the Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia in the distance

About to descend the Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia in the distance

4) Lakes and reservoirs

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

The reservoirs of the Brecon Beacons

The reservoirs of the Brecon Beacons

5. Rivers and seas

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

Cycling the Dyfi estuary

Cycling the Dyfi estuary

6. Towns and cities

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

7. Industrial heritage

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

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

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

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

Thanks,

Paul













Body Clock: What makes us tick?

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A fantastic Horizon special this week saw Ella Al-Shamahi, a paleo-anthropologist, standup comic and excellent presenter, working alongside a team of scientists following former commando Aldo Kane, equipped with lean physique and fashionable strongman beard, as he spent ten days inside a nuclear bunker. With no phone or watch and no other way to tell the time, Aldo was observed on camera 24 hours a day to see how it affected his natural rhythms, almost like a Body Clock Big Brother.

They put him through various experiments to see how his internal clock deep within the hypothalamus in the brain (known as the biological clock or circadian rhythm) was impacted. Watch as Aldo struggles to guess the time (he’s out by around 2-3 hours generally) and his mental and physical state alters over the course of a week and a half underground. He’s a super-fit chap so there’s a funny bit when he says how hard the experiment is hitting him, so hard that he’s finding it tough to do even an hour’s training!

They show how there are generally three types of people according to the research:

  • 25 per cent of us are ‘early birds’, better in the mornings and early to bed ideally

  • 25 per cent of us are ‘night owls’, better lying in late and more alert in the evenings

  • 50 per cent of us lie somewhere in between

They meet a range of experts and everyday folk to uncover ‘hacks’ you can use to live more in sync with your particular body clock, and be fitter, healthier and happier as a result. Now of course, I don’t call them hacks, they’re behaviours, things you may be able to add to your routines to make improvements. Here’s a selection of the behaviours they uncover. How many do you do? Is there one you could change to help you find a little better balance?

1) Eat bigger meals in the mornings and smaller meals if eating late in the evening. That’s because your digestive system is actually most active first thing and less active just before you go to bed.

2) Carry out tasks that require lots of brown power in the late morning. This is when we tend to excel at complex processes and thins needing logical thought.

3) Exercise late afternoon/early evening. This is when strength, power and reaction time tend to peak meaning you can perform at your very best.

4) Get outside as much as possible during the day. Exposure to natural light helps to sync your body clock and leads to better sleep. The light that we’re exposed to in cars, homes and workplaces, even with windows is hundreds of times lower and doesn’t have the same positive impact. Our balance events are a great opportunity to get out into nature and improve your sleep in the process of course! ;-)

5. In an ideal world, live by your clock. Today’s society doesn’t always allow for this, so if you can’t, read below for more helpful tips.

6. Whatever clock type you are or your daily routine, stick to the same sleep schedule ALL the time. Avoid lying in and catching up on sleep at weekends or days off as it throws your rhythm out again, find something that works and stick to it. Here are those tips I promised:

Night owls

If you can’t work to your rhythm and you struggle to get up in the mornings…

  • Get as much natural light as possible when you wake up. Get the curtains open, get outside, or make your commute active an active one.

  • Shut out/cut down on blue light after sunset. Body clock expert Professor Till gets people in the show wearing special orange sunglasses to do this, but if you don’t have access to these then avoiding tablets or phones after dark or switching them to night shift function can make a difference

Early birds

If you need more sleep but find yourself awake and alert early regardless of how little you’ve had…

  • Block out the morning light. Use eye masks or blackout curtains to make the room darker. This is especially good for nightshift workers who need to get some shuteye during the day.

  • Get as much light as possible in the late afternoon/early evening. This can help to synchronise your body clock to your new time schedule.

Similarly, if jet lag is a problem for you, when you fly east, get out into daylight as early in the morning as possible, whereas if you fly west, get natural light as late in the day as is possible.

Better balance

Remember as always, if you feel it would help you to make a change, do ONE thing only. Try it, don’t expect it to work every time straight away, be patient with it and you’ll get there.

Oh, and here’s the link to the show in iPlayer if you fancy watching it for yourself:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bn5ys4/horizon-2018-9-body-clock-what-makes-us-tick#

You have the power

1) Your health, fitness and wellbeing is mostly influenced by your most frequent health behaviours; the things that you do day-in, day-out that affect you for better or worse. You can get a bit fitter and healthier in 7 days, even more so in 21 days and achieve even more in three months, but you also have to keep doing these things to stay that way, and that never changes. It is a lifelong quest, the ‘game’ of life if you like, and you have to learn to play in a way that works for you, one that’s sustainable and allows you to do more of the better things, more often, so that you feel good the majority of the time.

2) You have the absolute power to control these behaviours, and therefore to control your health, fitness and wellbeing. For some of you, there are absolutely things that impact your health and nothing you can do about them. The key is in accepting that some things are beyond your control and focusing on improving and expanding the bits that are. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

3) There is no failure, only feedback. Change is not the same for everyone. Sometimes making a change is quick and easy, at others it’s long and complicated. We will not always succeed in our attempts first time, second, or even third. We will however succeed eventually if we keep going. We definitely won’t if we give up. Even staying the same requires persistence; you might have a ‘bad’ week because of a holiday or a celebration, but that’s cool, it’s just about learning from it and as mentioned above, accepting it and moving on.

These are the three tenets of the new balance book and online challenges/games that I’m working on. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of my thoughts around these with you in more depth; coping and behaviour change strategies that I use with clients to help them discover a mindset that makes the changes they want more likely.

Let’s start at a really important place; your ability to control your health, fitness and wellbeing. There’s this thing called Locus of Control; nope not locusts, they’re giant insects! It’s all about whether we feel we have control of something, giving us an ‘internal locus of control’ or if we feel it’s beyond us to manage right now, meaning it has an ‘external locus.

I’ve not lost the skills I developed in A-Level art! Luckily, with practice, I know I can get better so it’s in my control. ;-)

I’ve not lost the skills I developed in A-Level art! Luckily, with practice, I know I can get better so it’s in my control. ;-)

So, for example, health behaviours that have an internal locus of control for you might be:

• I can choose to swap an alcoholic drink in the evenings for a non-alcoholic choice; I know I can as I’ve done it before and it was easy

• I know I can walk or cycle into work as I have all the kit and there are showers and secure bike storage there

• I have an hour spare in the evenings where I could do a workout at home or go for a run.


Whereas things in your external locus of control right now might be:

• I have an ongoing medical condition; it’s genetic and some days it can leave me feeling too tired to do anything

• I have to get the kids to school in the mornings and then get to work so I know there’s no time for me to exercise there

• I don’t buy the food shopping so I can’t control what we have in the cupboards


The aim over time should be to increase the size of our internal locus of control, whilst reducing the external locus. If it helps to remember it, imagine you’re on ‘I’m a Celebrity’, slowly eating one Locust at a time so that you have more and more inside you. And if it doesn’t help, stop that thought right now.

This chap has increased the size of his internal locus of control, shrinking his external locus. No bugs were harmed during the process.

This chap has increased the size of his internal locus of control, shrinking his external locus. No bugs were harmed during the process.

A little question to ask yourself

Get a pen and a piece of paper. Make two columns:

1) Internal Locus - Things that affect my health/fitness/wellbeing (or whatever your specific goal is) that are WITHIN my control.

2) External Locus - Things that affect my health/fitness/wellbeing (or whatever your specific goal is) that I CANNOT control right now.

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Study the list…

Is there anything that you said was within your control that you’re not doing to the best of your abilities right now? Could you go back to not drinking in the week or using that free hour to get on your exercise bike whilst you watch TV? If there’s a couple, just pick one to work on for now, the others can come later.

If you’re already nailing your Internal Locus bits, ask yourself,

‘could I do anything to gain more control over something on my External Locus list?’

It can be a very small thing; you may do some of the food shopping yourself, or even just sit with your partner and make the list together so you have more influence on what they bring home. If it seems hard to find something, think about the things you’re already controlling and see if any of the things you do there or the skills you possess that enable you to achieve these could be transferred across.

Control is confidence

You’ve chosen something. How does that feel already? It’s unlikely you’ve done it yet as you only chose it a few seconds ago, but still, you’ll often find it brings a sense of relaxation, a confidence that you can achieve things. This positive mindset also brings with it a sense of resilience, a change in thought-process, which means that even if you try and it doesn’t work first time, it’s not the end of the world, you’ll keep tweaking it and trying again until you get there. We’ll look more at the mindset of persistence very soon; it can be learned and it will help you achieve awesome stuff!

You can repeat this process at regular intervals; weekly is good, each time seeing if you can take charge of one more behaviour, increasing the size of your internal locus of control and bringing you step-by-step closer to better balance.

Stay balanced and enjoy the journey,

Paul



Look good, feel good, DO GOOD...the future of balance

The mission

So the other day I posted on Facebook about my plans for balance. I’ve spent months thinking about what I want to get out of the business and why I do what I do. Business success in the traditional sense doesn’t really motivate me, I don’t want a huge company with loads of employees, and earning lots of money certainly isn’t my main driver. What I want to be able to do when I’m old(er) is look back on life and say ‘that was worthwhile, that was cool, I’m really proud that we did that’. And the thing that will allow me to do that is the reason I got into the health and fitness industry 16 years ago and never left - helping people.

When all of you, and hundreds of other complete strangers, rallied around to help us raise the huge amount of money needed to fly Chris home in just a matter of days the Christmas before last, it was a wonderful thing in what was the most awful time. It highlighted to me the fundamental goodness in people and I knew I wanted to create something that could help to do something similar for others. I also knew that exercise was the perfect vehicle through which to achieve this. You can’t fail to be inspired when watching something like the London Marathon on TV, when long after the professional athletes have finished and gone home, ordinary people continue to pour over the finish line in their charity t-shirts and fancy dress, smiles and tears of joy at what they’ve achieved and so often the knowledge that they’ve helped others in the process.

With all of this in mind I decided we needed a challenging, audacious goal to inspire us into big action…how about raising £1 million for charity I thought? I imagined sitting there in my chair in 40 years’ time, listening to ‘old-fashioned’ musical classics such as 2 become 1 by the Spice Girls and Livin’ La Vida Loca by pop-God Ricky Martin, telling the grandchildren about what we achieved. They won’t be interested of course, they’ll be too busy moaning about the rubbish music, but I have no doubt in my mind that it’ll feel like it was worth all of the effort.

The plan

My aim is to use all of the products and services we offer through balance to help raise money towards our target. We’ll be giving away some online programmes and simply ask if you like them that you consider donating, and we’ll be putting a percentage of our proceeds from paid online programmes and books towards the target too.

We’re also significantly scaling up our events, or ‘balanced days out and weekends’ as I prefer to call them. We’ve been running events for a few years now and we’ve had some amazing times cycling and running through stunning countryside with wonderful people. It’s been a pleasure socialising with and helping those of you who’ve joined us so far and it makes us really excited about the plan for next year.

All of this will come together to help three fantastic charities in the south-west of England for 2019. We’re finalising the details with them at present and we’ll provide lots of information about who they are, what they do and how your money can help them to help others imminently.

Celebratory meal after our 2016 Coast to Coast adventure.

Celebratory meal after our 2016 Coast to Coast adventure.

The events

Throughout next year, we’ll have a series of shorter walks and runs (generally ranging from 4-10 miles) and bike rides (mostly between 20 and 50 miles) on offer. These will be free of charge; all we’ll ask is that you consider donating £5, or more if you wish, towards our charities. They’ll be relaxed and sociable affairs and we’ll be sure to mix them in with trips to some great places to eat and drink too! We’ll announce these at least three months in advance, more where possible and we’ll plan them around our bigger events so that they make for perfect training days.


For the big events, we’ll have:

  • Three cycling weekends - one that’s challenging but not too long or hilly, one tougher option for those who really want to test their limits, and an off-road weekend that allows you to escape completely or build your confidence on a bike

  • Two long walks - there’ll be a half-marathon distance and also a 20-miler so you can really step up your fitness

  • One long run - well, it’s a marathon actually so I think we can definitely call that long.


Here are seven things all of our events have in common, designed to make them truly unique, unforgettable experiences for you:

They’re friendly - We decided to purposely keep our events small, no more than 30 people on each so that they can be truly sociable. There are some great events out there but often I’ve turned up, done my thing and gone home without really interacting with anyone . We’ve designed ours so that you can spend time getting to know people you’ll have lots in common with and make new friends

They’re relaxed - there’s no rush, they’re not races and they’re not timed (though you can time yourself if you wish of course). We live in a fast-paced, stressful world and I know many people feel that chasing times in events can simply add to the stress. There are plenty of races out there so we chose to do something different, events to help escape the rat race and the stress of daily life, just enjoy being in the moment and find some balance.

They’re challenging - although they’re relaxed, that doesn’t mean they’re easy, and we know you wouldn’t want that of course. We make them challenging so that you can increase your fitness, look good and feel good, especially when you get that wonderful feeling that happens when you make it to the finish and receive your shiny balance medal.

All of our events are coded with one of our four colours to describe the level of challenge, green being the easiest then blue, pink and the toughest being orange. Most of our mini-events are green and blue so you can practice, build your fitness and confidence, then challenge yourself on the bigger ones.

They’re supported - the balance crew will support you every step of the way. And what a crew they are! They’ll act as guides, motivators, mechanics and coaches, encouraging, helping and advising when you need it. They have huge amounts of experience with big challenges so you can trust them to help you reach the finish line.

They’re tasty - the food and drink on our events are equally as important as the challenges; it is about balance after all. At our feed stops, rather than endless gloopy sports gels, you’ll find a range of tasty homemade treats like Vicky’s infamous banana loaf as well as healthy options to fuel your journey. We’ll also organise lunch stops in tea rooms, cafes or pubs and post-event there’s a mix of buffets or sit-down meals, and we’ll ensure we cater for your nutritional requirements so there’s something for everyone.

They’re breathtaking - and not because of the level of challenge, but because we only plan routes through stunningly beautiful countryside. The south-west of England is our home and we love it, so the vast majority of our events are run here or very nearby. We aim to take you to places that you may not have found, sometimes right out in the countryside but at others literally on your doorstep. I never fail to get a buzz as I watch the faces of those taking part in our events as they see the jaw-dropping views that I’ve planned into the route. There’s plenty of evidence that getting out into nature is good for your health too, so you’re improving your physical and mental health in the process.

They’re doing good - all of our events support the charities in some way. By joining us for a mini-event, all of your donations go straight to the charities to help them with their work, and we put a small amount from each big event towards the causes too. We also encourage you to raise money in the form of sponsorship for your challenge, but there’s no pressure to do so as we know how stressful it can be to hit fundraising targets and the charities we work with don’t have to pay in any way for the help we’re trying to provide. If you’d like to support our charities, we’d be extremely grateful.

Reached the top and it’s all downhill now! The beautiful views of mid-Wales this year.

Reached the top and it’s all downhill now! The beautiful views of mid-Wales this year.

The launch

The schedule for the 2019 events will be launched this month, along with information about all of the charities we’re supporting. Everything will be launched through the blog and newsletter, so if you want to make sure you’re first to receive it and you’ve not done so already, you can sign up to the newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/c5xSj1

Hopefully you can join us for some wonderfully balanced days out.

Thanks,

Paul







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.

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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

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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...

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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.

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Six steps to sleep soundly through a sizzling summer

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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...

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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    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.

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