What's it like living with depression?

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Some of you will have read my blog a few months ago about habits to help beat depression. You’ll know that this year I’ve had to face the challenge of living with depression for the first time in my life really. I thought I’d share with you a little about what it’s like so that you might better understand and be able to help others you know who will experience it. Of course, these are just my experiences and everyone is different so always bear that in mind and remember three things…

1) Nobody is defined by an illness, no matter what it is. They are not the illness, they are still themselves, they just happen to have a condition

2) Listen - never presume you know what it’s like, even if you’ve been through it yourself. Each person’s experience is different, so take time to listen to them

3) Ask - find out from them how you can best help and be patient, they won’t always know the answer straight away.

What is it like for me?

  • Let’s start with what it’s not - it isn’t a constant thing, it comes and goes, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping up over days. Sometimes it lasts a few hours, sometimes it lasts a few days. Many days it isn’t there at all whilst on others it’s ever-present

  • It also isn’t feeling sad, down or upset, rather it’s feeling empty, lacking in my usual drive to get on and do things which for me is a weird experience. All of my life has always been so driven thinking about my next work or exercise challenge, pushing myself to the next level. But when I feel like this, it’s a challenge to do more than a few hours of work each day, it exhausts me. Many people I’ve worked with find it hard to get the motivation to exercise when they feel this way; for me it’s the complete opposite - the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other or jut turning those pedals appeals greatly, it’s the effort of thinking for work that’s the real challenge

  • Some people might say ‘but you know how to deal with this as it’s you job to help people, so why don’t you just do the things you should and snap out of it?’ It doesn’t quite work like that; depression has many causes and the habits I talk about in balance are just one part of the process of recovery. They definitely help, I know they do - I exercise, I eat well, I drink very little and I don’t smoke or do drugs and all of these habits make me feel good

  • The one area I have struggled with is socialising - it’s a strange contradiction as you know that being around people is good for you, yet the malaise you feel makes it hard for you to get out there. Withdrawal is a common challenge in depression and I’ve not quite worked out how to overcome this one yet. I find myself deliberately waiting in bed until my housemate has gone to work, not wanting to communicate. I think you also sometimes don’t want to be seen when you’re not on top of your game, or maybe that’s just me because I think I feel the pressure to always be energised and positive because of what I do

  • That pressure to be ‘Mr Balance’ is a bigger one for me than I’d ever thought it would be. One of the main points of balance is that none of us is perfect, myself included - we all have days where we can’t be bothered to exercise, where we make poorer food choices, where we don’t feel perfectly balanced, but I’ve felt more expectation on me in recent times to be ‘perfect’. As an example, I recently posted a little rant on my personal page as I was just frustrated with the state of the world and with many people - I wasn’t feeling depressed or down that day, it’s normal to have a balance of emotions. We should feel positive, happy and energised at times, whilst at others we might feel anxious, sad or tired; most of the time we’ll probably just sit somewhere in the middle feeling not very much at all. For whatever reason, my whinge led to many well-meaning checks that I was ok - I guess it’s my own fault having created the persona of balance. Funnily enough, it was this that actually made me feel down that day, as if I was expected to be Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela (and I don’t look like either of them…yet).

I started this short blog piece with some suggestions about things you should do with those challenged by depression, so I’ll finish with some considerations for what not to do:

1) I probably wouldn’t ask if they’re ok - they’re not right now. Instead, treat them as you normally would - talk about football, Love Island, the annoying lady at work, just be how you always are with them

2) Don’t make suggestions - ‘why don’t you…’ or ‘have you tried…’ aren’t always what’s required. As I said at the start, listen to them if and when they want to talk and then ask what would be most helpful for them.

Have a balanced week all (and remember, that means ups, downs and just fair to middling).

Paul

What next for balance?

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Balance is nearly seven years old and in that time, I’ve done many different things with the business. It began as a traditional Personal Training company and it developed to offer online coaching, to assist PT’s in building their own businesses and running a range of events, mostly cycling but some walks and runs too. Alongside all of that I’ve continued to teach and write and been lucky enough to get involved in a nice mix of projects.


Do it for the love


As you all know, my work is more than a job to me, it’s my hobby, my passion. I’m luck to do something I love day in, day out and even luckier that it’s actually all I’ve ever done. It never fails to give me a buzz when I know that the work I’ve done has helped you and others to make changes in life for the better and that they’ve left you feeling fitter, healthier and happier.

So recently I took some time to think about what I can do to best help you all and what fits best with my own goals and values. I know I don’t want to be rich'; I’m not motivated by money, nor am I motivated by the thought of building balance into a big business. I like that it’s just me and that it, well, keeps me balanced. I like working hard but not too hard and more than anything, I like helping people.

What I do know I want to keep doing to help you most is develop things that help you make sustainable changes - it’s got to last. You’ll never find quick fixes or gimmicks, only stuff that helps you keep it up in the long term. At the same time, sustainability from an environmental perspective will also run through everything balance does. Building on the recent Seven Habits for a Healthier Planet, look out for more about saving our planet very soon.

Then I asked myself; what don’t I like about it and I realised that Personal Training, which is what I’ve always traditionally done, is quite exclusive - it’s not for everyone because many people can’t afford it. And whilst I love it and I know it really helps people, I want to create something that can help people from all backgrounds. I thought about the type of business I want balance to be like, and bizarrely or not, the answer I came up with was Aldi. I want it to be affordable but of a really good quality at the same time. I want you to get that feeling you get when you leave Aldi going ‘wow that was really incredible value’.

I also want to look back on life in years to come knowing that I did something good, something to be proud of, so I’m going to continue to build the relationships I’ve been working on with local charities and make sure everything balance does makes a difference.


The plan

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1) Animated online programmes - starting this month, I’m going to release a range of very low-cost online wellbeing programmes presented by my virtual business partner Paul-e.

All built around the balance principles of making lasting changes by building healthy habits, there’ll be ones on a range of health and wellbeing goals. The first one will actually be about how to make lasting changes; the key planning and psychological tools you need, then there’ll be ones on sleep, stress, back pain, energy levels and all sorts. Most importantly, they’ll all be low cost. None of those annoying monthly subscriptions required - once you buy it you’ll have access to it permanently so you can go back to it as often as you want.

A percentage of all profits will be donated to local charities to help them meet key targets.

2) Free active social events - for now I’ve decided to put my paid events on hold. I’m going to schedule a range of informal bike rides, walks and runs and invite you to join me. They’ll all still have the key themes of balance events - a leisurely pace so as to be as inclusive as possible, beautiful scenery and great food and drink. The only difference is I’ll be joining you en route rather than supporting officially from the van. I might just bake some goodies as treats for the end though and if you want to say thank you, you’ll be able to donate towards the charitable cause I’m supporting at the time.

That’s it'; nice and simple for now. I’ll also be speaking to some local publishers about getting the entire balance methodology published as a book for those of you who still love the old-fashioned way and I’ll be sure to keep you updated on my progress.

A huge thanks to all of you for supporting balance and I hope I continue to produce things that you find helpful and make a difference in your life.

Stay balanced,

Paul


Re-use, recycle, upcycle

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“Ending is better than mending…the more stitches, the less riches.”

 

I’ve recently finished reading A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, a dystopian future novel written in the 1930s where Henry Ford has essentially replaced God as the being that everybody worships. Part of this alternative religion sees mass consumerism placed at the very heart of society; nobody needs repair things as they can simply buy new and by doing so, they keep the wheels of society turning for the better.

 

Huxley foresaw this when visiting America in the early 1930s, little did he know how accurate his predictions would become. We might not sing songs about the Great Ford, but we do live in a society obsessed with consumerism and aghast at the thought of repairing something when it’s so easy to buy new. We live in the age of Amazon 1-click, of contactless, of computers that are only expected to last a few years before they’re considered ‘vintage’ (this very word was used by a young ‘genius’ on a recent visit to the Apple store where I had the gall to ask if my 2012 laptop might be repairable). New is always better – new cars, new houses, a new phone every year that does pretty much everything the ‘old’ one does, with a few tweaks. We truly are weapons of mass consumption.

 

But at what price? New things we need a constant supply of resources to produce them…metals, plastics, man-made fibres and all the fuel needed to power the plants and machinery that create them. And what do we do with the old things? We discard them. Into the bin, thrown onto the tip, or in the worst case, dumped by the side of the road or at a local nature spot.

 

The Savage in Huxley’s novel, a young man who’d grown up in the wilderness, brought up by Native Americans, was repulsed by this modern world and its endless consumerism and leisure time. His voice is beginning to resonate in our own society. Just this weekend I packed for a camping trip and got out my shiny new rucksack, bought to replace the previous incarnation, simply because the seam had begun to tear in the corner. At the time it never even crossed my mind to attempt to repair it. Why would I bother when I could get online and have a brand new one delivered by tomorrow for free? I say free; covered by my annual Amazon Prime subscription of course.

 

More recently though, I’ve begun to wonder how my shopping habits affect our planet? About how we will eventually run out of the fossil fuels and other resources needed to make and deliver this constant stream of new things. About how my shopping habits lead to deforestation and a continually shrinking habitat for the beautiful animals on our planet. About how my discarded items are sent abroad and piled into vast mounds of rubbish, damaging the health of local children and families, about how all of the plastics I’ve bought begin to degrade and end up in our oceans, filling the stomachs of marine life and ultimately, possibly ending up in my own through the process of the food chain. And about how reusing, repairing and buying second-hand can make a difference and save our forests, our oceans, our animals, our health and our bank balances.

 

How has this changed my habits?

 

In more ways than you can imagine…

  • I look to repair things when they break and often, it’s eminently possible and works just as well afterwards, sometimes better

  • If I need to buy something, I’ll check out Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Gumtree or Preloved for second-hand options. It’s become a bit of an obsession, searching for the best possible bargains and comparing with what it would’ve cost me to buy new

  • I’ve found things in the house that can do a perfectly good job; examples include plates and a toast rack acting as soap dishes, a bathroom door bolt used to secure two scaffold planks together to make a raised bed and old towels turned into dusters and dishcloths

  • I’ve worked on throwing away less and recycling more, so much so that for the last fortnight I haven’t even had a bin in the house. Wood, hard plastics and metals get recycled at the local tip, paper, card, plastic bottles, trays, glass and foil go into my recycling bins for collection, soft plastics are taken to Tesco stores here in Bristol where they’re melted down and used again for packaging and I avoid buying things in packaging I know I can’t recycle. The bin by the way, has been washed out and will be used to grow potatoes in future.

 

Your next challenge is simply to take one step towards less consumption and less waste…buy something from a second-hand shop or through online sites like Facebook Marketplace, reuse something in a novel way – a jam jar as a plant pot, cardboard boxes to store clothes or toys, whatever you can think of. Maybe upcycle an old piece of furniture, it could be a fun project, give you a new hobby and help you get active at the same time. Can you recycle more? Check out sites like Terracycle or Recycle Now to find ideas on what else you can do – maybe take crisp packets or toothbrushes to a local Terracycle collection point for example.

 

Re-use, recycle, upcycle and help our planet find to become fitter, healthier and happier once more.

Kindness - the most important habit of all?

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Ebenezer Scrooge throws open the window on that snowy Christmas morning and throws the young boy in the street some money to get him the prize turkey from the poulterers shop, plus a generous tip for his time. What Dickens is showing us is that a new man has been born, a kind one. It’s the central theme of the book, the notion that being kind and generous not only makes others happy, but you too in the process. Of course it’s framed in Victorian godliness, with kindness ultimately being the way to redemption.

In more modern times, there’s a wonderful episode of Friends entitled ‘The one where Phoebe hates PBS’, where she tries to prove to Joey that selfless good deeds do exist. What follows are numerous attempts by her to show kindness, but frustratingly for her, she keeps feeling good about it, proving Joey’s point that when being kind to others, there’s always something in it for you too. But hey, that’s ok, it’s what the legendary self-help author Stephen Covey would call ‘Win:Win’.

I’ve spent my adult life searching for the magical formula for what makes us fitter, healthier and happier, my very own grail quest if you will. It led me down a long and winding path that ultimatelybrought me to the point where I realised it wasn’t one single thing that provides us with wellbeing, rather a broad collection of habits that must be regularly performed in much the same way as plants need regular feeding and watering to thrive.

But…what if there were one habit that may just be more important than all of the others? Partly because it’s such a powerful habit in terms of its ability to boost your mental wellbeing, but also because in turn, those changes in mental wellbeing boost your energy and motivation to perform the other healthy habits. I’ve come to suspect that the habit in question might be kindness.

Kindness isn’t an emotion, it’s an action and that’s why it’s so powerful. Unlike say happiness, which we’re all constantly seeking, which we feel pressure to experience more often, especially in the picture-perfect world of social media. But happiness is a feeling, and feelings can need experiences and actions for them to occur. Much like the recent piece I wrote noting that something makes you happy and that happiness makes you smile, but smiling as an action in itself can also make you happy. You can’t just feel happy, something has to happen to feel an emotion. Kindness is different, it’s an act and the wonderful thing is, that being kind makes you happy.

The Mental Health Foundation Report

Back in 2012, The Mental Health Foundation produced a great little free download for Mental Health Awareness Week. In it, they summarised the effects of doing good and helping others on our wellbeing. In brief, they reported that:

  • Stress levels decrease and our immune system is strengthened

  • There’s a decrease in negative feelings like anger, aggression and hostility

  • Our mood improves, as does self-esteem and confidence

  • Happiness levels rise quickly and this brings increased feelings of calm in the long-term

  • Social connections improve; we have a greater sense of belonging and therefore feel less isolated

  • We feel more optimistic about things

As well as just interacting more with people, these benefits could derive from a sense of perspective gained from helping others less fortunate than yourself, an increased level of support due to reciprocity (others tend to help you more when you help them and over time it appears that you can build a ‘kindness bank’ of memories that helps you to feel good about yourself.

Happy hormones

Numerous chemical changes occur through acts of kindness. Dopamine, serotonin, opioid and oxytocin are all increased in the ‘flood that comes from doing good’. Even witnessing others being kind releases the same substances, but doing it yourself delivers a greater dose. These hormones have a positive impact on mood, increase relaxation and lead to less feelings of depression, but also reduce physical measures like blood pressure and feelings of pain. One study showed that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were 23 per cent lower in people who were more kind, and kindness even appeared to slowed the ageing process.

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The research

Here’s a collection of scientific studies and their findings in relation to kindness and wellbeing. Just cos you know, it’s nice to know I’m not just making it up! ;-)

  • In one study, students from a university were tasked with performing five random acts of kindness (RAK’s) each week. They could be small like making someone a cup of tea or bigger like giving blood, the choice was theirs. Over six weeks, wellbeing scores improved in students who took part, versus those who didn’t

  • Another study of Japanese university students found that happy people were generally kinder than unhappy folk. They also found that happiness increased through simply counting the number of acts of kindness you performed, which in turn made them kinder still and more grateful

  • MS (Multiple Sclerosis) sufferers who provided peer support to others with the condition had less symptoms of depression and improved their confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem

  • In a study looking at how the brain responded to acts of kinds, MRI scans showed that there was increased activity in the meso-limbic system, an area stimulated when we are rewarded. Helping others appears to give us pleasure sensation, a type of euphoria sometimes referred to as ‘helper’s high’ 


Of course, as with everything, we can have too much of a good thing and other research has noted that too much helping or volunteering can overwhelm us, leaving us feeling stressed and at times outweighing the benefits we derive. This has been referred to as compassion fatigue. Helping others to the extent that we don’t help ourselves enough, maybe financially, by not giving us enough time to do the things important to us, or just to the point where we become overly tired (being helpful takes effort) can all have a negative impact on wellbeing, so it’s important to find the right balance.

What can we do?

Acts of kindness can come in many forms, large to small - picking something up for someone if they drop it, holding a door or letting a car out in traffic can all be easy wins. You might go further and provide mentoring services to someone, raise money for good causes or even do some volunteering.

Apparently, we tend to volunteer more as we get older, maybe because we have more free time or generally a better income which allows us to be more generous, or maybe our values change as we age? Whatever the reason, clearly it’s a helpful thing to do; studies show that people of 55 or over had a 44% lower risk of dying young when they did volunteering.

I’ll leave you with two quotes from very different people, but both equally powerful.

We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.
— Mother Theresa
We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.
— Winston Churchill

Be kind,

Paul



Have a little.....................………patience

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The stripes would fill the screen, constantly changing colour, accompanied by the noise; a mix of screeching, beeping and static, like some sort of futuristic rave. There were no drugs involved here, just the simple insertion of a cassette tape into the Spectrum ZX. The hope was that at some point in the future, it would finish loading and I’d get to enjoy the modern wonder that was the home computer game. Sadly, this didn’t always happen; with personal computers in their infancy, the error screen (like the one above) was all too common. When this happened, my mom would simply say ‘never mind, you’ll have to play it tomorrow instead.’

And this way I learned the art of patience. Fast forward 30 years and that art is all but lost. The mobile phone, not much larger than a credit card, has 15 times more memory than the Spectrum, is thousands of times quicker and more powerful, and with the advent of the internet, meant that almost anything was available in seconds at the touch of a button. Where shall we eat later? Who played that character in Lord of the Rings? When can I get that delivered by? Oh, it’ll be here this afternoon.

We live in an instant world and it’s reflected in our behaviours and attitudes. We’re frustrated when we see the dreaded buffering symbol, when the image pauses, even briefly, whilst streaming a video. We send texts, emails and WhatsApp messages and don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect an instant reply. Our phones tell us when a message has been read and when someone is online, making us irritated when the person appears to be ignoring us. We have no idea of course what they might be up to at that moment; they could be working, spending time with their family, delivering a baby by the side of the road or saving the planet, but we’re free so they should be too.


But wait, there’s power in patience


Take That told us to have a little, Yoda informed Luke that he must work on it and Guinness said that if we could wait for just under two minutes, good things would come. Science suggests they may well be right.

In 2007, Sarah Schnitker and Robert Emmons showed that people who demonstrated more patience tended to experience less depression and negative emotions, possibly because they could cope better in times of stress. The same authors showed in a separate study that people who demonstrate more patience towards others were more hopeful and satisfied with their lives. Those who get less stressed by traffic jams, queuing and malfunctioning technology also report better mental wellbeing in general.

In a 2012 study, patient people reported putting in more effort and making more progress towards important life goals, and it’s even been linked to less incidents of ill health; coughs and colds, ulcers, headaches, acne and poor sleep. At a physiological level, this may be because they have a better balance in their autonomic nervous system. One half is made up of the well-known, ‘fight or flight’ response, known more technically as your sympathetic nervous system and responsible for the increase in hormones like adrenaline during times of stress. This should be balanced by the parasympathetic nervous branch, your ‘rest and digest’ system, that releases hormones like melatonin to help you sleep, repair and recover. When these systems are not well balanced and you’re spending more time on your accelerator and less on the brake, you’re more likely to suffer physical and mental health issues.

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Worth the wait

Back to my Spectrum ZX; I remember the joy and excitement when the game had finally loaded. It was extra special because I’d had to wait for it and because there was always that chance that I wouldn’t get to play Space Invaders or Manic Miner. When you think about it, there are countless wonderful examples of where patience is just better…

• Opening your Christmas or birthday presents without already knowing what they are

• That feeling when the ketchup finally starts to drip out of the bottle and onto your plate, even though the palm of your hand is a little sore from all the tapping

• When you counted the cash in your money box and you were finally able to afford the toy/sweets you so desperately wanted

• Waiting for a letter from your friend in response to the one you sent them ages ago

• The first leaves growing on the plant you’ve been caring for from a seed

• The day you notice those muscles poking through underneath your skin, a little more defined than before for sure, or when you get up that hill without stopping and it takes you by surprise.

What about you? Can you think of things that were just more enjoyable when you’d waited?

Getting fitter and healthier requires plenty of patience, firstly to get there, and secondly to keep it up. If you haven’t been active for a while, changes can happen relatively quickly to begin with, but the fitter you are the slower this change becomes and you’ll have to test those Jedi mind powers to the max. Always remember, your health is the sum of your most frequent, recent habits. You can’t get fitter and then just stop, it doesn’t work like that. Your health, fitness and wellbeing is a lifelong quest and the going isn’t always easy, patience is a must.

How do you stay patient?

In his brilliant book, Misbehaving, Richard Thaler discusses the infamous ‘Marshmallow Test’. In a series of scientific studies, children were offered either one marshmallow (or cookie) now, or they could have three if they waited for 15 minutes. Agonisingly, they were then left alone in the room with the single sugary treat calling to them, tempting them to scoff it down. And of course, many did. Thaler points out that if they’d been offered one cookie at 3pm tomorrow, or three at 3:15, they’d have no problem in waiting the extra quarter of an hour. It’s the immediacy of it that makes it challenging; they can have it NOW…so they do.

The human brain isn’t particularly good at waiting when it can get instant gratification and that’s an important message. It means that if there’s an option to eat all the sugary treats straight away, you probably will. Willpower works on making yourself feel bad for wanting to eat it all and guilt isn’t always the best motivator. Thaler gives the example of a man trapped on a desert island after a plane crash, with only ten energy bars for sustenance. In an ideal world he says, he’d have ten safes each locked and set to a timer, meaning only one bar would be released each day. That’s not the case on a desert island though, so he has to use willpower to restrict himself to just one each day, reminding himself about the long-term benefits of doing so, But our brains aren’t wired that way; studies where people are offered a set amount of money now, say £100, or £120 in a month’s time, often find that people take what’s on offer straight away.

What does this mean for you?

• If you buy lots of sweets, biscuits or crisps, you’ll probably eat them all more quickly than if you just bought one smaller portion at a time

• You have to set up the environment to make it less convenient for you to eat too much or poorly - portion things out into individual containers or even place them in different cupboards. Make it less simple to over consume. As well as being impatient, we’re also lazy. Studies have shown we’ll eat less peanuts if we have to shell them, so buying things like chocolates in individual wrappers will likely mean we eat less.

• When it comes to wanting to achieve big goals quickly, our impatience will often lead us to seek quick fixes, even when we know they’re not healthy and they probably won’t last.

Utilise the psychological tools I talk about so frequently, split the big goal down into smaller chunks and focus only on that. Watch how professional sportspeople talk about taking one game, round or stage at a time. They want the big prize, but they know that patience is the way to get it.

Involve someone else to assist you. Give them your portions of food treats to look after and ration out for you, or report your daily exercise or eating/drinking to them.

Put up visual prompts to remind you what you’re working towards. Bring it back to the forefront of your mind at every opportunity, or else it’ll fall somewhere down the pecking order, likely behind that big glass of wine.

And in life in general, next time you can’t remember what film that guy was in, leave your phone in your pocket and stay in the present enjoying the conversation with your friend or partner. When you’re stuck in traffic, take a breath, put a song on the radio, relax and remember that good things come to those who wait.

How long do habits take to form?

It’s 21 days right? Everyone knows that. Those of you who are qualified Personal Trainers and/or have studied the Stages of Behaviour Change model might be saying ‘isn’t it 6 months until you’ve made a permanent change?’

A study of 96 people at University College London came up with some different answers. Participants were asked to choose just one health behaviour to turn into a habit; maybe adding a piece of fruit to their diet or increasing their daily step target for example. On average it took 66 days for a habit to become automatic; one person took just 20 days for drinking water with a meal, a 10-minute morning walk took 50 days for another, whilst one had’t manage to form a habit of sit-ups in the morning by day 84. Indeed, simple habits seemed to be formed very quickly in a matter of weeks (18 days was the quickest), whereas harder ones were estimated to take just over eight months. Missing single opportunities to build new habits did not affect the overall chances of them forming; this is great news as it means there’s no reason for you to give up if you don’t manage a perfect transition to your newly desired habit straight away.

So where does the 21 days thing come from? In the 1950s a surgeon, Dr Maxwell Maltz, was interested in how long it took patients to get used to the effects of their surgery, including everything from nose jobs to amputations. The answer? About three weeks. He then observed that this seemed true of many habits in his own life and the seed was sewn in much the same way that we believe that body language makes up 55 per cent of communication (that’s definitely not always true, but that’s for another time). He didn’t do any formal studies into it so it’s impossible to say how accurate his observations were. Single scientific studies, or even a sentence (or just part of one) can easily be picked up and become catchy soundbites that spread to all four corners of the earth. What Maltz actually said was that it probably took AT LEAST 21 days, so even he recognised right from the outset that the time it can take may vary.

How is a new habit formed?

A new habit is said to be formed when we reach automaticity; that’s the ability to do it without really having to think about it. All habits have three distinct stages:

1) A stimulus - the thing that causes us to initiate the habit. For example, your morning alarm can trigger you to perform a variety of actions.

2) A response - that alarm first and foremost will act a stimulus to get up; and that in turn can be the stimulus to head to the bathroom and brush your teeth, or to make a morning brew

3) A reward - you’ll be rewarded for brushing your teeth with that clean feeling and in the longer term, with healthier teeth and gums and Colgate advert modelling potential. Your tea or coffee will reward you with that kickstart you need to face your day.

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Building habits in your brain is like creating a path through a field of corn. At first, there’s no discernible route through, but once you start to tread down a path, it gets easier each time to get across the field. And then why would you bother trying to make a new path. In the same way, the more a stimulus leads to a set response and the reward is consistently reaped, the more defined the neural path becomes, reaching a point where it fires instinctively as soon as the stimulus is sensed. This can be good, in that it stops you having to consciously think about something you do every day, saving time and energy, but also detrimental if you want to make a change. The habit is engrained and it can take time to build a new path.

You might be sat there thinking, ‘I’m not very good at forming habits’ - oh yes you are! Your whole life revolves around them. Do you go to work every day? Remember to take the kids to school? Eat dinner, always watch your favourite tv show, put your clothes on? Then you’ve formed plenty of habits. It can just take time to blend new ones in when you already have so many in place.

Some changes come instantly; for example if you touch a hot stove when you’re a child, it doesn’t take you 21 days to learn not to do it again. If the motivation is high enough, it is possible for new habits to form straight away. It’s usually the exception rather than the rule, with most taking time to bed in to your routine. Elliot Berkman PhD, Director of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon considers that there are three main things that determine whether a new habit is likely to be formed…

1) The availability of an alternative - he notes that it appears much easier to replace a habit with another one than to merely stop doing something. Good examples are Vaping or chewing gum rather than smoking, or having a soft drink with dinner rather than a glass of wine.

2) The strength of motivation - using smoking as an example again, some people find that they’re able to quit when they hear they’re going to become a parent, and weight loss can be inspired when you can no longer fit into your favourite clothes.

3) The ability to change - you may need certain skills or resources in order to change. If you have these or they’re easily available, change can be quick. If planning and effort are needed, say you need to buy things or learn a new skill to make it happen, change will be slower.

The good news

As the University College London study mentioned earlier showed, failure to perform a new habit perfectly from the off is not fatal. Author Toni Bernhard refers to doing something differently just once as laying down a small groove towards changing the neural pathway. Think of it like this - imagine a river flowing through a valley. It has a set pathway, but it begins to erode a small section off to one side. At first, only a tiny bit of water flows in, the rest holds it’s course. Over time though, the new flow begins to further erode the bank, sending more and more water along the new path, until eventually a whole new route is formed. If you can work away, bit by bit, you can form a new route too. And along the journey, if you’re doing something more than you were before, then you’re improving your health, fitness and happiness.

Remember the 3 pillars of balance:

1) Your health is largely the sum of your most frequent, recent behaviours - what you do each day makes the biggest difference.

2) You have the power to change - new habits can be formed at any time in life. Sometimes it will be easy, sometimes it won’t, but it’s always possible.

3) There is no failure, only feedback - it’s not about trying once and giving up. Change is an ongoing process; you learn from your mistakes and you improve. Even then, you’ll never be perfect. Some days will be better than others, but the aim is to work towards more balanced days, more often.

Look out for the launch of my free online animated challenge coming soon; Habits for a Healthier Planet (working title) where I’ll be inviting you to join me in making small changes that help to protect our wonderful world.


Five saucy strategies

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

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

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

1) Have the ones you love

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

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

2) Are you eating it just out of habit?

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

3) Plan your portions

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

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

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

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4) Don’t have it in the house

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

5) Spice it up a bit

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

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

Habits to help beat depression

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

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

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

1) Do something small

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

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

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

2) Move

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

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

3) Even better, move outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Spend time with friends

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

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

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5) Choose healthier food and drinks whenever you can

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

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

  • Nuts/seeds - 1-2 handfuls per day

  • Oily fish - 1-2 portions per week

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

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

Summary

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

Why do habits stick?

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


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


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


The three bits of habits

Habits share three things in common:

1) They’re triggered by certain cues

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

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


Cues (and behaviours that follow)

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

Cues come in various forms:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rewards

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

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

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


The three bits of habits in action

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

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

What does this mean for your health?

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

Try the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay balanced,

Paul :-)

HIIT isn't just for the superfit

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

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

The meaning of HIIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How high?

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

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

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

How will you know you’re at a 7/8?

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


Workouts to try

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

Cardio - hill or stair climbs

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

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

Weights

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

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

2) Sit Down-Stand Up

3) Seated Band Back Extensions

4) Band Wide Rows

5) Floor Bridge

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

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

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

Paul :-)

Love your heart

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

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

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

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

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

What your heart can tell you

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Fitness and health

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

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

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

Here’s a guide to what the scores mean

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

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

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


2. Recovery

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

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


3. VO2max and other markers

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

V = Volume

O2 = Oxygen

Max = the maximum amount you can take in

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

You can find out more about VO2max here.

Love your heart

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


Stay balanced,

Paul







Going wild

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

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

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

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

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

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

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

Am I in a horror movie?

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

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

The sun begins to rise across the water

The sun begins to rise across the water

An uphill start

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

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

Saunton Sands with the beginning of the endless sand dunes behind

Saunton Sands with the beginning of the endless sand dunes behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

No room at the inn

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

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

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

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

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

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Short and windy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the adventure

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

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

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

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

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

Oyez, oyez.

A heads up

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


Use your head

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


‘Head up’

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

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

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


What does this mean for movement?

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

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

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


Press-ups

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

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

Squats and deadlifts

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

Core exercises

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

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

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

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


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

Stay balanced,

Paul

The 52 habits of balance

Part 2: eat

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

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

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

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

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Habit 1: Get your 5-a-day

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

Score:

1 point if you rarely eat fruit or veg at present

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

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

Habit 2: Go nuts and get a little seedy

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

Score:

1 point if you rarely eat nuts or seeds at present

3 points if you do so occasionally

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

Habit 3: Get the oh so mega Omega3

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

Score:

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

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

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


Habit 4: Munch your wholegrains

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

Score:

1 point if you rarely consume wholegrains

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

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


Habit 5: Daily dairy & alternatives

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

Score:

1 point if you rarely get your daily dairy

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

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


Habit 6: Hydrate and feel great

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

Score:

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

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

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


Habit 7: Alcohol

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

14 units is roughly:

• 6 small glasses of wine

• 6 pints of standard strength beer

• 5 pints of standard strength cider

• 14 single shots of spirits

Score:

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

3 points if you have better and worse weeks

5 points if you consistently meet the guidelines


How did you do?

Add up your scores, what was your total?

7-16: Out of balance at the moment

17-26: On the way to balance

27-35: Well balanced

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

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

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

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

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














The 52 habits of balance

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

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

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

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

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Fifty two is a magic number

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

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

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

Go on then…what are they?

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

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

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

  • Out of balance = 1 point

  • On the way to balance = 3 points

  • Perfectly balanced = 5 points

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

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Before you even decide to make a change…

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

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

When planning for change…

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

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

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

And when you’re actually making a change…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you do?

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

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Three tips for balanced New Year's Resolutions

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Here we go again!!

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

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

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

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


1) Have a good reason

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

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

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

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

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

3) Be like a rubber ball; develop bouncebackability

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

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

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

Here’s to a balanced year!

Paul

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

What is balance?

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

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

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So what is it, and what it is not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, this is what balance is…

It’s based on three key principles…

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

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

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

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

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2) You have the power

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

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3) There is no failure, only feedback

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

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How do you know when you’re well balanced?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Stay balanced,

Paul

Choice: The good and the bad

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

How naive and wrong I was!

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

How naive and wrong I was!

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

The bad

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

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

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

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

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


The good

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

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

The balanced approach

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

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

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

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

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

2) Delegate choices to others who can help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Weighing in weekly…or even daily

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

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

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

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

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

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Weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do not weigh yourself daily or weekly if:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

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

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

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

Make sure your goals are HARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Focus on the process

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

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

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

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


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

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