Mental Health Awareness and Loneliness

You may have seen already that this week of Mental Health Awareness Week and there will be plenty of people sharing their own experiences with their mental health struggles, raising awareness of the struggles many people face on a daily basis, as well as lots of practical advice.

As ever, however, there is a specific theme to the week and this year it’s loneliness and how this can affect people’s Mental Health, so, to keep with the theme, I wanted to focus this blog on this particular topic in the fitness arena.

Exercise is accepted as being good for our mental health, but if you don’t currently do much in the way of exercise it may seem like exercise is often a pretty solitary pursuit. The first instinct for most of us when we think exercise is going to the gym or maybe for a run, things where it’s going to be you doing something alone. The idea of training with other people if your new to exercise can also seem pretty intimidating, even just going to the gym when it’s busy can feel like a lot. So it’s not surprising that for many people struggling with their mental health and feeling isolated and lonely, the idea that exercise could help not only with their mood but also with meeting people, seems a bit of a stretch.

When I first started exercising I persuaded a friend to come to a Zumba class with me because quite frankly I was overweight, unfit and no way was I going alone. I loved it, she hated it. As much as it made me feel unreasonably nervous I went back for class two by myself and then class three, class four and so on. Over time I tried more classes: Body Jam (ironically now the first Les Mills class I tried and one now I couldn’t do well if my life depended on it), Circuits, Street Dance, Body Combat, HIIT and Body Pump. I started seeing the same faces each week, started saying hi (always having a spot helps here!) and over time met people, many of whom are still friends to this day. In fact some of my best friends I met through classes. As much as attending classes involves only me and I don’t need anyone with me to attend it’s certainly led to me meeting a lot of people and realising gyms can be very much a community.

So if you are feeling isolated, maybe you’re in a new area or life has changed recently and you’ve found yourself with time on your hands and fewer people you feel connected with, exercise can be something that provides more than just an endorphin boost.

Now, granted training in the gym isn’t always the easiest way of meeting people. If you’re lifting or on a piece of cardio kit you won’t naturally meet new people (although you might start to see the same faces if you go at regular times and again get to know those people, but there are plenty of other options which lend themselves a little more to widening your social circle.

– Group exercise classes allow you to keep to yourself but you will see the same faces every week so getting to know people organically is much easier

– Group PT / Small group training, much like classes will mean you end up training with the same people each week, and will involved more interaction, making it easier to get to know new people. This can also be a more cost effective way of trying PT sessions.

– Lessons. Do you want to learn to swim better or dance or try another skill. Signing up for lessons in something active is another way of meeting people who you have an interest in common with, which is great if your nervous about small talk!

– Joining a sports team can be a great way of enjoying training whilst also getting to know new people, there will often be team socials to help you get to know your team mates away from the pitch.

– Running clubs, much like sports teams, often have social events planned as well as runs, meaning you can run at your pace then meet people after.

-Cross Fit, a bit like group exercise, if you join a box you’ll often find you see the same people each week, making it easier to get to know new people.

– Online apps, as much as these seem a bit anti social, you will often find online PTs also have a social media group for their clients. Whilst not immediately a face to face option for meeting people these can allow you to connect with similar people and many people find people they connect with and can chat with even if they are miles away in groups such as this.

These are just a few ideas of ways you can help your Mental Health with exercise whilst also connecting with new people, which in itself can also benefit your Mental Health.

You can read more about the official campaign, including downloading some resources for specific populations below.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

Help I’m running a half in 6 weeks!

Have you realised you’re just a few weeks out from your run and you haven’t really started training?

In my latest podcast I talk about my current situation, factors to help you decide what to do and how to approach the situation if you decide you’re still going to run.

You can listen here:

Run Forest Run

I used to run a lot, I’ve only done one marathon but I’ve done a lot of half marathons and 10Ks in recent years.  Now I was never massively fast (I’d definitely describe myself as the tortoise rather than the hare) but I could complete 5km within 25 minutes, 10km within an hour and so on so was comfortable signing up for runs and knowing I’d get around in one piece.

During the initial Lockdown when gyms were closed I ran most days and so was in a pretty good place running wise.  Repeated Lockdowns, back and forth changes, injuries and personal issues just made me stop running for a while.  Added to not being able to train at all, weight gain and general not feeling 100% my running ability is not where it was.  I hadn’t run as much as 5km unbroken for a long time and the addition of more than 10kg of bodyweight in a short period of time made running for ten minutes plus really hard work.

I’ve signed up for a half marathon in May so now is the time that I need to get myself back to a point where it’s doable to run 13.1 miles.  I’ve started running short periods (like 15/20 minutes) unbroken and last weekend ran 5km without walking.  It took me about 38 minutes, but this weekend I got that down to 36 minutes.  I’ve been meaning to try Park Run to help keep up a routine of running but my times have been putting me off.  Realistically I know they’ll be other people running at my pace but my brain keeps telling me I’ll be last and so I keep chickening out.

The  thing is if I was talking to a client I’d be reassuring them that they can do it, they won’t find themselves last and even if they did it wouldn’t matter and I’d mean it, but we’re always harsher towards ourselves aren’t we.

So this weekend I’m going to make myself go and give Park Run a go with the aim of doing it in less than 36 minutes.  At no point am I under any illusion that this half marathon is going to be easy but I’m determined to get myself to the point where I can do it and run the whole thing.  Zero ego, I might be slow and the next month or so will not be pretty but I know I’ll feel good if I get myself to this point.

Trying Group Exercise

Have you ever wanted to try an exercise class but been too nervous? Maybe you think you’re not fit enough or the opposite and it will be too easy. Will you be coordinated enough? Will you be able to keep up? What if everyone else knows what to do?

Classes are how I started exercising and I remember the nerves I felt going to my first class. A few classes later I loved it, over time I tried more and more different types of classes and found a confidence to train that led to me becoming a group exercise instructor myself.

What people don’t realise about classes is that they can be pretty much whatever you want them to be. Yes, you are training in a group and doing the same thing as everyone else, but you also always have the opportunity to approach the class as best suits you. If you want to go as hard as possible and push yourself you can do, equally if you want to train for the mood boost, enjoyment, to feel good or even just take a break from life you can use the class for that. As instructors we are there to push people of course, but we know that people train for many different reasons and can tailor how we teach you to that effect. We know that because we also train for lots of different reasons, depending on the day, our mood, our energy levels.

The other thing to know about classes is they are a great chance to meet new people. You won’t be made to talk to people, you can keep yourself to yourself, but you will over time get to recognise people and get to know them. Classes are friendly environments where we all tend to chat before and after and you can get to know people from a wide range of backgrounds, and make some really great friends too. Above all, they are a lot more welcoming than you might at first imagine.

You can be super fit or brand new to exercise and you will be able to do a class. You can make them part of an existing training regime or just do classes, you can take things at your own pace and build up and there are always alternatives to exercises available for whatever reason you need.

Finally, I think it’s also good to recognise that there are lots of different ways to train. Some will tell you that you shouldn’t be doing classes, they are a waste of time, weights only would be better and so on. The truth is though that each individual will find the best results with different types of training, different combinations, routines, amount of training. Doing what works for someone else won’t necessarily get you the results. So if you think classes might motivate you, if the style of training or working in a group or to music does motivate you then ignore those people and do what you can and will stick with. Like me you may find that other time you mix other training in with classes or you may find you don’t, if you’re moving and happy with what you’re doing that doesn’t really matter.

Ways to help your mental health

Some of my favourite things to do relating to fitness and nutrition to help improve my mental health and help manage depression and anxiety that might also help you:

1) Drink water

Most of us don’t drink enough water at the best of time and if you feel low the chances are you will drink even less. Fill a water bottle and sip throughout the day. Dehyration causes fatigue and has been linked to feelings of depression so drinking water is a cheap, low effort way of helping you feel a bit better.

2) Vitamin D

This can help make you feel better natutally. You can buy supplements, a light box, possibly use a sunbed (with caution) or even better get outside and get some fresh air at the same time. Little effort required for a potential improvement in your mood.

3) Fish Oil

Omega 3 has been linked to improving symptons of mild depression. Make the effort to take a supplement each day – you can buy it in liquid form if you can’t swallow tablets (and are brave!). This was one simple habit that has worked well for me.

4) Eat regular meals

When you feel low eating proper meals at regular times can go out the window. Set an alarm for regular intervals and eat a small simple meal when it goes off. This will help stabilise your mood and create a feeling of routine and normality which can help when life feels like it’s crumblig around you.

5) Eat colourful food

Go to the shop and buy lots of different colourerd food. If you don’t feel like cooking buy prepared veg and fruit. Eating a variety of colours will mean your getting a variety of nutrients and will help improve your mood as well as your health.

6) Eat simple healthy meals

Eating healthy foods can have a dramatic affect on how well your mind feels. If I’ve had a bad week a simple healthy meal can help me feel more positive and in control of my own mind and body. It may sound stupid but when I eat well I feel like my body feels better and I’m looking after myself which in turn makes me feel brighter within myself. On days like this I won’t have the energy to cook a fancy meal so I go for a simple piece of salmon I can microwave or grill and a pack of microwave veg. 10 minutes to prepare a good quality meal.

7) Try some alternative meal prep

The holy grail of fitness freaks! Cooking is the last thing you want to do when you feel depressed. So if you find yourself having a good day make the most of it and prepare so batches of food that you can freeze. Then on days you just can’t face cooking you can defrost one of these meals and still eat something homemade.

8) Buy a slow cooker

Slow cookers allow you to make healthy tasty meals with little effort -and a casserole is brilliant comfort food. They are great for preparing a comforting meal without much effort and will make you feel better than turning to chocolate and other quick food sources that we often crave when we feel low.

9) Drink less coffee

Hardest one on this list for me! Adrenal Fatigue and depression / anxiety are linked. Too much coffee puts you at risk of developing adrenal fatigue – drinking less will help reduce stress levels. You could try a herbal tea instead which many people find helps then relax.

10) Walk

Getting outside helps you move more -that will help your mental health. Fresh air will help lift your mood. Being outside will help increase vitamin D intake. Walking can help clear your head. Walking is free. In short one of the best and most simple things you can do to help yourself fell more positive.

11) Exercise

As I said moving has been shown to help manage many mental health issues. You may not feel much like it but it can be in any form and doesn’t need to be for long periods of time to help. Start small and build up as you start to feel like you can.

12) Dance

Stick music on and just move to the music. Music can improve mood as can moving which makes thos fun activity a win win mood boosting activity.

13) Try group exercise

Nerve wracking and requires motivation. Sounds awful if you aren’t having the best day. But if you can push yourself to walk into the room you can find exercise, motivation, good music and social interaction in one place. It’s hard to leave a class not feeling at least a little bit more positive than when you walked in.

14) Join a team or club

Another nervewracking idea. Another idea which will allow you to exercise which will help your mental health and get to meet new people, another great mood booster. It can also help boose confidence which will help your mental health dramatically.

15) Try yoga

A chance to challenge your body and stretch along with a focus on breathing and mental wellbeing. You could try a class or find a free video on You tube. You could do an hour or even 5 minutes. Whatever you feel like at the start there is an option you could try out and you may feel more relaxed by the end of it.

Do you have any other tips for improving your mental health?

Back to Basics

As I’ve written recently I’m looking at going back to basics to get back into a routine.

Over the last week my training has been more consistent, my NEAT has been decent and I’m drinking plenty of water and nailing a few other habits. There’s two things I’ve struggled with though have been my nutrition and getting up in the morning.

I’ve not eaten terribly but I’ve not eaten what I’ve planned and as such have ended up going over my calorie goal. The reason? Stress.

It’s been a stressful week, work and personal stuff combined has meant I’ve been anxious at times and just generally strung out at others, feeling a bit like I was never going to fit everything into each day.

I wish I was one of those people who lost their appetite under stress. I am however a person who turns to sugar instead. Between snacking on sweet stuff and then opting to not eat the nice balanced meals I’d prepared and instead eat more carb based high calorie meals has meant that my nutrition just hasn’t gone to plan.

In reaction to this though I’m not going to do anything drastic. I’ve got food planned for the coming week and I’m hoping for a quieter week so I won’t be as tempted to reach for a high sugar stress release.

The key here I think is to not beat yourself out when the week doesn’t quite go to plan, not react by going on some drastic campaign to make up for it and just focus on starting again the next day.

So I’m taking the same approach to my mornings too. Last week I snoozed my alarm a lot, this week I’m reverting back to a cheap old school alarm in the next room so I have to get up to turn it off. A few bad mornings last week don’t need to define the coming week and other than trying to make a few small adjustments to improve my morning routine I don’t need to do anything crazy.

Dear Diary

I’ve been a bit of a cross road recently.

I’m not where I was fitness or physique wise pre Covid. I’ve written about this a little in previous blogs and I’m not kicking myself over it, but at the same time it’s really hard.

Honestly, pre Covid I thought I was out of shape. I felt like I wanted to lose a few pounds and up my training. Since then though, well. Obviously Lockdown hit and gyms closed, then I went back to teaching but my 14 classes a week became five which meant I was just moving a lot less (but eating the same because, well, I like food). I started taking antidepressants again (including some new medication with which weight gain is pretty common), which have always affected my weight. My dad became ill and mentally holding down both a job and a teaching schedule wasn’t what I needed so I took a break from teaching which meant I was moving way less. Then, a couple of days after he passed away I ended up with second degree burns across both legs (long story) which meant I couldn’t walk for a while and then couldn’t train. So overall I ended last summer about 10kg heavier than before, barely able to run and being able to lift around 50% of what I could.

The hardest thing I found was my own pride. I felt like, as a fitness instructor I should a) have not got myself to this point and b) should be able to just spring back. But I couldn’t, I didn’t want to do any quick fixes or fads, cut foods out or go on and all out mad period where the only thing in my life was training. I tried to be sensible, eat a little bit of everything, train at the level I was at and just build up. I tried to do it quietly, slowly and steadily, but I’ve been frustrated with progress and feel like I’m two steps forward, three steps back. I felt like I couldn’t talk openly about the struggle I felt because it wouldn’t send the right message out or sound positive enough, because of that I’ve held back from trying certain things for fear of looking weak as a fit pro and because of all this I’ve kind of ended up with limited structure and a feeling that I’m not really getting anywhere.

Of course I don’t actually have anywhere I ‘have’ to be. I don’t need to be a certain weight or size (although I can’t really afford a whole new wardrobe so being my old dress size would be useful!), I don’t have to lift a certain amount or run a certain speed and I’m fit enough to teach my classes so I could in theory just be as I am. Except I don’t feel good where I am, I feel less confident and less in love with my body (I did like the way my body looked – like honestly, I looked good naked!), I am signed up for a half marathon in a few months and right now I really don’t know if I can do it, and the idea of doing 100kg deadlift is currently laughable. So I want to lose weight, I want to feel fitter, I want to lift more because I know these things will make me feel better in my skin, stronger, more confident. I want to be at the start line of my half marathon and be excited not filled with dread.

So I’ve decided I need to separate current me from fit pro me a little bit. I know what I need to do and what others could d to progress, I have the knowledge and me currently being in a bit of a slump doesn’t mean I’m rubbish at my job. Equally, knowing alone won’t help me fix where I am right now, so I need to lose any ego and be a beginner, let myself struggle at something, fail in the gym and if people want to judge me, let them. My aim is by October (my birthday) I want to be at a size / shape and fitness level I’m happy with, where I’m confident and love going to the gym again, so running plan is in place, lifting in the gym starts now and eating less like an unsupervised kid in a candy store begins here.

Patience

One of the hardest things about starting out on a new goal is not seeing immediate results.

Due to a mixture of lockdowns, personal events, medication and injuries I’ve put on a lot of weight in the last two years, more than that my body has changed shape with it.  You know that point when you look at old photos you took as ‘before’ photos and you think wow I’d be happy with that now?  That.

But I’ve made positive changes recently, I’m training and eating better.  The thing is that at the moment it’s not showing much difference when I look in the mirror.  The truth is I know I need to be consistent for a few more weeks before it will.  It’s hard to be consistent though, when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.  It’s that age old catch 22, where if I saw changes I’d feel more motivated to keep it up but I won’t until I have kept it up for a while. 

I guess this is why some coaches and plans start people off with a bit of a crash diet.  That way you see a quick loss and feel motivated to continue.  Starting steady means visible results take a bit longer and that means keeping faith for a while.  If you can however it will invariably bring much better and more sustainable results.

Remember that with fitness and nutrition, genuine results are not immediate.  If you put weight on over the weekend, that’s not true weight, it’s a fluctuation.  In the same way if you want to lose weight it’s not going to happen overnight or with one super good week.  Start thinking longer term and be patient.   

Do the basic things really well

How are you feeling about your nutrition right now?

It’s really tempting when you aren’t feeling on top of things to look for radical solutions. But what we really want to do at times like that are revisit the basics.

If you’re currently feeling a bit lost think about

– Your TDEE

– Macros / proteins

– Your calorie deficit

– Your habits and anchors that make you feel better

Remind yourself of the most important principles.

You don’t need to drastically cut calories or change what you’re eating just remind yourself of the basics. Once they are in place you can think about more in depth aspects of your nutrition, but until then you will likely be sabotaging your own results by ignoring the foundations in an attempt to build the house quicker.

Do the Basics Well

Successful people do the basics well and consistently

Sometimes it’s easy to look at things and think- they’re too simple there must be more to it than that. The reason I’m not getting the results I want isn’t that I’m eating too little or too much it must be how my body responds to certain foods… and so on.

Now the truth is there are lots of variables to our health and fitness. But, you can take account of all these things and yet if you don’t nail the basics it won’t be effective.

Think of your fitness and nutrition like levels in a game- to get to level two you must master level one. Each level acts as a foundation for the next level. You’ll often hear of things like the nutrition pyramid – that’s the same concept, you need to establish a solid base (in nutrition that’s getting your energy balance right as we discussed yesterday) before looking at macro and micro nutrients, meal timings or supplements will be useful- you basically don’t want to build on a shoddy base!

It’s human nature for us to want to look into the specifics, the idea that little tweaks will be the things that makes everything fall into place for us is tempting. But it’s the little tweaks at the basic level that will first make the difference. Once you’ve cracked those then feel free to move onto looking at the specifics of what and when you eat if you still want to- although you might find that you feel less of a need to.