A Fitness Blog – Where’s the Exercise Posts?

This is a fitness blog and I’m a PT and group exercise instructor so my main job is very much training focused / related. Yet this blog and a vast majority of the online coaching I do is very much nutrition and mindset based.

Here’s why.

You know when you think about getting fit you think the actual exercises you do, how many reps, training splits, the amount of weight lifted, the ratio or cardio to strength training – all that jazz – is going to be the most important part of getting results? Well, it’s not that it isn’t important it’s just not as important as you think it is.

If you are already very fit and active and you want to improve in one specific area or you have a very specific goal to train for then the details of your training will matter much more, if you want to work on doing a pull up, doing legs every day won’t help much.

If you’re starting to get more active, want to drop weight, improve your health, feel better in yourself, then the actual specifics of what you do are going to be more based what you enjoy and what you feel comfortable doing right now. In my mind, what’s the point of trying to force people to do an ‘ideal’ training plan if they hate it, are too nervous to go into that area of the gym yet, haven’t quite got to grips with the movement patterns? Would some modified moves and a more simplified program that helps them gain confidence be a better starting point? of course. If someone prefers classes or using resistance machines over free weights and incorporating those things mean they train then why wouldn’t we incorporate them?

If you’re meant to do a legs session, a push session and a pull session a week and one day you really cannot face doing legs but you’d be up for a second push session then, you know what, the world won’t end and you won’t end up some weird uneven specimen for it.

Basically training has so many benefits and it’s an important element of our fitness and health but it doesn’t need to be over thought or cause dramatic stress. Whilst I think it’s useful to encourage people to do it via blogs, detail adds only so much value.

Secondly with training most people is simple. If it’s a live PT you do what the PT says (with various levels of moaning), away from sessions when given a training plan (or if it’s online training) people tend to follow the plan as given. You say do squats, they’ll squat.

Nutrition advice, not so much. For the majority of us, food is so much more emotive. Whilst training certainly acts as an anchor and stress reliever for many it doesn’t tend to have the same emotional pull as food does. So when you say to someone here’s a training plan it’s generally not questioned. Talking about calorie deficits, not needing to cut out food groups, the importance of actually eating carbs, why it’s ok to have chocolate, why ‘clean foods’ don’t really exist. These are concepts so intricately engrained into our culture that push back is much more likely with the nutrition side of things.

Same with mindset, even if someone accepts what you say about food or say the importance of resting when injured rather than pushing through, it’s much harder to act on it and go against ingrained instincts.

So it’s not that training is easy to do or not important, it’s that once you get started doing something – anything – it’s often the most straightforward unemotive part of health and fitness. You soon start to see benefits beyond the physical and form habits. It’s that diet and motivation and mindset around health is a much more challenging area for the majority of people, whether that be people new to fitness or very experience people (PTs have to convince people not to train some days a lot more than you might think).

For this reason the topics I choose to write about are often diet and mindset based because they are the areas where I think people often need reminders and support and clear information to help make informed decision with regards to their fitness. When I do write about training I try to keep it to posts that will be useful to people, what to expect from classes, at the gym, what to pack in a gym bag and so on – practical things that might help someone train, because if they’re already training and don’t want to pay for a PT or coach they’re probably happy enough with what they’re doing and I’m not sure how useful a bunch of generic training sessions would be.

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

Your First Group Cycle Class

Group Cycle, often known as spin. There are other variations such as Les Millls RPM too. One of the most inclusive classes in a gym. Also the one that in my experience people are most scared to try. I can see why- it looks tough (for good reason – it is) and everyone looks like they know what they’re doing (they don’t, honest) and it looks technical (you have to set up a bike – this was my biggest fear at first).

So if you’ve ever wondered about trying a class but aren’t sure if it’s for you here’s the low down (from my perspective) for first timers on how to get the most out of the class.

  • Everyone is welcome- all fitness levels. Yes it will be hard but you really can go at your own pace
  • Every instructor’s class is different. So if you don’t like mine try someone elses – there will be a style you like / format you enjoy / class with music you love out there- shop around! I sometimes teach rides where we work along to the music other times I teach HIIT style tabatta, some people do races and competitions. I won’t be offended if you try my class then I see you at someone elses next week!
  • One thing to note, trade marked classes such as Les Mills RPM will be similar in every gym / with every instructor. They are pre- choreographed and so you will always get the same format – even if you go to a class in a different country. This really suits some people, especially if you like routine.
  • Get there 10 minutes early and say hi to the instructor. Tell them you are new, tell them you are nervous. They will be nice, they will look out for you and they will show you how to set up your bike.
  • There will normally be modifications or different levels you can work at and the instructor will always offer these different options throughout the class- take the ones that suit you. Never tell yourself you are doing the easy option. They are just different and people take different options for all sorts of different reasons.
  • Put some resistance on the bike – going too light sounds like a good idea (especially when you feel like you are going to die half way through!) but it will mean you bounce – this will hurt your bottom, believe me. After my first class I walked like a cowboy for a week.
  • Always make sure your feet are strapped in – loose straps are dangerous. Dangerous is bad.
  • There is normally a brake on the resistance button. Normally by pressing down on it you can stop the feet dead. It’s useful to remember just in case! The instructor will tell you about the bike if you introduce yourself at the start.
  • Don’t be afraid to add resistance when asked to. If you add too much you can always take it off. You’re there to get fitter – challenging yourself is the way to do this. Noone will laugh if you get stuck!
  • Take water – you will sweat, you will get thirsty.
  • Maybe take a towel- I refer you back to the sweat!
  • Taking recoveries is fine. You are meant to work hard- if you push so hard you need to take a moment then well done. The instructor won’t shout at you – just sit on the bike, keep the legs spinning and come back in when you are ready.
  • When you are new it can seem like everyone else is faster and fitter than you. Remember they may have been doing this a long time and have conditioned themselves to last the full class. They will not have been like that in their first class so don’t beat yourself up. Try your best, try and enjoy it and just focus on giving your best effort. Nobody is there to compete with anyone else so just work at a level right for you. Nobody is going to judge you.
  • Cycle classes are meant to be hard- the great thing is as you get fitter you can go faster and at a heavier resistance so it stays effective and never gets to the point it feels ‘easy’
  • Above all Group exercise is meant to be fun so relax and smile – the music and other people make it more interesting than just sitting on a bike in the gym!

How do you react to the ‘uncontrolable’?

I’m currently injured. Well I’m not injured as such, but due to burns on both my legs (don’t ask) which basically cover both my whole shins I can’t walk very far (progress, last week I could barely walk), do much training beyond a bit of upper body work, run or teach.

It’s super frustrating. Beyond those restrictions I also can’t have a bath or shower and am restricted to contorting myself to wash my hair and sink washes. Generally it’s made me feel rubbish.

I’m used to having quite a structured day and when you can’t do what you normally do and end up sat on the sofa more watching TV, with itchy legs and generally feeling rubbish it can make you feel a bit down. As it’s come as we start to come out of the seemingly never ending Lockdown period of he last 18 months it feels even more frustrating.

All I’ve been able to do is adjust my expectations of myself.

So I’ve aimed to walk around 5,000 steps a day, just about doable at the moment but way off my normal 20,000-30,000 steps a day.

I’ve trained a couple of times, focusing on upper body and using machines I can sit down on plus the reclining bike to move the legs.

I’ve increased my protein intake dramatically to assist the burn healing process. Focusing on eating a varied diet rather than restricting my calories even though I’m moving way less.

I’ve tried to get 8 hours sleep, hard because my god my legs itch, but I’ve slept as much as possible.

I’ve drank at least 3 litres of water a day, aiming for 4 litre. My body is dehyrated anyway and it’s been warm.

I’m not where I want to be and I don’t feel great but I’ve made the positive steps I need to in order to help myself feel a bit better and not go completely crazy.

Hoping next week the dressings can come off and then I can start to build up my movement and start to get myself back to where I’d like to be but in the mean time I’ll just focus on the small things I can do as I can’ do anything about the things I can’t do right now.

LEJOG

I’m doing a running challenge this year.  Lands End to John O’Groats (virtually), that’s 874 miles between 1st January and 31st December.  I’m currently around the Yorkshire Peaks, just over 400 miles run.

The challenge is set up so you record your own miles on an onlien map, it allows you to decide how to do the challenge; you can record just runs, runs and long walks or to record all of your steps every day.  I have chosen to only record my runs because I wanted to use it as accountability to run more.  However, that is because I tend to walk a lot anyway so if I included my steps it would not be a genuine challenge. But for anyone who is quite sedentary who wanted to move more counting steps every day would be a great challenge.

There is a Facebook group for people doingt he challenge and it’s a very supportive, nice group and people post their wins and also when they are struggling and everyone is always qick to cheer or offer moral support.  What these posts often raise however is how everyone is approaching the challenge differently in terms of what they include as mileage.  This often creatse confusion, with people askign am I doing this wrong?  Should I be counting that?  Of course people always reassure and remind the OP that the challenge is unique to them and tehre is no right or wrong.

This confusion is common not only in this group however but throughout the fitness industry.  How often do you see someone on Facebook or Instagram doing a certain plan that is polar opposite to the way you train, eating a certain diet, eating more than you, less than you, training 3 days a week when you train 5, training for a marathon in a different way to you, running 10km in the time it takes you to run 5km, training in body part splits when you don’t, spending 2 hours in the gym when your session takes 45 minutes.

It’s really easy to think you must be doing it wrong.  That if that person who looks fit is doing the opposite to you you should do that too.  We are all different however.  Our bodies, fitness levels, experience goals, time pressures, tastes, willingness to cut cake for breakfast out of our diet, likes and dislikes, mental health, shift patterns, hobbies – all these things will (or should) affect how you eat and train.  Therefore unless you find an absolute carbon copy of you out there, your training or nutrition won’t look like someone elses, and nor should it.

Yes, there is lots of generic advice that works for specific groups of people.  Group exercise instructors will face common obstacles so advice tailored to them as a group can work- but even then they will need to tweak that to sit their precise circumstances.  You sit at a desk all day, I could predict your pain points and suggest some advice that would probably help lots of people, again it would need a bit of tweaking by people and not every piece of advice would be releveant to every person who works in an office.

The key is taking in the advice, the suggestions, the tips and knowing what is and isn’t relevant to you, what will ad won’t work for you.  Then being able to look at other people doing different things and not get triggered by it, or feel bad, or superior or like you must be doing something wrong, because if it is working for you and Isn’t unsafe you do you.

Listening v. Learning

Listening to your body / eating intuitively / being kind to yourself. All buzz words and phrases in recent years. And as I’ve written many times before, a perfectly valid way to eat if in doing so you are in a position where you are happy with your body and your energy levels.

I can eat and stay on track without tracking quite easily. I do track, largely as a habit that I don’t find particular cumbersome or triggering, but I could not track and still roughly know how my week’s food intake was likely to affect me. I maintain, as I have written previously, that is largely because I have mastered tracking, got an idea of what I need in terms of food.

But to move beyond the arguing what works best to lose body weight thing for a moment, you know what I personally could not do via intuitive eating. Listen to what type of food my body wants.

Because the idea of feeling like I need xyz so that’s what I’ll give my body allows me too much freedom to eat things that will derail my goals and in portions that at no point would my body actually intuitively be asking for. All I’m saying is my body rarely screams at me in needs vegetables.

Perhaps I need to be more in tune with myself. Maybe I could teach myself to think hmmm I feel fatigued my body is craving carrots instead of god I’m knackered I really need a tub of ice cream. Point is though I do know what my body needs. Over the years I’ve learnt what my body needs, what works, when, what actually makes me feel sluggish even though I think it won’t, what times of day I prefer exercising on an empty stomach and when I need to be fed first and so on. That was by trial and error and planning and tracking rather than eating when my body told me and what it old me. I mean apart from anything else I think with my brain how would I even plan my shopping eating intuitively! I’m flexible of course I am, sometimes I don’t feel like whatever I’ve planned, sometimes I need extra food than what I planned, or more sugar or more carbs.

The fact remains I think by understanding my body by seeing what works and then sticking to the systems that have worked and suit me and my taste buds and make me feel good when I train, I mat not be listening to my body but my body is probably more grateful that I’m doing that over eating what it thinks it want (it seriously only ever think it wants cake I tell you now). Is what I do more onerous that intuitive eating? I really don’t think it is.

Ultimately I don’t think we need to get caught up in the idea that tracking and planning and eating mindfully is bad. It may not suit some, there may be some it isn’t a good option, that’s the case for most things though. Like anything intuitive eating might not be the solution to all diet problems.

Calories Counting v Intuitive Eating

I’ve written previously about intuitive eating and how I feel like you cannot eat intuitively until you understand calorie tracking. Two ever so opposite end of the scale things but they kind of work together.

I get why people don’t necessarily want to track calories. I get that for some people it could get a bit obsessive. I get that you don’t just want to make food about numbers. I get that it’s time consuming and dull. I get that there’s so much more to life than how many calories you eat and constantly thinking about what you have left in your calorie bank.

But. But but but.

If you want to lose weight… or gain weight for that matter… you have to be eating the right amount of calories compared to how many calories you expend each day / each week.

Now you might be someone who is happy with their weight. If that’s the case you probably can just eat intuitively, because what you are eating right now is keeping you where you want to be. This post is not for you!

If you want to change your weight, up or down, that indicates that what you currently eat right now either provides you with too many (if you want to lose) or not enough (if you want to gain) calories. Before you say it, yes maybe you are that rare person who is struggling because of a condition and the reason is far more complex, but harsh truth – the majority of us are not that person, the majority of us just aren’t eating the right amount for our goals.

So if you aren’t eating the right number of calories right now you can’t eat intuitively. Because to do something intuitively requires knowledge of how to do it in the first place. At work, do you do tasks you’ve done many times before instinctively, without thought- looking at a problem and knowing the issue and solution before you’ve really even thought about it? Can you answer the question before it’s even been asked because you know what they’ll ask because it’s what everyone always asks? Could you do that on your first week of the job? Of course not. You learnt your job and over time through doing your actions became more instinctive, more confident.

Same with calories. You need to understand how much of the type of foods you eat is right for you to reach your goal. To do this you need to track. The more you learn about this as you track the less you need to rely on tracking, because you can learn to start reading you own body and hunger and getting used to the right kind of portion sizes for you and your goals.

So over time you can track less, maybe just checking in occasionally to check your still in the right zone, or using it as a refocus if you’ve found yourself going a bit off track. You don’t have to commit to a lifetime of strict tracking everything that passes your lips. But to get a handle on where you are at and work out where you need to be you do need to be aware of what you are really eating, and tracking is really the only way.

If you don’t want to track you don’t have to of course, but if you’re frustrated you aren’t reaching you goals and aren’t tracking you may want to reconsider because whether you track or eat intuitively calories do count.

Cheat Meal Time

Cheat Meals. Two very emotive words that muttered on Facebook always tend to create debate and bring out two very polarised camps of people.

Generally as a PT I would fall into the don’t think on meals or days as ‘cheats’. You can manage your calories and how much you eat across a week to be able to have what society would generally deem a ‘cheat meal’ and still stay within your calorie goals and reach whatever goal you may have.

More than this, classing a meal as a ‘cheat’ can lead to you thinking of foods as good and bad can be damaging to your feelings around food. Guilt about eating a certain type of food does nothing for your mental health, how you view yourself or your eating habits in general.

Equally however it’s actually really hard not to fall in the habit of referring to foods as ‘treats’ or ‘cheats’. Personally, I know a takeaway isn’t an automatic bad thing and that actually some days I could end up eating fewer calories after a fast food meal than I would have had I made a ‘healthy’ meal. Some people do not know this. Some people might know but not be quite willing to accept it, so throw away comments about cheat meals, whilst not a big deal for me could create a bigger barrier in someone else’s mindset.

For me there are two issues relating to the idea of cheat meals. Teaching people that foods do not need to be grouped into good and bad and working on our own language and how we absent mindedly refer to food.

But there’s one more issue to add to this mix. We’ve noted a lot during the Pandemic that obesity is an issue in the UK and that it causes health issues. We’ve largely noted beyond that (unless your Boris who prefers the less educated approach) that education on nutrition and the energy balance is key to this.

Now here, at a very basic level, the good / bad food list can be useful. If you want to educate someone about the benefits of a balanced diet and the benefits of eating fresh foods then there is going to be a little bit of a good / bad rhetoric. Cheat meals are essentially the idea of people who have a relative understanding and interest in health and nutrition and would benefit from understanding the restrictions this mentality can place on you. For someone with a very limited knowledge of the energy balance equation we are essentially going back to the food pyramid which does promote an element of good / bad foods.

We need to acknowledge that yes essentially weight loss can be incredibly simple, that does not mean there are not lots of obstacles we can nee help with at various points. Sometimes the simplest things can be quite tricky.

Have you met Jeff?

Are you someone who’d like to run more but always feel like you have to stop after a while so have given up? The Jeff Galloway Walk Run method could be game changer for you.

Jeff was training non runners to start running back in the 1970s and through initial training sessions and courses where he took non runners to 5k distances and more he concluded that a mix of running and walking could both improve times and reduce injury.

Now it’s generally accepted that when someone first starts running a mixture of walking for a bit running for a bit is a great starting point. Most people have the mind set however that as you progress the goal should be to run all distances continuously without walking breaks. and that to get a PB you must just run faster and never walk

The Galloway Run Walk method argues that by walking and running in set ratios you can speed up your half marathon time by around 7 minutes on average. The method is quite specific and advises set run to walk ratios (and consists of paid plans to advise you), but even if you wanted to just use the principle of planning some walks into your runs to strategically improve your times I believe you can see the benefits.

The idea is that Run Walk Run as a method is essentially a form of interval training (think Fartlek training but with planning) and building in walks reduces fatigue by allowing better conservation of energy, reducing stress on the body and reducing body temperature during the walks. By planning a walk in at a set point as opposed to running until you have to stop and walk it can allow you to run further and faster once you go back into a running segment because you have spent some time recovering before the point of absolute exhaustion. It can mean you are less sore after a run which allows you to carry on with every day life and can make motivating yourself to start easier and you are able to enjoy runs more (especially if you hate the pushing through the pain idea). It is argued it can dramatically reduce the risk of injury.

So how can you use this idea in your runs to see if it makes a difference? Instead of running until you can no longer run then walking for a bit and then starting back up as soon as you feel able think about planning your walks ahead of time. For instance I will run for 15 minutes then walk for 5 minutes then repeat until i reach my distance. Think about how long you can normally run until you start to struggle. If that is 25 minutes, plan you walk in around 20 minutes so you are not yet needing the walk when you stop. If that’s 10 minutes plan you walk at 5 minutes. The idea is to take that active recovery before you really need it, allowing you to recharge and then run at a faster pace in your next running segment. You are still covering distance whilst you are walking and you are covering the distance quicker in the run sections and therefore may well find you shave time off your normal ‘just run’ run.

Of course sometimes you may want to run a whole distance to see where you are at but you don’t need to feel like you must only ever run to be a runner. A bit of walking could actually ultimately make you a faster runner!

Tired Legs

As I’ve mentioned I’m doing a challenge of 874 miles in 2021- that’s around an average of 120km a month across the year. A combination of my fitness, the weather and the dark nights meant I didn’t hit that in January and was a bit under in February. I’m also aware I could get injured or have to take time off at some point if I am ill later in the year so my plan is to increase my mileage in the months where I’m feeling fitter and the weather is nicer to allow myself an emergency buffer. As such I’m aiming for 200km in March – I’m currently on 64km eleven days in. What this means is running on tired legs some days. I always do a long run with my friend Hollie on a Wednesday night. She is faster than me so it is always a run that pushes me and I normally feel it in the legs the next day so often don’t run on a Thursday, but this month I need to to reach my goal so today I did 5km (3 miles) after last nights 13km (8 mile run).

Running on tired legs is a challenge but it’s also something you can teach yourself to do and if you re training for a marathon or endurance event it’s a good idea to consider doing some training on tired legs. Obviously it’s a balancing act of not over doing it (you want to increase mileage by no more than 10/20% a week), risking injury or making yourself run down by affecting your sleep, recovery etc. and building your endurance. Below are some tips I find useful to run on tired legs.

  • Fuel well, don’t try and massively cut calories at the same time as increasing miles- this will make runs even harder. Carbs 30 minutes before a run always gives me a boost on tired days.
  • Stretch- often. Legs may still feel tired but stiff tired legs are even less fun to run on.
  • On long runs hydrate or take a gel before you feel like you need to. Waiting until you feel like you need it can make it much harder to keep going.
  • Slow your pace on tired leg days. If you aim is endurance and getting the legs used to doing the miles you do not have to hit your best pace on every single run.
  • Listen to your body, if you are tired, go slower. Running on tired legs can help you on race day as when you know you can run even tired it gives you the confidence to push past any fatigue on race day. The speed you run at in training on those tired days is irrelevant.
  • Control your pace and don’t print down hills – a steady pace is much easier to maintain when tired than stop / start sprint / slow is.
  • When your legs start to feel heavy think about lifting your foot a little higher, landing slightly softer with a heel to toe motion, this can help boost circulation and reduce impact making your legs feel better.
  • Think about something else. I like to listen to audio books- mainly murder mysteries as I run, whatever distracts you from the fatigue.
  • Of course if you start running and the legs feel pain instead of fatigue- stop. Learning your body and the difference between when you need to rest and when you ca challenge yourself is key to building up your own endurance when running.