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Andrew Gwynne

Meet the experts in an under-rated exercise

By Blog

Over the years, I’ve made some useful discoveries. One is that long walks help my mood, and give me a good base for my fitness. Another is that there’s a happy band of volunteers who make walking a more accessible exercise. They’re called The Long Distance Walking Association (LDWA). And if you live in England, Wales or southern Scotland, you can tap into their energy and enthusiasm.

Both discoveries are important, because walking could be our most under-rated exercise. Yes, runners get to strengthen their leg muscles with more force and more speed. But walking has a lower impact, so you can be out and about for longer. It’s a good choice for those looking to lose weight, or anyone with knee, ankle and back problems. 

The LDWA do a brilliant job of organising walking events, often on our doorsteps.  Its members share an interest in covering distances over 20 miles in their local countryside, moorland or mountains. The fittest test themselves with challenge events up to 100 miles, which also cater for runners. Others plan long routes over several days, or get together for day walks with one of dozens of groups across the country.

The support of a group means a lot, especially if you’re someone who’s uneasy about heading out alone. Some of my clients are unfamiliar with the countryside, or worry about navigating public footpaths and five-bar gates. Others are nervous about hazards, because they’ve heard tall tales about wayward cattle and farmyard dogs. With the LDWA social walks, everyone is together, with an experienced leader. So you don’t need to worry about getting lost or feeling unsafe.

Being in a group also brings a like-mindedness that many walkers enjoy. The shared goal gives a purpose to the day, but with no pressure. The rhythm of a walk sees you naturally fall in and out of conversation with interesting people at different times. Sometimes that companion will be you, as you find yourself alone with your thoughts. It’s here that we find some of the mental health benefits of long-distance walking.

During my education as a personal trainer, I’ve seen many studies showing that walking in nature is good for us. There’s something about it that helps our minds stop going over negative experiences. That cuts down negative emotions (like fear and anxiety), and the risks of depression. 

Perhaps walking makes us feel good thanks to an imprint from our evolutionary past. Or it may simply be that our brain is being gently distracted by clouds, trees, mud and the birds singing. That’s a lot less stressful than commuting or a beeping smartphone. 

This boost in mood comes with some extra benefits, too. As our legs cover the ground, our minds wander. We’re drawn into a more creative state. This is why we often associate walking with new ideas and problem-solving. There’s a nice-sounding Latin phrase for this. ‘Solvitur ambulando’ means ‘it is solved by walking around’. The travel writer Paul Theroux writes about this in his book, The Tao of Travel.

I first got in touch with the LDWA when preparing to run the Pennine Way. Their advice was invaluable, especially for the Northumberland Moors and the area around the Whin Sill Ridge (the home of Hadrian’s Wall). I’ve now completed a number of their tough endurance events as a runner, including the Goyt Valley Challenge, the Winter Tanners, and Roundhay – a 50-miler in Yorkshire. I’ve got some great memories of how well-run these were and the quality of organisation at the checkpoints. With endless tea and cake, these events really have a supportive ‘parkrun’ atmosphere. 

If the walking bug gets you too, you might want to expand your horizons and enter events like these. They may sound tough now. But the transition from walking for an hour to walking all day is within reach of most of my clients. As you build the habit and improve your physical and mental stamina, longer distances feel natural.

You’ll also start to learn about routes near you, and the glorious long-distance paths you can explore both here and overseas. LDWA members often have a deep knowledge of the countryside they’re very happy to share. Their challenge events are also suitable for advanced athletes, who may choose to race them. My Army colleagues have often been surprised to discover what the LDWA can offer their training programmes, including a unique database of route maps for walks on their website. 

For many members, their ambition is to complete the annual 100-mile event held on the last bank holiday of May. Entrants have 48 hrs to complete it. Sadly this year’s 100 in Monmouthshire, organised by the South Wales LDWA team, had to be postponed due to COVID. But it will be back next year. 

Membership of the LDWA is only £18 a year, £15 by direct debit and families £22.50. Their challenge events usually cost around £10. That’s exceptional value, especially when you compare them to city centre running events at £40+. At the time of writing, due to the national lockdown all group walks have been suspended due to coronavirus. Virtual events are still being held. Please check the LDWA website for the latest information.

Find out more:

Website: The Long Distance Walking Association

Book: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Healthy eating for children

By Blog

When I first started personal training, I focused on adults. Things are a bit different these days. It turned out that some clients wanted me to train their children, so I took an extra qualification in youth fitness. It’s good to help youngsters set up the habits that will last a lifetime.

I’ve noticed that my clients are worrying more about the next generation. We talk about the health and wellbeing of their children, grandchildren, or nephews and nieces. It’s a tricky challenge, as we all know that looking after our own needs is hard enough. How can we help our kids make the right choices?

In this blog, I look at the causes and consequences of poor family eating. I’ve also got some tips and advice on what we can all do about it. 

Many parents fear that their kids may become overweight or even obese, building up problems for the future. They can see that weight gain is affecting more and more youngsters every year. Last year, over 20% of year six children were classed as obese with a further 14% overweight. Both were up from previous years. Why is this dangerous trend going the wrong way? As parents and citizens, what can we do about it?

The main problem is that our environment is ‘obesogenic’. This is a fancy word, but simply means the world we’re in makes it easy to put weight on and hard to shift it. Our supermarkets are full of sugary, processed food, and pester power means that families buy too much of it. Our roads are busy so it feels unsafe for kids to walk or bike to school. At home, our smart TVs and games consoles tempt us to spend time on the sofa (and they interfere with a good night’s sleep).

As life has changed, many of us have forgotten the real-food recipes loved by our grandparents. Instead, fuelled by advertising and money-off promotions, we often plump for ready meals and convenience foods. According to BiteBack30, who lobby for healthier food for youngsters, junk food companies spend over £143 million on advertising each year. That’s almost 30 times the amount spent promoting healthy eating by recent governments.

Too many empty calories in and not enough going out – it’s a problem that gets worse over time. We know that overweight and obese children are much more likely to stay that way as adults. That gives them big health risks from things like heart disease, respiratory problems and type 2 diabetes. It also damages their mental health, driving low self-esteem and problems with body image. This is why it’s so important to get kids building the right habits at an early age.

Start good habits early

Your kids weren’t born with a craving for chips and ice-cream. This conditioning happens over time as kids discover more and more unhealthy choices. So it is possible to shape your children’s food cravings so that they look forward to healthier foods, too.

If you have a toddler in tow, get them used to eating the same as you. You’ll need to be careful with salt and spicy food. But in many cases you can blend or chop up a portion to suit their age (and freeze some for later). There’s no need to rely on expensive pre-made toddler food. 

If they make it, they’re more likely to eat it

As kids grow older, get them involved. One idea is BIY, or build it yourself. This means setting out a table with healthy ingredients and letting the kids do the rest. Think about how you could come up with a salad bar or fajitas, plus different fruits with yoghurt for dessert.

Another step is to get your children to plan – and help you make – a meal every week. That may sound ambitious, but even pre-schoolers will enjoy mashing potatoes. And while you’re thinking about food, get them talking about it too. Because even if you’re not worried about your kids’ weight, you’re still worried about them eating well. That means teaching them about nutrition, and the differences between real and junk food. 

If you’re not yet confident in the kitchen, there are some shortcuts you might find useful. For example, companies like Hello Fresh and Gousto offer healthy recipe boxes. They’re not cheap but they could be just what you need. You simply follow the steps to start building up your skills and understanding. Watch the joy of a child learning to cook and tell me they’re not interested in food! There are also TV shows like Eat Well for Less which show you how to eat well and save money, with just a few food swaps.

Make your voice heard

There are some signs that the message is getting through. Two years ago, the government announced a tax on sugary soft drinks. This summer they announced a ban on junk food advertising on TV and online before 9pm. But if you think they should be going further, you could write to your MP and ask them to do more for the health of our young people. In particular, it’s important that they save our standards and protect child health in any future trade deals.

There are also several campaigning groups you could support, like Biteback 2030. Their ambition is to help young people learn how our food system is designed – and could be improved to put children’s health first. Their Youth Board is a team of passionate teenage activists from across the UK.

Finally, there is the question of what we can all do to tackle food poverty. Sadly it’s becoming more common, with 14% of UK families with children experiencing food insecurity in the past six months. Even when children have enough food to feel full, food poverty results in a poor diet, and poor health. Those hungry at school don’t learn well, harming their prospects in later life. We’ll cover this issue properly in a future blog. 

Conclusion

While I’m writing this, we are still dealing with the coronavirus. It hit the UK at a time when one in five children are starting primary school overweight or obese. Perhaps this will convince our politicians to tackle the obesity crisis, and start with young people. That means moving attention away from junk food and onto healthier options instead. After all, shouldn’t every child know why apples are better than fizzy drinks?

Find out more:

Website – Biteback2030

Website – Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Website – The Food Foundation

BBC TV – Eat well for less

Jamie Oliver – The best equipment for cooking with kids 

A little lesson about electrolytes

By Blog

Sometimes we learn things the hard way. Among my collection of mistakes, one story from six years ago stands out. As a runner, I’d read a bit about ‘electrolytes’ before. But a warm September day on a footpath near Hadrian’s Wall taught me the rest.

The story begins in 2014, when I’d set myself a meaty challenge. With no support, I was planning to run the whole of the Pennine Way, from Edale (near Sheffield) to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. It would take around eight days to do the 270 miles, climbing around 14,000m on the way. Deep down, I knew how much it would test me both physically and emotionally.

By staying overnight in farmhouses and B&Bs, I was able to keep my kit to a manageable 12kg. I could also get a good night’s sleep, a healthy meal, and a rare pint to keep up the spirits. I knew that these recovery stops were essential, and all went well for the first few days.

But then day six arrived and was the toughest of the lot. As it went on, I struggled to focus. It was hot and I expected to be tired, but something else was wrong. I was flagging, and at times felt barely conscious. With a final effort over the rough country, I made it to my bed for the night. The B&B owner took one look and helped revive me with a cuppa. It was just in time.

So what had happened?

I’m used to endurance events, so I take good care to take on enough calories and fluids. But this time the water I’d been drinking wasn’t making a difference. During my 24-mile run that day, I’d overlooked a magic ingredient – electrolytes. 

What do we mean by ‘electrolytes’?

Electrolytes are minerals found in our blood, urine, and body tissues. They have an electric charge, and do essential jobs for us such as:

  • Making sure that our nerves, muscles, and heart work properly
  • Moving water and nutrients into our cells, and removing waste
  • Balancing our body’s pH level

You’ll have heard of some electrolytes – like potassium, magnesium, phosphate, sodium, chloride and calcium. We get them by eating a varied diet. For example, bananas are famous for being a source of potassium. But we lose electrolytes by sweating (or, if we’re unwell, through vomiting and diarrhoea). 

On that long, hot day, my sweating had caused an imbalance. The distance and the heat meant I was losing more electrolytes than I was taking on. This imbalance can get serious very quickly, because our bodies maintain the right level of electrolytes within a very tight range. If levels get too high or too low, we see dehydration, cramp, fatigue, nausea, and heart problems. Left unmanaged, the imbalance can cause a coma or worse. Instead, I had an unpleasant experience and was lucky that safety was nearby. 

Most of the time, we can keep this balance right with healthy meals and the odd snack. Just take a look at the list below for a guide. But illness or heavy exercise can use up your electrolytes, as it did for me. You may want to add tablets or a pre-mixed electrolyte drink to your routine. For tough endurance events, I’ve settled on supplements from an American company called Nuun.

After eight days on the Pennine Way I’d finished my challenge, picking up a motley collection of sore muscles and blisters. I was pleased, but I’d also learnt an important lesson. In those conditions, drinking plain water just wasn’t enough. I’d had a lucky escape. Let’s hope this blog means that my clients, friends and colleagues can learn from my mistakes.

Electrolyte drink tablets from Nuun

A quick layman’s guide to electrolytes  

Name: Potassium

What it does: Controls the balance of fluids, makes cardiac muscle work properly

Comes from: Bananas, vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, parsnips), beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, fish, beef, chicken, turkey

Name: Magnesium

What it does: Helps convert food into energy, supports bone health

Comes from: Spinach, nuts, wholemeal bread

Name: Phosphate

What it does: Helps build strong bones and teeth, helps convert food into energy

Comes from: Red meat, dairy, fish, poultry, bread, brown rice, oats

Name: Sodium 

What it does: Body fluid balance; 

Comes from: Salt – commonly found in breakfast cereals, cheese, some bread, savoury snacks. The one electrolyte that is overly abundant and care must be taken in daily diets as the limit is 6g per day for adults. 

Name:  Chloride 

What it does:  Helps you digest food 

Comes from: Tomatoes, leafy vegetables, olives and rye

Name: Calcium

What it does: Helps build strong bones and teeth, regulates muscle movement and blood clotting

Comes from: Dairy foods, green leafy vegetables (curly kale, okra, spinach), bread, fish where you eat the bones (such as sardines and pilchards)

An old-school training tool – all the way from Russia

By Blog

With so many training systems, opinions, and choice of kit, the fitness world can be overwhelming. Deciding where to start is tricky, especially when you’re a newbie. Luckily we have a principle we can bring into play – and some old-school equipment that never dates.

The principle is ‘functional movement’. It’s the best place to start developing your physical health and fitness. This is because modern life has engineered-out physical activity, and we need to put it back. Very often this has meant using equipment which focuses on training muscles in isolation. But working only one part of your body is a very limiting way to train.

Instead, you’ll get better results by using different muscle groups together. And you don’t need the latest exercise fad to do it. We all have access to very simple training tools that can help us regain control of our bodies (and ultimately our lives). I’m thinking of resistance bands, sliding discs, medicine balls and bodyweight exercises, but also an old-time favourite – kettlebells. 

As a way to get more functional movement, kettlebells are just the job. Many trainers associate them with Russia, where they’re called girya and have been widely used for centuries. But they’re even older, and their roots can be traced back to ancient Greece. They’re an iconic piece of equipment, instantly recognised by the cannonball shape (the bell) with the curved iron handle attached. 

You might be surprised to learn that kettlebells have a humble history. They were used on Russian farms to weigh agricultural crops and goods. Their popularity spread as a training tool, using the standard weight of ‘one pood’ – 35 lbs or a touch under 16 kgs. Knowledge spread slowly but eventually the US got the bug. About twenty years ago, kettlebells went mainstream after an article published in Rolling Stone magazine.

The design of the bell with its horn-shaped handles allows for swinging movements, with the centre of gravity extended beyond the grip. Basic movements such as the deadlift, swing, clean-and-press will train your body to become hard and lean. Beyond these basics there are countless variations around the body, including a figure-of-eight, and a side swing I like to use in my sessions. 

All of these are perfect for getting better at throwing, sprinting, jumping, boxing, or just feeling stronger in everyday life. Clients also notice the impact on their core strength, co-ordination and balance – a nice bonus.

Kettlebells are especially useful as they allow movement through all three planes. We call this tri-planar movement – forward and back, side-to-side, and twisting/turning. It’s important because it activates the muscles of the rear of the body – hamstrings, spine and bum (glutes). These are known as the posterior kinetic chain, crucial for developing power for lifting and forward movement. These muscles are often overlooked in improving posture and aligning the spine. 

I’ve always believed in first principles and the four-letter acronym KISS. Keep it short and simple. Kettlebells fit right in there. If you’re looking for cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and a leaner body, look no further. Whatever its humble history, the kettlebell will never need re-inventing. 

Let’s go 

How to escape the shops with a healthy trolley

By Blog

So you popped into your local supermarket to pick up this week’s essentials – the milk, bread, eggs and veggies. Ten minutes in, and the trolley shows your good intentions. But thirty minutes later you’re leaving with ready meals, crisps and biscuits. How did that happen?

Like someone on Derren Brown’s TV shows, you’ve been hypnotised. Or at least unwittingly hooked into buying more of the shop’s most profitable products. We can respect their cleverness. But next time, prepare yourself for the tricks of their trade. Otherwise these choices will be fattening you up – without your permission. 

In this blog, we look into this ‘supermarket trickery’ in more detail. We look at some of its consequences. Most importantly, we give you a list of five tips to help you steer clear of the processed, sugary foods that can end up in your trolley. With a bit of forward thinking, you can get the best from your local supermarket and avoid the junk.

We can resist anything except temptation

On average, shoppers in the UK make over 200 trips to the supermarket every year. That repetition means that we often buy things on autopilot. We behave in ways we’re not even conscious of.

All those trips mean opportunities to impulse-buy unhealthy food. As a result, one in five adults say supermarkets send them off-track when they try to lose weight. Here are some reasons why:

  • Shopping trolleys are bigger than they’ve ever been. That appeals to the part of our caveman brain that likes to do a little hoarding.
  • Fruit and veg are nearly always located at the front, and you feel virtuous when you choose them. But later, in front of the crisps and sweets, you’re more likely to treat yourself.
  • The healthy food choices are rarely at eye level. You need to do some bending and reaching to hunt them down.
  • Despite being staples for most shoppers, eggs and bread are often at the back of the store. You have to pass lots of tempting special offers to get to them.
  • We’re heavily influenced by these special offers and promotions, such as ‘buy one get one free’. According to Cancer Research UK, nearly a third of food and drink is bought this way. Bargain-loving shoppers are typically less healthy, as they buy 30% less fruit and 25% percent fewer vegetables.
  • Even our love for music can be used to nudge our behaviour. One study showed that slow music makes us feel less rushed. Playing French music led to French wine outselling German wine, and vice versa.

Those are just some of our supermarket challenges. To beat them, it’s wise to educate yourself and have a plan. Reflect on the shop layout on your next visit, and how you behave. Then practise your tactics next time you go. Here are some good places to start:

On every visit, know what you need

When you arrive, you’re about to be bombarded with choice. So get the blinkers on. If you have a list, find those items before you do anything else. The leeks and onions you came in for don’t need a basket of treats for company. A list written earlier in the day also offers an extra way of keeping you on track. You can use it to write a little note to your future self: ‘Put down the chocolate digestives.’

With or without a list, I use an acronym to keep me away from bad habits – LOFAD. You can use these letters to give you the same reminder: Local, Organic, Fresh, Avoid processed and refined, Diverse. ‘Diverse’ means choosing a mix of different foods, to get a full range of vitamins, minerals, and macro nutrients.

Don’t shop on an empty stomach

When you’re hungry, your brain tells your body to seek out quick sources of energy. Part of you will seek out the treats you find hard to resist. You’ll need more willpower to make the right choices. And it’s unwise to rely on willpower alone – especially at the end of a long day.

Make a rule that you don’t do the grocery shop unless you’ve eaten before you go. Between meals, consider healthy snacks, such as:

  • slices from a chicken breast
  • a boiled egg
  • a glass of skimmed milk
  • greek yoghurt
  • a banana
  • roasted chickpeas 
  • dried nuts

Any of these will fill you up and make it easier to be rational and make healthy choices.

Learn to ignore ‘end caps’

These are the product displays placed at the end of an aisle. Walk on by, as they drive lots of impulse buys and are often loaded with less healthy choices. Remember too that the ‘end caps’ may simply be promoting something new. Displays don’t always mean savings. 

Beware of bulking up

Buying in bulk sometimes makes sense, but don’t do it with food. It opens the door to over-eating. Watch out for giant bags of crisps and fun-size chocolate bars. These guarantee trouble the moment you drop them in your trolley. If you do find yourself in the snacks aisles, there are healthier options that are just as delicious:

  • Good quality dark chocolate
  • Mixed raw unsalted nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Healthy crackers, such as Ryvita with hummus or nut butter 
  • Veggie sticks with dip, like guacamole or salsa 

Small baskets only

Where you can, choose a basket rather than a trolley. This is simply because carrying something heavy is uncomfortable. You’re much less likely to add stuff you don’t really need, so it helps you be more discriminating. Empty trolleys, on the other hand, encourage you to spend more. If you do need a trolley, partition it with a large space set aside for fruit and vegetables. 

Dealing with ‘pester power’

‘Pester power’ from your kids can be hard to resist. Our supermarket shelves are heaving with high-sugar, high-processed food – often designed to appeal to youngsters. It’s one of the reasons behind our shocking childhood obesity rates, and plays havoc with parents trying to manage a healthy family diet. Watch out for a separate blog I’ll be writing to look at food shopping for (and with) children in more detail.

Don’t be a supermarket victim

It’s important to be grateful for our modern supermarkets. They offer choice and quality that was unheard of just a few years ago. But they won’t help you conquer your health and wellbeing unless you take control.

Some policy-makers have gone so far as to call our supermarkets an ‘obesogenic environment’.  In other words, the stores are making us fat and more prone to health problems like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes . At the time of writing, it looks as if the government is serious about new rules to change this.

It’s about time that this has become a bigger public health issue, and that everyone from governments to individuals is becoming more aware. Next time you go shopping, take more notice. The healthiest food isn’t wrapped in plastic or cardboard. Nor does it come with an ingredient list or nutritional information. You can appreciate the clever design of the shop layout, without being seduced. Don’t let yourself be a supermarket victim again.

Find out more:

Royal Society for Public Health

Special offers fuel obese shoppers