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Andrew Gwynne

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

Mental resilience for everyday life – part 2

By Blog

This is the second of three blogs about building mental resilience. It will give you some useful ways to think about getting mentally stronger, and practical tips you can apply in everyday life. 

One of my favourite experts in mental resilience is Charlie Unwin, a sports performance psychologist. He tells us to focus on three areas – positive doing, positive thinking, and positive feeling. Each of these supports the other two, but for now we’re focusing on number two – positive thinking.

Winning the day

In the first blog of this series, we touched on the importance of making plans. We know that putting them into practice is tough – and that unexpected things will get in the way. Unwin has some advice on this. He tells us to ‘Win the day’.

Think about situations where you have little or no control. Perhaps a domestic emergency, a friend letting you down, an important delivery that’s late. Anxiety and stress will often creep up on you. ‘Win the day’ reminds us to interrupt that pattern. Just take a minute to stay positive and on the front foot in everything you do. 

Here are three tips to bring this to life:

  • Even a bad day means opportunities to do a few things brilliantly. It could be the washing-up, tidying your desk, chopping the vegetables for a simple meal. Notice the positive feeling that doing something well gives you. Don’t under-estimate the power of small goals like this, because our lives are made up of them. Being thoughtful and competent at the basics spills out into other areas of your life.
  • Give yourself a daily pat on the back. There will be successes to remember every day, including the small ones mentioned above. This routine will give you better thinking habits.
  • Stay true to yourself. Les Brown, a renowned motivational speaker, reminds us to, “realise that someone’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.” Social media in particular can make our world feel more judgmental than ever. But whether you have fifty thousand followers or none, don’t dwell on how strangers perceive you. Pick a handful of honest friends you can rely on instead. 

Controlling your attention

This means stepping away from your daily habits to observe them. Then filtering out things that grab your attention when you wish they wouldn’t. Controlling your attention in this way might be the most important thing you can do to build better mental resilience.

Avoiding distractions means you’ll attend to stuff you can control. You’ll be able to maintain your attention on small everyday goals, the building blocks of your plan. Every time you do this, you’re reinforcing the right habits.

Here are two tips for making this work for you:

  • List the things that distract you during the day. Pick out those that grab your attention even when they are not important – such as social media notifications. Turn off those little red reminders. Use a website blocker to stop you following the news when you have work to do.
  • But remember that your goals shouldn’t just focus on ‘achieving’. A distraction from a child or colleague may seem unwelcome, but it might be extremely valuable in supporting the quality of that relationship. So choose carefully and don’t become a robot. 

Practising optimism

Winning £1000 would make us smile. On the other hand, losing £1000 would give us relatively more negative emotion. Our brains are hard-wired to worry more about things we might lose, rather than valuing things we might gain. We’re not made for optimism.

This made sense when we were hiding from predators. Thinking the worst was a good plan. Our anxieties are different these days. Lions and snakes are a long way away, but the old parts of our brain still tune in to media stories of danger, crime and conflict. 

In modern life, this is a bias that’s worth becoming aware of. We need to practise optimism to become more balanced and more resilient.

Top tips

  • Charlie Unwin encourages us to draw a line down a piece of paper. On the left-hand side, write down your worries about your current situation. On the other, capture the positives (real and potential). They’ll include any small goals you’ve achieved.
  • As a reminder, write down one positive thing every day. Perhaps a conversation, a good night’s sleep or a glorious sunset. It should be the thing you appreciated most. Don’t worry about repeating them – it’s the reminding that’s important.

This optimism needs to be thoughtful. It’s not simply a shortcut or wishful thinking. To be resilient, you still need to be realistic about the goals you’re working for. You need to persist with your planning, research and personal leadership. 

Believe you can

I recently came across a phrase that’s stuck with me – ‘Worrying is betting against yourself.’ If you can train away some of your worries, that’s going to be a big help. Use critical thinking and positive self-talk to do this. Remember that stress is everywhere. Trying to get it to zero is a waste of energy. 

In the first blog of this series, I told the story of Dean Stott and the suffering he endured for his long-distance cycling records. A big reason he could cope was the military training that kept him calm. From appearances, the locals he passed by had no inkling that he’d been a special forces soldier. His ability to deal with worry was all in the mind, deep in the mental habits he’d built up over the years.

Practise gratitude

Finally, don’t forget to practise gratitude. Write down a handful of things you are always grateful for. That might be good health, or a close relationship with your partner, kids or siblings. It might just be your favourite meal. 

Gratitude is part of the recipe for resilience because it keeps you positive and focused on what matters most. Take a look at your list once in a while, and make sure you don’t take these things for granted. 

Find out more:

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 1

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 3

Website: Les Brown, motivational speaker

Website: HeadFIT for life

Website: SilverCloud

Website: The Thrive project

Blog: How goals can change your life

Mental resilience for everyday life – part 3

By Blog

This is the last in a series of three blogs about building mental resilience. It offers some useful thoughts about getting mentally stronger, and practical tips you can apply in day-to-day life. 

If you’ve read the previous blogs, you may remember Charlie Unwin. He’s a sports psychologist and Olympic coach. He tells us to focus on three areas – positive doing, positive thinking, and positive feeling. In this blog, our focus is on the last one – positive feeling.

What do we mean by positive feeling?

Everyone’s good at sensing when their head’s in the right place. We’re confident about our plans and progress. We’re on top of our game. But the opposite is perhaps more common. We can feel hijacked by feelings that don’t really work for us – or our loved ones. 

The truth is that our feelings are active 24/7. Between waking up and turning in, we’ll go from happy to sad, bored to excited, indifferent to elated. It’s normal, and won’t change anytime soon. But we can work with these patterns. By understanding how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours work together, we can help build ourselves more useful habits.

Filter, filter, filter

Compared to our ancestors, modern people like us have a problem. Everywhere we turn there’s a flood of information. It can feel overwhelming, and this constant digital ‘noise’ can damage our resilience. The best way to maintain a clear head is to limit both what we consume and when.

Let’s look at this a bit more. Imagine that each thought creates an emotional ripple in your brain. Sometimes this ripple is big, and we’re very aware of the feelings that go with it. Sometimes it’s tiny and just passes by. But these ripples are always there. When we add extra news, stories and information, we add even more ripples. That makes it harder to prioritise the right things, getting in the way of our positive emotions. 

Filtering tips to build resilience

  • Cut down your junk news diet. Try this by rationing yourself to just one news bulletin a day – and not the 10pm one before bedtime. After two or three weeks, you should feel the benefits. Don’t be a sucker for the novelty of ‘breaking news’ stories on social media.
  • Think and act local. This will stop you taking on the emotional burden of things happening around the world. Instead, focus on something you can do to make small differences within your neighbourhood. You’ll feel more positive because you’ll feel more in control. You’ll also get direct, personal feedback from helping other people.

Switching on and off

As a former Olympic coach, Charlie Unwin also warns us about the perils of over-working and over-training. It’s a lesson from athletics that we can take into our own lives. Top athletes used to focus on training longer and harder than the competition. Christmas Day on the running track? No problem. Then we started to learn that the best athletes took recovery as seriously as their workouts.

Working hard is good and stress helps us perform. But we must let our minds and bodies recover if we want to get things done and manage life’s emotional load. 

Recovery tips:

  • Learn more about sleep, and make sure you’re getting the right amount. Take a look at my blog on why sleep matters and get some tips for better sleeping.
  • Think about how you organise your day.  If life feels ‘always on’, you’re not restoring your energy. Can you structure your time with both ‘on’ and ‘off’ activities to get a more sensible balance?

Practise visualisation and self-talk

For some activities – like presentations or work meetings – you can use visualisation and self-talk to be more prepared. This can help you get things done with more confidence, focus, and connection. It can also help you dig deep during physical challenges.

How does visualisation work?

You simply imagine going through an experience in your mind. The more accurate you can be, the more you’ll lay down the same neural pathways you use in real life. Some people are so good at this that they can pick up the same feelings they get in the real-life situation. This allows them to practise regulating their emotions.

To prepare for difficult or tense situations, it helps to train yourself to breathe deeply and relax. To practise, follow these steps at the start of every day:

  • Breathe deeply, counting in for five and out for five. When your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring it back to your breathing for two minutes.
  • On every out-breath, relax your body. Start with your head and face, working down to your toes, releasing tension as you breathe out. Keep doing this until your mind is calm.
  • Visualise the day ahead, picking on key moments one by one. Notice any changes in your heart rate and mood while you’re doing this, pushing gently against them with a deep breath and relaxation. Imagine living through each key part of your day calm, upbeat, and confident.

How does self-talk work?

Not everyone gets on with visualisation, but positive self-talk can be a good alternative. You can rely on it anywhere, anytime, using it as a non-stop nudge to keep you going. It can keep negative feelings in check and bring out the best in you.

Remind yourself you can lose this weight because many have done it before. You can finish this marathon because you know friends who have. You can climb this mountain knowing that others have suffered even greater hardships. Use the heroic inspiring stories of resilience from your history and culture to make you feel stronger, with a nod of gratitude as you go. 

Find out more:

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 1

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 2

Website: HeadFIT for life

Website: SilverCloud

Website: Headspace

Website: The Thrive project

Calm app

Mental resilience for everyday life – part 1

By Blog

Two years ago, Dean Stott grabbed a couple of unlikely world records. In just under one hundred days, he cycled the Pan-American Highway. That’s 19,000-miles across the Americas. During the journey, he covered 6,000 miles of South America in just 48 days. Yet before his training, Dean had never cycled far from home. For most of his life, he hadn’t even owned a bike. 

I tell this story because it’s a case study in mental resilience. Dean Stott had been an elite soldier in the Special Boat Service. But seven years before his cycling adventure, he had a severe injury in a parachuting accident. Doctors said his damaged knee would stop him performing at the elite level. He wasn’t convinced. 

Dean’s journey took him to extremes, from the mountains of Alaska to the Atacama Desert. He faced storms and even a tornado. One day he cycled a jaw-dropping 340 miles. As the pedals turned, he also raised nearly £1 million for Prince Harry’s ‘Heads Together’ charity. It sounds almost superhuman. So when we want to build our mental resilience, what can we learn from people like Dean Stott?

In this and two sister blogs, I’m going to find out. I’ll give you some useful ways to think about getting mentally stronger, and practical tips you can apply in everyday life. Most of my clients will tell you that getting physically stronger is hard. They also agree that building mental resilience is even tougher. 

It’s common for people to feel that they can’t cope with what life’s throwing at them. But I believe we can learn and practise resilience. This is the ability to bounce back from setbacks like an illness or being made redundant. It lets you adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, giving you a buffer against life’s difficulties.

One of my favourite experts in resilience is Charlie Unwin, a sports performance psychologist. In order to thrive, he tells us to focus on three things – positive doing, positive thinking, and positive feeling. Like the legs of a stool, these three depend on each other. In this blog, we look at the first one – doing.

Positive doing reduces the harm from our bad habits, and builds our mental resilience along the way. Unwin gives us three principles:

Principle 1 – Always have a plan 

Having a plan is good for your mental strength. One thing it does is help make order out of chaos. Of all the different things you could choose to do, it tells you (and the world) what you’ve decided. This is where your priorities lie.

Your plans won’t be perfect. But even a bad plan is a good step forward. Getting stuff out of your head and into words will give you a sense of control. You can make the plan better when you get more information, or when you see how it’s working out in practice.

We’re not all going to be cycling 200+ miles a day like Dean Stott. But whatever your goals, you’ll only reach them if you plan for your success. You might be interested in the blog I wrote about using goals here – it explains how to link big goals to small steps.

Principle 2 – Harness the power of routine

Even a messy or incomplete plan is a step forward, because you can now shape it into something better. Your biggest challenge is then sticking to it, and here we should lean heavily on routine. The Olympic champions that Unwin has trained will vouch for that.

Routine is key because it gives us predictability, and predictability gives us consistency. There is a direct relationship between the routine of a tennis player’s prep and the likelihood of them hitting a winning serve.

Our brains pick up on repeated patterns. This makes the same behaviour easier over time. So we’re more likely to stick to a workout if we do it at the same time every day. We’re more likely to get a better night’s sleep if we have a routine for the hour before bedtime.

Get routines right and your days will feel more energetic, productive, and focused. Bit by bit, this will build mental resilience. To set up new routines: 

  • Create them together with your partner or family, and get their ideas
  • Keep a diary – if you’re running every day at 7am, write that down
  • Forgive yourself if you miss a day – but restart as soon as you can.

Another tip I’d add to this advice is the two-minute rule, developed by a productivity expert called David Allen. It will help you start and finish tasks. The rule is to pick something and do it for two minutes.

This works for two reasons. Firstly, many tasks take no more than two minutes – a tidy-up, a quick email. So if a job takes no more than two minutes to complete, do it now and it’s off your mind. Second, the other tasks take two minutes or less to start. And if you can get started, momentum will often keep you going.

Principle 3 – Do less, to achieve more

Take a look at that plan of yours. Can you make it simpler?

Our modern obsession with ‘achieving’ and getting things done has some downsides. One of them is that we do everything with less energy, less focus, and less quality. 

So try to make things simple. Grab a pen and paper and ask yourself – if you did only half the things you do now, but did them properly, what would happen? It’s worth trying this out for a few weeks. It may mean learning to say ‘no’ a bit more often to your partner, family and colleagues. 

When we decide to do less, we can be single-minded – like Dean Stott on the Pan-American Highway. We become more productive and more connected with those around us. Some people call this the Law of Subtraction, and it’s backed up by research from behavioural scientists. 

Focusing each day on fewer things will increase your ability to deal with frustration, pressure, risk and adversity. You’ll start to trust your ability to cope. Try it today.

Find out more:

Blog: How goals can change your life

Website: The Thrive project

Book: Relentless by Dean Stott

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 2

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 3