Making stress your friend

By Blog

Over the years, we’ve been taught that stress is unhealthy. Google the word and you’ll see lots of articles on its dangers, how to avoid it, and tips for coping. But what if that was only half the story? What if this enemy to our wellbeing can actually become a friend?

I’ve been learning more about stress recently, and wanted to share some things I’ve picked up. Among them are new ways of thinking about stress, and some surprising health benefits. It turns out that bits of controlled short-term anxiety are good for you.

What do we mean by ‘stress’?

When we bend a twig, it snaps when we apply enough force, or stress. From the 1940s, a researcher named Hans Selye took this term from physics, and applied it to the human body. At medical school he’d spotted that patients with different illnesses showed some common symptoms. These were caused by an imbalance in the problems they faced and the resources they had to deal with it. This is what we now call stress.

The two types of stress

Dr Selye was a pioneer, and the first person to describe how our bodies behave in challenging situations. He also showed us that our ‘stress response’ is the same – whether its cause is negative or positive. It’s useful to make a distinction between these two types:

  • ‘Distress’ is the unpleasant stress we try to avoid. It can be generated by life events such as losing a job, a relationship break-up or grief. It will often cause severe anxiety and get in the way of us functioning normally. 
  • Positive stress, or ‘eustress’, can be a real motivator. It’s mostly short-lived, but boosts our mood and productivity. Our pulse quickens, but this time there is no real threat or fear. We feel this stress when we ride a rollercoaster, start a new job, or go on a first date.

The key is working out which of these stresses apply in our daily lives. Then we can take the ‘eustress’ and tame it to our advantage. As sport psychologist Charlie Unwin puts it, we can invite stress on our own terms. Being good with stress is better for us than trying to keep it away.

Treating stress as a skill

What does this mean in practice? We have to believe that we can get good at ‘eustress’. To do that, we’ve got to practise it like any other skill. 

Charlie Unwin recommends using a ‘stress ladder’. Firstly, think about a challenge you have where stress will be an obstacle. For English footballers, that might mean going to a major tournament and taking a penalty in a shootout. For you, it could be physical stress, like achieving a personal best in a running event. Or it might be a mental challenge like making a speech or a Zoom presentation.

Now write down all the things that might cause you stress. Planning a presentation, perhaps you’re worried about your posture or body language. You might be anxious about looking nervous, what to do with your hands, or your laptop going wrong.  

When you’ve got this list, you isolate one stressor at a time. Do this by adding each one to an imaginary ladder. Those easiest to deal with sit on the bottom rungs, with the toughest at the top. Now we invite in some stress by dealing with each stressor one by one, climbing from the lowest point. 

For a presentation, this might involve filming yourself on a smartphone to get your gestures and timing right. You could rehearse in front of your partner to fix any bad habits. You could look out for tips and advice on YouTube. If your challenge is a physical one, are you following a plan to introduce the stressors you need to adapt and improve? Our minds respond well to these bite-sized, daily chunks of controlled stress.

Let’s take a personal example. Right now I’m following an 8-week training plan to run 10k in under 40 minutes. The stressors I invite in will develop my physiological fitness so I can run faster for longer. This concept is also known as speed endurance. One of the central pillars is ‘interval training’, running hard then resting. The interval refers to the recovery period, which we can reduce over time. Each session, each week has a specific aim and the cumulative effect will deliver my goal.

Some experts call this process ‘hardening’ but I prefer ‘stress inoculation’, a phrase from the military. This reminds us that having a skill is not the same as being able to deliver it consistently under challenging conditions. To do that, you’ve got to get really comfortable with stress. That’s why the army trains recruits when their hands are frozen, their kit’s wet through and they’ve hardly slept. They use the stressor of repetitive drills to hardwire the right pattern into reflexes.

What’s the real health hazard?

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s not stress alone that harms our health, but our attitude towards it. In the video I’ve linked to below, Charlie Unwin talks about a large-scale survey in the US. Over many years, those people who thought that stress was good for them had better health outcomes than those who did not. So our relationship with stress is very important, as are our beliefs about it. 

When you give it a little thought, a life without stress wouldn’t be any better. Many things that make us proud and bring purpose to our lives are hard. If we could wish away the stress, we’d say goodbye to a lot of the meaning and feelings of accomplishment that keep us going.

Stress is so often seen as a negative sensation. Work can pile up, family commitments wear us out, and it’s sometimes hard to relax. But it’s worth taking the time to re-frame that view. As the father of stress Dr Hans Selye taught us, we…

“…should not try to avoid stress any more than we would shun food, love or exercise.” 

Learn more

Video: Inviting stress on our own terms – Charlie Unwin

The volunteers

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I’ve often written about individuals – people who have faced tough lives and shown great resilience. But whole communities can be heroic, too. Think of the little ships of Dunkirk, rescuing thousands of men from the beaches of northern France in 1940. Or the countless examples of neighbourliness during our own coronavirus crisis. When communities come together, good things happen.

I learnt about one of them when visiting the North Yorkshire coast around Robin Hood’s Bay. These days the village is a popular beauty spot, often busy with tourists. With Whitby close by and a National Park to the west, it has a rich history to discover. The clifftop walks are wonderful, and it’s a dramatic and isolated place. Even on a sunny day, it’s easy to imagine a big storm rolling in from the North Sea. 

That’s just what happened in the winter of 1881, one of the worst England has ever seen. In January, a blizzard paralysed the country. Roads and railways were blocked by snowdrifts, often dozens of feet high. Then there was the extreme cold, with temperatures as low as -30C in some places.

In the early hours and darkness of January 19th a local ship, Visitor, was struggling in severe weather off the North Yorkshire coast. She broke up in the storm, forcing the terrified crew to their tiny lifeboat. They battled the mountainous sea, biting cold and blizzard conditions. The treacherous surf and rocks stopped them from landing, so they were stuck offshore. 

With daybreak, the six crew were spotted. But local fishermen could not set out in such a wild sea, and the village’s own lifeboat had seen better days. A telegram was sent to the harbourmaster in the nearest town: “Vessel sunk, crew riding in open boat by wreck, send Whitby lifeboat if practicable.” Prevailing winds made this impossible. So it was decided to carry the lifeboat Robert Whitworth overland to reach the desperate crew in Robin Hood’s Bay.

In the 1880s, horsepower meant exactly that. There would be no motor vehicles or electric winches to help cover the six miles through the blizzard. Everything would rely on old-fashioned muscle power and word of mouth.

Up on its carriage, the lifeboat was coaxed up steep hills and through seven-foot snowdrifts. An army of over 200 volunteers worked to clear its way, with their sweat freezing whenever they stopped. Even with a team of powerful horses, it must have seemed hopeless. They met people coming the other way, urging them to turn back from their impossible task.

Yet the men, women and children of Whitby wouldn’t give up. Farmers turned out with horses and shovels. They were helped by others who cleared the path from the Robin Hood’s Bay side. Narrow lanes meant that garden walls and bushes had to go to make way for the lifeboat carriage. 

Word had spread and a huge cheer was heard when they reached the steep hill down to the sea. It had taken just two hours. Now they had to steer the boat down the tight winding streets of the fishing village. Instead of hauling, they had to hold the boat back. If it broke free on the icy cobbles, it would be a disaster. But they succeeded and soon the lifeboat carriage was crunching over the shingle, pointing at the wall of surf.

The first rescue attempt failed, as several oars were snapped in the rough seas. So the coxswain returned the lifeboat to the beach. He launched again, with fresh crew and new oars, two men on each. This time they saved the stranded men, who were numb with exposure and must have given up all hope. Landing on the beach was overwhelming, with a huge crowd gathered to celebrate the good news. It had been a miraculous rescue.

One local man’s story is remarkable, and his name now appears on a plaque above the village. Henry Freeman was the coxswain in charge of the lifeboat. Twenty years before, almost to the day, he had been the sole survivor of another rescue. Several lifeboatmen had lost their lives helping to rescue people from five vessels in one day. Freeman was awarded the Silver medal from the RNLI, the national lifeboat charity.

Brave heroes like Henry Freeman are often the ones who get remembered in museums and memorials. But the Robin Hood’s Bay rescue involved hundreds of men, women and children. They all did their bit. They cleared the snow and hauled the icy ropes so that six strangers could be saved. Together they achieved one of the greatest rescues in the history of the RNLI.

I find it interesting that such stories are so memorable. They clearly reach something ancient and deep-seated in all of us – an instinct to work together with a common purpose. With the pressures of modern life, it’s understandable that people feel alone and overwhelmed. Self-induced pressure can add to this sense of isolation. As we consider the positive New Year changes we wish to start, remember that shared goals can be just as rewarding and powerful as individual ones.

Find out more – the RNLI:

The story of the Visitor shows the incredible efforts that coastal communities made to save those in distress at sea. But our coastline is steeped in countless brave sea rescues, with voluntary crews leading the way. The lifeboat charity was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. Living on the Isle of Man, he felt compelled to do something about the number of ships being wrecked around the coast. After years of lobbying, he won support for the idea of lifeboat stations we know today. A few years after his death, those first RNLI lifeboats were stationed at Douglas, in his honour. “With courage,” he had said, “nothing is impossible.” 

Video: the origin of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

Watch: RNLI video on the Robin Hood’s Bay rescue

Website: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

“A very little key will open a very heavy door.”

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Two years ago I read about an extraordinary event in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. At auction, a local man paid around £30 for a tray of bits-and-bobs. These included a small, faded portrait. About to throw it away, something told him not to. It turned out to be the famously lost painting of a young Charles Dickens, missing for over 130 years. 

You might think this is just one of those charming stories that pops up now and then. But it’s interesting to look a little deeper. The painting was done in London in 1843, the year Dickens wrote his most well-loved novel. It’s a portrait of a man younger and more energetic than the bearded gentleman we’re used to seeing. 

Every day Dickens’ eyes would take in the streets of London. Remarkable changes in recent years had made the city the richest and largest on the planet. Immigration saw the population soar, with living conditions for many beyond description. Rivers ran with filth, and medical care was basic and limited to the few. If you looked up from the street, the air was choked with sooty fog. 

The famous book he wrote this year is, of course, A Christmas Carol. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who cares for no-one. Scrooge is visited by the unhappy ghost of Jacob Marley (a former business partner), and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. The ghostly night softens him into a kinder, gentler man – not just at Christmas, but for the rest of his life. 

It’s a story that’s always been popular and never out of print. Readers are drawn to sympathetic characters like Tiny Tim, whose family can barely support his needs. Dickens shows us how the poor were treated in Victorian London, and how a selfish man can redeem himself through warmth and generosity. He reminds us to take more notice of the lives of those around us.

Part of his genius was to see that he’d reach more people with a deeply-felt story. For years he’d been a letter-writing machine, campaigning hard for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms. But a story can sometimes be more ‘true’ than any number of letters, essays and pamphlets. It would give him a wider audience. This included the illiterate poor, who paid to have episodes of his other novels read aloud. 

Dickens was appalled at how working-class people lived. Earlier in 1843, he saw first-hand the awful conditions for children in the Cornish tin mines. Closer to home, he spent time at one of the ‘Ragged schools’ set up to support the capital’s illiterate and half-starved street kids. He could see that  impoverished children were turning to crime, and that learning could provide a better life.

His anger stemmed from his own childhood, too. As a youngster, his father was sent to a debtors’ prison. So young Charles had been forced to leave school and work at a dirty and rat-infested factory. He understood what happens when society ignores the poor, especially children. The Poor Laws of the day fueled his rage, as the workhouse system delivered extra misery to those least able to cope.

Nearly two hundred years later, we have related challenges to grapple with. It’s clear that the current pandemic is driving both poverty and inequality, as did disease and pollution in Dickens’ lifetime. Like today, these had a bigger effect on those at the bottom of society – acting like a tax on the poor. Those with the fewest resources always suffer most from poor health and job insecurity.

Driven by his message, Dickens raced to get the book done in six weeks, just in time for Christmas. That included long night walks of up to 20 miles, “when all sober folks had gone to bed.” The good news is that it’s only a two-hour read. If you can dig out a copy, you’ll feel further echoes down the generations, because so many parts of a modern Christmas are linked to this period. 

Dickens was writing when the British were exploring old traditions like carols, and starting new ones – such as Christmas trees. The first commercial Christmas cards appeared in the week his book was published. A little later a confectioner, Tom Smith, invented a clever new way to sell sweets and called it the Christmas cracker. As the book became popular, it fuelled enthusiasm for Christmas and helped to spread the traditions we enjoy today.

Several phrases from the book are still going strong. “Merry Christmas” was used long before A Christmas Carol, but the book made it popular. It also introduced us to “Bah! Humbug!”, and of course everyone knows that a “Scrooge” is a miser. 

Something that often surprises people is that the first collection of carols was only published in the 1830s. Just as the singing of carols spread joy, it’s said that Dickens called his story A Christmas Carol because he expected it to bring people together. It certainly did – there was nothing better to bring out the spirit of Christmas, and there’s nothing better now. 

Dickens was a master of observing real life and reflecting it through stories. So although Ebenezer Scrooge was fictional, his traits of greed and ignorance were common among the privileged. Through him, Dickens showed that having empathy for problems like poverty was more noble than simply blaming the poor. 

Scrooge is the best example we have of someone who realises it’s never too late to change. Whether sudden or gradual, deciding to take action is key, with small changes chained together delivering significant achievements. That’s something we can apply to every challenge we have in our modern lives. In the words of Scrooge’s creator, “A very little key will open a very heavy door.” 

I re-read A Christmas Carol every year to remind myself how I can improve in the year ahead.  It’s a good way to honour Christmas, and aim for a generosity of spirit and understanding all year round – as Scrooge learned to do. 

There are many excellent film versions. If you don’t have the peace and quiet to read the book, why not watch one of my favourite three with family or friends over the holidays? I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Find out more:

Book: A Christmas Carol

Film: A Christmas Carol (1951)

Film: Scrooged (1988)

Film: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Charles Dickens Museum, London

Website: Lost portrait turns up at auction

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. 


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