Category

Blog

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

The gruelling race to ‘Castle Commando’

By Blog

Some colleagues and I share an annual tradition. Every spring we go for a run together, but this one’s a bit different. It involves a 14-hour journey to one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. It’s open primarily to Her Majesty’s forces, both regular and reserves. And it’s one of the toughest races most of us will face all year.

It’s important to tell the story of the Commando Speed March because it’s a lesson in history and humility. It helps to remind us of the incredible sacrifices made by previous generations. It’s also an inspiration for anyone on their own fitness journey, showing what training, discipline and mental resilience can achieve.

The part of the country I’m talking about is the gorgeous Scottish Highlands. The last leg of our journey there takes in Loch Lomond, Rannoch Moor, the majesty of Glencoe and Ben Nevis. Sadly, our race doesn’t allow for much sightseeing. Instead, it means running with 36lbs (16.5kg) over seven miles in less than one hour. Along the way, it raises important funds for military veterans and their dependents.

Our route echoes the 1940s, when soldiers hoping to become commandos arrived at Spean Bridge railway station. Already weary from the journey, they’d load their bags onto trucks. In full kit with their heavy rifle, they were ordered to march to the training centre at Achnacarry Castle. If they didn’t get to ‘Castle Commando’ within an hour, they were sent back to their unit, ‘RTU’d’. It was a simple pass or fail.

In 1996, the charity event we now ‘enjoy’ was started by local resident Graeme Taylor, in memory of this arduous challenge and the men who gave it a go. In recent times, it’s attracted over 300 entrants a year, all of them focused on that magic one-hour deadline. The only way to do it is to run the whole way. 

The start is savage, with a very steep climb just under a mile long. The sharp incline and switchback at halfway is very tricky. Through the gates, a final cheeky 200m climb and the finish is close. The winners are the team with the five fastest finishing times. But participation and giving your best is the spirit. As so often in life, getting started is more important than being the quickest.

We are drawn back each year by the event’s past, as the story of these commandos comes from dark days. After the evacuation at Dunkirk in May 1940, Britain was alone and vulnerable. Invasion from Nazi Germany was a real threat, and new Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew this very well. His famous speech promised:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Against this backdrop, and calling on his own military background, Churchill founded a new fighting force. They were inspired by the Boer Kommandos that Britain had fought 40 years earlier. They would work in small groups, trained for quick, destructive raids against the enemy.

As the unit grew, training moved to Achnacarry in 1942. On running through the gates, soldiers would see a row of graves alongside the driveway. Each featured a short description – including rank, name, and cause of death. “He showed himself on the skyline”, said one. “He failed to take cover in an assault landing”, said another.

The regime was innovative and taught skills from demolition and boat handling to survival, escape and evasion. Lt Col Fairbairn and Major Sykes coached special techniques in unarmed combat. They had developed ‘defendu’ (gutter fighting) when policing Shanghai – then one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Their design for a new fighting knife became the commando symbol we recognise on uniforms today.

By the end of the war over 25,000 soldiers had passed through ‘Castle Commando’. They inspired the creation of the Parachute regiment, and the Long Range Desert Group (who became the SAS). During the 1940s, and in contravention of the Articles of War, those captured were denied prisoner-of-war status and executed without trial.

Born out of national weakness, this unique group went on to win heroic status. As Churchill said, “War is not won by evacuations, but there is a victory inside this deliverance which should be noted.” Even the defeat of Dunkirk led to a cutting-edge idea that helped the Allies to victory. It’s the same in our personal lives. Sometimes it takes a bad situation to find a solution we’ve been looking for.

The Commando Speed March isn’t open to the public. But you can still follow the original route on foot or by car, starting at the railway station. Don’t miss out the Spean Bridge Hotel, a ‘watering hole’ for commandos past and present. It houses a world-class collection of WWII commando memorabilia in a small museum. 

Over a mile from Spean Bridge, on a prominent hill, stands the impressive Commando Memorial. It depicts three commandos facing Ben Nevis, overlooking the area where their training would have taken place. We always stop here during our trip, as an act of remembrance. The bronze memorial is dedicated to those original commandos of the Second World War. As we take in the fresh mountain air, we read the words on the plinth, ‘United We Conquer’.

To learn more about the commandos, and how to support our veterans:

This article is dedicated to former Squadron Sergeant Major WO2 Al Stewart 131 Commando RE, 1963-2019. 

Top five tips for urban survival

By Blog

As a personal trainer, you won’t often find me recommending an evening on the sofa. But I’m drawn to the TV when I see Ray Mears showing us how to build shelters in the wild and forage for food. It reminds us that, for some people, these skills are still needed for everyday survival. 

But what skills do we need to survive – and thrive – in our urban world? The challenges are different. Our modern enemies are medical problems like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. They’re fuelled by smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, too much alcohol, unhealthy diets and pollution. 

On top of this, our stress levels struggle with the frantic pace of modern life. We find it hard to set aside smartphones and social media. Balancing work, friends and family is always challenging. And our Western societies are seeing more mental health issues, starting from an early age. 

I don’t have all the answers. But I can pass on some things I’ve learned from studying and working with clients. They are practical tips we can all adopt to look after our bodies and our psychological health. They’ll help you cope better with modern life and create healthier relationships with the people around you.

My five tips for urban survival:

Get moving

You never know when you’ll need your body’s help. One day you may need to move quickly to escape from harm, or help someone in danger. Or perhaps you’ll be told to get lean and strong before life-saving surgery. Being physically fit gives you the confidence and ability to face life’s difficulties.

In an ideal world, you’d be active every day, mixing up exercise for your heart and lungs, muscles, flexibility and balance. But modern life can get in the way, and your time may be limited. You have to be honest with yourself and think strategically. 

Create a list of activities you could include in your day – before, during and after work. Experiment to see what sticks. Consider whether you prefer to exercise individually, or with a team or group. If it’s the latter, I always recommend the Saturday morning parkruns as a great way to start the weekend. 

Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week. But what’s the best physical activity? The one you’re most likely to keep doing. So cut down the obstacles. Choose something free or low cost. Keep it local to home or work. If it’s something you can do with the people close to you, even better.

Learn good sleep habits – and practise them

Lots of us underestimate the importance of sleep, and that’s a mistake. These days the experts show just how vital it is for physical recovery, mental health and boosting our immune systems. Interestingly, one study found that problems with sleeping were almost non-existent in traditional societies.

Many modern people suffer from a self-inflicted problem – ‘blue-light insomnia’. This is caused by smartphones and laptops, whose screens delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin and send our bodies clock awry. So keep your iPhone outside the bedroom door. 

I’ve written two blogs about improving your sleep – you’ll find the links at the bottom of the page.

Choose a varied diet

When I’m food shopping, 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. Follow them when you’re next in the supermarket and you won’t go far wrong.

The first four are well-known, but why is D for ‘diverse’ so important? You may not know much about our gut microbiome (the organisms in our digestive system). It might be as influential as genes when it comes to our wellbeing, and it loves variety. When you choose different foods, you’ll get the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that keep your body strong and mind healthy. 

Cut down sugar

Urban survival means staying lean and keeping a healthy heart. So take steps to reduce sugar. When you’re in the supermarket, just pause. Is there a better option? Choose tins of fruit in juice rather than syrup. Or buy unsweetened cereal and add fruit (like apples and raisins) for sweetness. Both will contribute to your five-a-day. Don’t shop when you’re tired or hungry, as you’re more likely to pick up sugary snacks or fizzy drinks.

Work on some goals

Psychologists tell us that we get positive emotions when we’re moving towards a goal. These are feelings like joy, gratitude, hope and confidence. One of the reasons we love them is that they fend off stress. Improve your goal setting, and you’ll develop a more positive mindset. It’s a skill you can use to get fitter, eat better and deal with the bad habits we all have. You can read a blog about goal-setting here.

Let’s go

Further reading:

Health Survey for England 2017 

Blog – Why sleep matters

Blog – 14 tips for a good night’s sleep

Blog – How goals can change your life

The best way to break a habit

By Blog

Here’s a peculiar thing about human beings. Last week you decided to give up the booze, but here you are with a hangover. You promised to exercise, but you’ve not moved from the sofa all evening. And the doughnut crumbs tell their own story. Have you ever wondered who’s in charge?

We think we’re making our own decisions all day, every day. But at least 40% of the things we do are simply habits. In other words, they’re choices we make without actually thinking about them. Once upon a time, many of them started with a decision. But now they’re automatic and hard to budge.

Our good habits – like brushing our teeth – are useful. But the bad ones can get in the way of us achieving things we really want. They can be powerful, and even destructive. They can keep us hooked on junk food and glued to the TV. Over the long-term, that damages our bodies, our mental health and even our relationships.

Every one of my clients has some habits they’d like to stop or replace. So what can we do about it? The bad news is that there’s no quick fix. The better news is that change is possible, and there’s been some research to help us in recent years. It’s a good place to start.

What are your habits made of?

Experts think our habits have three clear parts, working together in a loop:

  1. What’s the cue? This is a trigger that tells your brain which habit to put into autopilot. It could be seeing a chocolate bar when you’re in the supermarket queue. It could be something emotional, like an argument with your partner.
  2. What’s the routine? This is the action – the thing you think or do. It’s buying the chocolate bar or losing your temper. Routines can be long and complicated or simple – some of yours will last for only a fraction of a second.
  3. What’s the reward? This is the feeling we get as a result of the routine. Rewards can be the physical sensations we get from food or drugs, or emotional payoffs like pride in a job well done. Rewards reinforce the habit.

Then there’s craving. A craving anticipates the reward when you get the cue. It pulls you through the routine, even when part of you says ‘no’. If you don’t go through the routine, there’s no reward. The craving in your brain is left unsatisfied, and that’s hard to deal with. You’ll probably feel grumpy and out-of-sorts. Cravings may be so powerful that you lose control over your behaviour.  

Over time, the steps in this loop become automatic. Once we set a routine of heading for the sofa rather than the gym, or buying a pastry for breakfast, the pattern stays with us. Forever. The habit gets built into our brain, because these shortcuts are usually efficient for us. Just think about driving – we don’t have to keep remembering to stay on the left side of the road.

So what can you do about it?

There is a Golden Rule if you want to banish a bad habit. Don’t worry about the cue and the reward – you can keep them. But you must change the routine. This works because a habit cannot be killed off, but it can be replaced. By unpicking the routine we replace it, and take control of the ‘habit loop’. The old pattern stays, but now it’s now tucked away. We’ve taken the old routine – buying a Mars bar – and replaced it with a healthier one – buying an apple.

This is the best strategy because it works with the habit, not against it. After a while, choosing an apple becomes as automatic as any other habit. It also works because you don’t need to worry about changing the cue. That’s good when your cues are things or places you can’t avoid – like your workplace or the local shops.

How to believe in change

For many habits – like doing more exercise – success grows when your new routine involves a group. That’s because belief in yourself often shines through when you’re with other people. Shared experiences like parkrun are a magic ingredient, as you can see people building good habits all around you. But you don’t need to look for big communities. A group can be as small as two people, like a personal trainer and their client.

Use exercise as your keystone habit

There’s something else that’s important about wellbeing and exercise habits. People who train regularly eat better and are more productive at work. They feel less stressed and smoke less. We’re not 100% sure why this is, but researchers call physical exercise a ‘keystone habit’. It seems to spill over into other parts of life, triggering other healthy changes.

I think our gut feel tells us this. Whether it’s weight loss, healthy eating or family relationships, the right habits can change everything.

Let’s go

Find out more:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The fascinating life of a 20th-century pathfinder

By Blog

More than a hundred years ago, one man saw that modern lifestyles were taking their toll on our wellbeing. Long before Zumba, Body Combat and Hot Yoga, he built and promoted a world-famous exercise programme. His name is more well-known than his unusual story, which starts in Germany in the 1880s.

The man’s name was Joseph Pilates, and he got a poor start in life. He was a sickly kid who was picked on by his schoolmates. He had asthma, bad posture, and rickets (giving him soft, weak bones). To make things worse, he lost the sight in one eye at the age of five – allegedly from a stone used by a bully.

Yet as a teenager, he was earning money by posing as a model for anatomy charts. How had he transformed himself? Inspired by an interest in the ancient Greeks, he developed daily exercises to improve his health and wellbeing. He took to the weights and picked up bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, and gymnastics. He overcame his disadvantages with focus and discipline.

By 1912 Pilates was living in England, working as a circus performer, boxer and self-defence instructor. When the First World War came, he was interned with other Germans for four years. In later life, he explained that many of the ideas that made him famous came during this time.

Pilates was held at the Knockaloe farm camp on the Isle of Man. As the months dragged on, he saw many fellow prisoners slump into apathy, with little to do but stare at the walls. But he also noticed the local cats. Although they were nothing but skin and bone, they were still full of beans, springing after the local mice. Why were the cats in such good shape, while humans grew weaker?

Pilates had learnt to watch bodies. He saw the cats stretching out, over and over again, keeping their muscles in shape. So he began thinking about exercises that would stretch a human’s muscles. He shared them with those around him, and they began to do the exercises, too. 

For a while he worked in the hospital, helping soldiers too weak to walk. He set up resistance exercises by fixing springs to the ends of metal bed frames. So even these patients could improve their strength and flexibility. Over the years, ideas like this made their way into kit that’s still in use in modern Pilates studios.

Many of Pilates’ soldiers actually ended their war in better shape than when it started. When the Spanish flu epidemic swept across Europe in 1918, legend has it that not a single man under his care died. That’s remarkable when you consider the poor living conditions of these camps, hit hard by the deadly virus.

Like so many innovators, Pilates soon headed for the USA. On the boat over, he met his future wife, Clara. They set up a new gym in New York, where his ideas became popular among those wanting precise control of their bodies. Joe and Clara welcomed dancers, actors and opera singers – people who wanted to get back from injuries or improve their skills. All were introduced to fearsome-sounding equipment like the Universal Reformer, the Wunda Chair and the Spine Corrector. 

Over the years, the gym saw an eclectic mix of famous visitors, including Laurence Olivier and Yehudi Menuhin. Joe’s ego and energy were balanced by Clara’s compassion. Some say she was the better teacher, and her approachable style took off. It showed that ‘Contrology’ (as Pilates was then called) could be tailored to any level of health and fitness.

As Joe often told us, “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” He kept developing his methods until his death in 1967, a role model for energy,  persistence, and health through exercise. There are photographs of him performing advanced stretches at the youthful age of 80. It just proves that there’s a lot you can learn from cats.

Let’s go