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:
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.