Posted on Leave a comment

The power of the mind in sport and exercise

I never got along too well with sports psychology at university because it made me analyse my own behaviour in sport, and that made me feel uncomfortable. There’s also too many theories that all blend in to one in my head and create a LOT of referencing! But that’s not the point of this blog..

Despite my dislike of writing essays on the subject, the effects that psychological interventions can have on performance in sport and exercise are undeniably impressive. I was reminded of this today while trying to talk myself into getting ready for my long run. My route was to be a slightly longer version of the one I had done the week before, in which the last mile had been a real struggle.

I realised I had been replaying that last mile over and over in my head each time I thought about my upcoming run. You don’t need to be a sport psychologist to realise that that is probably not helpful. I replaced this image with one of me completing that section effortlessly (which wasn’t hard to conjure up as it happens to be in the local park which I’ve run countless times). Out the door I went with my new-found confidence. Great!

While running I reflected on this negative imagery, and how detrimental it can be to performance or motivation. As a kid I was pretty good at rugby – I was useless at communication off the pitch as I was ridiculously shy, but on the pitch I had confidence. As I got a little older I lost a lot of this confidence for some reason, which affected my performance as I doubted myself a lot, which then further affected my confidence. A little cycle which I never really managed to break out of. I’m still pretty sour about it as I missed out on some big opportunities – note why sport psychology makes me so uncomfortable!

Looking back on this and applying my knowledge of imagery, I can see why things went so wrong. I vividly remember that each and every kick-off, I would visualise me dropping the ball and letting the team down. I stood as far to the side as I possibly could to reduce the chance of being nearest to the ball. Each time it went to a teammate, I breathed a sigh of relief. Until the next kick-off. Same with tackling – I saw myself missing the tackle, or them breaking through my arms. So, I backed out of them. I just couldn’t get myself to commit to them.

I wish I had the knowledge that I do now, then. I often wonder how far I would have got, had I not unknowingly been compromising my own performance. I can’t change my previous mistakes, but I CAN and DO utilise positive imagery now, just like this morning!

Have a think about a skill that you have been trying to master, such as a push up. Do you visualise yourself pushing yourself back up from the ground, or do you see yourself collapsing in a heap? Have you ever thought about it? You may be unintentionally preventing yourself from unlocking that skill! What do you see when you picture yourself squatting an extra 5kg? Can you create an image of you breezing through the reps with good technique? Have a play around with this technique and you may just surprise yourself with what you are capable of.

Posted on Leave a comment

HOW DOES EXERCISE ACTUALLY AFFECT DEPRESSION

How does exercise actually affect depression?

Research has shown that for some people, exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in relieving symptoms of depression, but how does it actually work?

It’s not often that we are given an explanation as to how exercise actually relieves symptoms, and so it is often overlooked when suggested by GPs as a self-help treatment. It should be noted that this does not apply to all people suffering with symptoms, and for those with severe depression exercise alone is not enough. 

Symptoms of depression include low energy, changes in appetite, body aches, and increased perception of pain, which can all decrease motivation to exercise. This means it is easy to get stuck in a cycle of being sedentary due to depression, and so losing out on the possible benefits of exercise on your mood.

Hopefully learning about how exercise actually affects your brain will help motivate those struggling with symptoms to persevere with their exercise!

The main mechanisms by which exercise can help relieve depression include endorphin release, neurogenesis, and neurotransmitter release.

All of these things affect your brain chemistry, which is said to be ‘an issue’ for those with depression. Most people have heard about endorphins being released during exercise, and that they provide an immediate but short-term effect on mood.

Neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons in the brain) is responsible for the longer-term improvements to mood. When we sweat, a protein is released into our blood stream which stimulates the release of growth factors. These growth factors support the growth of new neurons in the brain.

This is beneficial to those with depression as research has found that those who are depressed have a smaller hippocampus (the region of the brain that helps to regulate mood) – increasing the size of the hippocampus may relieve symptoms of depression. Neurogenesis is particularly important for those aged 30+ as this is when we start to lose nerve tissue. 

Serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine (all of which are neurotransmitters) are released as well as endorphins when we exercise. Serotonin makes you feel happy and secure, and dopamine is central to motivation, which are all things those who are depressed would benefit from. 

It has not been proven how long it takes for the alleviation of symptoms of depression to take place but it is thought to take at least a few weeks, so don’t give up straight away! Dr Michael Craig Miller (Harvard Medical School) suggests picking an activity you enjoy and that you will want to keep doing, as you need to be able to sustain your activity level over time.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Power of Positive Affirmations

Positive Self Affirmation – What, Why, and How?

We wouldn’t think twice about giving encouragement to friends and family, but the majority of us can probably admit that we very rarely encourage ourselves (if at all). Positive affirmations are positive statements used to motivate and encourage, and ‘self’ obviously means you are directing these statements to yourself. They are reminders to yourself of the positive things in your life, whether that’s personal qualities or the people you are surrounded by. 

Research has shown that using positive affirmations can improve your feelings of self-worth. If you often find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, positive affirmations can help to replace these thoughts with more helpful ones. They have also been found to reduce stress, and to view ‘threatening’ messages (e.g. the graphic images on cigarette packets) with less resistance. In relation to that last benefit, the use of positive affirmations has been found to increase adherence to healthy living interventions.

Try picking two or three positive affirmations that feel like a good fit to you. They need to be a genuine reflection of what you think about yourself, not something you do not really believe. Then start repeating them each day in whichever way you see fit. For example, you could write them down in a journal before you go to bed or say them out loud when you get up in the morning. There is no right or wrong as this is truly a personal exercise.

Here are a few examples to get you thinking (but remember, they need to feel right for you);

  • I am confident in my ability to stand up for myself
  • I feel proud of myself when I start new tasks straight away
  • I accept my emotions and let them serve their purpose
  • My drive and ambition allow me to achieve my goals
  • I put energy into things that matter to me
  • I am grateful to have people in my life who make me laugh
  • I am at peace with who I am as a person
  • I believe in myself, and trust my own wisdom
  • I am confident and capable in what I do

You may not feel a difference straight away, but keep at it as regular practice is required to make long-term changes to how you feel. It is easy to be put off by this practice as it sounds quite self-indulgent and awkward (no one likes the idea of bigging themselves up!), but positive affirmations are not statements declaring yourself an exceptional person. Instead, you are focusing on being competent across a number of areas that you personally value in order to be a good, moral, person. 

So give it a go and see if you can feel the benefits!

Posted on Leave a comment

Why are your muscles sore after training?

This soreness is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and normally appears 24-48 hours after strenuous or unaccustomed exercise. You might also notice a loss of range of motion in the joints of the affected limb(s). Even if you have been training for years, when we add new exercises in or change the structure of the session, this is unaccustomed to your muscles and so may lead to DOMS.

DOMS is not something to worry about and is perfectly safe. The good news is that when you do the same workout a second time you are not likely to experience the same level of soreness, so don’t let that first bout put you off!

Over the years many explanations have been given for DOMS, including a buildup of lactic acid, muscle spasms, inflammation, and micro tears of muscle and connective tissue. There is a lot of research for and against different explanations, and at the moment there isn’t a certain answer – it may well be a combination of a few factors. Eccentric contractions have been found to increase the risk of developing DOMS, so you may find you are more sore after doing eccentric pull ups (jumping up and lowering down) or push ups (lowering down to the floor).

Just like there are lots of explanations given for what DOMS is caused by, there are lots of myths about what can be done to treat or lessen it. Many think massages can help, but there is no concrete evidence behind this. Equally Epsom salts and stretching (before or after exercise) have little evidence proving that they relieve DOMS, and more evidence that they do nothing to help. There are a few things that show some promise, but again are no where near proven as a treatment. These include vitamin D, curcumin, and heat (which is why you may feel better after an Epsom salt bath). All this being said, if something makes you feel more comfortable then DO IT! It doesn’t matter if it’s not a scientifically proven treatment for DOMS, it may relieve other symptoms that are bothering you and that’s great too.

In summary, DOMS is something that is you are pretty much guaranteed to experience at some point in your training, and as annoying as it can be, it is just something you have to get on with! Just remember, the next time you train that session you shouldn’t have that same painful reaction, so don’t shy away from that session.

Posted on Leave a comment

Breathing to reduce stress and anxiety

BREATHING TO DECREASE STRESS AND IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH

The use of breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, have been shown in studies to reduce cortisol levels in the body, and reduce anxiety and stress.

NERVOUS SYSTEM

Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our flight or fight or stress response. It’s a vital system as it prepares us to avoid danger. However, when we rely and use this system too much in response to everyday stressors it can become a problem to our health. Using this system sends the oxygen to your arms and legs so you are prepared to run or flee. This reduces the oxygen sent to our brain, which makes it difficult to think clearly.

Too much of this stress response can increase blood pressure, supress the immune system, increase cortisol and can contribute to anxiety and depression. 

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) on the other hand sends signals to your brain to let you know you’re safe. Its sometimes call the rest and digest system. It sends more blood to the brain, it conserves energy, slows your heart rate and increases intestinal and gland activity and helps the body relax. Deep breathing can help reduce SNS activity and increase PNS activity.

Diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation are believed to activate the PNS, reducing stress and anxiety and calming the body down. These deep breathing techniques are great for relieving the symptoms of anxiety. 

BREATHING IN PRACTICE

There is so many techniques out there, but I want to keep it simple.

First rate your anxiety or stress on a scale of 1-10 and rate it again after you finish.

Lay down and place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest.

Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4s, focus on feeling the stomach rise. Imagine using the air to push against the hand on your stomach

Hold for 2 seconds

Exhale through the mouth like blowing out a candle for a count of 4s.

Do this for 5 mins minimum but longer if you have time.

Try to clear your mind and just focus on your breathing.

It will require practice so the more you do it the better you will get

Practice this daily and see if it helps reduce your stress and anxiety levels.

Posted on Leave a comment

USING YOUR TIME DURING LOCKDOWN TO STOP AND THINK

Using your time during lockdown to stop and think!!!

As we continue to endure another lockdown and head into a few more months of uncertainty and are becoming used to the idea of a new normal I want you to stop and think about how you want to enter this new phase?

What changes do you want to make?

While some are wanting everything to go back to normal (I would call this our comfort zone) I have to ask is that what you really want? 

Are there things in life you just got used to doing but don’t want to go back to?

Is the old normal a place you were truly happy?  

Could you redefine what is normal for you and take steps towards finding more happiness and a clearer purpose for your life your family.

Our normal is so personal that what we consider normal someone else would define as odd or strange. Have we become so used to the way life just was that we settled and just accepted it as the way it is?

Could your new normal be better than what your old normal was?

In an effort to stop and think about what we want I would ask you to sit down and answer these questions.

  1. What are the things you want to stop doing?
  2. What are the things you want to do less of?
  3. What are the things you want to do more of?
  4. What are the things you want to start doing?

In life there are going to be things we have to do that we hate, but we do them as ultimately it will take us closer to our goal and vision for our life. There are also things we do that we hate, that really serve no purpose and just bring us down or take us away from doing the things we want to do more of or haven’t even started doing yet. There are also things we love doing that don’t serve our goal but make us happy and there are things we really want to do but haven’t started them yet for various reasons.

We have been so busy we haven’t had time to reflect on the next question….

The ultimate question is what life do I want?

From there I would work it backwards and define what you need to do in order for that to happen. I know that it’s not an easy thing to do, and you can’t plan out every area of your life (current situation in point) but you can redefine your goals, your dreams and your vision and see if you are on track or not or think about what adjustments you can make to steer a better course.

I know all of us are negatively affected by the current situation but to various degrees. There are many things to be thankful and grateful for and many things that will get us down.

May I encourage you to look up, look for opportunities and keep moving forward, even if its slowly at first.

We have the opportunity to pivot, move and create the life we want….there is no better time than now to reflect, ask ourselves some hard questions and start paving out a new path that will take us in the direction we want to go.

Just something to think about

Posted on Leave a comment

Reducing back pain caused by working from home

Many of you will now have been working from home for a large chunk of the year and although you may be getting used to not going in to the office, you may still find yourself with lower back pain that you didn’t have before (or worse pain than before). Back pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions, and it can cause disturbances to your work and life.

When you were in the office you may have had physical interventions put in place to ensure you weren’t sitting still for a long period of time e.g. standing desks or ergonomic chairs. Now that you’re at home the likelihood is you don’t have these things in place, and this combined with not commuting and probably not having to climb as many stairs could be causing pain in your lower back.

One thing you can do from home to help with this is to vary your posture throughout the day, which has been shown to reduce shoulder and back pain. This could be a big movement like standing up and taking a couple of steps away from the desk before returning and continuing your work, or a small movement such as crossing and uncrossing your legs. This ensures you are not sitting in the exact same position for too long, as it has been suggested that even holding a ‘good’ sitting position can cause discomfort if held for too long as your muscles fatigue.

To put this into action try setting an alarm to go off at 20 minute intervals to remind you to change position (although probably best to have it as a quiet vibrate rather than a big alarm sound that might throw you off your train of thought!). You can try various positions – cross legged, on a different chair, or with your legs stretched out to the side (improves hip function). Have a stretch if you’re feeling stiff or achy, just a quick touch of the toes and shoulder roll could go long way.

Posted on Leave a comment

TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP

fat loss, optimal health, sleep for fat loss

How to improve your sleep.

Many of us underestimate the benefit of a good night’s sleep.

We seem to think we can function on 5 hours a night then back it up with a full day of work, week in and week out.

We ask so much of our bodies the least we could do is make sure we get adequate rest and recovery, so we stay healthy and functioning at our best.

Some quick tips on how you can improve your sleep.

  • Increase your exposure to bright light during the day – enjoy natural sunlight, it will improve energy, and the quality and quantity of your sleep.
  • Don’t consume caffeine too late in the day – having caffeine too late in the day can stop you sleeping at night. Aim to have your last coffee in the early afternoon not after 3pm to help improve your sleep.
  • Decrease your exposure to blue lights in the evening – too much light at night can reduce your melatonin levels, making it harder to get to sleep. Avoid using your phone, laptop and iPad at night. Or install an app that reduces blue light exposure.
  • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day – Irregular sleeping patterns can result in poor sleep. For better long-term sleep, be consistent in when you go to bed and get up, this will help your natural circadian rhythm.
  • Consider supplements that may help – 

Melatonin – produced naturally by the body. It helps you fall asleep faster with no nasty side effects. Useful to combat jet lag as well.

Magnesium – can be taken orally or you can have an Epsom salt bath.

Valerian root – may help you fall asleep faster as well.

  • Change your bedroom set up – things like temperature, noise and external lights can affect sleep. Use blackout blinds to make the room like a cave. Get rid of external lights from alarm clocks and televisions. Try to reduce noise as much as you can. Use on old fashioned alarm clock and leave your phone in another room, turn off your Wi-Fi as well.
  • Eat carbs at night – adding carbs to your evening meal can help promote better sleep.
  • Try to chill out and relax in the evening – take an Epsom salt bath (the magnesium helps promote good sleep), read a book, listen to music, have a massage, do some stretching.
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol as it can interrupt your sleep.
  • Make sure you have a good mattress and pillow – There is nothing worse than not being able to sleep because your mattress is old, and your pillow is lumpy. Investing in these things can also help with reducing back, neck and shoulder pain and help promote a better night’s rest.
  • Exercise regularly – Getting into regular exercise can help promote better sleep and health overall, although training late at night can leave you wired and stop you from falling asleep.

Why do I need to improve my sleep?

Well if weight loss is your goal, better sleep helps you lose weight, stay healthier and decreases carb cravings.

Poor sleep – 

Can lead you to you feeling hungrier than normal.

Can lead to you eating more than you normally would.

Can cause you to crave higher calorie and food.

Leaves you less energetic and reduces your overall energy expenditure.

Combine less movement with more food and you can see why losing weight is such a battle.

Something to think about

Posted on Leave a comment

An attitude of Gratitude

GRATITUDE

The idea behind a gratitude journal is taking time to stop, notice and reflect upon the things you are thankful for, no matter how big or small. Doing this daily can increase well-being and life satisfaction.

Try to notice new things your grateful for everyday – it may seem hard at first but with practice you will start seeing more of the good and less of the bad. Little by little how you perceive situations will change as you have adjusted your focus.

Be more specific with your gratitude – such as a moment that occurred in the day. Rather than saying I am grateful for my health, be more specific about something that happened that day or week.

Try to think beyond yourself and look for examples outside of us that we can be grateful for.

If journaling isn’t for you then maybe have a gratitude jar and some paper, when you feel grateful for something write it down and put it in the jar. Then every few months you can go over what you wrote to remind yourself of the good things.

How to have more gratitude everyday

Appreciate everything – Don’t be picky and look for the big things in life, you can be grateful for a clear day to go outside, a good nights sleep, a word of encouragement from a friend or having no dishes to wake up to one morning.

Find gratitude in your challenges – what have you faced in the past that you are grateful for today? What challenges lay ahead? What can you be grateful for in the midst of adversity?

Share it with others – express yourself and show your gratitude to the people in your life. Tell them, it will lift their day and yours as well.

Volunteer – giving of your time to help others in your community. No matter what’s happening there is always someone you can help. You don’t necessarily have to look very far to help out. You could go shopping for a neighbour, offer to take their bins out if they are unable to, cook them a meal or make yourself available for a weekly chat if they are lonely. It takes our mind off our own problems; it will make you more grateful for the things you have; and it makes a difference in that persons day or week.

Gratitude 

Improves physical health

Improves mental health

Enhances empathy and reduces aggression

Improves sleep

Improves self esteem

Increases mental strength

Give it a go and see if it makes a difference 

Posted on Leave a comment

The importance of staying active during COVID restrictions

As we’re facing ever changing restrictions and it doesn’t look like this virus is going anywhere, I thought I’d talk about the importance of staying active through lockdowns and other COVID restrictions.

Recent research has found that activity levels have decreased by 33% and sitting time has increased by about 28%. Those who were commuting to work have lost their walk to the station, or even a cycle to their place of work in some cases. Two-week quarantine periods have meant people are confined to their homes unless there is an emergency, such as needing to go to A&E. We all know that being sedentary is ‘bad’, but specifically it is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, bone and joint disease, depression, and premature death. As well as the physical effects of lockdown, there has been a huge impact on the nation’s mental health, with NHS mental health services having a surge in referrals.

If you were exercising before lockdown, you are not exempt from these this, although you’re in a much better place than you would be had you not been training beforehand. After 3 months of not exercising, it has been found that cholesterol, glucose, blood pressure, aerobic fitness, and strength are all negatively affected. Luckily, these levels are not likely to be all the way back to how they were before you started exercising.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as regular moderate exercise has been shown to benefit your immune system, which is even more important during this time. It has also been shown time and time again to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. For the best chance of sticking to your goal of being physically active, have a think about these things;

  • What kind of exercise do you prefer? E.g. doing a strength session indoors vs going for a fast walk/jog outdoors.
  • When do you want to be active? E.g. do you want to complete a full exercise session at a set time or exercise sporadically through the day in shorter bursts?
  • How can you schedule and prompt yourself to exercise? E.g. schedule a time to exercise and set a time on your phone to remind you, or book into a class online.

Habits have been found to be more likely to form if you set a time to do it i.e. exercise in this case, and if you combine it with something else you enjoy, such as listening to music or catching up with a friend.

As we age a number of things happen to our body which can be exacerbated by a lack of physical activity – loss of muscle mass, strength, power, and cardiovascular fitness. Resistance training in particular has been shown to ameliorate or even reverse this, and also improves walking endurance, gait speed, static and dynamic balance, stair climbing, and reduces risk of falls. For these reasons, it is important that older adults include strength training in their exercise regime.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently published an infographic on this topic, including the physical activity recommendations (150-300 minutes moderate to vigorous exercise per week) and examples of activity that could help you reach those recommendations. I have included this in the featured image (at the top of the page).

Hopefully we will see you all in the gym in the not so distant future if you are still training from home, but for now keep up those zoom sessions and try to get your walks in!