Moving on, and keeping moving (February 2017)
Hi, I’m Drew, and I’ve been supporting the Blue Ribbon Foundation with their website and social media content. This will be my last blog for the Foundation as I’m moving onto new projects (though I will miss working with the Foundation!). I’ve been writing these blogs for the best part of two years now, so for my final missive, I’m going to focus on the key things I’ve learned over that time about how to keep yourself healthy.
- Set goals
Hands down, I’ve found this is the most important thing to do if you want to both maintain good level of fitness and health, as well as do for anything you wish to improve. Over the time I’ve been supporting the Blue Ribbon Foundation, I have significantly upped my exercise, with last year’s key focus being running my first marathon (see more about that here). After trying out several different ways of setting goals for regular exercise, with wobbles along the way, I’ve settled into a flexible pattern.
My goal is to run 20 miles a week in total, which averages out at less than 3 miles a day (or roughly 4.5km). I plan to raise that up to 26.2 miles. Sound familiar? Yup, that’s a marathon distance, and let me tell you, it’s a lot easier running that in bits rather than all at once! While that isn’t possible every week, it really has helped to keep me moving. It’s also an appropriate goal for me and my level of fitness, and will enable me to bring that up in advance of future marathons/half-marathons, or rest up more.
Other goals include weight training at least twice a week, which helps ring the changes and keeps the non-running muscles active. I’m still working on eating better, but haven’t yet cracked the problem of my sweet tooth yet. I’m a habitual snacker in the evening, and the quality of the food I eat tends to degrade later into the evening. Need to address the midnight crisps!
There’s more about how to set goals on our blog here.
- Mix it up
It’s so important not to get bored. If you just exercise in the same way, using the same routes, or eat the same food, it’s much more likely you’ll lose focus and motivation. As a result, it’s really helpful to plan out (there’s that goals point again) a variety of activities and meals to keep yourself engaged. If you (like me) go running as your main source of exercise, then why not change this up by investing in a bike? Or joining a local football team? Or identify a new set of exercises with help from a local gym? There’s more ideas on our blog here.
- Go to the doctor
This is a constant theme here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, and where better to reiterate it than in my last blog? Whatever your age, health background or current situation, don’t let health problems or concerns linger. Yes, some things will go away on their own, but many symptoms won’t, and may lead to longer lasting problems.
It’s vital to prioritise your own health, and make sure you get checked up for what’s bothering you, so you can get it sorted. We’ve talked on the blog about the best ways you can overcome any inclination not to go – find it here.
- Stay informed
If you’re reading this, and the other material the Blue Ribbon Foundation produces, then it’s likely you are the sort of guy who takes an interest in his own health. But unless you are a doctor, you’re not going to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s maladies, illnesses and diseases. I’m sure some doctors would feel that’s a bit much for them too! But what you can do is make sure you are informed of the most common sets of symptoms or early warning signs that something is up.
The internet is replete with lists of symptoms you shouldn’t ignore – some lists are better researched than others, so we’d recommend reading these links as starters:
And of course, there is all our information too!
That’s all from me. In conclusion, look after your body and mind, and your body and mind will be more likely to look after you. Live long and prosper guys!
Keeping things interesting (January 2017)
January is drawing to a close, and if there are any new years’ resolutions remaining, well done you! If not, and your healthy goals for 2017 have started to fall by the wayside, then you are in good company. January always feels like the hardest month to begin new activities – it’s cold, we’re impoverished after Christmas, and the reality of coming back to work can hit hard. In a way, it feels like any commitments to be healthier would naturally fit in the middle of the Spring, when the sunshine begins to come back.
Seasonal misery aside, one of the bigger challenges that can face us when we’re trying to be more healthy is boredom. Not only can our healthier eating habits seem dull, but if we’re trying to exercise more by doing the same things, that’s a recipe for letting things slip.
While the comfort of things we know and trust is useful, we only grow personally when we are prepared to try new thing. Like them or hate them, fresh experiences help broader our views as well as keep things interesting. That’s not just a psychological benefit; if we just do the same exercises over and over, we’re unlikely to derive the same health benefit from them, and will be neglecting some muscle groups. For instance, cycling to work is all well and good for your legs, but it’s not going to do much for your arms.
So, in the spirit of keeping us motivated, here’s some ideas of new things to try in February.
Shake up your exercise routine
Try a different route for your run, a new sport, or give a new workout a try. If you haven’t done yoga before, give it a whirl and quickly notice the impact on your health and flexibility. Or if you really want or need to stick to the same kind of exercise, then throw some more variety into it. How about varying in the intensity of your cycle by doing intervals of super-fast cycling for 60 seconds and then cooling off?
Add spice to your diet
Literally and figuratively. You may have seen our 27th Jan story on the potential benefits of chilli peppers in your diet; why not try and turn up the heat on some of your favourite dishes? (handle the amounts with care though!). Similarly, take even just 10 minutes to seek out new recipes that you can look forward to preparing and trying over a week, putting more variety into your week’s eating. Sites like BBC Food, Slimming World and many others can offer a range of new recipes that can introduce you to novel tastes.
Explore cultural delights
You don’t need to restrict your innovations just to health. Do other new things: find new music, new films, activities or locations. Yes, our choices are always restricted by our responsibilities and income – it would be nice to do the ‘new’ thing of going to Tahiti for a month, but for the rest of us, that’s not an option! All the same, we can take a bit of time to find new delights to interest or motivate us. Look locally for whatever might interest you – art, theatre, concerts, watching sport, education courses – or just hanging out with good friends more than you have done recently.
Do some soul-searching
If all the above is not shaking the sense of boredom or listlessness, then it’s time to have a good think about what else may be going on. Enlist the help of family or friends to bounce ideas around, and really consider what you might change to improve your happiness. For instance, is it time to look for a different job? While you may start considering some big issues, it’s important to reflect regularly on how you are feeling, and what positive steps you could take. After all, your mental wellbeing is just as important as your physical health, and the two are closely linked.
Above all, look for the new, as well as the familiar and comfortable, to keep yourself healthy, and you’ll find your motivation to keep on being healthy will follow.
Burning off a bad diet – the myth returns! (December 2016)
Recently Vox published an article on seven bad science or health myths they’d like to become extinct in 2017. It’s an interesting read in its own right, but here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, we’re interested in the health points. The key issue that caught our eye was the myth that “Exercise will help you lose weight”. As you may recall, we covered this issue back in April 2016 “Burning off a bad diet”…but this is one of the myths that refuses to die! So in the spirit of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, and looking forward to a healthier 2017, it’s time to put this to bed once and for all.
First, yes if we exercise more, we will burn more calories. But let’s be clear – our bodies burn the most calories just by…yup, keeping us alive. Most of your energy consumption goes on keeping your heart beating, your lungs breathing, and your brain ticking over (that’s a technical medical term). To be clear, exercise is a phenomenal way of improving the functioning of your body, and staving off illness. But unless we’re exercising an enormous amount (which will be very hard to sustain if you’re not a professional athlete), it’s not going to put much of a dent in our daily calorie consumption.
So if we’re looking to lose weight for health or vanity reasons (both are fine!), we have to look at reducing our calorie intake from food – in short, eat less. To do that in the most healthy, sustainable way, there are plenty of approaches out there to inspire (see our other blogs below for tips on how to set realistic goals). The key is to make changes slowly, with a clear plan, and also make sure that we’re eating a balanced diet. For instance, we could cut down our calories significantly but still live just on a crisps and beer-only diet, which while tasty, isn’t going to be the most nutritionally balanced.
Why does this myth persist? One explanation is that being (a) slim and (b) fit are usually conflated – it’s rare to find discussion or imagery of people who are overweight but fit, partly because while you may be fit as an overweight person, your health will still be at risk due to being overweight. In this way, the idea of being both slim and fit leads to people believing in a causal relationship – i.e. you’re slim BECAUSE you are fit. This (mis)conception is also often touted by some food and drink companies whenever health experts decry the fat or sugar content of their products (“It’s not our product, people should go for a run more”, etc.).
But probably the better explanation lies with us. It often feels harder to change our eating or drinking habits, because they are just that: habits. When we are stuck into a way of doing something, it can be challenging to alter our behaviour. Also, just like with building up our fitness, the immediate effects we feel might be negative, including hunger or cravings (compared with sore feet or tiredness with exercise). That can make it a challenge to persist through to the feel-good impact later on, but it is worth it. Why not feel more healthy, more alert, sleep better, have improved skin and generally feel less rough all round?
Let’s make 2017 the year we put the myth of ‘exercise = weight loss’ to bed, and embrace both eating better, drinking less, and yes, exercising regularly!
Alcohol and honesty (November 2016)
While many men drink alcohol in moderation or not at all, many of us drink too much. Despite recent news that women are now almost matching men in alcohol consumption globally, that’s almost entirely due to women drinking more, not men drinking less. And men still consume more than women.
A curious development reported over the last few years has been the emergence of studies which show the risk of harmful drinking higher among middle class adults over 50 in the UK. To be clear, many people from all backgrounds can drink too much, but this trend has shown that even with continual availability of alcohol information, some people are throwing caution to the wind in later life.
We might not want to recognise or talk about it. Equally, many men see drinking as a crucial part of a relaxing and fun lifestyle, and see the health costs as worth paying. It is your life and your choice – and we’re not here to preach if you have understood the risks, and accepted the potential impact on others as well as yourself. But given the health risks, it’s important that we are all knowledgeable about the long-term health impacts of alcohol so we can at least make informed decisions.
For guys who would like to know more, here are the facts. You can develop a whole range of serious illness after 10 to 20 years of regularly drinking more than 14 units a week, including:
- cancers of the mouth, throat and breast (yes, for guys too)
- heart disease
- liver disease
- brain damage
- damage to the nervous system
(Source: NHS Live well)
That’s aside from any immediate effects many of us will be familiar with the morning after!
- Know how much you are drinking. Counting up the units you consume in a week can help you either see a need to cut down, or reassure yourself that you are drinking in moderation. Drinkwise have a simple unit calculator you can use based on standard drinks.
- Have several alcohol-free days a week
- Go for a smaller drink – such as a smaller glass of wine or a bottled beer rather than a pint
- Choose a lower-strength drink, such as a low-alcohol beer or wine (ABV in %, shown on the bottle)
- Stay hydrated, by drinking water before and inbetween alcoholic drinks
- If you are concerned about your drinking overall, make a plan on how you are going to limit your drinking, and ask your friends and family to help support you to stick with it.
Drinking in moderation can have a range of short- and long-term health benefits, so it is worth all of us taking an honest look at the amount we drink and seeing how we may be able to cut down. If you’re interested in more information or support in how to cut down, in addition to the links above you can check out Alcohol Concern’s information here.
Pre-diabetes debates and choices (October 2016)
There has been a lot of debate recently about the term ‘pre-diabetes’. Pre-diabetes is a conversional topic, but essentially this refers to a condition where people will have blood glucose levels that are higher than normal, but not high enough to be diabetes or cause serious symptoms. In other words, this is explained as a warning sign. If you have pre-diabetes (or as it is sometimes termed, being in a pre-diabetic state), you are at risk of developing type-2 diabetes, with all the life-limiting problems that brings. You can reduce your risk of developing diabetes by managing your weight, eating healthily and keeping active. More information on symptoms, risks and where to find support is on our information page.
Here’s where pre-diabetes becomes controversial. This is not a universally accepted term or condition; the World Health Organization does not recognise this as a clinical term. Likewise, in the UK there is “no defined criteria for prediabetes”, meaning that doctors do not have a clear set of guidance to determine whether or not you have pre-diabetes, and therefore exactly what measures you should take to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. This can make it difficult to claim that pre-diabetes is a meaningful term, other than as an indeterminate marker that your health may not be at 100%.
The other issue is that pre-diabetes (however measured) may not be affecting your health now, nor is it clear that if you are in a pre-diabetic state this will inevitably develop into type-2 diabetes. Some people have also claimed this label represents an overextension of the medical establishment into treating ostensibly healthy people, which reduces individual choices about lifestyle.
So, what to do about the concept of pre-diabetes. Well, we’re not doctors or public health experts here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, and each man has a different health history. As such, we can’t, nor would we give medical advice. First off, it’s inarguable that type-2 diabetes is something you want to avoid. Despite a recent study on reversing type-2 diabetes, this condition is usually irreversible and progressive. In short, once you have type-2 diabetes, most men will have it for life, symptoms will get worse, and treatment will need to become more aggressive.
For your own health, we return to our central message, which is to keep focused on your health, and see your doctor regularly (particularly if you feel ill). Prevention is better than cure. If you maintain a healthy weight, eat well, don’t smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation, and exercise regularly, you will be far less likely to develop pre-diabetes, type-2 diabetes, or a whole range of other serious conditions. However, whatever happens we all will fall ill at some point in our lives, and it is useful in those cases to be able to have assessments from medical professionals and treatment/lifestyle changes as a result.
In that vein, the diagnosis of pre-diabetes, however debated, can be seen as a warning sign that we may need to improve our lifestyle. If we are honest with ourselves, there is usually some or other aspect of our lifestyle that we know is unhealthy or we would like to change. We also know the risks presented by unhealthy behaviours, so we make a choice about our long-term health each time we decide to smoke, or drink till hungover. But if we come to the doctor and are given a diagnosis of pre-diabetes, this can tell us early that our blood sugar levels may become unsafe, leading to a long-term, life-limiting and life-shortening condition. The choice on whether we act on that warning remains up to each of us.
Busy times and exercise (September 2016)
News flash – it’s obviously hard to fit exercise into a busy schedule. When work eases off, when there are less urgent family, friends or other events to attend, nipping to the gym or going for a bike ride don’t require a personal diary assistant. But sometimes, it simply isn’t possible to fit in as much exercise as you’d like, or even any exercise at all.
So, what are some of the ways you can look after your health in these busy times, while looking ahead to when you are less busy?
- Do what you can
Sounds simple enough, but often we forget that starting an activity is half the battle. If you don’t have time to do to the gym, join your friends for your weekly football match, or whatever you enjoy normally, do what you can to keep your activity up. Increase the distance you walk to work. Fit in 5 minutes of cardio or weights at home before you leave the house in the morning. Or take the stairs rather than the lift or escalator on your journey or at your work. While this might have offer small to middling physical benefit compared with your usual schedule, psychologically this will help keep you positive about your health, and help you feel that you’re not foregoing your good intentions. And on that note…
- Don’t stress about it
Unless you are a professional athlete or sports coach, exercise is going to be something that you fit into your schedule, rather than it being your schedule. There are always going to be periods when work and other responsibilities get in the way, so realise that this is ok. As long as your period of inactivity doesn’t last too long, you are not going to lose the health gains you’ve made instantly. Even if your overall fitness takes a knock for a while, trust that, with dedication, you will be able to pick this up again soon without long term impacts on your health.
- Plan for what you’d like to do in future
The best approach is ride out a busy period is to take (what little spare) time you have one day to plan ahead. Think about the exercise and healthy activities you most enjoy. If you like to listen to music or podcasts while you exercise, start stocking up on new material so you can look forward to enjoying that later. If you reward yourself with a special meal after a long workout, buy that next time you are at the shops ready for when you’re back on form. Above all, look ahead to when you will be less busy and schedule in your exercise, including exciting new activities – perhaps a new walk, route for your run or trying a sport you’ve always been interested in. That will help you both feel better about missing exercise now, and also be more likely to get back on track later on.
Bouncing back – how to pick yourself up (August 2016)
When you’ve had a knock to your health or wellbeing, it can feel that you’ve gone back to square one on fitness. One moment you’re regularly going to the gym (well, semi-regularly…ish), watching what you eat, and keeping stress under control. Then, a serious illness comes along and knocks us for six. Or some bad news. Or a particularly busy time at work. Then, too often, we can find ourselves running out of time for exercise, grabbing bad food at the end of a long day, or simply lacking the motivation we once had to look after our health.
It’s perfectly natural to slow down following injury or illness. In fact, it’s often a vital part of getting better. If you’ve had to give exercise a rest as a result of injury or illness, you’re more likely to hurt yourself if you immediately try to perform at the same level you did prior to being laid up. That’s not least because your body will be less supple from doing less exercise over that time. However, depending on your situation, before long it’s time to get going again. Otherwise you may slow your recovery or lose the health benefits you gained from regular exercise and healthy eating.
So what are some of the best ways to get back on the horse (figuratively, maybe even literally!) after your health or self-confidence has taken a knock?
1. Take it slow
As above, don’t rush in! Your body will need time to recover, for more or less time depending on what laid you low in the first place. When you feel ready, try something you know but take it easy – do a slower run, a shorter cycle, an easier walk, etc. to check your strength and endurance levels.
2. Make a plan
It’s vital to have a clear plan that helps you slowly ramp back up to what you were doing previously. If you can set yourself appropriate goals for each week which take you a little further each time, you’ll be much more likely to stick at it, and feel a real sense of accomplishment.
3. Avoid doing everything at once
It can be frustrating feeling like you have to start again on your healthy habits. But it’s best to focus on one or two changes at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once. In keeping with your plan, if you’re trying to improve your diet, exercise, drinking habits, stop smoking and even more, it’s really hard to make progress on all those goals at once. Even at the best of times, it’s better to focus on building a better habit with one or two issues. You can then move onto other goals when you’ve become more comfortable with the initial changes.
4. Get a buddy
Talk to a friend or partner about how you feel, and think about how you could both motivate each other to stick with a healthier lifestyle. Whether or not the other person has gone through what you have, we usually all have things we want to improve about ourselves or our health. So chances are, they’ll be up for a healthy pact aimed at motivating both of you.
Alternatively, if you are more flush with cash, a qualified personal trainer can help set goals and motivate you to build your strength up again, at an appropriate pace. Of course, if you have suffered a serious injury, you may already be working with a physiotherapist, so you may have that angle covered.
Get away from your desk! (July 2016)
You may have seen the recent news that having a sedentary, desk-based job can increase your risk of early death by up to 60%. Fortunately, the researchers behind the study have also said that you can ‘offset’ this by doing at least one hour a day of exercise.
That’s all well and good, but here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, we have two reactions to that story. Firstly, it can be hard to fit an hour in a day, particularly if you’ve got other responsibilities waiting for you at home. And secondly, even so, you don’t want to merely ‘offset’ that risk of premature death, we want to be healthier than that.
So it’s time to revisit some of the points we made in our May 2015 blog about fitting exercise into a busy schedule, as well as add new ideas into the mix!
1. It’s about your mental approach – as we discussed last year, fitting exercise in is as much about taking positive steps mentally as it is in buying a pair of running shoes, booking a squash court, or getting off the bus two stops earlier. You need to focus on the positives you will gain from the exercise, identify opportunities in your daily schedule, as well as recognise when you’re making excuses.
You can also train yourself mentally into a routine, both by setting goals and tracking your progress (plenty of mobile apps out there to help), as well as setting rewards for a job well done.
2. Change things up – it’s easy to start a new exercise routine or sport with great intentions one week, and grow bored or disenchanted the next. Part of why that happens is to do with the mental approach above, but also getting into a routine itself can soon become dull.
To combat things getting uninteresting, take 10 – 15 minutes at the start of a month to plan out a range of varied activities you could do. For example, for one week, vary your route to work so that you walk/run/cycle more of route than normally. The following week, plan out a different route, and change how you get there – for instance, try jogging for 5 minutes if you’ve been running.
In addition, think about new activities that you can do with friends or colleagues to keep yourself engaged. Like tennis? Try badminton at your nearest leisure centre. Don’t like gyms? Join your local ParkRun. Don’t really like sport? Try a dance class. Your blogger once spent 6 evening sessions learning circus skills, which was exhausting but an entirely new experience!
3. Find distractions if concentrating on exercise is difficult – nowadays as so many of us have mobile phones, we have access to music, radio, podcasts, audio books and a huge range of other interests that we can keep up with while exercising. If you struggle to motivate yourself to go for a walk or jog, you can always treat it as opportunity to catch up on your favourite radio programme, or get to the really good bit of your (audio) book. This also helps your mind associate exercise with the reward of dong something you enjoy.
4. Look for other inspiration – not just from this blog of course, but there are lots of websites out there that can give you new ideas of how to fit this in, and what you would like to do. The BBC’s Make Your Move and Public Health England’s One You sites both offer ideas and links to inspiration.
5. Don’t think you need to leave the house –
No, watching 6 hours of box sets doesn’t count as exercise, but you can combine the two. This can also help you feel that you’re not substituting your all-important leisure time for exercise. There are a multitude of free exercise programmes out there that you can find online, though check how suitable they are for your level of fitness. These will give you plenty to keep yourself busy in your own home, often with minimal to no kit required. If it takes your fancy, you can even do this with no kit on, though you’ll have to clear that with the other people in your home first…
Marathons and hitting the wall (June 2016)
Occasionally on the blog, we check in with Drew (who helps us out with our social media and news stories) on his efforts to be a healthier man. Drew ran a marathon for the first time a few weeks ago, so here are his experiences and tips for other guys to hit their fitness goals:
Well, that was hard. Last weekend, I ran the first marathon of my life. The fact I’m calling it the ‘first’ tells you that I’m not ruined by the experience, and am up for another. But good grief, that was tough.
As per our blog from February, I’d been training for this marathon over the last couple of months. Training for a marathon is tough in itself, as you need to be both running and doing other exercises for a significant proportion of your time each week. As such, your free time does go on the back burner, along with your desire to do anything more strenuous than sleeping in the evening! But no regrets, and I feel healthier and fitter now at 35 than I have ever been.
I ran the Windermere marathon, which really well organised by the children’s charity Brathay. My fiancée was there to support me, and the weather could not have been better. Given that the Lake District is known for rapid rain and mist, beautiful sunshine throughout the day was a gift. I spoke to several of the other runners before we began; amongst the other helpful advice, the common theme was “you’ve never run a marathon before – and you picked Windermere for your first?!’ Fair to say, the course was definitely “undulating” as a friend put it, loads of up and down, but the beautiful scenery around lake Windermere, the mix of forested roads, open plains and spectacular views across the lake really made a massive difference to keeping me (and my fellow runners) motivated through the race.
I’ll leave the final time till the end of the blog, but having now completed my first marathon successfully, there are a couple of lessons learned that I think would be relevant for any other guys planning to hit a big exercise goal, marathon or otherwise!
- Preparation is key. Oh god, believe me that preparation is key. Particularly as you get older, you need to be conscious of your body and its capacity to injure/repair itself. I went through a number of minor injuries during my training, but because I had a good plan that allowed for some flexibility, I had adequate time to rest and recover. Likewise, I did my research; I got proper running shoes, appropriate to my feet and gait, and took the time to run them in. I read up on the best ways to train, invested in different food to make sure I was feeding myself protein and carbs at the right times, as well as bought a variety of plasters and surgical tape to patch myself up as needed.
This really paid off in the race; I knew how far I could run, what my best pace was, and how to vary it depending on what my body was telling me. It was still the hardest run I’ve ever done, but it would have been impossible without that training. The same would apply for any exercise goal you have – read up on how others have done it (including blogs!), get yourself the right kit if needed, and set yourself realistic training goals to get there.
- Overcoming adversity can be better than facing no obstacles at all
I ran a great race…until 15 miles in. I was feeling physically good, mentally I was positive, but I had overpaced myself. I ran the first half-marathon quicker than I have ever run before, and that hit me like a tonne of bricks shortly afterwards. Having hit the wall, I really
struggled to keep going. But it’s true what they say about adversity teaching you something – with a massive mental effort, the thought of eating a massive dinner with all the things I’d been denying myself for weeks, and the support of people cheering us all on, I stepped forward and kept going. Though I alternated between fast walking and jogging for much of the rest of the course, I never stopped.
In a strange way, if I hadn’t hit the wall, I would never have known that I could beat it. Having faced that, I now know what to do if this happens again in a race. Moreover, I’ve discovered reserves of physical and mental strength I didn’t know I had. In that way, if you do hit a block when training, racing or in any other scenario, try to remember this really can be a great learning experience.
- Set your next goal soon
I stumbled past the finish line at 4 hours 35 minutes. That was a bit longer than I’d hoped, having aimed for 4 – 4½ hours, but who cares?! After 26.2 miles, I was just proud of myself and my fellow runners, and not-so-secretly relieved I had survived! I was asked soon afterwards whether I wanted to do another marathon soon, and responded there was no way I was thinking about it now.
That lasted about 12 hours! Even after the buzz had died down, I realised I wanted to keep running, to test myself again and see another course. Also, the feeling of community, and striving together in the marathon was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and frankly I already missed it – you make all sorts of friends when you’re running for that far and that long.
It strikes me that setting a new goal is as important as celebrating the goal you’ve achieved. It’s too easy to rest on our laurels; you should celebrate any fitness or health goal achieved. And there’s no need to forever try to do bigger and better – otherwise we would all be failures for not swimming the Channel! But it is important to set your sights on the next thing, to keep your fitness up, make sure you maintain your health as well as help you look forward to the next exciting challenge. I’m not decided yet which marathon I’ll run next…but Snowden is looking good. I’ve never been one for the flat runs…:)
Making a start (May 2016)
May is National Walking Month, so this strikes us as a good opportunity to talk about getting started on exercise. We’ve spoken on this blog before about fitting exercise into your busy life, and keeping motivation up by setting goals. But what about those of us who are really at square one? If you have barely exercised at all recently, for reasons of busyness, injury or simply procrastination, how can you get started?
It is always difficult trying to break a habit, particularly if that habit includes things that are comforting or enjoyable to you – like laying on the sofa after a long day at work! But as regular followers of the Blue Ribbon Foundation will know, exercise is not just something you ‘should’ do; it really is a great way to get healthier. That in turn increases your chances of leading to a longer life, more likely to be free of long-term health problems or disability.
So here are some top tips to get you up and out!
Set yourself small targets to start with, and celebrate achieving them. For example, if you are starting from nothing, why not try walking for 20 minutes longer each day than you do normally? You could take a detour on your way to or from work, or take a stroll in a nearby park. Why not walk to the shop rather than driving or taking the bus? Or even walk to the nicer shop a bit further down the road? Walking 20 minutes a day is the premise of the charity Living Streets’ #try20 campaign, so you could look at their campaign site for inspiration and information.
Make the goals a bit more challenging. Once you’ve got into a rhythm of doing regular exercise, why not push it a little bit further? Yes, if you’ve been walking 20 minutes a day, you could extend that to 30 minutes, or start jogging some of that time. You could also start setting a distance target. For example, the NHS Choices ‘Couch to 5k‘ programme offers a running plan for beginners. If you search your mobile phone’s app store, you’ll also come across a range of other free and paid tools and apps that can help for lots of activity types.
Add variety. Making things more challenging doesn’t mean you have to keep on with the same activity. In fact, you risk getting bored and losing interest if you are doing exactly the same thing each day, like walking the same route. So it’s best to mix things up. For example, you could:
- change your route
- head to the gym for 30 minute workout every other day
- substitute two of your 20 minute walks for a 20 minute cycle or swim
- play some sport with friends or members of a local club – football, tennis, squash, golf, basketball – the list is endless!
Make this personal to you. Most importantly, make sure that whatever exercise you chose is something that interests you, or at least, you could get interested in! It’s much easier to start some exercise and keep engaged in it over the weeks to come if this is something you enjoy. There are exercise and sport websites, apps and clubs galore across the UK – you can find details of what is in your local area at Change4Life.
Make it a team effort. Finally, it’s so much easier to keep focused on staying healthy when people around you are doing that too. Why not join a running or cycling club, or a sports team? How about speaking to your friends and loved ones about getting fit together, and picking a regular activity you can all enjoy?
Remember, the hardest part is starting – once you’re over that hurdle, it will be easier to keep at it! And your body will thank you for it!
(6th May 2016)
Burning off a bad diet? (April 2016)
When speaking men interested in improving their health, a common question is “can I eat what I want as long as I exercise?” That’s understandable; for many people – men and women – motivating yourself to exercise is hard enough. And once you’ve exercised, why shouldn’t you reward yourself with something tasty? Indeed, we’re spoken in our blog previously about how it can be good to motivate yourselves with the promise of rewards.
Unfortunately, if you want to (a) stay healthy, and/or (b) lose or maintain weight, the answer to this question is a regrettable ‘no’. Believe me, with my sweet tooth, no one is sadder than me about this.
So why can’t we burn off a bad diet? Well, while we are not doctors here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, the answers are fairly easy to find and understand.
Firstly, fundamentally what you consume has a major effect on your ongoing health. If you eat lots of saturated fat, sugar, salt, a modicum of green vegetables, and drink beer like it’s going out of fashion, then hitting the gym each day is not going to undo all that. In fact, that kind of diet is going to make it increasingly hard for you to exercise, as your weight and various health complaints increase.
Imagine your body as a factory with an assembly line producing all your movements, moods and physical appearance – your ‘Man Products’ if you will. In this analogy, exercise can help the machinery run faster, more efficiently; it’s like you’ve had the mechanics in, or updated the assembly line with a new operating system. If you don’t maintain the machinery, it’s going to break down, so exercise is always necessary.
Now for the products. You need the raw materials for the products, which in this (hopefully not too stretched) analogy are what you eat and drink. If you put the best raw materials and ingredients in, the final products will be much better – you’ll be more likely to be able to produce GoodSkin TM, SunnyDisposition ©, and AlertnessMaster (patent pending). But if you skimp on quality raw ingredients, your factory is going to produce shoddy products, regardless of how well oiled the machine is. Plus, the poor quality ingredients are going to start gumming up the assembly line, making temporary shutdowns more likely – illness, in case I’ve lost you in the analogy!
So, fundamentally, living healthily has to combine a mix of the two – eating & drinking good things and regular exercise. While that is a challenge for us all, there are some useful tips out there that can help. A couple of examples I’ve seen recently are from Daily Burn as well as a recent BBC News article on how much exercise it takes to burn off calories from common foods. This is not to say you should never have foods or drink that are bad for you – just have them in moderation!
So in summary, you can’t burn off a bad diet. And you’ll feel better overall if you don’t have a bad diet to burn off!
(April 7th 2016)
Back on the road (Feb 2016)
Returning to a more personal note this month! I’m Drew, and help to produce the Blue Ribbon Foundation’s blogs, news stories and social media content. Back in July 2015, I blogged about a valiant, but what turned out to be an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to run 30 miles over the course of Men’s Health Week.
Well, I’m obviously a glutton for punishment, because I’ve signed up to do a marathon in May – my first ever. So as I begin to slowly build up my training, I’ve been reflecting on what went well last time, and what I could do to improve my chances of sticking at it this time around. Hopefully with some useful lessons for us all in there, whether we are training for the next ultra marathon/triathlon/mission to Mars, or simply looking to be more physically active.
1. Set achievable goals, but goals that are flexible for you. Last time my goal was clear (30 miles in a week) but inflexible – that’s too far to go to try and make up at the end. Not a lot of room for sickness, injury, or in my case, overwork. This time around, I’ve set myself a steadily increasing goal for either miles run or supportive exercise. Not too much to start as well, given that I’ve got a little under 3 months to go and don’t want to peak too soon!
This is a good way to keep yourself motivated; there will be times when you are looking to exercise more or be more healthy, and circumstances will intrude. We have jobs, other people in our life who demand our time and other interests to pursue. If you can set yourself some minimum goals, as well as stretch ones, then this should help you keep flexible but on track.
2. Let the steam out of the kettle – in other words, identify and allow yourself times for breaks or treats.
For starters, I’m doing a minimum of three runs a week. But if I do better than that, or make the runs longer, I’m going to give myself the next one or two days off after a run. That’s good for my recovery but also will help keep me motivated.
If you are too strict to begin with – whether that’s trying to eat no sugar at all, go to the gym every day, or simply are too down on yourself if you miss a goal – then you’re more likely to get frustrated, disillusioned and then stop. That’s my plan, and it seems to be working well so far. Last week, I did two 10km runs at the start of the week, but then had to knuckle down for work for the next four days. However, on Sunday I decided to go for a longer run, and 11.5 miles later, I was still feeling energetic. Well, you know, not that energetic, but much better than I thought I would.
3. Vary your routine – similar to the above, if you try to hit your goals by doing just the same thing, the result is likely to be boredom and then abandonment of what you are trying to achieve. I’m looking to mix things up with my running; I’m running 3 different local routes, and then picking a fresh long route for my weekend runs to keep things interesting. I’ve also started to mix up the speeds, with shorter but faster runs, and then longer, slower paced ones. You can apply this kind of mix to any kind of sport or physical activity. Likewise, if you are looking to eat healthier, make sure you have a range of dishes on hand to keep things interesting. Oatcakes and water might be what you think you need, but as a diet, that’s going to get old, fast!
And with that point, I think that’s enough sitting at my desk. Time for a jog!
(29th February 2016)
Cutting down on sugar, one cube at a time (Jan 2016)
It’s a new year, and many of us have started with grand plans about improving our health. That’s great, and all power to you in your endeavours. That said, we like to take a measured, long-term approach to health here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, and focus on making incremental changes. This month, we want to look at how you could steadily reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, a major factor in preventing obesity.
There’s been lots of (predictable) debate in the press recently following two big announcements on public health. Firstly, Dame Sally Philips, England’s Chief Medical Officer announced a new set of alcohol guidelines at the start of January. For the first time, men are recommended to keep their weekly alcohol consumption at the same level as women – no more than 14 units a week. On top of that, Dr Philips emphasised that there is no safe level of alcohol to drink. Let’s be honest with ourselves – we kind of knew this already. While some researchers has speculated that an occasional glass of red wine may have some health benefits, fundamentally alcohol is a poison, so it is usually to be avoided!
Secondly, there has been lots of press about the amount of sugar we eat in our diet. This has included Prime Minister David Cameron saying in mid-January that he would contemplate a sugar tax (specially on sugary drinks) for the first time, after ruling this out last year. Whether or not this comes to pass is doubtful. But the public debate has highlighted the harmful levels of sugar many…no, most people eat, and the effects this can have, contributing to men’s risk of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes – not forgetting tooth decay as well!
Here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation, we’re not going to get into the debates about sugar tax or alcohol policy. But fundamentally, it is clear that many of us live unhealthy lives, whether that’s through drinking too much, eating a poor diet, smoking or not exercising regularly. This month, let’s look at how we can take positive steps to reduce the amount of sugar we eat.
- Know what’s healthy
Without knowing how much sugar is too much, it’s hard for men to make sure they are not overdosing on the sweet stuff. The recommended daily allowance for an adult is about 30g grams – about 7 sugarcubes. So if you had 4 teas with 2 sugars each in a day, you’re above the limit for that day, irrespective of what else you might consume.
- Know what you’re eating
Most food packaging now has detailed labels listing their content including sugar, so it is easy to see what you are consuming if you check. There are also a range of phone apps that have access to libraries of food and their ingredients; MyPlate, MyFitnessPal, and the NHS’s Sugar Smart are all good examples. Taking a look at the sugar content can help you avoid accidentally eating more sugar than you need.
- Think about why you eat
Sometimes we eat just for something to do; because it’s what we always do at that time of the day; or because the biscuits are just there! Whatever the reason, it will be something specific to you and how you live your life. In this way, your approach to cutting down on sugar is the same as how you would approach cutting down on alcohol, smoking, or other habits. We usually have an emotional attachment to the food beyond the physical. For example, underneath the surface, eating something sweet might involve feelings like:
- eating this makes me happy
- eating this reminds me of my childhood
- eating this helps me relax
- eating this is a reward for my bad day
And so on. There may be nothing wrong with those attachments, but if they are contributing to you eating more sugar than is healthy, it’s important to challenge those beliefs. For instance, there are other rewards you can give yourself that aren’t sugar related; your work break can be about having space to yourself rather than feeding yourself; and so on. Sometimes it’s also about the environment you’re in, and removing foods that will tempt you may help. For instance, your author realised he was going through a big bag of chocolates rapidly in a night while he was watching TV. I realised that I wasn’t really thinking about the chocolates after the first few, nor really enjoying them – it was just something to occupy me while I was watching TV. If I had focused on the actual taste, I would have realised I was full (and feeling over-sugared!) long before I stopped, and put the bag away earlier.
- Replace sugar slowly
Going cold turkey on sugar can be difficult, particularly if you’re previously been having a lot of it. You run the risk of giving up and/or binging if you try to stop too quickly. Instead, look at reducing your sugar portion size rather than getting rid of it altogether instantly. You can find reduced sugar foods or drinks to help wean you off slowly. For example, instead of having toast with jam for breakfast, a banana will give you a sugar rush but with significantly less sugar.
Sweetened gum or diet soda with artificial sweeteners can help in this regard, but these should be seen as an interim product to help you move past your reliance on sugar. As the jury is still out on the health impacts of many artificial sweeteners, it’s probably not a good idea to have too much of these either!
- Get more advice and support as needed
There are many organisations out there that can help you with sugar cravings and a better diet. For instance, NHS’ Change4Life and the British Heart Foundation have a range of resources and information that can help you think about what you consume, and make changes if needed. Fundamentally, we just need to remember that while there is nothing wrong with a sugary treat, it should remain just that – a treat.
(29th January 2016)
Keeping on track over Christmas (Dec 2015)
It’s been a busy 2015. We’ve covered a large range of men’s health topics over the year, via our website, this blog, our social media feeds on Twitter and Facebook as well as in the world outside. We’ve just had our third and final article in our series ‘What’s Wrong with Your Body’ published by AskMen.com; lots of food for thought there for men’s who are motivated to improve their health in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And we’ll look for even more opportunities to get our messages to men in the New Year.
As we’re closing in on Christmas, our thoughts have turned to how to keep healthy habits up over the break. Often, both men and women worry that they’ll break their good habits of healthy living during seasonal excess. If you and your family don’t celebrate Christmas for religious, cultural or other reasons, this may not apply…and in that case keep on eating right/hitting the gym/not smoking/generally being a healthy person (insert as appropriate!). But for guys who are concerned about the impact of 4,000 calories of Christmas dinner on their eating and exercise goals, we’ve got two pearls of wisdom for you.
First, don’t worry. Whether it’s Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, a Friday (or Monday, Thursday, or any other day), important occasions often present themselves as opportunities to eat more than we need to. Of course it’s fine to treat yourself on occasion and still keep broadly to your eating and/or exercise plan. In fact, without setting up rewards for yourself, you’re more likely to become demotivated in the long-term. That’s regardless of whether those rewards are culinary or otherwise.
Second, don’t stop. No, put down the third helping of turkey. We mean don’t stop working towards your health goals. If you have an exercise regime you want to maintain, then keep it up. You may need to change the routine if you are away from home, but you’ll find it much easier in the New Year if you’ve kept up (even a lower level of) physical activity. That activity could be anything from walks with the family (aids digestion), to using a local leisure centre (it’ll probably be quieter between Christmas and New year anyway), or going for a brisk jog in the crisp December air.
It’s the same with goals like drinking less or eating better; there is no need to call a halt to your healthy striving. Sure, it’s fine to take a break and have a treat. But unless you’ve managed to grab the world’s biggest turkey, most of the leftovers will be gone by Boxing Day. You’ll feel mentally satisfied that you’re on track with your eating goals. Better yet, you’ll be able to quickly shut down any annoying conversations about New Year’s resolutions…because you’re already doing great.
Have a good holiday, and we’ll see you in 2016!
(23rd December 2015)
Risk, sausages and your health (Oct 2015)
This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO to their friends) released a report that caused a bit of a stir. After a long look at the existing research, and doubtless months of deliberation, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that cured and processed meats are carcinogenic. Moreover, red meat (like beef, lamb or pork) was deemed to be ‘probably carcinogenic’. Long story short, processed meats like bacon, ham and sausages are now in the same category as other things which are established causes for cancer, like alcohol, tobacco and asbestos. These meats are particularly associated with colorectal/bowel cancer, but also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Cue great uproar amongst various newspapers, argument between contrary health experts, and beleaguered individuals in the middle staring wanly at their half-eaten sausage roll. In fairness, the WHO has been very clear in its report about their evidence and what it means. The WHO’s report is controversial, but a few clarifications are in order.
Firstly, eating a slice of bacon won’t give you cancer, just like one puff of a cigarette is not going to put you into intensive care. Secondly, clearly if you eat nothing but processed meats, cancer is going to be just one of your varied and interesting health problems. Surely the fact that eating processed meats is unhealthy is not news. Thirdly and most important of all, while bacon now rubs its greasy shoulders with cigarettes in the WHO’s ‘Group 1’ category of carcinogens, this is not because it’s as dangerous as cigarettes. While some commentary on the report had this mixed up. Actually, foods or other materials are placed into this ‘Group 1’ based on the strength of evidence that they can cause cancer, not because they are all equally dangerous. Let’s be clear, processed meats are now on the same list as plutonium. So, this story is not about sausages being as dangerous for you as nuclear materials. Instead, the news is simply that the WHO researchers are sure that processed meats ARE a cancer risk.
The story raises a big issue about our perception and understanding of risk. Cancer is not just one disease, but a whole horrible host, so it’s understandable why many people fear it. But we need to bear in mind that health risks are (a) variable, (b) complex and (c) something we usually have some control over.
One of the biggest problems in our understanding of health risks is a confusion between your absolute risk of a disease, and increases in that risk as a result of doing something unwise or unhealthy. Taking a simple example, according to Bowel Cancer UK, a man’s risk of developing bowel cancer in their lifetime is 1 in 14; i.e. about 7%. Bowel cancer is a horrible disease, but while that risk is significant, clearly most men will not get bowel cancer. Let’s put this information together with the news stories on the WHO report. Depending on the amount you eat, processed meat could increase your risk of bowel cancer by 18%. Sounds scary. But hang on, we’re talking about an 18% increase in the lifetime risk. We won’t make you get out your calculator, but factoring that increase would leave men who eat lots of processed meat with a lifetime risk of a bit over 8%. A higher risk? Sure. Much higher? No.
We are simplifying this situation (and the maths!) greatly, as an individual man’s risk of bowel cancer will depend on a wide range of factors, particularly age. But vitally, we must be clear on whether risks reported are absolute risks, or just potential increases on that risk. After all, on a long enough timeline, we all have a 100% probability of death.
This should not prevent us from taking positive steps with our lifestyle and healthy living, to ensure we get both the most and best time out of our lives. Let’s return to the WHO report. They are saying is that while the overall risk of developing cancer from eating processed meat is small, the more you eat, the higher your risk will be. The WHO’s report also recommended eating no more than 500g of red meat (e.g. pork, lamb or beef) per week. So, if you don’t eat red or processed meats for religious, cultural or personal reasons already, then congratulations, you are ahead of the game on that specific health risk. It follows that if you eat meat but mainly stick to white meat (poultry or fish), your risk of bowel cancer should be lower than someone who eats nothing but sausages.
All this boils down to is that men have some new information to build into a healthy lifestyle. The fundamentals of eating a balanced diet haven’t changed. We just now have a clearer line of what should and shouldn’t be a regular addition to our plate. You can finish your sausage roll now; just try not to make it your go-to snack.
(30th October 2015)
Smoking, complacency and the genetic lottery (Sep 2015)
This week, findings from the Medical Research Council revealed why some smokers seems to be immune to, or at least highly unlikely to develop, lung disease. Looking at the DNA of over 50,000 people, they found that a minority of people have favourable mutations that improved the function of their lungs. This meant that some people were less likely to develop Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which can include diseases like bronchitis and emphysema, as reported by BBC News.
While this is good news for those individuals, there are three conclusions to draw from this story. First, if you’re a smoker, it’s better to have a genetic predisposition against developing lung disease. Second, there is still no guarantee that you won’t get lung disease if you have those genes. Third, smoking is still going to be bad for you regardless of your genetic make-up!
While this research could lead to better treatment for lung diseases like COPD in the long run, it’s vital for all men not to be complacent. Smoking is bad for you, full stop. Aside from COPD, smoking has been definitively established as a leading or contributing cause of cancers (not just lung cancer), heart disease, stroke – even macular degeneration, or in simpler terms, losing your eyesight, which is also strongly associated with a different set of genes. While anyone who smokes should be able to access advice and help to quit, it’s hard to think of another activity with less to recommend it for health.
The key point here is that while some men may be fortunate enough to have a genetic match-up that offers more protection against particular conditions, that doesn’t give us a pass on health overall. Men need to take care of their health in the round if they want to live long and well. It’s often stated that Winston Churchill smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish every day of his life up to the age of 90 (we’re paraphrasing, no offence to the big man himself!). But what’s often forgotten is that he suffered multiple strokes and debilitating bouts of depression amongst other maladies. This is not a model of health to inspire! Likewise, the more common anecdotal tale of ‘my mate’s grandfather smoked every day of his life and lived to 85’ often masks the fact that that (possibly entirely fictional) grandfather was wracked by a hacking cough every morning and night, couldn’t walk more than a few steps without wheezing, and was generally in a sorry state for much of the time. The best way men can avoid this kind of experience is to stay active, eat healthy, drink alcohol only in moderation, and, you guessed it, not smoke.
So let’s take heart in the fact that some people will be genetically lucky, and that these discoveries may help improve treatments for the rest of us. But let’s not pretend this gives anyone a free pass – your health is your life, and men need to take control of their health to lead full, happy and healthy lives.
If you are a smoker and would like help to quit, the NHS runs local Stop Smoking Services that can help. Likewise, you can get information and support from dedicated charities like ASH, QUIT and the British Lung Foundation.
(30th September 2015)
Taking healthy responsibility with a changing health service (Aug 2015)
Our health is our own. And yet, increasingly our health is everyone’s business, as debates heat up about the funding of the NHS and our collective responsibility to look after ourselves. Our blog this month looks into some of the bigger issues we face in England, and the implications this has on our own health choices.
We know the NHS is in trouble. Just before the general election, NHS England published a major report and plan for the next five years. While most of the coverage centred about the £8bn the NHS was asking to stay afloat, another core message went under the radar. One of the major changes the NHS looked to do was to encourage people to take more care of their own health, which would help keep more people healthy, and reduce the incidence of preventable problems stemming from conditions like obesity.
You could be cynical and say that the two issues are linked. If the NHS has less money to treat people, then you might expect there would be more of a push to keep people away from hospitals and GP surgeries, and take responsibility for their own health. But while there may be some truth to that, in fairness there has been a long-standing recognition that the conditions treated by the NHS has changed markedly through its lifespan. People with long-term conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma account for about 70% of the NHS spend in England. Roll the clock back to the 1950s, and you’d find most of the spend was dedicated to treatment of infectious diseases, a far lower proportion than today thanks to vaccination and improved public health programmes. Today, coupled with a bigger and ageing population, then even without the current financial squeeze the NHS was going to be facing bigger pressures, and a need for it to reshape to better serve the needs of the current population.
We’re not here to debate the rights and wrongs of NHS reform though. Instead, we want to address that the greater emphasis on personal responsibility can paradoxically feel like a mixed message for men. Time and time again, men are told by public health advocates to take care of their health, and particularly to go to the doctor more. But while taking responsibility for your own health is all well and good, what many men don’t need is any more sense that they are not welcome at the GP, or that they would be adding additional burdens onto a breaking system.
So how should we, as individual men, address this conflict? Well, we’d emphasise that guys should do three main things:
- Ensure you’re aware of common health conditions, their signs and risks.
- Take care of your health by eating well, keeping active and avoiding harmful activities like smoking.
- Definitely go to the doctor if you are worried about an issue, and as you get older, make sure you go for regular check-ups based on your health risks.
Taking care of your own health is an important responsibility, to yourself but yes if everyone does this, it has wider benefits to society. But even with a cash-strapped NHS, you have the right to see a doctor as much as anyone else. And long-term, the sooner you identify any health issues and have them treated, the quicker they can be resolved, both for you, your doctor and the NHS. It’s not just you that you’ll benefit – presumably your friends and family all want you to be around and healthy!
Finally, it’s understandable that for some of us, it can be daunting to try to keep aware of all the risks and signs of illnesses and live a healthy lifestyle. Well, you don’t need to know everything – that’s what doctors and good quality health information are for (see our links on our health information page. But there are well-established risk factors which will raise your risk of developing a multitude of health conditions, recently mentioned in a great blog by the BBC’s Nick Triggle. These are not exclusive, but are a very good rule of thumb on things to avoid:
- Drinking over the recommended alcohol limit
- Not getting enough exercise
- Being overweight or obese
- Not eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily
- Eating over the recommended daily amount of sugar
- Eating over the recommended daily amount of salt
None of these will come as a surprise, but so often we ignore where we may be coming up short. Have a good, honest think about your lifestyle, and identify if you have any of these risks, and then what actions you could take. Start small, and you’ll be more likely to go the distance! A lot of good ways to motivate yourself are also covered in our previous blogs, so have a look there if you’d like some inspiration.
We’ll be looking at how to judge risk and health stats in our next blog, so that should also help you decide what to worry about and what to ignore. Until then, take care of yourselves!
(19th August 2015)
Setting goals for your health – the 30 mile challenge! (July 2015)
A slight different blog this month, taking a personal look back at my experience over Men’s Health Week. My name’s Drew, and I support the work of the Blue Ribbon Foundation by writing news stories, blogs and social media content.
Men’s Health Week was from 15th – 21st June 2015, and focussed on overall healthy living for men. This is organised annually by the Men’s Health Forum, another great charity concerned with ensuring men look after themselves.
We practice what we preach here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation. So I took it upon myself to set an ‘activity’ goal for Men’s Health Week: I would run 30 miles in total, and in so hopefully set an example for anyone out there who is struggling to fit exercise into their busy schedule.
In context, 30 miles would be a stretch, but not impossible for me – I jog regularly, and have recently ran a half marathon race. What attracted me to the 30-mile goal was that I would need to be consistently active, in keeping with the messages the Blue Ribbon Foundation gives to men. Preparing for the week, I would have to balance the distance carefully. Too far on one run, and I would be too tired to run the next day; too short a distance, or I skipped a run, I would leave myself a literal marathon ahead of me come Sunday!
30 miles is about 48km. 10km is a comfortable distance for me, so I surmised if I ran an average of 7km a day, or five 10km runs during the week, that would do it! I also have the advantage of working flexibly, so I can sometimes fit in exercise during the day while many people are in the office.
So how did I do? Well, the week started well – two 10km runs under my belt by Tuesday, and I felt no ill effects. Over 2/5ths of the way there! Positivity was the name of the game! However, as so often happens, life intruded. My work as a consultant can be unpredictable, as new opportunities can turn up out of the blue. In this case, two brand new, urgent pieces of work arrived which I was keen to take on. Alas, that meant less flexibility in my timing.
Wednesday came and went and I didn’t leave my house – never a good sign. Thursday began, and I went to get shopping, and then hurried back to my computer. Friday arrived, and I hit the road before work and managed to cover a fitful 7km. Work continued all day Saturday, by which point my goal was clearly in jeopardy. Knowing this, I went for a conciliatory run on Sunday, covering about 10km up and down hills.
So, total distance travelled = 37km, leaving me 11km short of my goal. I was disappointed, but at the same time pleased with what I had achieved. 37km, or 23 miles is still a substantial distance for a mere mortal such as myself, and I had managed to fit this around one of the busiest weeks of the year.
This struck me as a good lesson in honourable failure, and one I, and many other men, could learn from. Three key points stood out for me from this experience:
- Setting goals is vital, if you are looking to motivate yourself. While you may or may not achieve them, if you don’t pick a target, how will you know when you’ve succeeded?
- Enjoy the process, as much as the final goal. I loved the running during Men’s Health Week, and didn’t see it as pain I had to go through to reach a goal. Whatever exercise you do, ensure that you enjoy it, or at least, find things to enjoy within it, rather than simply seeing it as a means to an end.
- Learn from all your exercise experiences, even if you don’t achieve your aim, and take pride in what you do. This is a lesson that could be positively applied to pretty much any experience, but this is definitely important when thinking about keeping active. It can be so easy to let yourself get out of the habit, start putting your feet up a bit too much, or even letting work or other responsibilities enable you to make excuses.
And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t given up on my running exploits. I’m running the British 10k London Run on Sunday, and aiming to finish in under 50 minutes. The speed trial is a whole new ball game for me, so we’ll see how well my training regime has prepared me! And if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go tie up my shoelaces…
(8th July 2015)
Mental wellbeing – keeping your mind healthy too (June 2015)
This month, we’d like to tackle a more sensitive topic for the blog, mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health is as important as physical health. The two are also closely interlinked. It’s more difficult to maintain a sunny disposition if you are physically unwell. Likewise, our mental wellbeing can affect how well we take care of our physical health, and even affect how quickly we recover from injury or illness.
While it’s fair to say that attitudes towards mental health are slowly improving, too many people are reticent to discuss their mental wellbeing, due to fear of stigma. This can be especially true for men; many guys have internalised a belief that strong men do not share their problems. This can lead to men leaving problems too long, and the issues becoming worse, even chronic.
We at the Blue Ribbon Foundation recommend that men look after their mental health, as well as physical health, and urge you to seek advice or support in the cause of issues. There are also a number of ways we have found useful for men to safeguard their own mental health. To be clear, these tips are for you to consider, but none of us at the Blue Ribbon Foundation are doctors. If you or your loved ones have severe or enduring mental health conditions, please see a mental health professional as soon as possible to get the specialist support you may need.
With that caveat out of the way, here are six simple tips to that can help maintain good mental wellbeing
1. Stop. It’s a very simple approach, but too often we rush from one situation to another, always looking ahead to the next appointment, project or responsibility. Realising that this can cause us stress, and taking a few minutes to catch your breath can be immensely helpful to prevent a longer-term impact on your health. Taking just a few minutes away from your work to think, go for a stroll, or simply gaze out of the window can help anxieties die down and reduce pressure that may have built up unconsciously. This can also help you identify the cause of your unease, which is not always obvious, which is a first step to dealing with it in a direct, healthy way.
2. Have a pick-me-up ready. It can be really useful to have something to hand you could use to raise your spirits, or lift your mind out of situations which are troubling you. For some people, this could be a rousing song or piece of music, an inspiring phrase, or a heart-warming memory. Let’s be clear though – your pick-me-up should be something that is healthy itself; having a hipflask or a cigarette for the difficult moments could lead to a whole new set of problems!
Having this pick-me-up available to you (even writing this down as a reminder) can give you a much-needed shot of emotional wellbeing. The pick-me-up could also be deferred, for example by planning a nice meal or evening out as a reward for later.
3. Talk about it. It can seem like the hardest thing to do, but if you are feeling down or anxious, sharing your feelings with someone you trust can really help. Men can be reticent to share their emotions. However, being prepared to speak about challenges and how they affect you is a brave act, rather than a sign of weakness. Nor is this ‘dumping’ your problems on other people; many people will be happy to support you. You can return the favour by hearing them out too.
If you have friends or family who can listen, this can be a really good way to clear your mind, think through your problems out loud, and realise that often many challenges are not as bad as they seem. This can help you work out solutions to these problems, but the main focus here is just to be heard and unburden your mind.
4. Identify triggers. Without knowing it, we all have situations or activities that cause us stress. It is not always obvious what these situations are, or indeed the reasons why they upset us. But setting aside some time to consider the reasons for your stress in specific situations will help you identify what’s bothering you, and help you address it. Identifying triggers is often more easily done by talking things through with someone else, so this is definitely a tip to apply with number 3.
5. Exercise. Yes, we banged on about this last month! But it is well documented that exercise can raise your mood, by stimulating your body’s own feel-good hormones endorphins. Undertaking exercise will also help you psychologically, as you will feel better about yourself for doing something active and positive.
6. Change your environment. Too often we can feel hemmed in by the same four walls, location or situation. So take positive action – go for a walk, ask to work from home or for flexible hours from your employer, or arrange a last-minute weekend getaway to keep things fresh.
To reiterate, if your feelings of gloom or anxiety persist, seek professional support and advice. However, applying these tips should help us be less stressed, happier and more aware of how to deal with difficult situations. If you have found other good ways to deal improve your mental wellbeing, why not tell us about it on Twitter?
(8th June 2015)
Running to keep up? Fitting exercise into a busy schedule (May 2015)
Whether you prefer the gym, team sports or just being in the great outdoors, exercise is a vital activity for men to improve and maintain their health. But even though we all know this, it can be a struggle to fit exercise into a busy week. We can face legitimate restrictions on our time – having to earn a living, looking after children, etc. – as well as motivational challenges. Sometimes both the body and mind are not willing!
For some men, regular exercise may not be possible due to long-term sickness, injury or disability. If you are in this situation, then we’d recommend speaking to health and sport professionals about what would be the best approach for you.
However, if you could be exercising more, but need a push to help motivate you, we’ve got some fresh ideas. Here are our seven steps to help you build good exercise habits.
1. Recognise when you’re making excuses. Matthew Inman is a comic writer but also an accomplished long distance runner. He has said wisely that if you have time to ponder whether or not to go for a run, you have time to go for a run! Substitute ‘run’ for ‘exercise’, and the point still stands. No one is too busy to fit 15 minutes of exercise into each day, and ideally much more.
2. Focus on the positives. Think about what exercise can and will do for you. Exercise can be lots of fun in of itself, particularly if you do an activity that interests you. Think about what you’re keen on, be that football, golf, boxing, swimming, running, or something else.
There are physiological benefits too. Regular exercise can help boost your immune system, improve your reaction times, and reduce your resting heart rate, making you feel physically better. As quoted by NHS Choices, Dr Nick Cavill has said that “if exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.”
Exercise is also a great way to improve your mental wellbeing, not just because of the natural endorphins that your body releases through exercise. It can it be psychologically beneficial each time, by making you feel you have done something healthy and useful with your time. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that this can help your mood long-term. Remembering these reasons why you are exercising will help keep you to a regular routine.
3. Look for opportunities in your daily schedule. Fitting exercise into your current routine is one of the easier ways to keep you engaged. Is your home or work near to a gym? You could visit it before or after work, or during your lunch break. Is your job within jogging or cycling distance of your home? Getting home is pretty motivational, so why not combine your commute with a run home? Equally, if you’re more interested in sports, join a team that meets regularly near your work or home.
4. Set yourself goals and track your progress. Without goals, our efforts can be uncoordinated or misdirected. How do businesses, governments and charities become successful? Amongst other things, they set achievable, measurable goals, against which they can track progress. The same logic can be applied to your exercise and wellbeing, without becoming too regimented. We want to build positive habits rather than get dissuaded after a week.
Useful goals are those that are personal to you and your current fitness. These goals need to be achievable, yet push you a bit more each week. For instance, if you’re just starting out after a period of low or no exercise, you could add in a short stroll each day. As that becomes commonplace, why not extend the distance? You could also add in sport with friends once a week, or join a local tennis club or swimming pool. If you are more accomplished, then consider setting variations on your usual exercise. For example, you could jog your normal distance but aim for 5 minutes quicker, you could play two sets of tennis rather than one, and so on.
To help track your progress, there is a wealth of cheap or free apps that can be downloaded for any smartphone. Any of these can help you track your exercise and progress. If you’re setting yourself the challenge of at least 10,000 steps a day, many apps will track this for you automatically.
5. Get a coach or ‘spotter’. No, that doesn’t have to mean a professional fitness coach (though that might work for you). Rather, we’re talking about someone who will check on how you are doing. One of the best ways to motivate us is social pressure. If you can find someone who will hold your feet to the fire, that’s a great way to keep yourself in a good exercise routine. Why not approach a friend and suggest you can motivate each other?
6. Give yourself a bit of flexibility. We all have busy lives, so you may not always be able to fit in the exercise you’d like each day. That’s ok, but if you set yourself goals for the week, you can make this up at another time. Alternatively, if you have a particularly good day (ran for 10 minutes longer than normal for instance), then you may be justified in taking it a little easier the next day. Obviously, there is a limit; too much flexibility and you’re no longer doing any exercise!
7. Give yourself rewards for exercise well done. This doesn’t mean 8 pints as a reward for walking to the pub. But within reason, giving yourself a reward, like a favourite food or drink is a important way of keeping you motivate. This helps train your mind to see the exercise as leading to a positive outcome.
There are countless other ways we can motivate each other and ourselves. Why not share your experiences with us via our Twitter feed?
(5th May 2015)
Going to the doctor – like a man! (April 2015)
Welcome to our new blog! Each month, we will use this space to discuss a new topic around men’s health, offering insight, information and suggestions on steps every man can take to improve their health and wellbeing.
For our first blog, we’ve decided to tackle a question that’s fundamental to everything else we talk about at the Blue Ribbon Foundation: why don’t men visit the doctor?
The disparity between men and women’s life expectancy is stark. While the difference is narrowing, on average women live seven years longer than men. Men are more likely than women to develop some serious health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and cancer. Alongside some possible biological reasons, men’s typical lifestyles also contribute to the problem. Men are more likely to drink too much alcohol, smoke more, exercise less, and have poorer diets than women overall. So far, so depressing. But men can take action to live more healthily, and we here at the Blue Ribbon Foundation push healthy living in all that we do (see Male Health Information).
But other than eating well and exercising regularly, one simple thing men can do to safeguard their health is to regularly visit the doctor. But men often:
- don’t go when they feel unwell
- are not aware of conditions that they should be checked for, particularly as they get older.
For example, men’s chances of developing prostate cancer increase with age, particularly after 50. However, this is a condition that often will not have any symptoms until it has already spread. While looking up symptoms and treatments online may help in some circumstances, this is no substitute for trained medical advice. And yet many men still do not visit the doctor until things are too late.
There are many reasons (and sometimes excuses!) given for this situation. Chiefly, for many men in the UK there is still a persistent culture of masculinity that portrays any illness or disability as weakness. This pressure can be overt or subtle. For some men, it is about wanting to be strong, a breadwinner, or fulfil other stereotypical ‘masculine’ roles, which is then reinforced by cultural norms. In fairness, this situation is not just about men’s attitudes. Both men and women can also help to combat these stereotypes by quashing common jokes about men’s illness, for example that men suffer from made-up ‘man flu’. These reoccurring cultural themes can play into many men’s sense that being ill is not something a man can, or should be. This situation is particularly cruel when you consider that men are less likely than women to be treated for mental health problems such as depression, and yet men’s suicide rate is 3½ times that of women in the UK. Men are not getting the help they need when they need it.
In other cases, men may not go to the doctor simply due to shyness, and a discomfort with opening themselves up (both emotionally and sometimes physically) to a stranger – even a friendly stranger with a medical degree and a welcoming office. There’s nothing wrong with these things in general. But when a health problem could shorten your life, there is nothing brave in not taking action to sort it!
The future looks more encouraging. The macho culture that can prevent men from visiting the doctor seems to be dissipating, with more public discussion of men’s health issues, and the growth of men’s health magazines and online fora for discussion. However, as men we all need to take responsibility for our health, and that includes going to the doctor. If you are concerned about your health, or simply want to check everything is ok, there are a couple of practical steps you can take:
- No excuses, book an appointment: it sounds simple, but the amount of times we put off going to see the doctor because ‘we don’t have time’ is remarkable. If you have time to make excuses, you have time to make a one minute call to your local surgery, or even book online if the GP offers that service. Don’t let your work or other responsibilities stop you from doing what is right for your health.
- Talk about it: speak to a friend, your partner or family about what is bothering you. Talk through what you will say to the doctor, and practice being honest about what you are feeling. This will help you get what you need out of the appointment, and enable you to leave with clear next steps.
- Keep positive and commit to taking action: going to the doctor is a mark of you taking control of your health, so embrace that you are making a good decision. Likewise, if you go to the doctor and do not get the news you hoped for, don’t waste the opportunity – take positive action on the treatments or options presented.
- Remember that a illness or disability does not define you: even if you are dealing with a long-term condition, that is not all, or even most, of who you are, and what you can offer to the people in your life.
- Keep healthy: if you look after your health in other ways, by eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise, the news from your doctor is far more likely to be good. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy the feeling of being smug that you’re so in shape and in control of your health…
Going to the doctor is an key part of looking after your health, and living a healthy lifestyle. Guys, it’s time to confound the stereotypes, and take charge of your health – go see your doctor, like a man.
(8th April 2015)