15 December 2010

Better Self-Esteem

When I take a look at the wider picture of human society, it is easy to see that the way we currently live in the developed world is out of touch with our natural biological evolution. Our brains and bodies are the way they are because of our hunter-gatherer roots. Biological evolution is a lot slower than technological evolution and we have not yet caught up. We are designed to be physically active - our current habits of sitting behind a computer or being glued to a screen are unhealthy and it's easy to see the evidence in the increasing levels of physical and mental ill-health.

However, it is my opinion that our current outlook and treatment of mental health is also wrong. The statistics say that 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. In my own personal experience, most of my best friends have some kind of 'disorder', have been on anti-depressants or had counselling. At what point do we ask WHY most people are suffering in this way? At what point do we say that there is something wrong with our culture, rather than something wrong with the people who are unhappy in it? Look at the way mass society stigmatises depression. Medicine does much the same.

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Krishnamurti

There must be evolutionary benefit in being anxious or depressive, otherwise it would not be so prevalent today. It must have paid off for our ancient ancestors to be wary or pessimistic and hence it is a trait that remains in the human brain. Why are we constantly bombarded with the message that it is wrong to be miserable? Why shouldn't we be, sometimes? If you're depressed or have low self-esteem, you're told that you should be happy, that you have the problem and that you should change. What a way to make a person feel better! Where is the assessment of the CAUSE of that unhappiness? We each have an individual and collective responsibility in society and our collective treatment of people suffering from depression may not help them, as individuals, to overcome it.

The capitalist system is sustained by low self-esteem. Consumerism convinces us that if we bought the latest piece of clothing/anti-wrinkle cream/self-help book, we might finally be happy with ourselves. The media literally harrasses us with images of digitally enhanced perfection that we should all strive to be. The media also surrounds us with idealistic images of love and happiness that are unattainable. For people surrounded by this kind of message, it's no surprise that we all feel inadequate and spend our money on trying not to be.

Why should we be discouraged from constantly questioning the world around us? Why should we be discouraged from wanting things to change? Our greatest progress has come from minds that worked in this way. Some of our greatest thinkers were 'mental'.

“All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” Aristotle

We should not be telling people who are depressed just to 'get better'. And we could be wasting their potential for changing things in a positive way for all of us by making them feel even worse about themselves or telling them to pop a pill and shut up moaning. My best friends are all a bit 'mental', for me, they are the most interesting people.

Taking an anti-depressant is not going to resolve the underlying cause of mental unrest.

If your life bothers you, what you need to realise is that you CAN often do something about it. You can feel empowered to change the things that make you unhappy. We must help others to reach their potential as much as we must fulfil our duty to reach our own.
One of the most important lessons I learnt last year, was coming to accept the things I could not change in the world and not waste my mental or physical energy on them. It's part of the reason I do not watch television, listen to the radio or read the papers (see previous blog). I cannot stop war. I cannot stop natural disasters. I cannot fix the problems of a global economic system. But, I know what I can change to make my own life better (switching off the TV was one of those things).

I read a book called 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' and it talked about 'working within your circle of influence'. It is no use concerning yourself with things beyond your own personal control. But things like who you spend your time with and what you spend your time on are things you do have control over. You are solely responsible for your mental outlook. Nobody else controls that but you. Once you realise how easy it is to change your attitude, the more empowered you feel and the easier it becomes to change other things in your life.

I may not be able to cause world peace. But I can try to ensure that my treatment of other people is respectful and that difficulties are resolved rationally and peacefully.

“To bring peace to the world, you must strive to make your own life peaceful.”

But to say that life should always be easy would be wrong. There is something very nourishing about facing hardship and overcoming it. What's important is recognising when you are putting yourself or others through hardship unnecessarily.

This link takes you to an article that suggests that depressive people, IF they make decisions, make better ones than non-depressed people (having spent much longer thinking about it):


For me, the trick is knowing the difference between when to think and when to act.

26 July 2010

Better Media

I have never owned a TV since moving out of my mum's place. When I tell people this, I get a mixture of reactions. Some are approving and among them I may find the fellow TV-less types. Some think I just say I don't have a TV to be 'trendy'. Some realise I can't possibly be trendy if I haven't seen the latest great comedy or drama series. Some people can't fathom what life would be like without a TV and thus find it exceptionally difficult to talk to me, since I haven't got a single response to their comments about what was on last night. TV is a hot topic and so by not having one, in some senses I am outcast from mainstream conversation.

What a shame.

I hate the prevalence of fear-mongering and the destruction of self-esteem that is the result of the majority of our media. I believe that the media has a responsibility to inform accurately, without bias and at present we've got it all wrong. Largely, what I read or see tells me that everyone's a shitbag, the world's absolutely fucked and that I look nothing like I should do, in fact, I'm rather ugly. Which you can imagine, is very depressing.

I'm sorry but my thighs aren't silky smooth, a nice brown colour or bald. My boobs aren't pert and disproportionately large compared to my really tight six-pack and complete lack of body fat. My hair isn't naturally light blonde, my face isn't symmetrical and yes, I have wrinkles at 25. I'd rather not be told that what I'm not, is what I'm supposed to be.

And I don't want to live my life vicariously through the characters of EastEnders or Coronation Street. I want to live my own life, have my own experiences and judge life by those experiences rather than by someone else's. Why would I want to spend my free time in front of a screen, within the same four walls, spending my life transfixed by the pretend experiences of an actor rather than enjoying my own? Yes, I could watch X Factor and pretend that if they can be a pop star, so could I. Or I could just advertise for some local musicians or singers and try and set up my own little pop group. Maybe practise down at my local studio for a tenner an evening and eventually play a few gigs in my local pubs. I might not get a £1 million record contract, but then I also wouldn't have to lick Simon Cowell's arse, or become the image I so readily berate for it's effect on the self-esteem of young people today.

It is utterly wrong that we live in an age where we continue to murder and exploit each other. The Western world rapes other countries of their natural resources without paying fair trade prices; it claims to be fighting for human rights through murder and war and is the biggest cause of the irresponsible environmental destruction that will ultimately destroy all of us. We need to manage ourselves and our resources better.

Constantly being bombarded by information about what a bad world we live in is not conducive to a rich and fulfilled life. And a rich, fulfilled life is one that contributes in a positive way to the society of which it is a part. 

It is not because I think that what goes on in places other than my back yard is unimportant. It's terribly important. But I personally can not change government policy or come up with an alternative economic system to replace capitalism. And so, I simply try to do my best within my back yard and, for my own sanity, I've switched off the shitbox. Because for the most part, I find it depressing. And it would be depressing for me to look back on the last year of my life and realise that I spent the majority of my free time doing nothing but watching television.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Buddhist prayer.

I just think it is important to be careful about what you listen to and how you spend your time. We are constantly bombarded by information, advertising and media that reduces our self-esteem to keep us spending and glued to the telly. I would rather be socialising or doing something creative.

I think that the internet is one of our best media sources since it allows you to pick and choose what you watch. There's a plethora of educational information, available from qualified experts in their field. One of the best websites I have found recently is http://www.ted.com/. I want to tell you why.

 TED is a hub for humanity's best ideas. It features short video talks by educated people from all over the world; astronomers, biologists, psychologists, ecologists, satirists and many other fabulous 'ists' who have something positive to say about the world.

I'll tell you about some talks I watched recently. The first was by Jill Tarter, Director of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) and described how she wished for more people to become engaged in the work SETI undertakes. She reminds us of how very small our planet is in the context of the whole universe and how finding life somewhere else within it may help to unite us as earthlings. Human beings are, at present, divided. Into tribes, countries, religions and more. She reminds us that we all share one home, which we should take care of.

The second talk I watched was by marine biologist, Sylvia Earle. She urges us to take a good look at the devastation we are causing to the ecosystems of the ocean and how heavily we rely upon them to survive. Without water, there is no life and we aren't taking any steps to ensure it's conservation. It's a message not necessarily about altruism; we should protect the oceans for our own good. She asks why we're not doing so and describes the true cost of our current fishing habits.

The third talk was by the mighty Eve Ensler, author of 'The Vagina Monologues' and a campaigner for women's rights all over the globe. It was about the current stifling of our 'inner girl'; that part of us (both men and women) that is emotional, has feeling, intuition, compassion, empathy, love. It took my mind off of glass ceilings, of rapes and mutilations, of second class rights and social pressures about appearance or behaviour and reminded me of what's good about being a girl.

I want to tell you about one of the most important talks I've ever watched on TED and that was one by Sir Ken Robinson. In his speech, he talks about the need to revolutionise our education system completely. That, at present, our education system stifles the creativity and talent of our children and in doing so, hampers social progress for all of us. To me, there is nothing more important than ensuring that our children, our future generations, are well informed. Not primed for labour, but actually educated. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html

These are just examples, but every TED talk I have watched has inspired me, has drawn attention to the bigger picture, has given me hope for the human future. This is the kind of media I want to watch and I hope that everyone can be inspired by TED too. Humanity stands to influence it's own future dramatically; TED gives me hope that we might go in the right direction.

What would you rather watch?

06 July 2010

Running Better

I'm currently reading 'Born To Run' by Christopher McDougall; a book that tells the tale of an indigenous people living in the cliffside wilderness of Mexico, called the Tarahumara, otherwise known as the best runners in the world. They can run distances of over 100 miles continuously and in some of the most perilous terrain on earth, with nothing but a pair of sandals and a smile on their face. The book talks about famous ultradistance athletes who have competed against the Tarahumara people and investigates what is behind their success.

The conclusion is that they can run so far simply because they love to do so. It is an integral part of their social culture; it is both daily life and a daily joy for them. It reminds us that you don't need to have the most expensive footwear or running gear to be able to perform feats of massive physical endurance. You've just got to have the heart to do so. In fact, this book talks about the lack of scientific research behind the marketing of running shoes and that there is no evidence to show that they either improve performance or reduce injury. In fact, it argues that injuries have increased since the advent of cushioned shoes. It says that nature gave us all the equipment we need, that humans have been running for thousands of years to escape predators and to hunt prey. We are naturally equipped to do it and there is no better equipment than that which nature gave us.

"That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running."

In fact, there are a small number of scientists; paleontologists, anthropologists and sports coaches, who believe that running was a key factor in our evolutionary migration from other primates. We have a number of physical differences from the chimp, which are crucial to our ability to run; the Achilles tendon, arched feet, the ability to manipulate our breath, the nuchal ligament (a ligament in the neck that balances the head), the fact that we are naked and sweat in order to cool down rather than pant. These physiological differences mean that we can run for long amounts of time, where as most animals can only do it in short bursts. This book argues that early man used to hunt animals by isolating them from their pack and wearing them out by chasing them until they dropped. Admittedly, we are slow runners compared with other animals, but we're built for endurance, not speed.

It is yet another book that confirms how integral exercise is to our overall well-being and the joy that can be taken from it. It is a reminder about getting in touch with our physical selves again and how through exercise, such as running, we can cure some of the stresses and sicknesses of modern life. But it is a reminder of how natural it is to be active; a reminder that we were once animals that had to compete against others through acts not just of intelligence, but of agility and stamina. We have forgotten this fact and become fat, lazy and mentally ill because of our sloth.

I truly believe that in combination with the better parts of modern civilisation, a little backstep will help us lead more fulfilled lives. To some extent, we must embrace the inner animal. Before the advent of agriculture and industry and this thing we call modern life, humans were more inclined and more able to perform as athletes do today. How many people can run for 5 minutes, let alone 5 miles or 5 hours?

So why is it that not everybody likes running if we are so well equipped to do it. In 'Born to Run', it says "Humans are the only creature to have a mind-body conflict... while our bodies are built for performance, our brains are constantly looking for efficiencies." The point of work is to negate the existence of itself. I.e. we work so that we don't have to work so hard in future. Today, we can see examples of lives lived purely behind the screen of a television or computer. In fact, it's probably possible to spend your entire life without moving very much at all. You can work from home, get your food delivered to your home and socialise via the internet. We've invented technology that largely eradicates physical activity. But what we've failed to notice is that we need it. Our health relies upon it. Our mental health as much as our physical health.

"There's something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we're scared, we run when we're ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time."

I believe that we are misguided about exercise. It is not a burden, it's a joy, or at least it can be if you are in the right mindset. It naturally releases serotonin in your brain; your happy drug. If you feel unhappy, exercise can cure it. And you only have to look at the nature of the human animal to understand why. I believe that we need to take a step back towards mother nature in order to cure the modern malaise. By incorporating regular running, or any kind of physical activity, into our lives, we can be much happier, confident and balanced people. As children, every human being runs about, but is told to slow down. In the developed world, running no longer remains a part of our culture, a form of social bonding or a means of survival. As we get older, we're primed for a life in the office, behind a desk. We're told that running is a chore, something that's unenjoyable but something we should do. We've forgotten how to enjoy it.

"You will not find a 4-year-old on this planet who does not like to run. Why? Because they haven't been told it's a workout."

I ran the Race for Life on Sunday and have raised around £270 for it. I found the whole experience absolutely thrilling and despite not training regularly beforehand, I still managed to run the whole thing without stopping. I can't wait for my half-marathon. 'Born to Run' has really changed my outlook; I see running as a mental exercise as much as a physical one; to endure such distances, you have to enjoy every step, you have to be relaxed. I've come to enjoy the feeling of running; the rhythm of it, the power of it. Knowing that we are physically designed to run great distances really inspires me and I hope to push myself one day to completing a marathon and maybe even an ultra. And it was 'Born to Run' that gave me this attitude.

"You don't stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running."

16 June 2010

Breathing Better

Giving Up Smoking

I recently suffered a relapse and started smoking again, but yesterday I embarked on perhaps my fourth attempt this year to give up. I've done reasonably well so far in 2010 and have probably only smoked for about two months of it all together. But, ultimately, I have not fully escaped the slavery of nicotine addiction; at least I can fall back into it very easily.

As you know, I'm training for my first half-marathon and have the Race for Life coming up soon. However, with falling into full-time smoking, I also fell out of the habit of running every other day. My running buddy happened to be on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I got lazy and didn't train at all. He returned this week and we returned to the local park, where I was to discover just how much the smoking has damaged my fitness progress.

I'd been training for about six weeks and had reached a point where I could easily run 5km in one go. After just 2 weeks or so of full-time smoking, I can only do 0.75km before my lungs have had enough and I've got to walk a bit. My muscles are fine and I've been doing a spot of kettlebell training during the relapse that's kept them in relatively good nick despite my smoking. But my lungs can not handle it. Seriously, I almost felt like I was going to have an asthma attack and I don't even have asthma. I got the slightly sicky feeling you get when you're pushing your body to it's max. Experiencing the negative effects of smoking in such a measurable way has prompted me to kick the habit again. But this time, I have to make sure that I don't fall back into it.

This is my guide to giving up; how I've gone about it before and what I hope to do this time to make sure it is the last time.

The Right Mindset

First and foremost, the key to giving up successfully is well and truly wanting to do so. 100%, not a doubt in your mind, you don't want to smoke any more. I have never used nicotine replacement therapy of any kind. Instead, each time I've given up, I have put serious thought into why I'm smoking, why I don't want to and my fundamental beliefs about respecting my body and keeping it in good condition. I convince myself entirely of why I don't want to smoke anymore and then when I decide once and for all, it is easy. I have cravings but they don't bother me because I'm focussing on the bigger picture.

My method could be crticised since I have never sustained giving up permanently, however, I believe that getting into the right mindset is the easiest way to making the first step.

There are many ways to do this. By far the most successful book I have heard of is Allen Carr's 'The Easy Way to Give Up Smoking'. I have read about a quarter of it and did give up afterwards. I found it a bit monotonous and repetitive, but I think the aim is that it reprograms your thinking in doing so. A number of people I know have cited this book as the reason they quit and having read it all the way through, none of them have relapsed. If I could recommend one self-help book for smoking, it would be this one.

Other ways to get yourself into the right mindset could include a fitness goal, such as running a marathon or climbing a mountain, or something that requires you to start taking care of your body. If you have a desire to do some kind of expedition or physical feat, just book it. It will inspire you to start doing what you've been putting off. Having the Race for Life coming up soon adds to my motivation for giving up. I've said on my sponsorship page that I wanted not only to run the whole thing, but run it in 30 minutes. It was a bold claim, however, I know that if I don't stop smoking, I won't even be able to run half of it. I don't want to finish the race and have to tell everyone how lame I was. Publically announcing your fitness goals can help you stick to them, especially if you're prideful or competitive, which I am.

Take a look at your life philosophies too. I have some beliefs about respecting mother nature and about being at one with elements of our animal selves. I believe that the body is designed for exercise and that for all it's perks, modern life is unhealthy and neglectful of that biological need. I believe that psychological and physical wellbeing go hand in hand. A healthy body means a healthy mind and vice versa. Although sometimes I get sidetracked, overall, my health is very important to me and I have reminded myself of this being a priority. I don't want to damage my lungs anymore. I don't want yellow teeth. I do want to be able to run long distance. I do want to take care of my body.

"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage - pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically - to say 'no' to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger 'yes' burning inside." Stephen Covey

Time Management

Another crucial element to my success when I first give up, is how I monitor the time I've gone smoke-free. Some people recommend that you don't count how long it's been since you gave up. They say that you shouldn't think about it at all and distract yourself entirely from all things smoking related. This requires some serious mental willpower.

For me, I like to celebrate each day as a success. For example, today is day two. Yesterday, I wrote in my diary at 6pm that I had gone most of the day without a cigarette. I'd done most of the day, so a few more hours wouldn't hurt. I kept myself as busy as possible throughout the evening and have woken up today knowing that I have completed one whole day without smoking. Although with the right mental attitude, giving up is easy, the first day is still the challenge and the true test of your commitment. After completing one day, I know that I can complete another and after not smoking for 3 days, I know that smoking doesn't taste nice anymore. It doesn't taste nice most of the time anyway, who am I kidding!

They say that ideally, once you've given up you should be thinking of yourself as a non-smoker and not even give smoking a thought. But for heavy smokers or people who have smoked for a long time, this is quite a big ask during the initial stages. Which is why I think you should break time down into manageable chunks. But aim to count days rather than hours, otherwise you are reminding yourself too frequently of your habit. For the most part try to forget about it. Take your mind off it, stay busy. For the first two weeks, congratulate yourself after completing each day. Marvel in your progress. After that, you can start counting in weeks. And then months and then years.

Avoid Temptation

What I do struggle with - and what has been my downfall every time - is social smoking. Smoking at the pub with a nice, cold beer. I get to a point where I think I am beyond my addiction and that it can't hurt just to have one or two with friends. It's not long until I'm hooked again.

I've come to understand that during the first few months of giving up, I have to avoid social situations where I might be tempted to smoke. It takes an awful lot more self-control to sit in the pub and watch the usual group go outside without you. The hard thing about avoidance of social smoking is that you are essentially avoiding certain groups of people. It would be great to be able to sit with them and not smoke yourself, but I personally do not have the self-control to do that. It may seem like a personal affront if I avoid some friends for a little while and that's not something I would like to give the impression of doing. I guess my true friends know that it is for my own good, know my long term goals and will forgive me for a few months hermitude. It's not pleasant, but I have no idea how I will conquer social smoking unless I avoid it completely until I'm strong enough to face it.

Know yourself, know your limits and know whether or not you need to avoid something for a while in order to desensitise yourself from it.

The Dreaded Weight-Gain

Although you may find your appetite increases, this doesn't necessarily have to mean that you gain weight when giving up... If you're sensible about what you eat and whether you burn it off.

If you want to graze throughout the day, make sure you have healthy foods to hand. Get a bag of carrot sticks, or a bag of dried fruit and nuts. Stick to sensible, natural foods and make sure you exercise. You don't have to run or go to the gym, just a brisk walk will do it. As long as you stay active there is no reason for you to turn into a fatty just because you're giving up fags.

You might think you deserve to reward yourself for the hard work of giving up by indulging in sweets, cakes, bisuits, crisps and that sort of thing. Most of us see these kinds of foods as 'treats' or 'rewards'. Before the days of agriculture, when humans roamed about eating off of the land, sugar was hard to come by or certainly hard-won. We didn't have sugar sold to us for 50p at every corner, instead, we'd have to stick our arm into a bee's nest to fish out some honeycomb. So it used to be a feat to get hold of; it was a reward. But you can have too much of a good thing. And nowadays it's sugar overload. It's not a reward anymore, it's the cause of widespread obesity and health problems. The feat now is whether or not you can control your impulse to binge on it. Unless you can regulate it, think about it, control it, it can overpower you and turn you into a walking blob. You don't have to let it.

Mind Over Matter

At the end of the day, everyone is different and what works for one may not work for another. If you feel that nicotine replacement will help you, then that is what you should do. My boyfriend is also trying to give up, but he is really struggling. He gets irritable and angry, even with nicotine replacement. I have no idea what would help him. Perhaps it comes down to him not truly wanting to give up just yet. He starts off wanting to, but then when a craving hits, he'll talk himself into why he doesn't want to give up after all. Perhaps he wouldn't be having that internal debate if his mind was well and truly made up. You don't see people who've been diagnosed with cancer in turmoil with themselves over stopping. They just stop, because they've finally realised the value of their one and only body.

I believe that the main thing you need is the desire to stop. If you desire it enough, then nothing stands in the way of you reaching your goal except yourself. If you want to give up, truly, then you can and you will. If you recognise a craving, then recognise where it stands in the grand scheme of things. Do you want to succumb to it or do you want to wake up tomorrow as a non-smoker?

"It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways." Buddha

10 May 2010

Better Confidence - The Benefits of Martial Arts

Men are physically stronger than women. Unfortunately, it's a fact and one I've not wanted to admit, until recently when I was forced to. I've always been an advocate of equality, especially between men and women, but in the realm of physical strength, I am unable to make that claim.

The study of martial arts is something that can help empower women against men. I started a form of Kung Fu called Wing Chun in May 2009; the whole principle of the system is that intelligent movement can overcome strength. It takes dedication and practise, because it is about coordinating your body to react in a certain way to threats, but after time, I truly believe that it can give anybody who practises it a greater sense of control and confidence.

Wing Chun

The story goes that Wing Chun was a female nun who helped invent the fighting system for a princess. The princess was supposed to marry a king, but didn't want to, and so proposed that if he could beat her in a fight, he would be able to take her hand in marriage. The nun taught her how to win this fight.

This may be myth or legend or complete poppycock, however the principles of Wing Chun are feminine ones. It is not about opposing force, but redirecting it; not offering resistance but adapting. It is a beautiful and intelligent art that incorporates Taoist principles with basic principles of physics to make an efficient, effective fighting system. If somebody attacks you, Wing Chun teaches you to anticipate it by refining your sensory perceptions; both visually and through touch. It is about training a sensitivity to the movement of others. You will know where your opponent intends to strike and where best to strike them before they get to you. You can redirect the force of an attack easily and in the most efficient way, often by using your opponent's energy against them.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." Charles Darwin

Wing Chun is based on some simple principles, such as protecting your centre, keeping a certain angle in the way you hold your arms, taking the shortest route to a strike, adapting to change and flowing like water.

You have to study physical and psychological coordination intricately. I enjoy it for so many reasons, not least because of my personal interest in Taoist thought, but I truly believe it can enrich your life in so many ways. It is a lesson in discovering yourself mentally and physically. Physically, by giving you a much more heightened awareness and respect for your own body as well as a confidence in mastering it and using it to master others, and psychologically by developing your response to situations of high anxiety and stress. Through it, you learn to master your fears.

In short, Wing Chun can give you the confidence to feel like you could win a fight, and sometimes that can mean the difference in whether someone attacks you or not. Sometimes, looking like a victim can turn you into one. My teacher told a story about a time when he was threatened outside a club, by someone who had picked up a weapon, but because he clearly looked like he was assessing how to defend, the attacker backed off. If they think you'll give them too much of a hard time, they might leave you alone. Unless you come across somebody who is properly deranged, most human beings do not like confrontation, especially if the fight is not easily won, otherwise it is contrary to their own survival mechanisms. Intimidating behaviour is often a front, but for those occasions when it isn't, it helps to have practised some intelligent ways of defending yourself.

Kung Fu really changed my life; I discovered that my emotional and psychological wellbeing depends on my physical self. I take much more care of my body - once I got past beginner grades, I really developed a heightened understanding of what it means to look after myself. I stopped smoking, I eat better and I took up running. I'm much more coordinated and at ease in my body. I got a lot of self-esteem from it.

"Kung Fu's principle aim is to give you the tools to defeat the only opponent that can never be run away from".

I'm lucky enough to train at Cambridge Kung Fu, under Sifu Ross Sargent, with an absolutely fantastic group of people. The classes are relaxed, we often meet socially and talk to each other regularly on Facebook. That said, for those that want to undertake the study of kung fu seriously, the teaching and resources are available and Ross is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. If you are local to Cambridge, I recommend you have a look at http://www.cambridgekungfu.com/ for more information.

Women's Self Defence

I really feel that martial arts or self-defence classes can help improve the confidence and lives of all women (and men) and would advise everyone to take it up, especially if you have ever suffered an abusive relationship or assault. I personally like to train against men, but if you are female and you don't feel comfortable training alongside men, then women-only classes are available. See http://www.brickhandbag.com/ for an example in the East of England.

07 May 2010

Feeling Better

To those who haven't ever been sporty or athletic, exercise is the kind of thing you always talk about doing, but never get around to. You know you should do it, but you also know that it's hard work and doesn't feel very nice. It's unpleasant, uncomfortable and increasingly unlikely - you tell yourself that getting fit doesn't matter that much after all, or you'll start another day. Exercise is a drag. Right?


Exercise is one of the easiest things from which you can feel the benefit in every aspect of your life. From just two hours a week, you can improve your confidence, beat stress and improve your overall well being. Whatever your motivation is, whether it's to feel better about your body for how it looks or for how it performs, exercise is the answer. And it's just not as unpleasant as everyone makes out.

My Story

I'd always had a low self-esteem about my body. I hated PE in part because it meant getting changed in front of everybody, but also because as a teenager, I had an addiction to approval and I never got that on the sports field. I was decidedly average at competitive sports and if I didn't win, I wasn't interested. I was never particularly encouraged to be sporty; since I showed an aptitude for academic pursuits, that's where I was nurtured. I rarely exercised and got to the age of 24 before realising what I'd been missing out on.

What got me off my wobbly, untoned ass? Being dumped. My heart was broken and I was feeling very low about myself. I've always been a 'curvy' sort of girl; I liked my food and I never exercised. This meant that underneath the clothes, was a lumpy, bumpy and misshapen monster that I hated to reveal. I'd always had an issue with my genetic misfortune of being given the cellulite of an 80 year old, but what I didn't do is take any personal responsibility for it. I blamed my parents instead of facing the fact that if I worked out, it probably wouldn't be so bad.

So I started jogging. This was 7 weeks ago and I've lost 3 inches around my waist. I don't actually weigh myself since my target has never been to be stick thin. I just wanted to tone up and not feel ashamed of myself. I've gone from someone who couldn't run for 5 minutes, to someone who can now run 5km easily. It's not just about improving my physical image, it's about having the stamina and fitness too. I didn't realise how much my lack of fitness was affecting me; I didn't realise that going for a quick jog every night could cure my self-confidence. Within just a couple of weeks, I truly felt empowered.

Once I got going, I became addicted to it. I've now decided to run a half-marathon in September, so that I have a reason to push myself towards higher levels of stamina. I started off slow, just trying one lap around my local park. I just stuck to what I was comfortable doing; if I needed to walk a bit, I did. Discovering that I actually enjoyed running and wanted to be good at it, I also gave up smoking. I'd been giving up on and off for a while, but always succumbed when I was out drinking and socialising with friends. Ultimately though, I wasn't enjoying smoking much and wanted to give up. Running gave me more reason to look after my body.

Giving up also contributed to this new sense of strength and confidence I'd found. I was no longer ashamed of my body; I was proud of it and I wanted to look after it. My cellulite hasn't gone completely, but it's certainly improved, and I have no doubt that by September there'll be a dramatic difference. People have been telling me I look great. And for once, I really feel it. I've set myself a goal and in the summer I'm going to celebrate achieving it, by taking myself on a beach holiday and wearing my bikini with pride.

(I'm running the Race for Life, which is 5km, as a milestone on my way to the half marathon. If you'd like to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page...)

The Facts

Exercise releases endorphins, which are happy hormones. Chemical releases are producing mood-enhancing changes in your brain. On the biological level, the exercise is having an effect each time you do it, but on the psychological level, you'll experience the benefits I did; improved self-confidence and a feeling of self-reliance. A feeling of being able to look after yourself. And this new state of mind will affect all other areas of your life in a positive way. Scientific research is starting to show evidence of just that and books such as 'Spark' by John Ratey document the evidence. In fact, I stumbled across an article this morning, once again lauding the benefits of exercise:


If you feel depressed, taking a pill that alters the chemistry of your brain will, in the short term, make you feel better. But it won't cure the underlying cause of the misery, which lies somewhere in the way you live your life or your circumstances. It is easy to say that if your circumstances are making you miserable, you should just change them. But often, depression makes you feel as if everything is a mess. You have no idea where to start to make things better. You have no idea what to do or where to turn or how to get out of the situation. It's often a very vicious negative cycle that self-perpetuates. Anti-depressants can help people take the first step out of the vicious cycle, but so can exercise. On the back cover of the book 'Spark', there's a quote saying something along the lines of, "if the effects of exercise came in pill form, we'd all be taking it".

As a descendant of the primate, we are essentially animals. Modern life means that we are largely sedentary - most of us spend eight hours of our day sat on our arses in front of computers. This kind of lifestyle is completely unnatural and our bodies have not evolved out of our intrinsic need to move, to run, to climb trees, to hunt and escape predators. Letting our bodies become inert, useless lumps has a dramatic impact on our psychology and this is what I personally discovered when I started exercising. I didn't realise quite how low my self esteem was, until it destroyed my relationship. And I didn't realise how easy it was to exercise.

"Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it." Plato

A World of Options

Exercising does not have to be a grind. There are so many different types of sporting activities you can take part in. There are aggressive sports like boxing or rugby, or there are calming exercises, like yoga or tai chi, indoor or outdoor sports, lone wolf or pack sports. There are just so many options. Exercise doesn't always have to be competitive. You don't have to go to a gym full of posers and it doesn't have to be for anybody but yourself. It doesn't have to make you embarrassed or cost you the earth.

I don't like the artificial environment of gyms, or their membership fees, but I'm lucky that I enjoy running, since it's free for me to head down to my local park and do a couple of laps. I also bought a couple of kettlebells - I spent a total of £50 and now have a piece of equipment that allows me to work out in the privacy of my bedroom. You can find instructions for kettlebell exercises on the web and spend a quick half an hour in the evening toning up your flabby bits.

Get online and check out your local directory for sports clubs and see what's out there.


I don't agree that everybody has to be a size 0 to be attractive and I don't agree with the kind of imagery the media uses to convey an idea of 'beauty'. Beauty is subjective. Exercising is not, for me, about getting stick thin. It is about having muscle tone, having power, strength and the stamina to run as far as I want to. It is about being a 'good animal'. I like the idea of showing off too; personally I am quite competitive. But each individual will have different motivations. For example, a colleague of mine spent a number of years in a physically abusive relationship - since breaking up with the guy and escaping the torment, she's taken up kick boxing and she's empowered by the knowledge that she would now be able to handle the threat of physical violence from a man (more on women's self-defence in the article 'Better Confidence').

The first step is to find something you might enjoy and give it a try. And if you don't enjoy it, don't worry, try something else. Mastering your body through exercise puts you back in touch with your physical self. Looking after your physical self means that you will be happier pscyhologically - your mind and body are connected and one affects the other. Things like the placebo effect prove that the power of the mind can play a large part in healing the body. So why shouldn't the body play a large part in healing the mind? Once you start taking control of your body, you realise you can take a lot more control in other areas of your life too. Of course there are things beyond your control, but the important thing is to realise that there are some things that aren't, including how you feel about yourself and your body.

23 April 2010

Eating Better

Eating well does not have to mean cutting out those naughty things and attempting a diet you cannot possibly sustain. In this short guide, I’ll give you tips on how to maintain well-balanced and healthy eating habits that can help you keep your body at it's best.

1. Eat Like A Monkey

Once upon a time, we used to be much hairier and dwell in trees. We’d pick fruits and nuts from the jungle and if the monkey men were lucky, they’d catch the odd wild boar or something. I like to revert back to my monkey ways by sticking to foods that are straight from the trees or the earth. Nothing refined, wrapped in plastic or produced by machine. Simply natural foods. It’s a very easy way to stick to foods that are good for you.

Look for monkey foods you like, so that you don’t find keeping to them difficult. Find your favourite nut, your favourite fruit, vegetable or bean. It might mean you have to go shopping more regularly, because you'll be sticking to foods that are fresh and have a short shelf-life, but you'll find that fresh vegetables are surprisingly cheap, so eating well really doesn't break the bank. Science is increasingly starting to support the kind of diet our ancestors used to eat before the advent of agriculture and industry. Getting back to your monkey roots is good for you.

2. Don’t Feel Guilty

Sometimes though, you can’t help but crave a bit of sugar. And sometimes, you need to grab food on the go or you don't have time to prepare a fresh meal. Packaged and processed foods are everywhere and it's hard to avoid them, especially when you're so busy working your life away to think about what you're putting in your pie-hole.

We all know that fats and sugar in large amounts are bad for us, however, if you’re doing your best to stick to monkey food, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for scoffing the odd cake or chocolate bar, or succumbing to the ease of a microwaved meal. Just because you’ve had a little naughty, doesn’t mean you have to give up your good intentions. All too often, people revert back to eating junk food regularly because they feel guilty for having done so once when they’re supposed to be eating healthily. Eating healthily doesn’t have to mean cutting out treats all together; it means recognising that they can be eaten, but on the odd occasion. Eradicating feelings of guilt means that you’re less likely to start bingeing too, since bingeing is normally a form of self-punishment for a loss of control. Recognise that your self-control has not been lost and that you are allowed to eat naughty foods sometimes. It’s just that they have to be eaten less often that the good and healthy monkey food.

If you do a bit of research into microwaved meals and foodstuffs that we typically call 'treats', you might find that you don't view them in quite the same way. You might not want to eat them so often after all. For example, take our beloved chocolate. I'm really bad for craving chocolate, especially if I'm hormonal or a bit stressed. It helps to think of chocolate as simply a lump of margarine with cocoa powder in it. Essentially, that is what it's made of; milk solids and vegetable oil. I visualise eating a lump of margarine and suddenly chocolate doesn't seem so glorious any more.

In the same way, look at processed foods as packets full of chemicals you don't know anything about. Think about all the preservatives and sweeteners and flavourings and ask yourself whether you feel comfortable not knowing what your food is made of.

3. Little and Often

If you’ve got any interest in your nutrition, then you will have heard this rule already. It is important to eat foods regularly throughout the day to keep your metabolism ticking over. Ideally, eat like a king in the morning, a prince at lunch and a pauper in the evening – start off eating big and then let your portions reduce in size throughout the day. And don't feel bad about snacking throughout the day; just make sure that what you are snacking on is a natural foodstuff.

4. Balance

The most important part is achieving balance. Make sure that you keep your diet varied, so that 1) you don’t get bored with it, but 2) you give your body the range of nutrients it needs to stay healthy and keep working at it’s optimum level for you. Mix the colours of your fruits and vegetables and make your plate look pretty!

5. Losing Weight

Food intake alone is not enough to change your body shape, unless you are starving yourself, which can produce the desired effects short-term. But reducing your food intake dramatically can make your metabolism slow down, which means you pile your weight back on when you start eating normally again.

Eating should be about maintaining your health and ensuring your body is working it’s best, not about the way you look. If you want to change your body shape permanently, as in, get slimmer or more toned, the only answer is sustained exercise. If you can find an exercise you really enjoy and incorporate it into your week, you will achieve your desired results. Changing your body shape and keeping fit is something you have to maintain, but if it's what you really want, it's easy to keep up. (For more info on exercising, see my article 'Feeling Better'). Diet alone is not the answer. However, you can't out-exercise a bad diet, so if you're eating a lot of fatty foods, expect a certain amount of body fat.

6. Motivation

The most successful diet groups (such as WeightWatchers, Slimming World etc) are ones which encourage the balance mentioned here. They also allow you to have goodies, but in moderate amounts. Diet groups can help you to achieve a more controlled attitude towards your eating and being amongst a group can help to motivate you to reach your goal, in avoidance of being publicly exposed. However, if you can motivate yourself, you can save yourself a bit of money and continue to eat well once you've left the diet group. You don't have to be a member of such a group to eat well.

Feeling good about your body means looking after it and treating it with respect. I truly believe that good physical wellbeing means good psychological wellbeing, so keeping your body in good nick will help to keep your mind in good nick. If you're feeling down, have a think about how much your diet could play a part in that. Taking control of this one small part of your life will help you take control in other areas too. The first step towards feeling better, is eating better.