“I'm too tired” “I'm too busy” “I haven't got time” “The weather looks dodgy” “I just don’t feel like it today” “I'll do it tomorrow” Sound familiar? It's easy to make excuses not to prioritise our health and when it comes to exercise, we just seem to find it too difficult to get started or keep our good intentions going and far too easy to find a reason why. Who wants to go for a run when it's cold and raining outside? Who wants to workout at the gym when we're tired after a long day? Who wants to wake early, jump out of bed and exercise on a cold, wet winter's morning when the duvet is so cosy? Not many of us. Our increasingly sedate lifestyles aren’t a surprise. Technology has made our lives easier in many wonderful ways, but an unintended consequence is that our health is at risk because it is now so much easier and perhaps appealing to stay sat on our backsides. Why get up from your desk, walk up a flight of stairs and through an open plan office to speak with a colleague when you can pick up the phone, send an email or instant message them? Why walk around a supermarket when you can have your groceries delivered by a helpful driver who will even carry the heavy bags to your kitchen? Why? Because it’s lazy and it’s not doing you any good. The health risks of a sedentary lifestyle are well documented. A recent study from the University of Liverpool shows that just 2 weeks of inactivity can lead to muscular and metabolic changes that could potentially increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Worryingly the study shows this is true regardless of gender, age and previous exercise history. The World Health Organisation says that 60 - 80% of the world's population live a sedentary life, making physical inactivity the fourth biggest contributor to global premature deaths. Many studies show that physical inactivity can increase the risk of certain cancers, contribute to anxiety and depression, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase the likelihood of coronary disease, increase blood pressure, negatively affect sleep and raise cholesterol levels. Deep down we know the risks but do we act on that knowledge? Many of us recognise the health risks of smoking, so we don't smoke but when it comes to exercising, many of us choose to ignore the health hazards. My Story A few years ago this was me too. I couldn't be bothered, I was too tired and I was certainly too busy with travel and working across several time zones. Furthermore, I believed “it wouldn’t happen to me”. I was different and besides, I was very active in my youth so I had all that in the bank, right? Wrong. I started to experience the downsides of my inactivity. My cholesterol was high, my body fat was steadily increasing, my Body Mass Index was rapidly rising and approaching obesity and my blood pressure was worrying. The less activity I did the more tired I felt. The more tired I felt the less mental energy I had. And the less mental energy I had the less effective I was in my position. Many embark on an exercise programmes after a major health scare, an event that shocks them into action. Thankfully I didn't wait to get to such an extreme stage. One fortuitous morning I took a long, hard look in the mirror and didn't like what I saw and I didn't like how I felt. I resolved to change. And change I have. Today I am 10KG lighter in weight, my BMI is healthy, my body fat has halved to 11%, my blood pressure is optimal, my resting heart rate is under 50BPM, my cholesterol has recovered to normal levels and my VO2 Max, a measure of cardiovascular fitness is above 50, which for someone my age is classed as elite. I don’t say this to boast and I don’t claim that this will make my life longer, the proverbial bus may hit me any day, but I do know I feel a whole lot better and have a much chance of an active, healthy and long life as a result. And if I can do it, you can too. But you have to choose to. You don’t need to go to extremes, you just need to do something. Start simple. The last thing any of us would want is to suffer an injury by being overly zealous. Step Up The goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day is widely promoted for its health benefits and it’s a great place to start. If you don’t have any idea how many steps you take each day buy a device that counts them. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something that will allow you to measure your progress because we all know that ‘what gets measured gets done’. Adjust your routine to increase your step count if you’re missing out. Park your car further from the entrance door, take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, get off the bus, train or tube a stop early and walk to your destination, go for a walk at lunchtime or when you have a spare 15 minutes, get up and walk around the office if you’ve been sitting for too long and just be conscious of any opportunity to take additional steps. Resist Muscle Deterioration If you’re in or approaching middle age try some resistance training. As we get older our muscles deteriorate faster and this means we’re less capable of burning fat because our base metabolism falls. Simple bodyweight exercises can address this. Press-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, squats and lunges can be practiced easily at home or in a hotel room if you’re travelling. Again, start simple and work your way up. As your strength increases consider using weights to increase the resistance further, but only do this when you have mastered the proper technique to avoid injury. Get Help If you really want to increase your fitness, consider employing an expert. A professional personal trainer can provide a customised exercise routine that considers your starting point, the constraints of your broader life and your fitness goals to design a programme that gets the results you want, so long as you do it! And that, right there, is the key. Improving your fitness and therefore your health is not down to anyone else. You are the magic ingredient. You are the answer. You will only do the things you need to do if you truly want the benefits it provides. This isn’t to say that exercise is painful. It can be relaxing, energy boosting and meditative. It can make you feel good about yourself in ways that you never thought possible. We all have a sense that exercise is good for us and deep down we know that a sedentary life is not good for our long term health. It's time to take your fitness seriously, to stop the excuses and to do something about it.
I remember the night clearly. My wife and I were done up to the nines, and enjoying a glamorous ‘date night’ in central London. During an interval we went outside for some fresh air. Suddenly the doors flung open behind us and another couple followed us out. But they were different. They clearly weren’t enjoying the lovely night as we were. They were arguing and as we watched them walk away their argument got more and more heated. I told my wife that I ‘didn’t like the look of this’ and we agreed to stay outside and keep an eye on developments. Their argument worsened. There was a push or a hit and the woman was now on the ground with her partner standing over her shouting in an alcohol infused rage. Without thinking I sprinted towards them. They were a good 50 meters away but I seemed to cover the ground quickly. As I neared I could see the fear on her face and the rage in his eyes. And at that very moment my own fear kicked in and I thought “what the hell do I do now?” Thankfully the man responded well to my calming words. There was no further violence and a few minutes later I was able to hand the situation over to the police who had been called by my wife. Reflecting on the unsavory incident afterwards I realized how quickly such unfortunate and unpredictable events can arise. No one expects to be suddenly thrust into a fearful or dangerous situation. They are entirely random. They can happen to anyone, in any place and at any time. And if it happened to me once, at an expensive event with black ties and ball gowns, it could happen again, but next time the danger might develop into something much worse. It was then that decided I should learn to defend myself. I should learn techniques that would prevent me getting hurt or injured. I should know how to hold off an attacker for enough time to get help or make an escape. And so I decided to learn a martial art. 1. The Journey Begins Learning martial arts was a huge step for me. I had no previous interest in Karate, Judo or anything else from the East. Unlike my childhood friends I’d never seen The Karate Kid or a Bruce Lee movie. I didn’t have his scarred torso emblazoned on posters pinned to my bedroom wall. And I was now in my forties, inflexible and unfit. But I was determined to give it a go. Through Google I found a local club offering two taster classes free of charge and so my journey into the world of martial arts began. Fast forward six years and I am now a Second Dan Black Belt, Head Instructor and Examiner in Choi Kwang Do, a Korean Martial Art that combines extremely practical self defense with Yoga, Mindfulness, Health and Fitness. The media portrays martial arts and martial artists in different ways. At one end of the scale is the sheer cage fight brutality of Mixed Martial Arts, glamourized by the highly successful UFC events, and Hollywood ultra-action movies. At the other end is the ancient wisdom, teaching and holistic self improvement exampled in the TV Series Kung-FU where the old Master teaches the young Grasshopper the secrets of the ancient art. I much prefer the latter portrayal and, in my experience, this is the culture you will find in most UK martial arts schools. The new student soon realizes exactly why these fighting techniques are called an art. The intricacies of the potentially lethal techniques and sequences are more like dance choreography than a method of fighting. The culture of learning martial arts I have been fortunate enough to enjoy leads to wide ranging benefits that transcend beyond the floor of the Dojang. Whilst I now feel well equipped to deal with an attacker, the techniques I have learned also equip me with the skills to live a better, happier and more productive life. Let me explain… 2. Goal Setting All traditional martial arts utilize a belt system to show the progress and skill level of every student and instructor. Everyone starts at white belt and works their way up to the coveted Black Belt and beyond, learning and practicing at every step in between. Each time a student achieves a new belt they automatically set the goal to achieve the next. It is a cycle of learning, practicing, perfecting and achieving that keeps us focused on our continuous improvement. Following a successful grading, we are shown the techniques, sequences and drills we need to master to achieve our next belt and given the date of the next grading event. With our teachers we develop an action plan to learn and practice and we identify instructors and students of a more senior rank to model and help us get there. SMART goals exemplified. Actively practicing this in my martial arts world encourages me to take the same approach to my work and other personal goals. It’s odd because I was taught about SMART goals many years ago, but it is only since I have been applying them in my martial arts that I have seriously and consistently applied them in a broader span of life areas. And it has accelerated my achievements and increased my confidence in all areas of life. 3. Focus Every martial arts class begins with a period of mindfulness. It’s a moment to sit, breath, quiet the mind and let go of all the stresses and events of the day. We call it ‘emptying our cup’ and it allows us to focus our minds on the present and everything that’s going on around us right here, right now. Focusing on the here and now is important in all areas of life. How many of us kick the proverbial cat when we arrive home because we bring with us the baggage of a bad day at work? I know I used to. Bringing our work problems home or our home problems to work has a huge impact on our ability to perform in that area of our life. We can’t be the friend, husband, father, wife or mother we want to be if we’re carrying a huge cargo of negative thinking and worry in our heads. We can’t be the leaders we aspire to be at work if thoughts of problems at home distract us and affect our judgment and performance. We need to be mentally present where and when we are physically present. In martial arts ‘emptying our cup’ helps us focus our minds on the now of training. This is most obviously vital when sparring with an opponent. A wondering mind could easily lead to us loosing focus and taking a painful hit and possible injury. But the hits in life can be just as painful, and often more consequential. By learning to ‘empty your cup’ you can learn to focus on the present, be the best you possibly can be in that moment and increase your performance, results and overall success and happiness. It’s easy to do but requires discipline to do it. Just pause for two minutes to allow you to clear your mind before opening the front door. Relax your limbs, breath deeply and listen to all the sounds that surround you. Focus on the ones with the most appeal. Birdsong, the gentle hum of traffic, whatever works for you. Slowly open your eyes and tell yourself, “I’m ready’. Then smile, open the door and walk through. You can reverse this process as you exit for work to help you to temporarily forget about problems at home and prepare yourself for the workday ahead. Either way ‘emptying your cup’ is a proven way of ensuring you are focused on the things you need to focus on in that part of your life for that part of your day. 4. Overcoming Fear When I first walked through the doors of my martial arts school I took a good look around. I wanted to see what type of person attended. Everyone seemed pretty normal to me and I was somewhat relieved and reassured. But then someone arrived a little late. He was huge, imposing and looked pretty mean. He was wearing a Brown belt, which I quickly learned is one step away from Black Belt. I made a mental note to avoid him at all costs. For a few months I was terrified of being partnered with him for a sparring session. Frankly I wasn’t sure I’d get out alive. And then, after some time learning and practicing some basic white belt techniques we were paired together. My face turned as pale as my belt, my heart quickened and my breath shortened. But I faced my fear head on. I bowed to it, raised my guard and prepared for the fight. I survived. But not only did I survive I gained a new found confidence. It turns out I was better at blocking, moving and dodging than I thought. I was better and quicker at countering and he was a great teaching partner. Since then I have made it my goal to always train with people more advanced than me. It can lead to frustration, and the occasional blow to the head and pride, but it always accelerates my learning and improves my confidence. ‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway’ is a best selling book for very good reasons; It’s true and it works. We can’t grow if we stay in our comfort zones. We just carry on within the limitations our minds have imposed on us. My martial art training has taught me to confront fears head on. It doesn’t mean I’m not scared. It just means I do it anyway and every time I feel better for it and improve my ability. If you’re afraid of something, just do it, firstly in a safe environment and perhaps without an audience. Then do it again. And again. And again. The more you do something the more accustomed you become to it. The more comfortable you become with it and the better you become at it. 5. The Importance of Support In my corporate life I was very used to going it alone. Colleagues were great, but asking for advice could easily be seen as a sign of weakness in a highly competitive jungle. I even limited the information I gave to my various bosses because I didn’t want him or her to worry that I wasn’t up to the job. If I had fears or concerns I was on my own. In stark contrast most martial arts classes are incredibly supportive environments. It’s not just instructors that help and teach, students help other students too. Everyone wants everyone to succeed. It’s a brilliant culture of collective challenge and self-improvement. Even during sparring we will stop the action and explain why something worked well or how something can be improved. This was a million miles from any organisational culture I had previously experienced. But why is that? Surely organizational leaders would want to see their teams collectively improve performance and productivity and increase their value? It seems the best leaders do create this safe culture for their team. As Google put it when commenting on their 10 year study in to effective workplace cultures: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea”. I now apply this safe, collective improvement approach to all areas of life. It works in the family, among friends, at work and in any other organization of which you may be part. It requires you to not only be constructive and genuine, but also confident that the improvement of others will not adversely affect other’s perception of your performance or ability or restrict your career progression. It also means you can safely ask for help. You now have a network of people you can trust because they trust you. They will help you because you will and have helped them. 6. Dealing with Stress I can’t think of many more stressful environments than having one or maybe two or more people attacking you with flying fists and feet, but it’s a great way to learn the debilitating effect stress can have on our own performance. Fight or flight is a concept most of us will recognize, but this ignores the third and arguably the most common response: Freeze. The rabbit in the headlights response is arguably the most common human response to stress. Your boss asks you a difficult or searching question. You stammer and splutter, sweat as your face reddens. Your eyes dart around as the answer remains hidden and your brain has frozen. Solid. Been there? I have! These responses are actually designed to help us, originating from the days when we were under the real threat of being eaten by a saber-toothed-tiger or similar. In small doses they are fine and can even be good for us, causing adrenalin to kick in and our performance to peak. But when they happen regularly it has an adverse effect that can lead to long-term health problems and prolonged periods of time off work. We can easily recognize the symptoms of stress. Our hearts quicken and our stomachs churn. Our minds are difficult to focus and our bodies are tense. Through learning, practice and experience the sparring martial artist learns techniques to manage these involuntary responses. We learn that tension slows us down. The more tense we are the less likely we are able to block or dodge to avoid a blow. So we deliberately relax our bodies, which means we also relax our minds, giving us much more control over ourselves, the situation and our opponent. We learn to regulate our breathing so that oxygen flows through our bodies to stop us tiring and keep us mentally and physically alert. We learn to focus on the opponent, even learning exactly where to focus our eyes so that our peripheral vision can warn us of movement from the opponent’s legs or hands whilst also being aware of our surroundings so we don’t end up being hit or tripping or being cornered. We learn to mentally plan our evasion and counter movements before executing them with success. Try these techniques if you ever feel the symptoms of stress. Relax your body. Release any tension you feel. Take deep breaths. Breath in for four seconds, hold for two and breath out for another four. Repeat until a sense of calm returns. Change your mind’s focus. Stop thinking of the problem and instead focus on how you can prevent or solve it. Smile as you picture your success. These techniques can work in all kinds of work situations. Try them before an important or difficult meeting or when you’re about to take the stage to deliver a speech or presentation to a large group. Use them when you’re fretting about a project that’s going wrong. You’re much more likely to get things back on track if your calm and collected than if you’re tense and worried. 7. A Black Belt in Life “All power must come from the inside out. First, learn to control your own power. Second learn to control your opponent’s power. Third, learn not to be controlled”. Chow Hung –Yuen Master Wing Chun Kung Fu The martial arts teach skills that could one day keep you from harm or worse. Learning them builds confidence and self esteem and enables you to master techniques that equip you well beyond the walls of the Dojang. The benefits of these techniques are numerous and far reaching. The examples here are just a few of the ones I have personally experienced. Of course you don’t need to be a Black Belt martial artist to apply these skills in your life or to learn how to master and control your emotions and your power. A Black Belt in Life is pretty damn cool. And incredibly valuable.
Wellness? Well that’s for women isn’t it? What’s that got to do with men? Real men don’t take classes on breathing, practice yoga in Lycra or do that silly mindful meditation stuff. Well maybe they should. Studies show that more men than ever are breaking down physically, mentally or both. Men are falling apart. There’s been a lot of media coverage recently of sportsmen suffering from depression, especially when they retire. Whilst such coverage is only a good thing, what gets less exposure is that many, many less famous men suffer in exactly the same way. Studies show that men are 3 times more likely than women to take their own life. They rely on only their partner for emotional support, but fear asking for it in case they appear weak and vulnerable. So they end up bottling it up. Men are in crisis, struggling to cope in a world of always on pressure, balancing work and personal life, dealing with emotional strains and struggling to find their identity in a world where the stereotypical male is less and less relevant. It can affect you regardless of age. Depression among young men, those in their 20’s and 30’s, is at an all time high. So what are men doing about it? Unfortunately studies show not a lot. Men are much less likely to seek help than women experiencing the same issues. We men have a negative view of counseling and therapy until the issue becomes a crisis. But even then we remain much less likely to see a doctor about depression or dependencies. We seem to have a view of ‘I’m fine, I’ll work it out or it won’t happen to me’. The problem is it might, and the chances of it happening are rising every day. Men have a lot to benefit by taking their wellness seriously. We don’t need to go to a retreat in the middle of nowhere, drink only out of the ground water, eat leaves and sit chanting with our eyes closed, but we do need to do something if we are going to be the best we can be. Let’s start our wellness journey by covering three areas; fitness, diet and thoughts. Fitness It’s fine for a male to be lean and fit, the threat of ridicule is minimal so lets start with fitness. Where you begin depends on where you are. If you consider yourself to be reasonably fit, do more, do it more regularly or add other workouts to your current routine. If fitness is all completely new, or if you haven’t done anything for a long time, start simple. Walk more. Go for a stroll at lunchtime. The exercise and fresh air will provide a welcome relief from the pressures of the workday. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator (I mean up!) Do anything that quickens your heartbeat and shortens your breath, but do it more frequently. And yes, I do include a ‘bedroom workout’ so long as it’s with someone else. As your fitness improves go for a run 2 or 3 times a week. Lift some weights. Studies show that as we age our muscle deteriorates more rapidly placing more pressure on our joints and bones and reducing our ability to burn fat. You don’t need to lift like Arnie, but incorporate some resistance training into your workout and you’ll feel the benefits. But make sure you get someone to show you the correct form for each exercise. Diet Of course what you eat and drink is also important. Many men are put off healthy eating by the thought of having to spend a lifetime in the kitchen preparing and cooking fresh ingredients. ‘When am I going to do that?’ Make time and make it fun. I know loads of men who love rustling things up in the kitchen. They treat is as an art or a time to de-stress. It doesn’t have to take ages. Smoothies are simple to make and can boost your inner health massively. A healthy omelet is almost as quick. Let’s now think about what we drink. Did you know that when a GP asks you how much alcohol you consume they will typically multiply your answer by at least two? Our culture has us believe that drinking is good, something to help us relax after a stressful and busy day. Something to celebrate with or cheer us up if things haven’t gone so well. We might even believe it’s good for us. Remember the Red Wine Diet? Government guidelines state that to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. That’s just 6 glasses of wine or pints of beer. But, increasingly, studies show that complete abstinence is far, far better for you. If this scares you have a read of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober. It will make you think again. Men of a certain age are renowned for silly behavior during the midlife crisis. So why not make it more productive for you by moving more and eating better? A slimmer waist and more muscular definition are a much better way of dealing with ageing than dyeing your hair or buying a flash watch or car. The Mind But it’s not just about the body, it’s the mind too. Men of all walks of life and across a wide span of age groups are increasingly becoming depressed. Negative self-talk in all its guises takes us down and down into a spiral of depression. If you’re not ready to talk to someone about it yet, read a book or listen to a podcast. I’ve learned a lot from authors such as Tony Robbins. It’s not only helped me tackle negative thinking, but also encouraged me to set and reach bigger goals than I thought I could ever achieve. Opening up can be difficult, but one place you can do this is in the world of social media. There are loads of closed Facebook support groups that can help. Some are targeted at specific issues and some more broad. You’re safe in there. Nothing is public. No one in your real world needs to know about it. It can be your little secret. But you’ll soon discover you’re not alone and you’ll be able to get advice, help and support from a network of strangers who’ve gone through exactly what you’re going through now. A Well Life The world is changing and many men are struggling to come to terms with their role in it. Taking care of yourself should be your first priority but unfortunately it rarely is. It’s time we men took more responsibility for ourselves and started to treat ourselves as our number one priority. We can’t do much for others if we’re not in a fit physical and mental state to do so.