Fitness attributes – stress

This is the next in the series following my What do you need to do to be fit? post.

Being overwhelmed by stress impedes your ability to go about your life, both by occupying your mind and making you more susceptible to disease. To have well rounded fitness you should be able to manage the stresses of your life.

What is stress?

Stress is anything that activates the stress, or fight or flight, response. In its most basic terms it is a series of hormonal releases within your body designed to help you survive danger.

In the excellent book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky uses the example of how the stress response would affect an animal in the savannah. A very simplified version of the sequence may go something like:

  1. Lion wants to eat you
  2. Stress response on
  3. Hormones released
  4. Non essential systems shut down (includes things like digestion and saliva production)
  5. Extra blood and energy sent to the essential ones (i.e. legs).
  6. Run
  7. Escape (hopefully)

    When the danger passes a different set of hormones are released, you relax and all your bodies systems go back to doing what they should. This might happen once every day or two.

    The problem for humans in the modern West is that this happens multiple times in the day. The stress response is always on, your day might start something like this:

    1. Woken up by an alarm (heart pounding straight away)
    2. Rush through breakfast (I’m late, I’m late)
    3. Have pointless argument with wife about the location of your keys
    4. Rush for train
    5. Stand on hot uncomfortable train (getting very irritated in the process)
    6. Arrive at work, check to do list and instantly worry about its size.

      That’s all by 9am.

      This is no good. The negative effects on your health are endless but the big ones are: heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure. All very real, all can be caused by excessive stress and all are killing lots of people each year.

      So how do you control it?

      The things that cause stress are real and unavoidable parts of modern life but we often get stressed about things with limited long term effect. I know in my case I often put the stress onto myself rather that it be put on me by an external source. 

      When faced with a stressful situation like any of the examples above try think about the bigger picture. Will the thing that is causing stress matter to you in 5 years, or even 1 year? Can you change it? If you do care then try and get as much control over the situation as possible.

      If you don’t, or it is out of your possible control, then you are probably the source of stress so let it go.

      It’s easier said than done, but think about what really matters. In the grand scheme of things a lot of the things we stress about are of little consequence. If they don’t matter, let them go. The stress response exists for a reason, fight or flight – so if they do matter, use it.

       

      Further reading

      Chris at The Garage Gym Online has recently writeen an excellent, and detailed, series of posts on stress. You should check it out.

      Fitness attributes – morals

      This is the next in the series on each attribute in my What do you need to do to be fit? post.

      I’ve covered physical fitness in my previous posts but wanted to explore all round fitness – that includes your mind too.

      I’m really trying to look at fitness for life, i.e. being able to do the things you need to (and perhaps a bit more in case of emergencies) to live well. Someone could be a complete fitness superhero but if they behave like a dick they aren’t really fit for life. They’re just a prick that can run fast.

      I picked out four attributes of mental fitness to talk about – morals, stress, reasoning and happiness – they cover the lion’s share of how you think and behave.

      Morals seem like the most sensible place to start because they dictate a lot of how you interact with the world. If your moral compass is skewed you will likely cause distress and problems for other people (and yourself) along the way.

      Exactly what defines morally good has been debated and argued ever since people started philosophising. I found the study of ethics fascinating when studying for my degree, but assesses whether individual actions are morally good is not really what this series of posts, or blog, is about.

      Instead I’m looking for general principles. Simple stuff that can be applied straight away and that will make a difference most of the time, without over-analysis or over-complication.

      Fortunately, I think this can be achieved in relation to morals very simply.

      It involves just four words – be nice to people.

      Think about it. If you are cranky, aggressive or negative you are more likely to spread your misery to other people and make negative decisions that result from your grumpy disposition. People are also much more likely to reflect your bad mood right back at you.

      On the flip side, if you are nice to people these things start to reverse. It can even be as simple as smiling and saying please and thank you. People will react better to you and you may start doing a few good deeds (think stop and help rather than rush past).

      I’m not naive enough to think this will work all the time, some people are just grumpy and sometimes you are just having a shit day.

      But maybe that’s the bit that takes the largest amount of strength (or fitness) – behaving how you know you should when someone (or life in general) is doing the opposite.

      Fitness attributes – lean mass to fat ratio

      This is the next in the series on each attribute in my What do you need to do to be fit? post.

      I’ve been a bit slack with keeping up with this series of posts, work has been extremely busy which has left my brain a bit fried.

      I have also been back and forth about what to write here. I am no expert in nutrition and, as much as it’s good, my food intake is not perfect – so I’m not best placed to give dietary advice. That said, your levels of fat and lean mass are important to overall fitness and should be managed carefully.

      We can all agree fat is not fit for performance reasons but fitness is also synonymous with looking good. I think you would be safe to say that losing weight and improved appearance is the most common reason people exercise and care about fitness.

      The idea of losing weight, not fat, is slightly misguided though. If appearance is a priority then what you see in the mirror counts as much as the weighing scales. Even if you have very low levels of fat, to look good, you will still need a decent amount of muscle.

      The benefits go beyond just looks. In the excellent book Biomarkers muscle mass is listed as the number one determining factor for increased health and longevity. We need to build some muscle mass to increase our health. If you consider that muscles atrophy with age, you need to build muscle just to maintain your current levels of lean mass as you get older.

      A desire for some extra lean mass should be a part of everyone’s fitness regime, including you ladies out there. You’ll look better and feel better. Providing you don’t eat like a horse and take a ton of steroids you WON’T end up looking like a bodybuilder.

      Be sensible with it though – the pursuit of greater muscle mass shouldn’t negatively effect mobility, flexibility or any other fitness aspect.

      Seeing the new muscle may involve losing some fat (not necessarily weight) and this is were diet comes into it. There are more diet approaches out there than I can list all with plenty of scientific studies to back them up.

      Look for a diet that is based on good general principles that make sense to you. The most important thing is that it is sustainable – crash diets are no good – it has to become part of your lifestyle to have a lasting effect.

      Be realistic though. You still need to live – an occasional Jaffa cake will keep you sane, an occasional packet will keep you fat.

      Fitness attributes – freedom from injury

      This is the next in the series on each attribute in my What do you need to do to be fit? post.

      An injury will mean you are not able to easily and effectively complete physical tasks.

      I injured my ankle earlier this year and needed crutches to walk. It took about a month to walk without them and another six weeks or so to run. Clearly during this time, although I was doing some training, I wasn’t fit for much.

      So, being injured is bad. Not only does it hurt, it also reduces your ability to do physical stuff (not fit) and may stop you training effectively (getting less fit).

      Getting injured in the gym prepping for a sport or just for fitness can be avoided if you listen to your body and don’t take stupid risks.

      You need to remember why you are there. Whether you are trying to get better at your sport or just be fit for life then taking risks and getting injured gets you further away from what you want not closer.

      I injured my ankle on a climbing wall. It was close to the end of the day and I was on a fairly difficult (for me) problem. As I got close to the top my grip felt a bit off and I had a feeling that I should just let this one go. I didn’t and two moves later I was flat on the deck with a knackered ankle.

      This is an example of me not listening to body and taking a stupid risk.

      Injuries in sports inevitable, whether you are competing against yourself self or others you will push to the edge to try and win. You also cannot control the actions of the other people playing. Injuries are bound to happen at some point. In the gym this isn’t the case as you have the control (assuming someone doesn’t drop a weight on your foot!).

      This isn’t to say you shouldn’t train hard, you absolutely should. You can train hard within your limits and those limits will expand. Consistently push the envelope and your body will likely punish you.

      Fitness attributes – freedom from illness

      This is the next in the series on each of attribute in my What do you need to do to be fit? post.

      I want to caveat this post by saying I have no medical training whatsoever and anything written below is the result of self experimentation. Although there are some basic principles we should all follow I would encourage you to experiment with your own lifestyle to see what works best for you – you might be able to get away with more than I can.

      The germ theory of illness is very simple: there is a germ that causes an illness – you come into contact with that germ – you get sick.

      As much as simple is good this doesn’t quite feel right. Do you ever notice when a bug is ‘doing the rounds’ a lot of people catch it but not everyone? There must be something else going on that means some people’s immune systems are doing a better job. Chris at Garage Gym Online has recently written a post about different theories on this topic.

      I don’t know how you would train your immune system to be stronger but there are certainly things you can do to not weaken it.

      Eat proper food
      There is a lot of stuff in shops masquerading as food that doesn’t really deserve that label. If it has a long list of sciencey sounding words in the ingredients you should probably steer clear.

      If you don’t understand the words, don’t eat the food. You can’t expect your body to fight off germs properly if it’s having to deal with that stuff.

      Avoid sugar
      This is really just an extension of the previous point. Sugar is pretty bad news and your body doesn’t like it.

      “But I like cake” I hear you say. Yeah, me too. Lucky for me my wife has a knack for making treats with a lot of the naughty taken out. Lucky for you she writes a recipe blog, you should check it out. (note I said a lot, not all – there’s still some naughty in there)

      Get some exercise, but not too much
      Exercise makes your body stronger and more resilient (good thing). Too much breaks it down, and leaves you exhausted (bad thing).

      Get enough sleep
      A good nights sleep makes you feel great and, if you are sick, sleep can be the best medicine.

      So, getting enough sleep has to help keep you well doesn’t it? It makes too much sense to not.

      Late night TV is rubbish anyway. Turn it off and go to bed with a good book instead ( or a good woman/man 😉 ). You’ll feel better for it.

      Avoid stress
      The things mentioned in previous points could be counted as stress but here I mean emotional stress. Avoiding it can be easier said than done as often stress seeks you out.

      Too much will wear you down, effect your sleep and ultimately your ability to fight germs. Fortunately exercise can help both relieve stress and provide a positive stimulus.

      Most importantly, chill out – it’s probably not that important in the big picture. If it is that important, then share it with someone that you love.

      I’ll be writing more on stress in a later post.

      Change your mindset – decide to not get ill
      Don’t worry, I’m not going to start writing about crystals and tarot but I do think the mind has more control over the body than perhaps we give credit.

      One change I have made over the last few years is deciding to not get ill. I’ve no science to back up whether it has had an effect and I have changed more things than just this, but I know I haven’t been ill much since.

      Wallowing in how sick you feel can make it worse. The opposite seems to work too.

      Try it, just refuse to get ill.

      Fitness attributes – posture part 3

      This is the next in my series on each of the aspects in the What do you need to do to be fit? post and is the third part about posture, parts one & two can be found here & here.

      In the first two parts I talked about why posture is important, what good posture looks like and reviewed some of the great books I have used to work on my own posture. In this post I’ll look at three things you can do to help fix some of the more common postural issues.

      1) Wear minimal, flat shoes, go barefoot were possible
      This is the single most important thing you can do to help your posture. These crude stick men drawings show what a modest heel will do to the bodies angle. 

      Stick_men

      Obviously, people don’t walk around leaning forward like that. Your body changes it’s alignment to remain upright and this will make good posture difficult. If you try and fix your posture while still wearing heels you are unlikely to succeed.

      There are now companies that produce heel-less shoes with minimal soles that are suitable for work and the choice for casual wear is endless. It’s pretty easy to do, they might not be the height of fashion but so be it – this stuff’s more important in the long run.

      While you are at it you may as well go barefoot when ever you can. Shoes don’t get much more minimal than that.

      2) Straighten your back
      This is primarily for people with an upper back and shoulders that slump forward. If you work at a computer all day it’s likely to be you to some degree. There should still be an S curve in your spine, but probably a bit less than you have. Take a look in the mirror and make an honest assessment of where you’re at.

      There are likely to be two things going on: a tight chest and weak upper back.

      • Chest stretches – there are some good ones here. If you work at a desk it would be worth scattering these stretches throughout the day.
      • Upper back strengthening – the main muscles to focus on are the rhomboids and lower traps. They bring the shoulder blades back and down, which in turn will help create an upright upper body posture. Good exercises include band pull aparts, dumbbell bent over lateral rows and pull up/dip shrugs. Locust pose can also help.

      Additionally, Dr Barker’s book has a great exercise for promoting a straighter back that I’ve seen great benefit from, it’s worth a look.

      I would also recommend looking at Esther Gokhale’s stuff to learn how to hold yourself more upright when sitting and standing, if you’ve been practicing slumping for 20+ years you’ll probably need to practice upright a bit as well.

      3) Strengthen the glutes
      The glutes play a large role in good posture as they both stabilise the body when standing and also rotate the pelvis into its proper position. Unfortunately, they become weakened by excessive sitting and stop doing their job. At the same time the hip flexors at the front of the pelvis get tight, further inhibiting the glutes and also pulling the pelvis out of alignment.

      Again, there are two things to be doing:

      • Stretch hip flexorsthese ones from K Starr are great, a basic lunge stretch would be fine though. These can also be done throughout the day.
      • Strengthen the glutes – I think there are three stages to strengthening the glutes and increasing awareness of the muscle:
        1. In isolation – both glute bridges and hip thrusts will strengthen the glutes in isolation. The most important thing here is to really feel the muscle working to build awareness.
        2. Integrated in a gym setting – exercises like lunges, step ups and squats use the glutes in conjunction with the rest of the lower body. Remember how they felt in isolation and get them going in these exercises as well.
        3. Integrated in real life – the last stage is to use them in daily life. When standing give them a pinch to check they are working. Gokhale’s book has a great style of walking that engages them strongly. Also stairs are good, concentrate on extending the hip not the knee and you should feel exertion round the back rather than the quads

      Personally, I need to continue working on all of these aspects. I spend a lot of each day sitting and that won’t change any time soon, as a result I need to work to counteract this.

      That’s it for posture stuff….

      PS – if you have any postural issues that involved twisting of the torso, or something effecting one side more than the other – check out Pete Egoscue’s book.

      Fitness attributes – physical skills

      Physical skills are the attributes most commonly associated with fitness. A stereotypical image of a fit person will likely be an athlete who displays a high level of physical skill.

      In my last post on fitness I mentioned the ten general physical skills as stated by Crossfit. I think these cover every outward expression of fitness you could want your body to be able to perform.

      • Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – the ability of body systems to gather, process and deliver oxygen.
      • Stamina – the ability of body systems to deliver, process, store and utilise energy.
      • Strength – the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
      • Flexibility – the ability to maximise the range of motion at a given joint.
      • Power – the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
      • Coordination – the ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
      • Agility – the ability to minimise transition time from one movement pattern to the next.
      • Speed – the ability to minimise the time cycle of a repeated movement.
      • Balance – the ability to control the placement of the bodies centre of gravity in relation to its support base.
      • Accuracy – the ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

      A good level of skill in all of these characteristics can be summarised as – the ability to move your own body and external objects at a range of angles and speeds, in varying situations.

      So, how do you go about training these attributes? As it is Crossfit’s list is that the best way? Maybe. I actually really like the Crossfit methodology, working hard to master a wide range of attribute and skills makes perfect sense to me.

      Personally, I use the ten movement families from Georges Herbert’s Methode Naturale to check my training is heading in the right direction. Here’s all ten along with some notes on how I think they should be approached.

      • Walking
        This should be easy locomotion, not a workout. Make it easy and do it often. Wear minimal (or no) shoes and feel the ground beneath your feet.
      • Running
        Vary speeds and distances. Go as far as makes sense providing it doesn’t negatively impact other skills (i.e. strength) or until walking is a better option. Same footwear rules as walking.
      • Jumping
        Pretty self explanatory. Jump up onto things, jump off of things, jump over things. Vary the heights.
      • Climbing
        I love this one. A rock face, climbing wall or even a tree is ideal. If you can’t get to those then pull ups count. The main thing is to move your body upward through space using the power of your muscles.
      • Quadrupedal movement (moving on all 4 limbs)
        Think about mimicking animal movements (apes, crab, bear walk). Great for warm ups and play. Harder work than it looks.
      • Balancing
        Self explanatory. Don’t go too high until you are confident you won’t fall off! Fallen logs and low walls are a great place to start.
      • Lifting
        There are a ton of ways to approach this. Pick things up, get stronger, the method is up to you
      • Throwing
        Big things for explosive power. Little things for accuracy. Do it outdoors.
      • Defending
        I miss this. Learning a martial art was great, I will get back to it at some point. There are many styles to choose from, the most important things are that you enjoy it, the teacher knows what they are doing and that you spar, a lot.
      • Swimming
        I am bad at training this, probably because a chlorine filled pool is really unattractive – it’s a good skill to have though. Drowning would be rubbish.

      Now the weather is getting warmer I’m really looking forward to getting outside and combining a few of these in true Methode Naturale fashion. I did it last year and it was brilliant. I need to get my running up to speed (ha ha) first though.

      Recommended training resources