Fit and Fearless: Motivation beyond PBs and weight loss

Thanks to my pal Sophie, I recently discovered the Fit and Fearless podcast. I began listening with an episode on pre- and post-natal training but rapidly began mining their backlist, enjoying episodes on working out when busy, nutrition and body confidence.

Listening to this podcast threw into focus thoughts that I’d been having about what motivates me and how I measure success, both in terms of my exercise routine and my diet.

the girl gains

Eating and exercising throughout pregnancy can be a bit of a minefield, and while I usually measure the success of my workout routine by how fast or far I can run, how heavy I can lift, or how many burpees I can do before collapsing, right now none of these measures are applicable. Similarly, I would ordinarily gauge my diet on how my clothes are feeling and cutting down on calorie-dense foods if my jeans were to get a bit tight. But at the moment pretty much all of my clothing is tight and, all being well, it will only get tighter. So what other measures should I be using to quantify my success and to keep myself motivated to continue training and steer clear of the tempting treats?

One of the messages I loved from Fit and Fearless is that success can just be about getting yourself to the gym (or by extension, to an exercise class/your yoga mat/the pool/into your trainers). Even if, on arrival, you decide it isn’t your day, by just scheduling the time and getting yourself there you are developing a routine, which in all likelihood will turn into a workout. I know that sometimes the hardest part of getting out on my lunchtime run is just getting into my gym kit. It’s so easy to continue sitting at my desk, responding to emails and letting the moment pass, but once I’m over that initial hurdle the actual act of going for a run is easy (well, easy-ish!).

The other thing that the podcast reminded me is that exercise should be about having fun and treating your body. I always feel better after a workout, even if all I can muster at the moment is a 3 mile walk/run around the park. Exercise gets the endorphins pumping and keeps me sane during a hectic day. It’s an opportunity for ‘me time’, a chance to clear my head and reset. I loved that in the body positive episode of Fit and Fearless the team talked about not just thinking about exercise as a means of burning x number of calories, but as a time to enjoy yourself and feeling strong. They promoted the idea of exercising with the real intention of focusing on being present in your body and not thinking about weight loss.

The other big message of both this and the pre- and post-natal fitness episode was that exercise shouldn’t be about what you look like, but rather it should be about what your body can do. I love this sentiment and I have to remind myself that what my body is doing is not only going for a 30 minute swim or a 45 minute spin class, but doing those things while also growing a human!

So how am I implementing these messages as part of my exercise routine, attitude to exercise and diet more generally?

1. I’m reminding myself that no matter how brief the session, exercising always makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel strong and empowered and reminds me that I run this body.

2. I’m committing to getting myself to the point of exercise, even if that fails to turn into a hard workout. If I walk instead of run, that’s ok, the important thing is staying in the routine of getting my trainers on and getting outside.

3. I’m eating mindfully and in a way that nourishes my body and not letting my rapidly expanding belly act as an excuse for overindulgence (which I have been doing!) instead, I’m asking myself if I feel good from what I’m eating, whether I’m getting plenty of nutrients from my diet and would I choose to eat x or y if I wasn’t pregnant.

4. Finally I’m reminding myself to enjoy this time: to enjoy being in my body and embracing the challenges it presents as well as knowing that now, more than ever, the imperative to be well nourished, fit and fearless is greater than ever.

Until my next, enjoy the Fit and Fearless podcast here and follow the girls @thegirlgains in Instagram and at


The truth is bitter sweet

sugar addiction
Sugar rush

‘Anything can be made dispiriting when turned into an obligation.’

Such were the words of Oliver Burkeman in his column in the Guardian Magazine this weekend.

Burkeman was actually writing in response to a recent research project on the link between sex and happiness, in which participants were asked to double their weekly volume of sex, (I’m not sure volume is the most appropriate word in this context but you get the gist), and then asked to fill out a survey on their sex lives and happiness levels. Every day. For three months. I’m sure you don’t need me to go into the flaws of this experiment, but needless to say it appeared that the obligatory doubling of sex followed by critical analysis of the activity didn’t appear to increase happiness levels.

The sentiment behind Burkeman’s article, that of obligation turning even the sweetest of pursuits sour, struck a chord with another story in the news this week: that of the latest government advice to halve our recommended daily intake of sugar.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which advises Public Health England on nutrition, are suggesting that we reduce our sugar intake so that no more than 5% of our daily calories come from added sugar, which equates to approximately seven teaspoons. This advice also falls in line with new World Health Organisation guidelines. (Read the full report here).

At the moment, the average sugar intake in all age groups in the UK is at least twice the new recommended limit, and as such the government has decided to adopt these recommendations and will use them to develop its national strategy to tackle childhood obesity, due to launch later this year.

Professor Ian Macdonald, chair of the SACN Carbohydrates Working Group, has said:

‘the evidence is stark – too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back.

The clear and consistent link between a high-sugar diet and conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes is the wake-up call we need to rethink our diet. Cut down on sugars, increase fibre and we’ll all have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.’

So far so reasonable.

However something about these new guidelines troubles me and it’s this: it’s one thing setting out guidelines outlining what people should aspire to eat, and it’s quite another to actually make them follow those guidelines.

While the health arguments are compelling, will people want to change their eating patterns?

If Burkeman’s assessment of human nature is correct, the worrying answer is ‘no’. You see, by our very nature we harbour an overwhelming need for a sense of autonomy and, as Burkeman notes:

‘any given piece of advice might be excellent, yet whether the pressure is coming from you or someone else, it can curdle the whole thing.’

And unfortunately, (as you may well know from personal experience – I certainly do), it’s tempting to indulge in self-defeating activities just to feel that we are expressing our autonomy.

Will people take the new advice on sugar as it’s intended, as sound guidance to improve their health and the overall health of the nation, removing one of the many strains on the NHS? Or will it be regarded as an unwelcome interference from a ‘nanny state’ aimed at curbing our right to choose?

I’ll finish with Burkeman’s wise words on the matter:

‘There are things that matter more than the freedom to follow whims; life’s deepest fulfilment may require the capacity to stick with things, even when they feel burdensome.’

Salad days

vegan salad

After last week’s proclamation of a health kick, and with a few good salads under my belt, the healthy eating started in earnest this week.

I’m working towards little targets, the first being our holiday in September, which gives me seven weeks (and counting!) of being good to my body.

I’m not reviewing improvement in terms of weight or body measurements, which are more aesthetic than functional indicators, but rather, by how I feel in myself and by my running performance.

In terms of the latter, I’m building my weekly mileage back up in anticipation of the Windsor half marathon, also in September. I want to get back to doing one long-ish (over 9 mile) run a week and have committed to going to running club every Tuesday. This is, of course, on top of my usual running regime. I would also like at least one Park Run PB before the holiday, (so fingers crossed).

When it comes to how my body feels, I’m sure I’m not alone in going through periods of feeling stodgy and heavy, when being over-tired, stressed or dehydrated leads to over-eating and when too many carbs results in general lethargy.

Aubergine, avocado, quinoa and pine nut salad
Aubergine, avocado, quinoa and pine nut salad

Taking steer from Chris McDougall in his book ‘Natural Born Heroes’, I’m now focusing on eating a low sugar, low GI diet. McDougall looks at how simple carbs impact insulin release, leading to the post-sugar energy crash and hunger pangs, which may later develop into inefficient sugar breakdown and eventual insulin resistance.

In contrast to the idea of carb loading before events to improve running performance, he instead looks at how the body can be forced to use energy-dense fat as fuel, allowing you to run harder and further without the sugar crash that comes from a high-carb fuelled workout.

To encourage your body to use fat rather than sugar, McDougall suggests a diet high in protein and good fats. For him, this was meat, cheese, egg, fish and nut heavy. For me, as a vegan, it means plenty of vegetables, quinoa, lentils, nuts and tofu. I’m not cutting out fruit, soya and pulses as McDougall advocates, as I’m not in a position to fill up on animal products as he was, but I am cutting down on fruit juices and dried fruit, which are sugar traps masquerading as healthy options, and of course stripping back on carbohydrate rich foods.

Protein shake
Protein power!

I have found that alternating porridge with a protein shake made with a scoop of Sun Warrior protein, a handful of frozen berries or mango, half a frozen banana, water with a dash of soya, almond or coconut milk and occasionally some additional flax seeds or peanut butter, really helps me to feel lighter in the morning and holds off the mid-morning hunger pangs.

Doing 20-40 minutes of yoga each morning before breakfast also really helps to get my system going first thing and actually makes me feel less tired (and less likely to want a morning snack) even though I have to get up earlier to fit it in.

Basil, tomato, olive and avocado lunch salad
Basil, tomato, olive and avocado lunch salad

For lunches, I’m making salads with all of my favourite things to prevent any temptation from Pret or Itsu. I usually use a base of rocket or spinach (although yesterday I was out of leaves so I used a handful of basil from my basil plant, which was totally delicious!), then add cherry tomatoes, cucumber and pepper, some protein either from tofu, nuts, quinoa or beans, some healthy fats from avocado, artichokes, hummus, seeds, olives or sun-dried tomatoes, a steamed green such as asparagus or broccoli and maybe some aubergine, mushroom or courgette cooked with some Harissa or chipotle paste.

I’m keeping a record of my #saladdays on Instagram and would love you the share your salad ideas and pictures with me to keep me motivated.

In the afternoon, following McDougall’s fat and protein rich diet recommendations, I am now guiltlessly snacking on raw nuts, which are my favourite treats!

Then evenings are again salads, soups and other veggie-heavy dishes such as stir fries, vegetable chilli, spiralised courgette and vegetarian Bolognese, butternut squash tagines or vegetable curries.

Go nuts! mixed nuts
Go nuts!

R has also read an article which recommends regular fast days or cutting down to 500 calories a day. This means that we are aiming to skip supper a day or so a week. There are various health benefits associated with fasting days and I would direct you to Bojan Kostevski’s article on this.

So, having written this post as a means of holding myself to account, I look forward to hearing about your healthy eating resolutions and any good recipe recommendations to keep me on track!

Happy healthy eating!

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

chestnuts roasting on an open fireIn the spirit of all things festive I’ve found myself a new favourite winter treat – roasted chestnuts.

A paper bag of hot chestnuts from the South Bank Christmas market got me hooked, and this weekend when I celebrated Christmas with my housemates before we all disappear for the holiday period, I decided to make my own to enjoy while we played board games and drank mulled wine.

What I hadn’t realised about this deliciously festive snack is that it’s also a nutritional powerhouse.

Chestnuts, unlike other nuts and seeds, are relatively low in calories as they are primarily starch based. While this makes them higher in carbohydrates than other nuts, the carbs in chestnuts are complex, so they are digested slowly offering a gradual release of energy.

They are a good source of cholesterol-lowering dietary fibre, offering approximately 8.1g per 100g.

They are also the only nut to contain high levels of vitamin C, with 100g of nuts provide 43mg of vitamin C.

They contain folic acid (100 g nuts provide 62 µg), which plays a role in preventing neurological defects in the foetus of pregnant women, as well as having a role in the creation of DNA, RNA and red blood cells.

Like other nuts, they are a rich source of mono-unsaturated fatty acids including oleic acid and palmitoleic acid, that can help lower bad cholesterol levels and increase levels of good cholesterol.

Moreover they are an excellent source of iron, (essential to protect against anaemia), calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, (important for bone strength).

They provide around 518mg potassium per 100g, which helps counter hypertensive action of sodium, lowers heart rate and blood pressure.

Finally they are also rich in many important B vitamins. 100 g of nuts provide 11% of niacin, 29% of pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), 100% of thiamin, and 12% of riboflavin.

If that isn’t reason enough to get roasting chestnuts over an open fire I don’t know what is!

Happy holidays!

A toast to festive cheer!

Dr Stuart's Liver Detox Tea
Dr Stuart’s Liver Detox Tea

With Christmas edging ever closer and with it, the opportunity to over-indulge, I thought this was a good opportunity to re-blog my post on the impact of alcohol on the body, with a few added extras.

In attempt to mitigate the effects of the festive ‘cheer’, I’ve recently started drinking Dr Stuart’s Liver Defence tea, which is a potent mix of milk thistle, camomile, peppermint and liquorice.

While the flavour takes a little acclimatising to, I’ve now become quite a fan and the multifarious benefits make this a tea worth trying, particularly at this time of year!

Milk thistle is believed to stabilise the cell membrane of the liver and stimulate protein synthesis, while accelerating the process of regeneration in damaged liver tissue.

This quality means that milk thistle extract can be used to protect the liver from the effects of toxins such as alcohol.

Silymarin in the milk thistle also assists the liver in its role in fat metabolism, with the potential benefit of fighting against the alcohol -associated midriff spread.

So drink up on this and maybe avoid that extra glass of mulled wine…

One Glass or Two – from 20 June 2014

ImageLately I’ve come to realise that, quite alarmingly, I seem to separate my otherwise obsessively healthy lifestyle from my love of wine and my sometimes rather frightening intake of alcohol.

By Sunday, this week will have involved a toast to a book project, a publishing pub quiz and a wedding, all of which include drinks. Indeed, alcohol intake is somewhat of an occupational hazard, with book launches, networking events and fairs, all helped along with a glass (or two) of wine a teetotal publisher seems something of an oxymoron.

I go through dry spells, mainly to prove to myself that I can happily manage without a drink, but there is something so deliciously decadent about a glass of red curled up next to a fire on a chilly evening, or a crisp Italian white on a sunny afternoon, that I don’t seem to have either the power or inclination to give up altogether.

While I always feel a little disappointed and annoyed at myself when I have that one glass too many, and envy my teetotal friends who don’t have the same enjoyment of wine, this just doesn’t seem to be enough to give it up completely.

A recent survey of a number of my colleagues and friends revealed a similar story, with many of them admitting that they should probably drink a little less and that they too separate drinking alcohol from other health and fitness concerns.

spirits-yorkshireThe short term outcome of drinking aren’t great.

The calories in alcohol are only matched by those in pure fat (so when you think you’ve ‘lost your appetite’ after a few drinks, you may actually find you’ve just taken in your calorie intake in a less nutritional form). These empty calories not only add to your waistline without offering any nutritional value, but the alcohol also reduces the amount of fat your body uses for energy. This is because while we can store protein, carbohydrates, and fat, we can’t store alcohol so our body works to get rid of it and in doing so all of the other processes that should be taking place (including absorbing nutrients and burning fat) are interrupted.

On top of this there is that inevitable night of poor sleep (which in itself boosts your desire to eat) followed by a day of chain drinking coffee and indulging in stodgy carbohydrates, sugary fruit juices, or fatty nuts. Not to mention the subpar performance in the pool/gym/running track, if you even make it to your workout.

The longer term outcomes of regular alcohol intake are pretty bleak and include increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, oesophagus and breast cancer, steatosis (fatty liver), cirrhosis and fibrosis of the liver, pancreatitis, cardiomyopathy (stretching of the heart muscles), arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), stroke and high blood pressure.

cider-doughnutDrinking too much can also weaken your immune system and chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

The Guardian reported this week that the number of people diagnosed with liver cancer has risen sharply in recent years. An Office for National Statistics study shows the incidence of liver cancer in England increased by 70% for males and 60% for females between 2003 and 2012.

This study reports that since 2003 there have been large increases in the number of registrations of liver, oral, uterine and kidney cancer, all of which are strongly linked to lifestyle choices, such as smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity.

The NHS says that while the exact cause of liver cancer is not known, it is thought to be related to damage to the liver, such as cirrhosis, which can be caused by excessive drinking.

beer-steakDrink Aware has a great resource for calculating your daily and weekly unit and calorie-from-alcohol intake which is quite shocking and I’d recommend having a look (if only out of morbid curiosity!)

Still fancy that glass of wine…

Read more on the NHS, Drink Aware and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism websites.

Running ‘fast’, or running on empty?

Week 1: MyFitnessPal stats
Week 1: MyFitnessPal

No one likes weight creep, especially with the LBD party season fast on the approach, so when my jeans were feeling a little snug recently I decided it was time to do something about it.

I thought about trying 5:2 as a few of my friends have tried it with success. However, the outcry from my training partners, with concerns about proper fuelling and nutrition for training and recovery, made me think twice.

I suspect the weight creep is a result of my recent concession to carbs and perhaps one too many glasses of wine, so I decided that a clean up of my current diet might be the best way to go forward instead of fasting.

To keep myself in check I downloaded the free app, MyFitnessPal which not only allows you to clock your workouts, calculating the number of calories burnt based on your weight, activity type and time exercising, but also allows you to record everything you eat and drink. By either searching by food type or scanning a product barcode you can easily calculate your daily calorie intake.

The app also enables you to set weight -loss goals and suggests how many calories you should eat based on your target and how long you should expect it to take to achieve it.

This recommended daily calorie intake level adjusts based on any exercise you do that day, so if you burn 400 calories on a run you get an additional 400 added to your allowance.

As regular readers will know I’m a sucker for a good bit of record keeping and in no time at all I’ve become obsessive about recoding my calorie consumption.

The best thing about this sort of device is that your diet becomes self regulating – no one wants a big high calorie snack blemishing their otherwise clear record. It also prevents any mindless eating or drinking – suddenly that glass of wine or soya cappuccino becomes a conscious decision rather than an impulse buy. Needless to say, the impact on my purse strings has been equally positive.

However, readers who know my record keeping side will also know my competitive streak and my desire to out do anything be it, in this case myself and an app.

So when the app demands a 1,200 calorie limit per day, I read that as 1,000 and when one day I manage to stay sub 700 and run 10k, suddenly this becomes an eminently feasible proposition for the next day.

By the end of my first week using the app I was pretty hungry and running on mainly coffee and soup. I have to admit my attention span diminished and my stomach was churning.

Mushrooms on sough dough toast - carbs after a week of being hungry!
Mushrooms on sough dough toast – carbs after a week of being hungry!

However, after a bit of a blowout over the weekend (mulled wine anyone?!) and plenty of hearty meals, I’m now taking the middle ground a little more and keeping to the calorie goals, rather than 500 calories below (or above) them.

Fingers crossed I can shave off those few extra pounds before the festivities start!