“We all get heavier as we get older because there’s a lot more information in our heads. So I’m not fat, I’m just really intelligent and my head couldn’t hold up any more so it started filling up the rest of me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” – Garfield
I was always one of those people; over 6ft since age of 14, chronically skinny, able to drink and eat with wild abandon, never gain an ounce of weight and, crucially, never suffer from the effects of such living. And then, as twenty moved to thirty, and thirty moves towards forty I began to realise the adage is regretfully, painfully, sadly, utterly true – I really am not as young as I used to be.
My lifestyle had changed but my habits hadn’t; I no longer charged around the country, walked everywhere, danced all night – I’d had a family, taken a desk job, inherited a long, car-based commute. It was a perfectly natural part of moving into middle age; I still felt young and healthy, but my reflection disagreed.
I’d seen friends realise this earlier and take the appropriate measures; they’d joined a gym, cut down their drinking, gone vegetarian. I applauded their efforts but those actions always seemed abstract to me. Surely lethargy was my reward for hard day of work and parenting? It didn’t seem right that I then had to give that up as well? “Healthy living” culture was at odds with all that I’d known; it was something that other people did. Why couldn’t a casual approach to ‘everything in moderation’ be my saviour?
“I’d quit smoking if I didn’t think I’d become one of you.” – Bill Hicks
The wonderful thing about my job producing online courses is that you get frontline access to some very passionate, interesting and knowledgeable people in all areas of academia. It was during the production of our latest free, open, online course The Musculoskeletal System: The Science of Staying Active Into Old Age that we travelled to Newcastle University to work with Professor Mike Trenell and I had a small, but effective, eureka moment.
We were recording the voiceover for the above animation and Mike made a very simple point:
“If I was to eat half a Mars Bar a day without changing anything else and came back in 12 months time do you think I’d be bigger? Well, likely, yes. But the important thing there isn’t just the food but the things around me that are changing; things that I haven’t really thought about.”
Well, that was me. Literally (I like Mars Bars) and figuratively (my lifestyle has changed considerably). As Mike says, the difference between a sedentary and an active lifestyle can be up 20 years of independent living. I was already at an age where I was slowing down and this could negatively affect my musculoskeletal health for the rest of my life. The conclusion was obvious; things had to change, and change properly, without it feeling like a form of punishment.
First up was exercise; instead of spending much of my commute stuck in traffic, I decided to use that time to a more productive end. Now I leave work and, instead of sitting in rush hour traffic, I go and swim for half an hour or so and then tackle the drive once the roads are clearer. I still get home at the same time and I still see my family for the same amount of time, but I spend less time in the car and I feel better having done some proper, focused physical activity.
The second issue to tackle was the desk job; a recent Norwegian study found that total sitting time (no matter if you were sitting watching TV or at a desk) was a potential risk factor for chronic-ill health and mortality; independent of healthy physical activity. It seems it’s in your best interests to stand, stretch and walk around as much as possible. A great deal of my work is creative and often I don’t want to break concentration or flow by leaving my computer to take a break. Enter the VariDesk which allows you to raise your working environment to standing height and avoid hour upon hour of sitting. This discovery was so popular among our team that the majority of the office have adopted using one…
“Why are all the good things so tasty?” – Homer Simpson
Finally, I had to look at eating. This was the hardest to tackle but the simplest to measure. I downloaded a free app called My Fitness Pal which, in many ways is just a glorified calorie counter, but it still gave me enough fundamental understanding of what I eat to see patterns. Entering into my phone what I put into my body each day also forced me to be more consciously aware of my own consumption and made sure I didn’t fall into the old trap of continuous snacking. It also allows me to add my exercise data, as well as a step count, to get an overview of the day’s activity.
I’ve now been living this healthier lifestyle for a hundred days now and the effects have been remarkable; on my body, certainly (I’m now about a stone or just over 6kg lighter) but also on my psyche – I’ve discovered that I actually like exercise and that, far from being a chore, is actually something very enjoyable that I now look forward to. My fitness levels are better, I can swim and walk further and for longer without getting out of breath; I can even swim 1km in 30 minutes without stopping…
Standing at work has improved my posture and reduced my belly, I don’t slouch or creak when I get up. I’ve also discovered that not eating a treat can be as rewarding as eating it; in the last hundred days I’ve very rarely gone over my calorie allowance and there is a satisfaction to knowing that I am making visible, incremental progress.
These online courses don’t just change the lives of the learners, they also significantly affect ours too and we’re privileged to be in such a position. If you are interested in understanding the science of staying active as you age, and to learn this from those with academic prowess and rigour and not just ‘me’ then I urge you to sign up to the course.