In the early part of the year, it shouldn’t be surprising that nutrition and well-being is at the top of the list in the media. Many of us may have been lured into making those rash New Years Resolutions, which lasted for a couple of days at the most and yet, we are still looking for ways in which we can boost our health and well-being. Thats a good thing. I have been doing some writing and contributing for various publications over February and some of the nutrition in the news below might just contain the tip that can help prepare you to do amazing things. This year is the International Year of Pulses and we are not talking about whether your heart is beating, but those little nutritious treasures such as baked beans, lentils, chickpeas and their friends. You can see what I had to say about them as a Bowel Cancer Australia Ambassador here. You might also like to check out the resources of Pulse Australia and grab some recipes here too. The school year took off with a bang a couple of weeks ago in Western Australia and ‘Today Tonight’ ran a story on an innovative concept called BakeSw@p – initiated by a group of women and mum’s at a West Australian primary school. Each parent registered with BakeSw@p brings a plate of their own healthy snacks for school, meets at the designated meet-up spot and swaps their own kids snacks with other parents. Each family then takes home a variety of healthy school snacks for the week. The story than ran on Channel 7 a couple of weeks ago, generated huge interest – I always love hearing about people being engaged in improving the health of their children by home cooking and limiting the use of prepackaged foods. You can check out the segment here and what BakeSw@p are all about here. Lastly, lets not forget the annual issue of getting back to work after taking a festive break – this one can most certainly be a tough gig. Getting traction and enthusiasm can be all too elusive at the beginning of the year but never fear, there are ways and means to enhance our focus and concentration while at work. My article over on WatchFit runs through some strategies to do just that – you can take a look here. Not all news is bad right?
In Italy we are confronted by beggars at every turn of the day, outside our front door, in front of our local fruit and vegetable shop, in churches or in the park. As harsh as it sounds, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether each person is in genuine need or simply making the most of an opportunity. In spite of this, I never want to be immune to their plight and interacting with each of them on a daily basis has made for some real learning conversations with our children. It has enabled us to talk about altruism, philanthropy and giving, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. Research shows that kinder people actually live longer, healthier lives with a boost in personal performance. It seems that people who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Significantly, people 55 years and older who volunteer for two or more organisations have a 44% lower likelihood of dying – after accounting for every other contributing factor, including health, exercise, gender, smoking, marital status, and others. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week and means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to your health as quitting smoking! Giving makes us feel good because we get what researchers call a “helpers high” or a distinct physical sensation associated with helping. “Helper’s high” was named as such by Allan Luks in the early 1990s, and has since been assessed biologically in brain imaging studies and looked at in research on endorphins. One such study reported that half of the participants reported that they felt stronger and more energetic after helping others, while many also reported less anxiety and depression with increased feelings of self-worth. This is where endorphins make an entrance, triggering the reward centre in our brains responsible for euphoria, literally giving us the sensation of a “high.” Other neuroscience studies show that acts of altruism decrease stress and contribute to enhanced mental health while boosting our happiness and performance levels. On the subject of happiness, there is no research needed to prove that helping others and receiving help makes us happy. I truly believe that an essential part of raising happy and healthy kids is teaching them to be kind. My own children have always donated part of their weekly pocket money to charity and make their own decision as to whom they will give that money to. Here in Italy they decide which person they will give what they can afford to on any given day – it might be the elderly “Radiostar” who walks the cobblestone streets singing in his deep yet beautiful voice or the young man sitting on the steps watching us purchase our fruit and vegetables. Often it is the man they feel they need to help the most, an eighty years plus gentleman who lives under an arch in the walls surrounding Lucca. While I have no doubt he appreciates the few coins they give him each time we pass, it would seem from the look on his face it is more about the human connection and kindness. I was recently offered the opportunity to enter the New York Marathon, a race I have always wanted to do. The opportunity came through Amnesty International and, for the first time, I felt total committment to doing this race. It is no longer just about completing my first marathon but helping others in the world who can’t help themselves. Yet being charitable and helping others does not have to be a financial donation or a huge undertaking like founding a charity. Let’s face it, in tough financial times many people find it hard enough to support their own families. Nonetheless, being kind to others can be as simple as spending time with the elderly in nursing homes like my children do with their school class, passing on a parking ticket that is still active or cooking a meal for someone who can’t do it themself. It is true that “feeding the soul” can be a selfish act because in the act of giving we reap benefits, sometimes without ever being aware of them. The good news is, the benefits go both ways and provides true performance enhancement.
Our first lesson in preventative health happens in kindergarten when we are allocated a ‘buddy’ to do an activity, go to the bathroom, walk between classrooms or cross the road together. Buddies keep an eye on each other, look out for danger and yell for help if it is needed. Fast forward to life as an adult and many people are literally yelling for help with their bodies. Despite the prevalence of obesity and lifestyle diseases skyrocketing, just 2% of the Australian state and federal budget is spent on preventative health with the bulk of it spent on the treatment of disease. Of course, treatment of disease is vital and often urgent but far more costly than prevention. It is interesting that this type of imbalance also occurs within our own group of friends and family. When someone that we love or care for becomes seriously unwell or incapacitated everyone mobilizes to get them better or out of hospital and this clearly is key to their recovery and the crowded hospital system. Yet, how much time do we spend encouraging or enabling the same people to prevent sickness in the first place? The buddy system that we had as kids could be a very effective strategy to improve and maintain our health as adults. I love to exercise and while I invest time on a daily basis, I also know that I am not good left to my own devices. Despite my best intentions, my alarm clock and I are not the best of friends. I know that for my exercise routine to run smoothly and without incident, I need to have a weekly schedule of exercise sessions locked in and matched up with a buddy. Rachel, Belinda, Karin and Dave all have a special place in my week and they enable me to improve my fitness (hopefully I am doing the same for them too). Having an exercise buddy means increased motivation, faster progression (especially if they are faster or fitter than you), increased experimentation and knowledge, new and enhanced friendships and a good dose of fun. Having an exercise buddy is a powerful motivator because I don’t want to let them down. My buddies and I agreed from the outset that rain is just water and unless it is hailing or lightening is streaking across the sky, we are going. The added bonus of kicking off at the crack of dawn is that nobody else needs us. This is harder for those with young kids waking early but it could be an opportunity to combine strength training and cardio by pushing them in the pram. Choosing an exercise buddy should be considered with great care. If you get the initial check right, it could be a long and healthy relationship but if not, your health and friendships could suffer. What to look for in an exercise buddy
- Exercise goals that match
- Commitment – When exercising alone, it is too easy to take your foot off the pedal. Without a buddy it is easy to tell yourself “Having one day off won’t hurt” or “I don’t feel like it, I will give it a miss”. If your exercise buddy is already on their way to meet you or is counting on you, you’re far less likely to do something like that.
- Fitness level – It is essential that you choose someone at the same or slightly higher fitness level than you. My exercise buddies continually push me to go faster and harder which means improved fitness, strength and flexibility
- Time available – Ensure that you meet at a time with minimal distractions that suits both of you
Of course, the buddy system can be easily applied to any aspect of your health that you are wanting to improve not just exercise. I have come to realize that the value of an exercise buddy lies not just in health and fitness but can be so valuable in other areas of your life. Exercise buddies can spend a lot of time together over the journey and often talk about things other than exercise. ?Solving the issues of the world whilst enjoying the fresh air is medicine for the soul and lets not forget one of the greatest benefits, fun.
Yesterday I was on the sidelines of a Netta (pre-netball) match cheering on my daughters school team. At half time, one of the 9 year old team members was given a 600ml bottle of sports drink and she proceeded to drink the entire bottle. Funnily enough, I was interviewed by the West Australian newspaper a couple of days ago on the exact same topic so my sports drink antenna were on high alert. At half time in a Netta game, each team member has only played two ten minute quarters and will do the same again in the last half, with a grand total of 40 minutes with breaks in between. Not surprisingly, this does not warrant the consumption of sports drink in any circumstance. Excess sugar, salt and calories, come on down. Despite the misconception of some people who think buying a sports drink is equivalent to doing exercise, they should only be used before, during or after extended bouts of exercise lasting one hour or longer. Most good sports drinks contain between 4-8% carbohydrate and the combination of the sugar (carbohydrate) and sodium (salt) increases the absorption of water, keeping you hydrated.. Sports drinks also act to delay fatigue by sparing muscle glycogen stores (carbohydrate) and topping up blood glucose Sports drinks are very useful and even essential for extended exercise sessions but all too often kids playing weekend sport and even adults are seen knocking these drinks back when just plain water will do the trick.