Should you workout twice a day?

A recent UK announcement clarified that people would be allowed to workout an ‘unlimited amount’ outdoors as part of the gradual easing process of lockdown. Whether you agree or not that this should be allowed or encouraged, it’s led to a spike in articles preaching the benefits of working out twice a day.

For the vast majority of the population, however, working out two times a week would be more than their usual. Is promoting double-days sensible, and is it a tactic that could work for many? Here are some of the pros and cons of working out twice a day.

Pros

  • Double workouts can allow you to fit in more ‘accessory’ workouts, strength and conditioning and physio sessions, reducing imbalances and weaknesses. Some people feel they don’t have time for these if they’re aiming to train 5 days a week and fit in sufficient rest days. Doubling up means you can do an intense session in the morning and a low intensity stretching or physio session in the afternoon.
  • Doubling up but doing the same number of workouts per week can mean that you allow yourself more rest days. Rather than working out 5h a week over 5 days, you can do 2 double days and a single day in just 3 days, thereby allowing yourself 4 rest days a week. You will need them!
  • Splitting a session in two and doing half in the morning and half in the afternoon means you’re able to do each part of the session with more intensity, as you’re better rested for the second half.
  • Splitting a session in two can also allow you to fit it in on a busy day. 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes after work in the afternoon is sometimes easier than an hour all at once.
  • Working out twice a day reduces your sedentary time. We know that sitting for long periods of the day can be incredibly detrimental to our health, so even fitting in a short workout morning and evening can mean moving more overall.

Cons

  • Even splitting the same workout in two can lead to injury or overtraining, as you’re working already fatigued muscles. If you’re not used to training a lot, working out twice a day will take its toll.
  • Overtraining compromises your immunity, leaving you more vulnerable to even small illnesses. 72 hours after a long run, your immunity is reduced. For obvious reasons, this is especially problematic now. Doubling up leads to a greater likelihood of overtraining, if not done correctly.
  • Workouts lead to micro tears in our muscles. Doubling up workouts can mean that these tears are not given sufficient time to repair, potentially leading to injury.
  • Running has such a high injury rate that all runners are advised to increase mileage and intensity slowly. Doubling up can mean that it is possible to do more mileage, quicker, leading to common injuries such as shin splints, ITBS, plantar fasciitis and tendonitis.
  • It can be hard enough to convince yourself to get out once a day. By trying to force yourself to head out twice a day you can take all the fun out of exercise.
  • Doubling up is unsustainable for many. Overdo it and you may need to take off significant amounts of time, reducing any benefits you get from your double days.

 

In my opinion, there are more downsides to working out twice a day than there are positives, for the vast majority of people. I have been receiving a record number of messages about people picking up injuries from suddenly increasing the amount they are running, or starting new training programmes without a strong baseline of fitness.

Of course, there will be people who thrive off doubling up workout sessions, especially those who do so with the help of a coach, or who are already experienced in their sport. With proper planning, double days can allow for longer periods of rest between workouts, aiding recovery. They may also help people fit in enough strength and conditioning sessions that they could not otherwise, whilst also fitting in rest days.

The best way to be able to gain all the benefits of working out, even getting fitter during lockdown is to work on one thing at once. If you’ve taken up running, don’t increase intensity and distance in the same week. Your mileage should increase by no more than 10% week on week to avoid injury, but if you do your longest run one week, don’t also start adding in sprints or intervals sessions in the same week, or even the week after. Most of the sessions we do should be at moderate intensity – we do not always need to be pushing the boundaries of our ability. Be kind to yourself – this is a tough time for all and putting your body under extra physical pressure may cause you to reach breaking point.

Perhaps you want to start taking advantage of double days because you’re lacking time or want more rest days. That’s absolutely fine – maybe just try one double day a week (thereby taking one extra rest day too) and see how you get on. Take it easy and remember that recovery (and food) is as important as the session itself!

TL;DR

  • While exercise can improve mood, fitness and your immune response, too much exercise can have exactly the opposite effect.
  • If you are not a professional athlete or highly experienced with a well thought-out training plan, double days are probably going to increase your risk of fatigue, injury and may dampen your immune system.
  • Provided you are not doing more workouts per week, double days can be effective when linking together a S&C session/physio session and a short run.
  • As ever, stick to the 10% rule. If you’re a runner, increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week. Any more than this increases your risk of injury, even (or especially) when taking on double days.
  • Overtraining often takes several weeks to take its toll, so watch out for signs of it, and read this blog post to know when you may have pushed it too far.
  • Listen to your body! If your workout doesn’t perk you up and you feel constantly fatigued, take an extra rest day. Yes, we have a lot of time at the moment and exercising can feel like a welcome break, but the consequences of overdoing it can be serious and long-lasting. Be sensible!

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Top people to follow for home workouts

With much of the world’s population recommended to stay at home, and some even on lockdown, I have been asked where I would look for home workouts. Thankfully, in an age where social media is so built up across society and working out is the norm, home workouts are easy to come by.

I asked you guys which you find the best, so here are my findings! Please do share this with your friends and family. Exercise keeps the brain happy and is a great way to structure the day, which is extremely important when all other structure has gone. You could all come out of this fitter than when we went in!

There are loads of paid apps that you can use/subscribe to which have some really great workouts on, but I personally want to support individuals at this time (albeit some pretty famous ones). I may well create another list of apps that you can subscribe to as I know they’re popular! Let me know your faves and if you’d be interested in a separate list of these 🙂

 

Instagram

Thanks to the advent of carousel posts and IGTV, workout videos on Instagram are pretty common. Here are some of my favourite accounts:

Natacha.oceane

Ironman and athlete Natacha Ocean has always been a favourite of mine. With her evidence-based approach to training and nutrition and ‘training’ style workouts, she is definitely one to follow. Check out her IG for workout inspo.

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Shona_vertue

Another athlete, ex-gymnast Shona shares a very balanced approach to training, far removed from the ‘no days off’ crew. As a yoga teacher, a lot of her sessions are already bodyweight based, and perfect for strengthening supporting muscles. Shona will also be hosting live workouts from her YouTube channel so get involved!

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Aliceliveing

Personal Trainer Alice shares gym-based workouts on a regular basis, but also has more conditioning workouts available too. Also, although she doesn’t post there anymore, you can find some home workouts on her YouTube channel.

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Zannavandijk

Zanna has recently been travelling, but regularly shared workouts before that, so scroll back a little for a wide variety! She also has a YouTube but I can’t find regular workout videos on there (but you might want to check it out anyway) 🙂

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Sophjbutler

Sophie became a wheelchair user after injuring herself during a workout, but if anything, she has become more determined. She shares home workouts suitable for all, and is just generally a delight to follow. Check out her (somewhat sassy) twitter too.

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Lillysabri

Lilly shares workouts on her YouTube (over 300 available!) and Instagram, so choose your platform! They’re easy to follow and she does them in a bikini, so you can pretend you, too, are in sunny Dubai.

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Annieopenshaw

Friend, squash player and all-round superb person Annie shares workouts regularly on her Instagram, including many without equipment. She also has a YouTube channel that may provide amusement.

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Hauptstadttrainer

I met Erik on our little Tour de France trip last summer, and have followed his account closely since. He is incredibly friendly, but also (possibly more importantly on IG) incredibly knowledgeable, and shares home workouts suitable for all. Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 11.01.56

LeenPeet

Not everyone who shares great workouts is instal-famous. Been Peeters is a certified personal trainer who shares home workouts suitable for all on her Instagram. Check it out!

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YouTube

Pamela_rf

I personally think it should be illegal for anyone to have 4.6m IG followers at the age of 23, but looking at Pamela’s Instagram account, she’s clearly doing something right! However, her workouts can primarily be found on her YouTube – she even has a ‘home workouts’ playlist.

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Les Mills

Not technically a person, but well known in the world of accessible workouts. Sometimes a little high-impact, but plenty of options there and all free!

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Lucy Wyndham-Read 

I’m not a huge fan of the aesthetics-based approach of this channel, but for many it’ll be the difference between exercising and not, and benefits are there whether you exercise for mental health, aesthetics or performance!

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Sarah’s Day

Sarah doesn’t strictly do workout videos, but has a wide variety of content. I expect, with the rise of demand, she will be posting more and more home workout content, so stay tuned!

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The Body Coach

If you’re looking for a wide variety of workouts and regular videos, The Body Coach is your guy! My friend loved his ‘7 days of sweat’ workouts, and that was before quarantine. Subscribe to stay sane.

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Madfit

For regular, easy to follow workouts (choreographed to music!), subscribe to Maddie’s channel on YouTube. You won’t get bored with the variety of content on there 🙂

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Sydney Cummings

Personal trainer Sydney shares a multitude of workouts on her channel, arranged by time or category. Want 60 minutes of workout or a no equipment workout? Check her out.

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Heart Alchemy Yoga

Looking for something a little more relaxing? Michelle is catering for those of us with slightly anxious dispositions, sharing yoga and meditations suitable for all abilities.

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Exhausted – The effect of air pollution on running

It might be just me, but it seems that air pollution has risen on the agenda of Things To Worry About in the last few months. Plastic pollution was one of the key phrases within eco-conscious circles in 2019, with laws coming into place this year in a bid to control the problem. The term pollution, however, refers not only to plastic, but also the introduction of any contaminant into the environment which may cause harm. This can take the form of noise, light, chemicals or even heat – most of which we cannot see.

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Pollution is an issue in cities (and even many rural areas) around the world

Air pollution has a devastating impact on those living in the cities. While the pollution usually cannot be seen, the impacts are felt by all, with it shortening lives and contributing to a number of health problems. In the UK, pollution is a bigger killer than smoking, and costs the UK economy over £20bn per year. The biggest culprits are Nitrogen dioxide, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, and PM2.5, fine particulate matter linked to adverse health effects. In the EU the toxic air is causing more than 1000 premature deaths each day from PM2.5– a figure which is 10 times higher than the number of deaths from traffic accidents.

Because of this invisible nature, it has been easy for people (and thus governments) to ignore the issue, focussing instead on highly visible, highly publicised issues and ‘buzzwords’, such as banning straws (good, but of limited benefit to the plastic pollution problem). However, in October 2019, it was announced that the UK would introduce an Environment Bill to “help ensure that we maintain and improve our environmental protections as we leave the EU”, including focussing on air quality and PM2.5 in particular.

For runners and cyclists, an immediate concern, however, is how we can actively work to improve our health (and continue doing what we love) without inadvertently harming ourselves.

Unfortunately, running in heavily polluted air has been linked to inflamed lungs, increased risk of asthma (I experienced this firsthand at the age of 18, when I moved to Paris), and instances of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. Needless to say, these risk factors are enough to put people off, and encourage them to run on a treadmill (boring), or worse still, avoid exercising outdoors entirely. But is this entirely justified?

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Live pollution meter of London (18/02/2020 10am)

Even the scientists admit the problem is complex. Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at King’s College London, says “when you’re running, you’re breathing a lot more than you are just walking along the street and your inhalation rate is massive so you’re bringing in more pollution.” In fact, someone running a marathon will inhale the same amount of oxygen as a normal person would sitting down over two days. Most people also tend to breathe through their mouths, bypassing the nasal filters, which can work to reduce pollution intake. The carbon monoxide alone can inhibit the body’s ability to transport oxygen around the body, thus making running that little bit harder too.

On the plus side, running is really good for you. Although I couldn’t find any studies looking directly at the effect of running in polluted areas (other than this, for elite athletes over marathon distance), a study on people walking in polluted areas up to 16h a day or cycling up to 3.5h per day suggested that the benefits of activity outweighed any harm from pollution in all but the most extreme of cases.

Conclusions

The benefits from active travel generally outweigh health risks from air pollution and therefore should be further encouraged. When weighing long-term health benefits from PA (physical activity) against possible risks from increased exposure to air pollution, our calculations show that promoting cycling and walking is justified in the vast majority of settings, and only in a small number of cities with the highest PM2.5concentration in the world cycling could lead to increase in risk. (Tainio, Marko, et al. “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?.” Preventive medicine 87 (2016): 233-236.)

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Photo by James Purvis

However, there are things we could be doing to both decrease our risk of being negatively affected by air pollution, and also improve the air quality where we live.

  1. Choose lesser polluted routes when walking, running or cycling around cities. Choosing to walk or cycle on a quiet road instead of a busy one can sharply reduce the amount of pollution you take in. Even using a parallel road one block over from a traffic-clogged one can reduce your exposure by 50%. If you’re looking to run or cycle around London, consider downloading Clean Air Run Club on your phone to score routes by air quality.
  2. Run in the morning. Pollution increases throughout the day, especially in summer.
  3. Aim to find green spaces, or roads lined with trees – these are havens from pollution, and even a small amount of greenery between you and the traffic can dramatically reduce pollution levels!
  4. Take note of particularly bad air days using a live air quality monitor. These will often be on hot and humid days. If you can, avoid running/cycling outside on these days, perhaps getting in some cross training indoors, or a run on the treadmill.
  5. Take public transport. Although particulate pollution in tube lines is up to 30 times higher than roadside, Prof Frank Kelly, chair of Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), said people should continue to use the tube given the relatively short time spent underground and lack of evidence of harmful effects. Using public transport also reduces fumes expelled by cars, cleaning the air above ground that we breathe for the rest of the day.
  6. Eliminate wood burners and fireplace usage. Wood fires are sold as ‘eco’ or ‘clean’ alternatives to electric heaters or gas fires, but are far from it, and are a big contributor to wintertime pollution across Britain. Reducing wood burning reduces deaths and pollution-related ill-health.
  7. Switch to clean energy sources and aim to conserve energy at home and work. By switching to a renewable energy that is generated by natural sources such as solar, water and wind, you can help to fight harmful levels of air pollution.
  8. Lobby governments. For real change to be seen, governments need to prioritise pollution and other environmental issues (which go hand in hand), and now is the time to pressure them.
  9. Stop driving (especially around urban areas) unless absolutely necessary. Although you may believe driving a car protects you from the worst of the fumes, pollution levels inside cars are usually significantly higher than directly outside the car on the street, due to exhaust fumes being circulated around the enclosed space.

The good news is that we know the impact of pollution and we know what we can do to reduce it. We also know that even small improvements have substantial and immediate benefits for us all. What is needed now is for global governments to step up and reassess funding priorities. Pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, and it’s time something was done about it.

 

This article was adapted from a piece I wrote for EcoAge. For more of a deep dive into the issue of pollution, head on over. 

Come and find me on YouTube and Instagram for more running content!

Kurhotel Skodsborg, Copenhagen

This trip was gifted by Kurhotel Skødsbørg but as always, all views are my own!

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I first visited Denmark a year ago, tagging along to a work trip my boyfriend was on in order to see Copenhagen. At the time I had grand plans to visit other parts of Denmark, as I had heard so much about the stunning countryside and national parks, but it was not to be – there is too much to see in Copenhagen!

Thankfully, I got the chance to return this summer on a family holiday, joining family members in the beautiful countryside and coast of Denmark. After spending a week cycling and trail running my way through the local countryside, Fiann and I headed to Kurhotel Skodsborg, which I had singled out the year earlier and added to my ‘to visit’ list.

Kurhotel Skodsborg is located a quick 20 minutes from Copenhagen and is situated on the sea front, between the ocean and the forest. Its main draw for me were the spa and fitness facilities, both of which it is known for. Booking a room for the night (double rooms start at £190) includes not only breakfast but also access to the most extensive spa facilities I have ever seen. On top of this you have access to the incredibly well stocked gym (better than most gyms I’ve been to) and classes. Most other hotels that have this option charge extra for it, so it was great to see how ingrained in the hotel’s features spa and fitness are.

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Not a bad view from the hotel jetty!

Food

Our stay began with an afternoon tea, ‘Tea with Georg’, where my first thought was how healthy most of the options are – aside from the well-stocked bar, the vast majority of afternoon tea options are healthy (including the famous Danish Smørrebrød) and include plenty of options for vegan guests. The hotel has two main places to eat food – The Lobby (a centralised quasi-sitting room with sofas and a relaxed atmosphere) and The Brasserie (at the top of the hotel with a more dressy feel). We enjoyed one dinner and our lunches at The Lobby, and one dinner and our breakfasts at The Brasserie. If you go, ask for the three-course dinner with wine pairing – the food is spectacularly put together, and our waiter deserved a raise for being the most friendly and helpful waiter I’ve ever met! Fiann and I never saw the standard set menu for the wine pairing but received three perfectly formed vegan dishes with various wines to our table – I’m not sure if vegan options are standard on their menu, but they certainly deliver if you ask!

 

Accommodation

Our room was situated looking over the courtyard inside the horseshoe shaped building, catching sunlight pretty much throughout the day. Thankfully this didn’t affect my sleep thanks to the blackout blinds, and I actually had some of the best sleep of my recent life on the incredibly comfortable bed in the total silence of the area – it makes a nice change from central London where 5 sirens a night is a quiet night! Because the hotel is situated just behind a front line of small houses on the beach front I can’t imagine that many would have a clear view of the sea, but the views we saw from our balcony (a mix of hotel, forest and sea) were perfect. The bathroom was huge, consisting of a free-standing bath-tub, large shower/wet room area and two sinks. It also had underfloor heating which I can imagine in the Danish winter is much appreciated!

Spa

Kurhotel Skødsbørg is known for its spa facilities, which are extensive and comprehensive. Not only can you lounge by the pool or sit in a sauna, the hotel also provides a ‘spa concierge’ service called Skodsborg Flow. This is what the press release has to say: ”Designed for both seasoned spa-goers and first-timers, this new bespoke service guides you through Kurhotel Skodsborg’s eight best hot and cold experiences: maximising each treatment so that – when practiced in sequence – their combined benefits are even more powerful and effective. Think: Nordic stretching, ancient breathing exercises in the salt cave, body scrubs in the steam bath and Kurhotel Skodsborg’s signature SaunaGus led by your very own ‘Mist Master’.” Sound a bit wishy-washy? The sessions are in fact designed to strengthen the immune system, stimulate blood circulation and improve sleep, and many have been used for millennia for these functions – all I know is that they were very enjoyable and relaxing. My favourite was the SaunaGus, which I can only describe as a mix between a sauna, aromatherapy and interpretive dance. After entering a sauna, the ‘Gusmester’ (the leader) infuses the air with essential oils, circulating the heat using a towel (the interpretive dance part of the treatment), before leading the attendees down the the hotel jetty for a dip in the Baltic Sea. It certainly felt Baltic at 11 degrees, but I’m told that in winter the whole area is covered in ice! Thoroughly chilled by the sea, you head back into the sauna for the second instalment of aromatherapy. Not surprisingly the sauna feels much nicer second time round! Even if you just visit the hotel for a day, make sure a couple of hours are spent in the spa – you absolutely won’t regret it.

 

Fitness

Another of Kurhotel Skodsborg’s specialties is its fitness facilities. With two gyms, a trainer who is the world number 24 in Crossfit and a local national park, Skodsborg is perfect for active people. With the fantastic facilities it’s hard to believe they’d need much more, but Skodsborg also provides a weekly regime of fitness classes open to all abilities. With 1800 members, it’s perhaps not surprising that each fitness class we saw/attended was full, but it’s also testament to the incredible teaching that every class was booked out. Our favourite was the TRX class, done in a crossfit style – both Fiann and I had huge DOMS the next day!

For those more interested in a low impact fitness regime, the hotel also provides Aqua Fitness classes (aquarobics) in their cooler ‘sports pool’ and Nordic stretching, a yoga-like stretching class aiding concentration and, of course, flexibility.

Sustainability

One think I have started to pick up on when visiting hotels are the sustainability aspects of each. As we become more and more aware of the impact we have on the world, I think it’s important for the hospitality world to keep up. In general, especially thanks to the fact that plastic bottles are obsolete in Denmark because you can drink the water, Skodsborg seemed quite sustainability-focussed. Many of the dishes were vegetable based, with plenty of plant-based options available. However, I would make some suggestions about housekeeping, e.g. not changing towels everyday, our soaps were taken each day and replaced with a new one wrapped in plastic, providing reusable rather than disposable slippers etc. Many of these changes would be easy to make, and would have a large positive impact on both the energy consumption of the hotel and other sustainability aspects.

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Spot the swift photo bombing me!

Local area

Skodsborg is situated in North Zealand, the wealthiest part of Copenhagen. Not only is the area peaceful and beautiful, it is also home to Dyrehaven, the most beautiful park and UNESCO Heritage nature reserve. If you’re in the area, make sure to walk around the forest – keep an eye out of any one of the three types of deer that live there. The forest was breathtaking and I feel like I could have spent another week wandering through!

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TL;DR

Would you recommend Kurhotel Skodsborg? Absolutely, especially for those fitness-obsessed or who appreciate a really good spa.

Cost: A double room starts at £190 including breakfast and full access to spa and fitness facilities. You can book here.

Highlights: The incredible gym (a rarity), excellent vegan food (also a rarity) and the local forest.

What I’d improve: I would prefer a larger focus on sustainability.

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We had a great time at the hotel and are so grateful for our stay!

My week in workouts

I get asked all the time how much I workout, where I workout, what I do and how I fit it all in with work, so here’s a blog post about my week in workouts! I always do my best to workout at least 4 times in a week but sometimes life gets in the way and I just want to say that that’s OK (reading that sentence I should probably quit fitness and just become a poet rn). But in all seriousness, just because this is how I workout, it doesn’t mean this is how you also have to workout! Everyone has different commitments and preferences and I am super lucky to live near central London, so have so many classes available nearby if I want to go, which I am well aware a lot of people don’t have. However, a lot of the workout styles I do are replicable in the gym, so no need to pay for classes if you don’t want to!

 

I workout as often as I feel my body enjoys – I used to push myself excessively, which led to exhaustion, a lack of energy for everything else I do and plenty of injuries. Because of that, if I’m not feeling a workout I won’t do it, or will opt for a low intensity workout or stretch instead. I would definitely advise listening to your body. Working to a schedule doesn’t work if you run yourself into the ground and can’t continue! I work full time and often my schedule changes last minute – I workout intuitively and that’s what works best for me 🙂

 

These three weeks are typical – there’s an ebb and flow of what I’m able to manage in a week. The first week was a heavier than I usually do, the second week was perfect, and the third week a little less than I hoped, but that’s because I was busy.

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Week 1:

Monday
No workout (screw ‘never miss a Monday’)

Tuesday
5pm: Gym workout (glutes day – a short but heavy workout after 2 rest days). 45 mins, all high intensity.

Wednesday
5pm: Xen-do martial arts (a v sweaty HIIT workout). 60 mins, including 10 mins stretching.

Thursday
7:45am: Strength and conditioning at BXR (low intensity but lots of resistance band and some kettlebell/dumbbell work). 50 mins, including band work and conditioning stretches.

Friday
6pm: THE GAMES at KXU (strongman/crossfit style workout – very heavy, low cardio). 50 mins, including 10 mins warm-up.

Saturday
10am: Xen-do martial arts. 60 mins.

Sunday
11am: Filming (and doing) a strength-based workout (medium-heavy weights but relatively high reps). 60 mins, probably about 40 minutes of high intensity work.
4pm: A running shoot (not really a workout but a lot of time on my feet!). 3h.

 

Week 2:

Monday
Rest day!

Tuesday
6:15pm: Strength and conditioning at BXR. 50 mins.

Wednesday
8pm: A 1mile (1600m) race. 6 mins.

Thursday
7:45am: Strength and conditioning at BXR. 50 mins.
6:30pm: Yoga. 45 mins.

Friday
5pm: Gym workout (running and abs). 40 mins, all high intensity.

Saturday
9am – 5pm: Running shoot (again, I was on my feet all day but wouldn’t count this as a workout)

Sunday
10am: Boxing workout at BXR. 50 mins.

 

Week 3:

Monday
5pm: Xen-do martial arts. 60 mins.

Tuesday
6:15pm: Nok-out class at KXU (running, circuits and boxing – all cardio and HIIT). 50 mins, including 10 mins stretching.

Wednesday
Rest day

Thursday
Morning – climbing all morning. 3h.
Afternoon – yoga, strength and conditioning and acroyoga. 2h.

Friday
Rest day

Saturday
Rest day

Sunday
2pm: Gym workout (heavy glutes day). 50 mins, including 15 minute incline walk as warmup.

 

The mental health benefits of sport

Exercise has lots of known benefits – improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased bone density etc., but the mental health benefits are, if not ignored, rarely celebrated as much as the physical – there’s no ‘before and after’ transformation photo, little obvious outwardly change… and yet for me, the mental health benefits of exercise are SO much more important than anything else. Better still than simply exercising, SPORTS can have an even larger positive effect. Initiatives such as England Athletics’ #runandtalk and Sport England’s ‘Get Set to Go‘ have started to open up the conversation about mental health, as well as make social sports more accessible to all.

Countless studies have linked physical activity to lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress, even improving conditions such as ADHD and PTSD – and there’s a particular class of exercise that does it better than any other. Sports – the kind of exercise where there’s a particular goal – has helped me and countless others both physically and mentally.

Throughout my life I have gone through various sports, training consistently, motivated by the daily mental improvements it helped me feel. When I was 15 I got into squash in a big way – it was the antidote to all negative emotions I had been feeling for many years. Constantly exhausted, depressed and feeling powerless, with low self-esteem to boot, I disliked school and struggled everyday, sadly assuming that that was just how I was meant to feel. As a teenager at a top school, I felt pressure to perform in academics whilst excelling in my social life, physical health, looks and home life – an impossible task that left me always feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel just to stay in the same place.

Getting up and doing things wasn’t always on the front of my mind during the time I was depressed. Although I was at boarding school and had little choice in the matter, I would sometimes zombie my way through the days, and sports was initially a real struggle – I hated it until I was 15 because I was bad at everything I had tried. However, school did teach me the discipline of getting up and out even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to. Being semi forced to play a sport 3 times a week was so tough at first, but once I paid attention to how it made me feel, I would start to look forward to the times I could leave the classroom and head to the court, ready to set aside the day’s worries and fall into the rhythm of training. For anyone struggling with depression and/or anxiety, one quick piece of advice is to get out into nature. Walking is good, running is better. Just keep moving forwards – it does wonders for your mind.

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Vitamin D deficiency is common in the UK and can worsen depression – get outside!

Through daily squash training I was able to see myself improving, getting stronger, fitter and faster whilst spending time with a community that was entirely focussed on enjoyment and improvement. There’s nothing better for your self-esteem than working hard to reach a goal and your hard work paying off. If it’s possible to get addicted to exercise I did, training up to 7h a week on top of other sports. The intensity at which I worked meant that over the following 2 years I became good enough to compete in the national schools championships as the number 1 player for my school. But it wasn’t the winning I cared about – the best thing about it was the way it made me feel. It was that high that I was chasing. When you feel totally out of control with your life, having that one thing that you can control is a godsend.

I also started horse riding in a serious way at this point. The unique thing with horse riding is that horses are terrifyingly good at mirroring emotions. It is impossible to feel stressed or distracted whilst jumping around a ring if you actually want to get very far. So every time I headed to the stables I learned to leave my fears and worries at the stable door and spend an hour without focussing on anything but me and the 17hh (huge) muscle machine beneath me.

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Nothing beats the feeling of horse riding

After I left school I wasn’t able to play squash or ride so much – frequent travel before heading to university meant that it was impossible to find a routine, but the discipline training taught me translated well into other areas of my life. I still revelled in playing squash when I got the chance and picked it up any time I had the opportunity. Being good isn’t the point – it’s all the other benefits that are there regardless of your standard. My year away from the stresses of education tempered my obsession with exercising, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was every time I played. I learned balance and the importance of working on all aspects of health and happiness, including taking care of my body, resting and fuelling it properly. No more 10h training weeks and hello rest days.

Once I arrived at university I picked up running and whilst I loved it, it didn’t hold the same mind-clearing properties that squash and riding had before. I spent university mixing up weights in the gym and running, but I was missing that little extra something you get when you really ‘click’ with a sport. Leaving university led me to boxing, which I now practise weekly. I’m not the first person to talk about the benefits of boxing for mental health – Prince Harry alerted the nation of the power of boxing for coping with mental stress back in April. Multiple professional boxers have done the same, despite the history of corruption in some areas of the sport. Ellie Goulding, too, voiced almost exactly my sentiments about the sport:

“It wasn’t about any change in my outward appearance; it was about seeing and feeling myself get better and stronger. It carried over into other areas of my life, and now I truly feel that exercise – however you like to work out – is good for the soul,”

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The university athletics club kept me busy and fit

What all of the above sports have in common, I have now realised, is that they don’t allow any space or time for outside emotions and negativity to join. Focussing your attention on your goal – the next shot, the perfect line into a jump, the rhythm of your punches – leads to a sense of power and achievement at the end of a session that isn’t found anywhere else. It’s a kind of enforced mindfulness not found in all forms of exercise, banishing dark thoughts whilst simultaneously releasing endorphins and shifting your focus from the future in the outside world to the now in your personal world.

Above are three sports that have helped me more than I can tell you. The combination of the physical, mental and emotional benefits beat any pill or any diet, and now that I feel I have achieved the perfect balance of exercise, nutrition and rest, I have never been so happy.

Everyone’s go-to sport for relaxation will be different – some will find this with weights, others with running (runners high is a real thing) and still others walking round a park. The trick is to find what does it for you and do that.

I really hope you have found this article useful – I feel so lucky to have been able to find so many sports that I love throughout my life, and now want to spend time spreading the word about the benefits of sport and exercise. You don’t have to be depressed or have a diagnosed conditions to feel the benefits. They’re there for all of us. What does exercise do for you?

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Further reading:

If you struggle with depression this is pretty helpful (it’s the little steps that make all the difference!)

This goes into some depth about benefits for sufferers of OCD

See infographic below for some more benefits for everyone!

“Studies conducted on mice have shown that exercising on a running wheel helps them sprout new connections between neurons in their brains. Exercise may cause the release of “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections may help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.”

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