Stress is not a badge of honour

One evening in November 2004, I got a call from my Dad telling me my Grandmother, his mother, had had a heart attack and was in intensive care. He sounded worried and intimated that she might not make it. Living in London, I flew home to Dublin the next day and when I walked through arrivals my Dad was standing with all the other relatives waiting for their loved ones. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months, but I was still surprised to see his hair had gone so grey. I even teased him about getting old. I think he called me a cheeky sod or something and as he took my case, he said it was the stress of the past few days that was probably to blame. He seemed distant and was clearly worried about his mother so we headed straight to the hospital from the airport to visit her. My Granny had just returned from surgery where she had had a heart bypass. The surgeons said that she was stable but still in grave danger. The room she was in was full of wires and machines and the seriousness of the situation was very clear to see and so, we spent the whole weekend worrying, and my Dad spent the whole time at the hospital.

By Sunday night my Granny was stable but still in intensive care and my Dad was still incredibly stressed. We had dinner as a family which was nice, staying up late talking. I remember my Dad being very sentimental and telling me how proud he was of me. I kissed him goodnight and went to bed. My Dad went to bed too but in good Irish style, my sister and mother sat chatting for a while as he slept next to them. A while later my sister came to my room really worried saying something was wrong and she thought my Dad wasn’t breathing. I remember being confused but I ran into the room and knew as soon as I saw him that he wasn’t ok. Over the years I’d done many first aid courses so my instincts took over and I quickly checked for a pulse. I remember being confused as I touched his skin because I couldn’t quite believe that I couldn’t feel a thing…nothing. His skin was soft and warm but I couldn’t find a pulse. So while my Mum called paramedics I started CPR. I worked on my Dad for what felt like a lifetime. Time kind of stood still and I didn’t really register what I was doing until my now husband came into the room to help. We worked together only stopping when the fire brigade burst into the room and took over. By the time I got dressed the paramedics had arrived and rushed my Dad off to hospital. I arrived with my sisters and brother not long after, but instead of being left in the waiting room we were taken straight into the relatives room. I knew this wasn’t good. As the door I opened I saw a female doctor, who put her hand on my shoulder and said something like “I’m sorry, there was nothing we could do”. The room began to spin, I felt so confused and like I was in the middle of a bad dream. But, it wasn’t a dream. My Dad was only 47 years old and without warning he experienced a fatal cardiac arrest. A heart attack that wasn’t predicted by numerous tests he’d had JUST seven months earlier. I struggled with this and wanted answers.

What I have come to believe is that whilst my Dad did have a family history of heart disease and a lifestyle that increased his risk further, it was the stress of the events he experienced that weekend that played a significant role in his death. The reason I believe this is because stress has been known to play a significant role on heart related deaths. For example, research has shown that the number of deaths during earthquakes is often surpassed by the number of people who die of heart attacks in the days following the earthquakes. There is also evidence that people with existing risk factors for a heart attack are most vulnerable in the days/weeks following the death of a loved one. Why is this? The main theory is that the body responds to stress by increasing blood pressure, causing inflammation and reducing plaque (cholesterol) stability. Stress also causes people to reach for maladaptive coping strategies such as smoking or alcohol. These are all things that can cause cholesterol lining the arteries to become unstable, break away and cause a blockage somewhere. In my Dad’s case, he experienced a blockage in his coronary artery causing a fatal cardiac arrest. So I firmly believe that acute STRESS in combination with elevated lifestyle related risk factors (caused by chronic stress) caused his death.

Unfortunately my experience with stress didn't end there...

For many years after my Dad’s death I struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There were specific things that would trigger memories of that night and at times my body would react so strongly to these triggers that I would feel nauseous, my heart would race and I would have an overwhelming desire to get away from the situation I was in as quickly as I could. Of course, this wasn’t an ideal thing to happen in social or professional situations. So I developed strategies to avoid anything that triggered my body’s fight or flight (stress) response. But what I didn’t realise was that because of PTSD, I had elevated underlying stress levels, meaning I had a low capacity for any additional stress life wanted to send my way. Avoidance wasn’t a realistic long term solution…I needed to proactively lower my body’s stress levels (namely cortisol). 

Of course as a personal trainer and lecturer in Health and Exercise I believed that I was fit and healthy. And compared to the general population I guess I was… I ate well and exercised often. BUT when your body is holding onto stress, trauma, PTSD, AND then you add two difficult childbirth experiences with the birth of my sons and a hefty dose of sleep deprivation, you get a perfect storm. My perfect storm resulted in exhaustion, brain fog, low mood, persistent sinusitis, insomnia, memory problems, anxiety and an eventual diagnosis of burnout. All of this resulted in me taking time off work to recover and rethink how I practiced ‘being healthy’. I was only 36, and yes I was ‘fit’ but I wasn’t necessarily ‘healthy’.

Several key lifestyle changes later, which included a better work life balance, a huge appreciation of sleep, rest and recovery, as well as key changes in my nutrition and the way I trained as a runner have meant I now achieve healthier ‘performances’ as a mother, business owner and recreational endurance runner. I am wary of stress and don’t take on anything that means my stress levels exceed my capacity to cope.

So I guess you could say, I have seen stress and trauma up close and personal witnessing the devastation it can have on our health. BUT I have come through the other side. And this is why I do what I do. As a health and exercise coach, I help others, so they don’t continue to suffer ill health due to stress and a limiting lifestyle. I have learnt (from personal and professional experience), that symptoms brought on by stress don’t need to become an illness/diagnosis that we must live with for the rest of our lives. Nor should we view being chronically stressed or exhausted as a badge of honor – it should be treated as a symptom of ill health. If we wish to push ourselves to our limits, we have to be willing to rest and recover so we can survive hard things again and again. THAT is the real badge of honor. Failing to do so will only limit our performance in all walks of life and prevent us from fulfilling our true potential.

How to create healthier habits...

What is the secret to forming a healthy habit?

Why is it that some people can create habits quickly, and others not?

How long ‘should’ you persist until a behaviour becomes a habit?

Let’s look at the evidence…

Research by Lally et al. (2009) ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit information in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology says;

  • it took participants between 18-254 days to reach 95% automaticity at a new habit

  • missing one opportunity to perform a behaviour did not affect creating a new habit

  • the chance of increasing the habit increased when the chosen behaviour was performed in a CONSISTENT way (i.e. a clear routine)

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well, I decided to put this to the test. I wanted to apply this research to my own lifestyle to find out how long it would take me to improve my own ad hoc running and exercise routine so that they became habitual. I wanted to know this, because in order to be able to help others create habits, I believe I need to have explored it myself.

Here’s how the story goes...

The past 12 months for me have been a period of reconciliation and recovery from the 2 ultra-marathons, a couple of half marathons, handful of 10ks and the odd 5k (you could say it was a busy year). I didn’t feel tired, I felt fitter and healthier than I have ever felt, but my body deserved a rest from the endless miles. I also wanted to focus on some strength training for general health and injury prevention. Oh, and I started my own business, so all in all, I knew 2018 needed be one of transition. But rather than do nothing, I decided I would run as and when I wanted to.

For the first 3-4 months this is exactly what I did, and it was really nice, I just ran when I felt like it. I didn’t miss ‘training’ at all. But slowly I started to feel like I needed more structure. My life is busy which means it’s far too easy for me to give time to other people and things instead of doing what I want to be doing - moving or exercising. I missed the habit of going out at a set time and on a set route and seeing the obvious improvement in my fitness and strength. And so, I decided to implement the 66-day rule. I wanted to see if I, a relatively highly motivated person when it comes to exercise, could take part in some form of moderate physical activity for at least 20 minutes per day every day for 66 days, in the hope/expectation that by the end of the 66 days I would have performed a habit.

By day 21 I would confidently say I had created a consistent routine. By this I mean I was running on specific days of the week and doing either a 20-30-minute walk or weight training at home. By the end of month 2 I was fulfilling my routine consistently – I’d created a HABIT. Was it easy? No. BUT consistency pays and doing even the smallest thing for 20 minutes each day created momentum and belief that I was ‘back in the game’. And you can do this too.

If you’re desperate to make health changes and create new habits but are struggling to do it, maybe there isn’t a problem with you, or the activity you’re choosing?! I really believe it’s because you’re not following a plan or process. Behaviour change won’t happen by itself no matter how much you might want it to. It is much more likely to happen when you’ve got a plan, and a routine, that you consistently implement. Here are some top tips...

  • Don’t have a set number of days or target in mind. Start everyday as a new day and aim to get your new behaviour done that day.

  • Make your new lifestyle behaviour achievable and not too restrictive (a 45-minute run is more likely to be sabotaged than a 15-minute run)

  • Anchor it to something that is already a habit. For example, if you want to get better at preforming press-ups do them before and after brushing your teeth. We brush our teeth at least twice a day because we have been doing that since we were children. It’s always going to be something we do.

  • Tell significant others that you need 20 mins a day (or how much time you need) – refuse to compromise on this.

  • Keep a tally/check list – seeing things ticked off is motivating and confidence boosting

  • Celebrate a streak – reward yourself, you’ve worked hard!

  • IF you can’t exercise or do the activity that you had planned in your routine (because you get stuck on a train, or the kids are ill) then do something else that is related to that activity for that 20 minutes (maybe stretch, do some body weight exercises or create a meal plan and shopping list for the family). By doing this, you’re still dedicating 20 mins to your health, thus keeping your mindset in the groove doing something health related for the time that you would normally be ‘active’.

  • Make yourself accountable. I ask all my clients to email me at least once a week so I know how they’re getting on. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, I love hearing how they’re doing and secondly it helps them to know I’m here to encourage and kick up the bum when needed. We all need a good shove in the right direction from time to time!

Lastly, reflect and record why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask yourself, what are the benefits/positives of doing what you’re doing? Be clear about how is it improving your physical and mental health. By doing this it will keep you intrinsically motivated and coming back for more! Let me know how you get on. Onwards!

 

 

 

Just do it - UNMOTIVATED

It can be sooo frustrating when you WANT to get fit...but you just can’t do it. You start thinking you're lazy, or there's something wrong with you. But it's important to know that you are not the only one. I have those days too. So do some of my friends who are athletes or personal trainers.

Maybe you sit day after day wanting to do it but you just can’t get off the sofa, or out to the park, or changed into your running kit (even though you are sitting in the changing room at the gym). It is so frustrating! It feels like your body has a mind of its own and is point blank refusing to start whatever it is you KNOW is the thing that will get you fitter and also the thing you say you really want to do.

So whyyyyyyy don’t you “just do it” as Nike tells you?!

Before DURING and after...

We all know the saying, “good things come to those who wait” right? Actually, I don’t totally agree with it, I think the saying should be “good things come to those who are willing to show up, be consistent in their efforts, AND wait for their rewards”! If you want something meaningful or worthwhile, this really is what it takes. But no one wants to hear this. Unfortunately, we appear to be the generation with little patience or respect for any process that takes time. Which is bad enough on it’s own, but we are also a generation obsessed with transformations. It seems people are increasingly attracted to wanting everything that they see in an ‘after’ shot and not only that, BUT they want it in 30/60/90 days or whatever is on offer. Very few of us are willing to play the long game. Which means we are fighting the odds. For the majority of people, (who aren’t genetically predisposed to have a leaner body composition) it takes quite a bit of time and investment for their physiology and body composition to change. FACT. So transformation photos don’t tell the complete story. Why? Because most people wouldn’t sign up if they really knew what getting a body ‘like that’ entailed.

Time waits for no man...

So it’s 2018, which is a bit of a milestone for me as it means that this year I have lived in the UK for 20 years, moving over from Dublin in 1998 to do my degree! I don’t know where those 20 years have gone. Realising this has made me more aware than ever that I am not getting any younger and that 40 is only a couple of years away!  Which whilst this in itself isn’t that much of a worry for me (I feel healthier now than when I was 18) the idea of turning 40 is most definitely a milestone which is looming and reminding me stay healthy. To do this I have personal project called ‘Fit for 40’ whereby I want to be fitter and healthier than I have ever been when I turn 40. Why not?! (I’ll keep you posted about this as time ticks on). So yes, I have a plan. But don’t get me wrong. I am by no means perfect. I simply haven’t got time to implement a perfect training regime. In fact, the older I get, the further it is from perfection that I strive. Ok, it still creeps in with thoughts like I SHOULD go for a run, or eat an avocado, or post a picture of a perfectly balanced nutritious meal on Instagram because I SHOULD be portraying the perfectly healthy life of a health coach. BUT that would be a lie. I don’t have a perfectly healthy life – who does?! What I do have is a balanced life that helps me be the best version of me. I know what my body needs, which isn’t always what is depicted by the front cover of a health magazine.

What does this consist of? 

This month it has looked like going for runs with my sons, not because I want them to run but because they have been asking to run with me. This is a pleasure. Kids run in the moment. Flat out and full of inquisitiveness then stop for a rest before bombing off again. So we stop a lot and have fun. They’ve also tried Parkrun junior for the first time. What a fantastic event that is!  Kids experiencing an organised event that celebrates the run and not a medal or time or position. Just the run. This something I have been doing more of myself. A couple of weeks ago I ran a trail run in the Surrey Hills with a good friend which was organised by Tri-Adventure who are a fantastic set up. You get a map with some checkpoints marked out on it and 2 hours to find as many as you can. It’s a really lovely way to move, be in nature and use your mind to navigate.

January has also been a busy working month where I joined forces with some amazing women. 

A couple of weekends ago top Running Coach Karen Weir, and Yoga teacher extroadinaire Emma Heald and I delivered our first (of hopefully many) workshops called ‘Are you RUNNING your health into the ground?’ to women who are recreational runners, mothers, wives, sisters, business women, teachers, skilled practitioners. Women who may be running a lot, but perhaps don’t feel ‘healthy’ despite all their efforts. It was a great weekend filled with the attendees taking part in running training sessions, restorative yoga and activities reflecting on their health. Together we all acknowledged that there is more to managing our health than pounding the streets mindlessly. So watch this space, as we will be doing more of these in 2018.

Last week I delivered a talk to a group/meet up called WomenInTech at Haymarket Publishing house, the theme being how to be healthy and strong in the workplace, and perform at our optimal without burning ourselves out. I felt honoured to stand in front of a group of such women, telling them about my approach to health and how whilst stress might not manifest itself emotionally, it will still impact our physiology meaning it can accumulate without us realising it and make us ill, tired, unwell before we know it. I look forward to working with WomenInTech more in the future.

January also brought to a close three months of coaching with my first one to one clients. Working with them and watching their progress has been a great pleasure. In three months they have made some really significant changes and reaping the rewards to their health and that of their families in some cases. If you’re wondering what it is exactly that I do, and how I might be able to help, you can check out their testimonials here. As we progress into February I will have 2 client spots available so if you want to start your journey to health then get in touch. I work with a very small group of clients at one time, so please do get in touch sooner rather than later to secure your place. 

From now on, I’ll be writing blogs monthly basis, covering health related topics as they arise with my clients or in the media. My next post is called “it’s all about the during NOT the before or after!” where I might get a bit ranty about before and after photos! So look out for that, or sign up to receive these in your inbox, by going to my website and registering at the bottom of my homepage  If you have a topic you’d like to know more about or get some clarity on, let me know and I will write a blog on it. For now, keep chipping away!

Onwards!

Bernie