My first wild swimming experience

It’s quiet on Hampstead Heath. It’s a sunny weekday morning in June and I’m here to try out wild swimming in one of the Heath’s famous bathing ponds.
 
I’ve been to the Heath countless times, but never to the bathing ponds. I’m starting to wonder if I’m going down the right grassy track, but I see a small wooden gate and head towards it.
 
I’m greeted by an extremely pretty entrance path, lined with wild flowers, which leads me up to a smart black wooden structure which houses surprisingly modern changing rooms and toilets. That’s a plus – I was expecting an old concrete block.
 
I’m nervous. I’m worried it will be completely freezing, but I’ve come prepared with wetsuit-type gloves to protect my numb-prone fingers.
 
There’s a couple of swimmers in the pond already and I spot the ladders going into the deep waters. There’s a lifeguard on duty; it will be too embarrassing to do the dip-in-and-out routine-whilst-squealing so I bravely step down the ladder and plunge right in. 
 
It’s cold.
 
It’s taken my breath away, but I start to swim to warm up. I take in the willow tree on my right, dipping its leaves into the water, providing shade to the moorhen chicks and their mum.
 
It takes me the length of the pond to warm up, so after that I focus on what I can see and hear. The pond is completely surrounded by trees, it feels entirely enclosed and private. As I’m contemplating how quiet it is, a dragonfly whizzes past me and a duck swims across my path.
 
I turn on my back to feel the sun on my face. I can only hear birdsong and the ripples of the water as I slowly move through. It’s so peaceful. A world away from the bus journey that brought me here.
 
After 20 minutes I suddenly feel very cold. Time to get out.
 
A mini swim, but I loved it, and I will be back.

Buckling under the strain

Injury seems to be the topic of the month. My partner has injured his achilles tendon and hasn’t been running for weeks. My bootcamp friend got knocked off her bicycle and hurt her legs, and another friend has hamstring trouble.

Having to stop your regular exercise because of injury can be really frustrating. You miss the endorphins and the stress relief, and start to ask yourself whether you have shrunk your trousers in the wash (you probably haven’t. Sorry). With some injuries it can take months before you’re back to full strength again.

Assuming you’re not horribly injured and need medical treatment, what can you do instead?

If you can afford it, find a qualified sports massage therapist. Try to get recommendations from people in your local area or your local gym might be able to point you in the right direction. Sports massage therapists will have a good grasp of the type of injuries usually encountered from sports and exercise, and will be able to help you to recover more quickly and give you advice on preventing injury.

A modern torture device?

Foam rollers. Those weird spiky things that look like torture devices. But they can help. In this Runner’s World article, the top tips for using foam rollers are:

  • Get the knots out first (see above)
  • Do it before and after exercise
  • Don’t overuse it
  • Start with a softer roller first, then when your muscles are used to it, try a firmer one
  • Improper use can cause more harm than good. Get advice on how to use it properly on particular areas of your body.
  • Use the roller regularly, even on days when you don’t exercise. This will prevent tightness caused by other activities like sitting at a desk.
  • Don’t rely on it to cure you. You may also need a stretching routine and massage.

See if you can find other activities that will match the effects you get from your regular exercise whilst you’re recovering. If you enjoy running because you love being outside, try a long walk or cycle instead. If you enjoy an exercise because of the social elements, see if you can continue to be involved in some way. Parkrun, for example, always needs volunteers, and you can often find volunteering opportunities at other organised sports events.

Trying lower impact exercise, such as yoga or Pilates, may give your body the rest it needs whilst still giving you some physical and mental benefits. Pilates has a reputation for being beneficial for athletes recovering from injury and can help to prevent further problems too.

Embrace the change. If you can’t do your usual exercise, why not take this as an opportunity to try something new to fill those extra hours? It doesn’t even have to be exercise related (although do try to keep active somehow); perhaps take that painting class you’ve always wanted to try, or volunteer at the local nursing home. Hobbies can give you that feeling of improvement and achievement and doing good in the community has the added bonus of making you feel good too.

 

I think a little bit of wee came out…

I’m on a WhatsApp group with some girlfriends called The Trampoliners. The group is so called because we have all had the same experience when playing with our children on trampolines: the sudden realisation that [whispers] a little bit of wee has come out.

“Leakage” can be the result of weakened pelvic floor muscles, often described as a group of muscles which form a ‘sling’ which lies from the pubic bone to the tail bone. Both men and women have them, and their purpose is to keep the pelvic organs (bladder, bowel, and vagina and uterus in women) in place and prevent any unfortunate escape of contents. I’m not a health professional, so for more information check out this NHS webpage.

Warning: May cause embarrassment
Warning: May cause embarrassment

As embarrassing as it is, I’m glad we all confessed to this because as it turns out we’re certainly not alone.

Up to a third of all women will experience some pelvic floor issues at some point in their life, usually due to pregnancy and childbirth, but it does affect all women, particularly from middle age onwards, and men too.

Don’t let it stop you.

After my trampolining incident, it occurred to me that there must be loads of people out there who are avoiding exercise because they are worried about a little bit of wee coming out.

High impact exercises (where you are jumping around, like running or aerobics) and lifting heavy weights can put pressure on the pelvic floor muscles. So if you’re worried that those star jumps will in fact make you cross your legs, there are plenty of low impact exercises you can do. Try walking, cycling, Pilates or yoga, together with a regular habit of doing specific pelvic floor strengthening exercises, until you are more confident to take on that dance class.

How do I avoid putting Tena Lady on the shopping list?

Regular specific pelvic floor exercises are vital. They are quick (couple of minutes) and easy to do and no-one can see you doing them. But the trick is so get into a regular habit. Physiotherapists recommend three times a day for at least three months in order to see an improvement. So try doing them while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, when you stop at traffic lights in the car, or when you’re on the bus to and from work. You could also try setting a reminder on your phone or using this app designed by NHS physiotherapists.

NHS information

Pelvic floor exercises for women [PDF download]

Pelvic floor exercises for men [PDF download]

If you are worried about leakage, have a chat with your GP or seek out specialist help from a women’s physiotherapist.

How to… keep the kids active this summer

If the Great British Summer ends up wet and windy and you’re stuck indoors, or if your children prefer Minecraft and TV to running around outside, try tempting them with this great set of Disney-inspired physical activities from the NHS Change for Life initiative.

Shake it up with Disney inspired activities
Shake it up with Disney inspired activities

The 10-minute Shake Ups feature dance moves and games with characters from loads of Disney favourites including Moana, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Cars, Zootropolis and Jungle Book.

The NHS recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day for children to stay healthy in body and mind, so a few of these will ensure they reach that target.

How to… keep active on holiday

Aaah, the summer holidays. A whole week or two to really get stuck into that exercise routine that’s been on your to-do list for months.

Passport? Check. Magazines and books? Check. Trainers? Check.
Actual physical activity undertaken on holiday (except for a gentle stroll from hotel to beach)? Um…

With all the best intentions, it’s not always easy to keep active while you’re away on holiday. And if you don’t manage to, it feels doubly disappointing because if you can’t find time in a whole week of not working, when can you find time?

I think the trick is to lower your expectations of how much you will actually do. It’s probably unreasonable to expect to want to run for 10 miles in 30 degree heat after a night on the cocktails.

You can also credit the ‘fun’ stuff as actual physical activity. Here are some ideas:

* Getting into the groove after a few glasses of sangria? Go for it  – dancing is a great exercise, and you can test out your most outrageous moves knowing that you’ll never see these people again.

* Walk a little bit further to discover those quieter bars and restaurants away from the tourist hot spots.

* Does that pool look tempting? Challenge yourself to swimming a number of lengths or for an amount of time each day.

* Are you on the 5th floor of your hotel? Walk up the stairs instead of getting the lift.

* Explore. Have a look on Google maps and find somewhere interesting to walk or jog to. Going off the beaten track (safely) can bring other rewards such as discovering a lovely spot for a picnic, or an amazing view.

Beach Olympics: Silly holiday fun for all the family
Beach Olympics: Silly holiday fun for all the family

* Beach Olympics! A new favourite of mine to play with the family. You can mark out a straight section of sand as the 10 metre sprint or build up sandy hurdles for an extra challenge. A frisbee can be the discus event and a tennis ball can act as a shot put. Beach volleyball, obvs. And the high jump can be a mound of sand that gets higher and higher with each successful jump.

I wouldn’t recommend a javelin event on a busy beach though.

 

Inspired by…Wimbledon

It’s July. It’s England. It’s strawberry season.

And it’s Wimbledon.

I don’t play tennis but I can’t fail to be inspired by the amazing athletes playing at the most famous tennis courts in the world. It just makes me want to scrabble around in the loft for a couple of rackets and find a 70s style plastic visor on eBay.

Tennis, it seems to me, is a really good way to keep active. You can usually find some tennis courts in your local area (find yours here) and if you can’t borrow or hire rackets and balls you can pick up some cheap ones in your local sports megastore.

You can take it as easy as you like. Just popping the ball back and forth to your partner will get you moving without too much effort (and, if you’re like me, you’ll be getting a good workout by simply retrieving all the balls which you’ve failed to hit).

Then, when you feel a bit more confident, you can step it up and start practicing those 100-mile an hour serves and aces.

Strawberries and tennis: a good match
Strawberries and tennis: a good match

A recent study1 found that a small group of inactive middle aged men at risk of heart disease who completed an 8-week tennis-based exercise programme showed improvement in fitness, a reduction in body fat and lowered their risk of heart disease.

So, persuade a friend, partner, or even one of your kids to venture out to your local tennis court and muck about for an hour. Then you will rightly deserve a Pimm’s and a bowl of strawberries.

 

1. Rosa Jr et al. A tennis-based health program for middle-aged men who are at risk for heart disease. Integrative Obesity and Diabetes 2017; 3(2): 1-6.

Inspired by…Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show 2017 kicks off today so it’s a good time to write about how gardening can be a great way to stay active.

A survey by the Royal Horticultural Society last year found that digging, weeding and mowing the lawn were cited as the top three activities to give the best workout.

Gardening burns calories and helps to tone muscles. Constant movement, bending and stretching will also help you to stay flexible. Gardeners in the RHS survey said that they felt physically and psychologically energised after doing a stint outside and one in five said that they felt less fit if they hadn’t gardened for more than three weeks.

Nature: good for the soul

Not only is it good for the body, but being out in nature gives a double whammy of being good for the mind too.

 

Don’t think you can run?

About ten years ago, I gave up my gym membership because it was expensive and just not convenient for me anymore. Instead, I looked into taking up running.

Like many people, I had never been ‘a runner’, I wasn’t sporty at school, and always did whatever I could to skive off the cross country PE lesson. During my student years I tried running a few times with my flatmate. Until then, the only exercise I indulged in was throwing crazy shapes on the club dancefloor and walking to the off license to take advantage of the 3 for £10 white wine offer. But every time I tried to run it just felt uncomfortable, my muscles cramped up and after a few attempts I gave up trying (back to the off license…).

But in my 30s running appealed to me again. I was working full time and paying high London rent. Running was convenient and free.

I made up my mind to give it a go and I credit this book with transforming me from someone unable to run for more than 15 minutes to someone who eventually ran the London Marathon in 2015.

Running made easy | Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson
Running made easy | Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson

The beauty of this book, Running Made Easy by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson, is that it starts at rock bottom. You alternate a few minutes of walking and jogging until, over time, you’re able to increase the jogging bit and decrease the walking bit. If you follow the plan you will end up running non-stop for as long as you want.

There are also loads of inspiring stories from people who have taken up running and the benefits it has brought to them.

I astonished myself when it dawned on me that in just a few months I was able to run for two hours without a break. You just have to start slowly.

Running appeals to many people because it costs nothing, it gets you out into the fresh air and you can do it anytime, anywhere with no equipment – you just need a good pair of trainers, and for women, a good sports bra.

If you’re interested but unsure how to start, this book will help.

Inspired by…Winnie

Winnie on her farm
Winnie on her farm

Let me introduce Winnie.

As a girl she grew up on a Welsh farm. She had to walk miles up the farm track to get to the road, then even further to school. She never learnt to drive and spent her whole life getting from A to B under her own steam.

She was tiny in height but strong as an ox. As a nurse, she would regularly lift heavy old men in and out of their hospital beds. In her eighties she was still regularly walking a two-mile round trip to get milk and newspapers and spent hours tending to her garden.

Winnie, my grandmother, passed away in her nineties in rude health. I’m convinced her healthy long life was due to good old fashioned walking and staying active every day. I intend to follow in her footsteps.