Friday, February 22, 2019

The Barrier Method... to avoiding exercise

Thoughts that go through my head when I'm cycling... No. 57

Have I turned the oven off?

Which way is the wind coming from?

Did I charge my phone?

Where am I?

I ride therefore I am

Alongside these deeply philosophical thoughts, I also often find myself wondering why there aren't more of us out on the road, getting our hearts pumping in the great outdoors.

We reap so many benefits from moving more: improved sleep, better mental health, more energy, feeling fitter, increased focus, etc. If exercise was a pill, we'd all be taking it and saving the NHS millions.

And yet.

Over 50% of people who begin an exercise programme stop within the first 3 months.

Seeing this statistic made me ruminate.

I know my own relationship with exercise has taken a hit in the past - times when I've felt less motivated to put in the effort, despite the fact I knew I'd feel better if I did it.

What exactly is it that gets in the way? 

Consider the gym membership...

We join. We buy the gear. We're all gee'd up. We go twice, possibly three times, and then... we stop.

We might not even know why. And then after a while the idea fades, until sufficient time elapses and we can try it again as though it was something new.

All this points to the fact that while we might not be that great at getting our kit on, we are totally awesome at rationalising reasons to avoid it.

Let's call this the Barrier Method. 

A bit like contraception for the brain, the Barrier Method is a great and highly effective way of not getting fit. It's where the barriers we put up stop the seed of an idea (getting in shape for example) fertilising the rest of our mind into making it actually happen. Here's a man practising it...
I just haven't got time. 
The handy thing about these barriers is that they are there just waiting for us to pick them off the rack at our convenience.

Don't want to go to the gym? Well, we are really rather busy, actually.

Rather not head out for a run? Who would, in this weather? And besides, who's got the energy? 

That cycle ride? Sounds a bit too sweaty for me, all that lycra. And isn't cycling dangerous?

Most of us have been guilty of putting up some version of these barriers at one time or another. Or, some limiting inner voice seduces us into thinking we're not allowed to be fit because we're not part of that group - we shouldn't be doing this; it isn't for us; looking in shape is something that happens to other people. "I'm just not that sporty", etc, etc, etc.

Research shows it's what we tell ourselves that makes the difference. 

A study by Allied Dunbar found that thinking "I'm just not the sporty type" is one of the main reasons we don't carry on exercising once we've started.

In fact, this emotional barrier is second only to a lack of time, or at least a perceived lack of time - though it's amazing how much room in our schedule we can find to watch tv, read the paper or sit in the pub. All of which I really enjoy doing, by the way.

There is a deeply ingrained belief that we need to focus intently on relaxing in our spare time, to make the most of it, The contradiction here is that tuning in to our body is relaxing in itself, and can make us feel considerably calmer than lying on the sofa watching telly. In this sense exercise can be a form of meditation.

Part of the trouble seems to be that as a nation, we don't traditionally view exercise as a relaxing thing to do.

A study by the Health Authority in 1993 (admittedly a while ago, but we are essentially the same creatures, just with better internet connection) found that sedentary people had a very negative view of physical activity, finding it difficult, unpleasant and pointless. Of course, some of us have very real physical barriers such as illness or injury that may prevent us getting moving, but for most of us this isn't the case. We just don't think we like it.

So, a lot of it seems down to perception; we don't think we're the sporty type; we think we need to relax rather than exercise; we don't think we have the time. Despite all this, the Allied Dunbar study found that 80% of us still think we're pretty fit, even though we don't really do anything physical.

Still got it.

The study also showed that while there are some differences in how men and women feel about exercise, broadly speaking, the barriers for each gender are very similar - and so are the solutions to resolve them.

Critically, no-one likes being made to feel guilty, or being told what to do.

So, what does get us moving?

The Allied Dunbar study ranked the motivating factors for exercise among men and women between the ages of 16-69 years old. In order:

  1. to feel in good shape physically
  2. to improve or maintain health
  3. to feel a sense of achievement
  4. to get outdoors
  5. to look good
  6. to control or lose weight
  7. to have fun
  8. to relax
  9. to feel independent
  10. to get together and meet new people

What is striking though is that nowhere in this list is there any specific mention of mental health.

'This is like being a kid again'

These were the words a friend shouted when we went for his first bike ride in years.

I think that pretty much sums up the whole point of exercise.

It's fun, or at least it can be, and it's as effective at treating some forms of depression as drugs.

We just aren't designed to sit around all the time. When we run, swim, cycle, walk a longer distance or do any challenging physical endeavour, people's reaction is often 'You must be mad!'

Understanding what really motivates us is part of the secret

Change or Die, a rather dramatically titled (but excellent!) book by Alan Deutschman, cites the example of a study of 37,000 people prescribed statins.

Nearly everyone took the pills for the first month or two but a year later less than half were still taking them.

Just to be clear, these were patients with severe heart disease, for whom taking statins was a potential lifesaver.

All they had to do was take a pill to help stay alive, but they stopped. Why? Well, it turns out that facts and fear don't make people change their behaviour. For a start we already know the facts, we just choose to ignore them. And if the fear we're facing into is too great (such as, 'I might die'), well then denial is a very powerful tool to make us feel safe and carry on as before.

If we apply this to exercise, we can see how laying on fears about weight or health or mobility simply don't help motivate us.

Plus, of course, if we feel pressure to change now, then why didn't we do it years ago? We resist change because it invalidates decisions made by our previous selves. Complicated creatures, humans!

The three Rs of change

According to Deutschman to make change happen, there are three simple stages:

  • Relate - you form a new relationship with a person or community that inspires hope.
  • Repeat - this new relationship helps you learn and practice the new habits and skills you need.
  • Reframe - ultimately the new relationship helps you think about things in a completely different way.

It's why exercising with others works so well.

Ever wondered why Park Run has been so successful? It hits all of the 3 Rs. People access a new community of runners (relate) who go every week (repeat) that helps normalise the activity (reframe). And it can have an enormous impact on how we think and feel - not just about running but our bodies, connections with others... everything.

And, the conclusion from all this rumination?

Essentially, how we feel about exercise - how we frame our relationship with it - is crucial to getting moving. And the truth is, we can change our mind-set. I see it around me everyday, with clients, friends and family members shifting their thinking to embrace exercise as a form of self-care and self-reward.

There are so many things that can influence how we feel about ourselves and our relationship with our bodies but for me it comes down to a simple truth...

While we all have different motivations, we are all fundamentally the same: made to move.

Scores on the doors

Genuine scientific studies referenced - three
Barriers I recognise in myself - several
Motivating factors - 10 + one
Books on change I'd recommend - one
References to cycling in a blog that's not about cycling - quite a few
A good cycle-ride peeping over the horizon - many

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Blazing Saddle - cycling to the Dordogne Part 2

Following on from an intense first three days recounted in Part 1, cycling to my niece’s wedding in the Dordogne, here's what followed...

Day 4 Chateau-Renault to La Roche-Posay

Friday morning. A bad start.

After much faffing about packing up camp and getting on the road I then confused Montoire-sur-Loire with Montlouis-sur-Loire (oh, how I laughed), and went back on myself for about 25 minutes, which is 50 minutes really - actually a whole hour if you factor in the uncontrollable weeping.

Then, just as I was getting back into the swing of things and enjoying going in the right direction for a change, this happened...

Route Barre near Tours in the Loire valley.
It's just a suggestion.
Obviously, I ignored it, like any right minded person would. In fact this was the second Route Barree I'd encountered. I ignored the first one very successfully and only had to lift my bike over a slight obstacle to continue on my merry way. Clearly these signs were only meant for other people and not for the likes of me.

Alas, no.

Rather than a small obstacle lying in my path, two or three miles down the road there was an entire bridge under repair. When I politely asked the gentlemen working on it whether I might be permitted to carry my bike over (as was entirely possible in theory) I was met with an emphatic 'Non.' 

Well, alright then.

Now, having already wasted time going in the wrong direction once that day, having to double back again felt a tad cruel, if completely deserved.

River Cher or Creuse Once finally back on course, the polite woman on google maps decided what I really needed was a tour of all the small tracks and paths in the area. Like I'd always dreamed of. She was also quite keen on me “turning left” when there was no 'left' - that kind of thing. So, lots of navigational shananigans ensued until, exasperated, I did things the old fashioned way, with a paper map, and ignored her.

River Cher or Creuse
It was also really, really, really, really, really, really, mind-blowingly hot - at least 40 degrees. Perfect conditions for having a scary afib moment. So I did.

All the farting about trying to find the right way over the Loire at Tours had left me hot and more than a little bothered, so I decided to stop in Montlouis-sur-Loire for a drink, some lunch, and to feel strange in a cafe. Maybe I was dehydrated, or maybe I was just knackered from the heat, but I felt decidedly odd.

After ordering food, I noticed what seemed like extra heartbeats, but not of the atrial fibrillation 300-bpm all over the place kind. I could actually see the t-shirt around my heart moving in time with them, which was unusualising to put it mildly. I drank some water and took a couple of Fleccainaide just in case my heart was contemplating a full blown descent into an uncoordinated conga. These pills don't normally work for me once the ticker's gone pear-shaped, but if I take them in time they can do the trick. I then got up and walked around a bit trying, and failing, not to look insane.

River Cher or Creuse
Feeling slightly perturbed in a 'I don't  believe this sh*t' kind of way I then thought to take my pulse, which I should’ve done in the first place. It was in regular sinus rhythym and pretty slow considering. Also, I couldn't feel the extra 'beats', which I would, if they were there.

The only explanation I could think of was I'd developed some kind of muscular twitch in my chest, right where my heart is. Obviously. Because that happens all the time.

Reassured it was nothing serious I calmed down a bit, cooled off in the shade, and as I ate lunch the twitch gradually subsided. And I started to look a little less nuts. All sounds a bit silly now in retrospect, but it was a genuinely unpleasant experience. At least I may have provided a curious spectacle for anyone watching.

Anyway, onwards...

Progress had been painfully slow. I'd gone the wrong way, headed down a closed road, got lost and then thought I was having a physical meltdown - and all before lunch. I'd covered less than 30km (60km off my daily target), so stopping wasn’t an option. So, I chose to carry on, which despite the heat and my increasingly painful backside was still a lovely thing to do as you get to cycle through places like this...

River Cher or Creuse
Not a selfie in sight.

And most wonderful of all, you get to pass establishments such as this...

Garage Bastard
You utter, utter...


Seconds after taking this covert snap, monsieur Bastard himself drove out of the garage and, seeing me slowly marinating in sweat by the side of the road, offered me a lift - the fact I was on a fully-loaded touring bike seemed not to concern him in the slightest. So, I hoiked the bike in the back of his van and admired the numbers on his temperature gauge. 40.5 degrees. Did I mention it was hot?

Through a mixture of his broken English and my completely smashed up French I established he hates the heat and likes to give people a lift when he deems the conditions sufficiently unpleasant, like now. Very charitable. As it was clearly far too chaud to be doing anything, particularly riding a bike, he took me 8km up the road to the next town, where he lived. Apparently, this had been the hottest week of the French summer so far and it was going to get even hotter - great news!

Generous Bastard that he was, he even dropped me off on the other side of the river, on a road shaded by trees that took me straight to the campsite in the town I was heading for. I could've kissed him. Not such a bastard after all.

It was a genuinely lovely thing for him to do and I wondered whether I would have been afforded the same thoughtful kindness in Britain. I hope so.

It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with an older gentleman on the ferry to Dieppe a few days earlier. A true English gent, straight out of Antiques-Roadshow-Antique-Jewellery-Expert casting, he'd lived most of his life abroad, including a five year stint in Sicily. When his wife died a couple of years ago, he moved back to England to be near his daughters. But Brexit Britain proved a bit of a shock – with his Italian car and number plates he'd been shouted at as a 'F&^%ing foreigner' on a number of occasions, and even had things thrown at him whilst driving. Hmm. Who are the bastards now?

When I finally arrived at the campsite in La Roche-Posay it was about 7pm and still very much on the warm side...

wall thermometer showing 36 degrees in shade at 7.30pm.
36 degrees in the shade at 7pm.
And, despite my assertions when people had asked me why I wanted to cycle to the wedding, sitting astride a leather saddle, with a very sore arse, hauling myself, my panniers and my 20-year-old touring bike up hill and down dale in the heat, was becoming ‘not fun’.

I needed to decide what to do.

Before that, though, I had to inspect the carnage on my backside. And the only way I could do that was to use the camera on my phone. So, legs akimbo and looking very much like a character from a Tom Sharpe novel or something dredged up from the shadier quarters of the internet, I went about assessing the damage. How I would've explained what I was doing in the event of someone popping their head into my tent didn't bear thinking about.

'It's not what you think, HONESTLY!'

A likely story.

My phone camera contortions did, however, reveal the sources of my discomfort in all their purple glory...
Pic of one of the saddle sores
Satellite image of Olympus Mons on Mars.

Ouch. There were two of these angry twins, one on each butt cheek. As if that wasn't enough, when I went for a shower I discovered they were in the midst of an incestuous love affair, had mated and spawned a love child, currently residing front and centre just above my old chap. Added to this my body hair was enmeshed within it, providing the sort of lattice-like structural support metal rods give reinforced concrete. This was unexpected. It was also going to hurt, I'd been so carried away wincing about my bottom that I hadn't even noticed this new physical assault creeping in from a different direction - it was, as they say, decisive - time to call the cavalry.

I rang my wife. 
That was definitely not in the brochure!

Kms covered – too few to mention (about 100)
Purple pustules on backside - 2
Not quite so pustulant red bit in an unspeakable location - 1
Scary afib moment that turned out to be absolutely nothing - 1
Lifts with a complete Bastard - 1

Scenes from a Tom Sharpe novel - 2

Day 5 Le Blanc

Thankfully, my wife, son and father-in-law had sensibly decided to drive to the wedding. Crazy fools. As they were heading roughly parallel to my route they could, thankfully, come and get me. How we'd fit all my stuff and bike into a very small boot was... moot. It was either that or a very expensive taxi.

I gingerly rolled another 30 or so kms to the small town of Le Blanc, so my rescuers didn't have quite such a large detour. Not a ride I’ll care to remember. It was hard going with as much standing on the pedals as possible. Once there, all that remained was for me to lie by the river with a book, and watch the occasional canoe drift past... and apply more savlon. Frequently.

Camping by the river Creuse.

Surprisingly, I didn't feel too bad about ending my cycling journey there.

True, I hadn't quite made it all the way, but there was no chance I'd have managed to go 10 miles further up the road, let alone another 100 or so. And things were also about to get a lot steeper as I headed into the Dordogne proper. In the end I'd made it a bit north of Limoges, so more or less on track to get to the wedding on time. It wasn't a bad effort, but there had definitely been some lessons learnt, namely:

1 - Drive.
2 - Only joking about 1, I’d do it again in a (regular) heartbeat.
3 - Take as little as possible.
4 - So leave the bike at home and drive.
5 - Only joking about 4.
6 - Chamois cream. Enough said.
7 - Stay in hotels. And drive.
8 - Ignore 1, 4, and 7.

Most useful bit of kit? That's pretty much a 3-way tie between the Ravpower4 battery charger (invaluable for keeping my phone working), the Thermarest inflatable mattress (made sleeping a lot more comfortable, especially with sore bits) and the Vango Banshee 2-man tent (easy to put up and take down and reasonably roomy).

So in summary:

Kms covered - 487 + a few extra, just for the fun of getting lost
Pustulant red bits - 3
Actual afib – 0
Scary moment that turned out to be nothing more than a twitch! - 1
Good Samaritans - 4
Antiques Roadshow Expert look-a-likes - 1
Relief at not having to get on a bike anymore - palpable.

Oh, and the wedding was great.

Just don't make me sit down.

The Barrier Method... to avoiding exercise

Thoughts that go through my head when I'm cycling... No. 57 Have I turned the oven off? Which way is the wind coming from? Did I ...