It must be all the double cream

It must be all the double cream

I was both shocked and appalled by the article “No pain no gain” in The Sunday Times Style yesterday. Spread over four pages, this was an article espousing the benefits of crash dieting over losing weight in a more steady and sensible fashion.

First of all the title, No pain no gain, how Draconian. As it happens, I agree with them but I think I mean a different sort of pain. I’m talking of the kind you get the morning after a good run or boxercise class, when your muscles ache because you’ve had a good work out. They are talking about a constant niggling of hunger, not to mention the emotional pain felt when one inevitably falls off the crash-diet-wagon and stuffs the nearest thing resembling carbs down one’s throat. (Ouch, cardboard hurts.)

The imagery they use supports their idea of extremes. On the first double page spread there is a picture of a corset with a measuring tape pulled around the waist, straining it in. The invisible person wearing this corset seems to have a waist of approximately 25 inches. Is that the kind of measurement anyone apart from Victoria Beckham should realistically be aiming towards? (And I only say Victoria Beckham should be because that would entail putting on a few pounds.)

Now on to the thrust of the article. “New research shows that far from being bad for you, crash diets can be a safe and effective way to keep the pounds off,” proclaims the standfirst. Yes, you’ve got it, Tufts University in Massachusetts (a very honourable institution I’m sure) says it’s true so it must be.

To be fair to Olivia Gordon – the woman who wrote the piece – she does give the balancing view of Dr Peter Rowan who warns dieting and eating disorders go hand in hand (shocker) but really the damage has already been done. If someone even gets to this token section, tacked on the end of the article, they have already been lambasted with six paragraphs on the ‘joys’ of crash dieting:

“So what if we fasted for 48 hours, drinking only water, diet cola and black coffee, then munched a 400-calorie meal then fasted again for 48 hours more? We lost 1st in four days – even if it was dangerously extreme.”

It is precisely because of attitudes like this I want to get into the health and fitness sector. Somebody has to fight (and write) against all the drivel out there filling women’s heads with nonsense. Is it too much to ask for some responsible journalism where the issue of weight is concerned? People seem to forget the influence their articles can have and I expected more from Style to be honest.

The only saving grace was provided by the case study. Simon Glazin describes how he lost 7st in three months through using meal-replacement drinks in an effort to take control of his weight (21st at the time). In conjunction with his Dr and with the support of his family and friends Simon managed to turn his life around. He acknowledges such drastic action is not best-suited to everybody, “I would never suggest such a dramatic diet programme to just anyone. It worked for me mainly because it had to.”

But any good work done by this far from stereotypical advocate of ‘the right crash diet in the right circumstances,’ is promptly undone by the box-out alongside: “Crash and burn – extreme diets we love to hate” which provides a handy summary of the best crash diets and which celebrities endorse them. Thanks Style, where would I be without you?


N.B Following a comment from Olivia herself, here is a link to the online version of her article. I don’t think it illustrates the points I made about the layout, headline and strap but the writing is the same.

This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

Today I was at the gym and I saw something which made my blood boil: two guys lifting weights that were obviously too heavy for them, and letting their form suffer as a consequence.

When I say form, what I mean is their posture and positioning, a crucial element of both gaining results and remaining injury free.

As I sat on the bike, watching with a morbid fascination I usually reserve for Discovery Channel documentaries,  I actually had to stop myself from going over and saying something to these berks. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have thanked me anyway.

But this prompted me to wonder where the members of staff were? On each machine in the gym there’s a notice advising you to ask floor staff if you are having any trouble. Putting aside the stubborn pride of most men, surely an instructor should always be on hand to dispense information and keep an eye out for dangerous use of equipment?

On the way out, I mentioned to one of the instructors what I had witnessed, “Ah those guys,” he remarked, “They’ve been coming here for years and we’ve given up trying to tell them what they are doing wrong – they just don’t listen.”

Maybe not quite the right attitude, but in all fairness he did then spend five minutes telling me the main principles of good form so I could write this blog post. Here’s what he had to say:

1. Engage your core muscles – very important for supporting your back, doing this will also help tone and flatten your stomach. And it’s not limited to weight lifting either, when doing cardio you should try to remember to keep your pelvic and abdominal muscles tight. In gym classes, good instructors will usually remind you – on average every other minute to, “Pull your belly-button towards your spine.”

2. Keep your knees soft – locking your legs straight puts a strain on the knees and lower back. If you are standing to lift weights, make sure to keep a slight bend in the knees. An alternative is to stand with one leg slightly behind the other to give better balance.

3. Do not use momentum to  lift the weight – for instance, if you are doing bicep curls, keep your elbows close to your sides and do not use your back to add extra swing. It is far more beneficial to lift a lighter weight using correct form than a heavier weight using other muscles to help you along. More importantly, your back won’t thank you if you keep treating it in this way.

4. Pace yourself – similarly, take your time to fulfil the whole range of movement. A good way of doing this is to count to two or three while on the way out and to at least three on the way back in. There’s no prizes for the fastest, and your muscles will respond better to a smooth, consistent technique.

I still think there should be someone around to look out for people not following these simple principles. The thing is, some people have probably never been told, or have forgotten the information given to them on their induction day, and could do with a refresher. I am fortunate enough to have had some great instructors in the past who ingrained the basics into my head, and I still have to make a conscious effort to “pull that tummy in”!

While we are on the topic of things that annoy us at the gym, I found this humorous article about gym etiquette. I’d be interested to hear what gets your goat when you’re trying to get a sweat on?

The programme was about genuinely desperate housewives

The programme was about genuinely desperate housewives


Last night I watched Desperately Hungry Housewives on BBC1. I was in two minds about whether or not to do so because since starting my new fitness regime (Operation Bridesmaid) I’ve had a couple of friends voice concerns over the possibility I may take things too far and get a bit obsessed.

Watching a programme about anorexia and bulimia, especially considering I had just munched my way through a plate of homemade millionaire shortbread, was maybe not the best thing to do. Seriously, I don’t know where the heck I was when God was handing out the self-control, one whiff of chocolate and I’m away.

Thankfully, as I listened to Zoe, Tracey, Jane and Georgia recount their stories, I felt nothing but empathy for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say I pitied them. Here were four women who for one reason or another had a relationship with food which had at times taken over their lives. For some of them, sadly, it still was taking over.

Each of them still fought daily to combat their issues and the likelihood of them feeling completely at ease with food in the future seemed extremely slim (no pun intended). The history of Georgia’s anorexia in particular shocked me. We were shown skelatal photographs of her at the peak of her illness aged 18. Now, a young mum, she was dieting to lose those post-baby pounds and restricting herself to the extent that she wouldn’t eat a slice of her other son’s birthday cake.

The danger of her slipping back into old habits hung over the household. But she said herself there was nothing she could do. As I sat there, nursing a slight feeling of nausea from the millionaire shortbread debacle, I was so thankful that I didn’t feel the compulsion to go and make myself sick in the way that Tracey, one of the other sufferers, would do at night after her chidren had gone to bed.

But this got me thinking: What about viewers who do suffer from eating disorders? How would they react to this programme? I am by no means an expert on the subject but I have heard before that anorexia and bulimia can be very competitive conditions. The existence of pro-anorexia websites – as discussed in this article – show the dangers of this. Would some women watching Desperately Hungry Housewives last night see it as a challenge or inspiration?

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that raising the awareness of these illnesses is important and I am not suggesting that the producers portrayed these women as role models. However, I think it has to be remembered that issues like these are highly complex and while raising awareness we could inadvertently be providing inspiration for other sufferers or for those on the brink of a downward spiral.

I would be interested to hear what other people think?

Button up: the jeans test is best

Button up: the jeans test is best

Well here I am at the end of week one. As a little addition today I went to a circuits class with my fellow fitness fanatic Rachel Quigley and the pair of us were certainly red faced at the end of it. Whether this was down to the tough regime or the rather dishy instructor I will leave to your judgment.

So how do I feel after seven days of relatively hardcore training?

I have well and truly got the fitness bug back and I am now used to getting up first thing in the morning and heading straight out to the gym. In fact, I feel much more energtic and focused for the rest of the day when I’ve worked out, and on Wednesday when I had a rest day I was sluggish and lacking in motivation at work.

The combination of exercising and eating meals higher in protein has also left me feeling less bloated and as a result the study belly is on the way out already. Results after a week I hear you scoff, but I honestly think it’s true. There of course lies the secret: so much of exercise and looking and feeling fit is psychological.

How can we tell whether we are making real gains or purely imagined ones: the placebo effect if you like?

This is especially relevant for me since I don’t like to measure success through the number on the scales. As far as I’m concerned, weight is just a statistic and not a very good yardstick for improving fitness or shape. I would much rather weigh a few pounds more but have greater muscle mass and therefore appear slimmer and feel stronger.

So what am I using to keep track of my progress?

I’m writing down what I do each day in an exercise log, making sure to include details such as length of intervals, weight lifted and number of sets/repititions. This is good for two main reasons:

1. It allows you to look back at what you did yesterday or the day before and then you can aim to go a little faster, further or lift a bit more. Instead of just thinking you are pushing yourself, you actually will be.

2. It maintains your focus and stops your mind wondering from the task at hand. You know what you’ve got to do and so you will keep going rather than wandering aimlessly from machine to machine without really thinking about it. Think of those guys you see working out in pairs who spend more time talking about what they are going to do and looking in the mirror than doing any exercise, you don’t want to be one of those.

I am also resorting to the female favourite – the jeans test. Over the last couple of months, my favourite pair of jeans has gradually been getting tighter. You know it’s gone a stage too far when you have to unbutton them when driving. Of course I’ve used the age old excuse of “I must have put them on a hot wash by accident,” to make myself feel better. But deep down I know the machine has been set at 40 degrees since I moved in to my flat last September.

Placebo or no placebo, the day I feel comfortable sitting down in those Gap western bootcuts is the day I know my new routine is getting me somewhere. It may not be as scientfic as some would advocate but I’m a firm believer in having goals which are relevant to you and keep you motivated on those days when all you want to do is sit on the sofa and eat a Magnum Temptation (and no, eating one will not make you look like Eva Longoria).

And at the end of the day, who cares if it is all in your head. Anything that makes one feel better about oneself is fine by me.

Today I faced my first real challenge. As I sat down last night to plan the following day I realised I would have to get up at 6.30am to fit in a work out, before heading into Bristol to do work experience with BBC customer publishing. I would like to think I’m an early riser but 6.30am is not a time I know well. I am especially unacquainted with the idea of jumping out of bed straight into my gym gear and making my way to the gym without so much as a banana to keep me going.

So I did what I have learned to do in situations where I feel out of my depth, I planned with military precision. My control freak streak took on a whole new level as I nailed down every last detail: I even put the green teabag into a mug, by the ready-filled kettle. Then I went to bed safe in the knowledge that if I managed to haul myself up at the right time in the morning everything else would smoothly follow.

Miraculously, I did in fact get up as soon as my radio alarm (turned up to a higher than usual volume) went off, and obediently supped my green tea before heading out the door dressed for whatever the interval training could throw at me. One thing I didn’t account for was that when I got to the gym and reached for the door I would be met with a resistance outside my control, opening hours. In all my planning, I had not once stopped to think that the gym wouldn’t accommodate my early hours routine.

The worst bit was I couldn’t afford to wait the 20 minutes til opening time. As I stood dumbstruck with the type of panic only a control freak will identify with, my mind grappled with what to do next. I knew my uni building had a shower, and was only five minutes away and also on the way to the train station. I was simply going to have to improvise and work out al fresco.

The car park outside the Bute Building at Cardiff University is hardly picturesque, but needs must. I started to jog round and then broke my time up into intervals of sprinting as fast as I could and slow jogging, building up until the jogging intervals were shorter than the sprinting ones. After 10 minutes of that I did various exercises: jumping jacks, scissors, knee-twists, lunges, squats – all fast paced and on a rotation. It was during a particularly frenzied bout of jumping jacks that I heard someone coming out of the door behind me. I looked round to see one of my tutors walking off hurriedly in an attempt to avoid eye contact with me.

Dear god, could this get any more cringeworthy? Apparently so. I finished my work out and headed inside to take a shower. After I had been in the cubicle for a couple of minutes (a surprisingly good power shower compared to those in the gym) the fire alarm went off. Are you kidding me? thought I. As the blaring noise continued it became clear that this was not a drill. Faced with a moral dilema – dutifully go outside wrapped in my towel or finish showering, dress and risk burning to death – I did what any law-abiding student wouuld do and finished showering, albeit a lot more speedily than I ordinarily would.

As I walked along the corridor, fearing I would be told off by a do-good caretaker, I saw that I was not the only one to have feigned ignorance at the alarm. A class of six were sitting merrily typing away on computers without a care in the world, is there a name for these sorts of people? On my way to the station I passed the tutor from earlier on in this tale, again he avoided eye contact as I smiled in what I hoped was an appropriately beguiling fashion (I probably just looked a bit manic).

On the plus side, I arrived for the train 15 minutes early and felt fully charged and ready for the day. Maybe working out in the morning wasn’t going to be easy, but it certainly helps me feel smug towards all those other poor, commuting sods who are barely even awake yet.

Challenging? Without a doubt. Rewarding? The jury’s still out on that one.

The bane of every bridesmaid's life

The bane of every bridesmaid's life

Today I am brimming with feel good endorphins, which can only mean one thing: Operation Bridesmaid (hereafter OB) has commenced.

OB is something I have been planning for a while. I am to be my sister’s bridesmaid in July and, as is typical of a lot of women, I am determined to look my best in the nipped-in-at-the-waist dress we settled on for myself and the other two bridesmaids.

Bought back in January, the dresses looked great (even if I do say so myself). But still, on getting back to Cardiff at the end of the Christmas break, I vowed to hit the gym to give myself plenty of time to get fit and toned for the big day (would you listen to me, I sound as if it’s my wedding).

But as is often the case, other things began to take precedence. I study the PG dip in magazine journalism and first there were exams, then there were two weeks of coursework deadlines, and before I knew it I was at the end of, an admittedly hardcore, term.

Spring had sprung and I was still sat on my backside

Spring had sprung and I was still sat on my backside

The spring daffodils were out and OB had been left languishing in the recesses of my mind, the area reserved for thoughts about deep-cleaning the bathroom and throwing out all the socks in my drawer which aren’t part of a pair. In short, the “I’ll get round to it soon” section, I’m sure you all have an equivalent.

Again, my plans were destined to be put on hold. I had three weeks away from Cardiff doing work experience and since I find it hard to maintain a exercise routine I am already commited to when away from home, the chances of me starting a new one were about as high as the Bank of England’s interest rates.

I was in despair, “I am never going to tone up and get rid of this study belly,” thought I. But every cloud has a silver lining: two weeks of my work experience were in the Men’s Health offices in London. A fortnight surrounded by buff men who eat, sleep and drink (literally, they are massively into their protein shakes) exercise. Surely that would leave me feeling even worse about my lack of fitness and nutritionally challenged diet?

Well, it did, but in a good way. As I scoured the forums on the website looking for article ideas, and subbed copy telling readers, “How to get a six-pack in six weeks,” the fitness furor began to permeate. A part of me which had lain dormant for too long shook itself awake. That’s right, my inner fitness fanatic.

I began to get ridiculously frustrated by the fact I could not workout and looked for small changes I could make while in London (the day I powered up the 193 steps at Covent Garden tube station will stick in my mind for a while, or rather the state of me when I reached the top of them will).

I spoke to the fitness editor, Wesley Doyle, about my plight, explaining that I had once been a lean, mean, fighting machine from hours spent punching and kicking (I was in combat classes and kickboxing, not a secret member of Fight Club).

He very kindly told me not to worry, informed me that muscles have good memories, and said he would email me a programme to get back in shape and shed those excess inches in no time. I had to refrain from kissing him then and there.

I’ve been back in Cardiff for two days now and I have done the routine twice. It is based on using interval training which means I am not suffering too much from my depleted stamina and the short, sharp bursts replicate the kind of exercise I am used to with boxing classes.

I have been adding some weight training to the end and went out yesterday to buy lots of high protein foods which Wesley says is crucial to success. The major difference between this work out and what I used to do before is that it is best done in the morning, on an empty stomach after consuming two cups of green tea (to give a caffeine kick).

This is my one concern. I am fine at the weekend when I can get up leisurely and mentally prepare myself for the onslaught but how will I fare during the week getting up at the crack of dawn to head to the gym before uni? I’m told the first few times are the worst and then my body will start to adjust, let’s hope so.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.