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    Why I’m doing the 30 day squat challenge

    I’ve written about losing weight and getting in shape a few times because, like many people, I’ve started life changes like giving up sugar, exercising, and eating better with the best of intentions, many times, but never followed through with the programmes.

    Then, this week, something strange happened.

    I’ve been talking to my wife for a while about the need for me to get in shape before I hit my fifties. It’s a well known medical fact that the state of health that you take into your fifties shapes the remainder of your life and I don’t want to spend the remaining years I have fighting declining health.

    So, just over a week ago, I pulled my dumbells from under the bed and started using them. I thought I’d just do a set here and there to get back into weight training. Then I made a commitment to do some sets every day. Now, over a week later, I’m still doing it but I’m trying to organise my efforts to target specific areas on specific days as I used to do, years ago.

    This week, I noticed something. I’d suddenly stopped wanting to eat many of the items that have haunted my diet for years. Chocolate, cream cakes, even biscuits (my nemesis) have suddenly lost their appeal.

    Instead, I’ve been craving healthy food. I even made a cheese sandwich stuffed with salad for lunch yesterday (as opposed to skipping lunch or throwing a pizza in the oven).

    As I was thinking about how I can use my free weights more effectively and started to ponder how I could make sure I included the dreaded leg day (you should never skip leg day) I had an idea. Why not do the squat challenge? That would certainly fulfil the needs of leg day – every day would be leg day!

    The other issue I was trying to figure out is how I could target my core without injuring myself. I can’t currently do squats or sit ups so I need an exercise that will gently strengthen my core without doing me further harm.

    That’s where squats come in. 🙂

    The core muscles and why they matter

    The core muscles are the major muscle groups in the abdominal part of your body, your lower back and your bottom. They’re responsible for just about every thing you do so they’re essential for long term health.

    A strong core helps you do just about every other exercise, improves your balance and co-ordination and helps to prevent back injuries and things like hernias.

    It’s common for people to think the core is just the abdominal muscles known as the Rectus Absominus or the “six-pack”. They focus on working them because they think they look good and neglect the supporting muscles at the sides and back of the body. This will almost certainly lead to injury later in life.

    Speaking of injury, there’s another good reason for building the core. Those core muscles keep your insides, inside.

    Improving diastasis recti

    I have a weak core at the moment which has led to a condition known as diastasis recti – when I try to do a crunch or sit up, I get a bulge between the muscles in my abdomen. For men, this can be caused by a number of things – bad form when lifting weights, a build up of visceral fat behind the muscles or the intestines themselves pushing up between the muscles. I suspect, given my poor lifestyle in recent years, that it’s a combination of these things.

    When I used to attend the gym regularly I was a lot younger and inexperienced and I didn’t pay as much attention to correct form as I do now so I would not be surprised if lifting the wrong way has led to a poorly developed core.

    In recent years, my diet has been horrific – there’s been periods where I’ve lived on junk food (pizzas, ready meals, anything quick and easy) that have included little or no vegetables. This will have probably led to a build up of visceral fat around my organs and behind my abdominal muscles.

    I have already noticed, in the couple of weeks that I’ve started doing free weights again, that the bulge isn’t as pronounced and smaller. This suggests that just engaging my core while lifting weights has helped to strengthen those muscles but I doubt I’ve shifted much of that nasty internal fat yet.

    I’m looking forward to being able to do more targeted core exercises but that can’t happen until I’ve fully resolved the condition or I risk a full hernia that might require surgery to fix and that won’t help my health aims!

    Improving posture and health in later life

    Developing a strong core before you hit your fifties has been shown to improve health in later life.

    People that develop that core and keep it maintained experience less issues with weight management, falls, and mental health as they age.

    I’ve learned enough about the way I think to know that this stuff isn’t going to happen when I’m in my fifties unless I get back into a healthy lifestyle now. If I left it until I actually needed to improve my health it would probably be infinitely harder to establish the kind of exercise and diet regime that would make a difference.

    That’s why I want to do it now.

    The Squat Challenge

    In case you’re wondering what the squat challenge is (and sometimes it seems you can’t go on the Internet without tripping over it, especially in the post-Christmas exercise fad period) it’s about doing squats. Every day. That’s it.

    Okay, it’s a bit more than that.

    Basically, the challenge requires you to do sets of squats every single day for thirty days but you increase the number you do by five each day. Oh, and to make sure you don’t do yourself a mischief, every fourth day is a rest day (so you do squats for three days and take a day off before doing another three).

    There’s a good guide to the challenge on Livestrong but I prefer the page on Nerd Fitness for information on how to do them the right way.

    I’ve stuck to increasing the squats by five a day for consistency but other versions (e.g. the Livestrong one) have varying increments to meet a target number on day 30. I don’t think it really matters which way you do it as long as you’re doing the squats each day.

    Here’s my chart – you’re welcome to use it if you want to join in the challenge:

    Squats are considered to be an awesome exercise for a number of reasons:

    • They use just about every one of the core muscles, leading to a stronger abdomen
    • They strengthen the hips and knees by building the muscle groups there
    • They can improve overall co-ordination if you focus on doing them correctly (form)
    • By strengthening the core and lower legs, they help prevent future injury
    • They support “functional fitness” – exercises that make doing normal things easier (like carrying shopping)
    • Using multiple muscle groups in an exercise triggers anabolic fat burning

    The right way to do a squat

    Lots of people think they know how to do a squat (I thought I did) but apparently it’s really easy to do squats badly.

    As it’s a functional exercise, it’s not going to do you a lot of damage if you do it wrong unless you’re also holding a heavy weight or you do a lot of them. If you do a lot of them with bad form, you’re doing to over-exercise muscles and under-use other muscles, potentially causing you problems later on.

    This happened to me years ago – I had to have six months of physio to correct a walking trait that was seriously affecting my knees.

    Not doing a squat properly can put strain on your joints or muscles, leading to injury or abandoning the routine.

    So, here’s how to do it.

    • Stand with your feet apart, about inline with your hips and shoulders.
    • Your feet should be pointed straight forward.
    • Either cross your arms over your chest or point your arms straight out
    • Look forwards – never look up or down (well, apart from to check your form)
    • Lower you bottom slowly as if you’re sitting down in a chair but keep your feet flat on the floor.
    • Try to keep your lower legs (below your knees) straight until you’re in the lowest part of the squat
    • Keep going down, as far as you can. At the lowest point your lower legs will naturally lean forward slightly, taking your knees slightly forward of your toes.
    • Slowly return to standing position but don’t lock your knees at the highest point.
    • Keep your back straight at all times. You’ll need to lean forwards as you lower but your back must always be straight.

    I’m excited about the 30 day squat challenge

    I’m currently really excited about my mental-shift towards a healthier lifestyle so I’m trying to monopolise on it to really motivate myself to make those lifestyle changes now.

    I’m trying to make sure I have a healthy breakfast every day (right now that’s a Plenny shake as I had a box from last year that I need to use), cut out sugar (but I’ve not gone all out on that one yet) and I’m looking at different diet ideas to adopt to replace my awful eating habits. Right now I’m leaning towards peleo or a low carb diet.

    I’m using the 30 day challenge to establish a daily exercise habit that I hope will keep me motivated to lose weight (currently 83kg / 183lbs), feel more positive about life, feel better physically, and prepare me for a healthier future.

    People in China eat potatoes too

    I’m going to admit, right at the start of this post that the title of this post now seems ridiculous to me.

    Regular conversation with my friend in Beijing provides me with a fascinating insight into the people of China and perhaps more intriguingly, into my own pre-conceptions about the Chinese people. One of those pre-conceptions that I never knew I held is the belief that they don’t eat potatoes in China.

    Potatoes are part of our staple diet in the UK and probably in the western world. Whether they’re fried as chips or fries, roasted as part of our Sunday dinner or served with breakfast as hash-browns, the rotund root vegetable is as much a part of our lives as chocolate and two-party politics.

    I never realised, until last night when the conversation found its way to potatoes, that I had always believed that nobody ate them in China. Ironically, this discussion wasn’t initially about food, it started with a comment that some people actually look like them.

    When I asked my friend if she was familiar with them she responded with amused surprise before proceeding to list all the ways she loved to eat them that reminded me a little of Bubba in Forrest Gump as he talked about shrimp.

    So yes, they eat potatoes in China and I felt a bit silly.

    It’s probably not my fault. My only exposure to Chinese food is what is offered at the restaurants and take-aways (all of which claim to offer authentic Chinese cuisine). I’d always assumed that they served chips to appeal to the those that were too xenophobic to eat rice or noodles with their Kung-po Chicken.

    In hindsight, it’s a bit narrow minded to believe that a nation of 1.4 billion people limit their diet to a menu of just over a hundred items, especially when China is almost as large as the entirety of Europe.

     

     

    Losing weight with Jimmy Joy

    Over the course of the last year, working from home and taking care of two young children has led to my own health taking a bit of a backseat in terms of my priorities.

    I didn’t start 2020 in the best physical condition so the extra weight that I’ve put on doesn’t bode well for the future of my health.

    Our old scales died towards the end of last year so we decided to get some new ones. At the time, it was cheaper to get some “smart scales” than it was to just replace the relatively simple model that had failed so that’s what we did.

    The new scales link up to an app on my phone and provide a surprising array of information just from zapping a small current through my bod but the two pieces of information that really matter are the catalyst for this blog post.

    Since the start of 2020, I’ve put on even more weight.

    Since the start of 2020, my “body age” has climbed even higher above my actual age, and that’s really depressing. Like, a lot higher.

    Yes, I’m fat and I need to lose some weight.

    I’d mention the BMI but as that is probably the worst way to assess how overweight I am from a scientific point of view, I’ll just trust the basic weight and scary body age.

    My weight and why it matters

    I’m not very tall for a man. I’m just over 5’8″ (or 1.73m for metric fans) and 13st 2lbs (or 83.5kg) is not a good weight for my height.

    My ideal weight, according to NHS Scotland is between 10st and 12st 2lbs (63.9kg to 77kg). I have no idea if that allows for muscle mass so I’m just going to aim for 11st 7lbs (73kg) as that’s almost a nice round number below my current weight in kilograms.

    The main reason that I’m a bit worried about my weight is because I’m not particularly fat. Sure, I look a bit like a weeble at times, but not excessively so. I don’t look like I enjoy lifting eight pints at the weekend.

    The bit that scares me is the possibility that I’m carrying that weight internally as visceral fat and that’s really not good for my health. That’s fat that’s wrapped around my internal organs.

    Body Age – does it really matter?

    Body age is a fantasy metric that’s calculated in various different ways to arrive at a composite indication of how unfit someone is.

    In my case, my body age is calculated by some mysterious algorithm on my smart scales based on the electrical impedence of my body tissues.

    It’s currently 51 – way above my actual age. The ideal body age (i.e. my target) is 2/3 or my actual age so I have quite a ways to go to reach that.

    This measure is never going to be able to account for how far I can walk, what my resting heart rate is, or other useful flags but it can measure my bodyfat to muscle ratio and make a guestimate to scare me into action.

    Like other measures such as my body-fat percentage (24.5% – ‘acceptable’) and my subcutaneous fat (21.3% – high), my body age can be used to encourage me to keep working on my diet as it begins to fall (in theory).

    What I’m doing to lose weight

    Thanks to COVID-19, we’re still in lockdown here in Scotland so my options are somewhat limited but that’s okay.

    I can still go for walks and I can still change my diet.

    As a web-developer, I tend to sit around for most of the day and I used to eat a lot of chocolate and biscuits. I’d often combine the two as my favourite snack is a chocolate digestive biscuit.

    It makes to tackle my biggest weakness (and addiction) first so I’m going to give up sugar.

    This means no more chocolate bars, no more biscuits and worst of all, no more chocolate digestives.

    The fact that I’d get up in the morning and have a chocolate bar for breakfast speaks volumes about how much I need to change my diet.

    Sugar has become a serious problem for me in recent years. I used to eat far too many biscuits and cakes without a second thought for what it might be doing to me so it needs to stop.

    To help me to replace sugar in my diet, I’ve decided to give meal replacement shakes a go. That way, my body will get a nutritional boost and I won’t be feeling hungry throughout the day (I hope).

    The brand I’ve decided to go for, based on positive reviews and price is Plenny by Jimmy Joy.

    It has a ridiculous name but at least it’s not Soylent Green (it’s actually vegan) and the various flavours don’t taste bad, at least not that I’ve got used to them. I’ve never been a fan of artifical sweeteners so I had to get over that slight aftertaste that’s always present for me when I eat or drink anything with them in.

    Because the flavours are so bland (sometimes flavourless), I like to boost the taste with a little vanilla essence, perhaps some drinking chocolate (I know, it’s got sugar in it but it’s for the greater good), or by blending a banana into it.

    Although the directions suggest making it with just water, I’ve found it to be far more drinkable (actually tasty) if it’s made with oat or almond milk. I’m lactose intolerant so using normal milk wasn’t really an option. I tried it with cow’s milk once but I felt like I’d been punched in the gut so I won’t be doing that again.

    I’ve found that blending the powder and any other bits with the liquid vastly improves the texture and makes it much more enjoyable to drink. Otherwise I find it tends to be a bit powdery, sometimes slightly lumpy, if I just use the supplied shaker.

    It’s too early to say if I’ve lost any weight – I only committed to giving up sugar and replacing one or two meals with shakes this week but I’m hoping next Monday to see some results when I step on the scales.

    Finding the focus for my blog (it’s more than just a niche)

    I’ve always loved the idea of having a blog.

    None of my reasons for wanting to blog are to do with the current thinking behind blogs. It seems everyone is starting a blog these days with the goal of monetisation right from the start.

    I wanted to start a blog because I like writing, I love being able to look back on what I’ve written in the past and I like the idea of having a space that is uniquely mine on the Internet.

    So you’d think, given those reasons, I’d find it easy to post to my blog now that I’ve created it but sadly that’s not the case.

    So if I’m struggling to write in my blog, perhaps a post about why I struggle to write in my blog would be a good place to start. 🙂

    My concerns about privacy

    I’m quite a private person and on the one hand, reaching an audience that are interested in what I write is kind of cool (I haven’t yet), I’m also concerned about sharing too much about my personal life with complete strangers on the Internet.

    In an age of social engineering and identity theft, revealing too much about myself isn’t safe anymore, for myself, or for my family.

    This leaves me in a state of anxiety about writing because I worry about revealing too much to the extent that I don’t write any blog posts for fear of saying too much. I’m pretty circumspect about what I post on Facebook and that’s a closed garden that’s technically limited to people I’ve accepted as ‘friends’.

    I really need to overcome this or I might as well delete the blog and write in a diary.

    My attempts to cope with executive dysfunction

    I really struggle with a disorder called executive dysfunction.

    For a large part of my life I thought I was just prone to procrastination but once I was diagnosed with autism about a year ago, I started to examine my behaviour in an attempt to identify how my condition has affected my life.

    It was very easy to identify that executive dysfunction was one of my biggest challenges and since doing so, I’ve been taking steps to target this area of my life.

    As I write this, it occurs to me that a post about executive dysfunction and the methods that I’ve used to live with it might be useful to some people.

    In a nutshell, for me, executive dysfunction means that I struggle to engage with things that need to be done, regardless of my level of interest in the task.

    This has become a real burden in my life which is why I’ve gone to great lengths to research the subject and find coping strategies that work for me.

    To many people it can appear that executive dysfunction is simply someone putting things off, being lazy, or as I suggested earlier, procrastinating but it’s much more complex than that.

    I might have something that I really, really want to do (like draw a portrait) but getting myself to actually sit down, get some paper, find a pen and just make that first mark on the paper seems like an insurmountable task.

    I find that breaking my tasks down into smaller tasks that are much easier to achieve can help with this but it can still feel like a colossal effort just to get started. Some days are definitely much worse than others.

    As with everything else in my life, writing in my blog is affected by this battle so I need to plan writing into my life if I’m going to start making this blog worth reading. 🙂

    Understanding the purpose of my blog

    I’ve read many articles on how successful blogs focus on a particular niche or even better, sub-niches but I’ve often struggled to understand how this might apply to a personal blog such as this.

    Aside from the annoyance about how some people pronounce ‘niche’, it’s a challenge to figure out what the focus of this blog should be. If I could nail that down, perhaps I’d find it easier to write.

    There’s a number of things that I’m interested in.

    I love photography, drawing in ink, science, nature, and to some degree, psychology and philosophy. More recently, as I’ve been worried about my sedentary lifestyle, I’ve gained an interest in health and nutrition too.

    I’ve also been trying to learn Chinese for the last few years so I guess I could add foreign languages to that list.

    I have little to no interest in politics as there are too many closed-minded bigots on the Internet that will immediately attack anyone with different views to theirs.

    I have no desire to write about religion either. Having been brought up in a religion that destroyed my self-esteem and happiness, I have no interest in religion unless it’s from an objective point of view.

    Like politics, religion is a bit of a hot-potato to write about because of the number of people that can’t see beyond their own beliefs.

    Although I now have a near atheist outlook, I don’t deny others the right to believe as they will or feel the need to attack their faith.

    Just because religion didn’t work for me doesn’t mean I can’t accept it gives others an essential degree of hope or meaning in their lives.

    My lack of time

    Unlike many people that claim that they have no time to do anything, in my case, for the last few years, it’s literally been true.

    I’ve been lucky enough to take care of my young children while my wife is studying away from home but I’ve been having to work full time at the same time (fortunately I work from home which helps with the logistics).

    Taking care of little people full time as well as working has left me with so little time that I often struggle to find time for myself (although I suspect the executive dysfunction has a part to play there).

    I have found it somewhat irritating when people have been furloughed from work with an 80% salary and then complained that they’re bored and don’t know what to do with themselves.

    I can’t remember a time that I’ve had enough free time to be bored. 😂

    In time, this will change but I’m sure that coming to terms with my task-management issues will help to some extent.

    So, what is the purpose of my blog?

    I’ve started to think, as I’ve write this, that the purpose of this blog should be to enable me to discuss topics that interest me.

    I’m not going to write about the tedious minutiae of my life as I don’t even put that stuff on social media and nobody would find it interesting anyway.

    I already have separate web-pages for my ink drawings and pens so I’m going to focus on those interests there but I might occasionally mention them here.

    With that in mind, it looks as if this blog is going to be about the following topics, from this point forward:

    • Photography
    • Philosophy (particularly Secular Buddhism)
    • Science & technology
    • Personal health & nutrition
    • Learning foreign languages
    • Autism

    It actually feels like a huge relief being able to discern what I’m going to write about moving forwards. I’m hoping this will help me to write her more regularly and perhaps find an audience that shares my interests.

    Warming Vegetable Potage

    Warming Vegetable Potage

    If you’re like me, you’ll have finally got the kids to bed and realised that you haven’t eaten in literally, hours.

    I used to just throw a pizza in the oven and gamble with the heartburn when I try to sleep but more recently I’ve been trying to take better care of myself.

    This recipe looks complicated but it’s really not. All you really need to do is prepare the veg, part-fry the onion and then throw it all in the pan to boil.

    If you want to, you can blend or mash it afterwards but that’s up to you.

    Warming vegetable potage

    Warming Vegetable Potage

    Phil
    A delicious, thick, spicy soup that's satisfying enough to serve as a main course.
    It's super-easy to make to it's ideal if you're a busy parent that often doesn't find time to eat.
    Prep Time 15 mins
    Cook Time 45 mins
    Course Main Course, Soup
    Servings 2 large bowls

    Equipment

    • Medium sauce pan with lid
    • Optional : Potato Masher (ricer), Hand Blender or Food Processor

    Ingredients
      

    • 25 g butter Vegan option : replace with oil.
    • 1 red onion roughly diced
    • 2 carrots sliced
    • 2 large potatoes
    • 1 stick celery sliced
    • 1 leek sliced thinly
    • 3 cloves garlic
    • 2 tsp mild curry powder heaped
    • 1 tsp paprika
    • 1 handful parsley chopped finely
    • ½ tsp cinnamon
    • ½ cup red lentils
    • 500 ml vegetable stock Add more water for a thinner soup

    Instructions
     

    • Heat the butter in the pan and once melted, add the chopped onion, parsley and spices. Cook until soft but don't let it go brown.
    • Add all the vegetables to the pan
    • Pour the stock all over the vegetables
    • Bring the pan to the boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes (until the carrots are very soft).

    If you prefer it smooth

    • You don't have to do this but I like to blend my soup with a hand blender or food processor to make it nice and smooth. You might prefer a chunkier soup.
      Using a potato masher is ideal if it's late at night and you don't want to disturb anyone. This results in a nice thick soup with texture as shown in the photograph above.
    Keyword curry, spicy, vegetable, vegetarian

    Butterflies on the Buddleia

    Over the last few of weeks, the Buddleia bush in our small back garden has been attracting dozens of butterflies.

    The Small Tortoiseshells first appeared before being joined last week by Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and even Small Whites (although they seem to prefer the lavender we planted at the front of the house).

    I just counted the butterflies on the bush right now. It’s a sunny day and the bush is alive with visitors:

    • 12 Painted Lady butterflies
    • 2 Peacock butterflies
    • 3 Red Admirals
    • 1 Small White
    • Numerous bees and hoverflies

    Here’s some photos of the visitors today.

    Where there’s an aspiration, there’s a way

    One of the aspects of language and communication that I find really interesting are idioms.

    We all have favourite phrases that we use to describe a situation, the same ones we probably heard our parents or friends use as we were growing up.

    I’m talking about the common phrases like, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, and “better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”.

    You’ll hear them everywhere – on television, on the radio and anywhere that people are talking because they’re a standard part of colloquial speech.

    The funny thing is that I never considered that the idioms I commonly used might have their own counterparts in other languages. But of course they do.

    I encountered one this evening while I was talking to my friend in Beijing.

    Continue reading…
    6 things I've learned by leaving Facebook

    6 things I’ve learned by leaving Facebook

    A week ago I decided to deactivate my Facebook account.

    There were a number of reasons that I wanted to do this ranging from a suspicion that I’m addicted to Facebook to a fear that Facebook might be having a negative impact on how positively I enjoy life.

    Over the last seven days I’ve already discovered some interesting things and I’m going to talk about five of them in this post.

    Continue reading…

    Inktober 2018

    Every year, the month of October hosts the Inktober challenge for ink artists around the world.

    It’s unofficial – there’s no prizes or accolades but it’s a great motivator to get drawing again, when life has got in the way of creativity (which definitely includes me).

    Each year, the challenge offers a list of prompt tags to help provide inspiration. You don’t have to use them but I’ve chosen to do so this year.

    I’ll be posting each of my drawings here. Hopefully I’ll complete the challenge, even if some of them are a day or two late! 🙂