Improving Children’s Brain Function

According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems which include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. Interestingly, the NHS states that there has been an increase in childhood obesity from around 1% to 10% in the last 30 years. This month I discuss if the two are linked…

We all know it can be difficult to pay attention in a learning environment and there is no greater challenge than trying to get our children to listen and learn in the class room. There are some truly amazing organisations out there that help children with learning and attention issues, but there are also some basic common factors which appear to be overlooked.

Sleep

Children aged between 3 and 12 years old need between 9 and 12 hours good quality sleep every night according to the Alaska Sleep Clinic. Screen time one hour prior to going to bed disrupts natural sleep patterns as the brain still believes it is day time due to the eye movement produced looking at a screen. So if children are watching television, using a tablet or on a mobile phone before bed they will take longer to get into a good quality sleep pattern and therefore be less cognitively efficient during the following day.

Time

Breakfast time can always be a potential minefield but how much of this is due solely to the children? If you know your child is slow in the morning, waking them up earlier is a less stressful way to make sure you get out of the door on time. Rushing around increases stress levels so your child starts their day in a state where short term memory is affected, concentration can decrease and anxiety can increase.

Nutrients

Author Ann Wigmore once said “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison”. Skipping breakfast can lead to hyperactivity, bad mood and further concentration issues. Most cereals (particularly those aimed at children) contain high amounts of sugar and the likes of toast with chocolate spread, jam or honey can also have similar effects on the brain. Those effects being that it quickly increases brain chemicals to make you feel good but this does not last and therefore a crash can happen while at school leaving the child feeling low in energy, motivation and enthusiasm. The sugar can also give you lots of energy which can transpose into potential hyperactivity.

Giving your children foods containing more protein and healthy fats (such as eggs, cold meats, fruit and cheese) are much better options or carbohydrates which release slower into the body such as oats. These prevent crashes in energy and improve brain chemistry allowing your children to concentrate better in class. There is also lots of research to show that children who eat more protein and healthy fats throughout the day have less body fat, perform better academically and athletically and show less signs of anxiety or depression.

The same information is true for adults as well as children, so what is the take home message? Eat slower, eat better quality food and get to sleep earlier!

Carbs – Evil or Awesome?

You cannot enter a nutritional discussion these days without hotly debating the subject of "carbs". Are they ‘good’ or are they ‘bad’, what time of the day should you consume them or what type should you have? The questions are endless. The reason for this is mainly due to the increased popularity of low or no carb diets over the last few decades, diets such as Aktins, Dukan, Paleo and now Keto. So this month I will shed some light on whether this controversial macronutrient should be consumed or not.

In The Beginning

The first recorded low carb diet was actually back in 1863 from a formerly obese undertaker named William Banting. His physician Doctor William Harvey had only studied the context of carbohydrates for controlling diabetes (again, another subject which we perceive to be new) but convinced Banting to try it. Lo and behold it worked! So much so that the pamphlet he produced about it is still referred to today in relation to a low carbohydrate style diet.

Science-y Bit

The most common forms of carbohydrate are sugars, fibres and starches. It is important to realise that each of these forms react differently in the body yet we bundle them all into the same category, which is the first mistake. When I talk to my clients, I try to make it clear when I am referring to starch in particular as this is the most commonly thought of version of carbohydrates and the one which people tend to over-eat (and therefore cause fat gain).

Carbohydrates in all forms are an important part of a healthy diet as they provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy used to support bodily functions and physical activity. It is also important to remember the second half of the word, carbo ‘hydrate’. They hydrate the cells enabling them to communicate with other cells in the body allowing for better overall performance of all our systems.

Good or Bad

There is an old saying, ‘The dose maketh the poison”. I currently believe that there are no good or bad foods, only good or bad choices we make regarding food. Over consuming any food group can potentially lead to gaining body fat and causing ill health. I have both reduced and increased carbohydrates in my client’s diets and seen reductions in body fat and improvements in daily energy and quality of sleep.

Carbohydrates are a macro nutrient we tend to over eat and therefore consuming more calories than we are burning which causes the gain in body fat, not the carbohydrates themselves. The same rule applies to fat; healthy or not, if we over consume it, we will most likely gain weight. It is also true for protein, except over consuming it is incredibly hard to do.

Take Home Points

One way to think about carbohydrates (in terms of starch and sugar), is that we need to ‘earn’ them. The harder we work, the more we can consume and our body will use them more productively. However, this does not just mean a ‘hard’ gym session means you can swallow that chocolate brownie; earning them may mean that you need to limit them for a prolonged period of time (weeks or months) before you can really start to consume them in a higher quantity.

As always if you are unsure of your nutrition, hire the help of a professional and start your journey pointing in the right direction.

Label Maker

A common trend in society today is exactly that, to be part of a trend. It seems to be ‘the thing’ to want to have a label so that we can talk about ourselves in a way which makes others understand our issues and therefore the choices we make. But does labeling ourselves become a self-fulling prophecy and should we seek to rid ourselves of our own self-inflicted burdens?

Negative

For a smoker to stop smoking permanently, they need to fully believe that they are no longer a smoker and therefore sucking on a stick of nicotine and tobacco seems completely out of character. If they still regard themselves as a smoker in some way, they will never truly be able to quit.

Without getting too stuck in the realms of neuroscience, an addiction can ultimately be seen as a decision, conscious or subconscious. After all, millions of people a year all over world decide to change their lifelong habits and do it successfully.

So if we label ourselves as stressed, depressed, old or fat for example, are we simply allowing ourselves to act in a way which exacerbates the ‘aliment’ we have labelled ourselves with? I am not denying that there are medical conditions and real issues, but I believe that if we accept these labels, we will not put in a fully concerted effort to rid ourselves of the issues surrounding said label.

Positive

I believe the above to be true based on the premise that the opposite is accurate. If we fully believe we can achieve a given task, we will put in more effort and therefore by that act alone achieve a better result.

Many of the labels we give ourselves today are issues which we can solve ourselves (or with the help of others) if we allow it to happen. In the light of Mental Health Awareness Week I am in full support of people speaking up and discussing their issues, but we must move beyond this. Being aware of a potential condition is one thing whereas fully accepting it is something different entirely. We can do things to eradicate stress, depression and excess body fat and there are hundreds of stories of people becoming fitter, stronger and healthier despite their age.

Health

I constantly talk to my clients about health (mental and physical) and how important they both are. If your body is physically healthier, it is easier for you to lose body fat. And like wise, if you are psychologically in better health, it is easier for you to become physically healthier. This is why I talk to my clients about the labels they give themselves and to be careful about whether they are positive or negative labels. So be careful how you talk to yourself because you are the only one listening!

Base Levels

Base Levels

Base levels are something which is rarely spoken about in health, fitness and dieting yet they are fundamental in the maintenance of whatever you gain. People who lose weight and then pile it back on, get fitter or stronger but then seem to lose it again often have one thing in common, not having base levels. This month I will explain this ‘secret’ and the role it plays in your life.

Diet

Having a base level to a healthy diet is one of the most sure-fire ways to keep a good physique all year round. A good base level would be drinking plenty of water on a daily basis, eating several servings of vegetables and some fruit multiple times a day and eating adequate protein for your size and lifestyle.

To obtain this base level, you simply need to eat in this manner consistently and then over time it will become part of your lifestyle immaterial of where you are or what time of year it is. This is your base line. Everyone who has a good all year physique will keep to this way of eating while also adding in ‘cheat meals’, a little of what they fancy, meals out etc.

Strength

When I talk about strength, I am not referring to Herculean levels. The ability to get up out of a chair or walk up a flight of stairs requires strength and if we do not practice certain movements on a very regular basis, we will lose even our most basic strength abilities.

I will often say to my clients before they go on holiday that they should keep practicing movement patterns like squats and lunges. You do not have to execute a daily workout as such, but doing a few of these each day keeps your body’s ability to go through that range of movement and therefore keep the strength of that movement pattern.

Fitness

All the same principles apply to fitness too. The term ‘fitness’ is very broad but here I refer to it as cardiovascular ability. Again, I am not talking about everyone being able to run a marathon, but improving your cardiovascular capacity will have knock-on improvements to literally everything else that you do, including strength, muscle building and improving your physique.

The reason it affects so many areas is because it improves your work capacity ability. If your muscles get tired from training or moving around that is one thing, but often people also become fatigued from not having the lung capacity to recover quickly enough. Doing more cardio work on any level will also improve your digestion, your blood pressure, boost your immune system and your quality of sleep. And all of these things will affect your physique, your strength and your fitness.

The take home point from this article is that you have to treat your health as a long game. Yo-yo dieting and being hit and miss with exercise will not get you very far; often it will make matters worse. Your health is your ONLY life support. Once your health dissolves your ability to perform anything perishes. So please, take it seriously… but definitely make it fun!

Something From Nothing

We are all guilty of looking at someone who is better than ourselves and thinking that they achieved what they did by being lucky, having a wealthy family or that they had some other abnormally fortunate start to life.  Unfortunately, when we start to realise the truth, that they worked incredibly hard to achieve what they did, we are sometimes guilty of dismissing this fact as not possible.  So this month I will discuss the idea of ‘what is your potential?’

Mind-set

One thing I try to help clients with is mind-set.  It is virtually impossible to achieve a high level of anything with a negative outlook on life or to certain tasks.  There is, however, a difference between positive affirmations and a positive attitude.

It is very easy to say affirmations over and over again but not follow them up with action, whereas having a positive attitude tends to lead to acting in a positive manner.  And as I am sure everyone is aware, it is action and action alone which creates results.

Hippy Voodoo Magic

One thing which has occurred to me in recent years is that although numerous people will see ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ as somewhat ‘hippy-ish’, those who do believe it works tend to be in a better position physically, financially and in practically every other area of life.  And I am yet to see someone who is usually negative or in disbelief of most things excelling in any area of their lives.  Surely this anomaly in itself is grounds to start thinking in a more positive manner!?

What Is Your Focus?

Of course, being positive does not guarantee huge success in every area of life because you will only excel in areas where you put your focus.  It is also true for the opposite. If you focus on negative things like injuries, lack of finances or negative behaviour in others, we tend to draw in that same negativity.  For example, simply thinking about an aliment and the side effects it causes can manifest physically in the body.

What Is Your Potential?

Henry Ford once said “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.”  Your potential is whatever you perceive it to be and this is most relevant with health and fitness. A huge number of people embark on a health or fitness transformation without fully believing they can actually achieve it.

I have seen this numerous times with clients but as the results start to come, so their belief that they can achieve their goal increases.  With this increased belief comes greater effort and that definitely improves their chances of success.

Having 100% belief that you can achieve your goal is a definite way of reaching your potential. And if you do not reach it, surely you will be in a better position than when you started… Positive thinking is a win-win situation to creating something from nothing so embrace it!

What You Put In...

In the health and fitness industry there is a mantra ‘You are what you eat’.  Well I believe it expands much wider than simply just food. We are constantly connected to other people, all of whom have a story to tell, an opinion to give or information to share. We often blame the media for spreading bad ideas and negativity but much of our media these days is other ‘normal’ people.  So this month I will talk about ‘what you put in is what you get out’.

FOOD

It is true, ‘you are what you eat’.  I have been in this industry for over a decade now and it still amazes me to this day how changing your nutritional intake can completely change not just your physical shape, but also the way you sleep, your blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, depression.  Everything both physically and mentally.

I have had clients report back to me that their menstrual pain is far less or even completely disappeared, their overall mood really improved, their flexibility or injury is better.  Eating better quality food has a positive impact on everything about us and the opposite of that is also true.  Consuming poor levels of nutrients causes many ailments which we are prescribed pharmaceutical medication for, yet ironically, many times we get given the chemical version of a natural nutrient.

MEDIA

The same is true for the information we put in. I have suggested to many of my clients over the years to stop watching the news.  After all, it is a product which has to be sold and as we all know, bad news sells.  Why do we very rarely get good news stories? Why is there a higher percentage of negative storylines on soap operas? Why are there more dramas than comedy series written? Because negativity sells.

The more we are surrounded by negative storylines, either factual or fictitious, the more likely we are to become more negative in our own thought process.  It takes much more effort to be happy when everyone around is depressed, angry or sad.  Likewise, if you are surrounded by people who are laughing, you will at the very least start smiling, even if you do not know why they are laughing.

PRACTICE

If you want positive outcomes, you have to input with positive actions.  Anyone who is good at something has practiced it to some degree.  Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, who is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, would practice 5 to 6 hours a day, 6 days a week covering about 50 miles each week in the pool.

If you want to lose body fat, you have to practice losing body fat; controlling your nutrition, going to the gym etc. If you want to be less stressed, you have to practice destressing by learning meditation, controlling your breathing, writing a journal or whichever methods work for you.

What you put in is what you get out. Start clarifying what you want as an output and this will help determine what you put in.  Turning off the news, going to bed earlier and drinking more water are all perfect examples of inputs to create a less stressed, more energised, healthier being.

Won-D-Full

Vitamin D has been in the news a lot recently and for good reasons. Despite what the media may suggest, Vitamin D deficiency is definitely not a new sensation.  Here in the UK, vitamin D levels have been declining for many years but as the research improves, so does the awareness.  So this month I will discuss why vitamin D is such an important element of health and fitness.

Bones

Many people automatically assume that calcium is the go-to mineral to improve the health and strength of human bones. Although this is true, as with many health and fitness trends, there is a missing component.  Calcium does not bond very well (if at all) to the bone unless there is a sufficient level of vitamin D in the system.  Simply consuming large amounts of calcium will not guarantee strong bones.

Studies on early humans have shown that despite a lack of calcium from such foods as dairy, they still had strong non-porous bones. This is down to the combination of being outside in the sunshine and performing physical tasks.  In modern times this is substituted with weight training and taking a vitamin D supplement.

Sunlight

Human skin can produce lots of vitamin D when large amounts of skin are exposed to sunlight. Your body is designed to get the vitamin D it needs by producing it when your bare skin is exposed to sunlight. However, the sun needs to be strong enough for this to happen but unfortunately we are so ‘sun scared’ due to incorrect media attention that we cover ourselves in sun cream and clothing before we have had a chance to become exposed to the sun.  Therefore, the very few months of the year where we could actually allow our bodies to produce vitamin D, we block it.

I am definitely not suggesting that we spend hours exposed to the sun in the height of summer. However, we do need to build up our resilience. We can do this by going out in the sun for 5 minutes before applying sun protection. We can then build up the time to an appropriate level in order to allow our bodies to produce vitamin D without burning.

Supplement

I personally have been supplementing with vitamin D for over a decade and have used it to great effect when being caught in the sun and looking that classic ‘Brits Abroad’ shade of red.  Consuming a high dosage of the supplement form of vitamin D prior to bed allowed me to wake the next morning back to my normal skin tone.  I personally have also found that consuming medium to high dosages of vitamin D for a few weeks before going into the sun can allow you to be exposed to the sun for longer without burning.

I must state that you should consult a doctor or other professional medical health practitioner before exposing yourelf to the sun for long periods.

Benefits

Other than simply getting that perfect bronze colour on holiday, vitamin D has a multitude of health benefits.  Boosting your immune system to help fight colds and flu, regulating insulin levels to aid diabetes management and supporting lung and cardiovascular health are just some of the health benefits this long lost vitamin supplies us with.  My advice? Source out a good quality vitamin D supplement and spend time in the sunshine whenever you can… Speedos are optional.

Is Self-Care Selfish?

Many of us at some point have had the internal dialogue as to whether looking after ourselves or prioritising our own health and fitness is selfish.  From the initial outset it would appear to be; putting yourself first rather than others and looking after our own interests rather than our family and friends seems selfish.  But maybe it is not as selfish as it would originally appear.  This month I will address the question, is it selfish to be selfish?

Being Selfish

One definition of selfish is: ‘lacking consideration for other people’ while another states: ‘concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure’.  This is where it starts to become interesting because it entirely depends on our view of how we achieve pleasure for ourselves.

It is easy to assume that someone is keeping themselves fit and healthy because they want to feel energetic and look aesthetically pleasing.  However, if their motivation to stay healthy is because they NEED to stay in good health to look after someone else, does this then become selfish?  Because after all, if they become ill, who will look after their friend or relative?

Another even more interesting spin would be that someone like Mother Teresa was extremely selfish because helping other people made her feel great.  So she was actually helping others for her own selfish needs to feel fulfilled.

If you have ever travelled by plane, you will know that when the crew go through the safety demonstration, they will always tell you to fit your own oxygen mask first, even before attempting to fit it to your own children.  I assume this is for two reasons; the first being to reduce the chaos of everyone trying to fit each other’s masks but mainly for the second reason which would be, if you have your mask fitted, then you can help more people with their masks if they are struggling.

Happier & Healthier

Many studies have shown that people who tend to show ‘selfish’ characteristics are happier and healthier in life.  They tend to spend time doing activities (or a job) they want to do rather than one they feel forced to do.  Have you ever considered the idea that all self-employed people are selfish?

You will find yourself healthier because you are spending less time using precious energy trying to fulfil the needs of others, particularly when those needs are unnecessary, or dare I even say, selfish of the other person?

You will not be afraid to ask for a raise or a promotion because you have worked hard and been driven in a self-centred manner to achieve your goals and therefore your reward is justified.  And if you are healthy and grounded and do not mind saying ‘no’ to people, you will have better relationships (both professionally and personally) as you will very rarely be taken advantage of.

Are We Selfish?

Once we start to see that the word ‘selfish’ does not always have a negative connotation, we can start to answer that question better.  Obviously there is a negative side, but once we realise all the positive effects of being selfish, we start to understand it a little better.

I think the real question is, ‘What is your reason for doing what you are doing?’ If you are not causing harm to others, does it matter if it is selfish? The main issue which is not up for debate is this; when our health deteriorates so much, we no longer live.  Surely that is enough motivation to selfishly improve our health?