Is Taking Exercise Really That Important?

September 28th, 2015


This dull looking chart is what has given me the motivation to exercise over the 10 years since I first saw it. It may be hard to read so let me explain the basics.

Functional capacity on the left hand axis is defined as an ability to go about normal life – to work, to lift up your children, to drive and to play sport. It is also a proven predictor of cardiac health. The gap between the orange lines (i.e. from 50% to 83% functional capacity) shows the range for people to maintain a normal life. Below 50% you are classified as disabled. Age is the axis along the bottom of the chart.

The three curves represent three approaches to lifestyle:

  1. The Red curve shows a sedentary lifestyle with a poor diet. This shows that the person never reaches 100% of their potential capacity and is disabled by the age of 50 with a life expectancy of 55.
  1. The Yellow curve shows a sedentary lifestyle with a healthy diet. Here the person reaches 100% capacity by the age of 17 and maintains this to 30. They then decline rapidly, becoming disabled at 72 and dead at 80.
  1. The Green curve shows someone who eats well and takes regular exercise (normally defined at 30mins at least 3 times per week). In this case 100% capacity is also reached at 15 but the crucial difference is that this person never drops below 50% capacity until their death at 90. That means in theory being able to lead a normal active life throughout.

So if that does encourage you to start thinking about exercising more regularly here are 10 ideas that have really helped me and my clients reach the green curve:

  1. Involve someone else whenever possible – not only does this make it more fun, it also makes it much more likely that you will turn up and exercise
  1. 3 times a week is a minimum – tempting as it is to do one long run a week, the research shows that 3*30mins is the minimum to reach the green curve
  1. Always have a goal – preferably and external goal with internal as a by-product. Internal goals such as losing weight or improving your health are great, but are easy to talk yourself out of on a dark February night. Not so easy is the event that you have entered (a couple per year seems to work); even more if you have entered it with friends or are raising money for charity.
  1. Find something that you enjoy doing – for at least 2 of the three sessions. If you hate running and set up a program involving running three times a week, even with the chart in mind you are never going to keep it up. Write a long list with two columns – exercise I enjoy and exercise I do not. Think creatively, it does not have to be lifting weights in the gym. The research shows that a brisk 30 minute walk is enough. A quick round of golf, squash with a friend, walking the dog, all these can count to your three a week. It is no coincidence that dog owners live longer and are happier.
  1. Track your progress – it is deeply satisfying seeing your fitness improve and keeping a log of what you have done, like keeping a diary, greatly increases your chances of continuing. There are many brilliant smart phone apps now (Strava being the most popular), or go old school and start a log book.
  1. Build it into your diary and routine – it just does not work getting to the end of the day or week and thinking “Oh I suppose I must go out for a run”. You will not do it, no one is that good at motivating themselves on the spot. I am a great believer in routine as it creates habit and it also lets everyone else (partner, kids, friends) know when you are not around. Find 3-4 slots that work for you, block them out as repeating events in your diary and then at the start of each week figure out which 3 (or preferably 4!) work for you that week.
  1. Be outdoors for at least 2 of the three sessions – nature is a huge natural stimulant. Pounding away in the gym is just not the same and running repeatedly on a treadmill for example can create problems. Find a route or a landscape that you love, even if it means driving or cycling a little way first.
  1. Mix it up – have a range of sports/ exercise you enjoy doing. Doing the same thing over and over again even in the most motivated of us will lead to boredom and possible injury. Even professional athletes “cross train”. Go back to that long list in point 4 and make sure you have captured everything you have ever tried……
  1. Try something new….. and on that list things you have not tried but would love to. Find out how to start street dance – go on, google it and sign up now.
  1. Be kind to yourself – this is not easy, it requires real motivation and self discipline. If you have a week where you only exercise twice occasionally try not to berate yourself. As long as the majority of weeks see 3 sessions you are well on your way to the green curve.

If that is not enough motivation here is a short list of scientifically proven benefits of regular exercise (with thanks to C. Simmons of

  • People who are physically active live longer. According to a 20 year follow-up study, regular exercise reduces the risk of dying prematurely.
  • New brain cell development, improved cognition and memory. Exercise stimulates the formation of new brain cells. Researchers found that the areas of the brain that are stimulated through exercise are responsible for memory and learning. For instance, older adults who engage in regular physical activity have better performances in tests, implying decision-making process, memory and problem solving.
  • Improved sexual function and better sex life. Regular exercise maintains or improves sex life. Physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function can all enhance sexual functioning in both men and women. Researchers revealed that men who exercise regularly are less likely to have erectile dysfunction and impotence than are men who don’t exercise.
  • Exercise is a powerful antidepressant. Study after study has shown that exercise promotes mental health and reduces symptoms of depression. The antidepressant effect of regular physical exercise is comparable to the potent antidepressants like Zoloft. It may take at least 30 minutes of exercise a day for at least three to five days a week to significantly improve symptoms of depression.
  • Cardiovascular health. Lack of physical activity is one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Regular exercising makes your heart, like any other muscle, stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort.
  • Cholesterol lowering effect. Exercise itself does not burn off cholesterol like it does with fat.  However, exercise favorably influences blood cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.
  • Prevention and control of diabetes. There is strong evidence from high quality studies (e.g. Finnish Diabetes Prevention Study) that moderate physical activity combined with weight loss and balanced diet can confer a 50-60% reduction in risk of developing diabetes.
  • Blood pressure lowering. The way in which exercise can cause a reduction in blood pressure is unclear, but all forms of exercise seem to be effective in reducing blood pressure. Aerobic exercise appears to have a slightly greater effect on blood pressure in hypertensive individuals than in individuals without hypertension.
  • Reduced risk of stroke. Research data indicates that moderate and high levels of physical activity may reduce the risk of total, ischemic, and haemorrhagic strokes.
  • Weight control. Regular exercise helps to reach and maintain a healthy weight. If you take in more calories than needed in a day, exercise offsets a caloric overload and controls body weight. It speeds the rate of energy use, resulting in increased metabolism. When metabolism increases through exercise, you will maintain the faster rate for longer periods of a day.
  • Muscle strength. Health studies repeatedly show that strength training increases muscle strength and mass and decreases fat tissue.
  • Bone strength. An active lifestyle benefits bone density. Regular weight-bearing exercise promotes bone formation, delays bone loss and may protect against osteoporosis – a form of bone loss associated with aging.
  • Better night sleep. If you suffer from poor sleep, daily exercise can make the difference. The natural dip in body temperature five to six hours after exercise may help you to fall asleep.

I will write in the next blog about the other half of the equation- nutrition.

Seeking vs Settling

July 6th, 2015

Are we as humans programmed to seek out new, bigger, faster experiences and achievements, much like some sharks need to keep moving to breathe? How do we know when to stop, when enough is enough?  It feels tiring just writing these sentences let alone living them.  Yet most of us to some degree are restless.  I see it constantly in clients and experience it in myself.  Where does this deep-rooted notion that growth is good come from?  What is so tricky about settling, about celebrating what we have, about finding inner peace?

As hunter-gatherers we often had to seek food, simply to survive.  But crucially this was followed by periods of feasting and relaxation.  During the industrial revolution, social mobility was still relatively limited; society did not encourage or reward ambition or seeking.   Although capitalism had phases through the 14th-19th centuries, it was really Keynes, access to finance and globalization after the first war that led to the rise of modern capitalism as the pervasive system.  Now our urges to hunt for food had a new outlet – making money.  The difference from our hunter-gatherers is that the markets never sleep; there is no resting we have become always ‘on’.

But what about at an individual level, or a family level?  From looking at identical twins separated (manna from heaven for Psychologists), it would seem that around 50% of ambition is set genetically, the other 50% heavily influenced by our upbringing.  Perfectionists for example are often trying to win parental praise or avoid parental criticism long after they have left home.

The famous hierarchy of needs by Maslow may help shed some light here.

maslo hierarchy needs

Much like a computer game, we need to finish each level before moving on to the next one.  Self-Actualization is impossible if you are in a war zone or struggling for basic shelter and food.

What strikes me about the most extreme seekers is that they are stuck somewhere between levels 3 and 4.  In seeking power or money or profile or growth they trap themselves in a never ending search for self esteem, love and belonging.    This is why settling is so frightening because they would be settling below self-actualization, below a level of fulfillment.

So what can we learn from this?  First, that our upbringing casts a long shadow.  Being aware of how we were loved and belonged as children gives us insights into how to build our own relationships to break into the next level of self-esteem.  There is not an option for going it alone here and spending all your time and energy at work will not complete this level.

Second, that achievement and the confidence and respect that comes with it is not the end goal.  Many clients are stuck in the self-esteem loop, trying to achieve more and more to increase the sense of satisfaction.  Not settling, as they know they have not reached fulfillment, but looking in the same place over and over again.

Finally, that without having a purpose that has meaning (is larger than you) and is congruent with who you are, level 5 is not possible.  I believe this is where the seeking stops and settling becomes a wonderful fulfilled way of life where you make progress and grow in an effortless way.  This is what I work on with people on the Vision Days (details here).

The Choice is Yours

May 19th, 2014

Bonnie Ware spent several years caring for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She heard many confessions of regret, one of which was “I wish I had let myself be happier”. She goes on to write “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, when deep within they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Many of us feel stuck, in a job, relationship or location. As a life coach I often hear the phrase. “I do not have a choice” or the procrastination, “I just need to get through this year”. The truth is there always is a choice. It may involve compromise or sacrifice in some areas, but ignoring that niggling feeling that you are not on the right path only makes the inevitable car crash larger and harder to deal with . A good place to start is accepting the idea that “I can always be happier”. This is hard to argue with.

The American Declaration for Independence contains the right “for the pursuit of happiness”. An early hint that this is an active choice and action you can take. No one has the right to happiness, in the same way that high levels of happiness are non discriminatory. We all have the ability to increase our levels of happiness.

Can we make ourselves Happier?

November 9th, 2012

The observant amongst you will notice that the question is happier not happy.  I strongly believe that I have no right to prescribe to you how to be happy.  For a start all of us have different versions of happy or of the good life as the Greeks referred to it.  No instead lets focus on happier.

There is some science that is helpful here.  Sonja Lubromiskry in her book The How of Happiness divides the happiness pie into three parts.  Genetics account for 50% of impact on happiness and she calls this your set point.  The striking finding is that only 10% is controlled by external circumstances (e.g. rich/ poor, healthy/ unhealthy, married/ divorced).  That leaves a healthy 40% which is within your control, this is what you do and think.  Skeptical?  Well two studies might help.  The first shows that lottery winners and those involved in major accidents leading to disability return close to their happiness levels one year after the event  (i.e. no change from before winning/ being injured-Brickman et al 1978).  The second is that the richest Americans- those earning more that $10m annually report levels of personal happiness only slightly greater that the office staff and blue collar workers they employ (Deiner Horowitz and Emmons, “Happiness of the very wealthy” 1985).

When I first started studying for my Psychology degree in 1991 Happiness wasn’t on the agenda.  It is thanks to Seligman et al- who is widely seen as the father of Positive Psychology- that large brains and a lot of research have spent the last 15 years working out how we can be happier.

A word of caution.  Making yourself happier is not easily done on your own navel-gazing.  With the exception of meditation (which I still have not cracked) almost all ways of increasing happiness involve either being with other people, or actively thinking about and assessing the world around you.  What do I mean by actively thinking.  I see many of my clients stuck in a viscous circle of negative thinking that is a result of the way that they view the world.  Passively thinking and reflecting on this circle will only make it worse.  For me active thinking is also not just reading self help books in isolation.  Active thinking involves reading about, trying and adapting some of the 10-15 core ideas around happiness that have emerged over the last decade.

Rather than read endless books and trawl the newspapers (which are rarely positive and often contradictory) I will provide over the new few months a carefully curated guide to these ideas and I look forward to discussing them with you.

Proceed only if you do believe that you can be happier!

What the Hedonists did not know….

October 28th, 2011

How good does the first Pringle taste?  The second?  Chances are by the time you are on the 5th (or in my case 25th) the pleasure of that first taste has gone.  It turns out this is the same for all pleasures- they are fleeting and change as you experience them.

This was part of a talk given by Matthieu Ricard– A French molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk who has said “you can think your way to happiness.”

He describes the three steps towards a fulfilled life; pleasure, engagement and finally meaning. Pleasure as discussed has diminishing returns and pursued on its own results in the Hedonic Treadmill which is an exhausting dance to find the next high.

Engagement is often described as when time stands still.  Many of us have this outside of work, but the holy grail is to find it in as many of your waking hours as possible.

Finally meaning is literally defined as being involved in something larger than yourself.  Ricard argues that the perspective this provides gives you the resources to deal with the inevitable bumps in the road- he also points out that 10,000+ hours of meditation helps!

Almost all of my clients work on finding engagement and meaning in their lives.

I hope you are all flourishing- if not give me a call.


Are you flourishing?

July 22nd, 2011
Martin Seligman realised 15 years ago that as a clinical psychologist he and his profession had spent all their time helping people move from miserable to ok.  No one had spent time helping people move from ok to happy.  He founded Positive Psychology and has just published latest bookFlourish. I heard him talk at the RSA on wednesday.

He is working with the US army and the indeed the UK government teaching his well being theory summarised as PERMA.

  • Positive Emotion- mainly heritable but can be changed lastingly using exercises such as the gratitude diary which I wrote about in the Times which is now sadly behind a paywall but can be read in a blog post below
  • Engagement- how often does time just fly by?  When it does you are in flow and are you truly engaged in what you are doing
  • Meaning- belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self
  • Relationships- very little that is positive is solitary and other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up
  • Accomplishment- achieving pursued for its own sake in many cases will contribute to well being.

You can hear a podcast of his talk here.
Coaching helps clients work on all of these areas.  Often people start out looking at their careers (one source of accomplishment) and invariably branch out into meaning, relationships and engagement.  I help clients Flourish.
Have a great weekend, and I am sure none of you will lament the reduced options for your Sunday paper reading.

Outwardly successful inwardly questioning

July 22nd, 2011

OSIQ– Outwardly successful inwardly questioning. The more clients I work with the more I see this pattern repeat itself.

The classic symbols of success- wealth, big houses, holidays, cars are being increasingly challenged.

The undisputed fact is that despite a great increase in wealth over the last 50 years we are no happier than we were 50 years ago. In fact we are seeing alarming rises in depression and other mental health problems. Tackling this is the central mission behind Action for Happiness, a force for positive social change which officially launched last week. in fact it has been quietly building up over 10,000 members.

They have identified Ten Key Ways to Happier livingwhich I think are worth a look.  There are at least 5 on the list that I spend time working on regularly with clients;

  1. Set challenging goals which I can achieve
  2. Choose my own attitude whatever happens to me
  3. Accept myself and build on my strengths
  4. Exercise and take care of my body
  5. Find meaning by being part of something bigger

OSID– outwardly successful inwardly delighted is possible for everyone.

Work-life balance survey

February 22nd, 2011

Thank you to those of you who completed the career and work-life balance
survey.  If you haven’t yet then go to and answer the 6 quick questions. The preliminary results are really interesting. 60% of you would like to make changes in your work life, followed by 54% with money (the two are clearly linked).  One of the areas I often explore with clients is whether the answer is changing jobs, or changing the way they interact with their current role.
A useful exercise is to imagine your perfect job, write down what would be
important to you about this job, and then compare to your current job. There
is an easy to use free tool at on the offers and books page.
Other interesting insights from the survey include work life balance where
most people feel it is 80% work and 20% life and would like it to be 60/40.
I work with many clients on this area and improving skills such as time
management can have a major impact.
So what are you waiting for?  Download your template, buy the app and if you
would like some 1-1 coaching email me at

Proven Tips for boosting Happiness

November 26th, 2010

I wrote this for the Times Newspaper

It’s the little things that count – 5 things to boost everyday wellbeing

Try incorporating these research based tips into your everyday life by adding one today and then one each Friday for the next 4 weeks.

1.            Write a gratitude diary

This is a favourite of  Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement.  He asked participants to write down “three good things in life” once a week.   After a month, they noticed that they were happier and less depressed. They continued to report feeling happier three and six months later.  Keep a diary by your bed and before you go to sleep at least once a week write down three things in your life that you are grateful for.

2.            Stop comparing yourself to others

It may look that others are better off from the outside but do you really know what even your closest friends and family are thinking, feeling or hiding?  Every time you find yourself wishing you had the bag/baby/husband/house that another has, stop that train of thought as you simply don’t know what they have had to go through to get them.  Instead recall the last entry in your gratitude diary.

3.            Do a good deed a day

Research from the Random Acts of Kindness foundation shows that a good deed a day – give a stranger directions, donate used books to a library or talk with a homeless person  – relieves stress and improves your overall mental health.  Try doing five acts a week for full effect.

4.            Set achievable goals

We all say “some day I will…” and then never do it.  And then we beat ourselves up for not doing it.  It’s far better to make small positive changes in your life than big ones you will never do.  Set one for today – I will finish my CV – then congratulate and reward yourself this evening when you achieve the goal.

5.            Write that overdue thank you letter

We all have someone we owe a big thank you to.  Write the letter and then go and read it out loud to them.  This also comes from research done by Seligman who found that people who did this are measurably happier for more than a month.

The 4 L’s

October 12th, 2010

I heard a new one the other day that all you need in life if the 4 L’s.

1) Learning- constant learning keeps us interested, engaged and up to date.  Without it we tend to feel stuck in a rut and that we are falling behind.  It doesn’t matter what you are learning, piano, corporate finance or Arabic it is the process of learning and reactivating the brain that leads to satisfaction

2) Loving- it makes the world go round.  Starting with loving ourselves and then others a life without love is 2-d.  For me a life partner gets you up to 3-d but it is the love for a child that catapults you into 4-d.  Only they have the ability to laser past all one’s defences and directly touch our hearts with a little podgy finger

3) Living- a bit nebulous this one.  I think what is means is just embracing the ups and downs of life and seizing the opportunities that come your way

4) Legacy- as we get older this becomes the pressing question.  Related to my thoughts on purpose (see link below) a legacy is the answer to our question of why are we here.  It can be very different for different people- we don’t all need the tallest building in London named after us- but knowing what your’s is or will be is a key part of sleeping well at night

The early mid life crisis

September 19th, 2010

You may have read the articles last week about the mid life crisis starting at 35 based on research done by Relate.  It seems we are heading into a perfect storm of work stress, worries about money, young kids and ageing parents.  Sound familiar?

Are you part of the 21% that felt lonely, or the 20% that are having sex less than once per year (does that mean 0.5 times per year?)

So any quick fixes I hear you ask?  Well no, but to me there are two key ingredients that keep perspective intact through this tough period in our lives.  Firstly we need to have a clear view of our purpose.  If we are not on purpose we need to be very clear why and have a plan moving us in the right direction.

Second we need to have the right work-life balance.  This can be different for everyone but rest assured if it is out of balance, and particularly if the workload is not on purpose, stress will escalate and the mid life crisis will be upon us.