First published Winter 2018


 

After the fun of the festive season, it can be all too tempting to hibernate until the first signs of spring; a message that’s even louder on so-called Blue Monday. Yet studies show that getting active — preferably in the fresh air — will do more for our mood than any duvet and box set

 

If you were thinking of planning in a duvet day, apparently 21 January is the time to do it. This is because after the jollities of Christmas and New Year, there is one day in January which is predicted to be the most depressing day of the year — and when we are more likely to want to pull the covers back over ourselves and skulk away the day. In 2018 it was 15 January, but for 2019 it has shuffled along a week.

Blue Monday, as it is called, appeared in the press back in 2005, with a claim that it was possible to mathematically predict the gloomiest day of the year. But is labelling a day in such a negative way helpful at all? (Except for the holiday companies that might plan to cash in by marketing blue skies and sunshine?) Should the day be renamed ‘get out and do something fun’ day?

According to a recent survey, we are already spending too much time indoors. A nationwide poll of nearly 2,000 adults by Jordans Cereals found that the average Brit spends 53 years of their life indoors and just one decade outdoors enjoying fresh air and nature.

In terms of weekly activity, we are spending a total of 142 hours indoors a week — either at the office, shopping, watching TV at home, or travelling by car or public transport. But our poor presence outdoors may not always be a matter of choice. Nearly half — 47 per cent — of those polled said they never have the time or opportunity to venture outside, and 15 per cent said that they don’t have anywhere picturesque nearby that they can visit.

The research showed that 85 per cent of those polled said they would love to spend more time in the open air, but seven per cent said they would have no idea where to go.

According to the survey, 85 per cent of respondents had not recently fed the ducks with their children — perhaps something that shouldn’t be too surprising following the Ban the Bread campaign which actively discouraged feeding bread to water birds.

Feed the swans and ducks

Last year, a statement from The Queen’s Royal Swan Marker said that bread was suitable for swans (as long as it is not mouldy — which is poisonous to swans), and can even be important for supplementing their winter diet when there is less natural food around.1

Healthier choices for swans and ducks include soft green leaves such as lettuce and spinach, porridge oats, or frozen peas. The Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton says food should be thrown so it can be swallowed with water. It also discourages throwing food onto the ground because this encourages swans to leave the water when they see humans, making them more vulnerable to harm from cars and dogs.1

Visit a farm

Contact with animals can be great for reducing stress levels, and educational for children. Yet the study also found that 37 per cent of respondents had no connection to wildlife in their everyday life.

If you need to get your children out into the fresh air, find out if there is a city farm or petting zoo in your area. Alternatively, see if there is a farm in your area that welcomes visitors. Some farms also welcome school trips. The Soil Association has a helpful farm finder: www.foodforlife.org.uk/schools/what-can-you-do/farm-finder.

In 2016, Jordans launched the Jordans Farm Partnership, a collaboration between Jordans’ 42 oat farmers, LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), The Prince’s Countryside Fund, and The Wildlife Trusts.

Set up to improve the sustainability of all Jordans farms, support British wildlife by giving over 10 per cent of working farmland to wildlife conservation, and to support rural communities, the partnership also seeks to encourage people to get outdoors and into nature. (Once a year, LEAF promotes an open farm day; so if visiting a farm is something you would rather do in summer, the next LEAF Open Farm Sunday is on 9 June. farmsunday.org/visit-a-farm)

Become a volunteer dog walker

Are you a dog-lover who can’t keep one of your own but would be prepared to spend time walking a dog for charity? (You do need to be prepared to scoop the poop and bin it responsibly.) If so, perhaps you could help out with dog walking for an elderly friend, relative or a local charity.

The Cinnamon Trust is a national charity for the elderly, the terminally ill, and their pets, who rely on a network of volunteers to help keep owners and their pets together. Visit www.cinnamon.org.uk for more information. Alternatively, if there is an RSPCA animal rescue centre near you, find out if it is looking for volunteer dog walkers.2

Walk/jog/run — or cheer others on!

Not having anywhere to go or anyone to go with doesn’t have to be a barrier to getting out. Parkrun is a non-competitive event which offers a warm welcome to new participants.

Even if you are not a runner, you can still take part. Chrissie Wellington, head of health and wellbeing for parkrun, told Optimum Nutrition: “We strongly encourage walkers to participate in our events, and if you’re nervous about walking or running then volunteering or simply spectating and socialising is a great opportunity to meet people and get a feel for the event. Most parkruns are built around a local cafe and everyone is encouraged to get together for a hot drink afterwards.”

A free event that is open to all, parkrun has recently joined up with the Royal College of General Practitioners in an initiative to encourage GP practices to become certified ‘parkrun practices’, and direct patients towards healthier habits. In the first five months since it was announced, more than 500 GP practices formally linked with their local parkrun to become certified parkrun practices.

Wellington explained: “As context, around 155,000 people participate in parkrun each weekend in the UK, with an average of 7,000 first-timers.”

She said that eight per cent of all participants identified themselves as being “inactive” at the point of registering with parkrun.

“Therefore, we pride ourselves at breaking down the barriers to taking part in parkrun, whether you walk it, run it, volunteer or simply come along to spectate in the fresh air and join people for coffee afterwards. Our events have a First Timer welcome to explain what happens at parkrun, and volunteer Tail Walkers provide support and encouragement while ensuring that nobody can ever ‘come last’ at a parkrun.”

Visit www.parkrun.org.uk

Become a local tourist

If you are really stuck for somewhere to go or something to do, take a few minutes to see what the internet will reveal about your own area. Your borough should have a tourism department which points out the attractions nearest to you. Or if you are able to travel a little further afield and are looking for inspiration, take a look at what the British tourist board recommends for visitors via its website www.visitbritain.com.

Before heading out, prepare a nutritious packed lunch or snack, or a warming meal to come home to. For recipe ideas (and for other ideas on how to ‘move it’), browse back issues of Optimum Nutrition through our website www.ion.ac.uk and select the magazine option.

Tell us how you got moving by connecting with us via Twitter: @ion_nutrition Facebook: instituteforoptimumnutrition, and Instagram: @ion_nutrition

Resisting inactivity requires extra brain power and more brain resources

Struggling to motivate ourselves to exercise is likely a consequence of evolution. For our ancestors, physical exertion came at the expense of hard-won calories; resting would have enabled them to save energy for important functions such as finding food and running from danger.

Investigating effects on the brain, a recent study has found that avoiding inactivity (i.e. moving towards activity) requires more brain activity; something which may explain why we are often drawn to inactivity.

For the study, 29 young adults were wired up to electrodes and asked to control an onscreen avatar which they had to move when images representing activity or inactivity flashed up on a screen. In one test they had to move the avatar as quickly as possible towards the activity images and away from the inactivity images. In another, they were asked to do the opposite.

It was found that subjects moved the avatar more quickly when moving towards activity and away from inactivity. They were slower when moving away from activity and towards inactivity. However, this was not surprising; Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Brain Behaviour Lab, said that it was already known from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviours and moving toward active behaviours.

What the team found in this study was that the recordings of brain activity showed that moving away from inactivity used significantly more brain power than moving towards inactivity; suggesting that trying to not be inactive requires more effort.

Boisgontier said: “The exciting novelty of our study is that it shows this faster avoidance of physical inactivity comes at a cost — and that is an increased involvement of brain resources. These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviours.”

So if you are feeling guilty or demoralised at how exercise can sometimes be such an effort, take comfort in the fact that many of us are battling our evolutionary biology — and find an activity that you enjoy and are more likely to continue.

 

Reference

  • Cheval B et al (2018). Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study, bioRxiv, 277988.

 

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References

  1. www.theswansanctuary.org.uk/cause/official-statement-bread-queens-swan-marker
  2. www.rspca.org.uk/whatwedo/latest/blogs/details/-/articleName/Blog_A_guide_to_voluntary_dog_walking