No Hot Showers

Ah, ah – ooh, ooh – eee!

No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.

A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).

What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.

Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.

For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.

I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.

Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment

Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.

Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.

So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.

Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.

Why No Hot Showers?

When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:

  1. Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
  2. Save on heating bills.

I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.

Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.

  1. Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
  2. It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  3. Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
  4. Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
  5. Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
  6. This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
  7. Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
  8. Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
  9. James Bond takes cold showers. You can be like him, but less of a misogynistic sadist.
  10. You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
  11. It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
  12. Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
  13. Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
  14. Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
  15. Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
  16. Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
  17. Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.

Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.

Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.

However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!

How to Take a Cold Shower

  1. Turn on the cold tap. Full.
  2. Don’t turn on any other taps.

You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.

You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.

How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.

I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.

If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.

Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.

But, wait – there’s more!

One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.

I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.

And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.

Battles with bicycle maintenance (and a ghost)

When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.

I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:

a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers

AND

b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.

This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.

The fact that I was able to cycle over 4,000 miles around the coast of Britain (not to mention another 1,500 around Tunisia) is testament more to the robust design of the modern bicycle than to my own skills as roadside mechanic.

Wheeling Adventure

Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).

Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.

To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.

“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”

I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.

But my smugness was not to last.

Chattering of neglect

For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:

“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.

Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.

Ouch.

The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.

And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.

Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”

I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.

Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night

As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:

  1. The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
  2. The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
  3. The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).

Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.

With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.

So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.

I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.

This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.

I am pleased with myself.

For exactly 30 seconds.

That’s how long it takes for me to realise:

  1. My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
  2. My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
  3. Some of the spokes are loose.
  4. The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.

It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.

Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.

Life after Frank

You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.

But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:

One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.

Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”

The start of the Not Just Watching Football Season

The Never Ending Story: Monotonous or Life-affirming?

It’s that time of year again.

At this very second, men in ill-fitting polyester advert shirts are gathering around faux oak tables in dingy back rooms to accumulate another season’s worth of adipose tissue. And all for the pleasure of watching socially dysfunctional teenage athletes earn more cold hard cash in ninety minutes than their admirers could dream of earning in a month.

Yes, the football season is with us again, heralded by England’s defeat of Scotland on Wednesday night, thanks to a well-timed headed goal by 31-year-old debutant Rickie Lambert. Mr Lambert, exercising his imagination like never before, described the crowning achievement of his career as a ‘dream come true’.

I have a deeply humbling confession to make: I don’t play professional football. I never have. Rickie Lambert’s dream come true is about as relevant to my life as Emmental meteorites.

My relationship to football is exactly the same as a reader’s relationship to a book. I am not a player inside the world of football; I look on from the sidelines. I read about the world of football in exactly the same way that I read about the world of Miss Marple (but with less murder and significantly worse dialogue).

Millions of other people enjoy these same soccer stories and I could talk football with them until the Cowdenbeaths come home. But I will never myself take part or affect the world in which I am cognitively immersed. And I will probably never even meet someone who does. Just like I’ll never one day take the 4.50 from Paddington to St Mary Mead, nor meet Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy.

Not the 4.50 from Paddington. No trains leave Paddington at that time. Do your research next time, Christie.

So what?

I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that football might as well be a fiction, a story, or combination and complex interaction of stories, told every day, all over the world. The football fan’s longing for the start of the new football season is no different to the crystal meth fan’s rabid anticipation of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. Football is the ultimate box set: a never-ending reel of intertwining plot lines, with a cast of thousands and story twists that no writer has even written.

The question we have to ask ourselves is:

Is this story interesting enough to justify a few hours of my life every week?

The answer, I suspect, is increasingly no. But I’m going to try to find out. Instead of just watching football this season, I’m going to start thinking more deeply about what it does for me, does to me – and does to and for us all.

So I hereby declare the official opening of the Not Just Watching Football Season (catchy, I know). Stay tuned for my football-based examinations of such topics as Tribalism, Slum Clearances, Sexual Assault and Consumer Capitalism. To be fair, it’ll almost certainly be a game of two halves, at the end of the day.

Not so bad after all: British sport on the world stage

I was listening to a comedy show on the radio last night and they were taking the piss out of British sporting success. Very funny, I’m sure. But it all sounded a little hackneyed. What about our golfers? What about our rugby players? What about Formula 1?

‘We British don’t like winning; it’s so common…’ they joked.

Tommy-rot, I thought, and so looked up a few things on Wikipedia.

Here’s a list of recent (last 10 years) major British sporting success:

  • Rugby Union: 2003 World Cup
  • Cricket: 2010 World Twenty20
  • Golf: US Open 2010 (McDowell), 2011 (McIlroy)
  • Formula 1: Champions 2008 (Hamilton), 2009 (Button)
  • Heavyweight Boxing: 2002 WBC, IBF (Lewis), 2011 WBA (Haye)
  • Olympics Medal Table: 4th place 2008

The only major sports that are perhaps letting us down are Tennis (no Grand Slams since 1936) and Football (only one major championship, in 1966). But even those have not exactly lacked success.

We’ve had a player in the ATP Men’s Tour Top 20 for fourteen of the last fifteen years, with Tim Henman and now Andy Murray.

In football, national success has been hard to come by, but Liverpool and Manchester United have both won the Champions League in the last ten years.

Not so bad after all.

Technology in Sport: Justice vs Drama


Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:

  • Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
  • Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.

Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.

Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.

Is This A Good Thing?

Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?

Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.

But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?

These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:

1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport

During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).

  • Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
  • And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.

2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials

These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).

  • Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
  • Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.

3. There is often still an element of human judgement required

Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.

  • Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.

So Why Use Technology?

Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?

2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?

3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?

The Logical Conclusions

I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.

1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it

The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.

2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity

Football has the right balance at the moment. The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.

This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.

After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.

3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!

Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.

But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.

Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.

I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.

And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!

How to beat Hormonal Changes with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.

Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.

The Workout

  • You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
  • For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
  • In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
  • Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Addiction and Quit Smoking with Exercise

The Theory

Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.

Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.

Exercise or Drugs?

There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.

Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.

The Workout

  • If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
  • Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
  • Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
  • As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
  • Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
  • Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
  • Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
  • Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Depression with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise counters depression at almost every level. With regular exercise we become less anxious, less neurotic, less angry, less stressed, less cynical, less distrustful, more sociable, and more confident. How?

  • Exercise boosts norepinephrine, which boosts our feelings of self-esteem.
  • Exercise boosts dopamine, which boosts our motivation, attention, focus and satisfaction.
  • Exercise boosts serotonin, which enhances our mood and boosts our impulse control. It boosts our feelings of self-esteem and increases our capacity for learning.
  • Exercise boosts BDNF, which protects neurons against cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress.

Exercise has been shown to work as well as the drug Zoloft against depression. The improvement isn’t as dramatic as the drug, but exercise performs better over the long-term, over about 6 months.

When we’re depressed, the brain stops adapting, it shuts down learning capacity at the cellular level. This means that we find it incredibly hard to work our way out of the hole. Depression is a form of hibernation. Instead of hibernating when food supplies are low, depression pushes us into hibernating when our emotions are low.

The Workout

  • Just 10 minutes exercise can lift your mood, but only briefly.
  • For best results, workout for 3-5 sessions per week.
  • Work at a high-intensity, 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • As a rough guide, try to burn at least your Body Weight in lbs x 8 Calories per week. You can test yourself on gym equipment to get an idea of the values or use the calculator on this website: http://www.prohealth.com/weightloss/tools/exercise/calculator1_2.cfm.
  • Try to exercise with others too, then you’ll get the benefits of socialising as well. It will also give you the motivation to keep working.
  • Stick at it. Remember that exercise works best in the long-term, at least six months.

Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to Grow Your Brain with Exercise

The Theory

The brain is plastic; it isn’t fixed rigid from the day you were born to the day you will die. Brain cells can grow or die, they can strengthen or weaken throughout your life. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘when neurons fire together, they wire together.’ This is a fancy way of saying that, if you do something over and over again, you’ll get better and better at it and, eventually, you’ll be able to do that something without even thinking about it. Remember when you learnt to ride your bike? It was a nightmare at first, then you had stabilisers, then you were as free as a bird, flying down the road. That was the result of your brain’s neurons firing together over and over again and eventually wiring together so tightly that you didn’t have to think about pedalling or steering or braking any more.

Only mobile creatures need brains. Brains are very expensive things to run, they cost us a lot in terms of energy. If we didn’t really need a brain, we wouldn’t have one. There’s a particular mollusc that is born with a brain so that it can move across the rocks away from its birthplace. When it has found a new home, it doesn’t need the brain anymore so it eats it. Yum. You could say that thinking is the internalisation of movement, therefore it is only to be expected that exercise should have a profound effect on the brain.

And indeed it does. Exercise elevates the following chemicals in your brain:

  • Serotonin, which controls your mood.
  • Dopamine, which is your brain’s ‘reward centre’, linked with movement and learning.
  • Norepinephrine, which controls your attention and motivation.
  • BDNF, dubbed ‘MiracleGro for the brain’. This creates new branches of synapses. In other words: it grows brain cells.

And the more exercise you do, the more it spikes growth.

The Workout

The brain can’t learn while exercising, but blood goes to the prefrontal cortex immediately after exercise, making it ripe for learning something new.

  • Both aerobic (e.g. running, cycling) and complex activities (e.g. playing the piano, martial arts) are important.
  • Aerobic exercise elevates executive function neurotransmitters. This will create new blood vessels and new cells.
  • Complex activities increase BDNF, which strengthens and expands synapse networks. 
  • Tennis is a good example of an activity that combines both aerobic and complex activity. Other examples are yoga, pilates and dancing. Dancing to an irregular rhythm, like the tango, is particularly good for improving your brain’s plasticity.
  • Try to hit a least 35 minutes at 60-70% intensity (for women) or at your maximum heart rate (for men).


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Anxiety and Fear with Exercise

The Theory

If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.

The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.

Fear is the memory of anxiety

Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.

Drown out the fear

You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.

There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:

  1. It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
  2. It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
  3. It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
  4. It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
  5. It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
  6. It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.

The Workout

  • Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
  • Try 3 x 90 minute workouts per week.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Stress with Exercise

The Theory

Stress is stress, the only difference is degree. There’s the extreme stress of losing your job, but even standing up from the computer is a stress on your body. The only difference is degree.

Exercise is controlled emotional and physical stress. Exercise breaks down neurons, just like any other stress, but in a controlled way. The repair mechanisms that kick in after the exercise leave you stronger for next time. A low level of stress is good for you, like a vaccine. Exercise raises your brain’s tolerance for stressful situations and you will be better able to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life if you exercise regularly.

There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ stress

Your body makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Winning the lottery and being faced with a hungry lion both trigger a stress response in the brain. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are just our opinions and sometimes the same stress can be ‘good’ in one situation and ‘bad’ in another. For example, a soldier trained to suspect car bombs feels stress when he is faced with an unknown car: great in Afghanistan, not so useful in Amersham. Stress is what saves us when faced with the hungry lion by triggering the fight or flight response. When your brain is stressed it boosts levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, increasing your focus and attention, helping you get that essay done on deadline day!

But of course we all know that too much stress, or constant low-level stress is miserable. Stressed people become obsessed (not emotionally, chemically) with the object of the stress and ignore everything else. Stress inhibits learning as well, making the stress self-reinforcing, as your brain can’t learn from the past mistakes that have caused the stress. It becomes a negative feedback loop.

Loneliness can become a part of this negative feedback loop as well. Stress makes us less likely to seek out society and, with fewer friends, we have less support through the tough times and the stress persists.

As we all know, stress can have a serious negative impact on our health. One of the ways it does is poor diet. After stress the brain craves glucose to replenish its stocks. This is fine if we are only occasionally stressed, but if we’re constantly stressed out then this response becomes unhealthy.

How does exercise tackle stress?

  • Exercise builds more insulin receptors, for more efficient use of glucose.
  • Exercise strengthens the synaptic pathways in your brain by increasing production of BDNF. This makes your brain better able to deal with future stresses.
  • Exercise relaxes the resting tension in the muscles, so the brain can relax too.
  • Exercise lowers blood pressure.
  • Exercise can increase social activity through participation in team sports or social contact at the gym.
  • Exercise is something you can do, it gives you control over the stress. This will boost your self-confidence.

The Workout

Exercise has been shown to be more effective against stress than food, alcohol or medication so make exercise a part of your life. Consider the fact that palaeolithic man used to walk 5-10 miles a day. Today, however, a large proportion of the modern Western population (including myself) has a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. This is not the lifestyle that our brains have evolved for.

I keep exercise in my daily life by cycling around London instead of taking public transport. When I haven’t got any plans to cycle anywhere, I make sure that I take several walks during the day and try to go for a short run as well.

Team sports are particularly good ways of building exercise into your life because very often there is a constant stream of games and the obligation of not letting the team down compels you to exercise. It’s also good fun!


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

Global Social Media Use Statistics: FIFA.com Goal of the Year Case Study

This has to be the most boring blog post title EVER. But, hey, I love stats. I studied the reported social media use from each of the ten nominations for goal of the year. These nominations came from nine countries: South Africa, Brazil, Japan, The Netherlands (two nominations, although only one got any serious sharing), Argentina, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. I assume that these share statistics will roughly represent the social media usage in each of the countries nominated because football fans are very loyal and most of the goals came in international matches or national league matches in the country of the player’s birth, rather than national league matches in a country foreign to the player.

So, after 24 hours of global sharing (to allow for timezone differences), what do we find?

  • No one uses Buzz. 
  • Only three countries use Twitter that much: The Netherlands, Japan and – above all – Brazil. Brazil had over 30% of shares done through Twitter. 
  • Every single other country represented used Facebook to share more than 90% of the time.

Here are the hard stats, for the countries that drew more than 500 shares (sorry South Africa!):

Brazil (915 shares)

Twitter: 32.57%
Facebook: 66.67%
Buzz: 0.77%

Japan (2995)

Twitter: 18.3%
Facebook: 81.34%
Buzz: 0.37%

The Netherlands (2792 – two nominations)

Twitter: 9.6%
Facebook: 89.94%
Buzz: 0.47%

Argentina (1005)

Twitter: 6.17%
Facebook: 93.23%
Buzz: 0.6%

France (1439)

Twitter: 5.98%
Facebook: 93.26%
Buzz: 0.76%

Northern Ireland (3247)

Twitter: 5.67%
Facebook: 94.09%
Buzz: 0.25%

Sweden (9066)

Twitter: 2.14%
Facebook: 97.67%
Buzz: 0.19%

Turkey (at least 12281 – Facebook stops reporting precise data at these amounts)

Twitter: 2.17%
Facebook: 97.71%
Buzz: 0.11%

So there you have it. Fascinating, eh? I’m sure this will be interesting to someone, won’t it? That Brazil uses Twitter a lot? Or, at least, that goal trended in Brazil or something. Could just be a fluke. That’s the problem with statistics I suppose. Oh well. Enjoy the goals anyway.

22 Tips for 100 Push Ups

I am now on week 10 of the 6 week program ‘One Hundred Push Ups’. I finally feel like I can say I have accomplished pretty much what I set out to achieve: I have done 100 consecutive push ups (or press ups, as I call them – like I’m a button or something) on no less than three occasions.

So here are my hot-tips for anyone else wanting to take the pain.

22 Tips for 100 push ups

  1. Press ups are hard bloody work. By the end of a good session, you will be sweating buckets. The floor below you will be damp. Which is nice. Maybe have a towel close to hand, certainly in the latter weeks.
  2. Give yourself a good reason for doing this stupid regime. Mine was to be able to show off in the pub.
  3. Get yourself an ups buddy. Otherwise the first few weeks will seem pretty stupid and pointless: ‘I did 10 press ups!’ isn’t going to impress anyone else.
  4. Press ups make your legs wobbly. You also might not be able to move your arms much.
  5. After a hard session, do not expect your arms to respond when you want to get up. You will have to roll onto your back, bring your knees up and then roll onto your side so you have some leverage. This is normal.
  6. Don’t try carrying anything immediately after a heavy session. You will drop it.
  7. For this reason, don’t drink from a glass. But do drink (water).
  8. Eat an egg soon after for muscle-loving protein.
  9. Try not to strain your neck – it hurts. Looking forwards, as opposed to downwards seems to help. However, it is a fact (I reckon anyway) that contorting your face into stupid grimaces and making ridiculous noises DOES make that last set of 10 easier.
  10. Eventually you will stop making grunting noises that make people think you’re watching porn.
  11. Feel good about it. Feel really good about it. Make a spreadsheet or something, tick things off.
  12. Make sure you have access to the regime at all times. You don’t want to miss a day just because you don’t know how many you should be doing. No excuses.
  13. Don’t fuss over what time of day to do them: it’s going to hurt like fuck anyway. It’s supposed to.
  14. You can do it through (non-ups related) aches and pains. 6 hours of cricket and trampball on the Sunday and I went for a hard session on the Monday. Just get on with it. No excuses.
  15. You can do it through illness (although probably not serious illness – seek medical advice, blah blah blah.) I did it with a nasty chill. Yeah, sure I was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but it was worth it for the achievement.
  16. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It is better to enjoy it and finish it than to make yourself miserable and fail. If you fail at one level, just repeat it the next week.
  17. Or change the regime. I failed twice on Week 6 Level 2 and couldn’t face doing it a third time so I just switched to Week 6 Level 3 – much harder. To get through it I increased the length of time between reps and just about got there. The next week I did my first hundred. Mess around with the regime to suit you, but make sure you stick by the goals you set.
  18. The ‘6 weeks’ claim is just a target. It took me until Day 1 of Week 9 to get to 100 consecutive press ups. Just keep going.
  19. Don’t stop when you get to a hundred. Just keep going.
  20. Invest in new shirts for your new arms.
  21. Just do it.
  22. When you’ve done your hundred, start on the ‘Two Hundred Sit-Ups’ regime 🙂