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Re-finding fitness – why we should cool down and how to get it right

When time is tight the one part of a workout that often gets sacrificed is the cool down.  Most of us know what the cool down is and have some idea of why we do it, but the importance of resetting your body after exercise is frequently overlooked in favour of making a quick dash out of the gym, the park, or the football pitch.

In this short post I want to clarify the reasons why cool down is a necessary part of the workout and to set out the basics of a good cool down routine.

At the end of a workout, a long run, or a game of football our bodies are in a heightened state of stress and they could have been that way for an hour or more.  Heart rate will be high, body temperature will be elevated, the muscles will be engorged with blood (and other tissues will be short of it), and the lungs will be working at full capacity.  All of these processes, which have helped us to operate at a high intensity during the exercise, should be brought back to resting level steadily.  That means taking 5mins to do some lower intensity exercise, such as an easy jog, which gradually becomes even more gentle.  

The key reasons why we should include a cool down in our routine can be summarised as:

  • To bring the heart rate down steadily – this reduces the risk of the blood pressure dropping too low.  As we warm up and exercise our blood vessels expand to provide more blood to the muscles.  At the end of exercise, if the heart rate drops before the blood vessels have contracted, there is a risk of low blood pressure and fainting.
  • To shift the harmful metabolic by-products of exercise out of the muscle and into the bloodstream to be taken for disposal.  Muscle contraction results in an accumulation of lactic acid and acidic hydrogen ions in the muscle cells.  Keeping the blood pumping at a moderate level after the end of the main exercise helps to clear these from the muscles.
  • To stretch the muscles when they are warm.  At the end of exercise the muscles are warm and pliable.  This is an ideal time to do some stretching to steadily increase flexibility.  

My recommendations for an effective cool down are:

  • To do some low level aerobic exercise (jogging/walking, cycling) for 5mins.  This should get gradually easier over the 5mins.
  • To stretch the main muscle groups for 10mins.  Each stretch should be held for 20secs.

Click on the YouTube link above to see an example of an effective, post-exercise stretching routine.  

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Re-finding fitness – why we should warm up and how to get it right

I have to admit that in the past I didn’t pay enough attention to warm up.  Knowing what I now know, I’m sure that this led to some poor performances and to some injuries.  Warm up doesn’t have to be onerous and it doesn’t have to take too much time, but getting it wrong will get your workout off to a dreadful start.

Before I lay out the steps to go through to make sure that you warm up effectively, I just want to clear up the reasons for warming up our bodies before exercise.  There are two overall benefits; to reduce the risk of injury and to prepare our bodies physically and mentally for the exercise to come.  But what actually happens as we go through a warm up routine?

Well, the gentle introduction of aerobic activity, for example jogging or cycling, kick-starts several physiological changes in the body that prepare us physically for the intense demands of our workout.  Here is a summary of these changes:  

  • An increase in oxygen delivery to the muscles.  This is the result of:
    • Increased heart rate
    • Expansion of the lungs and airways
    • Expansion of blood vessels serving the muscles and contraction of the blood vessels elsewhere.  This is known as the blood shunt.
  • An increase in body temperature (making the muscles more pliable and less likely to tear)
  • The start of sweating.  This is the first stage of the thermoregulation process that stops our bodies from overheating even as our muscles are producing huge amounts of heat.
  • Warming of the synovial fluid in the joints, making them more mobile.
  • The release of adrenaline, which increases focus and concentration.

That’s how the body reacts to the first stage of warm up; progressive aerobic exercise.  After that we should mobilise the joints by adding-in movements to increase the range of motion and then build-in some dynamic stretching.  Dynamic stretches are stretches where you stretch until you feel the tension in the muscle and then you release the tension and repeat.  Stretches with long holds, or static stretches, should not be done before exercise as they can weaken the muscles.  Do them, at the end as part of the cool down.

The final stage of the warm up is to get into some activity-specific practices.  So, if you’re playing tennis, that’s when you pick up the racket and start to hit some balls, for example.  For a high intensity bodyweight workout activity specific practices are movements like squats and lunges, jumping jacks, running on the spot, and wall press ups, for example.  

Here is a summary of the 4 stages of a good warm up:

  • Progressively more intense aerobic activity
  • Joint mobilisation
  • Dynamic stretching
  • Activity-specific practices

Click on the video above for my example of a basic, yet effective, 7min warm up routine and come back next time for all the info on what a good cool down routine entails. 

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Weight loss for men: my experiences as a course leader – part 2

Promotion for FIT FANS courses run by professional football clubs under the umbrella of the EFL Trust

In part 1 we saw that men’s participation in weight loss programmes was very low compared to women’s.  This has led to a growth in male-specific courses to try and address that imbalance.  In part 2 of my blog I’m taking a look at how men’s weight loss courses are promoted and what lessons can be learnt from recent examples.

Is it how the courses are promoted to us that influences our decision making?

In the same way that we buy into any other product or service, people want to know what they are buying (or investing their time in) when it comes to a weight loss programme.  Our decisions to take part or not are also influenced by how these products and services are promoted to us and what our peers tell us about their experiences of them.

A review of research by Ahern 2016(3) reported that 90% of participants in commercial weight loss programmes were women (Ahern 2011) and that only 34 out of 271 participants referred by GPs were men (Stubbs 2011).  When GPs opportunistically recruited men to programmes (at a consultation about a different health issue) there was only a 12% take up, but when a more structured approach was taken (personal letters written to overweight male patients) this increased to 30%.  

In their own research from 2016 Ahern’s group investigated the recruitment of patients to weight loss courses across 23 GP practices.  They wrote to equal numbers (7,000 each) of eligible males and females and offered them access to a free weight loss programme.  Uptake was low (4.4% of males and 8.5% of females), but the proportion of men and women to enroll on the course was similar to previous findings, i.e. ⅓ men and ⅔ women.  

So, we seem to have some evidence that men are more likely to take up an offer of joining a weight loss programme if they receive a formal letter, but what about other methods of promotion that aren’t linked to GP surgeries?  

Rounds and Harvey(4) looked at enrollment challenges in recruiting men to a weight loss programme in Vermont, USA.  They started with face-to-face contacts in workplaces, but had very little success (6 recruits).  Facebook advertising also resulted in disappointing uptake (3 recruits).  However, old-fashioned posters (16) and newspaper adverts (67) were much more successful.  This compares with my own experiences, as I detail below.

In summary, a brief look at the research tells us that about only 10% of weight loss programme participants are men when they are recruited opportunistically by GPs, but that this can rise to 30% when formal letters are written to them personally.  With non-GP marketing, more traditional methods of advertising seemed to work better.  We have also had an insight into the thoughts and feelings that men have about weight loss programmes, especially the reasons that they don’t join in.  But what about the reasons that some men do opt to join a programme?  That’s the next phase of my investigation of the research and it brings in some of my own experiences.

Why do men choose to join weight loss programmes?

The reasons why weight loss is a good thing for anyone who is overweight are well known, but these known dangers of excess body fat are still not enough to convert large numbers of men to convert from being worried about their weight to actually doing something about it.  Having said that, there are thousands of men up and down the country burning off the body fat all of the time.  So, what made them choose to act?

Elliott’s study from 2020 (see part 1 for reference) reported that men who elected to join a weight loss programme sometimes did so out of fears about further health deterioration, negative consequences of being overweight or the need for surgical interventions for weight.  They also said that the personal experiences of friends or family who had become ill or required surgery because of their excess weight made them think that it was time that they acted about their own situation.  In sports psychology this type of motivation to act comes under the classification of the fear of failure.  The other powerful motivator identified by sports psychologists is the need to achieve, a much more positive driver.  In a way, the football fan-focussed courses are promoted along the lines of achieving something for yourself, rather than the fear of failure.

With all of the football club based courses, it is the unbreakable connection between men and the football club that they support that is at the foundation of the course recruitment.  There’s a saying that goes; you can change your car, your house, your job and even your wife, but you don’t change the football club that you support.  Based on my experience of recruiting participants to these courses, I can say that the draw for fans of taking part in a weight loss programme run by the football club that they have supported since they were boys is a strong draw for the participants.  This doesn’t mean that recruitment is easy, but those who made the decision to take part reported feelings of pride in being able to “represent” their team.  One fan told me that it would be an honour and that it would make his late father proud.  It’s an incredibly powerful connection.  Here are some of the examples of how different programmes have used club affiliations to attract fans to the programmes. 

All of the promotions focus on the positives of improving health and fitness as well as the connections to the club.  The pitch and delivery of the messages is very important so as not to stigmatise or agitate people who are overweight potential participants.  We once handed out flyers for the Brentford fanACTIV programme before a Championship home match with Burnley.  It was really difficult not to pick out the obviously overweight men even though they were our target group.  I had several fans say to me, “are you saying that I’m fat?”  My colleague, Lorna was told to “f*ck off.”  Promotions in the match programme, on the club website, and via social media were much more effective (this replicates the findings of Elliott’s research), which may have something to do with people having time to read the information, digest it and come to a decision to enrol in their own time, not when they’re hurrying to their seat before a game (in my experience of promoting fanACTIV) or when they are having a break from work (in Elliott’s study).  

In Part 3 of my blog I will take a look at weight loss programme content for men and the results that different approaches have achieved.  

References

3. Ahern, A; Aveyard, P; Boyland, E; Halford, J; Jebb, S (2016) Inequalities in the uptake of weight management interventions in a pragmatic trial: an observational study in primary care. British Journal of General Practice.  

4. Rounds, T and Harvey, J (2019) Enrollment Challenges: Recruiting Men to Weight Loss Interventions.  American Journal of Men’s Health. 

Weight loss for men: my experiences as a course leader – part 1

Fans of Brentford, Fulham, AFC Wimbledon, and Crystal Palace on the 2017 fanACTIV course.

Introduction

For someone who wants (or needs!) to lose body fat there are hundreds of options available.  Some have a strong evidence base, some are yet to be thoroughly tested, and some are outright quackery.  The offers include healthy eating and exercise courses run by local councils, popular commercial programmes like Weight Watchers or Slimming World, diet plans recommended by health professionals and non-professionals, exercise regimes, personal training, hypnotherapy; the list is endless. One of the questions that the prospective slimmer will find themself asking is, “which approach is right for me?”  The answers aren’t straightforward, particularly if you are a man.

In recent years there has been a growth in weight management courses specifically for men.  Slimming World offer a men’s course and Man v Fat have had some good weight loss results from their football-based programme.  In fact, football is growing and growing as the hook that is being used to get men interested in weight loss programmes.  In the UK the programme with the most longevity is Football Fans in Training (FFIT) run by the Scottish Premier League Trust.  UEFA have Active Fans for member clubs of their European Football Development Network and clubs in London ran a scheme called fanACTIV from 2015-2017.  Last season the English Football League Trust launched Fit Fans for men and women, which runs the FITT course under licence from Scotland.  

I have run many weight loss courses; mostly they have been for men.  Some have been related to supporting a particular football team (I led on the organisation of fanACTIV for Brentford alongside Tottenham and Fulham).  Others have been funded by local councils and focus on their residents.  Weight loss courses for men (as opposed to mixed-gender courses) are definitely on the rise, but male participation in any form of weight loss still lags behind female participation.  But why is that?  Let’s start by looking at some of the statistics.

Rates of participation 

According to a report by the leading market research agency Kantar (1), the number of adult Britons who said that they were trying to lose weight was 38% in 2019, up from 32% in 2014.  When they looked at gender differences they reported that 45% of women stated they were trying to lose weight (up from 38%) and 30% of men (up from 20%).  So that would mean that more women in the UK are overweight or obese than men, right?  Wrong.  According to Kantar’s National Health and Wellness Survey from 2018, 60% of men are overweight/obese compared to 53% of women.  So why are a larger proportion of overweight women trying to lose weight than overweight men?  

In a recent study, Elliott(2) in 2020 interviewed male participants and non-participants in weight loss programmes to examine their motivations.  They reported two prevalent attitudes, which influenced the generally low take up of these services by men; a) female dominated services, and b) incompatibility of existing services for men.  When digging deeper into the effect that this had on men they said that men stated that this imbalance resulted in feelings of self-consciousness, shame and a perceived stigma for men using weight loss services. They concluded that, to increase uptake in weight loss services by men, the content and promotion should be tailored specifically to men.  This chimes with conversations that I have had with the men on my courses.  I will take a look at the content of courses in Part 3, but next, in Part 2, I will examine the methods of promotion of weight loss programmes for men.  

References

  1. 38% of UK adults say they are trying to lose weight – Kantar. https://uk.kantar.com/business/health/2019/38-of-uk-adults-say-they-are-trying-to-lose-weight/ 
  2. Elliott, M; Gillison, F; and Barnett, J (2020) Exploring the influences on men’s engagement with weight loss services: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health