15,000 steps and a slice of cake before lunchtime. #NewcastleCan

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Ford Prefect*

Last night I set my alarm for 8am, which is not usual. For me Saturdays are a time to catch up on the limited sleep I get through the week. 

My partner is the sort of person who can say “Goodnight”, roll over and be snoring within 10 seconds. Sleep doesn’t come that easily to me. I toss and turn, my brain spiralling through repeated anxieties, until finally I fall asleep. I usually get about 5 hours on a weeknight, and that’s since an increase in medication made me sleep noticeably heavier. 

I know this pattern of little sleep on weeknights and long lie ins at the weekends isn’t healthy. I know lack of sleep can contribute to poor mental health. In my case I’m not sure whether the poor mental health causes the problem sleeping or vice versa. 

Anyway, none of that lounging in bed til lunchtime for me today. It turned out my 8am alarm was optimistic, as the dogs decided at 7.30 that they needed to go outside urgently. When my alarm went off I was already eating breakfast and drinking tea.

The reason for the uncharacteristic early rising is that, following last weekend’s Newcastle Can taster sessions, I have signed up for a Dancercise class. And because I had a poor week in exercise and healthy eating terms I’d decided to challenge myself even further, by walking there and back. 

It’s not a particularly exciting walk, mostly through housing estates except for a brief spell across the Town Moor, but its one I’d done before and was confident I could manage on top of an hours dancercising. My map app said it would take 55 minutes, but the app creators have a very poor understanding of how fast a fat lass can walk when she puts her mind to it, so I allowed 45. 

I threw in a couple of short bursts of jogging and made it there in 40 minutes. I’m fairly sure jogging isn’t for me, it takes all my concentration and I can’t keep it up for any length of time, but I persevere because I know it uses different muscles to walking and I reckon every little helps. (Other inspirational supermarket slogans are available!)

The class was small and friendly, and as it was the first we were all newbies together. There was shimmying, hip swinging, bhangra, rock, charleston, lindy hop and even jazz hands. Something for everyone. I struggled to get my arms and legs doing different moves at the same time, but it didn’t matter because I kept moving.

I think part of why I enjoy the Dancercise is that it doesn’t come naturally. While my peers were learning to move to music I was listening to Metallica and Megadeth, neither noted for their dance moves. So it takes all my concentration. And that means those spiralling thoughts, the worries and anxieties that have dragged my mood down this week, have to stop. There’s no room for them when all my concentration is on getting my body to move to the music.

It didn’t feel like an hour. It didn’t feel like a class either. It felt like relaxing and having fun, while at the same time moving and exercising.

Afterwards some of us went for a cuppa and a cake, because, as I’m learning, getting healthy isn’t about never having treats. Its about adding to what you already do, little changes which build and grow. You need to enjoy it, not feel its a chore you’re obliged to undertake.

I walked back, with occasional jogging, and realised I didn’t feel as anxious as I had earlier. On the walk there my brain was doing its anxious, spiralling, hamster-in-a-wheel thing which I’ve struggled to control this week. On the way back I was noticing the sunshine, thinking about exercise and movement, feeling energised. That hour of concentrating on movement had stopped the spiralling. It’s an unexpected way in which improving my physical health can improve my mental health, just giving me a break from my bullying brain.

Before I signed up to NewcastleCan I’d have laughed if you suggested I join an exercise class. I’d have given you loads of reasons why it wasn’t for me, why I didn’t have time, why the very idea was absurd. If youd said I’d be up early, and have done 15,000 steps by lunchtime, I’d have laughed too. And if you’d said I could get healthy and still eat cake I just wouldn’t have believed you!

I’m almost 3 months into my journey of getting healthier, body and mind, and I know now I’d have been wrong back then. I wonder which of my other assumptions about myself will be challenged along the way? 

* In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. But you knew that, right? 

The Newcastle Can Can-Can and other moves.

Today Newcastle Can joined with various leisure facilities across the city to offer free sessions to residents to kick start their fitness. There are an awful lot of people out there, me included, who never consider going to a gym and expect it to be an unpleasant experience. I think they hoped actually getting us in there and proving there were no demon PE teachers waiting to ridicule our every failure (or perhaps that fear’s just me?) would make us consider going more often.

I persuaded my partner to come along, partly for moral support and partly so I was sure there was at least one other person there at my poor fitness level! We went to Eldon Leisure. I walk past this place several times a week, but have never been up the escalators to see what it’s all about before. 

Image (c) Newcastle Can

We were welcomed by one of the leisure centre staff, with a Newcastle Can T-shirt and a welcoming smile whose genuine enthusiasm put us at our ease. She explained what was going on and pointed us to the changing rooms. In a typical rookie mistake I left my phone in the locker – so have no photos to illustrate the experience. We were early for the first fitness class, so we spent half an hour in the gym where we were delighted to discover cycling for 30 minutes didn’t lead to us keeling over. We stuck to the cycles because we didn’t want to be too tired in advance of the class.

The class was Aerobic a GoGo Dancercise, something that took me and my partner way out of our comfort zones. The fact it was being filmed for the Newcastle Can documentary added to our nerves, and I think if my partner hadn’t been there I might have legged it! They asked if we were happy to be filmed, personally I’m not sure happy was the right word – I’ve committed to do this, I’m not going to back out now, but the idea of being hot, sweaty and uncoordinated on camera didn’t fill me with joy! 

The class was led by Dawn who was a fantastic instructor, clearly aware of the very mixed levels of experience in the room, and keen to make everyone welcome. She went through the instructions for each routine clearly, demonstrating the low and high impact versions and letting us know it was fine to rest if we needed to. One of the things that’s put me off attending exercise classes is the fear of being the only fatty in the room, the only one that can’t keep up, the only one puffing and panting while the lithe athletic types don’t break a sweat. It wasn’t like that. Dawn warned us at the beginning that we’d all be hot and sweaty, her most of all!

There were more mirrors than I’m comfortable with, but once we got going my eyes were on Dawn, my concentration on trying to get my body following the moves in time with the music and I didn’t have room for worrying. There was loud music, flashing lights and lots of moves. Some came easy, the surf board and shimmying I liked. Others were more challenging, getting my whole body moving in different directions was a challenge to my coordination. Most challenging was the Newcastle Can Can-Can, incorporating balance, rhythm and high kicks. I couldn’t keep up, but I was smiling. 

Image (c) Newcastle Can

After the session we went back to the gym and tried some more of the machines. And I found myself wavering. I’ve always thought gyms weren’t for me, that I’d be too out of place, too self conscious, too bored. But this was OK. I was definitely working muscles that don’t get a look in during any of my walking. Could I do this regularly?

Since I signed up to Newcastle Can I’ve lost over a stone. And although there have been challenges there’s nothing yet that has felt impossible. I feel healthier. People can see the difference. I think now I’m at the limit of what I can do on my own, and if I’m going to make bigger changes I need to take advantage of what’s out there. 

Image (c) Newcastle Can

The point of Newcastle Can is that we come together as a community, that enough people all making changes together can be more successful than struggling alone. I’ve known for years what I needed to do to get fitter, I’ve never done it til now. If I stop at the changes I’ve already made I’ll still be significantly healthier than I was. 

I suppose what I’m considering now is do I step up a gear? Is what I’m already doing enough, or do I do more? My worry is if I up the pace, make changes that are too dramatic, I might not be able to keep going I’ll feel like a failure. But how will I know how much I can do if I don’t try? 

Getting more than 5 a day – Sausage One Pot #NewcastleCan

When I tell people that I’m taking part in the Newcastle Can challenge and making small, sustainable changes to eat healthier and lose weight, the most common question is “What small changes?” Well, there are a few, but one of the easiest was adding more vegeables to my meals.

Rather than try to add to my already stressful life by learning a whole raft of new, healthy recipes and, possibly even more stressful, persuade my partner and teenage children to eat and enjoy new things, I’m revamping the recipes I use regularly. Upping the healthy stuff and leaving the unhealthy stuff alone. Since starting this I’m regularly getting more than my 5 a day. 

Since people have been asking about it I thought I’d demonstrate.  This is an adaption of the Sausage and Lentil One Pot recipe in Jack Monroe‘s A Girl Called Jack cookbook. It’s my go to recipe when my daughter’s out (she hates sausages.) Jack’s recipes are generally pretty healthy anyway. When you’re managing on the sort of budget she is there’s not a lot of room for luxurious extras. But this challenge is all about making the recipes I regularly use healthier, so here goes:

You’ll need:

  • 6 sausages
  • At least 6 rashers of streaky bacon (I threw a whole packet in last night as it needed using up)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 large carrots
  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 tin white beans (I used haricot)
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • A handful of fresh herbs (the original recipe says thyme or rosemary- I used oregano because that’s the nearest I had in the garden that had survived the winter.)
  • 250g red lentils
  • 800ml vegetable stock

Serves 6-8 depending on how generous the portions are! 

Put a large pan on a medium heat. Chop the bacon into small pieces and add it and the sausages to the pan. If you like you can add a spoonful of oil at this stage, but I tend to think the bacon’s fatty enough not to need to. 


While the bacon is crisping and the sausages are browning peel and chop the onions, carrots, potatoes and sweet potato. The sweet potato will cook quicker so needs to be in bigger pieces than the carrot and potato to cook in the same time. (That might seem obvious, it wasn’t to me and led to unpleasantly mushy sweet potato the first time I cooked this!) Chop the herbs.


Add the chopped veg to the pan and stir well. Leave for a couple of minutes then add the herbs, tinned tomatoes and lentils. Stir again before adding the stock. Increase the heat and bring it up to the boil. Once it’s boiled for a couple of minutes reduce the heat and allow it to simmer, stirring occasionally.


After 20 minutes of simmering fish out the sausages and cut each one into four pieces. Drain the tin of beans. Put the cut up sausages back into the pan and add the beans. Stir again and simmer for another 5 minutes. 


It should now be ready to serve. I get six generous portions out of this, three for when I cook it and three to box up for another day. I prefer to cook in bulk like this, but you could reduce down the ingredients to make a smaller amount. 

You can mix and match the vegetables too. I’ve used parsnips as well as carrots before, sometimes spinach added near the end. It depends what I have in and needs using up.

A note on herbs

For years I used dried herbs bought in the supermarket, and for many things I still do. But for the last couple of years I’ve been growing my own herbs in pots in a corner of my garden. I’m not the worlds best gardener, so it tends to be the hardiest ones that survive but I’d recommend giving it a go. Food really does taste better when there’s something you’ve grown yourself in it. 

Mostly herbs.

It’s Official! 

I’m just back from seeing the nurse, and it’s official – I’ve lost 1 stone and 5 pounds since my last health check. That was back in November, but I know I’ve lost most of that since I signed up to #NewcastleCan, 1 stone 1 pound since late January. 

I knew I’d lost weight, my clothes feel bigger, and my scales at home were telling me my weight was dropping, but having it confirmed feels good. A small paranoid part of me wondered about faulty scales or stretched fabric. In fact the official scales had me 3lbs lower than my scales at home!

My blood pressure is down. I don’t get the cholesterol results until next week but I’m hopeful that’s also moving in the right direction. While I was there I also had a smear test, which I only mention because I know lots of women either don’t go at all or put it off, so I’m reminding you it’s a normal thing to do and it’s important. 

So how have I made and stuck to healthy changes?

Going slowly and making small changes
  • Cutting unhealthy snacks, first at work and then completely. If I’m hungry now I have fruit or nuts.
  • Limiting treats, e.g. one cake a week and one take away a month.
  • Cooking from scratch as often as possible rather than buying heavily processed food.
  • Upping the vegetables in recipes and reducing the other ingredients.
  • Reducing dairy, a maximum of one milk based drink a week and much less cheese.
  • Walking as much as possible and pushing myself with stairs and hills.
  • Telling people, so I feel more compelled to stick to my new rules.
  • Recording what I eat, honestly including all snacks, and understanding better how many calories are in my food.
  • Allowing myself exceptions, but being mindful about them, e.g. It’s fine to eat out with friends but I try to pick something small, or salady, or I exercise more that week to work off the extra calories. 
  • Reminding myself of my success and not stressing out of the scales don’t move one week.

I feel physically healthier, and I want to celebrate that and keep improving.

As today is World Health Day 2017 with a focus on depression and mental health I’ll be honest and say that despite my physical improvement I am still very up and down with my mental health. In general I think I’m better than I was, but the lows are very low when they come. I do recognise them now, and try my best to give myself some space and time to myself to recover, which is movement in the right direction. I wonder if the lows seem so low because my general mood is better? I’m not sure. 

What I am sure of is that physical health and mental health are linked. So I’m hopeful that the more I improve physically the less frequent the lows will be. 

A like this video from MIND recognising the importance of exercise to mental health:

Wednesday walk. #NewcastleCan

My son and I have a deal. If I walk at least 10,000 steps after dropping him off at youth club I can have a piece of cake before I pick him up. 

I’m trying to make my walks more strenuous. I don’t have a lot more time I could give to walking each week, so to try and get fitter I’m trying to make the walking I do have more impact. I suppose I could join a gym, and I know many people who have done so and love it, but for the moment I’m too nervous, too used to exercising alone.

So, how to add impact to my stepping?

I’m doing it with stairs and hills. I go along the Quayside, up one flight and down the next. I have a little circuit that I challenge myself with. It’s a flight of approximately 80 steps up, a little hill, a flight of 30 or so steps down, then along the flat to get my breath back before I go again. I’m up to four loops now, and this week for the first time I managed to run up the entire first flight. Definite improvement. By the fourth circuit my legs feel like jelly and I’m dependent on the handrails to reach the top. Maybe next week I’ll manage five times round.

Made it!
Would I get this view at a gym?
 
I’ve started throwing a little jogging into my walk. Very little, with long walks in between, and only on the flat, but it’s progress. I’m also still nervous about being seen exercising in public. I walk past the pubs.
Exposed by low tide.

The Gateshead side of the river has a fantastic walk. I do the hilly side heading out and then back along the flat of the riverside. There are hidden artworks and more daffodils than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

Is this enough to count as a host of golden daffodils?

As I head back towards town I hear, over the sound of traffic, river and birdsong, the unmistakable roar of a St James’ Park home crowd. Back over to the Newcastle side and I have so many stairs to choose from, Castle Stairs, Long Stairs, Dog Leap Stairs. I can’t run up them by now but I keep going.

I’ve done over 14,000 steps since I dropped my son off. Time for my reward! 

Worth every step!

In praise of giving it a go. #NewcastleCan

One of the benefits of taking part in NewcastleCan’s campaign to get healthier and lose weight is that I’m getting braver in the kitchen. 

For years I’ve had a shelf full of beautiful recipe books which sat on the kitchen shelf exuding cooking vibes, hardly ever used. I found them intimidating, often full of ingredients I’d never heard of, and so prescriptive that I was terrified of deviating from any step. There were a couple which were friendlier, but only a handful of recipes I used regularly.

For NewcastleCan I’m trying to avoid processed food by cooking more often, and I’m trying hard to make what I cook healthier. I’m deviating from the recipes, trying new things with less worry about how it will turn out, and getting an understanding of the impact of the food I make on my body. I’m not resorting to takeaways as often, I am eating more fruit and veg, less dairy and carbs. 

Cooking from scratch.

If I don’t have an ingredient I substitute. Sometimes it works. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but I learn from that (learning sweet potatoes don’t take as long to cook as regular potatoes is a case in point.) Occaisionally something unexpected happens. I learn from that too. Tonight the egg in the fried rice I was making went green due to the green peppers and spinach creating excess liquid in the pan. It tasted fine, and luckily I have a family who’ll pretty much try anything! 

As well as feeling healthier and losing weight it’s saving me money. There’s less wasted food, bought with good intentions but never used. More homemade lunches taken in to work, and so less cash on lunches. And making sure I make filling meals is helping me snack less too. 

I’m hoping these are habits I’ll stick to. Of course I’ll allow myself occasional treats, but I’ll make sure they are just occasional. So far so good.