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Category Archives: Physical Activity

Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Jet Set WillyNew Zealand StoryChuckie Egg. All sources of great pleasure for me.  For many, these words are nonsense, but for some, they bring back great memories. They are, of course, classic computer games.

Correction: WERE computer games.  And, more specifically, impossibly difficult computer games from the ’80s.  I have been a gamer myself ever since my dad brought home an Amiga 500 computer in the late ’80s and I am still one today, even as I slip inexorably towards my elderly 40s.

old games.jpgEvidently I am not one of those who believes that gaming is just for kids and, although there is criticism leveled at the hobby (from normalising violence to simply being a waste of time), it is an activity that brings pleasure to millions every day.  That said – like much that is fun in this world – it is important to enjoy it in moderation.

Despite the gamer stereotype of being someone hermit-like, shunning both companionship and natural light, gaming can be a very social activity.  Groups of friends can get in a room and band together to take down virtual armies or compete in football tournaments (once they’ve argued endlessly over who gets to be Barcelona).

Whether you do it solo, against online competitors or in a group of mates, there is a lot of appeal to the gaming life.  And that appeal is broadening too.  Gone are the days of it being predominantly a male pursuit. Many more women and girls are playing (some stats suggest they outnumber men now) and the advent of mobile gaming has extended that reach further, with a game to suit almost any taste or time frame.

So, good news then? Well, yes, for the gaming industry certainly and for gamers themselves, who can enjoy a vast array of console or phone-based fun. Got a few hours at home to spare?  Or five minutes on a bus?  There’s a game at your fingertips if you want one.  But I must steer this rambling towards a semblance of a point.  And that is about the potential muddying of the waters between gaming and sport.

esports

E-sports is becoming really big business. The top players and teams compete in competitions around the world and are well rewarded for their efforts.  Not only that, but millions more watch their travails online, following their wins and losses on a global stage. What we have is millions of fans watching teams, who are sponsored by international brands, playing games.  Sounds in many ways very much like football or other traditional sports.

But, for all the fun to be had gaming (or watching others gaming), it is still a sedentary activity.  That’s why moderation is important.  A balance needs to be struck between engaging in gaming and sports/physical activity, to keep those ever-widening waistbands in check. But is a grey area is developing?

BT Sport recently announced it will be broadcasting a hugely popular FIFA gaming/eSports competition. There’s nothing new about broadcasting gaming competitions, but it’s normally online and this is not only on a mainstream broadcast channel, but one that is dedicated solely to sport.  If this was to prove popular then e-sports could get further coverage, and it would certainly be cheaper to show than many existing sports.

My concern is that if gaming is seen as a sport in a traditional sense, then there is a danger of diluting and damaging the physical activity message. In the US, eSports are already overtaking traditional sport in terms of viewing figures (one eSports final outranked both the NBA Finals and the World Series in 2014). And this is backed up by player numbers too. That same year, in the US, there were 67m monthly players of popular game ‘League of Legends’, compared to 24m playing basketball regularly.

If we as a society want children to engage in more sport to live healthier lives, then it doesn’t help to have any confusion over definitions. I realise that not all sports are very physical, but gaming is already extremely popular and the issue of children being stuck to screens needs to be mitigated, not made worse.

cscreen glue

Unfortunately this move to bring gaming onto a sport channel strikes me as the thin end of the wedge.  I can see it happening more and gaming becoming seen in the same ‘sport’ category as the physical activity we seek to advocate so strongly. Would you have a section on full fat cream cakes on a TV show about slimming?

As I said, I am an avid gamer, but I do some exercise as well.  But then, I grew up in a world where video games weren’t omnipresent and there was a greater emphasis on active play. It is the popularity of gaming that has propelled it into the same league as sport and led to it being on the same bill, but it is very different beast.  Watching football on TV won’t necessarily inspire a child to play the game for real, but it might.  Watching someone playing a football video game however, will, I fear, only ever serve to inspire a child to sit on their sofa for hours and hours on end.

Walk and Talk

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Walk and Talk

Modern life is all about short cuts. Labour-saving inventions to save us time and effort.  Time and effort that can be used for something else, be it work or leisure.

Let’s go back to the 80s. My gran’s TV was a fascinating machine. It was out of this magic box would spill our daily hour of children’s telly, and give the adults a break.  My gran would sit with us in ‘her chair’, but would often be sleeping before the hour was out. 

The TV went as far back as it did from side to side (no flat screen goodness), had a wooden surround and channels that were changed by way of four physical buttons – BBC1, BBC2, ITV1 and ITV2.  There wasn’t an ITV2 when the TV was made of course, but the expectation was that there soon would be.  

The TV set was also made before the advent of the remote control.  Nowadays, having to peel yourself off the sofa mid-box set binge is only necessary when the batteries in the remote run out.

There are myriad other innovations, inventions and gadgets that relieve us of the need to exert ourselves more than the minimum – a plethora of appliances, vehicles and tools to give us more valuable time to, well, what?  Hopefully to get out and walk the dog. Maybe hunt errant Pokemon?  I fear that much of our saved time though is spent doing not very much, something squarely in sedentary territory.

Many modern appliances like our washing machines and dishwashers would be greatly missed by many and I wouldn’t want to suggest that such progress is bad, but inevitably the labour that we are saved is mostly physical and so naturally, the modern human has less need to expend as many calories. And do we balance things out with exercise?  Not enough is the answer.

Talking of appliances, we can see with one appliance, the vacuum cleaner, how progression has gone from labour-saving to just plain lazy.  Vacuuming used to require a fair few runs over the same patch of carpet before you’d suggest it was clean. Returning to my gran for a moment, I remember her having a vacuum cleaner that weighed a ton and picked up far less.  Using it was a real workout.  Vacuum cleaner technology improved and time taken to clean was reduced.  Cordless cleaners then saved us from unplugging the appliance and plugging it back in in each room, saving more time again.  And now, we have the automatic vacuum cleaner. One can purchase something that looks like an over-sized hockey puck that will go off on its own and clean your floors (and scare your cat).  So, we have the vacuuming equivalent of the remote control.  A device that requires no effort bar changing batteries.

roomba

This is not a technology blog though (much as my inner geek would love it to be).  I’m writing about labour-saving inventions as these have given us back time, but taken away a need to be as physically active.   With mobile phones and email we can communicate from wherever we are.  With modern transport we can (painfully slowly at times) get to where we want with minimal waggling of lazy legs.  As adults our working practices are often bound to desks and children now are increasingly exposed to screen-based entertainment that has the power to transfix them into a quiet stupor (an understandably appealing prospect to tired parent).

So, while the need to be physically active to achieve everyday tasks is diminishing, the need to be active for the sake of our heart and our mind (exercising less is not good for your mental health either) is not. From ever more regular media reports we know all about the dangerous obesity levels in the Western world and while there are a number of sports that can help fight the flab and keep your heart healthy, there are smaller, simple ways that you can make a difference too.  For us bees in the modern office hive, sitting down for eight hours is dangerous to our health.

Try getting off that seat and going to another office to talk to a colleague.  Revolutionary, I know.  As quick as an email or call is, meeting face to face makes for a better interaction AND might involve a few more valuable calories burned.  Also, if you drive or take a bus to work, park further away or get off a few stops early if you can.  You probably won’t lose much time, but you will lose incremental inches.  And last of all, don’t take the lift unless you a) physically can’t manage stairs or b) work in a skyscraper.

The average person in the UK walks about half a mile a day.  Thirty years ago this was two thirds of a mile. Advances in technology invariably mean needing to move less to get by, meaning we’re on a collision course with heart problems, diabetes and more unless we take steps (literally and figuratively) to counter the real threat inherent in spending too long standing still.

Fat as a Fiddle

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Fat as a Fiddle

Booty is in the eye of the beholder.  What you think of as thin or fat may differ substantially from what I or anyone else might do.  One man’s flabby is another man’s fabulous.  One thing for sure is that the subject of someone’s weight/shape is rarely one for public conversation, unless the tone is positive – ‘Have you lost weight?’ etc.

I am overweight.  I’m not going to say fat, but mainly because that term can be subjective and I’ll apply it to myself one day and not the next. My self view can even change from one minute to the next. Now, men in general sometimes talk about their weight and other men’s weight, but almost always in the negative (and usually in a teasing way).  This is in contrast to my experience of what happens when women discuss the subject.  My experience of overhearing their conversations is that you’re more likely to have a group of women who take issue with their bodies and weight, while the others act as an impromptu support group.

The size and shape of women is a media-fuelled obsession and one you could write endlessly about, it’s a glaring spotlight that places unrealistic and unhealthy pressure upon young girls in particular.  Men are seldom judged by the same criteria, but they certainly judge themselves.

body image

I refer you back to the sentence further up – ‘I am overweight’.  Read it again. There will almost certainly be some people reading (ones who know me), whose first instinct was – ‘No, he’s not’.  And there’ll be different reasons for that I’m sure.  You have a different idea of ‘overweight’, perhaps.  You simplify things down to thin, normal and fat, therefore putting me in the middle third?  Maybe you’re reading this, are in similar shape to me, and don’t like to think of yourself as heavier than perhaps you should be.  Most likely though it is British reserve/politeness that keeps most people from giving their opinion on others’ physical appearance and that extends even to what we are thinking.

And, in the main, this isn’t a bad thing.  Unabridged honesty about the people around us could lead to some tense friendships and awkward offices.

But, as we’re all too aware, obesity is increasingly an issue.  A deadly one.  Between 20 and 30% of 4-5 year olds in Wales are overweight or obese and over 80% of obese children are obese as they get older too.  Worrying stuff.

I play some sport because I enjoy it, but the majority of my sometimes reluctant exercise is undertaken to make me healthier as well as trimmer.  It’s all too easy for your bodily circumference to slowly, surreptitiously slip outwards and your feet fade from view…  Over the years I’ve let each new waist measurement become my ‘normal’, the new yardstick beyond which I judge to be ‘too much’ and cue for me to move more. My ever-moving goalpost.

posts

In a sense we’re caught between two potentially conflicting issues.  There’s certainly a challenge around expectations regarding appearance and shape being continuously thrust in our faces by the media and reinforced by peers, but we can’t let it go too far the other way with the subject of excessive, unhealthy weight not being broached.

There are positive ways of facing up to the issue.  With children, their diets can be managed and exercise encouraged (as well as limits placed on time spent on sedentary activities). With friends or partners, subtlety is key.  Making exercise a social activity is one way to encourage a reticent runner to pound the pavement, but with adults, they have to want to eat better, drink less or exercise more.  But as a friend or husband/wife, we can sieze on opportunities and support someone when they decide to stop moving their own goalposts.

You, Me, LGB&T

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After writing a few pieces on my experience with sport and exercise, the LGB&T Sport Cymru team asked if I would pen my thoughts on LGB&T people in sport.

This isn’t written from an LGB&T point of view, but based on my own experiences on sport and feeling like an outsider (a feeling many people can relate to I’m sure).  Apologies in advance for what is a longer than normal post by the way.

As I’ve said before, I didn’t enjoy sport much as a child and my experience at school was not a positive one.  I was (unbelievable as it might seem) a quiet, bookish child.  A nerd/geek/dweeb type.  Sport is a social function and part of the reason I didn’t get involved as much as I could have when I was younger is due to a lack of social confidence.  There were the ‘cool’ kids and then there were the rest of us.  The ‘cool’ ones were fiercely mainstream and any deviance from the accepted ‘norm’ could spell a place on the side lines.

This is where my world and the LGBT world overlaps.  I wasn’t mainstream as I was too quiet and preferred books to bunking off.  The mainstream boy culture was about chasing girls and being as much of a ‘man’ as possible, which included sporting prowess, but definitely not homosexuality.

laces 2

I’m sure my school was not alone in having the word ‘gay’ and a million variants, used as pejorative terms.  And when they were thrown at me (as they were at everyone at some point), I was hurt.  Not because being gay was a bad thing (I doubt I understood it really), but because you knew that the terms were intended to hurt and humiliate.  How much more hurtful would they have been if I was gay myself?  I honestly can’t imagine.

I had gay friends at school (probably more than I was actually aware of) and, like me, they often found solace and open minds within the arts fraternity, rather than on a pitch.  I don’t personally think that sport is homophobic in and of itself, but from an early age, I found it to be a common platform for the confident, mainstream kids to score social points, with little room for self-expression.  The most popular boys at school dated the prettiest girls and hit the most sixes.

Viewing sport wholly as a competitive activity, especially with young people, can inhibit inclusivity as someone’s differences can be wielded as weapons against them, and a weakened opponent is easier to defeat.  Without maturity, fairness can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of sporting success. The appeal of sport for me though is its ability to bring people together, regardless of background, culture or ability.

And what can we do to improve inclusivity? And what can I do?  Homophobia is an issue in society, not just sport, but sport has the potential to be a both a particular problem area and also a place where a difference can be made.  As a heterosexual man a key thing I can do is to not stand by when homophobic terms are used.  Sadly, the sport I love most, football, can be one of the worst culprits.  You can’t chastise or challenge a whole crowd, but if the person next to you uses a homophobic slur, I will say something to them.  In itself it may do little, but it enough people challenge this kind of language, it can make a difference.  I’m not about to suggest that football crowds can’t be racist for example, but you wouldn’t hear the same language now as you would some 10-20 years ago.  Things can improve.

I’ve heard homophobic language in my five a side league (only once, luckily) and I challenged the man on it at the time.  I said that I wasn’t happy with him saying what he’d said, and I’d report him to the league organisers if he continued.  He wasn’t happy, but he did stop.  Straight away.  He may have done it again the next week of course, but if he gets challenged EVERY time, it might stop.  And that’s another step in the right direction.

Essentially, part of what LGBT Sport Cymru stand for is the same thing.  It’s about putting the message out clearly that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are unacceptable.  Full stop.  They partner with the major sports to make a stand that is clear and united.  If a governing body says it’s unacceptable, players and teams say it’s unacceptable AND we as fans do the same, there’s nowhere for the closed-minded, the bullies, to go.

If you heard your partner, your daughter, your son or your friend use racist language, there’s a good chance you’d react.  Hopefully you’d say that it wasn’t right and was offensive.  But would you say the same about homophobic language?  I hope so.  It’s no less damaging and has just as much place in a decent society, and that of course, is no place at all.

NB: This piece was written prior to the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on 12th June.

Fitting in Fitness

Fitting in Fitness

I jogged home from work yesterday.  Which is possible as I live within trebuchet range of work.  I would say a stone’s throw, but I needed something that suggests a distance greater than one of my own weedy overarm lobs.

Walking in takes about 35-40 minutes.  This isn’t a great chore, particularly as the last part takes me through Cardiff’s fantastic Bute Park. I also get plenty of time to listen to podcasts or power ballads, depending on both my mood and whether there’s anyone around to see my air guitar solos.

Of course running is quicker than walking, but it isn’t my favourite form of exercise to be honest.   I much prefer a team sport or two.  I play football twice a week and would happily play more, but you need a fair few other people to do it and some flat open space, so it’s not always practical.

But, the great thing about running, and part of the reason events like Parkrun have taken off, is that you don’t need much equipment to do it and you can do it on your own as well, at any time.  All you need is a t-shirt, shorts and trainers (or not even the trainers if you’re a budding Zola Budd).

zola2

Even better, for me, is that I don’t have to take extra time out of my day to exercise as the pavement and paths are my very own running track.  So I get a little bit fitter, a little less fatter AND my commute is only 20 minutes.  Win-win.  If you can find exercise that you enjoy, that’s great, but not everyone has the time and/or inclination to commit to as much activity as we all really should.  So, if sport is not a huge priority to you, what can you do?

Do little bits of exercise, perhaps. The internet is not just useful for finding amusing cat videos (though I suspect 90% of traffic is related to the worthy subject), it also has content on nearly every topic, exercise included.  And yes, there are many fitness videos online.  I’ve tried a few at Fitness Blender, for example, as this site allows you to set the time, difficulty and equipment parameters to suit.  Flexibility is the appeal here.  There are of course others around, including more free ones from sites like the NHS Fitness Studio.

So, if you can really only spare twenty minutes, you can do bite-size workouts.  That’s gotta be worth something, right?  Not too many calories burned perhaps, but do a few and it adds up.  Plus I understand that exercise releases dolphins, which is a nice, as they shouldn’t be captive.

runner business

It’s important that whatever you do, it is something you can keep up.  Like the crash diet or the month off booze, a splurge of sport will have a short term impact and give you a nice rush, but it’s better to get to a level you can maintain over time.  A couple of games of football a week, plus two or three little runs is my level right now.  And I feel better for it, I really do.  Physically and mentally.  And, the more I do, the easier it becomes, which in turns means I might up the amount I do regularly.

And for now at least, while we enjoy some relatively bright, long days, I’m going to take advantage and turn my little commute into a little conditioning.

Doorstep Paradise

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Doorstep Paradise

Stop what you’re doing.

Think.

Do I live in Wales?

 

If not, you should visit of course, it’s lovely. A beautiful land of fine food, drink, song and sport.  As an Englishman, it can be mildly perilous around Six Nations time, but as long as you don’t go round the streets of Cardiff belching ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ (no seriously, don’t do it), it’s really a genuinely friendly place.

If you are here though, I urge you to consider this – how long it has been since you last went to the Brecon Beacons?  In my case, other than a couple of times passing through, it has been about 26 years.  Shocking.  And totally inexcusable.  I could pretend I didn’t know what I was missing, but I did.  I was just lazy/unimaginative in planning my weekend activities. Like the distant aunt you really ought to call but don’t, or clearing out the cupboard under the stairs, I just hadn’t got round to it. I also had the crazy notion in my head that the Beacons were a million miles from Cardiff and not somewhere to go without serious planning.

But this simply isn’t the case.  If you’re in South Wales you’re likely to be only an hour away from some seriously sexy landscape.  That’s practically on your doorstep.  So take the plunge, you won’t regret it.

penyfan1

My adventure took place over the Easter weekend and my wife Clare and I were lucky enough to be able to spend a good five days in the wild paradise of the Brecon Beacons.  First stop was two nights up at the Penderyn Bunkbarn.  A great little place based at Pantcefnyffordd Farm which has all your standard issue cute farmyard animals, but also some actual peacocks.  I’m not sure if one keeps them for their eggs, but they do make a fabulously camp addition to any menagerie.  The bunkhouse itself was clean, warm, cheap and within booze-soaked stumbling distance of the legendary Penderyn Distillery.  What a stroke of luck!  Of all the places I could have picked to stay, eh?

And this brings me on to an exercise-related point.  Work and reward.  I didn’t think you’d ever find me exerting myself physically purely for the sake of it, so it was important for me to have something to treat myself to after a bit of walking.  So that was the plan on the first day – walk to Sgwd yr Eira waterfall and then come back for a whiskey tasting lesson and distillery tour.

However, as it transpired, and became increasingly obvious during the holiday, the walk really was its own reward.  The views were so sublime, they were all the motivation I needed to keep going.  Just as a rousing piece of music can help you keep up your pace or manage that extra mile when running, the splendid, rolling hills of South Wales made me want to keep going long after my legs had put in a written request to cease and desist, to seize up for good.

The waterfall was spectacular.  It took a bit of mountain goat style clambering to get to, but it was certainly worth the effort.  You can walk beneath it and just stand and listen to the unending roar of tonnes of water falling past each second, just a few feet in front of you.  And after the light trek to the waterfall and back, we hit the Penderyn Distillery.  A funny and fascinating tour of the facility by the irrepressible Alan was followed by a tasting.  I’m a malt whiskey aficionado so I was very surprised at my restraint, only purchasing one bottle to take home with me.

penyfan2

The following day, with both of us nursing very slightly foggy heads, my wife and I headed off to tackle Pen Y Fan, South Wales’ highest peak.  Given it was Good Friday and the weather was fine, the traffic in the area was pretty heavy.  This meant it was easier to stop a couple of miles short of the peak itself and set off towards it over the bracken coated hillside by the Beacons Reservoir.  And a good choice it was too.  The peak itself was thronged with people, most of whom had trekked up via a gently sloping path.  This meant that the summit was fairly busy and noisy and so the couple of hours we spent walking across the rougher terrain of the surrounding hills was a magically peaceful experience.  We stopped to sit down on several occasions, and on the whole this wasn’t to rest, but more to drink in the landscape, the greens, browns and reds of the grass, heath and ferns that coat the mountains in the area.

This blog is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up here.  I’m still learning the art of writing, but I doubt I’d ever be able to put across the majesty of the mountains in the Brecon Beacons. Even with a few photos thrown in you only get a hint of what’s in store if you go yourself.  My childhood involved many trips to the Scottish Highlands and so I know what beauty the UK has to offer, but I am certainly also now in love with the Beacons too.

I suggest you do what Visit Wales are encouraging locals and visitors alike to do and ‘Find Your Epic‘, your own adventure.  And for those in South Wales and nearby, you have an adventure waiting for you on your doorstep.

Sport Histories: Kettlebells

Sport Histories: Kettlebells

This post was originally going to just be about how I tried a kettlebells class recently. But when I looked into the activity a little deeper, I realised that it has somewhat mysterious beginnings that most won’t be aware of…

The cannon was first invented in 1104 by Erik Olafson.  He lived alone on a small island in the Baltic Sea and constructed the weapon out of branches and seaweed, hoping to defend his tiny nation from invasion. It fired pineapples at high velocity and would have REALLY hurt if you’d been hit by it.  However, no-one ever attacked and Henrik died peacefully at the age of 93.  Consequently, the invention died with him.

So, the cannon was second invented in 1483. It was designed as a (somewhat dangerous) method of returning bowling balls back to the bowler after they had been bowled down an alley. Thought to have been developed at the behest of Queen Anne II, a keen tenpin fan who didn’t want to have to wait for a servant to fetch her ball back each time.

Ball

The inherent risk to life of such a ballistic method of reuniting bowler with ball was seized upon by Field Marshall Douglas McDougal in 1627 when the cannon was first successfully employed at the Battle of Hemel Hempstead and used as a lethal piece of artillery, turning the tide and proving decisive in McDougal’s defeat of the Cornish.

How does this relate to kettlebells I hear you ask?  I’m getting to that. Bear with me.

So, these cannon balls are heavy, really heavy.  Probably somewhere between the weight of a small dog and a slightly larger one. Picking them up is back breaking, so handles were cunningly added to aid lifting and carrying of ammunition around the battlefield.  It was this innovation that led to off-duty soldiers doing exercises with them, realising that they could work out more effectively using weights.

And this idea was then picked up many moons later by exercise entrepreneurs Ken Kettle and Helen Bells during the 1970s fitness boom and they transformed the use of these sport weights into the exercise class we know and love.  Kettlebells was born.  An amazing, some would say unbelievable story, but it’s all true.  All of it.

I was lucky enough to join in with a kettlebells class at work and I can confirm that it is a) exhausting and b) good for ‘scoping your guns‘. Its use of weights makes it a fitness class that appeals to both men and women, which is cool. Being the only man in a 100 strong Zumba class is an ‘interesting’ experience I assure you (something I may blog about at a later date…)

I’m wrapping up now so here comes the Jerry Springer style semi-serious sum-up. Getting fit doesn’t have to involve playing a sport.  Just moving is the name of the game.  And whatever the experts say about how much you should do, a little is clearly better than nothing.  I like a mix  of activities myself and, the more you try, the more likely you are to find something that sticks and you don’t mind doing again.

 

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