Latest Posts

Why I Started Running

It’s fair to say that running changed my life. It’s not an over exaggeration. I went from someone who thought running wasn’t for her to someone who left her career to spend more time running, writing about running and helping others to find good health through running. I can honestly say when I started out, it was absolutely not my intention that any of that should happen. It wasn’t even on my radar.

In trying to understand how to help other people to become active, I’ve been reflecting (as you know, I do a lot of this!) on why I started running twelve years ago. What was it that I was looking for? What did I need that I thought running could give me? And, in turn, how does that influence what I now say to people to encourage them to be active? I wanted to share it with you to see if you identify, if you are a runner or to see if it would encourage you if you were thinking about running. These are the conclusions I’ve come to:

  • It might not have been running. Ultimately I just wanted to get fit. It could just as easily have been cycling or swimming. Running was the most accessible to me at the time. I didn’t need to buy anything, learn how to do it (at least I didn’t think I did) and it was quick. I could do it from my front door in a few minutes and as a working mum with three kids of pre-school age, time wasn’t something I had a lot of.
  • I needed to prove I could do it. I’d tried running eight years previously and thought it was awful. My intention to run a half marathon was quickly given up when my knees hurt and each run left me feeling out of breath and pretty useless. I‘m stubborn and I don’t like it when I can’t do something. I’m prepared to work hard to achieve things and I didn’t like that running had one up on me.
  • I wanted to look different. I was flabby and unfit. My body had stunned me by its amazing capabilities to give me three children in close succession but it changed a lot in the process and I certainly wasn’t loving how it looked and felt. I wanted to be lean and toned and to look like what I perceived a runner to be. In hindsight I know I was being hard on myself, I was really fine and normal and I shouldn’t have felt any pressure to change but I did.
  • I needed peace. I needed to be away from the constant demands of work and young children. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them but I needed to be inaccessible for a short time with no risk of someone calling for me. I needed quiet. My mind needed space and I longed for more than one minute undisturbed. A friend was up for running with me and I wanted the novelty of being able to finish a sentence.
  • I needed to get better at something. I’d learnt that being a mother is really hard. After number three I’d realised that you have to lower your expectations in a lot of areas. Your house is never going to be as tidy or clean as you want it to be. You’re never going to feed your kids as healthily as you’d ideally like. You won’t manage as much professional development at work as you know you should. etc etc. I was fed up of not meeting the high bars I set for myself so I wanted to start from scratch and get better at something. I needed to feel and see self-improvement and taking up running which I knew I couldn’t get any worse at seemed a good move.
  • I wanted an adventure. I was ready for something different, something unknown. Life has to be a bit predictable when you’re tied to work and childcare routines. We’d gone off script and spent a year in New Zealand just after number two had arrived but this was a distant memory and I certainly wasn’t up for travelling again at that point. I wanted to just do something random. I had no idea that my running would become quite the adventure it has!

It’s funny looking back at my motives. When we talk to people about why they should start running or getting active now, we often focus on the health benefits. I’m not sure the usual explanations about how running would improve my sleep or reduce my risk of disease would have made me want to do it. I didn’t see that I needed the mental health benefits either. Yes, I knew I needed peace and quiet but it didn’t go any further than that. Using running to manage my mental health is probably my biggest driver that keeps me running now. Back then though, ultimately, I just wanted a different body, to be away from the house and to succeed at something when I felt I was being a bit rubbish at all the other things I was trying to do. I hoped running could offer some of that.

We need to carefully consider how we frame our conversations with people we are trying to encourage to be active. Rather than simply sharing our stories and giving advice, we need to ask questions. New habits are very hard to form and to really find the motivation to introduce something new into your life, you have to get to the depths of what you need, what you’re looking for and why you want to do it. Everyone has different reasons and motivations. Only then will a new habit form and be long-lasting. Just listing the benefits of being active is not enough. It has to get personal.

Thankfully, running ticked all of the boxes for me. It delivered! It was more luck than judgement. If you had told me what would happen over the following years, I would have laughed in your face. I wasn’t looking for a new job, to travel the world talking about health and running or even a book deal. No, I simply thought I’d have a bash at it and hope it made me lose some weight and have an excuse to get out for a chat with a friend. Funny old thing running.

Why did you start running?

First entry in my running diary. 2008

Featured image: Credit to Horst von Bohlen

Quick Question – How do I check my breasts?

How do you do a breast self-examination? What should you look for when checking your breasts? What do you do if you find a breast lump? It can feel a little overwhelming so don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. With some simple tips and advice you’ll soon grow in confidence.

Thank you for all the comments and shares of my previous blog – How often should I examine my breasts? I explained it was all about being generally breast aware rather than having a set time to do an examination but that routine and reminders can help to avoid the months flying past without you doing a check. A helpful comment from a reader pointed out that the wonderful charity CoppaFeel do a text reminder service so you’ll get sent a monthly message to remind you.

No let’s learn how to examine ourselves.

First up …

Remember that every woman is different and so is every breast.

Breasts are made of fatty tissue and fat is lumpy so at first you might think it’s an impossible task! Breasts change with ageing, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breast feeding and more. Some women have very lumpy breasts, others softer with few lumps. Many women find their breasts change dramatically with their menstrual cycle and for some women it makes little difference. It’s all about knowing what is normal for you and your normal may change throughout the month.

If you get very lumpy tender breasts before your period, then you may find a few days after your period is the best time for you to examine yourself. Similarly women who are peri-menopausal may experience intermittent breast tenderness and find it uncomfortable to examine themselves and want to move their self-check to a week or two later.

Get to know what works for you and what feels normal for you. Remember no one is symmetrical! And most importantly, if you notice changes or things you aren’t sure about then see your doctor.

Look first

Strip to the waist and stand in front of the mirror. With your back straight and your arms by your side just look at your breasts. Look for:

  • Any skin changes – rashes, redness or rough patches of skin.
  • A change in the outline – is the skin swollen, puckered or dimpled?
  • Check your nipples – look for crusting and give them a gentle squeeze to make sure no discharge come out.

Now look again while you raise your arms above your head and then put your hands on your hip.

Then feel

You can feel your breasts while you stand in front of the mirror or you can jump in the shower. Some women find it easier when they have a wet, soapy hand as it glides over the skin.

Use the pad of your middle three fingers of one hand. (Use your right hand to check your left breast and vice versa). Keep your fingers together and keep them flat against your breast. Press lightly, moving your fingers in a small circular motion. Imagine your breast is a clock face, move around from 12 o’clock, right round the numbers until you are back to 12 again, make sure that all areas of the breast are checked. Always check right up to your collar bone and into your armpit too as breast tissue extends here. Repeat this process but press a little more firmly this time so you can feel right through to your ribcage which lies beneath the breast.

It’s a good idea, especially if you have large breasts to repeat this when you are lying down. Lying down spreads out the breast tissue and can make it easier.

What to feel for

The most important thing is that you notice things that are different for you. Obviously, you need to have checked at least once to know if there are any changes but you will soon feel confident.

You are feeling for breast lumps – not all lumps are harmful so don’t panic. Lumps may be small or large, soft or firm, circular or a longer thickened area. Breast tissue is naturally lumpy so it is difficult. If you are having regular periods and discover a lump then you might choose to re-examine yourself just after your period to see if the lump persists.

See your doctor if you discover a lump or any of the other changes mentioned above. Do not feel embarrassed, they will be pleased that you have been checking yourself and can either quickly reassure you or arrange for you to go to a specialist breast clinic for them to examine you and carry out any further scans or tests that might be necessary. Remember breast lumps are often due to non-cancerous reasons such as cysts or hormonal lumpiness.

Check today and be proud that you are taking care of yourself.

If you’d like to read about my experience going for my first mammogram then you can read it here.

Featured Image: Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay.


There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

www.drjulietmcgrattan.com

Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person.  So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional. 

Quick Question – How often should I examine my breasts?

I was examining my breasts the other day and suddenly realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I had done it. Then I felt worried that if I found a lump it could have been there for several months. There’s nothing like the fear of breast cancer to invoke anxiety. Thankfully all was well but it served as a reminder to me of the importance of this quick, simple home check that we can all do. So, how often should you check your breasts? Should you examine yourself every time you get in the shower, once a month or is a quick feel every now and then when you remember enough?

Cancer Research UK states, ‘When diagnosed at its earliest stage, almost all (98%) people with breast cancer will survive their disease for five years or more, compared with around 1 in 4 (26%) people when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.’ However, not all breast cancers can be detected by breast self-examination. Other methods such as breast screening through mammography are used to help detect cancers early. It does however make sense to give yourself the best chance of picking up a cancer early with a simple home examination and awareness of your breasts.

Be breast aware

Generally being breast aware is more important than regularly timed checks. Get to know your breasts. You’re more likely to notice changes and will feel more confident about spotting them. This means knowing how your breasts look as well as how they feel. Here are some simple everyday actions give you an opportunity to check your breasts:

  • If you are undressing in front of the mirror, always just cast a quick eye over the silhouette, shape and outline of your breasts, sometimes skin can pucker or dimple.
  • When you’re in the shower and your hand is soapy, just run it over your breasts as you wash yourself.
  • If you’re applying body cream use that as an opportunity to notice how the breast skin and nipples look and feel.
  • If you’re shaving your armpits, just feel gently with your fingers as you rub on the shaving gel; breast tissue can extend into the armpits.
  • When you’re putting on your bra, just notice how your breasts sit in the cups.

Develop a habit

There is actually no set recommended frequency with which you should specifically check your breasts and being breast aware all the time is more effective. Most information says that around once a month is adequate. The problem with busy lives is that time flies and months and months can go before you realise you haven’t checked. Simple memory isn’t a reliable way for the majority of women to ensure they do it. If you’d like to create some kind of pattern, habit or prompt that means you don’t forget, here are some suggestions:

  • Check on the first day of each new month.
  • If you regularly menstruate, tie the check in with your menstrual cycle.
  • Set a reminder on your phone or computer.
  • Write it on the kitchen calendar!
  • If you are taking daily medications, use the completion of a month of your tablets as the reminder to check your breasts.
  • Do you get through a bottle of shampoo or face cream roughly each month? Use the opening of a new bottle to remind you.

Just find what works for you. Whatever activity you do around once per month, use it as the trigger and associate it with a breast check.

Remember, if you notice any lumps or bumps or something that feels or looks different to you, it’s always best to get it checked by your doctor.

How often do you check and what reminds you to do it? Let me know in the comments.

In the next blog I’ll explain how to carry out a self-breast examination and what to look out for.

Featured image: Gratisography

There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

www.drjulietmcgrattan.com

Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person.  So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional. 

New IGTV Channel

Twitter has long been my favourite social media channel. It’s played a fundamental role in my change of career. So many connections, opportunities and even the job advert for the post I took as a PHE Physical Activity Clinical Champion have all come from Twitter. Real life friendships have resulted too which is wonderful. I never really ‘got’ Instagram. I posted pictures there, browsed and liked a few things but it was more of a personal photo album for me than anything else. I just didn’t have the time for the crafted posts that filled my feed and seemed to get the most attention, I always felt I might as well have written a blog. Over time however I’ve grown to love Instagram, I’ve found an increasing amount of support, pleasure and diversity. I understand it better and so I’m taking the plunge and embarking on a new challenge. I’ve launched an Instagram TV Channel.

I’ve called the channel Active Health because that just really seems to sum up what my work is about. I have lots of ideas but the plan is to run it alongside this blog and to provide information in another format; sometimes you just want to watch something instead of reading it, don’t you?! It also means I can have more of an ongoing dialogue with you to find out what you’d like to know. My aim, as always is to provide good health information in an easy to understand format and talking to you directly is a perfect way to do that. No jargon, no fads, no false facts, just plain, simple, evidence-based (wherever possible) advice that you’d ask your ‘doctor friend’, probably pre-fixed by, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but …’

I’ll be starting off with three series:

  • Quick Questions– This will be a continuation of the Quick Question series here on the blog. It’s my most heavily viewed written series and I get lots of comments about how useful people have found the answers so it makes sense to take it to IGTV.
  • Beginner Running Tips – I’m excited about hosting this in association with 261 Fearless Club UK the Community Interest Company of which I am the Co-founder and current Director. Covering the basic questions about running and how to do it and enjoy it!
  • Body Know-How – I’m fascinated by the human body and the way it works. It continues to blow my mind every day. I’ll be going through different body systems and talking about how they function and what we can do to look after them.

I will definitely be adding more series to this list so this is just for starters.

I’m obviously excited about this (can you tell?!) but I’m nervous too. Even though I’ve done lots of public speaking, numerous TV and radio appearances and hosted podcasts and live streamed YouTube events, I still feel hesitant. Like most people I know, I hate seeing myself on the screen and doesn’t the sound of your own voice make you cringe when you hear it online? Anyway, I’ll get over it, this is all about pushing myself, being fearless and stepping up to bring you health information and help everyone lead healthy, active and happy lives.

I really hope you will come and join me and tune into the channel from time to time. Fingers crossed … Oh and if you want more light hearted, ‘what I get up to’ kind of stuff, then have a look at my Insta stories!

Loving the Long Runs

Running is a funny old thing isn’t it?! Sometimes you can’t get enough of it and then there are periods where you just can’t seem to motivate yourself to even get out of the door. I’m particularly prone to this see-sawing when it comes to long runs. I started lockdown only doing short runs but I’m doing lots of long ones now and really enjoying them. I began thinking and analysing (as I’m prone to do!) what it is at the moment that means I’m already planning my next long run even though my legs are still sore from yesterday’s one.

For me personally, a long run is anything over 10k (around 6 miles). I think the distance is irrelevant because in the past, my long one would have been anything over 5k. It just depends where you are in your running journey. Any run where the focus is on pushing distance rather than pace or speed counts as your long run in my mind.

Here’s what I’ve come up with as the factors that are helping me feel so enthusiastic about the long runs currently:

Pressure

In the past I’ve only ever really pushed myself to go longer when I’ve been training for a marathon, I’ve always needed that focus to motivate and encourage me to spend the best part of half a day (and more for recovery!) sweating it out on the road. Strangely now, I’m two long runs away from being marathon ready and there’s no marathon booked or even on the horizon. This means I’m purely doing them because I want to. The pressure has gone. It doesn’t matter if I don’t quite do the distance I’d planned and I’m less worried about getting injured when I decide to take a different route and add on a few miles. Running for running’s sake is liberating. There’s so many reasons to run other than training for races.

Pacing

I’ve also not been bothered about the pace I’m running at. I’ve worn my Garmin to record the run but not looked at it during the runs. I’ve been running purely on feel, in fact I’m trying to run slower on these runs and not sneak into my higher heart rate zones. I think the fact that I have been doing one or two dedicated, short speed sessions with my youngest son at other times during the week has helped me to separate the long run out in my mind. This is not about performance. This is different and the aim is to enjoy it; I struggle to enjoy the speed work! I can run and not worry that I should be doing some fartleks or intervals or even be trying to reduce my miles/minute over the longer distance. There’s an awful lot of elevation in the long runs round here so speed is hard to come by. This might sound pretty basic but I think it’s actually doing the speed sessions rather than just be ‘meaning to do’ them that has allowed me to relax on these long runs.

Kit

There’s nothing like a new piece of kit to make you want to run! I got a hydration vest for my birthday and it is awesome. I’ve mentioned it in a blog before but I absolutely LOVE it. It’s made by Ultimate Direction and the fit is incredible, I don’t even know I’m wearing it. Currently I’m just using the water bottle that comes with it but I’m going to buy a proper water bladder for it. I only really drink on the run when I’m going over ten miles (unless it’s super hot in which case it’s over 10k) so I’ve wanted to run long to justify me using it. I can’t wait to pull it on.

Fuel

Similar to the new kit, I’ve been using a different fuel. I was originally gifted a trial pack of 33 Fuel – Better Fuel Energy Drink and discovered it was exactly what I needed so I bought a stock. Liquid hydration suits me best these days and with this I can run long and maintain my energy levels really well, there’s no sugar roller coaster and I’ve honestly felt great. I’m sure it’s played a large role in me finding the long runs more enjoyable. It’s a great partner for my hydration vest.

Headspace

Wow, there’s been so much to think about recently hasn’t there? Running has always been my chance to digest, ponder and problem solve. I’ve needed it more than ever with all that is going on in the world. The long runs during lockdown have been the perfect opportunity to check in with my own mental health and now they have been a chance to reflect on my pledge to educate myself more about race and diversity. Working with 261 Fearless means every day I’m striving to help all women feel included in our activities but I know there’s more I can do to inform myself. I’ve appreciated this quiet time and the fresh perspective that running long gives me.

Exploring

Going that bit further means you see that much more and I’ve loved finding new routes and add-ons to the ones I know. Running in a different area with a friend recently was a joy. When you have no idea of the route then somehow you don’t dread the miles ahead and can just enjoy the current mile. There’s no fear of the big long hill coming up or the sharp elevation right in the final half mile. The bird song has been so loud, the lambs so sweet and the roads being quieter than usual due to lockdown has been a bonus. Small things but enough to make the long runs even better.

Bonding

An unexpected bonus and one that has made such a difference is the opportunity to spend time with my eldest son. Sixteen can be a hard age to maintain shared interests. He’s a good runner but he prefers his bike. Many of our miles have been in companionable silence and I love this. Just being together, enjoying the nature around us, being separate in our thoughts yet together too. He speeds up and slows down and loops back for me and while I don’t feel particularly vulnerable on the routes that I do, it has certainly made me feel more secure. It’s nice that he’s been keen to get up early on a Sunday morning to join me, it means a lot to me and shows me that he’s enjoying it too.

So I think it’s a combination of things that have improved my long run experience, helped me to get out the door and and made me want to run further as well as enjoy the miles more. I plan to do an ultra one day. For now though I’m happy around 15 miles and ready to step up to my next marathon if and when the opportunity arises.

How is your running going? Have you found yourself running further recently? I know many people are the opposite to me and haven’t been running as much. I’d love to hear your experiences.

Quick Question – How do I know if I’m peri-menopausal?

This time last year BBC Breakfast ran their brilliant menopause coverage which increased awareness, educated and informed the public on this important topic. I made a contribution and visited the sofa to talk to Louise Minchin about exercise and the menopause and I wrote a blog to enlarge on the subject too. It definitely started conversations but one year on are we still talking about it? Do we feel more knowledgeable? It’s important that the conversation continues. Women still have many questions and concerns. How do I know if I’m peri-menopausal? How can you tell if you’re in the menopause? These are questions I hear all the time so let me answer them in my #quickquestion series.

Terminology

First up, a quick reminder of what the terms mean. You reach the menopause when you haven’t had a period for 12 months, the average age for this to happen, in the UK, is age 51. When you are heading towards the menopause but not there yet it’s called the peri-menopause (peri means around or surrounding) and you are peri-menopausal. The time after the menopause is called the post-menopause and when you’re there you are post-menopausal.

Symptoms

The typical and well known symptoms of the peri-menopause are irregular periods, hot flushes and night sweats and if these are happening to you then it’s a clear sign you might be peri-menopausal. However and it’s a big however, there are many, many more symptoms which make knowing whether or not you are peri-menopausal very difficult. The list is long but here are some of the more common ones:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Reduced energy levels
  • Weight gain
  • Mood changes including low mood and irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Recurrent cystitis
  • Low sex drive
  • Breast tenderness
  • Headaches
  • Joint aches and pains
  • Palpitations
  • An intolerance of caffeine and alcohol
  • Just not feeling like yourself

Clearly, you can experience many of the above symptoms at any time of life, when you aren’t peri-menopausal and this makes it tricky to know what’s going on in your body. Just knowing what the possible symptoms are is an important step in identifying if you might be heading towards the menopause. Knowledge is power and you know what to look out for.

Self awareness

The thing is that menopausal symptoms don’t have a clear start and end date. They can go on for several years before and after the menopause, some say ten years either side! Having a good self awareness is key. Take time to notice your body, listen to it, really think about how you feel. Changes can be so insidious that you don’t even notice them happening. This can be a good thing but when the new normal has become that you are irritable and shout a lot at home, then this clearly needs identifying. Asking those around you if they’ve noticed anything can be helpful and opens up the opportunity to talk about the menopause. If you’re someone who likes to reflect through writing things down, then it can be useful to keep a journal of things you’ve noticed about your body and see if there is a trend or pattern, there may be neither but it helps to develop the skill of being self aware.

Be warned that symptoms can come and go over a long time period so it’s often just a case of making a mental note and keeping the possibility of the peri-menopause in your mind.

Family history

We tend to follow our female family members when it comes to timings of hormonal changes. If you are able to find out what your mother’s experience was then it might give you some indication of when you’re likely to reach the menopause. This is particularly important in the case of premature (early) menopause. A menopause before the age of 45 is considered premature and sometimes very early menopause, in the twenties or thirties can be a hereditary condition meaning it runs in families.

Bear in mind though that environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle can play a part in our hormonal profiles and the way we live now may be very different to that of our mothers or grandmothers.

Tests

You’d think it would be easy to have a blood test that tells you whether or not you are peri-menopausal but it isn’t that straightforward. It’s rare for GPs to offer a blood test to look at hormone levels when women are enquiring about whether they might be peri-menopausal or not. This is because a blood test gives you a snapshot of your hormones at the moment in time the blood was taken. Levels may fluctuate hugely over time and it can be very unhelpful and even mis-leading in making a diagnosis. Blood tests do have their uses though and if a premature menopause is suspected, then hormonal blood tests are appropriate and and usually more than one test is taken with four to six weeks between them.

Because some of the symptoms of the peri-menopause could be linked to other conditions, a GP might order blood tests, aside from hormonal ones, to rule out other medical conditions that might explain the way you are feeling. For example, if you are very fatigued and gaining weight, then they might check your thyroid function to make sure your thyroid gland isn’t under-active. Similarly, if you are experiencing palpitations and reduced energy levels, then they may check a full blood count to exclude anaemia.

Time

The use of time is so important in many things in medicine and working out whether or not you are peri-menopausal is one example. Are the symptoms progressive, are they becoming more frequent or have they gone away altogether? You don’t want to ignore things that might have an underlying and possibly even sinister cause and equally you don’t want to overreact to minor symptoms that you can manage yourself. It can be a difficult and confusing time and if you are unsure about a new symptom that is severe or persisting, then it’s always best to get checked by a health care professional, they will understand and may be able to give you quick reassurance.

Knowing whether you are peri-menopausal can be hard. Being aware of the possible symptoms, being self aware and using time can help. Regardless of whether you are peri-menopausal or not, it’s an ideal time to be looking after yourself physically and mentally, taking time to exercise, eat healthily and reduce stress. Have confidence in yourself, in your instinct and knowledge of your own body and how it feels but never be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Featured image: Gratisography

There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health.Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

www.drjulietmcgrattan.com

Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person.  So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional. 

Project Allotment

Keeping your children active is sometimes easier said than done. I’ve always found that it helps massively if you do things together as a family. You’re setting a great example to your kids by being active yourself, there’s an opportunity for family bonding and you’re making memories too. It’s important to remember that being active doesn’t just mean doing sport. There’s endless things you can do which all count as activity that don’t involve kicking a ball or chasing after your children. I thought I’d share our latest project designed to help us be active and healthier.

We’ve tried to take as many positives from this period of lockdown as we can and one thing that has sparked our interest is food. Not just baking and trying out new recipes (although we’ve done PLENTY of that) but a desire to look after ourselves better through what we eat. We’ve been using our local butchers for our meat and our milkman has been bringing potatoes, eggs and fruit juice as well as our usual enormous fresh milk order. But, we wanted to go even more local and focus more on plant based recipes. With more time at home and the lovely weather, we’ve been tidying up our small garden. We decided to dig up one of our flower beds and put some vegetables in. With a poor track record when it comes to growing veg I wasn’t hopeful but the seeds we put in there as well as in various pots, all seemed to be growing well and our ambition grew along with them!

We’ve been walking past the village allotments most days on our daily exercise slot and just love the peaceful spot by the river. We decided to go and ask if there was a plot free. When I say ‘we’, I mean myself and my teenage son. He had his GCSEs cancelled and let’s face it, he’s got a bit of time on his hands! He’d been the most enthusiastic about the whole ‘growing our own’ thing and had been working hard in the garden to get us started. There was one small patch at the allotments left, not a plot but a patch about 4m by 3m. We were quite relieved by this really as being complete beginners we didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves. We jumped at the chance and the patch was ours!

We returned the next day to make a start on digging over the soil; the patch hadn’t been used for a couple of years. I could hardly get the spade into the ground so we were incredibly relieved and grateful when one of the other allotment owners offered to run his rotavator over it for us. It took him about half an hour. We would have been there all weekend trying to achieve the same. There are some very helpful and welcoming people on the allotments, all ready to lend a hand and give you advice as well as spare lettuce and fresh eggs! We’ve been honest about our beginner status and they’ve made us feel comfortable to ask even the most silly of questions. I’m so grateful.

Over the following couple of weeks we’ve planted carrots, beetroot, parsnips, kale and pumpkin seeds. We’ve transplanted some courgettes we’d grown in pots and we have some tomato plants promised. My daughter wants to put some peas or beans in and I’m pining for a chive plant. My youngest son spent ages breaking up old roof slates to make a neat border for the plot. Our enthusiasm is there, let’s just hope Mother Nature and the wildlife are kind to us and we see some return on our efforts.

It’s been a great activity for getting us active. Aside from the digging, raking and watering, we’ve have to get to and from the allotment. We’ve walked but we’ve also been cycling there, it’s only a few minutes away but when you forget something and have to go back home for it or you just want to nip for a quick look or watering session, it all adds up. I’ve even bought a bike from a friend as mine was fit for the bin. I’m really impressed with the children’s attitude and enthusiasm, they keep asking if they can go down there, let’s hope it continues.

So, I’m looking forward to not only enjoying time outdoors being active with my family but also having the satisfaction of choosing and growing ingredients for our expanding interest in plant based recipes. Fingers crossed! I’m just hoping our memory won’t be, ‘Mum, do you remember the time we thought we’d get an allotment’ …

All images: drjulietmcgrattan.com

Dancing Through Lockdown

My daughter loves to dance (I too lived to dance when I was her age). Lockdown has been a difficult time for dancers. Long practised-for exams postponed and dance festivals and competitions cancelled. The disappointment is huge when you’re 12 and all you want to do is dance and perform.

In the same way that I’ve had a chance to consider my lockdown running and reflect on what positives I can take from this time as I run towards the future, it’s been a great opportunity to think about what dancing means to you when you can’t join in your usual classes with your dance friends, perform on a stage or compete in any events.

I’ve always known that going to dance lessons is so much more than learning steps and routines. Dance brings so many benefits, particularly for children. I danced throughout my childhood and when I look back I can see how it helped me in so many ways. I know how hard it was for my parents to pay for my dance lessons and I will be eternally grateful that they did.

The biggest thing it gave me was confidence. The ability to control my nerves and to not fall apart when faced with an audience and to actually enjoy it. To be able to lift my head and my eyes, to stand tall and to switch into performance mode. Posture, poise and self-belief. This has been invaluable in the work I now do, presenting at conferences, giving talks and doing online and sometimes TV and radio work.

The other main lesson and this was a hard one to learn, is that you have to work hard to be excellent. Discipline, practice and consistency, nothing replaces them. The upset when things don’t go your way, the fatigue when you have to keep getting up and trying again and the realisation that absolutely nothing replaces hard work, there are no short cuts. This is a lesson that has served me very well in my life and career and developing a sound work ethic.

One benefit that I see in my daughter and particularly during this lockdown period is how amazing dance is at helping look after mental health. Amidst the chaos of school closures, distancing from friends and general life anxiety, dance has been something to cling on to. A lifeline offering respite and consistency in a choppy ocean. Thanks to her amazing dance school Laura Sandham School of Dance, classes have continued online by Zoom. Having the set lesson times has added routine, made each day a little different when it’s easy for all the days to feel the same. It’s been an opportunity to see her dance friends and teachers and know that her ‘dance family’ is still there and supporting her. It’s also a way to get a boost of endorphins to calm nerves and lift mood. When you’re dancing and concentrating there’s no space for anything else and worries are put to one side. We all need something right now to help see us through this tricky time.

As I see my daughter discovering these things. I know that my hard earned money is well spent. She may not have a career in dance, in fact she may not want to dance forever (although that seems unlikely right now!) and that’s fine. I know she will have gained so much from it that will serve her well in the future and I’m so grateful for what it’s giving her right now.

So, to all the dancers out there who have had their dance exams and festivals cancelled; ones that you’ve worked so hard for so many months for. Remember:

Dance isn’t just measured in grades, medals and certificates. It’s measured in the joy in your heart, the singing of your soul and the width of your smile. In the glow of your pride, the twinkle in your eyes and the tingle in your spine. Dance in your bedroom, your kitchen, your garden. Dance in your online class. Dance like no one is watching or dance like the world is watching. Just don’t stop dancing.

Dr Juliet McGrattan

What benefits has dancing brought to you or your children? Do leave me a comment and share the power of dance.

Image: Dancer courtesy of Arusha’s Images Photography and with the dancer’s permission of course. Presentation: Female Athlete Conference, Boston courtesy of 261 Fearless.

 

Quick Question – Can I exercise with varicose veins?

Varicose veins, a common condition that you might have diagnosed yourself or seen your doctor about. What are varicose veins, why do they happen and how do they link with exercise? Can exercise prevent varicose veins and if you’ve already got them, will exercise make them better or worse? What do you need to be careful of when exercising with varicose veins? I thought I’d pick this for my latest #quickquestion.

What are varicose veins?

If you don’t have them yourself then I’m sure you’ve spotted varicose veins on other people, usually on their legs. They’re essentially swollen blood vessels seen at the surface of the skin. They’re dark blue in colour as they contain blood that has given away its oxygen (deoxygenated blood) and is on its way back to the heart to get some more. They can be small or large, straight or very wiggly. They might not cause any discomfort at all but it’s common for varicose veins to ache, throb, itch and even bleed.

Why do varicose veins happen?

Our blood vessels are a bit like roads. The arteries take blood away from the heart, the aorta, the largest artery in the body, is a motorway, wide and fast flowing. The ‘A’ roads branch off it and then they in turn narrow down to ‘B’ roads. The veins bring blood back to the heart, the quieter and slower flowing roads feeding into the bigger ones until you’re back on the northbound motorway with the heart as the end destination.

We all know what happens when there’s roadworks closing a lane on a motorway or there’s an accident blocking the flow of cars. Yep, a great big traffic jam! You move at snail’s pace and there’s an ever increasing number of vehicles building up behind you. Well, varicose veins are essentially a traffic jam.

There are several reasons why jams might occur in veins:

  • Traffic flow measures aren’t working. Veins have valves in them which ensure that blood only flows in one direction, back to the heart. If the valves stop working properly then some vehicles try to go southbound on the northbound carriage way! The valves can be weakened in people who are overweight or spend a long time on their feet. Female hormones relax the walls of the veins making varicose veins more common in women, particularly during pregnancy and the menopause. Age weakens the valves and there are genetic factors that can make you more likely to get varicose veins too.
  • The traffic’s moving very slowly. The blood in our veins needs a helping hand to push it back up the body, it has to move against gravity and this is partly provided by our lower leg muscles acting as a pump. If the pump isn’t working then the vehicles just don’t have the momentum to keep moving forwards. Spending a prolonged time sitting or even standing still will reduce the venous pump and lead to pooling of blood.
  • There’s a road block. The traffic may come to a standstill or only move very slowly if there’s a blockage in the road as it squeezes into one narrow lane. A good example is a growing baby bump during pregnancy, it puts more pressure on the veins as they enter the pelvis. Rarer causes that can reduce the flow of blood in the veins include tumours in the pelvis and blood clots which block off the veins resulting in blood building up behind them.

Exercise and varicose veins

You can see from the causes that exercise is important to reduce the likelihood of varicose veins occuring. It helps to keep our weight to a healthy level, ensures the venous pump works frequently and generally boosts our circulation. If however you have developed varicose veins, then there are some things to bear in mind when it comes to continuing your exercise:

  • Don’t stop exercising. Regular exercise is an important part of treatment. Sitting or standing still is known to increase the risk of varicose veins.
  • Walking is great. Walking is a perfect, low impact exercise that will get your venous pump working. It’s free, convenient and can be squeezed into five minutes.
  • Don’t ignore symptoms. Pain and swelling suggests you’ve done too much for too long. You’ll discover your limit but you might find that endurance walks or runs are too uncomfortable in terms of aching or throbbing. Off-road walking and running can sometimes feel kinder to varicose veins.
  • Take care with weights. Lifting heavy weights could increase the pressure in veins so get advice on your technique from an expert and check with your doctor if you are unsure whether you should lift.
  • Elevating your legs helps. Your foot needs to be higher than your knee to get gravity to assist the blood flow, so relaxing with your legs up for a short time each day can relieve aches and swelling.
  • Consider compression. Compression stockings aren’t recommended as a long term option for varicose veins unless other treatments aren’t suitable. There’s debate as to their benefits and there’s also little evidence that lower grade compression such as the compressions socks worn by some recreational runners, stop varicose veins getting any worse.
  • Avoid knocks. Any significant knocks to delicate veins can make them bleed. Watch out for bike pedals, shoe studs or spikes. Don’t be alarmed. Elevate your leg and press firmly on the area until it stops; seek medical help if it isn’t easing up.

Featured image by Free Photos from Pixabay

There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health.Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.

www.drjulietmcgrattan.com

Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person.  So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional. 

Running Towards the Future

‘How are you?’ seems to be the most common way to open a conversation at the moment. For runners this is often followed by, ‘How’s your running?’ Many people have been running more frequently during our time of lockdown, using it to keep their mental health in check and add routine to the days. Others have been running less, either because it feels like one pressure too many or they’re key workers and are just too tired and busy. Whichever it is, lockdown has certainly been a time for us to reflect on our running. Whether it’s how much we love it, why we aren’t enjoying it or how much we miss it. I wrote recently about my lockdown running but this has lead me on to thinking about what I can take forward as a positive to use in my future running. What have I learnt? What have I enjoyed? How is my running going to look in the future?

Here are my own personal running reflections and how I intend to use them going forwards:

  • Running everyday isn’t for me. Despite loving the idea of a running streak, it really doesn’t suit me. It’s too much for my body, things begin to niggle and hurt. It’s too much for my mind, it puts a pressure on me that I don’t need or enjoy. It also means there’s little time for other types of exercise which I know I need. Going forwards I’ll be sticking to three or four runs a week.
  • Strength work really helps. Of course I already knew this but like many runners it’s something I mean to do but don’t do consistently enough for it to make a difference! Clearly my self-motivation hasn’t been good enough. After six weeks of three or four online classes (ballet and 261 Fearless workouts) every week, my core strength has really improved and I’ve noticed the benefit in my running. I feel stronger and faster. In the future I’m determined to stick to this and will use online classes to make sure I have a commitment to fulfil.
  • I’ve not been pushing myself much. I’ve joined my 15 year old son for some of his athletics training sessions. This has involved tough interval workouts. I used to do these but had kind of got lazy, preferring not to make myself feel uncomfortable and just cruising at a chatty pace for all my runs. This has been a reminder that intervals hurt but the gains are great. I’m planning to carry on with one of these a week, trying to be realistic here.
  • I run because I love it. This might sound obvious but this time has been a reminder to me that I am a motivated runner. I don’t need clubs and races to keep me going. I used to think I needed a race target to get me out the door but I’ve realised that’s not true. I want to run because I want the sense of freedom it brings and way it makes me feel. Yes, I miss running with others and I look forward to a race at some point but I don’t need it to keep me running. This has given me confidence in my own motivation going forwards.
  • Strava is actually ok. I’ve had an account for many years but only began uploading runs a couple of weeks into lockdown. I considered it to be only really for competitive people so generally steered clear. However, for whatever reason and I’m still not sure why, I decided to take the plunge. I’ve really enjoyed the camaraderie and realised it’s only competitive if you want it to be and it’s actually really nice to give kudos to your friends when they’ve made the effort to get out and see what they’ve been up to, as well as get route ideas! I’ll be carrying on uploading my runs in the future.
  • I’ve not peaked yet! I came to running late so have been able to continue getting PBs but over the last year I haven’t made any significant gains. I guess I thought that perhaps I’d reached my best so stopped trying. This time to refocus and mix things up has really started to pay off and made me realise there is more in me than I thought. It’s given me a renewed desire to work hard at my running. Let’s see where it takes me …

What have you discovered during your lockdown running? Is it that you like to run without your watch? Is it that you can run better in the heat than you thought? Or perhaps it’s that you’ve realised just how much you miss it when you can’t do it so much? I would love you to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments or on social media.

Images: drjulietmcgrattan.com