The photo that prompted me to take stock of my health and fitness

I wouldn’t have considered myself a vain person, but a photo taken of me last August made me think! I was standing on the side of a swimming pool just hanging out. Literally, just hanging out! Or hanging down! There I was, with my skinny legs, baggy trunks, saggy belly and moobs! A fine figure of a man! Seriously though, and not from an aesthetic point of view, it made me reflect that ‘I don’t look as healthy as a Yogi should.’ Bear in mind, I have been practising and teaching Yoga for 30 years! I began a process of treating myself as I would one of my students, looking at everything I was doing, or not doing.

I think it is fair to say that there is much more public discussion now about men’s health issues than I remember in the past. Perhaps it was always there, and I have only noticed it as I age, but I don’t think so. Teaching yoga for almost 30 years means health has always been on my radar, and what is also obvious is the low percentage of men in my classes over the years. Women seem to be much more attuned to making positive health interventions for themselves. Many men start yoga, few persevere. Many start later in life as well, and often do so hoping to mitigate an already present health concern. Certainly, as I get older, I encounter more and more of my contemporaries who are facing all sorts of health issues. Is it a case that we men don’t look after ourselves as well as we should?

As part of the reappraisal of my thinking about my own health I have chatted with both male and female friends, colleagues and students of my own vintage (I will be 62 next month) and younger, (guys and gals in their 40’s and 50’s) about their attitudes to health and I was struck by how different the responses between the sexes were.

It’s time for men to up their game

The Gals

The Guys

While not true in every case, the pattern was clear. The girls thought more deeply about their health and were more conscious of what they ate, of exercise and, of acting when they felt something was amiss. They spoke to each other about their health and were generally much more conscious of the future and preparing for it now.

for whatever reason, were much less proactive, tending to watch as the physical signs and symptoms of, at best, less good health, and at worst, serious ill-health, crept up on them. Weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor sleep, stress, heart-health issues, pre-diabetes, diabetes, high levels of inflammation, joint pain etc etc.

Are men just less aware of, or concerned to modify diet or lifestyle, and more prone to feel that health or its absence is just something that happens to us, rather than something that we can exercise control over? Are we afraid to look? Why is this? I had to examine my own conscience.

The habits that resulted in middle aged spread

Looking after diet and lifestyle goes with the territory of being a Yogi and I thought I had been doing a pretty good job of it! I watched my diet, vegetarian for years, eating fresh food, organic where possible, doing my practices, taking walks etc. But if I am honest, I was also careful to overlook some habits which I knew deep down were not healthy, but which I managed to convince myself (it wasn’t hard!) were minor indulgences. Truth be told, from early childhood I have had a love affair with sugar. So, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to find that, despite my generally good diet, I was still gaining a middle-aged spread. Further investigation showed my fasting blood sugar was high, and as Paula had often drawn my attention to, I woke several times at night, snored loudly when asleep, and was prone to sleep apnoea! Some may say, ‘Ah, sure that happens to everyone in their 60’s; it’s perfectly normal.’ That it happens to many may certainly be true, but just being common doesn’t make it normal. It didn’t feel good, and I decided to do something about it.

My big Why! Why is my health and fitness so important to me?

That’s easy – my family. My daughter, Grace, will soon be 15. I want to be around for her and for Paula for a long time yet. More than just being around, I want to be healthy both physically and mentally. I saw a quotation recently, ‘Take time to look after your health now, or take time to be sick later.’ It resonated. I want to be able to enjoy life, not to waste it being sick; to see Grace and maybe even her own kids grow-up; I want to continue to work teaching Yoga and helping people to waken to the great benefits that living more consciously provides.

Of course, I have always wanted these things, but I wasn’t doing everything in my power to make them achievable. On the contrary, I was slowly contributing to my own decline by over-indulging in sugar. Sugar! I guess I thought that I had some leeway, some credit in the bank of Yoga, that meant I could afford to keep going with my chocolate and my digestive biscuits!

The negative impact of sugar on health

As I looked into it more, reading about the terrible health impact of sugar in Western society shocked me. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, leaky gut, chronic inflammation! If I really wanted to protect my future physical and cognitive health, I had to act now. I discovered that there were many things that I could do and importantly, I realised that these things weren’t too difficult, didn’t involve great hardship and didn’t take massive amounts of time. What was required was the will, the desire to do it because it was important to do it, because it meant something to me. This motivation makes all the difference and provides the impetus to let go of habits that we have had for so long we may believe them to be unchangeable, or worse, may be totally unconscious of them.

Taking action – Diet and Exercise

I started by doing some reading and listening to podcasts about the principle of food as medicine, which Ayurveda has always espoused. I was particularly struck by the massive increase in diet-related illness in the West in recent decades; type-II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, among others, can all be shown to be exacerbated by high-sugar diets.

I resolved to go cold-turkey on biscuits, cakes, chocolate and all such ‘treats’ for 6 weeks. This proved much less difficult than I had anticipated, even though I was a big consumer of said ‘treats’. Whenever the time of day came around when I would normally indulge, I looked at my goal, which I had written down, to be fit and healthy in 30 years’ time.

Within a few days the cravings, which were born out of pure habit, subsided. In addition, I adopted an approach recommended to break the metabolic dependence on carbohydrates and sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance, high levels of inflammation, often caused by leaky gut caused by sugar, stress, processed food etc. This involved a plant-rich, fibre-rich, low carbohydrate, higher healthy fat, moderate protein diet, including a minimum 12-hour overnight fast and a 3-hour gap between my last meal of the day and going to sleep. I also made a concerted effort to drink more water and to add cardio and resistance training into my exercise routine. The positive effects came about amazingly quickly. This is empowering in itself, reinforcing the desire to see it through and make it last.

The positive health outcome

To summarise the benefits, let me start with the quantifiable ones. My fasting blood sugar came back into the normal range (3.9 – 5.4mmol/L), clocking in between 4.3 - 4.9. My ketone levels concomitantly increased to between 0.8 and 2.7mmol/L on a consistent basis, which told me I was burning fat, which was what I wanted. My weight dropped by 7kg in 4 weeks, all from my belly, as my waistline went back to being smaller than my hips. I had to tighten my belt and buy new shorts!

As well as these externally obvious measures, better yet were the following, objectively verified by Paula! Sleeping through the night, no snoring and no sleep apnoea! As someone prone to dryness, I also noticed a huge improvement in my skin condition; I felt energetic and more focused for work and could see my strength improving to catch up with my flexibility. All good so far. (A short-term side-effect that wasn’t so desirable was ‘Ketone Breath’, which occurs as the body is transitioning into nutritional ketosis, or fat-burning, but it only lasts a few days till the body gets itself re-organised, and Listerine is great!)

The end of my 6 week health and fitness experiment

What started out as a 6-week experiment has now become my everyday lifestyle. A key realisation for me was that it wasn’t just the sugars in chocolate and biscuits I needed to cut back on. These were something that had to be dropped, for sure, but the fact is, there is sugar in everything – and it has deleterious effects. This all became focused in my consciousness, as I read more about the gut/heart/brain health connection, to the extent that I finally acted on it. Maybe the pandemic played a role, who knows, maybe it was just the right time for me, but for whatever reason, I finally became really clear about the ‘Why’ in relation to being healthy, and I decided to challenge myself to make the changes necessary, to put into action the ‘How’, to ensure that I realise the goal I want, and the results so far have been great! So much so that I have put together the ‘Men’s Health Challenge’, a 6-week mentored programme focusing on diet, exercise, stress relief and sleep, to encourage more men to start to take responsibility for themselves.

Come on guys, take up the men’s health challenge!

Among the conversations I had with men over the recent months two comments stayed with me. One man said, ‘Target women, they look after themselves more. Men are useless!’ and another, ‘I’d be fine if I wasn’t overweight. I’d just need to change my lifestyle, but that’s never going to happen.’ I don’t believe either of these statements are true or need to be true. Men are not useless (always!) and we can change if we have a good enough reason. Getting clear on why it is worth making change and having a vision of what we want to achieve makes it possible. Then, with the support, we learn how, and the doing, through our own effort, is hugely empowering in itself.So, come on guys, think about your “Big Why” and then take action - take up the men’s health challenge.Click here to learn more.

Additional reading

The Sweet Danger of Sugar – Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical SchoolScience of a Low carb DietThe Journal of Nutrition Volume 150, Issue 6Know the facts about Fats - Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School