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'Running helps manage my high blood pressure'

'Running helps manage my high blood pressure'

Andrew Watson took up running after a routine medical check-up revealed he had high blood pressure.

Overweight and with a family history of hypertension, the 49-year-old knew he needed to be more active.

With a mainly deskbound job and a busy family life, the father-of-three from Devon was leading a largely sedentary lifestyle. 

However, the unexpected blood pressure readings were a wake-up call for Andrew and prompted him to take up running.

Since graduating from Couch to 5K and progressing on to parkrun, free timed 5km runs, he has lost two stone and says running has given him a “new lease of life”.  

With his father being a seasoned parkrunner and his three teenage sons getting a taste for the timed 5km runs, Andrew says running is turning into a family affair.

Why did you start Couch to 5K?

I have a history of raised blood pressure, which is being managed by my GP surgery. I went for a routine check-up just before Easter [2014] and my reading was up again. I was advised to lose a bit of weight, which was a wake-up call. I'd started cycling and watching my portion sizes, but felt I needed to do more. 

How active were you before starting Couch to 5K?

I wasn't a complete couch potato and I'd recently started cycling to work, but my job is mainly desk-based and I found it hard to incorporate exercise into my lifestyle. I knew I needed to increase my physical activity, but I never seemed to get round to it.

How has Couch to 5K changed you?

I feel fitter now than I have done for years, and regular exercise is now part of my lifestyle. The exercise and better diet also help me manage my blood pressure. I've lost over two stone since I started Couch to 5K in April. I also feel better in myself, less stressed and in a better mood. I think it’s down to the sense of achievement I get from running.

What do you like about the Couch to 5K plan?

I'm the sort of person who needs a bit of structure, so I found the podcasts and the commentary and encouragement really helpful. Knowing I had to fit three runs in each week really helped me get into a routine.

How did you hear about parkrun?

I first heard about parkrun’s timed 5km runs from my dad, who is a keen runner and a proud wearer of his 50 parkruns t-shirt! A parkrun was recently set up in Parke Estate, near Bovey Tracey, about a mile or so from my home.

Did you start parkrun after completing Couch to 5K?

I didn't feel confident tackling a 5km run from scratch, as I had tried running in the past and never enjoyed it. I tended to go too fast too soon, and ended up feeling defeated. Parkrun gave me a goal to aim for while doing Couch to 5K. Once I reached Week 7 of the programme, and was running continuously for 20 minutes, I felt ready to give parkrun a go.

How often do you do parkrun?

I've now completed 15 parkruns since starting in June, and I try to go as much as possible. According to other runners, Parke is quite a hard course compared to other parkruns, with plenty of ups and downs.

What do you like about parkrun?

Lots of things! Anyone can give it a go, no matter what level of fitness they are. It's free and convenient for me, being close to home, and as it starts at 9am you still have the rest of the day to do other things. I have a busy job and family life too, so fitting in exercise has been a challenge in the past.

Have your running times improved?

Yes. With my first parkrun, I was hoping just to get round, but secretly hoping it would be in less than 40 minutes. I was thrilled to achieve 34:25 for my first attempt. The following week I shaved about two-and-a-half minutes off that, and my personal best (PB) now stands at 28:50.

Do you do parkrun alone?

My son has run with me a couple of times, but he usually finds friends from school on the start line to run with. I tend to run on my own, but will see quite a few familiar faces, including work mates and neighbours, along the course. My other two sons are showing an interest in parkrun, so it's turning into a family affair.

Have you made new friends doing parkrun?

Yes, parkrun is quite sociable and friendly. The course volunteers give you encouragement on the way round, and a few people head up to the cafe afterwards for a coffee and a chat. I've started volunteering on some days, which is another way of getting involved in the whole social aspect.

How does parkrun keep you motivated?

Couch to 5K got me into the habit of running three times a week, so doing a parkrun on Saturdays and a couple of mid-week runs help to me maintain that routine. The fact that parkrun is a timed run is also great motivation. It drives you to improve your times. Since achieving my initial goal of getting a PB under 30 minutes, I am now considering joining a local running club, and might enter a 10k event in 2015. 

Help if you're feeling under the weather

Help if you're feeling under the weather

Minor illnesses like sore throats , coughs  and colds are more common during the winter months. 

A minor health problem can sometimes get worse quickly if you’re over 60. If you or someone you care for is feeling under the weather it’s best to get early advice from your pharmacist.

Why early advice is the best advice

It's best to get advice on your illness as soon as you can, because, being older, if a winter ailment becomes serious you're more likely to need treatment in hospital.

It’s not always easy to ask for help. You may feel that you’re wasting your pharmacist’s time if you go to see them with a minor illness, like a cold or a sore throat. But it's minor health problems like these that your pharmacist is there to help with.

Getting help early means you're likely to recover more quickly and be able to get your life back to normal.  

How your pharmacist can help

Pharmacists are a highly trained and trusted source of health advice for minor health problems. Your local pharmacist can:

  • give you expert advice to help with symptoms of coughs, wheeziness, colds or sore throats
  • see you without an appointment, and often when your GP practice is closed
  • advise you on whether you need to see your GP
  • speak to you privately in a consultation area where other people can’t hear about your health problems
  • help you manage a long-term condition (if you have one), such as diabetes or COPD

Find your  nearest pharmacy or learn more about  pharmacies and the services they offer

Raising low self-esteem

Raising low self-esteem

We all have times when we lack confidence and don’t feel good about ourselves.

But when low self-esteem becomes a long-term problem, it can have a harmful effect on our mental health and our lives.

Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves. When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general. It makes us able to deal with life’s ups and downs better.

When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We also feel less able to take on the challenges life throws at us.

What causes low self-esteem?

Low self-esteem often begins in childhood. Teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even the media give us lots of messages  – both positive and negative. But for some reason, the message that you are not good enough sticks.

You may have found it difficult to live up to other people’s expectations of you, or to your own expectations.

Stress and difficult life events, such as serious illness or a bereavement, can have a negative effect on self-esteem. Personality can also play a part. Some of us are simply more prone to negative thinking, while others set impossibly high standards for themselves.

How does low self-esteem affect us?

The problem with thinking we’re no good is that we start to behave as if it’s true. “Low self-esteem often changes people’s behaviour in ways that act to confirm the person isn’t able to do things or isn’t very good,” says Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow. 

If you have low self-esteem or confidence, you may hide yourself away from social situations, stop trying new things and avoid things you find challenging.

“In the short term, avoiding challenging and difficult situations makes you feel a lot safer,” says Professor Williams. “In the longer term, this avoidance can actually backfire because it reinforces your underlying doubts and fears. It teaches you the unhelpful rule that the only way to cope is by avoiding things.”

Living with low self-esteem can harm your mental health, leading to problems such as  depression and anxiety. You may also develop unhelpful habits, such as  smoking and  drinking too much, as a way of coping.

How to have healthy self-esteem

In order to boost self-esteem, you need to identify and challenge the negative beliefs you have about yourself.

“You need to look at your beliefs, how you learned them and why you believe them,” says Professor Williams. “Then actively begin to gather and write down evidence that disconfirms them.”

Learn to spot the negative thoughts you have about yourself. You may tell yourself you are "too stupid" to apply for a new job, for example, or that "nobody cares" about you. Start to note these negative thoughts and write them down on a piece of paper or in a diary, suggests Professor Williams. Ask yourself when you first started to think these thoughts.

Next, start to write down evidence that challenges these negative beliefs: "I am really good at cryptic crosswords" or "My sister calls for a chat every week". Write down other positive things you know to be true about yourself, such as "I am thoughtful" or "I am a great cook" or "I am someone that others trust". Also write down good things that other people say about you.

Aim to have at least five things on your list and add to it regularly. Then put your list somewhere you can see it. That way, you can keep reminding yourself that you are OK.

“It’s about helping people recognise they have strengths as well as weaknesses, like everyone else, and begin to recognise those strengths in themselves,” says Professor Williams.

“You might have low confidence now because of what happened when you were growing up,” he says. “But we can grow and develop new ways of seeing ourselves at any age.”

Other ways to improve low self-esteem

Here are some other simple techniques that may help you feel better about yourself.

Recognise what you are good at 

We are all good at something, whether it’s cooking, singing, doing puzzles or being a friend. We also tend to enjoy doing the things we are good at, which can help to boost your mood.

Build positive relationships

If you find certain people tend to bring you down, try to spend less time with them, or tell them how you feel about their words or actions. Seek out relationships with people who are positive and who appreciate you.

Be kind to yourself

Professor Williams advises: “Be compassionate to yourself. That means being gentle to yourself at times when you feel like being self-critical. Think what you’d say to encourage a friend in a similar situation. We often give far better advice to others than we do to ourselves.”

Learn to be assertive

Being assertive is about respecting other people’s opinions and needs, and expecting the same from them.

One trick is to look at other people who act assertively and copy what they do. “It’s not about pretending you’re someone you’re not,” says Professor Williams. “It’s picking up hints and tips from people you admire and letting the real you come out. There’s no point suddenly saying, ‘I’m going to be Chris Hoy’, but you might be able to get your bike out and do a bit of cycling for the first time in ages.”

Start saying 'no'

People with low self-esteem often feel they have to say yes to other people, even when they don’t really want to. The risk is that you become overburdened, resentful, angry and depressed.

“For the most part, saying no doesn’t upset relationships,” says Professor Williams. “It can be helpful to take a scratched-record approach. Keep saying no in different ways until they get the message.”

Give yourself a challenge

We all feel nervous or afraid to do things at times. People with healthy self-esteem don’t let these feelings stop them from trying new things or taking on challenges.

Set yourself a goal, such as joining an exercise class or going to a social occasion. Achieving your goals will help to increase your self-esteem. 

Where to find help for low self-esteem

You may feel you need some help to start seeing yourself in a more positive light. Talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, can help. Your GP can explain the different types and tell you what’s available in your area.

Read more about the different types of therapy.

You can also refer yourself for counselling or therapy. Use the NHS Choices Services Directory or visit the  British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website to find a registered counsellor and therapist near you.

Hear Dr Williams' podcast about tackling unhelpful thinking.



Health benefits of rock climbing

Health benefits of rock climbing

Rock climbing used to be considered the preserve of adrenaline junkies, but in recent years it has broken into the mainstream.

A growing number of people in search of new experiences and outdoor adventure have been getting a taste for the crag in climbing centres around the country.

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) estimates there are about 5 million visits to climbing walls each year in the UK.

Find out about rock climbing’s unique physical and mental challenge, how to get started and the life skills it provides.

What is rock climbing?

Rock climbing was originally used by experienced climbers to practise skills needed for scaling difficult sections of a mountain. By the 1980s it had evolved into a globally popular leisure pursuit in its own right, practised indoors and out with many variations such as:

  • bouldering: ropeless climbing at low heights, often above safety mats
  • sport climbing: climbing up rock faces dotted with bolts for climbers to clip into
  • soloing: climbing on your own and usually without a rope
  • traditional or "trad" climbing: climbing up unmarked routes using your own safety gear
  • ice climbing: climbing ice-covered rock faces and frozen waterfalls

Who can do rock climbing?

Almost anyone can rock climb. At beginner level, it caters for people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities, including mental and physical impairments. There are courses for children as young as five and it's not unusual to see people climbing well into their 80s.

Despite its image as an athletic sport, you don’t need to be super-fit to rock climb. Good technique is more important than physical strength, although the more you climb the stronger and fitter you will become. Good footwork, body positioning and problem solving will get you up many more climbs than just brute strength. Many climbing centres have specialist instructors who have experience with rehabilitation and working with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities.

What muscles are worked?

Climbing uses lots of muscle groups, both in the upper and lower body. Your back, abdominal and leg muscles all get exercised as well as your fingers, shoulders and arms. Regular climbing can improve stamina as well as muscle strength. In addition, all the reaching and stretching for holds improves flexibility and agility.

What skills are developed?

Each climbing route is like a puzzle, which requires patience, planning and analysis to complete. Beginners will typically work out their ascent as they go up, but with experience they learn to visualise their climb and spot tricky sections before reaching for their first hold.

Over time, regular rock climbing can help develop concentration, determination and problem-solving skills. As you improve, you will naturally want to push yourself further and try harder climbs or climb outdoors.

The amount of goals you can set yourself is limitless. Setting yourself goals and meeting them gives you a great sense of achievement, which in turn can help build everyday self-confidence.

While on one level rock climbing is an individual pursuit, it also has a very social component because you’re never alone (or shouldn’t be). You’ll either be climbing with a group of friends, schoolmates, colleagues or family. You tend to develop strong friendships with your climbing partners due to the level of trust involved and through sharing challenges and experiences.

Rock climbing and dyspraxia

Anecdotal evidence suggests climbing works well for people with dyspraxia (a developmental co-ordination disorder) because the environment is stable (especially if using a designated climbing wall) and the individual only has to think about how to move themselves in relation to the environment. 

The Dyspraxia Foundation says people with dyspraxia often have difficulty planning their movements, which makes it hard when they have to accommodate a changing environment as well as organising themselves, for example in team sports such as football.

Climbing is great for building upper limb strength and stability, something that some people with dyspraxia often lack and which affects functional fine motor skills such as using cutlery, handwriting and so on. Rock climbing can be done when it suits the individual, rather than having to fit in with other team members. This can be useful as some people with dyspraxia get very tired towards the end of the day or week because of the physical effort they put into getting through their day.

Climbing is also a social activity as it has to be done in pairs. This can be great for people with dyspraxia who may struggle to communicate and be sociable in a larger group because of their physical difficulties and, for some people, slow processing speed and communication difficulties. 

Rock climbing and mental health

Evidence shows that physical activity of any kind can help people with depression. Some scientists think that being active can help improve wellbeing because it brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.

That is certainly the experience of Jake McManus, 41, who has suffered from depression all his life. He says rock climbing has helped him to better manage his condition and to live a near-normal life.

“When you’re on a climb, you’re in the moment, you’re entirely focused on the task at hand, and your mind is clear of all other thoughts,” says Jake. “It’s a wonderful escape.” Apart from the sense of achievement he gets from climbing, the sport has also taught him not to fear failure. “In climbing, failure is the path to improvement,” he says. “With my depression, there were days I feared to leave the house.”

Climbing has created a new dynamic for Jake, involving strong friendships, adventure and travel, healthy living and positive thinking. In a way, climbing has become Jake’s rock, a solid foundation on which he has rebuilt his life. He has set up Climb Out to share his journey and help others get outdoors and "climb out" of their problems.

What if I’m scared of heights?

“It’s natural to be scared of heights,” says Tina Gardner of the BMC. “Instinct tells us that falling from a high place will hurt. Respecting that fear keeps you alive.” She says reviewing all the precautions prior to climbing is a good way to reassure a nervous climber, for example, checking their knot is tied correctly. Gardner says the more you climb, the more confident in your own ability you will become. “You don’t want to lose that fear completely,” she says. “Over time, climbers simply learn to manage it.”

Is rock climbing safe?

Climbing can be as safe or risky as you like. There are different styles and levels – it’s all about choice and experience. You are very unlikely to get injured climbing on an indoor wall with someone holding the climbing rope below you. 

German researchers found that climbing had a lower injury incidence than many mainstream sports such as basketball, sailing or football. Indoor climbing had the fewest injuries per 1,000 hours of participation compared with all the sports studied in the  2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.

How do I get started in rock climbing?

Typically, people get their first taste of rock climbing at an indoor climbing wall by tagging along with a mate who’s already into climbing. Many centres run introductory climbing sessions for different age groups, with all equipment provided, including climbing shoes and a harness. You can a find a wall near you on the BMC website.

Joining a climbing club is another common way in and has the advantage of providing you with a pool of potential climbing partners. At some point, you may want to experience climbing outdoors and get your hands on real rock or the crag. The BMC’s Climbing Outside booklet (PDF, 2.1Mb) is written for climbers "stepping out" for the first time. If you want to start outdoors, you can hire an outdoor climbing instructor.

What equipment do I need?

To climb at an indoor wall, all you need are tight-fitting trainers or climbing shoes and comfy, unrestrictive clothes. All other equipment can usually be hired on site. As you progress you’ll probably want your own climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device and karabiner. Get advice from an expert before going on a shopping spree.

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