Stop sleepwalking through life


What isn’t possible after a good night’s sleep?

Sleep is dedicated time for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. If you sleep for less than six hours a night, there’s a body of research to show that you will live a shorter life.

I recently explored why the theme of sleep is so popular today.

We’re busier than ever. As technology distracts us and makes information more accessible, the things stimulating our minds all fight against each other for our precious attention. Ask yourself this: would you take yourself off to bed one hour earlier simply to sleep? Or, more likely, would you use that hour updating your social media channels, browsing for your next purchase, or writing your start-up business plan? More often than not, the latter wins, meaning your window of sleep is getting smaller.

The science of attention, and how we can improve it, is discussed in this TEDx talk. It turns out that to improve your attention span, practice really does make perfect. The more you put time aside to concentration on something, the better your brain gets at the process of focussing your attention.

Here are three reasons why you really should stop, think and sleep. Here’s an excerpt from a recent piece with Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS).

Why don’t we do the things we know we should be doing? It’s a question that Jolly asks executives daily.

1. Stop

You’re busy. Are you prepared to put on the brakes?

In January 2016, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum said that people and technology had reached a crossroads. “We should not stay human; we should become better humans,” he said. He meant that artificial intelligence is beginning to occupy the work that can be programmed – forcing people to be more creative, self-aware and empathetic, in essence, more human. What makes people human comes from their brain chemistry, so people have to stop for the sake of their most important attribute in a digital world.

And what are brains for? Thinking.

2. Think

The act of thinking is a lifestyle choice, and one that improves brain health.

When people are thinking, they often take their hands to their temples. It’s the place that generates people’s thoughts, feelings and movements. It’s also the home of ideas.

“Humans don’t like uncertainty. As the world gets more complex, the ability to generate new ideas and adapt rapidly, are vital skills. That’s why we need time to think about the critical things. As we get caught up in the short term, focusing on the long term gets harder, particularly with the distraction of technology.”

Thinking time helps us survive, adapt and prosper. But no one can think without sleep.

 3. Sleep

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, too.

But how much sleep is enough to make you sharp? And how much is too much to make you slow and groggy? “It takes time to test,” he says.

Ariana Huffington is a prime example of someone who underslept and overworked,” he says. “But today, she’s an authority on sleep.”

If sleep increases productivity and happiness, and supports smarter decisions, why are people still bragging about their terrible sleep habits? Because bad sleep supports the outdated idea that if you’re busy, you’re important.

Exercise yourself happy


It’s been the month of juice diets, 5:2 eating and new exercise regimes. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I think Mindlessness, as opposed to Mindfulness, is the healthiest way forward, and hence, we must move more! So, as I drink in the fitness decisions taken by friends and loved-ones around me, I start to think: when is the best time to exercise?

Inspired by a recent talk by Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School on happiness at work, I’d like to explore what role exercise plays in our happiness.  Stay tuned to become happier!

Jolly said:

“95% of senior executives I work with tell me they are ‘Hurry Sick’ – addicted to email and disillusioned with inefficient meetings.

“Realising that they have achieved everything that would make them happy, but finding they were unhappier than they had ever been is at the heart of the mid-life crisis. This pattern is not what is going to inspire the next generation of employees to join and stay loyal to an organisation.”

Stress the body and de-stress the mind

Stress, over time, can:

  • Cause key connections between nerve cells in your brain not to function well
  • Impair your memory and the ability to take in new information
  • Increase your risk of suffering from depression and anxiety.

So, how can exercise-stress trigger happiness?

  • As your heart-rate goes up, say hello to feel-good serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – these are good folks to have around
  • A substance to protect your brain from emotional disorders and repair damage that stress and depression cause − Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – appears
  • Now for the good bit: opiate-like endorphins kick in, leading to a happy-sigh state of well-being.

Did you know that 20 minutes of exercise can produce mood enhancers that last as long as 12 hours?  Cambridge University studied of 334,000 people and Ulf Ekelund, who led the study, said:

“This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive.

“Although we found just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this – physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life.” 

When to exercise?

So, hopefully you’re planning to work-out, but when should you do it?

Your body’s circadian rhythm determines whether you’re a lark or an owl, and I’m afraid there’s not much you can do to change it! (I’m a lark, and can be found quietly flagging between 16.30 and 18.30.)

Circadian rhythm is affected by the 24-hour pattern of the earth’s rotation. These rhythms influence body functions, like: blood pressure; body temperature; hormone levels; and heart rate, all of which play a role in your body’s readiness for exercise.

I may be bias, but experts have said that morning is your best time to exercise.

“Research suggests in terms of performing a consistent exercise habit, individuals who exercise in the morning tend to do better,” says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

“The thinking is that they get their exercise in before other time pressures interfere,” Bryant says. “I usually exercise at 6 a.m., because no matter how well-intentioned I am, if I don’t exercise in the morning, other things will squeeze it out.”

Summing up

If you stay sedentary your body can become more sensitive to stress, so even minor triggers – you know, the washing machine breaking; organising a Hen Party; or having a crap date ­− leaves you mentally exhausted.  Look, I’m not the ‘fit and fun police’, but if you can squeeze in 20 minutes exercise a day and you’re physically able to, why not try it and see if you land sunny side up?

Picture citation: Jeanette Goodrich, Fitness and health concept in tag cloud (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Most depressing day of the year


I’m feeling bright and I’m feeling breezy, but wait: it’s officially the most depressing day of the year.

This year Blue Monday – the day that researchers say is the most depressing day of the year – is today and will be a foghorn for all mental health illness. The hashtag #bluemonday24 (for 24 hour posts) is set.  So use it!

The world health organisation says that in 2030 mental health will be one of the biggest concerns. And we know that one in four people experience a mental health problem each year.  Many will come into contact with the police either as victims of crime, witnesses, offenders or perhaps when detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

Police are now working with a wide range of agencies, such as health services and voluntary sector services, to ensure there’s an appropriate response which meets the needs of individuals with mental health problems. But, there still isn’t enough support for mental health services and governments need to sit up and take notice, like Mind is already doing.

The mental health charity recently received an accolade in recognition of the valuable work it does – via its helpline – to support those affected by mental health problems. Recent figures show demand for the Infoline has risen by 55 per cent in two years. Since 2012 the number of people contacting the Mind Infoline for advice and support has risen from 51,300 to 79,600.

I’m trying to do something good on the most miserable day of the year, so, if you want to do something great too, please share this, or join in the conversation on social media, using #bluemonday24.

There is a stigma for those in ‘possession’ of mental health of feeling alone, so today, spare just five minutes – on the most depressing day of the year – and help others feel a little bit brighter, and maybe a little better.

Picture citation: Natalie Schmid, Eyes Closed, Mind Open (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Guest post: a response to ‘mindlessness’


Written by Charlotte Birkett, Dietitian London

This is a response to Anna’s recent article mindlessness’, I suggest you read it first.

I remember the day Anna and I went for coffee and cake with a friend, and had a full-blown debate about mindful eating – have you read Anna’s winning explosive arguments’ piece yet?! Anyway, I had just been on a mindful eating course in London and we talked about why some people are already in tune with their bodies and others aren’t.

Being in tune = being mindful

For instance, I know that without water I don’t concentrate on my tasks at work, and without fruit and vegetables I feel sluggish and uncomfortable. You could definitely argue that I’ve had nutritional training, so ‘of course!’ I know the positives and negatives of a balanced diet, but others (who are in tune), haven’t – this is what Anna coined ‘mindlessness’, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But, if some people are out of tune with their bodies and don’t feel satisfaction after a meal, they might need to reconnect, using mindful eating tips.

Why we choose food

There is definitely a place for mindfulness but we mustn’t forget the other factors as to why we eat what we eat.  It is not limited to one or two reasons, yes the media craze – as Anna puts it – is a major influencer, but there are other factors too:

  • Cultural
  • Psychological
  • Mood
  • Environmental
  • Biological
  • Survival
  • Genetic
  • Regulatory

Regulatory system

Let us take a magnifying glass to the regulatory system for a moment. It consists of a multitude of signalling systems telling the brain and gut: how much has been eaten, what needs to be processed and how much of it needs to be stored.

Brain data log

This information is processed by the brain along with the social, survival and biological factors, so – in truth – the brain has to deal with a magnitude of inputted data. It is daft – yes, how British, daft! – to assume that our brain uses this data to set everyone at a ‘healthy level’.

Last piece of the jigsaw

We also know the brain can be overridden (computer says no) and we can choose what we eat.  So, here’s my question: are the other factors completely void then? If I ask myself that question, the answer is simply ‘no’. We just don’t know enough about how the complex jigsaw of factors slots together and why it works for some but not others. Segway ‘mindfulness’.  Maybe, if ‘mindlessness’ works for some (like Anna) and ‘mindfulness’ works for others, it’s just one small piece in the big jigsaw and only a tiny glimpse into why we eat what we eat.

Edited by Anna Johnston

Picture citation: Jeanette Goodrich Scale-Apple-Measuring-Tape-Diet CC BY-NC 2.0




Mindful eating is a popular craze. But I wonder, could mindlessness catch on?

I recently went to an independent pâtisserie in Croydon, (yes, the town has a pâtisserie) with friends after a causal dinner, for coffee and dessert.  Whilst my friends ordered sumptuous pieces of cake, I opted to have a small coffee and two milk truffles.  My friends scoffed at my choice.  But when they asked why I wasn’t trying the delights of the shop in all its glory, I said simply, “I feel full, I just fancy a taste of something”.  My friend, who’s a dietitian, said to me in a knowing voice, “now that’s mindfulness Anna”.

That’s not the first time I have been termed as mindful.  In the new craze of mindfulness I look to uncover where it comes from, what it means for day-to-day life and if you really need to learn about mindfulness.  Or, as I like to believe, can you just be mindful without knowingly trying? A term I call mindlessness.

According to The Center For Mindful Eating mindful eating is about allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom. Now, I immediately switch off when the phrases, ‘inner wisdom’ and ‘listen to your body’ are thrown around.  But consider this, in the above scenario, did my body tell me I was full? Yes. Did my inner wisdom suggest that I might want something small and sweet? Yes.  So, the Center’s words speak the truth.

They claim that by using all your senses you will choose to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body.  If you become aware of physical hunger and allow satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating, you can change your relationship to food.

I have a rebellious streak that doesn’t like to be told what to do.  For example, this article is a great article and gives practical tips around mindfulness and food.  Tips to improve your diet include; letting go of shame and guilt, using the 80:20 rule and my favourite; listening to your body.  All great tips.  But the fact they’re written down for me to read and consume, makes me uneasy.

Isn’t the concept of mindfulness, knowing? So if we already know, if we already have a body that we listen to, then are we already mindful?  If you don’t come to your own dietary conclusions, how can you be in control of your own knowledge?  For example, take the first tip, ‘letting go of guilt and shame’, if I did that, I would never feel the shame of having eaten a bag of popcorn, and so I might eat a bag of popcorn and ‘pick n mix’.  Take tip two, the 80:20 rule.  What if I ate so much in the 80 part that the ratio became 100:40 or 120:60, I’m suddenly eating so much in the 80 section that the 20 part needs to catch up in a big way.  Now that’s a lot of cake.  And tip three, ‘listening to my body’ is wholly unreliable.  My body wants coffee at 08.00, cake at 11.00, 15.00 and 18.00, it wants Praline’s Haagan Daz at 21.00 and sometimes, no breakfast.

Without the top tips, and with only my well nurtured knowledge to base decisions on, I’m well-rounded, balanced and mindful.  I keep moving and I eat when I’m hungry.  I eat meat, fish, vegetables, and have the occasional cake or biscuit.  I’m also partial to a can of coke and coffee, but I know it’s not good for me, so I drink lots of water.  Everyone and no one has taught me to do that. It’s the subconscious and environmental learning journey that I have travelled on throughout my life.

Mindfulness is growing in popularity and it’s popping up in lifestyle magazines left right and centre. But I’ll ask again, is mindlessness a craze that could catch on?

Picture citation: Truffles 02 James Yu, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0