Our environment is geared to stimulate excess energy consumption and decrease our incidental exercise. Both of which promote unhealthy weight-gain, which is associated with poorer health-related quality of life, shorter life-span and chronic disease.
I recently watched a BBC documentary called ‘Big in The Valleys’, which documented the struggles of obese individuals living in the Welsh Valleys, who were trying to lose weight and improve their physical and mental health markers (like cholesterol, blood pressure and anxiety levels).
I’m a very proud Welshman, and I grew up in a beautiful town called Caerphilly (famous for its cheese!), which is one of those Welsh Valleys. These stories really hit home (literally) for me. It was heart-breaking to see my country-folk suffering with ill-health, and with very little understanding of how to change their fate, lacking support to achieve the change, and lacking hope that a better, healthier, happier future is possible.
But… is it really possible for them, in that environment? It got me thinking about the deeper issues (or ‘the cause of the cause’) that underpin their health struggles. It’s important to point out that while I speak specifically about my home in Wales, this actually applies to most places in the UK outside of our major cities.
I’ve now lived in London for 10-years, and running my health and wellness company for 8-years. My healthy lifestyle philosophy: Sleep | Eat | Move | Repeat™ isn’t just a catchy name, its rooted in evidence that all four pillars are essential for optimal health.
Despite evidence supporting the fact that we all need to Sleep (enough), Eat (according to our energy requirements) | Move (more) | and Repeat (develop a healthy mindset, so this is a consistent part of our lifestyle), our built environments don’t always support this. Let’s break this down:
SLEEP: According to recent reports, 2/3 of adults don’t get adequate sleep. Sleep is the single easiest thing anyone can do to improve their overall physical and mental health. Yet, doctors don’t prescribe it, workplaces don’t promote it and society labels it ‘lazy’. So many people are suffering with physical and mental health issues that would benefit from getting more sleep – the one thing that is free and accessible to all - and which could make a significant difference. Yet we consistently choose Netflix and big boozy nights out over sleep.
EAT: The Department of Health tells us to eat fruit and veg, lean meat, and wholegrains. But a hamburger at a fast food joint costs 99p and doesn’t require any cooking skills or cleaning up. This one is simple economics. In The Valleys and in many other parts of the UK, there are dozens of takeaway shops but sometimes no – or limited - options to get fruit and veg, meaning that the burger is not only the most financially accessible choice, but also the most readily available choice. The people who struggle most with this, are those from low-socioeconomic groups, who are often forced to make the most affordable choice, even if they’d prefer to prepare a wholesome meal for their family.
Can you see the problem? Not only is people’s access limited to an unhealthy option, but they’re priced out of the healthier alternative even when it does exist.
Then they’re told that they can lose weight via calorie counting (or pseudo calorie/point counting) programs, which are labelled as ‘flawed’ by Diabetes.co.uk. So, they enter Slimming World where they have “sins” and “free points” which are often low in good fats and wholegrains and high in self-branded processed convenience foods. It kills me.
A 2010 study looked at two identical sandwiches - one made from processed ingredients, the other unprocessed. It found that the unprocessed sandwich was digested nearly 50% slower! No wonder we’re over-eating, we’re unsatisfied by the highly-processed, nutrient-poor choices most-accessible to us.
MOVE: Inadequate incidental activity and poor mindset are also setting back our communities. When I was younger (I’m an ’89 baby), I never spent much time inside – I was always kicking a rugby ball, skateboarding or dancing (fun fact: I was the British Juvenile Boy/Girl Ballroom Dancing Champion!). But when I go back home today, the kids are often on video games, and this isn’t all the parent’s fault! There is very little infrastructure to support physical activity in many rural and low-socioeconomic areas in the UK. We’re lacking safe, well-lit walkways and cycleways, well-maintained football pitches and affordable fitness facilities like gyms. Therefore, socialising tends to gravitate towards the pub and the kebab store. Hardly health-supporting!
REPEAT (& MINDSET): The phrase ‘dreams can come true’ is often cited but rarely experienced in places like The Valleys. Why? Because people find themselves in the same old place, under the same old circumstances, facing the same old problems, with no real idea of how to dig themselves out of an environment that is working against them.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I ‘dreamt’ of being an actor, and I believed that updating my acting profile online and staying on top of my industry reading would bring Spielberg calling. Needless to say: it didn’t. Nothing happened until I moved London, worked and saved to be able to travel to LA and literally gave it everything, every day. I landed a few national commercials followed by a TV programme, and in the process, I found my love for health and helping others, which lead me to what I have today – Nutri-Train.com.
My dream was to be an actor. But many of my country-folk just want a healthier, happier life, and you shouldn’t have to leave The Valleys to do this. We all deserve to feel our best and to live a healthy, happy, full life, irrespective of where we live!
So, what can we do to live healthier in an obesogenic environment?
A “SLEEP” SOLUTION: As a society we need to promote getting adequate sleep and stop labelling those who do get enough sleep as lazy. At an individual level, a few things you can do to improve your sleep includes developing a bed-time routine, and everything else that I have blogged about here.
AN “EAT” SOLUTION: Learn to cook a few affordable healthy, satisfying, delicious meals and create a Capsule Diet™ for yourself. Buy ingredients in bulk and freeze your meals, so you’re better able to effortlessly eat healthier with a moment’s notice when you’re hungry. Recipes like Nutri-Wife’s zucchini (courgette) & bacon slice are really nutritious, affordable and delicious, and can be made in bulk. They are perfect to slice up for a lunch box, or to store in the fridge and quickly reheat for dinner with a side of veggies. Keep checking the recipe section of our website, because we’ve decided we’re going to commit to developing a whole section of easy, affordable dishes that please the whole family and can be cooked in bulk and eaten over the course of a week, or frozen for more mileage.
A “MOVE” SOLUTION: Going to the gym or participating in a fitness class is a perfect start, but it’s not enough considering our inactivity over the course of the whole day. We need to be more active in general. We also know that gyms aren’t accessible for everyone. Get on YouTube or look at Instagram. There are so many free ‘living room workouts available’. Invite you friends over or get the kids involved in a fun, sweaty session and then sit down to a healthy dinner together.
Someone can bring the veggies, someone else can make the veggie bake. Go to the park instead of playing video games. Walk to the pub for your Sunday pub-lunch, swap your chips for steamed veggies and don’t overeat (I know and love those portions too– but they are not going to help us fix the problem!)
You can do this! We know people are more successful in their health goals when they have a healthy support network. Convince your friends to take a stand against your unhealthy environments! Go for a long walk. Get off the bus early. Take the stairs. I know its cliché, but when it’s consistently combined with adequate sleep and a good diet, it WORKS.
A “HABIT-BUILDING/MINDSET” SOLUTION: You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it, but only if your mindset and the habits you develop support that goal. You may have the key (motivation), but unless it fits the lock (mindset), it’ll never become second-nature and you’ll always be on the outside, looking in.
I've blogged about the importance of patience when it comes to change here, and how to initiate the power of now to help drive change here.
Living a healthy lifestyle is definitely harder for some people than others, especially those living in environments where burgers and kebabs are more accessible than fresh produce, and where gyms and fitness aren’t available or aren’t part of the social norm. But it’s not impossible. With a few conscious choices and forward planning, you can do this!
You can also write a letter to your MP or local council, outlining how your environment is hindering your health. The obesity crisis isn’t entirely our own doing, but it’s our loved ones and our communities that bear the brunt of these obesogenic environments.
I’d love to you know what you think, and please let me know if there’s anything else I can create to help you through this process.
Speak soon, JC.