Author: Ben

Ramadan Training in Dubai

 

Introduction

I’ve created this guide to Ramadan in Dubai to help you structure your training and nutrition. My recommendations are based on scientific research and my own observations and experience working with Muslim clients here.

(But I must give credit to my friend Yusef at PropaneFitness for creating the first practical guide written by a devout Muslim who also trains seriously.)

I’ve experimented with fasting extensively in the past for both fat loss and lean muscle gain, including 16/8 intermittent fasting (or “Leangains” after it was popularised by Martin Berkhan) and alternate day fasting (ADF).

But there are important differences between typical fasting protocols and fasting during Ramadan.

The primary focus of Ramadan is spiritual connection, with an emphasis on prayer and giving. Although you may achieve favourable changes in body composition over the holy month, this is a secondary consideration.

Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, rather than simply skipping breakfast.

Drinking is not permitted during the fast. That immediately rules out a lot of the tools that make fasting easier, like coffee and diet sodas. (And chewing gum, since it resembles eating, is not allowed either.)

I won’t discuss the potential health benefits of fasting here, because that’s outside the scope of this article. I do recommend sporadic use of fasts as part of a structured nutrition plan with my clients. Fasting is a tool that may be used to create a caloric deficit, rather than a panacea.

Experiencing Ramadan in Dubai

In 2018 Ramadan is expected to fall on May 16th, although the date may vary depending on local sighting of the moon.

Prayer Times

Fajr ~ 4am

Magrib ~ 7pm

Isha ~ 8.30pm

The Taraweeh prayers follow Isha and usually finish about an hour later, which could be anywhere from 9.30pm to 10pm.

Meal Times

Suhoor ~ 11pm – 4am

Iftar ~ 7pm.

(All of the times listed below are approximate and may vary during the month.)

The climate in Dubai makes it far more challenging to go without water, although this is mitigated by shorter working hours mandated by law and mostly air conditioned work environments.

Non-Muslims must observe the fast in public and typically restaurants stay closed until Iftar. That also means that during the fast, none of my clients drink on the gym floor when they’re training with me, although they are provided a screened off area to drink if they need to. Music is typically not played in public, or at levels that are disrespectful to those who are fasting, but headphones are still allowed.

Challenges of Fasting

Weight gain

Paradoxically, many Muslims experience unwanted weight gain over Ramadan.

Disrupted sleeping patterns and a decrease in sleep quality – most dramatically during the start of Ramadan – results in dietary disinhibition and overeating once the fast is broken, especially with Iftar buffets and family gatherings with an array of calorie dense foods available. Perversely, food companies ramp up their advertising and special offers, encouraging you to purchase junk food.

There is a simultaneous drop in energy expenditure, with decreased activity during the day and increased lethargy. And many Muslims stop exercising completely.

Exercise

Muslims often choose not to exercise over Ramadan because they’re concerned about feeling thirsty, having enough energy to train, and feeling generally fatigued or sleepy before training.  They may choose not to exercise if they feel it distracts them from the main focus of Ramadan. And many simply aren’t sure how to adjust their training around the fast.

A decrease in sleep quality, fatigue, and dehydration all present a significant challenge. Changes to training times and conditions not only affect the physical state, but mental wellbeing. For example, if you habitually train in the morning and usually drink coffee before training, you’ll be in a different state of mind during Ramadan (and operating with less caffeine).

Relatively minor changes to the environment, like training without music in the gym, often create subtle nudges that decrease engagement and performance during exercise.

Fasted training isn’t necessarily optimal, but it’s workable. And it can be done safely. However, a state of hypohydration – when you’re dehydrated during the fast –  creates unfavourable changes both to training performance and the hormonal response to training. Hydrated cells even release more fat and spare more protein: everything simply works better when you’re properly hydrated!

How to prepare for Ramadan

Your checklist is as follows:

  1. Decide how you will modify your training to best match your schedule.
  2. Calculate your calorie and macronutrient requirements.
  3. Start adapting your sleeping, eating, and training schedule before Ramadan.

I suggest that you allow yourself a lead-in time of one or two weeks to gradually adapt your schedule to match what you’ll be doing over Ramadan. For example, it’ll be much easier to switch from training in the morning to training in the evening if you do it ahead of time. And you’ll be able to anticipate any issues before they become critical, like planning around traffic.

Morning training may also help counter the shift in your sleep-wake cycle, but you have to decide if that works for you.

How to eat

Priorities

Here are your main goals for eating during Ramadan:

  1. Rehydrate.
  2. Eat enough protein.
  3. Set calories appropriately for your goals.
  4. Minimise digestive issues.

Hydration

Drinking water will adequately rehydrate you, but it’s not the most efficient solution.

You should choose beverages with higher energy density that will provide you with additional calories, macronutrients, and electrolytes. This will make it easier to hit your protein and calorie targets.

(The only exception to this rule is if your goal is to deliberately reduce calories.)

The macronutrient and electrolyte content will also promote greater fluid retention, which will potentially delay or reduce the number of bathroom trips you need to make after breaking your fast.

Research on hydration shows that milk and orange juice outperform water and promote a positive potassium balance. I expect that laban will have a similar effect to milk, although there is no study data to support this claim.

Protein

Protein is used to repair, maintain, and build new structures in your body. Protein is essential for life, but also particularly important for promoting favourable changes in your body composition.

When you’re fasting you need to consume enough protein to maintain and build muscle, to reduce muscle breakdown, and promote satiety.

You should aim to get 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every day, which means a 80kg adult would aim for roughly 130g to 160g.

You can get protein from a variety of food sources, like meat, eggs, and dairy. You may also consider using supplemental protein sources like whey and casein, or vegan alternatives like soy and pea.

Calories

You can expect your calorie expenditure to go down over Ramadan. With that in mind, I’d suggest that you estimate your calorie requirements conservatively.

There are many different formulae you can use to do this, but I prefer using a simple method:

Calories (kcals)  = 30 (kcals/kg) x bodyweight (kg)

If you’re trying to maintain your weight, use that estimate. If your goal is to lose weight, decrease by 20%. And if your goal is to gain weight, increase by 10-20%. Make sure you track your scale measurements accurately and adjust your calories up or down according to your progress.

 

Protein and carbohydrate provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram.

Start by setting your protein intake using the recommendation given above and working out how many calories that gives you.

Whatever calories you haven’t allocated to protein should be filled up with carbohydrate and fat. I’d suggest getting the majority of those calories from carbohydrate for best results, however.

Example. For a 100kg person trying to maintain their weight we would calculate:

30kcals/kg x 100kg = 3000kcals

Let’s set protein at 2g per kg, which gives us 200g of protein. That’s 200g x 4kcals/g = 800kcals. We have 2200kcals remaining to assign to carbohydrate and fat. Let’s allocate 1600kcals to carbohydate and 600kcals to fat.

That gives us 1600kcals / 4kcals/g = 400g of carbohydate and 600kcals / 9kcals/g = 67g of fat (rounded to the nearest gram).

Digestibility

Breaking the fast properly should involve choosing foods that are easy to digest and don’t create bloating or discomfort later when you’re training or sleeping.

Excessive fibre, fermented foods, and raw foods are probably best avoided. I’d also suggest that you avoid eating meals that are really high in fat, which will slow digestion.

Meal Timing

For best results you want to have several protein feedings as possible, spaced out by at least 3 hours. Therefore I would recommend eating 3 or 4 meals spaced over the eating window where possible: Suhoor, Iftar, an optional meal pre-workout meal in the evening, and a meal before bed.

Suhoor is particularly important if you want to get the best results from your training. The Suhoor meal should set you up with adequate hydration, slow-digesting protein, and fuel to sustain you during the fast.

If you’re training in the evening you should consider having a moderate Iftar meal followed by a pre-workout meal later after prayers. Again, your aim here is to space out protein feedings and set up the best possible environment for training and recovery.

Intra-workout

There are a vast array of intra-workout products available now, but the benefits of intra-workout are overstated in most cases. However, during Ramadan you may find that this is a great opportunity to squeeze in extra protein, carbohydrates, and even electrolytes.

If you’re going to consume an intra-workout drink other than water, I’d suggest using a simple mix of whey for your protein and a combination of glucose and fructose for your carbohydrate.

Whey protein is a complete protein with all the essential amino acids. BCAAs are a waste of time here – and, most likely, in general.

Glucose and fructose use slightly different transporter proteins in the gut. This potentially increases carbohydrate oxidation and promotes faster uptake of carbohydrate from the gut.

(Including electrolytes, or at least sodium, will also promote increased uptake of glucose, since some of the transport proteins are dependent on sodium.)

You can mix dextrose with ordinary table sugar to get the ideal combination of sucrose and fructose: use an equal amount of dextrose powder and ordinary table sugar (sucrose is a 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose).

Honey also works as a carbohydrate source instead of table sugar (it has a roughly 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose), but it may be harder to mix properly with other ingredients.

You may go as high as 60g of total carbohydrate per hour of exercise, but start with a lower dosage to make sure you don’t cause any gastric distress.

Supplements

You may consider using supplements over Ramadan to make it easier to get all the protein you need and to stay hydrated. They are by no means necessary, but you are free to experiment and see if they help.

Whey protein

Whey is a high quality, relatively fast digesting protein derived from milk. I’d suggest using this when you break the fast or before training in the evening if you need to boost your protein intake. You may also use whey protein intra-workout.

Learn more about whey protein

Buy whey protein

Casein protein

Casein is a high quality, slow-digesting protein also derived from milk. You may find it convenient to use this if you’re struggling to get all of your protein from food. I’d suggest using it with your Suhoor meal.

Learn more about casein protein

Buy casein protein

Electrolytes

An electrolyte powder mixed in your intra-workout drink may help with rehydration, especially if you lose a lot of fluid during training. (You can actually make your own rehydration solution at home, but it’s probably time that you’d rather spend on something else.)

Buy electrolytes

(I don’t have any kind of affiliate deal with or get any referral bonus from MyProtein, I’ve used their products for years and feel comfortable recommending them to you now that they’re available in the UAE. But don’t take my word for it!)

How to train

I have based my recommendations around weight training. This is your best strategy for maintaining and improving body composition over Ramadan, especially if you have limited opportunities to train.

Priorities

Your program should aim to do the following:

  1. Maintain or build muscle.
  2. Maintain or build strength.
  3. Maximise recovery and time efficiency.

And most importantly, you must be able to fit your training around your sleep, prayer, and work schedule.

Timing

There are three possibilities:

  1. Train before sleeping.  (Suhoor > Fast > Iftar > Train > Sleep)

Optimal. You’re able to properly rehydrate and consume protein before and after training.

  1. Train in the morning. (Suhoor > Train > Fast > Iftar > Sleep)

Less optimal. Although you benefit from training when you’re adequately hydrated and fed, you are missing out on protein for several hours after training. But training in the morning does help anchor your circadian rhythm and counters the shift in your sleeping and waking cycle.

  1. Train before Iftar. (Suhoor > Fast > Train > Iftar > Sleep)

This is the least optimal scenario. Counterintuitively, you may find that performance is maintained or even improves when you train shortly before Iftar, with increased motivation in anticipation of breaking the fast and an increase in stress hormones. But physiologically this is the worst case, training without protein available, with depleted glycogen, and in a state of hypohydration.

(It’s for you to decide which option suits you best, but I would always recommend choosing option 1 where possible.)

Load, Volume, and Intensity

Try to maintain the load and intensity of your training over Ramadan, but do consider dropping your volume and increasing rest times. In practise that means fewer sets, but higher quality.

I’d suggest abandoning any supersets or circuit-based training in favour of straight sets. You won’t see any benefit in terms of calorie expenditure by doing supersets, but you’ll probably compromise performance and end up sweating more.

You should aim to hold on to neuromuscular adaptations – strength, basically – by sticking with the movements you’ve been doing and the same working weights as much as possible. You won’t lose muscle if you provide an adequate stimulus by handling heavy weights with conservative volume and working within your recovery potential.

Remember, your goal is for the most part to hold on to what you have rather than overworking yourself and trying to gain muscle under unfavourable conditions.

Sample Program

Here’s a sample program that you can do 2-3 times a week, alternating between upper and lower body workouts.

Day 1 – Upper

Barbell row – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Barbell bench press – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Optional movements…

Face pulls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Lateral raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Tricep extensions – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Bicep curls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Day 2 – Lower

Squat – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Back extension or reverse lunges – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Optional movements…

Hamstring curls –  3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Leg extensions –  3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Calf raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Loading. For your main compound movements you’ll do 3 sets of 5 reps with a challenging weight, which will be in the neighbourhood of 75% of your one-rep maximum.  You’ll continue with one or two back-off sets where you drop the weight and do 8 to 12 or 12 to 15 reps, depending on how you feel.

With the optional movements you should aim to do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.

Warm-ups. I’d suggest that you restrict your warm-up sets to a few 5s, 3s, and 1s, climbing up to your working weight without introducing too much fatigue on the way there. Finish your warm up sequence an “over warm-up” where you do a single rep with a slightly heavier weight than you’ll be working with to prime you for the working sets.

(Over warm-ups are a technique I borrowed from strength coach Paul Carter and I often use with my personal training clients.)

Example. Let’s suppose your working weight on the bench press will be 100kg for 3 sets of 5. You might start with your warm-ups like this:

Bar x 10

50kg x 5

75kg x 3

100kg x 1

110kg x 1 – the “over warm-up”

And you would continue with your working sets like this:

100kg x 5

100kg x 5

100kg x 5

80kg x 10 – first back-off set

70kg x 13 – second back-off set

Scheduling. Setting up the program for two workouts a week would look something like this:

Sunday – Upper

Monday – Off

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – Lower

Thursday – Off

Friday – Off

Saturday – Off


And three workouts a week would look something like this:

 

Sunday – Upper/Lower

Monday – Off

Tuesday – Lower/Upper

Wednesday – Off

Thursday – Upper/Lower

Friday – Off

Saturday – Off

Exercise selection

I’ve suggested compound lifts here, like squats and barbell rows, assuming that you’re familiar with them and are proficient in their execution. But if you’re a novice, consider seeking instruction before attempting to follow this program.

You may also choose to make appropriate substitutions to better match where you’re at right now. Here are some ideas:

Squat

  1. Dumbbell goblet box squat or full squat
  2. Landmine squat
  3. Cable squat

Barbell Row

  1. Chest-supported dumbbell row
  2. Seated cable row
  3. Machine row

Barbell Bench Press

  1. Landmine press
  2. Dumbbell bench press
  3. Machine chest press

Lunges

  1. Step-ups
  2. Single-leg leg press
  3. Split-squats

Back Extension

  1. Barbell glute bridges
  2. Dumbbell sumo deadlift
  3. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift

You’ll need to modify the loading and rep schemes accordingly, but in general you could aim for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with a weight that’s challenging, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.

Cardio

My general recommendation would be to schedule your aerobic training on your off days, when you’re not doing weight training.

Low intensity cardio in the morning would make the most sense. But I think that it’s best to simply try and stay more active during the day to fight the decline in activity levels, taking more breaks to walk around at work, for example.


If you insist on doing medium to high intensity cardio, such as interval training, you should try and schedule it like you would with your weight training, either in the morning after Suhoor or in the evening after Iftar when you’re fuelled and hydrated.

Again, the goal here is to simply maintain rather than to make dramatic improvements in your fitness over Ramadan. Try to keep your activity levels up during the day instead of doing lots of cardio to compensate.

Sample Day of Eating

Suhoor

  • Baby spinach omelette. See recipes.
  • A glass of fresh orange juice.
  • Coffee with milk.

Iftar

  • Roughly 1 cup of lean meat and 2 cups of rice from a traditional dish like Mansaf or Machboos.

Before training

  • Banana and date smoothie with 1 or 2 scoops of whey protein added (vanilla flavour works nicely). See recipes.
  • A glass of fresh orange juice.

During training

Water (or an intra-workout drink with protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes).

After training

  • 1 litre of low-fat chocolate milk.

This would give you over 3000kcals, with at least 200g protein, 365g carbs, and 75g fat. You can scale the serving sizes and ingredients up or down based on your requirements.

Recipes

Banana and date smoothie

Ingredients:

  • Medium ripe banana, frozen.
  • Medjool dates, three pitted.
  • Low fat milk, 250ml.
  • Cinnamon to taste.
  • Salt to taste.

Method:

Blend ingredients together until smooth.

Spinach omelette

Ingredients:

  • Eggs, 4 large.
  • Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons freshly grated.
  • Fresh spinach, 2 cups.
  • Garlic powder, ½ teaspoon.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Method:

Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add the spinach and Parmesan cheese. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Lightly coat a small pan with cooking spray and cook the egg mixture on a medium heat for roughly 2 to 3 minutes until partially set. Flip with a spatula and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and continue cooking until it reaches desired level of doneness.

The Inner Universe

(Thanks to Jahed for the discussions on healthcare, government, and many other topics.)

The Citadel

“The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.”

Marcus Aurelius

When I was a kid, I used to struggle with processing emotions and relating to people. Retreating inside, I would imagine a barrier between me and the things happening around me. I would sometimes pretend that I was like a robot being operated by tiny people inside, safe from any external threats.

As an adult I discovered the Stoics. And in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I found the idea of the “inner citadel.”

I also realised that I’d been exposed to Stoicism before. After struggling with major depression for years, I had found relief in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is loosely based on Stoic principles, with an emphasis on examining your perceptions and how you react to situations. I successfully used many of the techniques I learned from CBT without knowing about the philosophy that inspired them.

Rather than escaping from the world, I made an effort to take control over my thoughts and create my own citadel. I learned to distance myself from my automatic reactions to events, – rather than trying to escape them with fantasy, – examine them, and decide if I should accept them or not.

I look at what is in my control and what isn’t. If it’s in my control, I direct my focus and my efforts on it. And if it isn’t, I let go of it and try to accept that I cannot do anything about it.

This is the Stoic mindfulness I practise every day, and I have found that it has helped me to virtually eliminate anxiety and depression from my life.

But your phone, the glowing, vibrating portal to a nightmare world of invasive work emails, unsolicited direct messages, and relentless notifications about nothing, promises to help you develop mindfulness too.

All you need to do is spend a few minutes every day using a meditation app.

(There are even devices that claim to be able to measure how effective that meditation is.)

But if I told you that a few minutes of exercise every day was enough to see continual improvements, would you believe me?

And is there any portion of your day, any aspect of your life, that wouldn’t improve if you paid greater attention to it?

Quotes must be internalised, and your practise must be consistent until it manifests on the outside. Meditation only has value if it prepares you for the challenges you’re going to face every day.

And that’s why I think there’s a problem with keeping a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal tends to focus your attention on externals, things that aren’t fully within your control. And the more you focus on them, the more you’ll start to believe that your happiness depends on them.

(I say all this knowing that I pursue externals through health and fitness. However, I choose – and constantly remind myself – not to derive my happiness from those things. And I recognise that despite all the time and energy I’ve invested in my training and nutrition, it could all be wiped away. And if I lost it all, it would not diminish who I am.)

We’re rarely grateful for suffering, but often it gives us the greatest opportunity to cultivate characteristics that allow us to flourish, like patience, resilience, and humility.

Instead of a gratitude journal, I find it more useful to keep a kind of philosophical journal, reflecting on the events of the day and the choices that I made. This practise helps eliminate that deep anxiety which arises when your actions and values don’t align.

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgement seat.”

Seneca – On Anger III.36

Take Nobody’s Word For It

My earliest exposure to science was from a TV show called Take Nobody’s Word For It. This is the motto of the famous Royal Society, perhaps the oldest scientific academy in the world. The show encouraged you to replicate experiments yourself at home and verify the results, which I often did with varying degrees of success.

The motto urges you to stand up to authority, to check facts and find answers for yourself.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.”

William Blake

As a scientific researcher, the greatest crisis you will ever face, – the reason why so many PhD students experience waves of anxiety and depression, – is that you are forced to find answers for yourself. There is no guarantee of success and no guarantee that the answers exist. And what’s worse, you may find that you’re asking the wrong questions in the first place!

And we see this crisis in health and fitness too. People are looking for answers to problems that medical science often has no solutions for. When doctors fail them, they abandon conventional medicine and seek out quacks, snake oil salesman, and gurus who promise them the solutions they’re looking for.

We are all desperate for answers. The mistake is not to place your trust in medicine, or to consult doctors, but rather to do it blindly. Following any authority, trusting them unconditionally, is the mistake. (And not accepting the possibility of mistakes is also a mistake.)

If we totally relinquish our desire for control and the need for answers, we would lose the essence of scientific enquiry. But I believe that by studying both philosophy and trying to understand the nature of science, we develop a better understanding of the limits of our knowledge and what is reasonable for us to discover through experimentation.

Developing Reason

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.”

Epictetus

Metrics and measures are powerful tools, but they aren’t a substitute for reason.

Measurement without judgement is like assembling ingredients and weighing them without knowing what you want to cook or what it should taste like.

I used to believe that performing an exercise correctly was about achieving a full range of motion. I thought that a bench press should involve touching the bar to your chest at the bottom and locking out the elbows at the top.

But what is happening externally – the arc describing the movement of the barbell over time – does not necessarily tell you what’s happening internally, like the stresses experienced by structures inside your body, or the tolerances those structures have. And it does not necessarily reflect your subjective experience of that movement.

Analysing posture and assessing movement with arbitrary screening protocols often leads us to make misguided attempts to correct issues that arise from natural and immutable variations in the structure of the human body.

I’ve seen personal trainers instruct clients to do “full range of motion” squats, far beyond the current limits of their mobility (and most likely beyond what they can safely tolerate).

(If you’re a personal trainer, remember: the client has all the answers, it’s your job to ask questions. You must not impose your beliefs on them.)

You should focus more on internalising the practise of training, understanding the capabilities and limitations of your body, and interpreting the feedback it’s giving you.

There are devices that can tell you how many steps you’ve taken as you walk through a park, how much distance you’ve covered, and approximately how many calories you’ve burned.

But that tells you nothing about how it feels to be in a natural environment, how it helps you relax, or the way that walking permits creative thoughts to flow. And when you forget those things, you’re losing essential components of the experience, reducing it to parameters that describe only the mechanical process of walking. The same number of steps taken on a treadmill in an artificially lit gym, watching Netflix on your mobile, does not create the same effect.

And does knowing the number of steps you took really help you?

Perhaps, if your goal is to track activity, it may help you drive a change in your behaviour. We often use measurements as proxies for what we really want. But if we really want to be healthy, we need to pay attention to the things we can’t measure too, it’s not about mindlessly hitting targets.

Understand that your internal state drives the actions that manifest in your external state. Self-quantification is not self-awareness.

And don’t quantify at the expense of quality.

5 Lessons From Travelling Alone

Introduction

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”
Basho

I find that travelling alone is like counselling. You meet people with no expectations: you can be who you want to be, or perhaps who you truly are (assuming you know who you are in the first place). And you decide how much you share with them. You have time and space to reflect and let go of your emotional baggage.

(Hopefully not your actual baggage though, that makes travel substantially more difficult.)

My situation may be different to yours. I run my own businesses and although I can travel whenever I please, I still have to work. That means I have different constraints and different freedoms. For example, I may have to schedule a client call at 3am because of the time difference, even though I’m on holiday.

You may travel for different reasons, you may travel with friends,  but I think these lessons apply more generally. I know that they’ve improved the rest of my life, even when I am back home.

1. Change your environment

“Your body does not eliminate poisons by knowing their names. To try to control fear or depression or boredom by calling them names is to resort to superstition of trust in curses and invocations. It is so easy to see why this does not work.”
Alan Watts

I have lived through depression and anxiety for most of my life and I have learned how to resist them. Marcus Aurelius talks about the fortress of the mind free from passion. You should build your own inner fortress and rule it. When thoughts that torment you arise, treat them like invaders and act ruthlessly. You don’t need to know where they come from or why, all you need to know is that they do not belong.

But despite practising this I find that the winter is difficult for me. I feel burnt out and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that fortress: the cold and the darkness are a constant onslaught.

I decided to break out of the seasonal cycle.

Now I travel over the winter to escape the worst of the weather back home. It gives me time to regenerate and return with renewed focus and energy.

Are you struggling with bad habits? Are you stuck in a destructive cycle of behaviour?

Remove yourself from the environment.

Remove distractions.

Remove toxic influences.

Pull out the hooks that keep dragging you back to your old ways.

2. Invest in yourself

“Only by exhibiting actions in harmony with the sound words which he has received will anyone be helped by philosophy.”
Musonius Rufus

I’ve often struggled to justify spending time and money on myself. It’s a kind of thinking that creeps in when you’re self-employed. You hold back from buying new clothes, eating out, and going on holiday.

I believe it’s important to have times where you live modestly, eat plainly, and appreciate simple things.

But how can you ask people to invest in you if you don’t invest in yourself?

All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now – if you are generous to yourself.

Marcus Aurelius

And if you invest a lot of time and resources in cultivating your lifestyle and your appearance, then what about your thoughts?

(But at the same time, you’ll find that it’s easier to elevate your thoughts if you dress well and look after your body. And it would be foolish to think that other people will not notice if you neglect your appearance.)

Nourishing the whole person goes beyond what you eat and how you exercise: it’s about what you think and how you act.

That’s why I read philosophy; I’m looking for practical insight into how to live a better life.

The problem with self-help books is that they’re telling you how to think.

They’re offering you an easy solution: but what you really need to do is examine your own life and learn how to think for yourself.

And you have to start taking action.

3. Let go

“For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.”
Epictetus

When I say let go, I mean let go of things outside of your power. Stop trying to control everything. There’s nothing wrong with sensible planning, but don’t stick rigidly to your plans or allow yourself to become anxious when they don’t work out. When you book a flight there is the possibility that it may be delayed or cancelled. Trust yourself to be able to cope with those challenges.

And be prepared to let go of things that were only temporary to begin with.

You spent money on your travels. You can earn it back and more.

You worked hard on your physique for years. You can let it go for a few weeks.

You can stop obsessing over macro tracking and training. Eat an adequate amount of protein when you can, judge your portions, eat when you’re hungry, and savour your food. Train using basic equipment if that’s all you have. Use bodyweight movements if necessary. Or do nothing at all, it doesn’t matter.

Whatever you lose, you can get it back.

4. Spend time alone

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca

(Of course, Seneca would say that, he was exiled on Corsica for eight years…)

When I say alone, I mean truly alone: you and your thoughts.

Put your phone away.

How can you spend time with your own thoughts if you’re constantly bombarded with trivial notifications, desperate for your attention?

The apps you use every day are designed to hook you. They create powerful habits that pull you back to that glowing blue screen.

And will a sleep quality app be able to tell you about all the problems in your life that are keeping you awake?

No.

Do you need a meditation app to tell you to spend five minutes in your own company?

If you do, you have bigger problems than an app can solve.

One of the best decisions I made this year was to use an alarm clock instead of the alarm on my phone. I leave my phone switched off at night, often in a different room. My sleep has improved tremendously.

5. Live with less

“But in fact the more a man deprives himself of these or suchlike, or tolerates others depriving him, the better a man he is.”
Marcus Aurelius

Travel is an opportunity to pare down to the things that are important, the things that are essential for life.

(That means a laptop, adequate wifi coverage, and maybe clean drinking water.)

It’s powerful to know exactly how much you need to live anywhere.

Your list might look like this:

  • Credit card
  • Laptop
  • Aeropress (and good coffee)
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Pair of Oxfords

(In fact, you could reduce that list to one item: a credit card.)

But more importantly, it’s liberating to know what you can do without.

I don’t need all of my books.

I don’t need dozens of pairs of shoes.

I don’t need a waffle maker.

I’ve enjoyed all of those things, but if I had to throw them out tomorrow, I could do it. And because of that, I’m not afraid if my circumstances change.

Growth and Acceptance

The struggle

When you’ve been training a long time you may realise you’re at the limits of what you can achieve. Or perhaps you’re at the limits of what you can achieve with your available resources.

How can you be happy knowing that?

There is a constant battle between progress and contentment, a battle between comfort and growth. And it goes far beyond what you can achieve with training and nutrition. That’s why I will write more generally here, even though the same principles apply.

How to accept yourself

“Jettison the judgement and you are saved.”
Marcus Aurelius

Acceptance is about knowing who you are right now, examining your life without judgement. You must reach into the deepest, darkest parts of your soul, the places where you hide the pain, the fear, and all the things you hate about yourself. When you confront these things they will lose their power over you.

Most of us go through life accepting who we are passively. We assume that our personality is fixed. We believe we are a certain type of person because that’s who we’ve always been.

Actively accepting yourself is about recognising and choosing who you want to be, not who you think you are. You see what you have the power to change and what you do not. You must learn to separate what you are from your environment, and from the things that happen to you.

There was a time where I hated everything about myself. I was isolated: no friends, and no life outside of my own mind. I let my body waste away. And when I was in the depths of my depression I thought there was no escape for me.

I was miserable, desperate, but that wasn’t enough.

I needed to take action.

I saw clearly the things that were holding me back, the weaknesses, and the limitations. Then I saw that I could change them if I worked hard enough. And I had support from my family that enabled me to do it.

“The directing mind is that which wakes itself, adapts itself, makes itself of whatever nature it wishes, and makes all that happens to appear in the way it wants.”
Marcus Aurelius

You have a directing mind: use it.

Create your inner fortress and govern it by your own rules.

When people tell you that you should be happy with who you are, don’t believe them. You don’t have to be happy with the way you are, but you do have to understand it before you can change it.

Decide who you are and who you want to be first, and only then be happy with your choices.

Because how can you be truly happy with choices that you didn’t make, or rewards you didn’t earn?

Being happy all the time isn’t the solution to your problems.

Don’t search for happiness in all that you do. Don’t strive for mindless positivity. Search for truth instead.

“Flourishing is different from happiness and it doesn’t always feel good. Behavior that might not immediately make us happy – scrubbing a sick person’s bathroom or diving into a freezing lake to save a drowning dog – ultimately enriches us and the world. Many of our most painful experiences – unrequited love, loss of a beloved relative, professional failure – clarify our values, sharpen our determination and deepen our compassion.”
Jeffery Rubin

Continuing to grow

Growth only comes through struggle, through stress and discomfort, and expanding your boundaries.

Being comfortable with who you are must be a dynamic, evolving state.

Comfort is about accepting more from life, but not demanding more to be happy.

That means as you accept the boundaries of what you can do right now, you also learn to expand them.

Example. You have social anxiety, you are uncomfortable meeting new people. Either you can never meet anyone, or you make an effort to expose yourself more and face the discomfort.

“An individual human existence should be like a river – small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”
Bertrand Russell

And to continue growing you must know what enough means to you: enough money, enough free time, enough friends…

Don’t try to achieve perfection.

When you play chess you must know when to exchange and sacrifice pieces, to give them up temporarily for a stronger position.

That applies to your life too.

Maintaining a physique, a business, or a relationship still requires effort. Maybe not as much effort as it took to build, but you must work to stay where you are.

That means you may need to relax and let go of something, believing that you can get it back again. And you must trust yourself to do that.

Don’t try to hold on to everything at once. That isn’t balance, it’s greed.

(Or perhaps it’s fear.)

Example. When you’re growing a business you may not have the time to train the way you used to. Your diet may suffer. But you haven’t lost the ability to focus and use your experience to build your physique back up when the time is right.

When you go through times where you’re not happy with progress in one area, when you know you could improve, look at what else is going on: are you progressing in other areas?

Where do I go from here?

Start by looking inwards.  Examine your life and choose who you want to be before you accept who you are right now. Don’t rely on inertia to carry you through life. Decide if the person you were at school, at university, or at work is who you really want to be.

Think about what enough means to you.  Pick a specific area in your life where you’re not satisfied and think about what you really need to make you happy. Don’t seek perfection.

Expand your boundaries over time. Acquire a new skill, a new interest, or work on an area where you feel limited. Feel free to let go of something you’ve mastered if you need to.

 

How You Can Start Cooking Healthy Recipes

People ask me for healthy recipes all the time.

(Actually they just ask me about my brownies, but let’s pretend they care about other stuff too…)

They also ask me how I come up with my ideas for healthy recipes.

I’m going to share my secret with you. You will be able to cook delicious, healthy food too.

But first, let’s ask a simple question.

What is healthy food?

I don’t know.

Nobody else knows either.

Healthy food is impossible to define. We have a few clues from looking at the diets of the people who live the longest. It turns out that living a long, happy life is more to do with social support, stress relief, moderation, and very little to do with specific food choices.

That’s not what you want to hear, is it?

You want an exhaustive list of good foods that will make you healthy, just by virtue of eating them regularly. And you want an exhaustive list of bad foods that you must avoid at all costs.

In fact, it would be even better if you knew that everything that isn’t on the good food list was evil, health destroying poison. That way you only have to remember one list.

That makes life simple, doesn’t it?

But there’s a problem with that:

“The root of the problem is in the science of health itself, which has been too reductionist in its approach, attempting to break down the ideal diet into discrete, measurable units. Healthy eating becomes not about food, but about calories, vitamins, minerals, good and bad fats. Similarly, a healthy body is defined by a series of measures: weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels. These numbers are not entirely meaningless: they all correspond to things that matter. The problem is that, in isolation, they tell us very little about what we ought to do as individuals.”

Julian Baggini – New Statesman

How to think about healthy food

I want to give you some basic heuristics that you can take away and apply now.

Actually, I’ve already given you one heuristic: avoid reductionism. Don’t zoom-in on small details taken in isolation. Don’t focus on individual nutrients.

Example. “Wine is healthy because it contains resveratrol…”

The reality? Maybe having a nice glass of wine helps you cope better with stress.

Look at the big picture.

I want you to forget about food completely now, because there is more to health than just nutrition. Let’s zoom back out even more.

Incorporate physical activity into your daily life, build a social support network, manage stress, and create an environment that supports your health. All of these things are at least as important as what you eat.

Exploit asymmetry. This heuristic is very simple: look for small investments with a big payoff and avoid big investments with a small payoff. Be conservative with many things and take risks with only a few things.

The more you restrict your food choices, the greater the risk of disaster due to an error in your dietary model. By investing equally across a variety of foods and consuming them in moderation, there is no single food that can cause significant harm.

You will lose out if you follow a restrictive fad diet and it turns out your list of magic foods is wrong. The likelihood is that you’re missing out on healthy foods rather than avoiding all of the toxic, hormone clogging junk by default.

(Instead of eliminating foods, try to eliminate things from your environment that influence you to make bad food choices.)

Use the 80/20 rule. This states that when looking at an event, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Don’t take the 80/20 rule literally, but understand that there you may have a concentration like this, with most of your progress supported by a few important habits and daily actions.

You may, for example, find that 80% of your daily food intake comes from 20% of your available food choices. Identifying those key food choices allows you to focus your efforts and make improvements to the way you eat.

How to eat delicious, healthy food

Now that I’ve told you that we can’t define healthy food, this just becomes how to eat delicious food.

And that’s easy.

Stop blending everything

You’re not a baby. You can and should be eating solid food, unless you can’t for legitimate medical reasons.

Actually, I’ll allow you to use your blender if you promise not to make any more raw vegetable smoothies. Make a soup instead.

If you can’t make a soup…

Learn how to cook

If you don’t know how to cook any food, how are you supposed to cook healthy food?

You need to learn basic skills. Stop trying to make protein muffins if you can’t cook a steak properly!

Back to the point about blending vegetables, there’s a quick and easy way to cook your vegetables properly. You should be eating plenty of them, make sure they taste good!

You also need equipment:

  1. a good set of pans;
  2. quality kitchen knives;
  3. a solid cutting board (place a damp paper towel underneath to stop it slipping);

And if you’re not sure if your meat is cooked properly, invest in a temperature probe. In general, once your meat reaches 64-66C in the centre, it’s cooked.

Keep your kitchen clean, safe, and logical.

Clean: surface cleanser, cloths, paper towel, and clean hands.

Safe: sharp knives, cutting board, safe technique, a probe to check are cooked, and avoid cross contamination.

Logical: know where things are, know your recipe, and work within your limits.

Add flavour incrementally, it’s much easier to add things in than take them out!

Learn a few basic recipes and master them.

Experiment

Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can start to tinker. Take the same staple foods that you cook every week, like chicken breast, and find a new and creative way of cooking them. Instead of grilling your chicken plain and trying to rescue it with a sauce, try marinading it first, or even poach it. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, find alternatives to chicken.

Adjust recipes if you don’t like (or can’t eat) a particular ingredient.

A pasta dish calls for mushrooms and you don’t like them?

Leave them out.

A recipe calls for alcohol and your religion doesn’t allow for that?

Use an alternative or just leave it out entirely.

Improving your knowledge of ingredients and nutrition will allow you to make better and more creative choices too.

Example. Replace sweet potatoes with roast butternut squash. They’re slightly lower in carbohydrates and they have a sweet, creamy taste.

If you have specific macronutrient targets to hit, you can adjust recipes to be more accommodating.

Example. A recipe for tagliatelle requires mascarpone cheese for the sauce.  But you can easily replace the mascarpone with Quark cheese to boost the protein and reduce the fat.

 

Take home points:

  1. Don’t obsess about healthy food
  2. Learn the fundamentals of how to cook
  3. Experiment