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Physical and Mental Health

I know I am getting on in years, in 2019 I will reach the ripe old age of 42 and it seems inconceivable to me that I’ll make it to 50. I mean I’m falling apart and my family medical history isn’t screaming, ‘welcome to long life’. Every inch of my beleaguered body calls to me daily demanding that I ease off or better still, retire.

Vitality

It seemed to me a good idea that I should sign up to things like income protection, life insurance, etc and for a number of years I had a rather unobtrusive policy that simply sat in the background presumably never doing anything other than waiting for the day I needed it. However, on a fine October morning my excellent financial advisor suggested to that I consider Vitality as an option. He said that given my lifestyle (outdoors and active) that I would benefit from the multitude of (ever changing) schemes and offers that they put forward. Plus the cover was mildly better, the premiums were mildly lower and it all seemed pretty sensible.

I signed up.

Now let me explain a bit about Vitality with its swanky marketing and how I feel after my first year of use and why I now avoid the doctor.

The marketing of Vitality is all about the benefits, earn a weekly coffee, get a nearly free Apple Watch, half price Garmin, get half price trainers, get cinema tickets and on the surface that seems lovely. However, it’s not that simple and the old adage is true, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

The Experience

Upon signing up and downloading the app you fill in lots of information and connect tech that will support your collecting of points. This collecting of points determines your Vitality (premium) level up to and including Platinum. You are given the opportunity to submit health readings, take examinations, etc and have this data fed into the ‘machine’. Once the machine has been sated you are given a Vitality age and advised on the what’s best to do to be fitter and healthier.

So far, so fine.

It’s then that you realise you’re locked in and have to do the work to make sure that your premiums don’t sky rocket and that you reach the maximum level possible. Again this is fine, you’ve signed up for something and so you are committed.

As an iPhone user I took the decision to get the Apple Watch through Vitality to use as my fitness tracker. I wouldn’t normally have done this but Vitality refuses to directly support my plethora of Suunto devices. This was a minor irritant as the Apple Watch is absolute rubbish and I feel for anyone that paid for one of these things. Now as a reasonably fit and active person I assumed that reaching my daily goal of steps or activity would be pretty easy but I found that this wasn’t always the case.

The reason for this was simple I’ve often found the desire of active people to track ever last iota of activity they do to be a little tiresome and as such I’ve never been a numbers athlete, until three weeks ago I’d never even used Strava). The problem that this caused was that in the early months I would forget to track activity or I would only put the watch on half way through a day and this meant I was chasing activity, especially on days where I was not running.

This was clearly a mistake I was making and one that I rectified pretty quickly but it was made all the more challenging by the fact we were in the middle of the hardest part of our move to Scotland. I would often find myself stopping at service stations and trying to build up extra steps even as I was in the middle of 900 mile round driving trip.

The crux of it was, for me, that I was being driven regardless of my situation on any given day to HAVE to exercise or be financially penalised for it. I would run 60 miles in a race on a Sunday and know that this had the same value as the person who ran for 30 minutes and the real annoyance here was not the imbalance – not at all – the annoyance is that no matter what state I was left in I felt forced to put my running shoes back on and exercise the day after a race.

This left me in something of a quandary as I look back on it and rather than motivate me to exercise more regularly I felt disenchanted with the idea of ‘having’ to do steps or exercise or whatever. I found that rather than improving my wellbeing it was having the opposite effect – my mental well-being was suffering and I was committing to the bare minimum of exercise to get ‘over the line’.

This culminated in my effectively withdrawing from any of the real running training I would traditionally do and just do the thing that got me the 8 points the quickest. What was the result of that? Understandably, my ultra running suffered, races that should be well within my ability suddenly felt like trials and I began to fear racing.

The negative spiral continued, manifesting itself as comfort eating and I found myself gaining weight, battling my body image issues and struggling to motivate myself to do any exercise. It was a nasty place I’d managed to get myself in and I could not find the motivation to get out – I was also much more difficult to live with and the GingaNinja would note my anxiety about having, ‘not got that days points’ and then seeing me stuff a giant slice of cake in my pie hole!

I realise that I might be an extreme case but the promise of Vitality inspiring you to do more has had the exact opposite effect on me.

And then there is the other side of it…

Medical

So, insurance is insurance but what do you do if you have a problem with say your back? Followers of my ultra adventures will probably know that the last couple of years have been plagued by DNFs – brought on mostly by lower back pain during races. I figured it was something and nothing for a while and had extensive privately funded physiotherapy which helped to keep me running. The problem however, refuses to go away and I don’t feel like I can see a doctor about it.

The reason? Insurance!

I’m confident my back can be fixed but I’m also confident that Vitality and any future insurer would consider this a future exclusion – especially as I’ve seen the piss poor excuses given to refuse cover to other perfectly healthy potential customers. Given my relationship with Vitality has so far not been filled with joy I’m weighing up whether to remain with them and therefore I don’t want my back concerns to sit on my record. But that thought goes further I was genuinely concerned about going to the doctor recently to ask about changes in moles and whether I might have skin cancer – how ridiculous is that? Thankfully I decided to say ‘fuck it’ and get a potential cancer threat checked out.

Less life threateningly is the need to get my ten ingrowing toenails sorted, this too has been delayed by my wondering what impact this will have in the future and who will cover me if I do have them done. I mean my feet are valuable to me as an ultra runner (never mind day to day bimbling around).

Currently I can perfectly legitimately and honestly declare that I don’t have any diagnosis of any major problems – even if this 42 year old body feels more like a 72 year old – but the moment I do have a diagnosis for something insurances suddenly become more problematic.

The future

Now in my second year of Vitality, and having reached their highest status, I remain uneasy about this policy. My mental well-being the (perhaps) unintentional victim of the pressure Vitality applies took until very recently to start its recovery. I would hasten to add to there were other circumstances that contributed to this being a hugely stressful time but I am confident that Vitality was very much a significant part of it. Balancing my new life has very much helped and the Vitality issue does not seem as severe but it does still weigh on me and I do find it a disincentive to stay healthy.

As a note I should most certainly say I’m immensely grateful to my family who have been excellent in supporting me finding my own motivation again (mainly by signing up to a shitload of ultra marathons, despite the back issue)! Thanks guys.

This all sounds mildly ridiculous when you begin writing it down but I when I’ve discussed this with other Vitality users I’m realise I’m not alone.

I do want to be clear though I’m not writing this to decry Vitality, this is an example of a corporate monster putting a slick gloss (with freebies) on an otherwise rather dull product – and for some it will provide the incentive they need to sort their health out but there is another side to it. Vitality would probably argue that they are helping to beat the obesity crisis that the UK faces and doing it with carrot rather than stick, I simply feel that the carrot they’re using is rather stick-like.

Ultimately this is my opinion and experience of Vitality and all I would suggest is that if you’re considering some form of incentives/rewards based health scheme then ask all the detailed questions about the implications of it and how it will affect your current lifestyle.


As I was stretching my calves yesterday within minutes of arriving home I realised for the first time in the near 5 years I’ve been running just how much time my favourite distraction takes up in my day.

And I began to wonder ‘is this normal?’

I started to look for research but most of it centres around what runners think about when they’re running. I’m interested in knowing if it’s healthy that I spend most of my day salivating at the prospect of running and looking through run related things.

My Daily Breakdown Let’s assume I get up around 5.30am and conclude my day around midnight – that’s a minimum of 18.5hrs per day to put running into.

So I wake up, showered, cup of tea, perhaps a yoghurt for breakfast and straight into my running kit. Place last few items of stuff into OMM 25 classic running bag. Spend at least a few minutes deciding which running shoes will cause me the least amount of aches on my RunCommute. I then begin the stretching that I need to do to make sure my glutes and calves don’t start firing the moment I leave the house and then at exactly 6.29am I leave the house for a couple of miles of running to the train station.

I usually arrive with seconds to spare, grab my seat and immediately reach for my phone to begin writing running blog posts, reading running blog posts or tweeting about running. That journey is about an hour and I usually get something out in the time, my only challenge being WordPress refusing to upload my photographs and a loss of signal as I enter Charing Cross.

As I leave Charing Cross I usually hit the afterburner and allow myself around 20-30 minutes of running through the backstreets of London, grabbing a snap or three of interesting buildings, sculptures or installations. Post run/pre work shower later I’m then usually hitting Instagram, replying to blog responses, etc – by 9am I’ve already done a reasonable amount of run related activities.

I’m lucky in my working life that my boss is also a runner and an extreme triathlete, this means much of the conversation during the day is about races, running, cycling and the Barkley. We supply each other with links to things such as stupid distance runs and ridiculously difficult OW swims.

If I ever got a lunch break then I’d be unlikely to run during it but I would (and on rare occasions do) go walking for an hour, this I feel helps keep my legs active despite having a sedentary desk job. However, when 5.30pm arrives I do my best to get out, get changed and hit the pavement – time and distance vary depending on running needs but I can be out for anything from 30 minutes to about 4 hours.

Once I arrive at a commuter train in the evening my time is usually spent doing one of a few things a) as tonight, blogging b) looking up races c) looking up kit d) looking up reviews for races or kit.

I might, if the fancy takes me, go for a bit more running (sometimes swimming) once I’m home but if not then it’s straight into foam rolling, stretching and preparing my running kit for the following day and so the cycle sets in again.

By the end of the day, if I’ve got either any energy or time left I’ll sometimes process race and running photographs for some slightly more creative, run related, projects I’ve been been working on but it amazes me how much of each and every day is spent revolving it’s way around my running endeavours.

It should be tiresome and dull, there shouldn’t be that much to blog about, there shouldn’t be that many races to look up or routes to run – but there is.

Do other aspects of my life suffer?
This I suppose is the real reason to ask the question. As a runner with a young family and a full time job both of these have been known to play second fiddle to my love of sport. However, I’ve never neglected either in favour of running, I think I’ve developed the art of multitasking and time management. I’ve let less important things slide in my life, things like peripheral friendships, days of hardcore nightclubbing, alcohol and working all the hours because these things were not improving either my life or aiding in the fulfilment of my running dreams. Obviously nothing’s perfect and sometimes I do misjudge the balance but I’ve come to understand how my own life works and I’m a better person for it.

Does running influence decision making?
Without a doubt running and the dominance of it in my life has a serious impact on decisions. The GingaNinja made certain choices about her new job because I wanted to ensure enough weekends were left free for me to be able to commit to racing. Running has been known to dictate holiday destinations, food choices and many other things. However, to me this doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, this feels like making the work/life balance right for me and the people around me.

However, I remember discovering the GingaNinja was pregnant. She told me from the shower cubicle and saying ‘Have you entered the CCC (2014)? Because you might want to rethink it as we’re probably having a baby that week’ – that’s the only time I’ve cancelled an entry and credit to the GingaNinja she provided a bloody good reason.

So does running dominate my life?
Yes probably,  however, I’m happy about the impact it has and I’ve developed it in such a way that it doesn’t negatively impact everything else, in my opinion it improves the rest of my life – but then I would say that. The benefits of life that is dominated by running are too numerous to list but my physical and mental wellbeing are infinitely better for it.

How about your running life? Do you spend most of your day in run related thoughts and activities?


As I ran to the train station this morning for the first part of my RunCommute I thought about all the damage I was doing to the grass verges and pavements I ran on. Those same verges and pavements I run on every day, the ones that are run on by lots of my local community every day, the ones that help keep me and my local community fit and my thought led me to wonder what the hell Stoke Gifford Parish Council are on about.

I’m sure you know by now that Stoke Gifford Parish Council want to ‘tax’ runners for running at Little Stoke Parkrun – yep that’s right – we might already pay for the upkeep of our roads, parks, etc by the taxes we pay but this parish council think we should dig deep once again to take part in a community, volunteer led initiative.

I don’t want to lambast the council too much because that’s not going to help but I thought I’d tell you about my Parkrun experience and why I believe it’s important that it remains free.

Sadly I don’t Parkrun every week because of the amount of racing I do but I do it a reasonable amount, especially with my daughter, who loves the early morning get together and seeing people congregate around a love of community running.


She has no siblings so Parkrun is a great way for her to meet other babies while I get to do some running with her. I’m trying to encourage both her participation with and her understanding of people and the diversity and the positive energy that emanates from Parkrun is an easy win. I don’t go to Parkrun to annoy other park users, I don’t go to get a PB, I don’t even go on the off chance there’s a bit of cake or chocolate floating round as a reward for running 5km, I go because it’s good and I go because it’s free running with new and interesting people.

Is Parkrun free?
Parkrun isn’t really free – to the individual there’s the cost of transport, possibly accommodation, the cost of running kit, the cost of tea and cake afterwards – all worthwhile though. On my last visit to a Bristol based Parkrun I stayed in the city for the weekend and ate out, went to the zoo, did touristy things, perhaps I should have saved my money and put it elsewhere? I’m not the only one who does this – just look at Parkrunner and ultrarunner extraordinaire @abradypus who has racked up this weekend 250 Parkruns – I’m sure she’s kept the entire British economy going on her outlay!

Benefits
There are so many benefits to doing and having a free Parkrun, these are some of my favourites;

  • Parkrun helps brings to life (sometimes underused) green spaces
  • Parkrun is a community event drawing on people from all ages and backgrounds – important when as a country we need to build bridges in community not divisions
  • Parkrun gets people who might not normally exercise, exercising
  • Parkrun allows you to run with your child (something very important to a buggy running parent like myself)
  • Parkrun draws in tourism and these people can and do contribute to the local economy
  • Parkrun is good PR for any council
  • Parkrun will perhaps be the lasting legacy of the Olympics, I wonder how many of our greatest athletes have started here, will start here or have been to Parkrun – imagine if Kelly Holmes had rolled up to Little Stoke – would you have charged her to run?
  • Parkrun as an initiative does more to help the nation remain healthy both physically and mentally than any other

So if there’s so many benefits what the heck are the council on about? Let’s look at the response from Stoke Gifford Parish Council.

Why should Parkrun UK contribute towards Little Stoke Park Maintenance? 

  1. Parkrun are an organised group with paid directors and staff and attract over 300 runners using the park & facilities each week.
  2. There is no limit to the number of runners that use the park.
  3. They are sponsored by national companies.
  4. They monopolise the park paths and car park between 0830 & 1030 each Saturday and Sunday.
  5. They use the parks toilets and washing facilities.
  6. They use Council storage space.
  7. A large number of runners are from outside the Parish of Stoke Gifford and come from all across South Gloucestershire, Bristol and further afield to use the facilities in this area 
(which are financed by Stoke Gifford Council tax payers).
  8. Little Stoke car park is too small for their parking use.
  9. Complaints have been received from local residents relating to pavement & grass verge 
parking, park users and hall hirers regarding a number of incidents involving runners over the last three years.


The response from Parkrun is well worth a read but I’ve got some responses, not as fact and figure filled but still …

The the bit from the council that gets me the most is the ‘runners from outside the area’. I’ve run at Little Stoke and Ashton Gate in Bristol but I live in Kent and I’m from Liverpool – I travel a reasonable amount and where I lay my hat, well that’s my home. So which Parkrun should I go to? Come on Stoke Gifford Parish Council perhaps you can advise me? Am I supposed to stay at home and not go to events all over the country? Hmm.

I was amused by ‘they use the toilets’ – well yes I do and I’ll be honest you don’t want me leaving my case of GI distress all over your park do you Stoke Gifford Parish Council?

As for complaints I’m curious about this – as a runner I’ve been subject to unwarranted verbal abuse, being pushed into the road and other unpleasantness. However, I’ve never bothered to complain in any meaningful way – maybe some people are complainers and some of us just get on with life.

Then there’s monopoly – there were about 250 people in my train carriage today – we monopolised that, however, stood on the small concourse area we didn’t. I’m not sure 300 runners have the volume to monopolise an entire park.

The council are overreacting and blowing a half hour run out of all proportion. 

However…

…it’s true runners use the park, it’s true it’s an organised event, your car park probably is too small but maybe rather than complain about the car park size you could promote car pooling, cycling and running to the event itself more vigorously. I’m not convinced that your arguments are good enough to warrant discrimination against this free running event.

The Bigger Picture
Then there’s the bigger picture and this is what it’s all about really. Parkrun gets people up and about – inspires them to fitness, keeps them off NHS waiting lists, make them feel good, therefore keeping them out of the shrinks office and off the happy pills. If it disappears it’s sad to say but people will suffer.

I met an older retired lady at Ashton Gate Parkrun last year who told she had met many wonderful people since she joined Parkrun after her husband passed away. That she looked forward to her Saturday morning jaunt and catch up with people she would not have met in her normal day to day life. I wonder – will any of the six councillors go round to this lady and keep her company when her council too decides that they’d rather runners paid?

The funny thing is I’ve met lots of people like this – with stories to tell – about how Parkrun, a free, community event made life better.

Don’t ruin this for the people of your Parish and ultimately anywhere a Parkrun runs.

I’ll be writing to the individual councillors over the next few days if only to ensure that my voice is heard and to express my dismay at this act of vandalism to the health and wellbeing of the people you claim you want to support.

You have an opportunity to back down, to consider the corner you’ve backed yourself into and realise you’re wrong. Stoke Gifford Parish Council do something positive today and reverse this decision.

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