The Zen of Flying

In the next few months many of us will take to the skies and perhaps fly off on business although at this time of year it is more likely to be to a holiday destination. Some of you may enjoy the excitement and treat every flight as a trip into the unknown, while most of us would rather get the damn thing over with as quickly as possible and if there was such a thing as teleporter – like in the Star Trek series – we would leap at that chance. However, until that cheesy 60’s sci-fi fantasy is somehow turned into a reality, we have little choice but to endure airports and the ever more penny pinching airlines that fly from them. Let’s face it beyond the fluffy advertising hype – of serene looking couples with well behaved children being led to their seat by a smiling, cabin staff version of Mary Poppins – unless you are one of the chosen few in business or first class, your flight will be cramped and uncomfortable. And yet there are ways of making it a little easier and perhaps a bit more endurable if only we could tweak our thinking.

check in hell

Too many of us believe that we have something important to say that an airline wants to hear. But the harsh reality is that once you’ve booked and paid your money, and they have exhausted every last avenue for extracting more money out of you for extras like a seat number or loading a suitcase, things only 5 years ago you got for free, too many airlines then treat you as a burden to be shunted from point A to point B as quickly and cheaply as they can possibly manage. So the first thing you need to understand is that all the shouting and complaining in the world is not going to improve your journey one little bit. However, the one area you can still express yourself in the only language they still understand is by telling yourself that you will never fly with them again… and stick to it even if that means resisting a nice little discount, when you next come to book a trip on-line. Because at the end of the day your hard earned money is your one and only real weapon against cheap and nasty penny pinching or poor service.

There is another important way you can reduce the stress of flying and that is to get your mindset right and take some simple steps from the very beginning. So for what it is worth I will now make a list of the things I do to make my encounters with airports and airlines more endurable.

1. Accept you have no control over any of it. If the weather is bad or the aircraft has a technical fault or the incoming plane is delayed, all the desk banging in the world is not going to change that situation one iota. The only thing it will achieve is to perhaps annoy the front of office staff, who have a similar lack of control over the situation, but more importantly it will lead to an increase in your own stress and anger hormones, which will take some time to be expelled from your body. So take a deep breath, force a smile and sit down to read or listen to some music. Then imagine that you are detaching yourself from what is going on around you, the moans the angry words perhaps. Because by retreating into yourself, a place where few people can touch you, you will be creating your own private comfort zone.

airport chaos

2. Before you even get to the airport you can reduce the potential for stress. Start by allowing plenty of time to get there and also think more carefully about what you will take with you. Too many of us fill our suitcases to the top and perhaps chance a little over the weight limit. So the entire journey to the airport is consumed with one thought, will I get away with it? or will they make me pay a kings ransom for the extra Don’t do it, don’t ruin your journey before you even start. Do you really need every last thing in that suitcase? By leaving at least a kilo of your limit un-used you will take away all that unnecessary anxiety over things that are not really that important. Better still don’t take any luggage beyond hand luggage if you can. Nowadays, the price of loading a single suitcase is absurdly reaching the same level as the cost of the flight ticket. If you are going on a sunny holiday, you often find that you wear the same things almost every day, which you could wash through or better still, simply buy a few extra clothes when you arrive, for a fraction of the cost of loading that suitcase. A few years ago a survey of high street travel agents showed that most holiday makers don’t even use between a third and a full half of the stuff they cram into their suitcases.

3. By all means have a celebratory drink of alcohol once you are finally checked in, but try and keep it to just the one, especially if you are in a window seat. De-hydration is one of the main reasons people arrive frazzled and booze will always do that. If nothing else make sure you have a small bottle of water to keep your fluids up.

4. We can rarely dictate who is sitting in front or behind us. It could be a sweet old couple who sleep all the way but equally you could climb onboard to realize you are smack bang in the middle of 2 screaming babies or the children from hell. Loosen your shoes or take them off and always take some earplugs – they may not screen out the noise completely but it will at least help. Also you could also take an eye mask, so you can at least visually and mentally escape from the chaos all around you. However, if that fails to work never be afraid to ask the parents of the children to make them behave. If that doesn’t work ask the cabin staff to control them, don’t worry about ruffling feathers because the likelihood is you will never see these people again in your entire life. The same can also be said of the person in front of you, who, the moment the seatbelt sign goes off, their chair back is virtually in your lap: Don’t sit there and seethe for hours on end, do something about it!

smiling plane

5. Night flying and long connection lay-overs are another source of unnecessary stress, especially if you are perhaps saving a pittance against what you would need to pay for a better connected or day-time flight. If you can afford it pay that extra and save yourself a day of your life, which you will more often than not lose because you needed to sleep off the horrors of that long night flight.

So go on, try some of these things next time – and you may be surprised by just how endurable the whole sorry business of flying then becomes.


Fit or Fat?

It’s that time of year again, when some men notice that they’ve gained a little weight around the middle and women wonder whether they will still fit into that great bikini they found in the end of the summer sale, last year. Although both sexes are by no means the same, when it comes to wait gain and loss, whether physically, mentally or socially, it is rare for either men or women to begin the debate in their own heads, without at least a little denial first. You may tell yourself that you always put a little extra on over winter but equally you always lose it when the warmer weather comes. Although the sad reality is that you have grown in size by 1 or 2% every year since you were about 25. This is fine if you are only 29 but if you are 39, 49 or 59 you may have a quite different mountain to climb by now.


Over ten years ago, for what it’s worth, I co-wrote a couple of bestselling books on healthy eating and nutrition. Although we shared a sound knowledge, unlike many purveyors of special of fad diets, or those self declared health guru’s who are now mostly forgotten, we never once declaring that we had all the answers. Instead, we simply advocated healthy eating, not to push people towards the impossible “Ideal” of the fashion industry’s stick thing ghosts, who still parade through the pages of far too many magazines, we did it to help people maintain a comfortable weight and as a guide to living a healthier lifestyle. Because when it comes to weight loss there are only two truths that matter – firstly it is hard work because nobody has a magic bullet or all the answers and secondly; weight loss is the result of eating less and expending more calories through exercise. It really is as simple as that.

However, if I had to elaborate further on the psychology and science of weight loss I will point to 7 things:

1. Be honest with yourself – stop making excuses.
Most of us tend to under estimate how much we have grown in size, just as many people forget how much they have actually eaten. If you are unsure, or feel your weight gain is not warranted because you live all week on lettuce leaves, I strongly recommend you keep a food diary, an HONEST food diary, where you record every single thing you eat and drink, and especially catching those times you raid the fridge in the middle of the night and conveniently forget. Also, ask someone else’s opinion on your size, perhaps someone you haven’t seen for a while, certainly not your partner, who will almost certainly tell you what you want to hear, especially if you are in an unwritten symbiotic partnership of denial. This is where some couples begin to balloon in tandem, quite happy in the knowledge that neither will point a finger or complain that the other is too fat. If you have one last cream cake I had better have another If this sounds familiar it could be you!

2. People lose more weight through dieting than by exercise alone.
We hear all the time that exercise is the key to weight loss, leave the car and take the bicycle, or that climbing the stairs instead of using the lift will make a difference. Yes it will, but only once you have shed your weight, because by far the most effective way of achieving weight loss is through consuming less food. If you want to achieve a 400 kcal energy cut, yes you could run for about 4 miles, or you could simply avoiding eating that small bag of crisps or Doritos. It really is as simple as that. The problem is that exercise effects our hunger and appetite hormones, which makes you feel noticeably hungrier after exercise, so you are then prone to eat more to compensate.

3. You may have to have to work harder than other people.
Dieting and exercise can begin to fix a metabolism that’s either slowed down or now over stimulates your hunger (more on metabolism below) but the savage reality is that it may never go back to what it was before you gained your weight. So if you’ve been overweight or obese and you lose weight, maintaining that loss probably means you’re going to have to do more than others, possibly forever. Understanding this hard reality may help with the frustration when you discover that you now have to work harder over the longer term than your friend who was never overweight. Yes it isn’t fair, but get over it.

4. Exercise can help towards fixing your metabolism.
While exercise may not be as important for weigh loss as calorie restriction, it is very important in another way: It begins to repair a broken metabolism.
Much of what we know in this area comes from NASA’s bed-rest studies, which found that within a couple of days of non-activity, our metabolism becomes inflexible. Start moving again, and it will start to change, although as I said above if it has been broken for a long time, your metabolism is less likely to just go back to normal. This is why exercise is critical in the hardest part of losing weight, the keeping it off maintenance phase.

5. Don’t waste your time with complicated food combinations.
Some people will tell you that you can magically lose weight if you just stick to the right combination. There are: low-fat, low-carb, low glycemic index, and a lot of diet variations of all of these. However, there is little sound science (other than questionable evidence provided by diet companies pushing expensive plans, pills and food bars etc.) to suggest that there is such a thing as any “right” diet, that will work better with an individual’s specific metabolism be it protein, vegetarian, or whatever. However, almost ALL diets will work if you actually follow them.

junk food

6. A calorie is just a calorie!
You can gain weight eating too much healthy food as well as junk food. Of course from the standpoint of health, it is much better to eat more vegetables and much easier to overeat calories from junk food because the quantity needed is usually much less because the quality of calories is a major determinant of the quantity we ingest. However, where the calories come from does matter because it influences satiety. This is partly psychology and partly biology. In fact, the food industry has carved out a whole new area of food science to study the “bliss point,” in which foods are created to increase the amount it takes to feel satiated, and bingo we buy and eat more of their junk. However, opting for more nutritious food should mean you can fill up on far fewer calories. So we need to exchange calorie dense foods for more nutritionally dense foods, which are generally bulkier with more fibre, less energy rich and with a higher quality of protein.

7. It’s all in the brain.
When it finally comes down to it, it is not the body or even the metabolism that makes you overweight or obese – it is actually your brain. Poor decisions make you gain weight and better ones make you lose it. it is that simple. However, the big problem is that over time, poor decisions change the way the brain responds to the two key elements of eating, hunger and satiation. Years of any kind of behaviour, not just eating, will create patterns which alter our neural tracks. Despite this the brain can, to some extent, repair and rewire itself once a new, better pattern of behaviour emerges. This will take many months or even years. But don’t despair it will happen, because if you THINK healthier, you will eventually LOOK healthier and lighter but only if – YOU STICK WITH IT!