the fiendishly difficult ‘Bring Sally Up’ fitness challenge

It’s called a hip thruster, and it’ll work your hips, glutes, core and hamstrings without even making you get off the sofa. First, slide off the seat until your feet are on the floor and just your upper back is resting on the couch. Next, lower your hips towards the floor, then drive them back up, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement to make sure they’re getting the message.

Do 3-5 reps, rest briefly, repeat 2-3 times, and resume at least pretending to work. 


Mind – manage the background ‘noise’ in your daily life

Are you in the habit of switching on the TV or radio while you’re doing other things? Do you think the content doesn’t really matter, because you’re not paying much attention to it anyway?

Think again.

We register what’s going on around us, even those sounds and sights we’re not focusing on directly. Just think how often you’ve been in a situation where background music was playing, and even though you don’t recall hearing it, you find yourself humming that tune later on?

Incidental listening affects our emotional state, which helps explain why we sometimes experience ‘inexplicable’ mood shifts. They’re actually quite explicable – you just weren’t aware of what you’ve just heard and the effect it had on you.

Therefore, to avoid triggering a negative mood, turn off background news bulletins, which are full of anxiety-making information… and put on your favourite dance music instead!


Monday January 18

Body – Give your posture a soft reset

One problem with lockdown – especially if you haven’t been carefully cultivating an eight-teas-a-day habit for the best part of a decade – is a lack of reasons to get out of your chair. With Zoom calls, work catch ups and even social chitchat happening in front of a screen, it’s likely that, even if you’re going for a walk once a day, you’re unconsciously getting up a lot less than you used to.  

This fix is a two-parter. First, plan to work in Pomodoros – the 25-minute chunks of time that many productivity experts suggest keep you focused and energised. Secondly, challenge yourself to spending at least a day doing a simple 20-second standing exercise, based on yoga’s Mountain Pose, whenever the timer dings. In other words, do it several times a day. 

Stand up, keeping your legs tight together, and imagine ‘screwing’ your feet into the ground – you should feel your glutes flex. Next, turn your palms to face forward, ensure you’re standing up straight, and take one or two deep breaths through your nose. That’s one minute: now you’ve got another three to get a cuppa before your next Pomodoro. 


Mind – Consider the clouds

Early Spring means rapidly changing weather, and although of course you can’t prevent a day of rain or sudden snow flurries, you are free to decide how to respond to the weather. Why not use this time of year to learn about cloud types? New learning helps us feel more positive and more in control of our life, and recognising different types of cloud offers the extra advantage of learning to predict the weather.

There are four main types of cloud, although you’ll often see them in combination. Cirrus, fair weather indicators, look wispy and feather-like. Stratus clouds are flat sheets that make for overcast or foggy days. Nimbus are clouds that already contain rain or snow. And cumulus, the low-lying clouds that look like big cotton balls, indicate fair weather – unless, that is, they darken and gather into tall towers of cumulonimbus, which means a thunderstorm is imminent.


Friday January 15

Body – Challenge your core with the elevated side plank

At a certain point, learning to hold a plank for longer starts to be a waste of time. The current world record for holding the position is over eight hours, but once you can get past the two minute mark, honestly, you’d be better off testing your core with tougher variations – especially the side plank, which can address your balance and obliques in a way its standard cousin doesn’t. And, if you’ve already managed a 90-second version, there’s a tougher version worth testing yourself against. 

To do the elevated side plank, set up as normal – on one forearm, with your foot on the floor – then put your ‘top’ foot on something around knee level, like a couch or chair. From here, you should be able to take your bottom foot off the ground – either hold for ten seconds, or move your knee forwards as if you’re ‘jogging’ in the air. A time-saver and a showoff classic – what’s not to like?

Mind – It’s movie night!

If you’ve been trying not to remember we’re in lockdown yet again, you’ll know how impossible that is to achieve. The reason? When we try not to think about something, we must first bring to mind whatever it is we don’t want to think about—thus reinforcing, rather than diminishing, its presence in the mind.

A more effective way to block out unwanted thoughts is to distract yourself by engaging in an enjoyable and challenging activity, using as many senses as possible. Watching a good film is a brilliant choice.

Choose one you’ve not seen before, preferably something cheerful. Look for an intriguing story line, good acting, and/or great music. Turn off other devices, sit down comfortably, and engage fully with the film.

To make the effect last even longer, ask other friends to watch the same film so you can talk about it on the phone or online later.

Thurs January 14

Body – A two-minute mobility workout you can do in your front room

You probably already know that you need to do a bit more mobility work – the stuff that saves your spine after you spend eight hours a day in a chair – but, let’s be honest, it’s not all that appealing. Time is one thing, but space is another – one thing that most YouTubers don’t give much consideration to, in their pristine home-studios, is the size of a regular flat, or having to clear away a bucket of errant Lego before you can do anything.

The fix? A super-quick, best-bang-for-your buck routine that you can do anywhere you can kneel down, in under two minutes – all mnemomically named after animals for ease of use. 

Start with a set of cat-cows – from the all-fours position, round your spine towards the ceiling while looking at the floor, then arch your back as you look up. Do 5-10 slow reps, then move onto the pointer-dog – bring one arm and the opposite foot out to make a straight line with your spine, testing your core and stability, for 3-5 reps per side. Finish with the ‘fire hydrant’ – bring one knee up in a sideways arc, hold, then repeat on the other side.

Simple: now all you have to worry about is the kids leaping on for a ride around the house. 


Mind – Wake up your creativity, in two steps

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks her students to make two commitments.

First, her students must begin each day by filling three pages of a notebook. Students can write their dreams and thoughts, make plans, recall particular memories – whatever comes to mind. Cameron believes this exercise empties the mind of running commentary that can stand in the way of creative thinking.

The second commitment, the artist’s date, is a two-hour weekly outing, to be planned at the beginning of each week. This must be a solo activity, something different from normal routine, something enjoyable, and something that uses as many of the five senses as possible. Examples include baking something according to a new recipe or walking somewhere new. This exercise is intended to stimulate new ideas and offer fresh perspective.

Why not make these two commitments so you, too, can awaken your creative sensibility?

Weds January 13

Mind – Hide your phone when you need to concentrate

When you need to maintain focus, can you guess what’s most likely to distract you? Adrian Ward at the University of Texas and colleagues asked participants to complete a test that required high levels of concentration. All had mobile phones with them. Some were told to leave the phones in another room, others to keep them but put them away in a pocket or bag, and the rest to place the phone on the table where they were working.

Those whose phones were elsewhere did best, while those who had their phone with them but out of sight recorded the second highest test scores. Participants whose phones were on the table did worst – whether the phone was facing up or down, or even whether it was on or off. Next time you want to do something that requires full focus, first put your phone in another room.


Body – One stretch to sort out your neck

Doctors are divided on whether ‘text neck’ – an ailment associated with constantly looking down at your mobile phone – is a real issue, but one thing’s for sure: spend long enough doomscrolling in the current climate, and you’re going to end up feeling tense. 

Fix it, and take a break from Twitter, with one simple move known as the ‘scalene stretch’: first, you’ll put one hand on the opposite shoulder, almost as if you’re going to recite the pledge of allegiance. Now, tilt your head away from that hand, aiming to get your ear as close to the other shoulder as possible. Finally, tilt your chin up until you feel the stretch, hold for 10-15 seconds, and repeat on the other side. Even if your timeline’s still all gloom afterwards, at least you’ll have done something for your spine. 

Tues January 12

Mind – Be careful how you speak to yourself

When you talk to yourself, have you ever stopped to notice the language you use?

This is important, because the words you choose when you talk to yourself have a powerful impact on your mood, and can either enhance or dampen self-esteem. Next time you become aware of your self-talk, take note. Do you encourage and praise yourself, or are you harshly critical? Do you give yourself credit for effort, or do you focus only on outcomes?

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown criticism makes us defensive and likely to give up, whereas praise for effort encourages us to persevere, learn more and improve performance. When you talk to yourself, prioritise positivity. Instead of, ‘I really messed that up,’ or ‘What a failure I am!’ say, ‘I may not have succeeded, but I know I tried hard. What can I learn from this experience so I can do better next time?’

Body – Challenge your chest with…a good book or two

If you’ve been doing press-ups in lockdown, you might have noticed that it’s your triceps (the muscles on the back of your upper arms), not your chest, that do the brunt of the work. That’s because one of the main jobs of your pectorals (chest muscles) is adducting the shoulder – bringing it inwards and across your chest – which is why bodybuilders superset their benching with chest flyes. The good news? Even if you don’t have any dumbbells, there’s a fix, and all you need is a couple of good books. 

It’s called the prayer press – you’d typically do it with a couple of light weight plates, but books can work even better. Start by holding your chosen tomes together in your hands, pressing them together as if you’re praying, close to your chest – your elbows should be pointing towards the ground rather than flaring out. Now press the books outward, squeezing them into each other as you do and aiming not to let them slip. Pause with almost-straight arms, bring back in, and repeat for 2-3 sets of 3-5 slow reps. Use this after a few sets of press-ups to activate your chest, or as a challenge in its own right – maybe work up from novellas to the Times Atlas of the World. 

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