Foods That Help You Live Longer

I recently discovered Dr Michael Greger’s book, How Not To Die, which identifies the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease.  It is a fascinating read and a must for anyone intent on achieving immortality!

Greger and his team of researchers studied 24,000 published papers, which resulted in the discovery of evidence-based links between nutrition and disease.  Many people assume the diseases that kill us are pre-programmed into our genes, but for most of the leading causes of death, i.e. heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s, stroke and cancer, our genes usually account for only 10–20 per cent of the risk.  The other 80-90 per cent is down to diet and lifestyle. The typical Western diet is the primary cause of premature death and disability in the UK and US. In other words, a long and healthy life is largely a matter of the choices we make.

How Not To Die by Michael Greger book cover

Research shows that adhering to just four simple healthy lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of chronic illness by 75%:

  1. don’t smoke,
  2. don’t be obese,
  3. take exercise every day,
  4. eat more healthily (defined as consuming more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less meat).

One study has shown that the drop in mortality risk amongst those with healthier habits is equivalent to being 14 years younger.

What happens to our bodies when we age?

In each of our cells we have 46 strands of DNA coiled into chromosomes.  At the tip of each chromosome, there’s a tiny cap called a telomere, which keeps your DNA from unravelling and fraying, a bit like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces. Every time cells divide, however, a portion of that cap is lost. And when the telomere is completely gone, your cells can die.

Smoking cigarettes is associated with triple the rate of telomere loss. The food we eat every day may also have an impact on how fast we lose our telomeres. Consuming fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods has been associated with longer, protective telomeres. In contrast, consuming refined grains, fizzy drinks, meat, fish and dairy has been linked to shortened telomeres.

Research shows that by eating a diet composed of whole plant foods, avoiding processed foods and animal foods, and taking exercise could significantly boost telomerase activity.  A five-year follow-up of this research found that while the telomeres of those in a control group, who did not change their lifestyles, predictably shrank with age, the telomeres of those who had changed their lifestyles had actually grown.  Five years later, their telomeres were even longer on average than when they started — suggesting not only that a healthy lifestyle can boost telomerase enzyme activity, but that it can reverse cellular ageing.

Further research showed that this astonishing result wasn’t just because the healthy-living group was exercising more or losing weight. Weight loss through calorie restriction and an even more vigorous exercise programme failed to improve telomere length. The active ingredient in achieving this is the food we eat.

Nor is it to do with how much we eat. As long as people were eating a typical Western diet, it didn’t appear to matter how small the portions were, how much weight they lost, or how hard they exercised; after a year, they saw no benefit in terms of improvement in their telomeres.


In contrast, individuals on the plant-based diet exercised only half as much, enjoyed the same amount of weight loss after just three months, and achieved significant telomere protection.

In other words, it wasn’t weight loss or the exercise that reversed cell ageing, it was the food.

Food we should eat every day

Based on the above research findings on food and telomere protection, Greger says we should aim to have the recommended number of servings from each section of what he calls his Daily Dozen:

  1. One serving  of cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spring greens, radishes, turnip tops, watercress.  A serving is a quarter of a cup.
  2. Greens including kale, young salad greens, sorrel, spinach, swiss chard. Two servings a day, a serving being one cup raw or half a cup cooked.
  3. Other vegetables: asparagus, beets, bell peppers, carrots, corn, courgettes, garlic, mushrooms, okra, onions, pumpkin, sugar snap peas, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes. Two servings a day, a serving being one cup of raw leafy vegetables, or half a cup of raw or cooked non-leafy vegetables, or half a cup of vegetable juice, or a quarter of a cup of dried mushrooms.
  4. Beans: black beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, butter beans, soya beans, baked beans, chickpeas, edamame, peas, kidney beans, lentils, miso, pinto beans, split peas, tofu, hummus. Three servings a day, i.e. a quarter of a cup of hummus or bean dip, or half a cup of cooked beans, split peas, lentils or tofu, or a full cup of fresh peas or sprouted lentils.
  5. Berries: any small edible fruit, including grapes, raisins, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. One serving a day, a serving being half a cup of fresh or frozen berries, or a quarter of a cup of dried berries.
  6. Other fruits: apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe melon, clementines, dates, figs, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwi, lemons, limes, lychees, mangos, nectarines, oranges, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, prunes, tangerines, watermelon. Three servings a day, where one serving is a cup of cut-up fruit, or one medium fruit, or a quarter of a cup of dried fruit a day.
  7. Flaxseeds: one tablespoon a day.
  8. Nuts: a quarter of a cup a day, or two tablespoons of peanut, almond or other nut butter.
  9. Spices: every day you should have a quarter of a teaspoon of turmeric in addition to any other spices you enjoy.
  10. Whole grains: rice, buckwheat, quinoa, cereal, pasta, bread. Three servings a day, which is half a cup of cooked rice or pasta, or one cup of cereal, or a slice of bread, or half a bagel.
  11. Exercise: ideally 90 minutes a day of moderate activity such as walking.
  12. Water: five large (12oz/340ml) glasses a day.

So there you have it, how not to die.  However, if you find you must, do it like David Bowie, artistically, bravely and with dignity…

Bowie dies then a week later astronomers discover a new planet. Coincidence?  I think not.  RIP Mr Bowie and thank you.



How to Improve Your Balance with Pilates


What is balance?

Balance is our ability to maintain the body’s centre of mass over its base of support.  In other words being able to distribute our weight evenly in order to remain upright and steady whether stationary (termed a static balance) or moving (a dynamic balance).

A properly functioning balance system allows us to see clearly while moving, orient ourselves in relation to gravity, determine direction and speed of movement, and then make automatic adjustments to maintain posture and stability in whatever we’re doing and whatever the conditions, e.g. walking on a pebbly beach, riding a bike, getting out of bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, running on a treadmill etc.

How Do We Balance?

Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of control systems involving input from the eyes, ears, and from the skin, muscles and joints being sent to the brain for processing:

  • The eyes provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects.
  • The ears provide sensory information about movement, equilibrium, and where we are in a space.
  • The skin, muscles and joints have special receptors which provide information about any change in stretch or pressure the body may be experiencing. The receptors in the neck and ankle are particularly important.  Cues from the neck indicate the direction in which the head is turned. Cues from the ankles indicate the body’s movement relative to both the standing surface (floor or ground) and the quality of that surface, e.g. hard, soft, slippery, or uneven.

The brain sorts the input received from the eyes, ears, skin, muscles and joints, and integrates it with any previously learned information from past experiences, e.g. repeated automatic movements like tossing a tennis ball when serving, or an awareness we have to use slower, more precise steps when walking on an icy pavement.  The brain then “talks” to the muscles that control the movements of the eyes, head and neck, trunk, and legs, enabling us to maintain balance and have a clear vision while moving.

These complex sensori-motor control systems which enable us to achieve and maintain balance can be impaired if the eyes, ears, skin, muscles or joints are not working properly, e.g. through injury, illness, lack of use or the aging process.

Ballerina Project Hungary

How to improve your balance

There are a number of important benefits associated with having an enhanced sense of stability, e.g. protection against falls, better mobility, fewer injuries when going about our daily lives or playing sport, greater capacity to push ourselves when we exercise, leading to increased overall fitness.

Essential to achieving and maintaining good balance are:

  • core muscle strength;
  • strong, powerful leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps;
  • strong, powerful gluteal muscles;
  • strength and flexibility in the ankle joints and feet;
  • the ability to use multiple muscle groups.  Researchers looking at the human balance system measured muscle use in a group of professional dancers against those of people who had no dance or gymnastics training.  The dancers not only moved with more grace and precision, but deployed more muscle groups, even when just walking across a flat floor, than those with no training;
  • practice and repetition.  A baby learns to balance by practising and repeating movements.  Impulses sent from the sensory receptors to the brain and then out to the muscles form a new pathway. With repetition, it becomes easier for these impulses to travel along that nerve pathway—a process called facilitation—and the baby is then better able to maintain balance during any activity.  This pathway facilitation is the reason dancers and athletes practise so much. Even very complex movements become almost automatic over a period of time.
  • confidence/a positive attitude.  If you think “oh no, a balance, I’m rubbish at balancing” before you attempt a balance exercise in class, you will more than likely execute it poorly;
  • a good night’s sleep.  Sleep deprivation slows reaction time and is also directly related to falls.  Researchers tracked nearly 3,000 people and found that those who typically slept between 5 and 7 hours each night were 40% more likely to fall than those who slept longer.

The Pilates classes I run in Clevedon and Bristol are carefully prepared to provide exercises which build a strong core, improve the strength and flexibility of the leg and gluteal muscles, encourage the correct activation of all the muscles required to perform a movement (nothing overworking, nothing underworking), and increase the strength and flexibility of the ankles and feet.  Balance exercises chosen from a wide range, are also a key feature of the classes.

Just like strength and flexibility, balance can be improved if we continually challenge it. This is achieved in my Pilates classes by performing both static and moving balances, as well as by encouraging people to try and balance:

  • on an unstable surface, e.g. a small Pilates ball;
  • in different positions, e.g. on all fours in table-top, extended kneeling etc
  • with eyes closed;
  • on a smaller surface area, e.g. on one foot or with both feet together rather hip-width apart
  • for increasingly longer periods of time.

Right, time to go practise my balance beam routine.  Here’s one I did earlier…when I was Chinese…and a bit younger…

Core Muscles II: Rectus Abdominis

Jess Ennis six-pack

Our series of short articles on the core muscles began with the Transversus Abdominis. In this second article, we consider the Rectus Abdominis, the more well-known of the abdominal muscles and certainly the most visible (see image above of Jessica Ennis-Hill and the video below of Aidan Turner).  This article explains how the Rectus Abdominis works and why Pilates is such an effective of way of training it to function optimally.


The Rectus Abdominis consists of two parallel muscles running vertically on each side of the anterior wall of the human abdomen (see image below). They are separated by a mid-line band of white, fibrous connective tissue called the linea alba.  The rectus abdominis originates along the edge of the pubis bone and the pubic symphysis in the pelvis. Its insertions are the edges of the fifth, sixth and seventh ribs and the bottom part of the sternum (breast bone).

A sheath of connective tissue surrounds the rectus abdominis muscles and provides attachment points for the internal and external oblique or waist muscles (which we will look at in more detail in a future article in the core muscles series) that flank them on both sides.

Three bands of connective tissue run across the rectus abdominus, which separates it into eight distinct muscle “bellies”. In the abdomens of people with low body fat these “bellies” can be viewed externally and are commonly referred to as a “four, six, or eight pack,” depending on how many are visible; six is the most common.

Rectus Abdominis muscle


The Rectus Abdominis is an important postural muscle, responsible for flexing the lumbar spine. It helps to bring the rib cage up to where the pelvis is when the pelvis is fixed, e.g. as occurs when we do a Pilates ab curl, or brings the pelvis towards the rib cage (posterior pelvic tilt) when the rib cage is fixed, e.g. during a Pilates wheel or spine curl.

The Rectus Abdominis assists with breathing and plays an important role in respiration when forcefully exhaling. It also helps in protecting and maintaining the protect position of the internal organs, and in creating intra-abdominal pressure, such as when running or lifting heavy weights, or during forceful defecation or childbirth.


A weak Rectus Abdominus muscle causes us to slouch forward.  This results in the muscles of the lower back, the mid-back region towards the bottom of the rib cage, and the gluteal muscles over-working to compensate.

A more specific cause of Rectus Abdominis dysfunction is Diastasis Recti Abdominis. DRA is either a mid-line separation of more than 2.5 cm, or a bulging at the linea alba, occurring during exertion. This weakness results from the Rectus Abdominis being over-stretched during pregnancy.  This separation or bulging can cause an array of problems from poor posture to back and pelvic pain, hernias and pelvic floor dysfunctions.

Pilates to Train the Rectus Abdominis Muscles

At the heart of the Pilates Method is the breathing, the main objective of which is ensure the correct core muscles are engaged in the right way and at the right time in order to perform the exercises properly.  The inhale comes in through the nose and is a lateral breath into the sides of the rib-cage, NOT the belly.  This avoids the abdominal muscles doming or releasing.  The exhale is through the mouth and we suck the tummy right back towards the spine for the duration of the out-breath.  This actively engages the Rectus and Transversus Abdominis muscles.  The majority of the big movements in Pilates are on the exhale to ensure we have the correct support to execute them safely and well.

This sucking in of the tummy or navel-to-spine compression of the abdomen on the exhale is one of the reasons why Pilates is so effective at healing diastasis recti.  However, care needs to be taken in terms of the choice of Pilates exercises undertaken.  For this reason it is important to work with a Pilates teacher who has experience of dealing with this condition.

Pilates exercises to be avoided by those with DRA:

  • forward flexion of the upper torso, e.g. the ab curl
  • upper body rotation with reaching, e.g. the arm opening
  • extreme back extension/arching, e.g. the diamond press
  • upper body flexion with rotation, e.g. the scissors.

As a general exercise guide, any action that causes the stomach to bulge or protrude forward should not be practised by someone with DRA. It will not help to heal diastasis recti, in fact it often makes it worse. This should be the number one consideration when re-training the abdominal region. You should never feel pain or discomfort or any additional separation or bulging while exercising.  Any sports with rigorous sudden rotation of the trunk such as tennis, netball, hockey, etc should be avoided.

To close, here is Aidan Turner’s six-pack in action in an episode of the BBC drama serial, And Then There Were None.  The fact that he’s only wearing a towel is integral to the plot of course…the characters were looking for a missing weapon and wanted to be sure he wasn’t hiding a gun about his person…ahem!

Note: patience is required when watching the video…the scene starts after about 26 seconds…and then is repeated in case you missed it…cheesy grin…




Diet and Exercise Performance

Scott Jurek, ultra marathon runner

Anyone interested in the link between food and exercise performance might like to listen to Radio 4’s Food Programme.  They’ve just completed a two-part series, Eating To Run (links to both parts below), looking at the importance of diet to running performance.

In Part 1 of Eating to Run, we hear from Kevin Currell, Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport, to find out about the dietary advice given to Britain’s elite athletes. Compare this to the support Brendan Foster was given on performance nutrition in the 1970s – worlds apart!

Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, shares his insights into running, racing and eating in Iten, the town where many of the world’s most successful distance runners live and train. Kenyan runners eat a lot of ugali, a carbohydrate-rich porridge made of maize flour and water.

Elsewhere however, others argue that a low-carb, high-fat diet will help runners achieve peak performance. Author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall, profiles diets based on this principle, that fuelled long runs by resistance fighters during the Second World War and early Iron Man events in the 1980’s. It’s a controversial approach and many believe it’s just the latest food fad to be picked up by people in the running world.  But does it work.  The presenter puts it to the test.

Female runner

In Part 2 of Eating to Run, ultra-marathon champion and vegan, Scott Jurek explains how to eat and run 100 miles. The benefits of fermented food and Paleo diets are also considered in depth.

Below is an interesting video of Scott Jurek talking about the importance of plant protein, breathing, posture and relaxation to good running performance.

“Think of running as controlled falling.” – I love that!

How Pilates Is Helping Professional Footballers

Flexible footballer

Professional footballers are particularly prone to hip and groin injuries and then arthritis in later life.  One contributory factor is that they are more likely to develop femoro-acetabular impingement, where irregularities in the shape of the ball part of the joint, i.e. the head of the femur, can damage the hip socket, causing pain, injury and eventually arthritis. All of which can prematurely end a promising career as a professional footballer.

Premiership side Southampton FC have a special interest in hip and groin injuries. They were a massive problem for the club that had gone under the radar.  Senior players were retiring from football and young talented players were not fulfilling their potential because they were spending too much time in the clinic rather than on the field.  Mo Gimpel, Director of Medical and Science Performance Support at the club identified that the players who were experiencing pain in the hip and groin area were unable to move their femurs, i.e. their thighs, independently of their pelvis.  So, for example, when they brought their knee up to the chest, they rocked their pelvis backwards, rotated it, in fact did a whole range of different movement patterns rather than keeping the pelvis stable.

Gareth Bale doing the Pilates dart

To avoid footballers experiencing hip and groin injuries, they need to increase the flexibility and range of movement in the hip.  Uniquely among premiership clubs, Southampton FC developed a pre-activation session where the physio takes the players through a series of Pilates-based flexing, extending and rotating exercises for the hip and groin area.

Since introducing the pre-activation sessions the club has seen the types and severity of injuries coming into the clinic dramatically change.  The club very rarely sees hip problems, there’s no chronic groin pain and general back pains have also disappeared. The team’s players have very little surgery compared to those of other clubs i.e. hip, inguinal groin and abductor surgery.  Similarly, when you look at hamstrings, the club’s last analysis showed that on average a hamstring problem will keep a player out of action at Southampton FC for, on average 7.8 days, whereas the typical champion’s league and premier league player is out for almost three weeks.  Further, the club has no recurrent hamstrings or groin injuries, which is almost unheard of in football.

Pilates saves the day…again!  Well done, Pilates.

Southampton footballers celebrating


Information source: BBC Radio 4, Inside Health programme, 26 January 2016