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Keeping Fit in Isolation, or “How Not to Become an Epic, Depressed Slob”

Exercise is a pain in the arse – figuratively and often literally. But for a large proportion of the world, the change in mentality you get from leaving the house and entering a gym is enough to provide encouragement to get a sweat on. Take that mechanism away, though, and it is all too easy to become very lethargic, very quickly. As anyone who does any amount of exercise knows, it’s a cruel bastard; 6 months training can be utterly obliterated in the space of one. So, if you’re used to a certain level of fitness, recent restrictions on life can be pretty stressful.

For me, personally, my mental health suffers enormously if I don’t work out. I need those sweet, sweet endorphins. Plus, I like being able to pretend I’m a human dustbin without it turning me into a weird human-orca hybrid. Having WFH (see my previous post for details) for over 2 years, I’d say I’m quite well versed in the types of workout you’d term as getting prison fit. Ok, fine, I like my weights, I like my running, and I like to be somewhat extreme with my exercise time. The good news is, you don’t need weights, a treadmill or any more than 20-30 minutes per day. Here are a few ideas, all equipment-free. Give them a go – I’ve put together a couple of suggested circuits at the bottom, too.

Tip: Before you do this, put your gym gear on. It goes some way towards providing that mental, almost Pavlovian trigger. It’s exercise time.

Lower Body

Stairs

This one’s simple. Unless you live in a bungalow, you’ve got a ready-made step master at home. I tend to do this with a backpack on, filled with weights. No weights? Baked beans are heavy…  so is wine. Focus on keeping your feet pointing straight as you walk up the stairs to get the maximum benefit for your thighs. Your stairs at home will be 8-10 inches high. We have 20 in our house, so 172 times up and down equals 2300 feet (or Pen y Ghent – who needs the Yorkshire 3 Peaks?)

Squats

The key here (well, with all exercises, to be honest) is to do this in slow, controlled movements. Down for three seconds, hold for three seconds, up for three seconds (3/3/3) – if you do this properly, you won’t need weights. 100 squats with 9-second arcs like this will break most people. Get your feet just a touch more than hip width apart, don’t lean forward (do this against a wall to help with form) and don’t bounce as you switch between down and up.

Suggestion: 4 sets of however many you can manage, with a 1-minute break in between each set.

Lunges

Using the same 3/3/3 timing as above, keep your shoulders back and your back straight – don’t lean over your front leg. Pick a point on the wall (or TV) and look at it. The pitfall here is looking down, which causes you to lean. Get a 90-degree angle with both legs, ideally.

Suggestion: Hold a shopping bag in each hand, evenly weighted (that’s if unweighted lunges don’t make you swear to begin with).

Wall Sits

This is an absolute bitch. Get your back against the wall and slide down until you are “sitting” with your legs at 45-degree angles. How long can you last? Add 10 seconds each time you do this. You think planking is hard? This will mess you up.

Belly

Sit-ups

The key here is a bit of variation. Your common or garden sit-up is feet on the floor, knees up so you make a triangle shape, hands on temples, slow and controlled up and down. This is great, but 1) boring and 2) only focuses on one section of your stomach. Add in crunches (start lying flat, then draw your knees into your chest and raise your feet at the same time as you perform an upper body sit-up) and leg lifts (lie flat on your back and raise your legs, then return in a 3/3/3 pattern).

Suggestion: Using the three variations above, go 10/10/10, then a 60-second break. Four sets. Increase this by 2 per type each time you do it.

Plank

Everyone knows what this is. How long can you do it for, though? Remember to keep your back straight, don’t drop your hips, and don’t stop until you’re shaking like a shitting dog. Managed 5 minutes? That’s pretty good. The world record is just over 8 hours, though…

Upper Body

Triceps dips

Three good ways to do this and as always, alternation is your friend. I go with wearing a weighted backpack, then putting both feet up on a table and dipping to the floor. Again, 3/3/3. I’ll be honest, though: I’m finding these really fucking hard to describe. So, we’re going to use Google, as follows:
“Tricep dips chair”
“Tricep dips one leg up”
“Tricep dips feet elevated”

Piss off. I know.

Curls

For these, Google “Will Ferrell bicep curls Anchorman.” What form! What grace! Anyway, if you don’t have weights, use wine bottles or absurdly enormous bags of panic-bought toilet roll. What else is heavy? Lamps? I don’t know. Use 3/3/3 if you can’t find anything heavy. Your average wine bottle weighs about 1.3kg (full). I tend to do 4 sets of 20 using 25kg dumbbell sets, so my maths tell me I could do 4 sets of 500 using wine bottles and I’d have lifted the same amount… but much more deliciously.

Tip: Lifting with your palms facing up exercises a different set of muscles to lifting with your palms facing in, towards each other. Alternate.

Presses

Lie on your back with your trusty box of 9,000 eggs (none for the rest of you, you fuckers) on your chest, then extend and lock out your arms upwards. With a bench press, as you return the weight to your chest, your elbows tend to sink below where the floor is, but that doesn’t matter too much in this context. If you can’t find anything heavy enough to make 3/3/3 difficult, upgrade to 5/5/5. Children are great for using as weights for this one.

Press-ups

As with sit-ups, press-ups are better with variation, which comes with how far apart your hands are. Start with them shoulder-width-apart, then try wider, then narrower. My favourite/least favourite press-ups are done with my hands on top of each other, directly below my face. They’re an absolute bastard.

Tip: Can’t manage a press-up? Put your knees on the ground. Not a problem.

Full Body / Cardio

Standing Jumps

Feet together, bend your knees, jump up as high as you can and land with your knees bent (important), ready to go again.

Star Jumps

Yep, really. These are great for getting the heart rate up.

High Knees

Running on the spot but getting your knees as high as you can in front of you.

Squat Jumps

Jumping up in the air and landing in a wide, deep squat position. This one is a real killer.

Swings

This is where you hold something heavy in two hands then go into a squat position so it’s between your legs, before swinging it up and above your head, then back down. In a gym, you’d use a kettlebell. Again, not bouncing or using a jerking motion is key; you need to have control. You can do this with a large bag of rice or flour, or a weighted backpack. 4 sets of 20.

Burpees

Just the word makes me want to vomit. A standing jump, with your arms in the air. Then crouch and put your hands on the floor, jumping both your legs back so you’re in a plank position. Then, one press-up, jump your legs back to the crouching position and jump up in the air with your arms in the air. Keep the cycle going. I have been doing these for years, but they still hurt, and they can be scaled up to any level of fitness. 100 in 6 minutes is enough to make me want to cry.

Workout Plans

There are two keys to making the most of your home workout.

1. Variation

2. Keeping your heart rate up

Sitting still and doing some weights with a rest to check your phone in between will improve your muscle definition but do absolutely nothing for fat burning. Because of this, the best home circuits alternate between muscle and cardio.

Here is an example of an easy workout – you can do this with any of the above exercises really. Choose either upper body, lower body or belly, along with one or two cardio exercises.

For each block, go through the cycle 4 time (a “set”)

Block One
Upper Body Exercise 1
30 seconds break
Cardio Exercise 1
30 seconds break

1-minute break after 4th set

Block Two
Upper Body Exercise 2
30 seconds break
Cardio Exercise 2
30 seconds break

1-minute break after 4th set

Block 3
Upper Body Exercise 3
30 seconds break
Cardio Exercise 1
30 seconds break

I would always advise that each exercise you do is for a minimum of 10 reps.

Getting Serious

Sound too easy? Here are two examples of quite serious workouts that I like to do. If you find these difficult, you can reduce the number of sets to 2 or 3, or up the recovery time. You could also reduce the amount of workout blocks from 3 to 2. Oh, and the backpack isn’t necessary, obviously. These can also be scaled up a bit if you’re fitter than me, or loads and loads if you’re an absolute nutcase. These do me fine though.

1. Upper Body Day

Block One
Burpees x 10
20 seconds break
Triceps dips x 20 (30kg backpack)
20 seconds break

(Repeat x 4)

1-minute break after 4th set

Block Two
Squat jumps x 10 (30kg backpack)
20 seconds break
Presses x 20 (50kg weights)
20 seconds break

(Repeat x 4)

1-minute break after 4th set

Block 3
Swings x 20 (32kg kettlebell)
40 seconds break
Press-ups x 20 (30kg backpack)
40 seconds break

(Repeat x 4)

Total: 40 minutes, 4-500 calories

2. Leg Day

Block One

Squats x 20 (50kg weights)
Sit-ups (10/10/10 x 2 – total 60)
1-minute break

(Repeat x 4)

Block 2

Lunges x 20 each leg (30kg backpack)
Squat jumps x 20 (20kg backpack)
1-minute break

(Repeat x 4)

Block 3

Wall Sit x 1 minute
Plank x 1 minute
30 seconds break

(Repeat x 4)

Total: 50 minutes, 700 calories

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these. I’ll tell you what, though: this is but a drop in the ocean in terms of what you can do at home. If you want to hear more ideas and more work-out plans tailored to specific sports or strengthening specific muscle groups, drop me a message. If you have your own ideas, again, get in touch – I love adding more variation and changing things up whenever I can.

In the meantime, stay active, stay healthy and try and stay happy. It will get better.

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How to Work from Home, or “One Man and His Sofa”

Week 127 in the Richardson household. All gone dark. Last potato has melted. I hiss at birds now. Can’t remember if pants are clean. Finished 3rd back-to-back rerun megamarathon of Judge Judy. Hid from postman. Took some good pics though. Growing body of evidence that he is trying to kill me. Is that me I smell? I don’t know. Must go now. You know too much.

I’m pretty sure that if I asked 100 people, at least a decent handful of them would assume that my life closely resembles the above. But there is an element of truth: if Working From Home (WFH) is something you don’t get to do very often, it can be difficult to know how to behave. It can certainly end up going one of two ways: a cycle of procrastination, furious wanking, and daytime TV, or massive overkill through a deep-rooted, ingrained sense that being at home during the week is morally wrong. The bottom line, or my bottom line at least, is that neither of these is quite on the money – but it took me a while to learn new behaviours, understand new routines, and become comfortable with my situation.

But let’s be honest – it isn’t a few days, or a week of WFH that can cause problems. It’s a sustained period of it; the isolation, the silence, the tendency for motivation to wane and with it, routine. It’s for these reasons that I’m writing this, as a nation prepares to settle itself into my world for a while.

So, welcome! Get your slippers on, pour yourself a coffee, and start developing that ass groove. Of course, if you’re in week 1, you can disregard this and get back to fondling your balls (or equivalents) or rediscovering MTV, pogs, and weed… or whatever. But by week 3, you might find some of these tips useful, and it might cheer you to read this and remember that, no matter how uncertain things may feel, you are not alone.

1. Establish a routine, with regular breaks

The one perk I have allowed myself over the last couple years is not setting alarms. Now, this isn’t an option for everyone because you might have children / be obliged to get online at a certain time / sleep for 11 days uninterrupted if left alarm-free. What it has taught me, though, is that a body clock is a powerful thing. I’m always up and ready to work by 9:30am, unless I’ve seriously misbehaved the night before. I try and stick to a 9:30am start, with an 11am break for coffee, an hour or so to myself at 3 or 4pm, then a main meal break with the other half whenever she gets home. I usually work after she goes to bed, but I try and always finish up by 2am.

Of course, the beauty of WFH is flexibility. If I want to be out on a weeknight, I can – but I’ll have to work later to compensate for the lie in. If I want an afternoon nap, I can have one, but that extended evening time with the wife might get cut a bit short. I’ll always make time for breaks though. It’s easy to forget how often you get a screen break at work, just by having to go and speak to someone, make a coffee, or go to a meeting. WFH is intense – if you don’t enforce breaks, you can easily sit completely still in front of the same screen for 16 hours and end up with square, pixelated eyes.

I can also extend my afternoon time off for other things, like…

2. Take(ing) up a new hobby

All work and no play, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is, you have more time if you WFH. Consider the amount of time it takes you to get ready in the morning, get to work, make small talk with people you hate, go through your various non-work-but-at-work obligations, travel home, and get changed. Now, take that away. What’s left? Again, if you’re in weeks 1 or 2, what’s left will probably be absentmindedly staring at things, extending lie-ins, or taking much longer to do the simple stuff that previously took 2 minutes.

But once you get beyond a certain point, you’re going to get restless and feel unfulfilled. This will negatively impact your sleep, your work, and your general mood. So, take something up. Do those Masterclass videos, learn to knit, read Ulysses, or do what I do: channel excess energy into exercise. If I feel restless, I work out. Weights 3 or 4 times a week. Cardio once or twice. One really extended period of exercise. I’ve taken up running ultramarathons and discovered that running, and exercise in general, have such an incredibly positive impact on my mental health. I’d go so far as to say that they have saved my life.

You have the time. Use it fulfillingly (this is not really a word, but you know what I mean).

3. Build a new support network

As fulfilled as you might feel 16 miles into your trail run, or 16 scarves into your mission to singlehandedly clothe the country’s homeless, there are low points. The lack of human contact can be really fucking hard. For quite some time, I became the guy you could rely on to always be free for a midweek pint. “Yes, I’ll come, please pick me, I haven’t spoken to a human face to face for 2 weeks and I think I might have forgotten to articulate actual words”. This is expensive, unhealthy, and quite disruptive to a working routine.

I’m in my mid-30s now; my best friends have settled down, picked different suburbs, had children, and generally become as exceptionally boring as I am. So, we have a WhatsApp group. Some of us (hiya!) use it quite compulsively, but it is a window to the outside world, and to my friends. I lean on it heavily, and it has helped me on countless occasions when I have felt lonely.

4. Changes of scenery

The great irony of WFH is that you spend all your non-WFH years pining for the sofa and when it finally comes to you for an extended period of time, you start climbing the walls. This is what gardens, local parks, and dogging were made for (I haven’t seen an official government stance on this, so I assume it’s all systems go). Get up, go to a different room, or step outside the house for a bit. The power of fresh air and natural light shouldn’t be underestimated.

5. A pleasant atmosphere, with incentives

All those gripes you might have about the awful radio station choices, the uncomfortable chairs, and the shit coffee? Now is your time to take control. Get comfortable, treat yourself to decent food and drink whenever you want it, and choose your own music. Unless you’re really disciplined, you’ll likely find it hard to get in the work zone unless your surroundings look a bit like a workplace, so using a non-living room for work might be good. You might find it helps to get dressed, too. Personally, I go for house wear – tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt caked in filth. And a real guilty pleasure of mine is “Winne-the-Poohing,” when you put on a shirt and/or tie for a video call but are wearing pants / absolutely nothing below the waist. Just remember what the state of play is before you stand up too quickly!

For incentives, I say to myself “X is on at 2pm, so I need to get to point Y before I can allow myself to watch it,” or “Get through to midday and you can have a fancy coffee/restorative run/nap.” Or perhaps “Do 10 more pages and then you can get royally shitfaced and be sick into a bin.” It’s the little things that keep you going.

Anyway, regardless of your situation and the people around you, the next couple of months (and probably longer) are going to be extremely tough. Just remember to check in on those people who live alone, as solitary isolation can be a very complex mental challenge. Stay safe everyone and enjoy WFH!