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"To me, those benefits are priceless!" Guest blog by @heleneraynsford

Regular guest blog by @HeleneRaynsford who is the 2008 Paralympic Gold Medalist & 2006 World Champion -Single Sculls (rowing). Now retired & working in Public Health. Recovering from Breast Cancer.

Exercise, sport, physical activity… whatever you want to call it, we know how we should be doing more of it just like we should eat more veg, less sugar, less fat, not smoke, drink less… etcetera.  Sometimes it can all sound like the perfect lifestyle to aspire to but it feels just a little bit tough to achieve with the modern busy lifestyle.  For me, my relationship with physical activity was strong from a young age.  I was that annoying child dancing up and down the isles in the super market!  When I was growing up I loved to dance and actually disliked sport, unless it was rounders, swimming or gymnastics.  

I went to the Royal Ballet School and for me being physically active was a career choice.  Sadly, I injured myself in my late teens and then went to pursue a career in medical sciences.  In my final year, I had an accident and it opened my eyes to the world of Paralympic sport.  I did not set out aspiring to be an athlete but just wanted to have some fun, keep fit, meet some new people and regain strength so I could keep as independent as much as I could.  To be honest, there was only so much longer I could tolerate my lovely Mum making “broom broom” car noises as she helped me push up steep slopes in my wheelchair!  What greater motivation does a 21 year old need to get fit! 

As a member of the GB Rowing Team, we trained 2/3 times a day 6 days a week at the Olympic and Paralympic training venue in Caversham.  It was a mix of rowing on the lake, on a rowing machine, weights, hand-biking, swimming and Pilates.  Following success at the World Championships in 2006 and Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008, I was forced to retire in 2010 as I injured my back meaning I needed titanium rods to hold it all together.  I returned to my career in public health and took up kayaking to try to keep fit. 

In early 2013, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, it runs in my family but naively I never thought it would happen to me.  I started six months of chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction.  Any surgical option was going to affect my mobility but thankfully I found a fantastic surgeon who understood how important it was for me to keep independent, as mobile as possible and still have the ability to exercise.  Currently exercise is taking the dog out or gentle swim as I am limited until my next surgery.  Often I feel like caving to the side effects of my ongoing treatment, taking the pain killers and hiding under the duvet.  BUT, gentle exercise really helps with the pain and means I am back at work doing the job I love and having a life where Cancer isn’t limiting me. 

In early December 2014, I will have what will hopefully be my last major surgery in this cancer journey.  I am making a real push for the next few weeks to increase my activity levels so I can hit the anesthetic and rehab after as fit as I can possibly be. 

Most people who know me associate activity with my gold medal from Beijing.  It was a great honor to have represented my country in sport but at the end of the day it is just sport.  “Being physically active has brought me independence, confidence and is now helping me improve my quality of life.  To me, those benefits are priceless!"



Blog moderated by Ann Gates, Founder of Exercise Works!


Overcoming Barriers to Exercise in the South Asian community

Guest blog via @bloominhealth

According to statistics, as a woman, over 40, a member of the black and minority ethnic (BME) community, of South Asian heritage and Muslim, I should be as good as stationary! But let’s be fair, it’s not just Asian women that are not active enough, trends indicate that women on the whole just don’t get enough exercise to be of benefit to health.

he thing is that I am bucking the trend along with a small minority of other women like me (a horrifyingly low 14% in my ethnic group). I know I have been able to overcome barriers because exercise has been a normal part of my family life for generations. I remember spending long summers in Lahore mimicking my grandfather’s Yoga positions and burning off the evening meal with daily brisk walks on the track at the Gymkhana. But this is the experience of a minority of UK Asians. For the vast majority, structured exercise is an alien activity, culturally irrelevant, undervalued and low priority. It is vital to normalise exercise in the South Asian community, after all, we really have drawn the short straw when it comes to genetics and health risks. Think diabetes and heart disease!

When you ask an Asian woman her reasons for not exercising, she will answer as most of the population would: time, work, family commitments, confidence, cost, boredom and motivation are some common complaints. These barriers exist everywhere, regardless of race or religion, but for certain communities there are deep-rooted, complex cultural influences on health behaviours  that make overcoming these barriers even more challenging. Much research has been done specifically on Asian communities providing a much needed insight for those involved in developing interventions to engage this “at-risk” group.

I think most sports and physical activity providers are now aware of what they need to do to engage faith groups, e.g. Muslim women, how they can provide culturally appropriate classes and how to improve the facilities they provide to engage and retain participants from the BME communities.

I don’t want to talk about all the negative barriers that prevent South Asians accessing exercise opportunities, or repeat the same old, well-known interventions but rather, I would like to share what I think really works and why! Let’s cut to the chase. I believe there are really two vital ingredients needed to facilitate overcoming all the other barriers:


The brutal truth is people will just not pay for something they do not value. Classes have to be free or low cost to engage and retain. Service providers must be subsided and supported by councils and public health organisations. Money pumped into these services will ease pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) in the long term.


This naturally takes care of many barriers. Female Asian instructors, who genuinely care about the community, will not have to study strategies and interventions to make their target market feel at ease. They can make classes fun, appropriate and culturally relevant quite naturally. They are trusted by the participants.

Role models are not just the amazing athletes and sports champions we see on TV, they are our mums, sisters and neighbours. Local instructors with no sporting background can be trained to provide fun accessible classes like Zumba, Nordic walking, cycling instruction, fitness classes, walk leaders etc. Women need to build their confidence and once they do, I think there will be no stopping them! Once women get moving they will be the ones ensuring their children get active too. Only members of the community can change a community, and a mother is the best place to start. 

Real world examples where these vital ingredients are actually being used to benefit the BME communities are Be Active Birmingham and Nur Fitness. 

Be Active, Birmingham

This hugely successful project is backed by Birmingham City Council and offers all Birmingham residents free sessions of swimming, group classes and gym sessions at various allotted times of the day.

Amazingly, 60% of participants are from BME communities. Why? Two vital interventions:

It’s FREE! Cost is a massive barrier for Asian communities many of whom live in the most deprived areas of the city. With deeply ingrained beliefs about family, cultural and religious duties being paramount, exercise is so low a priority that even a small cost is too large a barrier to cross. 

ROLE MODELS! Be Active has engaged with Saheli, a community fitness organization “dedicated to improving community health and wellbeing...” Founded by the Balsall Heath residents, and now a registered charity relying heavily on funding, it is managed and run by Asian men and women from the local area who are passionate about the service. By using Saheli to deliver exercise programmes, including the Active Parks programme, classes can be tailored to BME participants and role models gently and patiently build confidence over time and inspire women to try activities out of their comfort zone.

The latest great success has been engaging a group of Pakistani and Indian women in training for and participating in a half marathon. Brilliant! 

Nur Fitness, Middlesbrough

Shazia Noor, Co-Founder of Nur Fitness, an award-winning fitness company found herself “in the right place at the right time” when she was introduced to a key contact in Public Health who asked her to be involved in the Diabetes Prevention Programme. After securing funding for equipment, training and providing classes, ambitious and business-savvy Shazia now runs a very successful service which you can find out more about here. The key to this success


Heavily reliant upon external funding and sponsors, classes are either free or very low cost. As Shazia herself says “Without funding, I couldn’t run this business” 


Nur fitness trained 6 local women to become instructors which  effectively ensured the local women became interested in potential opportunities for their own development and participants became inspired and encouraged seeing their friends/daughters/ neighbours getting fitter

 “I quickly realised I needed instructors that different women could relate to: the older women, women who wear headscarves, young mums etc.”

Now looking to branch out to men, Shazia has trained her husband to provide classes to older men at the mosque! Great idea and again breaking down many barriers in one fell swoop!

Nur Instructors are not athletes or sports professionals, they are “just regular women” who have a deep understanding of the community and so they can provide fun, relaxed and informal classes tailored to Asian women using Bollywood music and locations that the women feel safe in. No-music classes are provided for the strictest Muslim women too. As women have grown in confidence and fitness, more challenging sessions are becoming popular (Insanity, Boot camp, Kettlebells).

The team are always encouraging and normalising exercise in terms of values that Asians hold in high regard: family, education and religion, getting that message across verbally in classes but also through a vibrant Facebook site, Ramadan campaigns and links with mosques and GP surgeries. Nur Fitness has been so successful that it has now become a key for public health organisations to access a group that they previously couldn’t. Through the classes, the instructors signpost the women and families to health checks, mental health services and cervical cancer campaigns

So, there are glimmers of hope for the future and showcases that are proving to be real beacons lighting the way forward. But we need more! And frankly, we need a motivated community fuelled by passionate individuals from those communities who are trained, encouraged and supported to provide fun exercise opportunities in accessible locations at a price that is affordable to those that need it the most.

Blog moderated by Ann Gates, Founder and Director of Exercise Works!


#Stoptober with Ann Gates from @exerciseworks

Exercise and smoking cessation

How to get started!

Smokers who exercise regularly are more likely to stop smoking, remain smoke-free, live longer and reduce their risks of other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis and poor mental health than those who try stopping and do not have an active lifestyle. Regular exercise has been shown to acutely reduce cigarette cravings. Smoking cessation services are effective in helping you stop smoking, so ask your doctor or healthcare professional for a referral for support and advice on how to stop smoking. An exercise training plan, as part of the smoking cessation services, may more than double the likelihood of you not smoking after 12 months. Regular exercise also helps reduce depression, stress, anxiety and helps improve low mood.

Heart-healthy exercise combined with strength, flexibility and balance exercises can help you maintain a healthy weight, help prevent obesity and keep your bones and joints healthy. Smoking increases the risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture, so strength and balance exercises are especially important to help you improve and maintain your bone health.

Inactivity has been shown to increase the risk of diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, so cut down the time you spend in front of the television and computer. Physical inactivity may be as dangerous for the heart as smoking a packet of cigarettes every dayso it’s important to increase your daily physical activity plan. Any type of regular physical activity is beneficial, especially brisk walking daily. Choose activities that you enjoy, can do with friends or family and fit into your life—there is a wide range to choose from!

If you have long-term health problems, discuss the most suitable ways to exercise with your doctor or healthcare provider to maximise your health benefits.

Take all medicines as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.

Warm up and cool down

Always start your exercise session with a 10-15-minute warm up to loosen up the muscles and raise the heart rate safely. Warm-up exercises include simple stretches, range-of-motion activities and beginning the activity at a low intensity. They can be done standing up, walking around, marching on the spot or seated.


Always end your exercise session with a 10–15-minute cool down to ensure your heart rate and breathing return to normal safely. Cool-down exercises include simple stretches and slowly decreasing the intensity of your activity. You should feel relaxed but energised after exercise!

The exercises!

Try walking more and sitting less!

Heart-healthy exercises – get your heart rate up!

How often:

Aim to exercise at least 5 days a week. If your fitness level is low, start with 23 times a week. Add more weekly sessions as your strength and stamina increase.

How hard:

Moderate to vigorous intensity—aim to get slightly breathless. If your fitness level is low, start gently and build up the intensity of your workout over time.

How long:

At least 30 minutes per session or 150 minutes in total per week. If your fitness level is low, start with 10 minutes and build up the duration by 10 minutes per session. Even short bursts of exercise are beneficial to your health—3 ×10 minute activity sessions can greatly improve your heart health.


Try walking, cycling, swimming, jogging, running, dancing and a variety of sports or leisure activities. Choose to get active as part of daily lifetake the stairs more and sit less!

What will it do for me?

Heart-healthy exercise helps you stop smoking. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces anxiety, depression, low mood and stress.

 Strength exercises – use your muscles!

How often:

Twice a week.

How hard:

Start with light weights or resistance exercises.

How many:

Choose a variety of 8-10 exercises targeting the upper and lower body, and repeat each exercise 10-15 times. Try 1-3 sets of each exercise.


Try free weights, resistance training or join a circuit class. Use your own body weight, dumbbells, bars or gym equipment. At home, try push-ups (floor or wall), squats, calf raises, arm curls, front arm raises, side arm raises, chair stands and knee curls. Use weights or a household item such as a water bottle. Recreational and social activities, such as ball games, improve strength and agility.

What will it do for me?

Regular strength training helps improve bone, muscle and joint health. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and gain self-confidence and self-esteem.

Flexibility exercises – stretch!

How often:

Twice a week.

How many:

Try 8-10 stretch exercises using the upper and lower body.

How long:

Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds.


Try Tai Chi, yoga, Pilates, swimming, certain martial arts or gentle home stretch exercises.

What will it do for me?

Regular stretch exercises are effective for reducing anxiety and enhancing relaxation. They also help promote and maintain bone, muscle and joint health.

Balance exercises – move with confidence!

How often:

Twice a week. Start with one session per week, if necessary, and gradually work towards two.

How many:

Choose 2-3 balance exercises and repeat each exercise 10-15 times.

How long:

Hold each balance for 10-30 seconds.


Try yoga, Tai Chi or home balance exercises. If you are at high risk of falling, do seated balance exercises and progress to standing exercises when you have gained strength and confidence.

What will it do for me?

Practising balance exercises helps to train your body to react more quickly to impending balance loss.

Your exercise, your way!

Choose activities that are easy to start with and that you enjoy. Exercise with friends and family, join a group class or ask about exercise support from the smoking cessation service. Try exercising both indoors and outdoors and see which you prefer!

Exercise safety

Ask your doctor or contact your local smoking cessation services on how to exercise safely and how to maintain an exercise plan.

  1. Aim to get slightly out of breath, but exercise sensibly and stop the activity if you feel unwell.
  2. Always wear comfortable clothing and shoes that give good support. Take frequent breaks if necessary, and drink water before, during and after exercise.

Copyright on all materials and design by @exerciseworks Exercise-Works Limited. 2012.