My debut fantasy novel, The Archguardians of Laceria, can now be read on Nook, Kobo and other ePub readers!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

5 Tips To Nail Your Fitness Regime

   Between holding down a job, caring for your family and generally having a life, it can be tough to stay on track when it comes to exercising. So that you don’t fall into a fitness rut, here are five simple, handy tips that might help you stick to your regime and obtain the health you deserve.

1. Set small, obtainable goals
   Setting attainable and realistic goals is a great way to keep your fitness plan on course. This doesn't mean 'bikini body in 8 weeks' or 'lose 3 stone', it means small, obtainable goals that you adjust when you reach.
   It's best to start small and focus on activity rather than results. If you go from being sedentary to active, then you will see results whether you focus on them or not. So, for example, you might aim to go for a swim three days a week, or complete a 5k run. These are small and realistic goals that you'll reach in time and will encourage your dedication to fitness. A great way to track these challenges is through use of a FitBit fitness watch. This and products like it can keep track of your progress - steps taken, distance travelled and so on - so you know precisely where you are and how far to go to reach your goal. You'll also have a clearer idea on your personal bests and be in a better position to smash them every single day. FitBits are available in a range of high street stores and online from retailers such as Lloyds Online Pharmacy.

2. Make it fun
   If you’re struggling for motivation, you may benefit from injecting a little fun into your exercise routine. Working out shouldn't be boring, and it's not all running, cycling, swimming and step aerobics. If you love those sports, great, stick with them, but if they don't make you want to move, try looking into sports and activities that you find enjoyable, or the ideas of which appeal to you. While some people might get a kick from lifting weights - I certainly do - you may find that ballroom dancing or martial arts is more your cup of tea. And if heading out to a class or a gym fills you with dread, A Blackbird's Epiphany is full of workout DVD reviews in all kinds of genres: kettlebells, kickboxing, African dance, barre - even Irish step dance! Don't limit your mind! See it as an opportunity to learn something you've always wanted to!

3. Create a workout playlist
   It's been proven that music makes you work out harder, and that's not just because you fancy yourself Rocky, it's because it also takes your mind off of lactic acid, struggles and boredom from over-use. So, the best way to stay focused during your workouts and make them more fun, is to put together a workout playlist, or find music that works for you. These days there are loads of convenient little straps and belts that hold your smartphone, your keys and whatnot, and tangle-free earphones, so listening to music on a run or kickboxing session doesn't have to be the mess it used to be. And use whatever works. For me, that's Two Steps From Hell, game soundtracks (The Witcher is my go-to), and Asian music - it all depends on what I'm doing. But if you prefer more mainstream music, take a look at the countless workout mix albums on Amazon.

4. Get others involved
   Whether you visit the gym with a friend, go for a run with your partner or simply kick a ball about in the backyard with your kids, getting others involved is a great way to stick to your fitness schedule. Recruiting your friends and family not only makes it more fun for you, but also benefits everyone’s health. It also makes it harder to make excuses because it's not just yourself you're ultimately inconveniencing by cancelling, it's the friend who set aside time to train with you.
   But, if you're enlisting a workout buddy for running or high-impact sports, there is one important rule that you would both have to adhere to: don't compare yourself to each other. Some people are more flexible than others by design, others through sports hobbies in their past. As a result, you may not both be starting from square one, but that doesn't mean you have to give up, or push yourself too hard to catch up or hold yourself back for the other. Just remember that everyone is different.

5. Attend a class
   If you're more of a pack animal than a lone hunter, a class may be better for you than going it alone. Melting into a mass of people in a class where you are one of thirty faces means you can get the social vibe without drawing attention to yourself. And classes also mean you can get direct help if your form is off, you'll know right away what you're doing wrong, and you also have access to kit and instruction you won't get from DVDs. I'd love to flip tyres, but I can't do that in my living room.
   And there is a class for everything, and just about every alternative take - yoga? How about hot yoga, prenatal yoga, aqua yoga, suspended yoga, Afrikan yoga? The sky is the limit. Just check out your local gym or sports recreation centre to see what’s on in your area - or, if you're up for a commute for that uniquely epic workout, check out the websites of tribe fitness - Buti yoga, Pound and so on - and see if there's a class near you.

Monday, 26 September 2016

My Health & Fitness Travel Essentials

   I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago that I was going on holiday, at long last, with Seeg and his parents. We're off to Texel Island, one of the dotty islands that arc over the northernmost part of the Netherlands, and we'll be there for about 4 days before heading back to the mainland and staying in his parents' place in Arnhem for the last three. It's going to be a simple week of walking and fresh air, and I can't wait.
   But holiday though it may be, I'm still a health and fitness nut so there are a few travel must-haves that I always gather up before I go - you know, for the one week of the year that I'm actually not in my house.
   But there are a few things I consider essentials that are impractical to take away - a 30-serving jar of matcha, lots of vitamin bottles and so on, for example, are not practical - and I've managed to find travel-friendly alternatives to satisfy my vanity and I wanted to share them with you all.
   So, rather than make a fake 'what's in my bag' post - because the lack of tampons and the like suggest that the vast majority of those posts are not actually genuine - I thought I'd share my health and fitness travel essentials, and other very vital bits and bobs!

   Tea. A cup of matcha a day is a habit I've made that I don't like to break, and though I usually use PureChimp or ClearSpring for my matcha, Teapigs are more travel-friendly with their single serving matcha sachets. They won't break like a glass jar, and neither are they bulky or heavy. They are perfect for your handbag, too, so you're not limited to drinking it at the hotel/bungalow.

   Vitamins. I typically use a variety of supplements in the morning: a probiotic, garlic, omega-3, magnesium & calcium (pre-workout), magnesium (post-workout), iodine, vitamin D and, later in the day, a multi-vitamin. It's not practical to bring all my little bottles, but Vitl, who I reviewed here some time ago, are actually perfect for travelling. They supply a powerful multivitamin, Omega-3, greens and Q10 for skin health in daily serving strips. They're in small, flat packaging which keeps them really travel-friendly.
   I do still bring magnesium, but typically in a much smaller tub and only a few more than I need. I obsess over magnesium because I suffer from migraines, and I found that increasing my intake of magnesium has done wonders for holding them at bay. I used to get a few migraines every month, now the ratio has flipped to about one migraine every two or three months.

   Nibbles. Ohso are great. I've been meaning to review them for some time, but I never seem to remember to do it! They're tiny little chocolate bars - about 13g - full of pro-biotics, and the no added sugar ones are just 63 calories. They're Belgian chocolate, not raw, and are so creamy. They're delicious! But they're also so small that you simply can't feel guilty, and the pro-biotics - what other chocolate has probiotics?! - also mean you're doing your tummy good. They're tiny chocolate bars which also means they're just as handbag-friendly as teapigs matcha sachets, and can be a welcome little pick-me-up on the go, or as something to tide you over if your tummy is rumbling and dinner is still an hour off. They're also in plain and fruity flavours. The raspberry one is the best.
   I've got enough of these to share - two boxes of 14 8.5g bars, one in original and one in orange, both of which are 43 calories each - because it's rude to carry these adorable little tasties in my bag on a walking holiday with three other people if I'm just going to scoff them myself.

   Teeny tiny toiletries. This is a no-brainer, but because shower time is one of my favourite times of the day, I do shrink my toiletries but I don't compromise on the good stuff. Lush have tiny bottles of shower gel and shampoo - even dry shampoo - which are really travel-friendly, good for your hair and skin and are guaranteed to leave you feeling clean even in alien bathrooms.

   Toothbrush. The reason I bring this up is because...well, I lost my travel toothbrush and thought it was a good idea to replace it, which I did with Nano-B. It comes in a handy travel case, so I don't have to worry about it rubbing against everything else in my toiletry bag, but its bristles are also gold and bamboo - yes, gold - which helps to fight off bacteria, keeping your brush and your mouth forever nice and clean.

   Resistance bands. I can't keep still. I must get in a workout, and while it's true that your own body weight can be the most effective tool even for resistance, resistance bands are nice for some pilates and yoga moves, and stretches, the latter of which is a huge part of my post-travel evenings. Because travelling is stressful and it's a nice way to release tension before dinner or bed, and if you're less tense, you're also better company.
   And though I prefer big, long and dynamic workouts, since I'm more active on vacation all throughout the day, I use pilates workouts in the mornings for half an hour. I've got two sequences I've put together using Blogilates and Cassey Ho's pilates book, one upper body, one lower, and I use them on alternating days, and it works really well for me.

   Travel laptop, for the work I won't get done. But it's so small, just 11 inches, that if I don't manage to get any writing done in my downtime, which comes about if Seeg goes to play video games with the boys, then at least I've not lugged it around for nothing. It's also my only reach back into the world while I'm on holiday, and while it's true that I barely use the internet for more than half an hour a day on vacation, it's also my only access to my Etsy shop - responding to customer messages and the like. In such a case, I can't be without it, especially with Christmas just around the corner.

   A book. I'm the kind of person that says "if I have time to read, I have time to write" so I don't actually get much reading done. The only time I do is for about 30-45 minutes in bed on a Sunday morning, but flights and sitting around in airports mean I get an additional chance. Right now I'm reading 'The Tamuli' by David Eddings and I've just about finished the first book in that trilogy.

Bag: Mipac     Book: The Tamuli     Resistance bands: USA Pro     Laptop: HP Stream
Tiny probiotic chocolate bars: Ohso     Matcha sachets: teapigs     Water bottle: Sigg
Travel vitamins: Vitl     Toothbrush: Nano-B      Tiny toiletries: Lush   

Sunday, 18 September 2016

BarreAmped Cardio Burn - 2 Weeks Later

Day One Impression:
...What the actual hell? How can this be so hard? How can I be sweating like this after five minutes?! It's as if I've been at it for half an hour! Where's the towel?!

   So I've been using BarreAmped Cardio Burn for two weeks now, and I have got to say that it has surprised me. I wasn't sure how barre could be combined with cardio very effectively because, based on the previous BarreAmped DVD I used, it consisted of very small, controlled movements that create a great muscular burn and really does sculpt the body, but it was difficult to miss the fact that you barely broke a sweat. I thought this might be more like barre-inspired step aerobics really.
   I was so wrong.
   The first of the three workouts on this DVD is definitely the most effective. It lasts for 26 minutes and uses tight body weight movements, more dynamic than what I'd seen in the original BarreAmped, but it uses them in a Tabata format.
   Now, I'll admit that 'Tabata' is a pet peeve of mine. Tabata itself is a workout style formulated by Dr. Izumi Tabata, a Japanese physician and researcher, and is designed to last for 4 minutes - 8 rounds of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. The thing is, it's the ultimate form of HIIT and you're supposed to go like a bat out of hell, set alight and pursued by winged night snakes. In short: it is supposed to last 4 minutes and only 4 minutes; you're not supposed to have the energy to do any more after that. Most 'Tabata' workouts you see last for 20-25 minutes and are made up of 20/10 second sets, and this workout is no different, which means you have to tone down the effort if you're to last the whole thing.
   However, this means that, after two weeks, my only gripe is a technicality. Because 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest does work, even with barre, and I couldn't believe how much I was sweating after just 5 minutes, and that wasn't just because I had doubts. I was sweating more from 5 minutes of BarreAmped Cardio Burn than I was in 5 minutes of pretty much anything else. I was genuinely shocked, and for that I can and have overlooked that pet peeve.
   Mercifully, the Tabata circuits are broken up with more traditional barre moves to give your heart rate a chance to drop again, subsequently setting you back up for the next Tabata circuit and giving you more balance and resistance moves.

   The second workout uses small weights and intervals and lasts for 17 minutes. It's not as intense as the first, but you still get a good sweat and lots of dynamic movements. The weights are there really to make the cardio more intense, it's not honey-badger-brutal like the weighted workout in the original BarreAmped DVD.
   The third is an interval- core-based cardio workout and also lasts 17 minutes, but while it's the least intense, it's still very effective and it's not full of crunches (it's core, not abs) which means you do still move a lot and get a better-than-expected sweat.

   So, to be honest, I'm very pleasantly surprised and very, very confident in this month's choice. While I thought highly of Suzanne Bowen and her original BarreAmped DVD, I actually only have greater respect and love for her now.
   I'll report back again in 2 weeks!

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Gathr's Crobar

   There are many different raw fruit bars on the market these days, and while they're all delicious, they don't really offer anything new from one another, except perhaps the range of flavours. And while protein has been getting its foot in the door on these fruit bars, they're pretty much all provided through soya - a plant-based protein which isn't used as efficiently in the body as animal-based protein. Why? Because we are not plants; the proteins don't have the same structure.
   And, while this might seem like a random little side-thought, it is relevant. I've been reading an irritating amount about 'flexitarian', which is really just a band-wagon term for 'I eat like a normal person'. I was talking to Seeg about this last month, and I remember specifically saying "show me an 'insectarian' and I'll be impressed".

   Gathr produce crobars, fruit bars in the usual flavours - raspberry & cacao, coffee & vanilla, plain cacao, and plain peanut - and they have a protein hit, too. But they're bringing something different to the table (and this is where my anecdote becomes relevant): cricket flour.
   Cricket flour is what it sounds like. It's dried and ground-up crickets. Now, this might sound disgusting to western cultures - when would we ever voluntarily eat insects? - but they actually make up a good portion of the diet of many different people because it is abundant, a brilliant source of vitamins and animal protein, very easily farmed and ultimately sustainable. It also has a vaguely nutty flavour - and I've heard tarantulas taste a bit like crab.

   Cricket flour is a good alternative to both soya and whey protein in fruit bars. Soya protein is plant-based, which means it has a different molecular structure and so our bodies have to alter it before it can use it, and that loses a bit of it in the process, meaning '10g of soy protein' is not actually 10g of protein. Whey is better because it's sourced from milk during cheese production (it's the liquid left over after milk has been curdled and strained) which makes it an animal-product and is biologically designed to be consumed and put to use by animals, making it molecularly more wholesome than plant-based protein.
   Crickets might not seem quite the same as a cow or an egg, but even insects provide better protein than animal-products (foodstuffs created by animals rather than from animals). In a 100 calorie serving of cricket flour there is 15g of protein and 4g of fat, compared to 11g protein and 8g of fat in beef. They also contain all 9 amino acids, 3 times more iron, 5 times more magnesium and 2 times more zinc than beef, and high levels of vitamin B12 which can't be obtained through plants. Cricket flour's high macro and micronutrient content is due to the fact that the whole animal is eaten, which also means less waste.

   As for the bars themselves, I admit I was hesitant to take the first bite, but I was curious enough to go for it and I'm glad I did. There was a vaguely nuttier taste to the bar than there is to other brands, but it was subtle. I don't know if I noticed it more on the first bar - raspberry & cacao - or if I was just looking for it, but the second bar - coffee & vanilla - I barely noticed it because I didn't think about it.
   They have the same pleasant texture as any other fruit bar, but they provide about 1.5g more protein, 5g less carbs, and 3g more healthy fats than other equivalent fruit bars. Fibre is the only thing that doesn't vary. The flavours are also more interesting than other bars. And while the packaging might not be relevant to the goodness of the bars themselves, it's worth pointing out how pretty the designs are.
   I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking for an easy yet quite unusual way to add a little more variety to their diet. At 130 calories for a 30g bar and 190 for a 40g bar, it can easily be incorporated into calorie-restricted diets, with 13g they can be consumed on low-carb diets, and with almost 5g of protein it's great for those of us looking to up our protein intake - and you can rest assured that you're getting what you want from it more than you would from soya protein snacks.

   Gathr also provide cricket flour as-is, which you can use in baking, drinks and general consumption. It's not difficult to use - if I'm honest, after having tried these bars, I'm tempted to buy some flour, too, just to see what I can do with it.

   Try something very different today and pick up some Crobars for 20% off with the code CSC20EN. Pick up a sample box or take the leap (hehehe) and buy a full box - I highly recommend the raspberry & cacao flavour!

Disclaimer: I was sent this product to review by the brand itself. The quantity and precise products sent were their choice, not my own. All opinions and images are my own, and all appropriate research has been done by myself from a range of sources rather than relying entirely on the product's website, especially where health products are concerned. I do not accept a product to review if I do not believe it is safe or worth my own time, regardless of any kind of reimbursement. I trial the products for an appropriate amount of time before writing reviews to check for wear-and-tear on physical items and side effects from edible (be it supplements or food). If I have negative points to voice, I will voice them, and I never, ever accept product reviews or reimbursement on the promise of a positive review. My reviews are and will only ever be honest.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Winding Up & Winding Down

   It's been so long since I've written a personal post, and to be honest, I'd like to do it a little more often. I talk so much about health and fitness but it's so easy to overlook mental health, and sometimes just talking about things - even to people who aren't listening - can be a big help to get thoughts in order. That's not to say I'm going to be doing it every week, but a personal monthly update wouldn't hurt, would it?

   So, lately I've been working a lot on my book, and it's been going really well. I decided before I started that it would be a two-part story rather than one long book, and I've almost finished the first half of the story - so the first book. I have no intention of publishing it until the whole story is finished, though, because I have a tendancy to change little details here and there and I want to keep that freedom where I can.
   It's late in the story, but I also just introduced the final character, and I was really worried about how she would come across. The first encounter is a vulnerable one but I didn't want first impressions of her to be weak and timid, and I'm surprised and proud to be able to say with great confidence that I've nailed it. Her introduction is, to my mind, perfect. The trouble with first impressions is that, while I can rewrite it for the reader, I can't rewrite it for myself, so a lot gets set in stone when I first meet her. So far, I've not introduced a single character badly, all have been as intended, and I think that that might be down to the decision I made to write a short story for those I felt the least comfortable with before I even started writing the book.
   But while I've been working on this, I've been thinking over The Archguardians of Laceria a lot, and I'm seeing so many problems with it. But of course I'm going to find problems with it in hindsight! Because I can't take the book back and make changes, all I can see are the bad things, and I know that I'm just looking for them. I was so proud of it when I'd finished it, and I've lost that feeling now because of the fear of putting myself out there. Not that I regret it, in fact I just released the book as ePub for download on Nook, Kobo and other ePub ereaders!
   Fortunately, however, while there are a few blaring mistakes I made in that book, I have absolutely not made them this time around. The biggest issue I had was that, at times, I worried the story was moving too fast so I started trying to drag it out, or that I'd forget that character development happens in the story, not outside of it. I'm hoping that these are things that don't stand out too much to the reader, but to me, they're now like enormous neon lights with megaphones shouting 'YOU'RE A TERRIBLE WRITER!'
   But, as I've said, I'm very, very, very aware of these issues, and I can say with confidence that I've not succumbed to them this time around in the slightest. You just have to keep learning as you go along. I'm sure I'll learn a few lessons from the book I'm writing now, despite the fact that I'm immensely confident about it.

Christmas Shop Prep
   Aside from writing, I've also been really busy with prepping my shop for Christmas. Last year I was able to add new pre-made stock because my gallery exhibit ended in October and I had a few leftover pieces, and while I made more sales last Christmas than any year before, I had less work because a lot of the pieces were already totally finished. I decided that that had worked out really well, so this year I've been trying to make sure I make at least one new animal a month, and a few of each, and fixing them in jars and everything so that, come October/November, I can list them all and have a hopefully easier December. And of course the less work for my shop, the more time for my book.
   I'm trying to prep the blog, too - I've already started on gift guides - but while I usually participate in NaBloPoMo in November, I'm not sure it's happening this time. I'm not ruling it out, but it's always so hard to come up with good content every single day, so for the first time in 4 years I might give it a miss.

   Fortunately, while I've been super busy, I've also had a good distraction. World of Warcraft released their newest expansion which addresses the biggest threat the story has faced, and it's a threat that has been present since the first Warcraft game way back in 1994 - unsurprisingly, a huge number of players have returned, and it's actually the prettiest and most interesting expansion yet. I'm not racing through it to get to maximum level like I used to; Seeg and I are playing it together, levelling our warlocks side by side, and after 12 days we are level 106 (Legion added 10 levels, raising max level from 100 to 110). I've been levelling my hunter by myself, but I refuse to let her out-level my warlock, so when she reaches the same level, I tend to back off and do something else.

   And that's not the only wind-down news. Being a full-time carer for my mum, I still live with my parents. Yes, it is a bit awkward with my boyfriend living with us too, but we all get along well enough. But for two weeks out of the year they go on holiday and leave the house to us, and that means late night video games, takeaway pizza, decadent or complicated homecooked meals we can't usually make because it's tricky feeding my mum as it is (which means everything from spaghetti to okonomiyaki is on the menu for two weeks every year), and, of course, not having to look after anyone and subsequently be unable to get into anything in case I'm needed all of a sudden. Which does happen a lot. But this week they are away, and so I've got the time and space to breathe and just do whatever the hell I want.
   And then in the first week of October, Seeg and I are going away! We're off with his parents - we see them probably twice a year for a week at a time, too - to Texel Island, one of the little islands at the top of The Netherlands. It's mostly sand, so there's nothing and no one there, so it's going to be a great little retreat. I can get away from my routine and clock-dominated lifestyle, and I'm looking forward to it so much. I'll get the chance to wind down and get my head in order before Christmas orders start coming in late October.

   So that's been my life lately, a tangle of stress and well-timed distractions. And, to be honest, writing all this out and just updating the blog about it, relevant or not, has helped me to map out my head. I've been really stressed over my book and my shop, and they branch in so many directions that it feels like there's a lot more I'm stressing over than I am, so it's nice to know that it's actually simple and totally in my hands, for the most part, and it's a nice reminder that I have plenty of escapism - mental and physical. The getaway to Texel is a great thing, too, because I am the kind of person that just can't sit down and do nothing, so a holiday in the middle of nowhere, away from my priorities, will force me to slow down, and if things are going to speed up October-December like they usually do, I'll need the pre-Christmas breathing. Post-Christmas happens on its own.

   How has everyone else been?