I love a good challenge to set my mind to but I equally enjoy watching people face their own goals too. I adore watching TV shows with an element of self-reflection bringing about change – I binged the entire series of Queer Eye on Netflix – and I follow various home makeover blogs with what’s properly verging on a stalker-ish attitude. I guess it’s in part about living vicariously through others but equally finding things that are inspiring too.
Today, I’m sharing something that fits that mould. For the past couple of months I’ve been following local Edinburgh filmmaker, Richard Nicholls has he documents a series of challenges in the approach to his 40th year. To me, each of his challenges seems more insane than the last – but equally, has me wanting to mimic him too. I hope you enjoy reading. bit more about it from him.
The Weekly Challenge
In January this year I turned 39 years old. I’m not one for making a big song and dance about things, but the thought of turning 40 filled me with existential dread.
By all accounts, I am incredibly lucky. I live in the most beautiful city in the world (Edinburgh). I have a very loving and supportive family. I run my own filmmaking business and I love what I do. I have also been blessed with two beautiful boys; Jack (three) and Tom (one). Life is good. Or it should be…
I am loathe to admit it, but at the start of the year I had a nagging feeling of complacency. Was this to do with reluctantly having to accept middle age? Perhaps it was more to do with the pressures that come with parenthood. Either way, I ought to have been in the prime of my life.
On my 39th birthday I vowed to lead a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life. If that sounds a bit wishy – washy, that’s because it was! How exactly was I going to do this? By eliminating bad behaviours and trying out good new ones, one week at a time. There. That sounds good. That will do for the mission statement.
And so the idea of the ‘Weekly Challenge’ was born. In the year leading up to my 40th birthday I was going to take active steps to improve all areas of my life. The thinking was that these challenges would improve my self-discipline, increase my will power and eradicate my bad behaviours. Sounds good in theory, but this was going to require a monumental effort.
Oh, and I was going to vlog about my experiences whilst doing all of this. I have spent the last 17 years operating behind the camera, reluctantly making the odd appearance in family photos. For someone who had a big aversion to being in front of the lens, this was a big deal. The three years I spent studying Theatre Studies at Warwick University would finally come to fruition.
To date I have completed five weekly challenges. For the first challenge, I spent seven days waking up at 4.30am. I then tried to banish my addiction to Diet Coke by drinking nothing but three litres of water every day for a week. I followed this by embarking on my first physical challenge – I tried to run 10 kilometres every day for seven days. I have just completed seven days without a mobile phone and a week without sugar.
Quitting the White Stuff…
The week without sugar was especially tough. For someone who has as sweet a tooth as I have, going cold turkey was a shock to the system.
The week started with a trip to the supermarket. A carefully concealed Go Pro camera filmed the fresh, organic, sugar-free produce going into the trolley. There was to be no cheeky tub of Haagen-Dazs slipped into the trolley whilst meandering down the frozen aisle. Not this week.
A quick search online the night before starting this challenge confirmed that sugar is everywhere. It’s in everything and is very hard to avoid. For the purpose of the challenge, I decided that naturally occurring sugars (such as those found in fruit) were fine, but added sugars were not.
I also decided to cut out rice, pasta and bread for the week as well. Evening meals would be largely free of carbohydrates.
For breakfast I was going to have the same meal for seven days; a pint of water, a bowl of Shredded Wheat and a large coffee. Since curbing my addiction to Diet Coke, I now start each day by rehydrating myself with water. It’s not the nicest way to welcome the new day, but my body is very grateful.
For lunch on the first day, I decided to binge out on raw carrots. Rock and Roll! My son Jack has always loved carrot sticks and he’s got me hooked on them. Adding in a dollop of hummus, a couple of oatcakes and some grated cheese makes for a relatively healthy meal.
By dinner time, I’m ready to eat again. My dash round the supermarket was slightly ill-conceived. I simply threw a whole load of sugar-free items into the trolley without planning what I was going to eat each day. Tonight I plump for two sugar-free vegetarian burgers (minus the buns) with large servings of carrots and broccoli. Day one is complete and I can honestly say that I feel absolutely no different to normal.
By mid afternoon on the second day, I’m starting to notice a boost in my energy levels. When I banished my caffeine addiction I was amazed by how much more alert I felt during the day. I’m getting similar results by cutting out sugar.
I play five a side football on a Tuesday evening and tonight I feel like Forest Gump. I have so much energy, I can run up and down that astroturf all night. The lack of sugar is definitely having an effect.
Wednesday is Valentine’s Day and I encounter my first potential stumbling block. My wife Kirsty has [kindly] bought me a selection of finest Belgian chocolates. In fairness, she bought these in advance of knowing that I was going to take on this challenge. At the start of the week I emptied the house of all sweets and chocolate. Removing the temptation seemed like the only way to go. However, now I know that there are 15 love heart chocolates with my name on them lurking in the house. They look tantalisingly good. The remaining four days of the challenge will be a real test of will power.
Just because I’m undertaking a sugar-free week doesn’t mean that Kirsty should endure the same fate. For Valentine’s dinner, I cook chicken rarebit with carrots, tomatoes and broccoli. I drink water whilst she drinks a glass of Argentinian Malbec. I pass on dessert and watch her eat a chocolate brownie like a lost puppy pining for attention.
By the fourth day, I’m beginning to realise the folly of my ill-conceived meal plans. There’s not enough variety in my diet and lunch and breakfast feel monotonous. By mid-afternoon I don’t feel tired but I am hungry. I’m starting to devour cashew nuts and almonds like a ravenous squirrel.
The remaining evening meals consist of salmon, quorn fillets (twice) and quorn sausages. Each meal is garnished with lashings of carrots and broccoli and washed down with plenty of water.
By the end of the week I’m craving more variety in my diet and I can’t wait to open the Valentine’s Day chocolates.
Of all my weekly challenges, this was definitely one of the hardest. It was also one of the most satisfying to complete. Here are my key findings from a week without sugar:
- I lost more weight by cutting out sugar from my diet than I did by running 70 kilometres in seven days. This wasn’t something I had anticipated, but for me, clearly weight loss is controlled more effectively through diet than exercise.
- A week is a good amount of time to go without sugar. It’s long enough to make it a challenge but not so long that it becomes unbearable.
- Eliminating sugar gave me a lot more energy throughout the day. The dreaded afternoon slump was all but avoided.
- My sleep was greatly improved. I found it easier to get to sleep and it was less disturbed.
- Removing temptations in advance of the challenge is very important. Knowing that there are sweet treats within easy reach places great strain on your will power.
- Nuts are an extremely effective [sugar-free] way to curb hunger pangs between meals.
- It’s important to add lots of variety to your sugar-free diet. By day three I was wishing I had more alternatives for lunch and breakfast.
- Surviving the challenge will make you think more carefully about what you put into your body in the future.
- Once completed, you will sense how strong your will power is. For me, this made me believe that I can complete any challenge I set my mind to.