Heart and Soul

“Normally about the size of your fist (unless you’re Donald Trump)”

To say our bodies are complicated is somewhat of an understatement. The number of processes each one carries out every second is staggering. From managing all the thoughts racing through your brain, digesting last night’s dinner, pumping oxygen into the blood from the outside world and contracting a select group of muscles just to stop you from falling over, it is in perpetual activity even if it doesn’t always seem like it. The organs of the body take on all these different roles, each one vital to the workings of all the others.

For now, however, I will focus on one of the most vital of all our organs – the heart. For obvious reasons, it is pretty useful. With every beat, it pumps blood into the arteries taking with it all the vital components of the blood into your tissues and all the other organs of the body as well. Indeed so vital is its role that it is little wonder it has adopted an almost spiritual role. We’re often told to follow our hearts – though this makes little sense in literal terms – and apparently that’s where home is as well. Part of the reason the Aztecs most commonly extracted people’s hearts as a form of sacrifice was their belief that it was the seat of the individual, more so than the brain, a belief shared by classical philosophers such as Aristotle.

In reality, the only bearing it has on our thinking and individuality is in its relationship with the brain – without the heart, the brain would be nothing. Normally about the size of your fist (unless you’re Donald Trump), it is made up mostly of muscle and comprises four chambers. Two of these called the atria and these sit atop the two larger ventricles, which do most of the pumping. The right atrium and ventricle take returning blood from the veins of the body and send it straight out to the lungs to be resupplied with oxygen. From there, the blood returns to the left atrium and then left ventricle, where it is given a final push into the body to do all of its good work. Generally it takes around 20 seconds for blood to circulate round the body before it gets back to the right atrium again.   

To prevent back flow, there are several valves and, as these close, they cause the characteristic sound of your heart beating that we can listen to more closely using a stethoscope. Often we can pick up whether there is a bit of turbulence in the system if the valves are not functioning properly – ie a heart murmur.

If all is well, your heart will beat regularly and the signal for this comes from within the heart itself, from a collection of cells in the atria (called the sino-atrial node). Electrical impulses originate from here and spread like a circuit through the heart tissue, making the muscles contract in time with each other. In a lifetime, you can expect your heart to beat around 3 billion times, or 115,000 times a day. When the tissue that conducts these electrical impulses throughout the heart muscle is damaged, this can sometimes result in funny rhythms, or arrhythmias, of which there is a spectrum varying from serious to not so serious. Ultimately, the beating of the heart is governed ‘in house’ and though signals from the brain can stimulate it to speed up and slow down, the rhythm originates from the heart itself which is why, if a heart is removed from the body, it will continue to beat on its own for a little while.

Inevitably with such an important role, when things go wrong, we tend to know about it. In the past, infectious disease tended to be the leading cause of death but, since the middle of the last century, heart disease rose considerably, overtaking infectious disease (certainly in the developed world) as the biggest killer. However, due to plenty of research and advances in healthcare, in the last 15 years death rates from heart disease and stroke have reduced by about 50%. It is still the leading cause of death in males between the ages of 50 -79 years old and, though more common in men, heart disease is something we should all, including women, be thinking about.

Heart disease is a term thrown around a lot but what is it exactly? It falls into a broader category of cardiovascular disease which encompasses things like stroke as well. Essentially the main issue for any cardiovascular disease is the process in which arteries become blocked resulting in loss of blood flow to the areas these arteries supply. When the area that blocked arteries supply is heart muscle, we call this ischaemic heart disease. (Most strokes occur when blood supply is blocked to a part of the brain).

When an artery supplying heart muscle (coronary artery) is partially blocked, the heart needs to work harder as one exerts oneself. If the supply cannot meet the demand, this gives rise to chest pain which resolves when rested. This is angina.

When a coronary artery becomes blocked and blood supply is cut off completely, this results in chest pain not relieved by rest (often accompanied by nausea, shortness of breath, sweating and a feeling of impending doom), and areas of heart muscle can die. This is a heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction. (myo = muscle, cardia = heart)

Following damage or weakening of the heart muscle (sometimes due to valve problems), the heart sometimes beats less powerfully than before and can result in reduced cardiac output that doesn’t meet the normal demands of the body. This can result in fluid build-up in the legs and reduced exercise tolerance and is known as heart failure.

The process that blocks the arteries is known as atherosclerosis which is essentially a build-up of fatty material that circulates inside your blood vessels. Over time, this atheroma gradually accumulates, like a natural dam in a stream, and restricts the blood flow, often without any symptoms until the last minute. Like many things there is no one cause for this but rather a group of risk factors that are commonly preached about by healthcare professionals but that are worth repeating here.

Smoking (stop it!)

Inadequate physical activity

Poor diet

Obesity

High blood pressure (the higher the blood pressure in the blood vessels, the harder the heart has to pump to push the blood around, inducing extra strain that can damage heart muscle over a period of time, not to mention increasing the chance of blood vessels blocking)

High cholesterol

All of these are things that can be managed and optimised and are extremely important to consider, particularly if you have a family history of heart disease. If you are concerned about any of the above, it is always best to come and have a chat with your GP to talk about the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. Having a healthy heart doesn’t need to be more complicated than addressing the above factors and prevention is always better than the cure.

Dark Pines

One of the most enjoyable novels I have read for a while. Perfectly paced, interesting characters and a genuinely good story. Also interesting, having just read a book on hearing loss, that the main character has to wear hearing aids. I didn’t plan that!

Love the author, Will Dean’s, bio as well… Having settled in rural Sweden, “he built a wooden house in a boggy clearing at the centre of a vast elk forest, and it’s from this base that he compulsively reads and writes.”

Good man.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Giles Milton paints an heroic picture of the incredible operations and missions carried out during WWII. An interesting read just after the Codemaker’s War as it deals with a lot of the same organisations from a very different angle.

 

Exercise

“Fit and fat is better than being unfit and thin.”

Forget pills, staying active is the best medication.
After-all, when it comes to being healthy, there is almost nothing else that comes near it in terms of its effectiveness.

There is a quote from a health promotion consultant called Dr Nick Cavill that seems to pop up more and more regularly these days – ‘If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost effective drugs ever invented.’ When you look at the statistics, it is difficult to disagree.

There is strong evidence to suggest that exercise reduces the risk of the following conditions by the following percentages…

Coronary artery disease and stroke – 35%
Type 2 Diabetes – 50%
Colon cancer – 50%
Breast cancer – 20%
Osteoarthritis – 83%
Depression – 30%
Dementia – 30%
Hip fractures – 68%
Falls in older adults – 30%

These are not insignificant numbers as I’m sure you will appreciate. Exercise really is good stuff and also helps with self esteem, sleep quality and energy levels.
The government’s aim is for everyone to be doing around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. Moderate exercise is something that essentially causes you to breath faster, increase your heart rate and feel warmer – a good way to gauge it is if you are breathing too heavily to sing the words to a song. Examples might be going for a brisk walk or hike or playing a game of volley ball. Only half of us in the UK are reaching that target. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to consider the effect it would have of all of us matching this target on the mortality rates for all of the conditions above.

It goes deeper than this though. We are a species that evolved as hunter gatherers, constantly on the move, but in world with televisions and remote controls, motorised vehicles, and robots that do your hoovering for you, it comes as no surprise that we are suffering from the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. As such, even if we are reaching our exercise targets, if we spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down (and the average person in the UK sits for 7 hours a day, 10 hours if you’re over 65 years old) then those benefits are lost or at least have less impact on the risk of adverse health conditions.

It is therefore key for us to move about every now and again even if we’re not exercising. The recommendation is that every half an hour, we should get up and move about for 2-3 minutes. Practically I know sometimes it may seem difficult but actually when you think about it, is it really? Sometimes only the smallest things need adjusting to achieve this, whether it be an agreement with your boss to get up and walk around the office once in a while or maybe even (as horrifying as this sounds) keeping the remote in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Essentially we’ve all got a bit lazy and our bodies are experiencing the consequences.

For those thinking, ‘well my knee hurts too much for me to do any exercise’, or ‘the local volley ball court is too far away,’ I’m afraid that’s no excuse. Remember, moderate aerobic exercise is anything that gets you breathing and increases your heart rate, so if your knee hurts, do some swimming or even some armchair aerobics, likewise if you can’t get to your local sports centre easily, go for a brisk walk down the road or around the garden for 30 minutes every day. There is a mode of exercise for almost everyone.

Why does exercise and activity help you may ask? Recently, research has revealed quite in depth benefits that we were previously unaware of. Much of this has to do with the anti-inflammatory effects of activity. At the cellular level, our bodies are in constant turnover. Each cell in our body has something called a mitochondria which is essentially a mini power plant. It is here that we produce energy to be used in various processes throughout the body. Each mitochondria will build up a charge and if we are not using energy, they stay charged. The longer they do, bits of charge will gradually escape in the form of ‘free radicals’. These free radicals are bad news and contribute to cell and mitochondrial damage, aiding the ageing process and generally making us less healthy. It is thought that this process causes microscopic inflammation throughout the body.

Activity and exercise helps by utilising this energy and preventing release of free radicals but also produces anti-inflammatory substances from muscle that help to mediate the inflammation at a cellular level. That is not to mention its effect in increasing insulin sensitivity of cells, reducing risk of conditions like diabetes, along with strengthening heart muscle to reduce average heart rates and contributing to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

There is a lot of focus these days on weight loss when it comes to exercise. This is quite a damaging concept and is reinforced by many commercial diet plans and courses. Although it is important to maintain a good weight and avoid obesity, weight loss is not the be all and end all. There are two types of fat. Subcutaneous fat (sub – beneath; cutaneous – skin) is the stuff that pads out our waist lines and is the most visible. However, arguably far more important is the fat that surrounds our organs like the liver and the heart. This is called visceral fat (viscera meant ‘internal’ in latin) and build-up of this visceral fat has significant implications for our general health. Even if our exercise seems to be doing nothing to our subcutaneous fat, it will be having far greater effects on our visceral fat and this is very important. Therefore we mustn’t measure the success of our exercise or indeed any form of activity with weight loss. Fit and fat is better than being unfit and thin.

Words and Stuff

‘… as good as some words are, defenestrate (to throw someone through a window) being my favourite one ever, I am not sure I will ever get away with using it.’

I’ve been thinking about words this week. Why, you ask? Partly because I was reminiscing about the word I invented. ‘Frell’. It means fridge-smell. The otherwise poorly described and elusive smell that develops and pervades in your fridge if it is not cleared in a timely fashion. It can be deployed in adjective and verb form as well (eg, ‘this fridge is frelly’ or ‘my croissant has been frelled’). Personally, I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on yet and I regard its creation as one of my most valued achievements.

Aside from this, I have been considering the use of words in more depth following on from some much-valued feedback that I received on my novel. I will address the value of such feedback in a future blog, but a specific aspect involved the importance of using words effectively and, in particular, not using them when they are not needed. This may sound fairly obvious but do read on as I have not gone completely bonkers.

The more one reads about writers who are just getting started, everyone who critiques them seems to come up with a common observation – that they tend to ‘overwrite’. It is tempting for some to pull out the thesaurus and generate as many complicated and intellectual words as possible, perhaps in the hope that it will add some credibility to their writing. In reality it is more likely to send a reader off course and may have the opposite effect. It is worth noting that fancy words, particularly if not used in the correct context, have the potential to disturb the focus of anyone who is otherwise engrossed in a book. This is liable to bring a reader briefly into the real world again which is not where you want them. This can be at best troublesome for the flow of the book, and at worst catastrophic for the immersion of the reader in the story.

Unfortunately that makes it all the more painful to resist the multitude of cracking words and phrases out there which, if a little more well known, would be really useful. Take the French phrase ‘l’espirit de l’escalier’ for example. It essentially means the act of thinking of a witty comeback after the moment has passed. Quite apart from wishing I was much better at this myself, it is an excellent observational phrase that has real applications in the right situation. Likewise the word ‘Mamihlapinatapa,’ which is used in Chile to describe the look between two people that suggests an unspoken desire, is great and in the right situation could be either quite poignant or even a bit racy.

Needless to say, it would be a bit difficult to surreptitiously fit either of these into the average novel without shattering the unseen barrier between the worlds of the reader and the characters. We are therefore left with far simpler words – but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though I know from experience that these can be overused just as much as the fancier words. My use of the word ‘slightly’ is, as has been pointed out at times, criminal. A character is either jaded or not jaded – a reader is not interested in whether they are slightly jaded. I am currently hard at work trying to cut out unnecessary words from my novel and this is an important point. Anything that is surplus to requirement has the potential to disengage a reader and turn them off whatever story is underlying. The better novels – arguably – are the ones which flow and much of the time a reader will fill in any gaps subconsciously. To spell everything out is to stifle the imagination of anyone following along.

To some extent, this will vary with genre. I would say that the fast-paced crime thrillers will derive most from this minimalist approach. Only the most vital details will need to be written in the relative absence of any unnecessary and extraneous words so as to remove or at least largely avoid obfuscation. (That last sentence was on purpose).

Even the more literary and scene-setting pieces will need to avoid most of the above. So, as good as some words are – defenestrate (to throw someone through a window) being my favourite one ever – I am not sure I will ever get away with using it. Having said that, these words are still worth knowing about. For those of you that know of the ‘Googlewhack’ phenomenon (in which one types two random words into google and receives only one result back excluding word lists), you may be interested to know that several years ago, after reading ‘Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure’, I paired ‘defenestrated’ with ‘clodhoppers’ and scored me my one and only Googlewhack. If that is not using words effectively, then I don’t know what is.

W

7 Reasons to Write a Novel

‘…the potential to have that physical copy of something created by you and you alone is something to savour.’

Let’s be honest, if Katie ‘Jordan’ Price can produce a publishable piece of written output, I guess it really is true that everyone has a book in them. Nowhere in that well known sentiment does it comment on the quality of that piece of work but I suppose that’s not the point.

So if everyone can do it, then the question remains, why do some rise to the task while others don’t? In our younger years, most likely the first bits of creative writing we embark upon will be set tasks given to us by tired English teachers with unironed shirts and bad haircuts. At least that’s my memory of things. Of course when we do something because we have to rather than choosing to, it becomes onerous; a form of work. When it comes to writing stories or essays, some will thoroughly enjoy the process and the spark will be ignited there and then. They begin to write in their spare time and may even forge careers as writers of some kind, able to enjoying what they create for a living.

What might be the motives for the average person to write a novel though? For my part, this was an interesting question to mull over because if someone were to ask me that out of the blue, I don’t think I would be able to answer it – at least not satisfactorily. Having now thought it over, I have broken it down into different aspects which may or may not apply to others but I suspect at least some or maybe even all will apply for most.

1 – An idea for a story that just needs telling – This is a fairly obvious one. If you have that sudden moment of inspiration and stumble across a unique and unbeatable format then there is almost a responsibility to get it done. As rare as that is, I suspect a lot of the best pieces of work have come about because they are simply too good not to have been followed through. A bit like Velcro (great invention).

2 – A creative distraction – This was a big factor for me due to my line of work. I work in the medical field and as such am surrounded by facts, figures and absolutes. A lot of the time, particularly in the beginning, it was a case of accumulating knowledge and being taught at 24/7. It follows that there was a part of me that wanted to explore my more creative side and I imagine it would be the same for someone who is punching figures in an office all day or trying to stay awake during droning presentations and arduous meetings. The freedom in creating something of your own, whether it be a piece of writing or a piece of music or a painting, is that it is yours to do with what you want. There is no part of it that must be learned or that must conform to a set curriculum. There is no one telling you what to do. You can simply get on with it without any supervision and see what happens.

3 – A way to explore your own thoughts and views – In the creative process of writing a novel or even an essay or a work of non-fiction, chances are it will be a solitary task; something you undertake without any other’s influence, at least directly. This is a fantastic opportunity to have a think about what your own views are on the greater topics at hand. Certainly during the writing of my novel, many a night has gone by contemplating topics ranging from the universe, human behaviour, mortality and happiness. Particularly during early adulthood, our long-term outlooks on life begin to properly develop but it is not until later that the dust starts to settle. Once we have a little experience behind us and have had a chance to think about what everything means, we can begin to get a grip on the world around us, thereby refining our personalities and producing something approaching a well balanced individual. Some are better at this than others. From her extensive biographical output alone, clearly Katie Price has her shit together. My point is this – having something to focus all of these thoughts on and actually getting something written is, I suspect, more useful than experience alone. If you are considering your opinion on something, whether it be science, religion, a certain branch of politics or whatever, thinking about it in isolation and writing it down is far more rewarding that simply following a chosen path set out for you and everyone else.

4 – A way to express yourself – With point number 3 in mind, perhaps you feel about something strongly but, until now, have no way to let anyone else know; no outlet. Maybe it’s frustration over a political frailty (and God knows there’s a lot of that around at the moment) or it could be more of an escapism; a chance to live vicariously through one of your characters or to let others into your imagination to view your dreams and desires. Some people are more shy than others and the medium of words is a brilliant way to show everyone what’s going on in that head without having to explain it to them face to face at some posh cocktail party. (I must stress I have never been to a proper one of these but am perpetually on the alert for the eventuality that such an invite comes through my letterbox).

5 – To influence the thoughts and thinking of others – A more forceful personality may want to take the above point a bit further. If one has a strong belief, they may try to ask others to consider their point of view and adopt it. Matters of conservation and human rights are examples of this. Things in which the collective actions of large numbers of people have real impacts on things around us can be influenced by various means. Film and TV are obvious illustrations here but the written word, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, also has the potential to galvanize a readership and rally people around a particular viewpoint. There are certainly enough satirical works of fiction out there that may well have been written directly to influence ways of thinking.

6 – Lifestyle of a writer – I will admit a lot of my motivation for starting a novel was the idea of the lifestyle. For me, there is an almost mystical draw to the process behind writing something and one of its draws involves the lack of any deadline but your own. (I never said my inspirations were necessarily grounded in reality!) As well, a large part has to do with the locations and surroundings involved. It is an activity quite unique in the sense that you can pick, within reason, where you want to do it. Personally, I always envisage a cosy country pub, ideally in autumn or winter with a nice view or a quiet corner somewhere busier where I can keep an eye on the world passing around me, whilst able to sink into my own little world for a time if needs be. Once you’re on a roll in this environment, it’s almost a meditative process; a way to relieve stress, particularly if you partake in work of a more hectic nature at other times.

7 – Sense of achievement – My final point is something I suspect that, even if we don’t admit it, all of us have to some degree in the backs of our minds. I would be lying if I said I don’t want any of my pieces of work to gain viral status and my novel to become some sort of runaway international best seller, forever on the all time classics lists. While that will probably (almost definitely) not happen, any sense of achievement in even finishing something like a novel is draw enough for many. It’s tough and involves unbelievable amounts of work. But the potential to have that physical copy of something created by you and you alone is something to savour. Something that, however small, will leave your own individual foot-print behind; that will potentially be there, at least for a while after you are gone. I like that idea most of all about creating anything – the chance to generate these ripples of yourself that are still spreading out even after your own story has ended.

Scuba!

‘Scuba diving smashes through this plateau of excitement and carries the line up several notches.’

Everyone has things they’ve always wanted to try. In many cases it boils down to the age-old ‘I’ve just not got round to it yet’ scenario. In my case there are many of these life goals still on the list. Aside from the novel, a skydive is right up there (pun intended) along with playing a round of golf without losing even a single ball. Until recently, scuba diving was on that list too but fortunately I’ve now quite literally taken the plunge.

Having done so I am frankly annoyed with myself that I have left it until now to immerse myself in this world (again I’m sorry for the punnage, I’m in one of those moods). This self-directed annoyance is reminiscent of the time I had a Boost bar for the first time, a magnificent occasion that happened not that long ago – so many wasted years eating Whispas.

I have always loved the water and I spent several years in my youth as a lifeguard (pool, not one of the cool beach ones). Diving had always been in the back of my mind as something I would definitely do someday but, as always, work and other things get in the way. Part of the appeal in diving is of course gaining access to a completely new version of the natural world to which we are used to. A childhood watching shark documentaries sparked the interest I suspect. There was always something fascinating in watching hippy scientists falling backwards into pristine Caribbean waters. Sean Connery’s Bond searching for downed nuclear war-heads in bright red scuba gear brought that element of swagger to the discipline and of course the cinematic genius of programmes like Blue Planet are simply awe-inspiring.

So it was that I finally decided enough was enough and I arranged to go on the initial PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) open water dive course. The idea of heading into the murky waters of a reservoir just outside Slough for my first real experience was not one I particularly savoured and so I decided that somewhere abroad would be preferable. So it was that, having convinced my brother to join me (he’s even older than me so must be even more annoyed that it’s taken this long to try it), we jetted off to the Spanish island of Menorca to sample the waters of the Mediterranean.

Aside from the fact that it ended up being warmer back home than in Menorca for that week, we had an awesome time. It was quite early in the season and as such we were the only two taking the course, adding a welcome element of focus from our instructors. We had swatted up on the reasonably extensive theory beforehand but were still put through our paces with a test before we got to grips with all the equipment. Our first dive was in a swimming pool but the following day we got to try out all our newfound skills in a shallow bay. Only a few weeks later, there was a shark spotted more or less exactly where we had been diving. Close call.

Once we were confident enough, the following few dives were more routine and our instructors really pushed us. One in particular was pretty exciting because of the entrance and exit, essentially a steep rock face with crags sharp as a knife down which we had to lug our equipment. At the bottom, we had to launch ourselves into the surf and swim out quickly into calmer waters before being dashed on the rocks. It got a little sketchy when we first tried this, to the extent that we had to abort it on the first day and try again the next. I’m glad we did because the resulting dive was spectacular. Jellyfish in high definition inches from our faces, starfish of varying colours (partly due to the change in the colour spectrum at different depths) and a little underwater cave that we hovered in for a little while.

The feeling of diving is like nothing I’ve experienced before. It is such a new and unique feeling that is refreshing to experience at my age. I’m not saying I’m really old or anything but in youth, our lives are filled with new experiences and discoveries which tend to thin out as time goes by. Scuba diving smashes through this plateau of excitement and carries the line up several notches. The element of danger gets the adrenaline going (a bit like how camping in the Canadian wilderness is a bit more exciting than popping down to the New Forest for a couple of nights) but more than that, the wonder of being in this completely fantastical environment is quite something. It’s something you know has always been there and you have gazed across it, even skimmed quite literally across the surface of it countless times, and yet when you enter it, it’s like a different realm altogether. That feeling of weightlessness is pretty liberating and, though I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, it’s the closest thing I think I’ll ever get to flying (Superman-like flying, not flapping-your-arms-flying).

If you’ve not guessed by now, I am now hooked and to that end we’ve already booked our advanced course which is happening next week. There are now a plethora of different diving interests that one can branch into including wreck diving, dive photography and night dives and, once a few of these elements are tackled, the possibility to head out further afield to make the most of these qualifications really opens up. I suspect in another life I would have enjoyed being some sort of underwater cameraman! I’ve always been drawn to stories of the first explorers who all lived in a world uncertain of its own boundaries and whose walls were adorned with unfinished maps. Now the only maps that are left unfinished are the ones that relate to our oceans and I suppose some of that mystery draws me towards life beneath the seas now. Bottom line, if you get the chance to try it, do it!