I’ve been a very enthusiastic boater for just over eight years now, and for the last four or so my husband Alan and I have been retired from full time employment. We both did some consultancy for the first couple of years of retirement, but for the last two have been living it up both at home and on our narrow boat in Cheshire. We have a lot of friends and acquaintances that live full time on their boats and although we are not full time live-aboards ourselves, we do spend quite a lot of time on our boat and as part of a boating community. Quite often, in discussion with other folks on the marina the conversation often turns to health matters, subjects very close to my heart. (I worked as a Consultant Nurse for many years with specialist interests in diabetes and mental health).
I’d started to wonder, just how difficult or easy is it to keep healthy when you live on board a boat? My first response was that it’s probably as difficult or as easy as anywhere else, depending on your motivation, general health state, time availability etc. on reflection, I started to wonder if life afloat conferred other challenges to a healthy lifestyle. In this article I’m going to explore some of those challenges. I’m also to have a look at some of the national guidance related to improving health, and to see just how applicable this guidance may be in the context of living on the water.
It will come as no surprise to you that canal boats (generally though not always) are smaller than houses! And following on from that, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t have to do the same volume of cleaning, making beds, running up and down stairs, etc. Yes of course these tasks get done, it’s just that it’s on a much smaller scale on a boat, and consequently less human energy gets used. There is a counterbalance in that a boat needs a lot of day to day maintenance; filling up with water, emptying toilets, and if you are of such a persuasion cleaning and polishing the paintwork and brass outside! The reason I make these points is that the Department of Health tell us that to keep fit, we need to keep active.
When we are less active, we tend to put weight on, and our risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes etc. increases. Living on a boat can reduce some of the natural opportunities for keeping active, and therefore begs the questions, can we happily increase our activity in a more confined space? And if so what are the best ways of doing this?
Many people have some sort of fitness equipment at home, exercise bikes, cross trainers, step machines, kettle bells and so on. Not really all that practical on a boat, though two guys at our marina very enthusiastically set up an outdoor gym last year with barbells, dumbbells and a bench.
One thing is for sure, it’s very easy to buy a lot of expensive fitness equipment for home use, that sadly ends up as a fancy clothes rack or door stop, and rarely gets used for its intended purpose. It’s most likely that you wouldn’t bother with all that on a boat, why would you? But are there practical ways to increase activity when on board that don’t take up a lot of space, don’t break the bank and are do-able in the confines of a boat? Well, yes I think there are.
Below are some of my thoughts about starting to get a little bit more active:
Here’s the first Law: Any activity at all is better than none. This is especially true if makes you slightly out of breath whilst you’re doing it, and you recover quickly when you stop. You don’t need expensive equipment, special clothing, gym memberships or to be ultra-fit when you start. Doing a little extra activity every day can work wonders for your health, and especially your emotional wellbeing.
The second Law is that before embarking on a new activity programme see your GP or Practice Nurse for a check up first, this is especially important if you haven’t done any exercise for a while and particularly if you have any health problems.
So what are good activities to consider?
Human being were built to walk, and do lots of it. We’re programmed to walk miles every day. Most people today have heard about the fitness goal of 10,000 steps a day, which has become a fitness or activity aspiration for may people.
But does taking 10,000 steps a day really have anything to do with good health? Yes it does, but to do it as recommended is daunting, in that it takes quite a chunk of time each day you do it. So what is the background to it?
The surprising truth is that the 10,000 steps number originally appeared in the 1960s when a Japanese company started selling pedometers called manpo-kei, which literally translates to "10,000-step meter." Later, studies confirmed that people who take 10,000 steps have lower blood pressure, more stable glucose levels and better moods. The 10,000 number quickly caught on, many people buy fitness monitors which count steps for you and link the information to smart phones. Ten thousand steps seems like a nice neat goal to work towards. So in old money, what is 10,000 steps? It’s about 5 miles. Which is absolutely lovely, if you’ve got time to get out there, come rain, hail or whatever the British climate has to chuck at you, crack on and do a sprightly 5 miles, 3 or more times per week. Normal people, living normal busy lives would find this rather a big ask. It’s great in the summer, the tow paths are brilliant for a long walk, if you’ve got the time, the energy and your general health allows. Tow paths in winter, however are something else! The one near us is a swamp, and if I was into mud wrestling, I’d feel truly blessed! So back to the iconic 10K steps, if you want to and you can, brilliant! If not, I refer you to the first Law…any activity is better than none. So a short walk each day, if it’s a bit more than you’re used to doing and gets you a little bit out of breath is great. Even 20 seconds hard running on the spot is really beneficial, especially if repeated 2 or 3 times and alternated with jumping jacks (I know- difficult on board!), but alternating with gentle knee bends that don’t stress your joints or back are really good too.
Dancing is a brilliant activity for general fitness, as long as you love the music and don’t mind an audience whilst you’re strutting your funky stuff and you’re in close proximity on a marina or near a tow path! Just get your dancing shoes on, get the music going and for the duration of your favourite song – have a dance. One song, one dance. See how you feel. If you enjoyed it, the next day, do it again, and when you feel up to it, add a second song and dance a bit longer. And so on, until you’re doing the tango, foxtrot or a frenzy of freestyling for a good 15-20 minutes 2 or 3 times per week.
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to get out and have a walk, or maybe dancing isn’t your thing. Or perhaps your general health or mobility may not allow you to do very much in terms of activity. The space you live in may preclude you from having a personal disco and throwing all your best shapes in reckless abandon, but armchair exercises are a well researched and well recommended way of becoming more active even if your general health and mobility stop you from doing other activities. Below is a link to an NHS site, which describes in detail a short programme with pictures to help you along.
Best of all, it costs nothing!
A little bit of weight training:
Boating can be a very relaxing way of life. Sometimes though you do need to show how strong you actually are particularly when mooring and pulling the boat in by rope. To keep your limbs and back toned and in good condition some regular weight training can really help. I’m not suggesting an Arnold Schwarzenegger type gruelling body building weight session, but something very simple and accessible. Limb and back strength can be improved by simple sets of exercises involving 2 tins of beans (or tinned fruit if you prefer!)
The link below is to an article that gives lots of ideas for using 2 food tins to improve strength and mobility.
Swimming is of the best types of exercise, great for all round fitness and strength. The down side is that unless you’ve got facilities nearby it’s unlikely that it’s going to be a regular event for you. But if you enjoy it and you have access to a nice pool nearby it’s a great way of getting fit. Falling in the canal and climbing out doesn’t count though!
Increasing activity needs to be fun, something you really enjoy or you won’t be able to carry on doing it. It shouldn’t be a drag, so it’s really important to do something that you look forward to doing. Some people love jogging, personally I can’t bear it, but I love to dance and even like a session on a stepping machine. As long as it’s something that ‘floats your boat’, you can find the time and energy to do it, you’ll be all the better for it.
I hope you’ve found these suggestions for increasing your activity interesting. And I hope you give a little thought to how you could improve your fitness too. Most importantly don’t forget any activity is better than none. Every little bit of extra activity that you do is beneficial. You don’t have to slog out 10,000 steps a day, or pound away for hours on a treadmill. Little and often is the way forward.
In my next article I’m going to talk about something that goes hand in hand with increasing activity to benefit health and wellbeing, which is one of my favourite subjects - food.
If you’d like to comment on this article, or offer suggestions please just let me know by email.