• Alan Martin

My birthday for the most part passed by without note. Not in a bad way, it was very enjoyable, but other than my life clock ticking over another year, there wasn’t much to label it anything but a standard Saturday. Except that weighing in the next morning I discovered that for the first time in my adult life, Wii Fit was calling me healthy.

This would seem counter intuitive, given the diet of vodka and Eurovision I had consumed the previous evening (stay classy, Alan), but apparently that was just the thing to kick me under the BMI score of 25. Pushing me from overweight into normal. It was the latest part of a journey that started in July last year, and was no accident.

Sure, I went out to a ridiculously meaty birthday lunch with someone straight after and jumped up to ‘overweight’ again, but within a week I was back in the normal part of the curve.

As you can see from the graph, my enthusiasm kind of tailed off in November last year, 3 stone down, but for the following few months I did what I liked and barely gained a pound. So on realising that I’d left the job 'half finished’ I decided to get back on it. I plan to return to my previous slovenly lifestyle when my BMI is bang in the middle of the normal graph.

In June 2012 I was 18 stone 2 pounds. In November 2012 I was 15 stone 3 pounds. Today I am 14 stone 9 pounds.

Here’s a before and after picture for comparisons’ sake.

June 2012:

Giving a horse a noogie in Spain (I wasn’t really touching him, but he really wanted to hang around me!)

November 2012:

(The tiny flag says 'Well Done’, which I hope is inspiring)

May 2013:

A picture message for my brother to pass on to my other brother, who was so late for drinks that I had to leave.

So how did I do it?

Well, the first thing I’d recommend anyone wanting to undertake such a dramatic transformation is to have a traumatic change in your lifestyle. In my case it was going from in a quasi-married relationship to being suddenly single again. It’s not like I was brilliant at being single last time around, so any advantage I could get was essential. This tallies up rather nicely with the graph above - when in a relationship, my graph has stalled, and when its ended, its taken off again. It’s a frustratingly tightly bound symbiotic relationship.

The second is related: I didn’t doubt for a second that it would work this time. I’ve made efforts in the past, but they’ve ranged between 'half arsed’ and 'easily derailed’. This time I was going to keep at it until it worked, and if it didn’t work I’d change it so it did. This combination is powerful because it gives you no escape routes, but it’s interesting to look back at the difference, because I’m sure in the past I felt that this was for real, but this time I knew, KNEW it was different.

The third, to keep me on the right path, was positive visualisation. Now I have a terrible imagination at the kind of motivational images that will keep you on track, but then I discovered the 'Lose It’ community on Reddit, where people upload their progress photos. By looking for people of similar proportions, I had a clear image of what I could achieve with what in the greater scheme of thing counts for only a couple of months of dedication.

So I started running, every other morning. The rational for morning runs, by the way, was that if I did it while half asleep I wouldn’t remember it later in the day. I’m somewhat ashamed to say that kind of works, but now I actually almost prefer an evening run, and it certainly helps you to sleep afterwards. My route is two miles around the local park, and although my times have improved (I can now do a mile, on a good day, in under 7 minutes 30), it doesn’t really matter as long as I come back having run a decent portion of it. Incidentally, when I first started I got myself a decent pair of running shoes, and got properly fitted. This is important, because if you don’t, you may find your feet don’t move straight which can (medically speaking) knacker your knees. I was in this position, and the Asics store ran tests to prove it, filming me in a treadmill. I did have to sign a release form saying that I wouldn’t hold them responsible if I died there in the store, but if I’d died with 2 minutes of light treadmill work, it’s safe to say I’d have been facing more of a challenge than I ultimately did.

Next up there was the 100 Push Ups app, recommended by a good friend of mine, though I remember thinking during the first week whether or not this is the kind of thing a friend should inflict on someone else. I struggle to put into words how much I hate push-ups, but for the purpose of this post I’ll have a go: it’s a horrible feeling, the feel of your arms slowly turning to jelly as you try and force yourself upwards. The 100 push ups app believes that everyone is capable of doing 100 push-ups, as long as you build up to it, and while I can’t hit 100 yet, I have made progress. When I first started, I barely made double figures and now I can hit 80 on a good day, before my muscles take the unilateral decision to disarm, and I tumble to the floor. This was necessary though, possibly even more than the running. Physically, my arms no longer resemble a cocktail stick protruding from a sausage, but more importantly, greater muscle mass increases the rate you lose weight at. It’s possibly been a more crucial part of my regime than the running.

To be clear, I will never ever be the kind of person that enjoys exercise and physical excursion, but I’ve gotten myself to the point that my body has at least given up trying to mutiny every time my brain starts its personal trainer routine. And that’s all I need.

The final piece of the puzzle is diet, but this doesn’t come into it half as much as you’d expect. Sure, I started off cutting out junk food, and making sure I ate breakfast. My lunches were soup, and my dinners were a meat plus salad. I realised with hindsight that I’d come up with a version of the keto or low-carbohydrate diet purely without trying, but now I’m still losing weight and I’m allowing myself to eat more or less what I want - I guess the break just put things into perspective and changed my attitudes somewhat. I still don’t eat many carbohydrates: potato, pasta and rice tends to be replaced with extra vegetables, but its not something I feel I have to stick to if I have people round, or am eating out somewhere in London, say.

I hope that helps someone. Losing weight is a complete paradox: really easy, yet maddeningly hard. If you follow my model, I imagine you’ll have the same luck, but y'know: not a doctor/dietician/physiotherapist.

  • Alan Martin

Like most football fan gamers, I have lost many years of my life to Football Manager (nee Championship Manager), and while in my case it was definitely more luck than judgement, I had some reasonable success with it.

Anyway, I had two pseudonyms for any manager I created: Spup van Kipelrooy, a suave former Dutch international and, erm, Roger McTodger, my school in-joke Scottish alter-ego. Yes, yes I know: but it’s important to the story.

What I discovered - purely by accident - was that in those days the games couldn’t have never ending databases, and when it ran out of players it would use the manager name to auto generate some more. If your surname was Martin, that would go unnoticed, but when I did a search for ‘McTodger’… well, I wish I still had the screenshot of randomly generated players it did. Over 50 of them, all oddly Nigerian given I’d definitely put my nationality as Scottish.

I literally laughed out loud, and sent screenshots to friends. My eye was immediately drawn to one particular star: Nigeria international holding midfielder Lucky McTodger, who had 4 caps and 1 goal for his country, and available from VfL Wolfsburg for the bargain price of £1.5m.

I repeatedly tried to sign the young lad, much no doubt to the bemusement of the Wolfsburg manager, but it was to no avail: he couldn’t get a work permit, so he never pulled on the shirt of… whatever club I was managing at the time.

Anyway, I lost the screenshots when I switched PCs, and had forgotten about this whole escapade until last month, when I was browsing our site, and discovered the high-score holder of our latest game was one Lucky McTodger. I immediately knew who was responsible and dropped him an email: one of the guys who I sent the screenshot to still uses it as his alias on our site to this day… and he had no way of knowing I’d see it.

Too bad I never got to sign him from Wolfsburg. A holding midfielder with a 25% goal rate would have slotted in nicely.

  • Alan Martin

As someone who routinely nerds out about politics, it would be remiss of me to not take a few minutes to write something about the local election results which non-biased Nigel Farage described as a ‘game changer’. Ukip averaged 25% of the vote, and took 140 council seats with local election leaflets that promised all kinds of things that are, um, beyond the scope of what councillors can actually do.

As someone who follows reporting from all sides of the political spectrum, I see quite a few calls from the right wing press urging The Conservatives to push rightwards to welcome back the Ukip lost sheep to the The Tory fold, and while I’d actually quite enjoy watching the British right fragment in the way the left did in the 80s, I’m going to offer some home truths now:

1) If you tack right, you lose the swing voters you need to win

It’s a balancing act, being a mainstream political party, which is why we’ve seen such triangulation between the three main parties for the last 20 years. Because of our First Past the Post System, voters have to pick the least unpleasant of their local choices likely to win, meaning that to stand the best chance, your mainstream party needs to be slightly to the left/right of their nearest opposition in order to soak up the most voters. It’s cynical, and I dislike it (which is why I was one of those folks who actually went out and voted for AV), but it’s the truth. There’s a brilliant blog post about that (and many other things) here, but here’s the pertinent extract:

Labour, of course, weren’t the only ones affected by their positional shift. As the party of power, they dragged the Lib Dems to the right too, because first-past-the-post politics essentially works like The Price Is Right – the most profitable spot to occupy is the one that’s the smallest possible discernible margin away from the other guy. If someone’s guessed a price of £500 for a telly and you think the real price is £300, you don’t say £300 and risk his guess being closer than yours if the answer was (say) £405 – you say “£499” and to hell with the boos of the audience (read: your core support). The Lib Dems only needed to be a little to the left of Labour in order to try to capture their disgruntled voters, so they shuffled along to the right too, as close as they could get to New Labour (and therefore the Tories) without appearing to be identical.

Right wing Tories like to claim Cameron didn’t win the last election because he alienated people by being pro-green issues, soft on crime with his whole 'hug a hoody’ rhetoric, and generally a bit more liberal. In reality, the fact he couldn’t beat a massively unpopular and tired looking Labour Party suggests that his modernisation agenda didn’t get far enough and he couldn’t quite scrub away 'the nasty party’ image to absorb their disillusioned voters.

An In-Out EU referendum won’t fix that: counter intuitively, polling suggests that even Ukip voters don’t care that much about the EU.

2) A Ukip vote is often an anti-politics vote

Possibly as a reaction to the aforementioned triangulation, where the common wisdom is that all parties are the same (you could fit a tank between Foot and Thatcher’s idealogical differences, compared to the sliver of light between Blair and Cameron), lots of voters use local elections to flip the bird at Westminster.

“Ah, but its not been for Ukip before, so the tide must be turning!”

Well, no, not necessarily: historically, the Liberal Democrats have done pretty well at byelections and locally, being the party of opposition that was untainted by government policy. Now the Lib Dems have their hands properly dirty, they’re not getting the votes anymore (In the South Shields byelection, held the same day, they lost their deposit, finished behind the BNP and only just ahead of the Monster Raving Looney Party candidate). If you don’t like the look of Labour, who are you going to vote for that will likely show up well in the polls and look suitably protesty? Hello Ukip. Let’s not forget the tagline they used in the last General Election:

So for reasons 1 and 2, copying Ukip policies would be disastrous for the Tories, and would appeal to very few voters while alienating many. Moderate Tories and swing voters won’t like the change, while the anti-politics protest voters will be rightly cynical that they’re genuine. See the Republicans in the US reaching out to the Tea Party movement for the electoral cul-de-sac this heads towards.

3) Local elections aren’t the same as Westminster elections

The BBC has a piece on the history of mid-term local elections and what happened next. Interestingly, the Lib Dems attract around 25% of the vote in the locals before they entered government, which is exactly where Ukip landed. Now I’m not suggesting the Lib Dem voters all climbed on the Farage bandwagon, as we know that Ukip attracts votes from all parties, as well as non voters (though disproportionately from the Tories, I should add), but the point here is what happened next: No Lib Dem breakthrough at the election.

When it came to the vote, our rather undemocratic system meant that left leaning voters held their nose and voted Labour, rather than risking letting the Tories back in. Both Labour and the Tories have played off the fear that voting for a third party will see the others winning out in the past, and you can bet they’ll do it again (though personally I’m looking forward to any political canvaser who visits mine telling me that, because I’ll inform them they should have backed AV then. Hah.)

A 25% share of the vote, even assuming they could hold onto that which as we’ve seen above, protest parties seldom manage in Westminster elections would get them very few seats. A Rallings and Thrasher projection published today based on the local turnout got them a grand total of… zero seats, due to the First Past the Post system, and the reasonably even spread of Ukip supporters throughout the country (that is to say they don’t really have strongholds, as such). I actually suspect they will get between 1 and 5 seats at the 2015 election - I’m reasonably sure Farage will get elected with his new resident interviewee position on BBC current affairs programmes, provided he doesn’t make the mistake of standing against the Speaker again.

There is, however, a quite legitimate fear the Tories have that Ukip will eat into their support in key marginals, allowing Labour MPs to win in areas where combined Ukip and Conservative votes would outnumber them. That’s no reason to copy Ukip: all they’ll do is get a handful of 'kippers back at the expense of horrified centre ground voters: essentially as Tony Blair (who, whatever you think of him, knew a fair bit about winning FPTP elections) insists: elections are won on the centre ground. Let’s overlook the fact that the British centre ground is actually in the centre right, because that’s not going to have changed by 2015. All the Tories need to do is resist the voices trying to appeal to Ukip voters (who in many cases aren’t voting for policy anyway) and go with a thoroughly negative campaign in 2015, depressing though it’ll be. Expect a whole load of 'don’t let Labour back in by voting Ukip, back the side that can win’. It’ll work too, depressing as that is. The question is whether it’ll work enough to grant them a second term, but electoral mathematics states that’s more down to their policies and the economy than what the 'fruitcakes’ next door are up to.

So as Andrew Rawnsley writes in today’s Observer:

The majority of Ukip voters tell pollsters that the Conservatives are their second-choice party. That gives Tories reasonable grounds to hope that many can be won back at a general election, when they will present the choice as a binary one between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. There is only one problem with this strategy. It requires the Tories to keep their heads and holding their nerve is something they find hard to do for two minutes, never mind two years

Relying on the Tory party staying united is possibly an even bolder strategy than trying to appease them, but it’s the only way I can see them being competitive in 2015.