November 29, 2004

Minding What Matters

LIKE MANY men, I don't feel particularly well. That's not to say I feel ill, but I don't go running in the morning, I don't "manage" my stress levels and I certainly don't give much thought to my "inner self".

No, as Consumer Affairs Correspondent for The Scotsman, I consume. I drink coffee, eat crisps, enjoy alcohol. I follow a strict diet - rich in red meat, mashed potatoes and blueberry muffins. I never venture into a bookshop's self-help section. In other words, I am a run-of-the-mill, 21st century, office male.

But even at the age of 28, I realise it's time to change. Hangovers are getting worse. The waistline is expanding. Work stresses take an increasingly heavy toll. All these came into focus recently when my father was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

I tried to reassure myself with a medical, which ended with my GP cheerily telling me that, if I carry on with this lifestyle, I am likely to develop diabetes, too. Oh, and my blood pressure was way off the mark. His prescription? A "lifestyle change".

So I joined a gym and my weight and blood pressure both dropped. But, strangely, I was feeling more stressed - and still not particularly well.

So, when I was offered the chance to try out the Wellness Deal at the Sheraton's One Spa, I grasped it like a bottle of single malt in the last-chance saloon.

According to the blurb, the Wellness Deal is a seven-day guided experience designed to help men towards achieving personal life goals by developing "wellness habits".

It takes a holistic approach, which involves an all-encompassing review of lifestyle, including advice on relaxation, nutrition and general guidance on how to achieve well-being.

Another plus was the flexibilty: appointments were fitted around my working week, so I had no excuse not to complete the programme.

The first task in getting me on the road to well-being was to give Jo, my treatment manager, a detailed picture of my lifestyle and fitness. The hour-long assessment involved everything from fat analysis to cholesterol tests to stress-level analysis.

This involved a series of leading questions: "How do you feel in the evening?" asked Jo. "In the morning? In the afternoon? When do you get tired, angry, upset, happy?" I had to think hard about these answers, because I've always been too busy being angry, tired or happy to find time to make a diary of my emotions.

But Jo had more questions: "Do you often have days when you just want to roll over and go back to bed, when you can't face the world? Days when you spring out of bed believing everything is possible?" These were not emotional responses I had ever analysed before.

Jo told me that my general level of fitness was good (surprise); I was slightly overweight (no surprise); my blood pressure was slightly high (alarming); my physical strength was very poor (embarrassing); but, most of all, I needed to learn how to relax and de-stress.

The intoxicating adrenaline rush of daily newspaper deadlines was playing havoc with the natural rhythm of my body, she explained, and my love of caffeine, sugar and alcohol were not helping. It was time to act.

My journey towards well-being started gently with a day in the spa, at the end of a frenetic working week. The Sheraton's thermal suite is based on the Roman system of baths. First I enjoyed a tropical shower, infused with mango. Then came the laconium, essentially a room with heated beds, followed by a frosted shower, a steam room, a heated bed, a sauna, a tropicarium, an ice freeze and hydrotherapy pool. I even had a "Cleopatra bath" - a huge tub - to myself.

Hmmm. Physically this felt fab, but could all these bubbles really help my troubled mind? Still, I didn't object as I was booked in for an all-over aromotherapy massage.

"How do you want to feel?" the masseuse asked. "Relaxed," I replied. It worked.You know the feeling you get when you come out of a long, piping hot bath? Multiply it by ten and prolong it for 48 hours. For the next two days it was almost total shutdown. I slept as deeply as I have ever slept - almost as if I was drugged.

Dave Watson at One Spa fixed all that with my first fitness session on Monday evening. Treadmills, free-weights and pumping iron, left me feeling energised and invigorated. Lying in the hydrotherapy pool afterwards I realised I was beginning to feel relaxed.

He emphasised the importance of regular intervals to switch off and give my mind a chance to regenerate: "Try and take an evening a week just to do absolutely nothing. Don't read, watch TV or anything - just lie back, clear your head and relax."

So that's where I've been going wrong, I thought. Beforehand, if I was feeling a unwell or stressed, I would hit the gym for an endorphin fix. All I was doing was making myself worse.

The effects of my newly relaxed mind surprised me. On day four I lost my car at the airport. Did I descened into my usual Basil Fawlty rant? No. I found myself consciously thinking about my stress levels. Yes, I was stressed, but the tantrum remained at bay, and I calmly focused on finding my car.

At the end of the seven-day programme I was a new man.

A final consultation revealed my weight and blood pressure had dropped. I suspect the latter was due as much to relaxation as to the gym. As, no doubt, were the uplift in my mood, the deeper sleep and enhanced concentration at work. Almost three weeks after the programme began I still feel unusually chilled. If a sound mind can only dwell in a sound body, I've discovered it works the other way round too.

* The One Spa Wellness Deal, Sheraton Hotel, Edinburgh, GBP 325, tel: 0131-221 7775 .