We talk to Dafydd James, Hafal’s Promise Ambassador and Wales and British & Irish Lions rugby star, to get his thoughts on breaking down barriers to physical activity and the benefits of swimming.
What would you say to people who are struggling to take that first step in improving their physical health and want to overcome the barriers?
Breaking barriers is difficult. Taking the first step is the hardest part of the journey. You have to take baby steps first. You know the benefits of exercise, it speaks for itself, but the hard part is getting up off the sofa or getting out of bed to do it. My advice is to surround yourself with a support mechanism, or do it with a couple of other people if you can. There are plenty of resources out there so I would say getting over that initial hurdle, doing it with someone and planning it into your day, that’s probably where best to start.
You recently hosted an informative gym session at High Street Fitness and service user Stephen came out of it very upbeat. Some people may say the gym can be daunting initially but what would you say to encourage people?
It is quite daunting if you’ve never stepped foot in a gym. It’s going into the unknown, it’s going in and thinking everyone is body beautiful and it can feel like everyone’s looking down on you. But the first step is to get in there. There are plenty of people around – and in High Street Fitness in particular – who will gladly help you. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re not sure what something does or how to do an exercise. Gyms like High Street Fitness are more geared towards improving mental health and encouraging people to take care of themselves, staying motivated and achieving goals… which may be just getting that little bit more active. There’s no set regimented plan for people. Doing any amount of exercise is better than doing no exercise at all!
What sort of light exercises can people do in the house?
Some people haven’t got the luxury of transportation or can’t afford to go into a gym but there is plenty of household equipment you can use to train with. You can do plenty of bodyweight exercises in the house, you just have to be a little bit creative in your approach – tins of beans, 5 litre bottles of milk – there are certain things you can do and everyone’s on a different scale on their fitness level. One shoe doesn’t fit all so even walking up and down the stairs a few times if you’re able to do that is good exercise. You can do tricep dips on stairs, you can do squats, there are numerous exercises you can do in the house. But if you’re unsure, the main thing is asking people – use online resources like YouTube or ask me on social media. Whatever makes people more comfortable and gets people moving a little bit more is a positive!
And what about walking or jogging outside in the fresh air, how beneficial can that be?
It’s all about mindfulness. There are certain boxes we need to tick: getting active and mobilizing our joints are some of them. We’re not meant to be sedentary, so to get out and walk is really good for us. But it’s not only about being active. Get back into nature, listen to the birds, if the wind is blowing listen to the rustling of the trees – little things like that can help clear your mind and we should be outside a lot more than we are, but such is the modern world where we crave the comforts of inside the house. It’s important to walk or run. Do whatever it is that will make you feel better in yourself.
After playing in a team sport for years, would you say being in a team helped you socially and to build friendships?
Yes it does. I think it builds your social skills, you build lifelong friendships and you get that camaraderie with people you probably wouldn’t have come across had you not got into sport. Sport can help bridge gaps and I’d encourage anyone if they have young children to get them into sport early as it keeps them on the right track and keeps them motivated and stimulated. Sport can unite different cultures, races, colours, creeds and people tend to embrace sport. If you join a team you can bounce off the team’s energy and it’s good for motivation, it gets you out of the house and gives you a bit of structure and purpose. Swimming, cycling, running, football: it allows people to talk, whether it’s about the sport or personal issues.
How important is physical activity in your day to day life?
It’s huge for me, it keeps me going. I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for doing exercise. It’s a vital part of my day. It’s hard, especially when you’re not in the right frame of mind, but it’s what I do and what I have done for 30 years now. If you can get someone to train with you can bounce off each other’s energy.
And what about eating healthily too? How important is diet?
Diet is fundamentally the most important part of it. I always tell people you can’t train for 24 hours a day, and if you train for an hour then there’s another 23 hours in the day where you’ve got to look after yourself. That is from getting sleep, eating well and drinking plenty of water. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy anything but eating the correct nutrients in fruits, veg, fish, meats or other proteins is vital. It’s about aiming for the healthier options because it will give you that little bit more energy, it will make you feel a lot better in yourself and reduce the risk of chronic heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other ailments that could spiral your mental health. It’s vitally important to think carefully about what you’re going to eat: try and avoid the sugary, convenient foods that may give you a little bit of a kick – they are not good for us in the long run. Processed sugars should be the enemy really. It’s important to have an active and healthy balance. It’s not about shredding down to 2% body fat, it’s about making the right choices and building yourself towards a much better lifestyle.
Hafal has recently partnered with Swim Wales for a new campaign. Do you swim? How beneficial do you find swimming?
Yes, I do. I swim quite a bit. I’m actively involved in lifeguarding and I swim across the bay in Porthcawl. I’ve done it numerous times in the last few weeks and I find it very therapeutic. I’ve been reading up on the Wim Hoff method of cold-water treatment for an improvement in your cardiovascular system, depression and body ailments – there’s a lot of science behind it. But to sea swim takes me back into nature, you have to focus on the here and now and it’s good therapy.
Would you say swimming can help people’s mental and physical health?
Water is a great tool. I think being by the sea and listening to the waves is good but swimming is great. A lot of people can’t swim though, so the #GetIntoWater initiative is fantastic. It’s therapeutic and if you have bad joints from previous sporting activities or life as a whole, it takes the pressure off the joints and is probably the best full body exercise you can do. Once again, through swimming you could end up meeting people and building up a network which is then your support mechanism. It’s a tough sport if you get into it properly – I’m thinking of doing an ironman! – but it’s absolutely great for the mind.
For more information on the #GetIntoWater campaign visit: swimwales.org