Olympian Victoria Pendleton's tips to improve your mental and physical health

If you’re after advice of fitness, Victoria Pendleton is a pretty solid person to ask.

The jockey and former track cyclist is not only a multi-time champion, but also an advocate for the benefits of exercise for our mental wellbeing.

We chatted with the two-time Olympic champ about how she has stayed positive during lockdown and how workouts help her stay mentally strong.

What do you do to stay fit and healthy?

To stay fit I try and exercise every day for about an hour and a half. I don’t hold myself strictly accountable to going out and exercising every day but I do try and do a little bit of something, even if it’s just a 25-minute walk.

When I exercise for longer, I usually run cross country, ride my mountain bike along green lanes or exercise my two horses. They are kept in a livery that is a 25-minute bike ride from my home.

I stay healthy with a very clean, plant-based diet, which I started following eight years ago. I actually grew a lot of my vegetables this summer. I had done it in the past but not every year.

I have an extensive herb and spice collection and I’m very experimental. The other day I made a tagine, a north African dish, with lots of spices such as cinnamon and a mixture of carrots, mushrooms, peppers, onion, courgettes, garlic, dried apricots, ground almonds and some tomatoes, from my garden. It is usually served with couscous, but I served it with sweet potatoes.

What are your secret vices?

They include going all-out when I treat myself. I never go for, say, a diet version of a chocolate brownie.

Instead, I go for a rich chocolatey version with a big blob of vegan ice cream. For me, going all-out makes the treat worth it!

What good intentions concerning your physical fitness have you not acted on?

I always intend to be kinder to myself when I exercise, but then I just get into the zone of being an athlete.

When I cycle, for example, I find myself getting faster and faster and faster… I find it very hard to slow down or stop and take in the scenery.

How is your physical health?

It’s good, I generally feel quite healthy. I actually felt less healthy as an athlete because my body was pushed so hard every day.

I used to feel sore and achy when I woke up in the morning and was susceptible to catching colds because the intense training I did suppressed my immune system.

Since retiring [in 2012] I’ve caught fewer colds and minor ailments because my body is not working so hard. Although I was fitter as an athlete, I’m more healthy now.

Has your working life contributed to a healthier you?

Yes, I think so because it gives me a lot of freedom and flexibility. I work with brands such as E.ON, do public speaking, oversee my bike range at Halfords, as well as work with mental health and children’s charities.

I have what’s called a ‘portfolio career’, but sometimes I envy people who have a regular job.

How have three national lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic impacted you?

They have impacted me both positively and negatively. The most positive aspect is that I’ve not had to worry about what I’m wearing or who I’m wearing, which has alleviated stress from my life.

I can’t remember the last time I put on a pair of high-heeled shoes and some make-up, apart from a little bit of mascara.

I quite like that, because now I don’t feel the pressure to feed expectations, by presenting myself in a certain way.

The negative aspect of lockdown is that I can’t catch up with my friends and family face-to-face. I’m looking forward to doing that again.

How is your mental health?

It’s fine now, but two years ago I was in a really dark place. I had to give up an Everest expedition after suffering hypoxia, which is when your blood oxygen goes very low due to being at high altitude. One of the knock-on effects is that it can trigger anxiety and depression.

When I came home I had a lot of things going on personally and it was too much to deal with. I was diagnosed with severe depression but felt that as an Olympic athlete I should be able to fight my way out of it, but couldn’t.

I needed help and support. I went to see a couple of counsellors, but also had the support of my family and a member of the Olympic team.

I don’t know how I would manage my mental health, now, without regular fitness activities, to be perfectly honest. Exercise keeps me balanced mentally and that’s why I prioritise it every day.

Victoria’s top tips for a healthy 2021…

Go plant-based

Try where possible to switch to a plant-based diet. Not only does this naturally incorporate healthier food options into your meals, but you will also be reducing your carbon footprint, particularly if you cut out beef-based products.

Get on your bike

As a cyclist, I’m partial to cycling wherever possible and love to encourage others to do the same.

The decrease in carbon emissions from cycling versus driving is profound and if you’re living in a city, this is a much easier way to get around – plus, you’re not only contributing to less pollution, you’ll be also getting exercise as you go!

Grow it yourself

Get your own herb garden going to ensure you always have fresh herbs and spices to hand. This will save you money in the long-term and is great for avoiding all of the single-use plastic packaging when you buy from a shop.

Be mindful

Take the time to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. Getting regular exercise and maintaining a daily routine can keep your mental health in check but, if you need extra support, reach out to a loved one or explore other routes.

Also, don’t be hard on yourself if you miss a workout or eat more than planned. Keep your passions in mind and make time for these, too.

Check the air

Check air pollution levels in your area with E.ON’s Change The Weather tool before heading out for a cycle or run. Poor air quality can have a negative impact on your performance and can have long-term adverse effects on your health.

Treat yourself

While it’s good to stay on track with your goals, it’s always good to treat yourself and indulge every now and then. Living through a global health pandemic has been tough for everyone, so don’t feel guilty about an occasional sweet treat or gift to yourself. I can’t say no to a scoop of vegan chocolate ice cream!

Victoria is an ambassador for E.ON’s Change the Weather campaign. For more information and to access daily air pollution updates click here.

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