Karl Henry: 'It's gas, people look into my shopping trolley and scrutinise it if I have pizza in it'
It's one of the pitfalls of being a renowned health and fitness expert: people are always waiting to catch you out. He's been in the industry for almost 20 years, but Karl Henry still has to deal with nosey shoppers scrutinising his shopping trolley, hoping desperately to spot a rogue item. It's something he (mostly) finds hilarious.
"It's gas," says the 36-year-old, laughing. "Someone will look in and say, 'Oh, I'm surprised you've pizza in there,' but I can always talk my way out of it! I'll point out that it's thin base, it's made fresh on the premises, there's loads of veg on it, it's the best version I can get. And I like pizza every now and again! You need treats; it's balance that is key."
It's a sensible message that should have sunk in with the rest of us by now and yet somehow it hasn't. Many of those hoping to shift pounds still reckon there's a magic formula out there, a quick fix that requires cutting out some foods, fasting or counting some random unit of food measurement.
"Every year there's a new diet and there's just no need for that," sighs Karl. If anything, he reckons the overly complicated fad diets are a cynical move to make people fail. Among his most loathed products are liquid diets - "just terrible" - diet companies' own-brand products, and low-fat branding in general.
"They're generally really, really processed and full of everything. They might be low in calories but they're high in rubbish," he explains.
In an ideal world, he'd love to see supermarkets laid out in a traffic-light system: green aisles for foods we should be eating lots of (fruit, veg, etc), amber for things in moderation and red for occasional use only.
By now we've probably all read the same scary statistics - that Ireland is on course to be the most obese nation in Europe by 2025; that nearly a quarter of Irish people are obese, and that by 2030 it's predicted some 90pc of us will be overweight. At the same time we voraciously consume weightloss books and shows - even a decade on, Operation Transformation nets audiences of half a million - so what's going wrong? If we're eating up the knowledge, why aren't we losing weight?
Karl reckons it's because we've become too extreme in our approach to health: either living a sedentary, nutritionally poor lifestyle or teetering towards the extreme end of obsessive clean eating. "The middle ground has gone and that's very much where we need to get," he says ruefully.
Essentially, our whole attitude to health needs to be trimmed of unnecessary excess and brought back to basics. "I think if we can pull that back a bit and give people the knowledge they need to eat better, then I think we'll start being healthier as a nation," says Karl.
This is exactly what he hopes to do with his latest book. In easy-to-digest chapters, Karl Henry's Healthy Living Handbook cuts through the overcomplicated mixed messages on health out there and gets back to the simple facts that will help people be healthy. There are tips on decoding food labelling, easy-to-follow exercises and more than 40 healthy recipes.
"The people I want to get moving don't care about statistics or the really complicated stuff," says Karl. "They just want to know: 'What do I eat? What do I not eat? How do I exercise properly and how can I make a meal?' I want them to have simple, easily accessible information that inspires them to get started."
Some weight-loss shows - mostly those that champion more drastic losses on the scales - have a nasty habit of seeing their contestants pile the pounds back on once the cameras stop rolling. But not Operation Transformation. In over a decade of shows, an average of three out of five participants keep the weight off.
"Our numbers are good in terms of longevity because we don't go the extreme route. It's really simple but effort is required," says Karl. "You have to work hard and eat better. If you do those two things, then you'll get there. That's what health is."
Like many people watching the 11th season finale of the show, Karl admits to getting a little teary over what the leaders achieved. But what many people might not realise is that one of the reasons the TV trainer feels so emotionally connected to his clients' journey is because it's one that he's made himself. At college in his 20s, Karl's fast-food-heavy diet saw him pile on the pounds, leaving him feeling low in self-confidence and energy.
On a weekend hill-walking in Wicklow, he suffered the ignominy of being beaten to the summit by a fellow walker who, at 65, was 40 years his senior. "He got there about 20 minutes ahead of me and that was the kick-start moment," says Karl. "I hadn't realised quite how unfit I'd become and it threw me."
He went out and bought a gas hob for the bedsit he was living in at the time ("not something most landlords would approve of!") and ditched the takeaways for healthier home-made stir-fries. Every week he returned to the mountain to time his progress. "I still go back every couple of months," he reveals. "It's one of those milestones." He shed a stone-and-a-half and today his weight hovers around a healthy 13st 4lbs and 13st 7lbs.
Interestingly, while his clients are shifting weight, Karl admits he often tends to gain a few pounds while filming Operation Transformation because his attention is focused on work.
"I've to watch my weight like anyone else," he says candidly. He still weighs in every few weeks. "Measurement is the key to long-term success, because you need to be able to benchmark something," he explains. "But it's not always about weight: it could be mood, heart rate… it's about finding the thing that works for you."
When we chat, Ireland is gripped in the icy embrace of the 'Beast from the East' and, like many people, Karl is feeling the effects of not being able to get outside. He lives in north Co Dublin with his wife, Jean, and their two dogs and two cats. Jean's recipe for brown bread makes an appearance in the new book (it's easy to make and delicious - I've tried it) and the pair like to run, mountain-bike and surf together.
But he admits that sometimes, just like us mere mortals, he'd rather be on the sofa watching Doctor Foster. "I love box sets and I definitely have days where I want to stay on the couch all day!" he confesses. "Exercise has to be fun to get me off the couch. I try to train for one new sport or event every year to keep it interesting."
As someone who has trained professionally in his field, notching up qualifications, years of experience and some 25,000 sessions with clients, is it a source of frustration to see the internet abound with an ever-increasing number of self-proclaimed 'fitness gurus' and 'wellness experts'?
"Yes!" he says emphatically. "Social media has done lots of really good things for health, but it's also done lots of bad things. The rise of the internet expert is one of the areas where it's having a really negative impact. There's no insurance, there's no qualification, there's no experience - they're just posting filtered photos that look good. I've a massive issue with that. People need to be so careful when they're looking for information and know: is the source responsible, is the source qualified? It's a concerning area that needs to be regulated but at the moment it looks like it's only going to get worse."
A regular on social media himself (12,800 followers on Instagram and 21,900 followers on Twitter), he knows what it's like to experience the ugly side of the internet. "I'd an email a while ago from a guy that went on for pages criticising every aspect of me - the clothes and colours I wore, the stuff I did, didn't do, even the way I squatted!" he reveals. "It was pretty extreme and stopped me in my tracks a bit, but you can't please everybody, and the industry I'm in is very opinionated. Usually I just say 'thanks a million for the feedback' or offer to meet them for a coffee to discuss it further."
From what we've seen of him on screen and his talk of boldly offering to meet Twitter trolls for coffee, you'd assume the trainer is a fairly confident sort. But not so. In fact, apparently a repeat encounter with one of those shopping-basket detectives we talked about earlier left him so red-faced that he abandoned his shop altogether.
"I'd one lady at the checkout in the supermarket we used to go to and if I got her, she'd talk through my whole shopping trolley for the whole place to hear," he recalls. "I actually stopped going there because of it. Not because I was embarrassed by what I was buying but because I'm actually quite shy and she was really loud!
"I hate being the centre of attention; all my friends know that," he continues. "Even a dinner party, that would stress me out, but work is different. Very early on in my career, I managed to split the personal and the business, so when it comes to work stuff, I'd have a confidence that I wouldn't have on a personal level."
If a career in health and fitness hadn't beckoned - let alone one that involved appearing on telly and writing regularly for hundreds of thousands of Irish Independent readers - he reckons he'd have found himself in a much more solitary, low-key profession. "I always wanted to be an archaeologist - Time Team on Channel 4 is my favourite show ever - or work in a book shop."
In a world that places a premium on toned bodies in sportswear, one might wonder what sort of life span a personal trainer has. But Karl reckons his brand of fitness is always pushing the boundaries beyond mere sweat and spandex. "This is the first book I've done where I haven't been on the cover in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt," he reveals. "I feel this one has grown the brand; it goes down the wellness route and healthy-living guidebook route rather than the exercise route. So in terms of life span, I think if as you go on you're developing your experience, you're consistently learning and you love it, then I don't think there has to be a life span on it."
Right now he has too much in the pipeline to even be thinking about the twilight of his career. He's already working on a sixth book, this time tacking the issue of child obesity. With one in four Irish children now overweight or obese, it's certainly an area that needs attention. "I think that's where we need to start laying the foundations of health, and families and schools need to work together," he says.
It's certainly one I can imagine parents wanting to chat to him about in the supermarket - just maybe lay off commenting on the contents of his basket.
Picture: fran veale
What to do about back pain
Back issues and back pain are one of the most common complaints I come across when screening new clients or giving talks. This is a subject I am very familiar with - I have a curvature in my spine, my dad had two discs taken out and my mum has a twisted pelvis - so between us as a family, we have accumulated quite a bit of experience in dealing with the back! I am not a physiotherapist and will always direct people to a physio when required, but I love working with clients on their back issues. From my years of experience, I know there are some simple things you can do to both reduce your risk of back issues and also help alleviate the pain when it flares up.
The first thing to remember is that backs need movement - normally low-intensity movement such as walking or swimming if you're having back pain. Fast walking is one of my favourite ways to loosen out a bad back. Walk on a flat route rather than uneven or hilly ground. Unless advised to do so, sitting for long periods of time is never good for your back; it will tend to stiffen up and just get worse.
The next thing to look at is your level of flexibility. Tight hamstrings and bad backs always go together. Your hamstrings are the muscles at the backs of your legs and poor flexibility here will dramatically increase your risk of back issues. You can test your hamstring flexibility by sitting on the floor, with your feet together, legs straight out in front of you. Simply raise your hands in the air and lower them down, trying to touch your toes. How far can you get? In an ideal world, you should be able to touch your toes or get close to them along the shin. You can use a towel to help you improve this: wrap it around
your feet and hold either end with your hands. Creep your hands along the towel gently to bring yourself further forward and give yourself a stretch.
Back problems and poor posture very often go together. We are designed to stand up straight. Yet between work, lack of activity and watching a lot of TV, people have worse posture than ever. I have two tips for improving posture. First, pull your belly button in towards your spine when sitting/standing/walking - this will naturally force you to straighten up and strengthen your abdominal muscles. Second, don't sit or stand for long periods of time with both feet flat on the ground. By doing this, you are naturally placing more pressure on your lower back. Instead, get a book or box about 10cm in height and place one foot on this during the day, randomly alternating your feet. You will be surprised at the difference it makes.
Turn red zones into green zones
Finding more hours in your week to focus on your diet and fitness goals is great, but don't write off all the other hours. The ways that you spend the hours in your day need to be tailored towards health in every way possible. From your car to your desk to your kitchen, you need to turn these from unhealthy to healthy zones, from red to green. Not organising yourself for your day will slowly sabotage all your efforts. Remember the old saying 'If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail'? Well, nowhere is it more apt than when it comes to getting healthier.
So, take a look at your day from start to finish. Most people's lives fall into these zones: morning, travel to work, work/lunch/work, travel from work, home, weekends. Of course, there will be lots of variety depending on your circumstances, but you get the general idea - it's all about engineering things so that the healthier option is always available. Here are some simple tips to make each zone healthier:
● Don't rush straight into the shower - do a few gentle stretches first.
● Before your shower, have a glass of warm water and lemon.
● If you want to get in a run, walk or workout session in the morning, leave your gear out the night before.
● Prepare your breakfast the night before.
Commuting to and from work
● Have some healthy snacks in your bag in case you missed breakfast or you are hungry at the end of the day.
● Get off the bus or train one stop earlier.
● Read something positive.
● Use the time for planning - put together a goal list.
● If you're driving, check your posture and keep checking it - make sure your head is erect, your shoulders relaxed and your tummy pulled in.
● Keep a bottle of water in your car.
● Download a motivational podcast to listen to. Alternatively, try to work on your stress levels by listening to your favourite music or comedy show.
● Use the stairs - great for your lungs, your legs and also your stress levels. It gets easier in time!
● On a Monday, stock up with fruit and nuts for healthy snacking during your mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks throughout the week. But try not to graze continually.
● Keep a large bottle or jug of water on your desk and make sure you finish it by the end of the day.
● Keep herbal teabags at your desk if they are not provided and try to alternate tea and coffee with herbal tea.
● Walk around to colleagues' desks instead of emailing about everything.
● Stand more.
● Switch to a Swiss ball instead of an office chair - see if you can get a standing desk.
● If you're arranging meetings, avoid putting out plates of pastries and biscuits - most people don't need them! If you need to provide snacks, make them healthy snacks.
● Can you have standing or walking meetings?
We have all been there - when stressed or upset, our food choices become poor and we crave high-sugar foods that make us feel better for a little while. To limit the damage from a comfort-eating binge, try these simple tips:
● Don't have foods you know you'll binge on in the house in the first place.
● Try not to shop when you're in bad form if you can possibly help it.
● If you're buying yourself a comfort-eating treat, get just one of the product - so just one bar instead of a whole pack.
● Plan your comfort eating, i.e. decide to have a treat but limit it to just one day or one meal.
● Go for a short walk.
● Discuss your problems with a friend or partner.
● Remind yourself that it may be easy to eat but will take time to work off (as the old saying goes, "Seconds on the lips, a lifetime on the hips") and you'll be annoyed with yourself later.
They may seem like really simple tips, but they work. Life is not perfect; there are good and bad days, ups and downs. It's important to accept that sometimes you're going to be in bad form and you'll be near something tempting and you won't be able to resist it. That doesn't mean you're always going to do it or that you have no self-control. Don't beat yourself up about it. Remind yourself that you're taking much better care of yourself now and you are just going to resume your good habits. Draw a line in the sand and move on as quickly as you can.