THIS year, 2012, the Year of the Dragon, make this the year you finally get healthy. OK, so you've probably made that resolution before, after way too many ill-advised pigs in blankets and mint thins (funny how you feel anything but thin after eating them).
But taking a tip from the Chinese could be the first step to a slimmer waistline.
“As frustrating as it may be,” says Edinburgh-based personal trainer and health guru Tracy Griffen, “try using chopsticks. It will slow down how fast you shovel food into your mouth and also assist your co-ordination.”
It’s just one of the practical tips included in her Healthy Living Yearbook, a month-by-month guide to a better way of life. Griffen is happy to accept the seasons play havoc with our heads. When she first moved to Scotland from Australia, the constantly changing weather was a big shock to the system.
“I had absolutely no idea,” she says. “It's not just the snow and the rain and the wind; it's also the light levels. Each year I notice that people's attitude towards fitness and diet changes, and I don't think it's just because it's cold and it's coming up to Christmas; I think it is down to the neuro-transmitters, the serotonin, the melatonin.”
The 37-year-old admits to having an advantage over most Scots, in that she went to an athletic school in Australia and spent her days riding a bike around the sun-filled countryside. “I've been running and cycling since I was a teenager and have always been fit and healthy,” she says.
“My friends say I’m hyperactive. I bounce about. When I used to work in an office, I'd be riding my bike to the gym at lunchtime and going to the gym after work just to try and burn off a bit of my hyperactivity. I genuinely love it, and I really like helping people find things they like to do.”
Moving to Edinburgh 14 years ago to work at the Festival, she liked it so much she stayed. “One of my first jobs in Edinburgh was working at Deacon Brodie’s pub. They needed a vegetarian cook – they were ahead of their time 14 years ago – and I knew there was an increase in demand for vegetarian food, so I helped them out with that.”
Now her mission is to pass all her infectious enthusiasm and zest for life on to the rest of us, helping us stay active and motivated, no matter what the weather is doing, by looking at diet, time-management and trying to find exercises that people genuinely enjoy.
There are recipe ideas for food that’s in season (January features easy peasy pea and pearl barley risotto and fabulous flapjacks) and inspiration for staying motivated. Next month, she surprisingly suggests having cake for breakfast. “If you would like to enjoy a wee sweet something,” she reasons, “have it early in the day. You’re more likely to burn it off as you are more active during the day. Any treats you snack on late at night, you might as well imagine patting on to your thighs and sleeping with.”
Oatcakes are Griffen’s superfood, and each month includes a topping of the month, from avocado or kidney bean pâté to mashed banana and honey (“turn it into an oaty banoffee pie”) or home-made houmous. “Oatcakes are my favourite food for energy,” she says. “As a mid-morning snack, they can’t be beaten.” They are low on the glycaemic index and keep you feeling fuller for longer. “So if you have a snack of oatcakes in the morning, come lunchtime you’re less likely to reach for junk food.” However, she warns us to steer clear of ‘luxury’ oatcakes – some of which have as much as 4.5g of fat per piece. “That’s more than a digestive biscuit.”
Never mind Westminster’s two alcohol-free days a week recommendation, she advises having an alcohol-free week every month, gives tips on how to boost your immune system and explains exactly how yo-yo dieting never works. She also provides advice on how to stay healthy during barbecue season and weighs up the good, the bad and the ugly of the biscuit tin (surprisingly, the humble fig roll comes out on top).
Each chapter of her book includes a review of a piece of kit, from the Ab Wheel and Thighmaster of the 1980s to pilates and pedometers. “I used them all,” says Griffen. “December is the bed of nails – which is actually more ‘ow’ than ‘wow’. I like to understand the theory behind it, the physics. I was going to be a chemical engineer and decided not to do that. But I quite like to understand how different equipment works.”
January, though, is a time for starting the way you mean to go on. “Throw out all your Christmas leftovers,” she says. “Take them in to work and dump them on someone's desk. People feel the need to hoard for Christmas and you have all this junk food. Get rid of it and don't get any more.”
When it gets darker, she says, we’re also inclined to do more snacking in front of the TV at night. “Eat earlier in the day so you're less inclined to eat in the evening,” she says. “And walk to work if you can. Start to increase activity levels. Have a structured plan and schedule an activity in the diary. I like to find out what people used to do. So if you used to swim as a teenager, go for a swim. If you used to go for bike rides, take up cycling again or go to a spin class.”
Come spring, though, the nights are getting longer, and resolve can crumble as we get bored with our routine. This is the time to make an action plan of what we want to achieve, whether that be the Moonwalk, a 10k run or some other event. “Be honest with yourself about how much time you have available,” says Griffen. “If you're going to train for a marathon, it's going to take time. Six weeks is not long enough. And don't be afraid to seek the help of a professional, who can see things from a different perspective and help protect you from injury.” Also, if you've started running or cycling, this is the time to up the mileage.
Then along comes summer, when we are naturally more energetic and can make the most of bright nights. “Try new things,” says Griffen. “Think creatively and plan healthy holidays. Do aqua aerobics in the hotel swimming pool, perhaps, and develop good habits that you can continue through the year.”
Then, before we know it, autumn creeps in and, with it, the cold, dark nights. “Set short-term goals,” says Griffen. “That might be a Hogmanay outfit you want to fit into.
“And buy waterproof trousers and ice grips for your shoes – have the right equipment so that you are prepared for winter exercise. A lot of people feel inadequate going to a gym,” she says. “People don't like being seen with a red face, and even going for a walk around the park can be a challenge for them.
“But getting a good exercise programme doesn't mean you have to leap about in Lycra and doesn't mean you have to wear clingy clothes. I just want to make it really accessible. I want people to feel the same way about exercise and food that I do.”
• Healthy Living Yearbook, £9.99, from Waterstone’s and independent booksellers. Tracy Griffen is holding a Q&A session at Waterstone’s, Ocean Terminal, Leith, Thursday, 7pm-8pm