My secret wellness weapon

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My favourite wellness tip: use your diary

I am a doctor and a wellness coach. I have made my living designing and delivering health & wellness services of one type or another. For 25 years now. I know what is healthy and what is not. I am, in all seriousness, something of an expert. And yet my own wellness journey has been rather different from what you might expect…

I have avoided smoking, drugs, excess alcohol (mostly). I have never been overweight. I have avoided hospitalisation entirely (since my tonsils were cruelly removed at age 9 or 10). So it has not been a disaster. But it’s exercise I have struggled with. I know how important it is physically and mentally. I do not unduly dislike working up a sweat. I have had fit years when I could (and even did) run a half marathon in under 2 hours (and then needed 2 knee operations, but that is another story). But I have also had (many) unfit years when I hardly moved from the couch at all (literally, almost). I have just struggled to develop a sustained habit of living actively. And I have never used the most commonly offered excuses: time and money – I know there is enough time for anything we decide is important enough and I know that exercise needn’t break the budget. In truth I am not sure what the problem has been. Maybe it’s that exercise can be boring (certain it is if you do something you actually dislike). Maybe (no, definitely) I am not a strong morning person. Maybe my variable work and travel schedule creates interruptions rather too often. All of these I guess, and yet I suspect there is something else I have simply not figured out.

The big change

For the last 3 1/2 years I have lived actively. I have consistently done at least 3 hours of proper exercise (sweaty out-of-breath stuff) every week, often more. This has included hiking, cycling, and kayaking mainly (no gym; I hate gyms). My resting heart rate has been around 60. I have been and I am fairly fit.

What changed? I started using my diary as a wellness tool. Specifically I booked adventures and trips, paid deposits, and diarised the dates. These were typically mountain hiking trips (something I really enjoy and something our country is richly blessed with). Trips that I knew I could not complete without being fit. I have always had at least one trip booked and diarised and I have done 2, 3, or 4 trips a year (e.g. Drakensberg Grand Traverse, Tanka Camino). THIS has made all the difference. On those mornings when I am tempted to skip my training I just have to think about the hike coming up next month to decide “no, I have to get out and get active”. It really works for me. It really is this simple. Enough said.

The bottom line – If you are anything like me, and I know that many people are, this might really help you. You want to exercise. You know you can. You do, sometimes. But you are not consistent….Take my advice and try using your diary. The trick is to book something a good few months ahead. Make sure it is something you enjoy but something you need some fitness for. It might be a mass-participation race or event, a long hike, a slack-packing walk, some bicycle touring, whatever works for you. Once it’s booked you’ll be “forced” to train. Simple as that. It really does work!

About the Author:

Colin was a medical practitioner (GP) from 1988 to 2000. Since then he has worked in the wellness field, designing, developing and delivering various products and services. Out of clinical practice for many years now he no longer practices medicine formally but retains a keen interest in helping people become more-well versions of themselves. He acts as a wellness coach and not as a medical practitioner today. Colin's approach and philosophy is based on empowerment: the notion that people only need a little help to make choices they usually already want to anyway - it's about respect and support rather than instruction or correction. Colin lives at the Vaal Dam with his wife Cathy. He spends time walking mountains, cycling, motorbike riding, kayaking, sailing and always looking for better & better balance.


  1. Bea vd Merwe August 16, 2018 at 2:55 pm - Reply


    I think you have done well over your years and it sounds like you feel good about what you have been able to achieve throughout. What is noticeable in your story is that you keep on trying and your vigilance to succeed and get something done does not go away, in-spite of your unplanned stops along the way.

    I like your idea of writing things down and planning events as motivation. This does not cost much and anyone can start there. Most of us really only need that, a push in the right direction. It takes a decision and a commitment into your own wellbeing to just get up and do something, almost without thinking about it to much. Today we over think and want things to happen to us instead of getting up and making them happen for ourselves. It is typical of our day and age. Taking action to plan and write something down is the first step out the door to a more active and healthy lifestyle! No more excuses about time or tiredness or tomorrow… #OWNIT and make it happen. Have your own story to tell another day.

    • Dr Colin Burns August 17, 2018 at 6:24 am - Reply

      Thanks Bea. Yes, my ups-and downs have been interesting and if my story helps to underline how a simple thing can become life-changing (I truly believe it can) then I am very pleased to share it.

  2. Liesel August 16, 2018 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure whether keeping a diary would work – as this, in its own, requires discipline and commitment. What works for me, is to do activities that include the entire family. This way, we all get a workout and manage to bond as a family too 🙂

  3. Philna Marsh August 17, 2018 at 3:59 am - Reply

    This is so true, because if one books an event in your diary you are committed to what to intend to do. We need to be committed as get our health in shape. Awesome idea.

  4. Elize Basson August 17, 2018 at 6:18 am - Reply

    All woman and men, you have to adhere to the yearly, two or three yearly, routine wellness checks, mammograms, prostate checks, ECG(ask for stressed ECG), etc.. This will ensure you are well aware of your health status and will ensure that you know how you should feel if all is in good working order, in this way you will be well aware of something goes/feels wrong and know to react immediately.
    Also donate blood, if you can, as this is very important for your own body, your own sanity and feel good as well as those people who benefit from your donation. There are a few basic tests being performed then and you can benefit from this as they will also notify you of any issues.

    My husband has a coronary artery disease and would not have been aware of this if he did not develop dementia at age 53 for no obvious reason, my understanding was that one of the main reasons for development of dementia is normally a shortage of oxygen to the brain and the MR scan showed no brain injury or damage except for the dementia. . Because I wanted to ensure all avenues were covered I took him to a physician who did a normal ECG and then a stress ECG and only then detected some problems and directed him to a Cardiologist. Two days later he was admitted and received 3 stents in 3 of the main arteries from the heart feeding oxygen to the body, which were 98% blocked. He never had chest pains, were out of breath or felt tired, no heartburn in fact he was actually quite fit as he did jogging, cycling and hiking, yet he was so close to having a heart attack and did not even know something was wrong in that way. One month prior to all of this we attempted to hike the Fish River Canyon and we both passed our medicals, unfortunately we only did the first 10km as I was overcome with a muscle collapse and could not go any further and had to make use of the emergency exit. This was just as well as it could have turned out in a much bigger disaster should we have continued not knowing the real condition of my husbands heart.

    • Dr Colin Burns August 17, 2018 at 6:28 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing this Elize. It’s scary how health issues can creep up on us and it’s certainly true that some regular health checks will help identify these things early. No 100% guarantees but really worthwhile. I wish you and your husband well.

  5. Veronica du Preez August 17, 2018 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Although my whole life I’m fairly a healthy person, never overweight and not really doing any sport or exercise, my whole life changed a lot after a big loss. I was depressed and have no energy. I decided to start running during the week, on Saturdays I’m doing Parkrun and my goal was to reach 100 runs with a time under 30 minutes.
    It was a big challenge, discipline and commitment, but I’ve done it and my mental state and physical health improved tremendously.
    I’m still running and enjoy it a lot!

    All I can say, there’s no better “medicine” than exercise and to get out in nature.

  6. Ayesha August 17, 2018 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    Hi There,

    Personally I am going through a huge dip myself however, these are the things I have insisted upon to ensure that number 1, I am ok so that number 2, my family can be ok

    1. 30 Look in the face family time everyday – no devices allowed to be present (talk or not but be present and in the moment)
    2. Take the time journal not only what my plans are, but how I feel – half the time it is haphazard and doesn’t flow(which affects the control freak in me) but its ok
    3. When things become much and I feel isolated (which is easiest to do), I write my family (whomever is applicable at that time) a letter. I allow them the space to read, acknowledge and formulate how to respond to me – if it is needed (sometimes I just need them to know where I am so that they can understand where I am in my head / space)
    4. Weekends – one day is spent doing family things (and other planned activities) and the other is spent at home – with each other, half the time in pj’s for the day. We all need at least one off day.
    5. Make a point on focusing on making yourself feel healthier – when you are ok, you can be there for everyone else.

    Good luck to everyone nd take those first steps in your mind that will make the physical movements easier.

  7. Palesa Tshabalala August 20, 2018 at 3:00 pm - Reply


    It is a struggle to get something that will keep on being an inspiration to stay in shape .I totally love the idea to write things down as when you see it ,its as if your brain picks it up as a Must do and until its done you can never let go .

    I even get to the point where I write little thing like drinking water ,eating well for the day ,rest for five minutes ,when I have them down it means they are important enough to be done and they will get done when you see them pop up on your diary time and time again when you go through it and another thing that works is once you have done what you wrote tick it as a done ( whether you use a tick or you scratch it out ,it gives a sense of accomplishment.

    Its not how big the task is ,it is how you get there slowly and having to dedicate everyday to take little steps that will eventually get me to a belter living ,these moments becomes a pleasure more that a task .I have to complete.

  8. H. Weber August 21, 2018 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    I do not like exercising although I am not unhealthy. I made a decision not to use the nearest printer in the office and need to walk to the other side to get my printing. Sometimes I have so much energy bottled up and then I walk the stairs just to find out how unfit and short of breath I am. I just have to get a mind sift to get started. When I’m really frustrated I just start cleaning the house and afterwards I am tired and stiff but feel so good about what I have achieved until next time.

    • Dr Colin Burns August 21, 2018 at 3:22 pm - Reply

      I appreciate your honesty here Henriette. I am sure many people can relate to what you are describing. I suggest you consider entering an event/booking something a few months ahewd of time, so you’re forced to train a bit Nothing too extreme. Perhaps a 5 – 10 km walk, for example….Best wishes!

  9. Naomi VIljoen August 23, 2018 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    I started my fitness journey in Feb 2018 when my daughter entered me into a “mommy challenge”. Getting up at 4 in the morning to join a group of moms on the same journey was my motivation. I started entering for official races/events, my first 5km was in March and has since gone to FNB 12.5km and now planning my very first half marathon in Nov 2018. The planning ahead and entering for formal events has helped me with preparing (mentally and physically) for achieving my own fitness dreams. This REALLY works and made by journey lots of fun!

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