Sam Murphy

Sam Murphy

The author and fitness guru shares her approach to writing a winning article.

I put down the phone. Great! I've just been commissioned by a newspaper to write a piece on how exercise can make you happy. It's something I feel really strongly about - I know that I always come back from a run in a better mood than when I went - or that I feel really virtuous when I come out the gym or swimming pool, all showered and back on top of things.

So how do I go about making the article happen? Sit down and wait for the words to flow out of my head and onto the screen? I wish! Writers work in many different ways. Some just plunge in and start writing while others do reams of research about their subject matter. Some start at the beginning and work towards the end, while others write the main points down and then build the rest of the article around them. You have to find your own way of working - but I thought I'd share mine with you, to give you an idea of the process from start to finish...

Thinking it over.

OK, so first step. Most likely I'll go and put the kettle on, make a cup of tea - decide the dog needs grooming, or that I better pop out for some more milk... It's called procrastination, guys! And what it means is that when you know you have a task to do, you'll find anything and everything else more pressing. I don't know why it happens - but I've got a sneaking feeling that it does have a purpose (up to a point). I believe (or at least, I hope!) that while you are vacuuming your room, sorting your CDs into alphabetical order or taking the dog for a walk, your mind is busy thinking over the task you have been set and beginning to hatch out ways of fulfilling it.

Get on with it!

You have to be careful not to let yourself procrastinate for too long, however. At some point, those ideas floating around your head have to make it on to the page. And remember, you're up against a deadline...I give myself a couple of hours - or a day at most - to ponder on my task before I take action.

What's my point?

So, once I've given the idea some space to move around in my mind, I ask myself a couple of questions. First off - what I am trying to convey in this article? Answer: I am trying to motivate and inspire people to exercise - not just for the sake of their bodies but also for their minds - to give them another compelling reason to put on those trainers.

Know your target and aim to please.

Next question - who am I conveying it to? Imagine I was writing it for The Sun newspaper. I'd have to be brash and bold about it. Maybe a headline like 'Exercise better than sex for putting a smile on your face!' would work...But if I was writing it for The Daily Telegraph, my approach would be entirely different. I would probably go down the more scientific route and flag up '59% of people work off worries in the gym'. You must know your audience, and what they are likely to expect from you. That goes for whether you are writing an exam paper, a job application or an article for your local newspaper.

Prove your point.

OK, so I know what I want to say and to whom I'm saying it. How am I going to convey the story? By presenting my readers with information about the ways in which exercise can improve mood, alleviate stress and depression and make people feel better about themselves. Now, this is where the research comes in. It's all very well me saying 'Oh, I always feel less stressed after a workout...' but do they really give a monkey's about me and my moods? How do they know they'll feel the same? It's much more powerful if it says something like 'in a study of 100 people, 85 of them felt happier and more positive after a workout.' That's compelling evidence.

Do your research.

My next task, then, is to find the evidence to back up what I want to say. That's where textbooks, the Internet, specialist journals and emails or phone calls to experts come in.

First impressions count.

Once I've got all the material I want to use to back up my points, I have to prioritise the information. You need to put something really good near the beginning to draw your reader in. If you start with a dull, boring fact or anecdote, then most readers will switch off and lose interest. (And then they'll never read all that great stuff that you put halfway down the page!!)

Logical low-down.

There also needs to be some sense to the order in which you put things. So don't veer from one subject to the next - try to apply logic. For example, I might talk about how exercise has helped me get over a bad day, and then mention that this has been found to be true in many research studies. And then I expand to say that - if you do it regularly, you'll actually become more resilient to stress in the first place, so will be better able to weather the storms of tough days. And then I might say - but what if all your days are tough? That gives me the perfect opportunity to mention depression, and how research shows that exercise can help alleviate it as successfully as medication can, quoting the research I've found to back it up.

Paint a personal picture.

While I do bring in lots of research and facts, I like to have a personal feel in my work. I like to give a feeling of kinship with the reader - that I'm not talking down to them, patronising them, or speaking from a 'higher' level. The way I try to do this is by opening the piece with a personal experience, and then, to give a nice feeling of roundness and completion, I'll finish the piece with something personal too - ideally something slightly amusing or at least uplifting. My goal is to get people to finish reading what I've written thinking 'that could work for me,' or 'I could try that.'

Sleep on it.

Finally, when I've finished writing the piece, do you think I send it straight off to the newspaper? No way! I need to check that the word count tallies with the number that they asked for. If not, I may need to do some cutting or adding. I'll also read it through carefully, looking for typos and clumsy sentences as well as for repetition or bits that are confusing. If at all possible, I'll 'sleep on it' and look at it the following day with a fresh eye. And then, when I'm happy I've done the best job I can, I'll send it off. And then, maybe, go for a run.

  • Read the following article by Sam Murphy.

Why working out can make you happy

Sam Murphy explains how the benefits of exercise go far further than firmer thighs and flatter tummies.

The grass is springy underfoot today, low cloud is settling in the valley and the air is clean and cool - the scent of rain on bracken lingers. Half an hour ago, I was typing furiously, on a deadline, fielding phone calls and juggling household chores. Now I am running, and the rest of the world is momentarily put aside. The path snakes uphill, and when I reach the peak, I stop to survey the view, waiting for my breath to quieten before I jog the meandering descent, sure of foot, clear of head and light of heart.

If you don't work out, you may be thinking to yourself 'why doesn't she just go to the pub like everyone else, if she's had a stressful day?' But anyone reading this who exercises regularly will know how powerful a workout can be in calming the mind, lifting the spirits and energising the body.

And now science is beginning to back up what has been, until recently, simple intuition. A recent study conducted at Texas A&M University, for example, looked at 'fit and 'unfit' volunteers' ability to handle physical challenges. The researchers found that the fit volunteers were not only better able to cope with the rigorous tasks set for them, but they were also more able to handle the mental stress and emotional trauma associated with the more hair-raising tasks, such as climbing ropes and white-water rafting. 'These results indicate that a fit person can handle stress much better,' says Camille Bunting, a researcher in health and kinesiology at the university. In other words, whipping your body into shape hones your mental responses, too.

In fact, it may even be able to get you out of a tight spot, by improving your creative thinking processes. Yes, research suggests that exercise can help you think more clearly and make better decisions, as well as boosting memory, concentration and problem-solving. For example, a study from Nihon Fukushi University in Japan found that people scored consistently better on mental tests after taking up running, while. the University of Illinois showed that 45 minutes of fast walking, 3 times a week, improved women's ability to reason and make decisions.

Learning to field the challenges of the day are one thing, but can exercise help if every day is a bad day, as in the case of depression? Research shows quite conclusively that it can. Mental health charity MIND, found that 59% of respondents to a survey believed physical activity aided their mental health. It seems that the type of exercise isn't important (as long as it is something you enjoy) but consistency and regular participation are. James Blumenthal, a psychology professor at Duke University, did a study in which he compared the effects of exercise on mood and depressive symptoms in a group of depressed adults, compared to a group just taking antidepressant medication, and a group that both exercised and took medication. After four months, all the subjects had improved and the study ended. But over the next six months, Blumenthal noticed that those who had exercised had a far lower relapse rate than those who had been on medication, particularly those who had continued to be active after the study finished.

So how does exercise have such a powerful effect on our mental health? There are a number of different theories. In the past, it has always been attributed to the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, stimulated by exercise. Endorphins are 'feelgood' hormones, which act to mask pain and produce a feeling of well being. Another theory suggests that the rise in body temperature resulting from prolonged activity, helps to promote muscle relaxation and decrease tension - much the same as having a hot bath.

But more recently, scientists are beginning to believe that the influence is less physiological and more psychological. The feeling of having accomplished something, having performed well in a challenging hockey match, for example, simply leaves you feeling good about yourself - exercise scientists call this the 'mastery theory'. The idea that exercise takes your mind off the daily grind is behind 'distraction' theory. Whether you're concentrating on your technique, or simply 'thinking about nothing' you are diverting attention from the usual internal chatter, resulting in a feeling of well-being.

In truth, though, it doesn't really matter why exercise makes us happy - it only matters that it does. Daily stresses, chores, fears and hassles - they all fade into the background when I set my body in motion, alongside the knowledge that I'm working my way to better health and fitness. And besides, a new pair of trainers is much cheaper than therapy.

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