THE FOGGY START TO THE DAY gave way to a beautiful blue sky, sunshine and about as perfect a day for diving as you could hope for in mid-September, when DIVERs Fitness Challenge got underway at the National Diving Centre at Stoney Cove in Leicestershire.
DIVER and Stoney first staged this event in 1998 - seven years on, and after too many diving incidents nationwide attributed to poor health and fitness, it was time to find out whether divers were taking the state of their bodies more seriously.
After setting up his equipment, Carl Weston, fitness manager and personal trainer at Champneys Forest Mere in Surrey, tugged firmly down on his woollen hat, rubbed his hands and waited for his first victim of the day.
Editor Steve Weinman and I trawled for unsuspecting candidates as they passed, many in full kit, at the entrance to our lair, in what was destined to be Stoney Coves new Air Bar. The idea was that Carl would check out, with the help of high-tec computer equipment, divers blood pressure, lung-function, resting heart rate and percentage of body fat to assess what kind of shape they were in and if they were fit to dive.
I was there to find out what divers eat (and drink!) both day to day and on the day of diving, as nutrition naturally plays a vital role in our overall levels of health.
As a surprising number of divers began to gather around the door of the fitness testing room, and Carl processed their vital statistics, it soon became clear that we had one worried trainer on our hands.
Ive never seen blood pressures like this, he kept repeating. Im seriously concerned. Im not joking; I wouldnt let people in my gyms with readings like this!
hspace=5 Concerned divers and the team gathered round and pondered over whether this was simply the white coat effect, which means that blood pressure tends to go up a bit simply through the stress of having it read, or whether the cold water was sending levels soaring.
Carl weighed up the odds and decided that neither explanation wholly satisfied the case. The results of between-dive divers continued to cause him alarm.
I would have to recommend that these people went away and lay down for a short time to help get their blood pressure down. I certainly wouldnt recommend they go diving again for a couple of hours, in some cases three or more.
Such a break would also give divers a chance for their resting heart rates, many of which were also far higher than normal, to return to a safe level.
For my part, the most sensible suggestion to help avoid blood pressures rising further was that our guinea pigs avoid coffee, colas, energy drinks and even tea between dives. Caffeine in these drinks exacerbates the obvious stress that the diving was putting on our divers circulatory systems, and can push blood pressure further up.
hspace=5 So too does salty food such as crisps and bacon butties, not to mention foods rich in saturated fat, which meant that chips smothered in cheese from the kiosk were suddenly looking like a poor choice for some.
Wanting to get to the bottom of the blood-pressure problem, we later showed the results to Dr Christine Cridge of the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth.
The blood-pressure readings are certainly abnormally high, she agreed. The cold can be a factor in raising blood pressure but this is usually a short-term effect and shouldnt be playing a part an hour after a dive.
There are many other factors that may influence blood pressure, and to be sure of what is going on, tests would need to be done pre- and post-dives.
Blood pressure aside, another noticeable observation on the day was how few divers hit the normal ranges for percentage body fat, which was surprising, as nobody who came in for testing looked particularly out of shape.
This did not bode well for those who strode defiantly past us with bellies bulging over their half-on, half-off drysuits as they lined up at the compressor-room opposite.
hspace=5 The lung-function test is a reflection of cardiovascular fitness, and results were generally good, although not surprisingly the smokers tended to fare worse than non-smokers, and people who did even modest amounts of midweek fitness had the best results.
When it came to diet, one obvious trend emerged. Hardly anyone was going to win brownie points from the Rosemary Conley low-fat school of eating. That said, our female divers tended to eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods than the male counterparts, and they certainly drank far less alcohol.
The men, no names mentioned, varied from downing a bottle of wine or 5-6 cans of lager a day in the 50-plus age group to a fair bit of weekend binge-drinking for the under-40s.
No one expects divers to be pumping iron and running half-marathons to keep in shape for their sport, but being overtly out of shape is not a smart move.
The fitter you are, the more you get from your diving. Not only does fitness often improve your air consumption, but it reduces the risk of problems under water caused by poor circulation, and helps you cope with the unexpected, such as currents both below and on the surface (not a problem at Stoney) or having to help out a diver in trouble.
And, of course, poor fitness and raised body-fat percentage are risk factors for decompression illness.

hspace=5 Greg Hackney, 39, a sales director from Cheltenham and a PADI Assistant Instructor, has been diving for six years and admitted to feeling a little weary on the day of our tests: All down to rather a lot of nocturnal activity, he explained, as his friends listened in envy. Thats as maybe, but whatever Greg had been up to on Friday night did not explain his higher than normal pre-dive blood pressure at 10am on Saturday morning. Im surprised, said Greg. Carls also told me I have 20% body fat, and apparently it should be 12-18% for a bloke my age. I weigh 84kg, which is heavier than I thought, and although I drive a desk far too much at work and dont go to the gym like I used to, I try to watch my diet. Maybe Ill have to re-think things. My lung function was only just in the normal range, so it looks like Im going to have to sort myself out a bit.

Melvin Blake, an accountant from London, is 35 and, like his friend Greg, has been diving for six years and is a PADI Assistant Instructor. When Carl announced Melvins body fat to be 24%, he protested loudly that it was all muscle. I was a bit disappointed. Its gone up from 20% and although I knew I was a bit podgy, Im going to have to get to the gym more. Mind you, I had the best lung capacity results of the day, so thats something.
I guess Im going to have to fix those 10 pints at the weekends. Especially as I dont like it when I see unfit people puffing and panting to get in the water. The words pot, kettle and black will quite fairly be used on me if I don't get a grip.
When Greg and Melvins diving friend Richard Titcombes turn came, he appeared to be an altogether slimmer, trimmer and healthier-looking candidate: Im a heating engineer in London and Im on my feet all day. Im a member of a gym and my girlfriend who cooks for me is vegetarian. A scratch below the surface however revealed that Richard, 25, never actually goes to the gym and undoes his other halfs health-conscious cooking with bacon sarnies for breakfast; ham rolls, sausage rolls, crisps and chocolate for lunch. Which helped to explain Carls verdict: In spite of a body fat of just 14% and a normal weight, his resting heart rate was poor and, for his age, his lung function could be better. I suggest he cleans up his health act because hes too young to be getting these kinds of results. Richard looked suitably sheepish as he sloped out of the testing room.
Tony Fukes, 56 and from Nottingham, was full of life as he bounded in for testing post-dive. Notching up around 100 dives a year mostly off the British coast, Tony is a National Instructor with a fairly active job in the building trade. I also work out five times a week. I have a meat cob for breakfast, quite a bit of fruit and lots of chicken and vegetables for dinner.
I only drink a few glasses of wine on a Saturday night but none if Im diving on a Sunday. Carl was therefore taken aback at the results of Tonys blood pressure: I would advise Tony not to dive again for at least two hours. He also advised Tony to up his cardiovascular work-outs to burn more calories and shift a bit of weight. Doing this regularly will help to get his body fat down from 27%, which is on the high side. Over 50, you would expect a mans body fat to be 12-20%.

Of all the divers who crossed our threshold, Nigel Slade, a 56-year-old building engineer from Banbury, was the bravest to subject himself to close scrutiny. I dive abroad mostly. I had an aneurism on a dive in Thailand six years ago and was on life-support for six weeks. Having been out of the water for an hour and a half, Nigels blood pressure had almost returned to normal. His resting heart rate is fine and his lung function too, said Carl. All Id say is that at 83kg with a height of 5ft 10in, Id like to see Nigel lose a bit of weight and get down to 74-78kg to be in top shape. I didnt think that would be hard if Nigel swapped his mid-morning Crunchies for a banana and his cheese baguette at lunch for a sandwich filled with lean beef or tuna, then swapped his chicken pies for roast chicken at dinner. Saving well over 1000 calories a day like this would soon see the kilos fall. Nigel rubbed his chin, admitted that he had not been to the gym since his aneurism, and agreed that a few dietary tweaks would not go amiss.
When Dave Singleton sat down, I guessed he was in his late 50s. Im 70, he replied, on being asked his age. Everyone took a second look in total admiration of Dave who, a BSAC Instructor, has been diving for 34 years. Ive just dived once today, he told Carl, who was impressed with Daves blood pressure and declared it to be the most normal of all the post-dive guinea-pigs tested so far. But as Dave observed: It would concern me if people dived again with high blood pressure. Im surprised mine is raised at all, even though its better than other peoples. With a slightly higher-than-normal body fat (29%, where when Carl suggests 22 to be normal for a 70-year-old), Dave admitted to tucking into the odd cake and biscuit. Maybe I should limit them. Mind you, I could do with a pint after all of this...

Helen Atherton, 32, learnt to dive at Stoney Cove five years ago and dives three times a month. Im very aware of how important it is to be fit for diving and I take it seriously, although I honestly dont think a lot of people do, said Helen. They just seem to let it wash over them and yet physiologically, its a massive strain on our bodies. I eat really healthily and work out during the week to keep fit. Helens hard work seems to be paying off, with a good set of all-round results clocked up by Carl. I was surprised that my blood pressure was still high because weve been out of the water for a while. Its interesting to know how diving affects you like this, because its not something Ive thought about before. It may make me rethink my interval times. With a body fat of 29%, Helen just squeaked in to the normal female range of 20-30%.

hspace=5 I HAVE A BANANA
Caroline Hackett, a production assistant with the Royal Shakespeare Company who lives in Stratford, admitted as she hopped onto the scales: A day before I come up here I think, am I fit enough to dive But I dont do anything to actually keep fit since I gave up taekwondo a few years back. A trainee BSAC Ocean Diver, 32-year-old Caroline was introduced to diving in January and was another of the very few between-dive divers deemed fit enough to get back into the water right away. Caroline has a normal heart rate and blood pressure, reported Carl. I dont remember anyone on my course mentioning fitness, said Caroline as she left, chomping on a banana. I usually have a banana and a bit of water and some tea between dives to keep me going. It seems to do the trick.

Colin Jones, a BSAC, PADI and IANTD Instructor, has been diving for 18 years and is a military supply contracts manager.
I take my fitness seriously in life and Im always talking to my students about the importance of keeping physically fit for diving. Id recommend any student who looked a bit unfit to take a medical. As Colin ran through his daily diet of toast and coffee for breakfast; a chicken tikka salad for lunch and a dinner of chicken and baked potatoes, he said his between-dive favourite was a Mars bar to keep him going. No one was surprised when Colins results came through: Thats one of the best blood pressures Ive seen, his heart rate is good and lung function is excellent. Good stuff.

hspace=5 FIT FOR LIFE
BSAC Advanced Diver Richard Dean popped in to see us between dives. Ive been out of the water for an hour and am going in again this afternoon, explained the 53-year-old from Alcester. A non-smoker, Carl reckoned that, at 114kg and with body fat of 30%, Richards blood pressure was a lot better than many of the post-dive divers he had seen, but still wanted him to rest for another hour before his next dive.
I try to keep fit for life, not just for diving, said Richard. I cycle regularly and play football. I dont think many divers Ive come across take fitness very seriously at all. I try to eat well.

I think quite a lot about keeping fit for diving, said Martin Healy, a security engineer from Cardiff, but I dont do it! On reading Martins blood pressure 90 minutes after his first dive, Carl declared it to be very high and recommended no second dive for at least an hour until it dropped significantly. Maybe thats down to the wine I drink, mused Martin, who at 90kg
with a body fat of 30% and a resting heart rate double that of normal was also told he could do with losing a few pounds.
I brought quite a bit of vino back from France recently.
A trainee Dive Master with 20-30 dives a year over the past five years under his belt, Martin felt it was the younger divers who thought more about fitness for the sport than the older generation. Undeterred, he was full of smiles as he left Carl to the next diver. At least I dont smoke, he said, setting off for his next dive.

On his third open-water BSAC dive, 30-year-old Tim Jones, a credit controller for Vodafone, said that fitness had been mentioned a little bit in his course but that it was his perception that diving was more physically demanding above than under the water. Having been out of the water for an hour and a half, Tim was told by Carl that his blood pressure was still highish and that he should give it longer before returning for a second dive. Tim, a non-smoking bran flakes for breakfast careful eater was surprised. I used to do loads of cycling and swim and be really active. Maybe I should get back to it, he pondered as he left, clutching his results.

Ive been diving for 18 years, explained Margaret Wilcox, 62, a BSAC Dive Leader from Hinckley. Im retired now and most of my diving tends to be during 2-3 weeks of the year when Im on holiday. I go to the gym twice a week and swim at my dive club but its just to keep in shape generally, not necessarily for diving. Margaret works out and has a healthy diet of muesli for breakfast, soup and bread for lunch and a salad dinner, but owns up to a 20-a-day cigarette habit. I havent dived today but Id like to see how I fare anyway said Margaret. The good news is that you have a very, very good set of lungs on you,
said a surprised Carl. On the other hand, your resting heart rate and blood pressure are high. Margaret and I decided that this could be down to the fact that she had had nothing but a full flask of coffee all day and had smoked her last ciggie 30 minutes previously. My blood pressure is normally OK. Still, I often dive twice a day. It makes you think...

Faye Wimpenny, a recruiter in investment banking from London, is a BSAC Advanced Diver who packs in three dives a day when she makes it to Stoney Cove. I used to run a lot but havent had a chance recently. I think about the need to keep fit for diving because my air consumption goes up when I put on weight or when Im unfit. Ive worked that out for myself. Only a little bit is taught about fitness on your course. With her first dive at 9am, Faye had a coffee before her next dive at 11.30. She then tucked into cheesey chips and diet cola and dived again. She came for testing 45 minutes after completing her final 1.45pm dive to find both her resting heart rate and blood pressure raised. Im surprised. My blood pressure normally borders on low, so its taken me aback. When you think that sometimes you can dive four times a day on a liveaboard, it makes you wonder if this is healthy.

40-year-old Ann Pendlebury, a BSAC Dive Leader from Hinckley, put out her cigarette and stepped inside. That says it all, I suppose, she grinned as Carl got to work on measuring her blood pressure. With 90 minutes and a good few coffees since her first dive of the day, it was a debate as to which of them was more surprised that not only was her blood pressure normal, but her peak flow lung test came out as pretty good. Both her heart rate and percentage body fat were also absolutely fine. Maybe its because I have low blood pressure in daily life, and although I smoke, I do exercise quite a bit. I do it because I enjoy it, though, not to keep fit for diving.

I dive once a fortnight, said Mark Wilcock, 31 as his height was measured. I used to do triathlons, I try to swim 2-3 miles once a week and Im a non-smoker. Given his past fitness history and his careful diet of muesli for breakfast; a chicken sandwich at lunchtime and stir-fry or simple pasta dishes for dinner, this accountant from Leicester was shocked when Carl announced that his blood pressure was excessive, and advised Mark to have at least 2-3 hours before getting back in the water to let his blood pressure come back down. Mark scored OK in his lung test and his body weight scraped in on the high side of normal. The results left him thinking it was time to get back to some serious exercise.

Vance White, a 53-year-old roofer from Chesterfield, looked set to sail through Carls tests. He didnt disappoint. Out of the water for just an hour, his blood pressure was normal by the time Carl applied the cuff and his heart rate raised a very good commendation from our exacting fitness instructor. At 93kg, Vances percentage body fat was also good. Then came the lung-function test. I dont smoke before or after I dive, said Vance, but I quit three and a half years ago and have just taken it up again. It shows said Carl bluntly. Its not bad, but your lungs would be a lot better if you gave it up again. A football referee for 22 years, Vance looked a little crestfallen: I need to be fit for diving. Im going for my nitrox course and if my health deteriorates this will be hard. I look at some divers and think goodness, will you be OK in the water The last thing I want is anyone thinking that of me. A good incentive to quit the weed again.


You may have heard it before, but after the results of our Fitness Challenge, you may decide these tips are worth doing something about:
  1. Stop smoking. Whichever way you look at it, smoking has no redeeming factors and puts you at risk as a diver.
  2. Take general healthy eating messages seriously. They are not just for health food freaks and supermodels. They are for everyone, especially when taking part in extreme sports.
  3. One easy way to do this is to eat like your grandparents - meat and fish simply cooked
  4. with two or three vegetables makes the perfect evening meal.
  5. Give up as many processed foods as possible. They are rich in salt, which raises blood pressure.
  6. Eat more fruit and veg. They are rich in the mineral potassium, which helps to bring your blood pressure down.
  7. Give up the junk. Its rich in fat and saturated fat, which can make you fat and clog your arteries.
  8. Cut back on caffeine-rich drinks. Stick to around six cups of tea and coffee (in total) each day and include cola and energy drinks in your total.
  9. Drink alcohol in sensible amounts (1 -2 units a day for women; 2 - 3 for men). Avoid the day before diving and the day of diving if possible.
  10. Get active. Do some sport during the week; have a few sessions in the gym; jog, walk, swim, cycle - anything to help get your circulation going.
  11. Get enough sleep. Too little sleep affects your judgement, increases stress and makes you more prone to the cold.

Our thanks to Reebok for the loan of its exercise bicycle (which was used only by testees who had not already dived). Any divers with high blood pressure who would like advice regarding fitness to dive should contact their local UK sport diving medical referee (visit