I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
It’s January 31. Do you know where your resolutions are?
People get this New Year’s Resolution thing all wrong. I say, first of all, skip January. January is for kinda thinking about it. January is for being broke, being cold, recovering from holiday burnout, and generally hibernating. January is the most common month for someone to get sick. These are the logistical reasons why 3/4 of people have given up on their resolutions by February.
The other reason is the visionary reason, the failure of imagination. What we think are resolutions are really objectives. “Lose weight” is not a resolution; it’s an outcome goal. Just like “get married.” If you’re single (or, heck, even if you aren’t) you could probably FIND someone new to marry by December 31st. Are you sure that’s what you’d want, though? You can “lose weight” by getting food poisoning, swallowing a tapeworm, or amputating a limb, but... First, you have to be really clear about your objective. Second, you have to choose an outcome you can control, unlike, say, “get straight As” or “get a promotion.” Third, you need a plan. Fourth, you need to accept the reality that goals and habits take tons of baby steps. Fifth, give up on January and start thinking of where you want to be around Thanksgiving.
So anyway. Let me tell you about my January.
My husband and I did a bunch of crazy stuff in the first week of the New Year. He bought a new folding bike and started using it on his work commute. I bought a new desk and got rid of my bookcase. I researched and joined a martial arts academy and started taking classes. We applied for a new, smaller unit in our apartment complex and got it, meaning we’ll save over $8000 in 2018 instead of paying a big rent increase.
In other words, within a week we’d totally transformed our daily reality.
Different home, different commute, different workout, different work habits, different furniture.
When you’re clear about what you want, it’s possible to move really quickly while not feeling like all that much work was involved.
The decision to trade a scooter for a bicycle was almost instantaneous. The purchase wound up taking half a day because each shop we visited was sold out. Using the new bike is actually faster than the previous commute.
Trading a bookcase for a desk also took about half a day. I had wanted the same desk for six months, and when I saw it was back on sale, I snapped it up. We had to move a different bookcase, assemble the desk, rearrange some books and papers, and haul out some donations and recycling. It took a few hours before someone responded to my Craigslist ad, and then about twenty minutes to give them directions and help them get the bookcase out the door. Now, most of my waking hours are spent at that desk.
Researching the gym took half a day as well. I researched what was available in our area. I visited three different gyms, talking to the owners and asking tons of questions. Then I went home and looked at the class schedules. I made my first pick, and the next morning, I took a free class, put my shoes back on, and signed up. I came back the next morning as a paid member.
I also released two new products and got my certificates for completing two levels in Toastmasters. These are the natural results of work that I do every day. What am I creating? What am I doing with my time? Is the work I’m doing leading toward something I want?
Over the course of the month, we’ve spent a little time talking about our move and going over our stuff. We had the opportunity to take photos and measurements in an empty unit like the one we’re moving into. We’re losing about 2/3 of our kitchen storage. We gave a bunch of our small appliances to an intern. Next will have to go a couple dozen canning jars, some plastic storage containers, perhaps a set of mixing bowls, and probably a bunch of baking pans. It’s annoying, but it’s hard to argue with saving over $400 a month. You can buy a lot of muffin tins for $400.
Then what happened?
I strained an abdominal, missed a day of classes, and spent four days moving very carefully.
I got the flu, even though I got the flu shot at the beginning of October. So that was annoying. I’m still hugely in favor of the flu shot, probably more so now. While I felt that sick flu-ey feeling, woozy and drained, I never got the cough or the nasal congestion. I lost my appetite but I didn’t have the gastric symptoms. I slept at least twelve hours a day for three days, and I felt bad, but maybe 40% as bad as I have with past bouts of flu. I knew I was sick when I woke up on Monday morning, and by Thursday evening, I was okay to go for a walk outside. Usually I’m down for ten days of total misery and maybe 2-3 weeks of sniffles. This time I was done in a week. My husband, who got his flu shot about five minutes before me, didn’t get sick at all. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if enough people got the flu shot to reach the threshold of herd immunity.
All told, I missed six classes at the gym and three Toastmaster’s meetings. That’s pretty bad for one month. If I didn’t have a context for my goals and resolutions, I might make the mistake of being discouraged and feeling like a failure.
These are the reasons why it’s silly to consider a New Year’s Resolution “failed” by February. Just take for granted that you’ll get sick and have an overuse injury during January, and plan around it. It’s only one month out of twelve, after all. What are you going to be doing in September? June?
My husband and I did our New Year’s strategic planning, because if we do it once a year, New Year’s feels like the most obvious time to us. It’s the end of the tax year. We got our lease renewal at the end of December. We had all the information we needed to imagine the kind of 2018 that we want to have. Then, after talking it out and making decisions, all we had to do was to take action. Gee, honey, let’s move, save money, and then plan our vacation.
PS My video course, “Resolutions for Skeptics,” is still available if you want another shot.
Winter is here, in case you haven’t noticed. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means short days, long nights, and icky weather. Well, as far as I remember. The city where I live is south of every single city in Europe; we’ve only had to kick our heater on for a few hours over the past few weeks. That’s exactly why I live here. It’s a lot easier to be active when it’s bright and the weather is nice. Take that into consideration when you set your health and fitness goals for the year. Probably, it’s better to focus on getting your pajama body right now.
Gyms and magazines play on our emotions. They try to convince us that buying what they’re selling can get us the results that their models achieved by training several hours a week for years on end. I’m here to tell you that those photos are in fact real, and the people in them are, too. Here in Southern California, everywhere you go there are genuine actors, models, professional athletes, stunt people, dancers, and fitness trainers just buying groceries and getting into their cars. It really is possible for real humans, even those of us of grandparenting age, to reach those goals. It just isn’t possible overnight.
Don’t worry about that for now. Let’s talk about how you, too, can get your pajama body.
The first thing is to respect the season. If it’s cold and yucky out, and you can’t bear going out there, skip winter. Train in the spring, summer, fall, or whenever you are most likely to do it. Don’t skip the entire year just because the weather is so foul right now. Hanging out in your pajamas every night for a few months of the year is perfectly respectable. There’s plenty of time during the rest of the year to get yourself out there.
If you’re a beginner, set yourself up for success. You want to lecture your ego and prepare yourself emotionally to just do iddle-biddle baby steps. If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to pace yourself. A huge part of this is respecting the sleep schedule that you have right now. Don’t expect yourself to train AND suddenly start waking up an hour or ninety minutes early. If you’re used to scraping by on 5-6 hours a night, and you suddenly start working out, your body is going to insist on at least 8 hours. Possibly more. Professional athletes are extremely disciplined about their sleep, and many of them sleep more than twelve hours a night. You’d better believe that they have their pajama bodies!
Sleep is when the body repairs tissues, removes junk cell debris, and builds new cells. The longest session of fourth-stage sleep happens in the last cycle, at the end of the rest period. Most of us never even get that last, long sleep cycle because we’re simply not staying asleep long enough. If you sleep less than eight hours, you cheat yourself of that. The result is chronic exhaustion, inflammation, pain, irritability, loss of concentration, poor memory, and lowered immune response. Nobody would do that on purpose. We just aren’t taught as much about it as the professionals, who earn their living based on their physical performance.
How can we possibly believe we can get the same results as someone who behaves in a completely different way?
The weird thing is that pro athletes don’t just sleep more than we do, they also eat a heck of a lot more than we do. Training gives you a real appetite, and more importantly, it drives the thirst that the average person does not feel or respect or supply. Drinking vast amounts of water is another thing that the professionals do that we don’t. They do it for their energy level, they do it because it makes their skin look dewy and fresh, and mostly they do it because they’re so thirsty they can’t not do it. The only way to get enough sleep and enough water, though, is to start guzzling it right when you first wake up. Otherwise, if you wait to drink until you feel thirsty later in the day, you’ll wind up waking yourself up throughout the night.
My favorite thing to do while wearing my pajamas is to curl up and read. This is an ideal way to start studying up. If you want to train, if you’re tired of having a kink in your neck, if you’re tired of groaning every time you stand up, it’s a great idea to learn a bit first. Look at one of those cool anatomical charts and learn the names of some of your muscle groups. Skim through new recipes and allow your natural curiosity to guide you toward something with a little more green in it, maybe? Watch some videos of people doing the thing you’re interested in doing. When you do start with those small daily steps, you’ll do it with a bit more context, and your newfound knowledge will help to make the work more interesting.
You’ve got the pajamas, right? They’re super comfy? You’re giving yourself permission to sleep more, and figuring out how to shift things around in your schedule so that you can get more quality rest. This is a big deal, because when you do start to train, after the weather turns, you’re going to love those pajamas more than you ever have. The thing about training hard is that after your session, you get to lie around guilt-free. You kinda have to. If you’ve pushed yourself hard enough, you’ll be so wiped out that you’ll need a long nap afterward. It’s like first breakfast, get dressed, second breakfast, train, first lunch, shower, second lunch, nap. Your pajamas are going to get more of a workout than they’ve ever known.
All right, are you ready? Are you ready to get that pajama body? Do you have big dreams of big dreams? Well, what are you waiting for? Plan your next nap right now. I’ll see you when the sun comes out.
Most “resolutions” are futile, just as most “advice” is completely bogus. My personal favorites are “everything happens for a reason” - THE most meaningless thing ever said - and the whole concept of “getting healthy.” Please tell me. What does that even mean? (Either one. The vagueness, it hurts my face). We pick a cloudy, non-specific intention like “get healthier” because it sounds psychologically more balanced than the alternatives, like “lose weight.” Speaking as someone who has done both successfully, I have a lot to say. Rant, rather.
The problem with “getting healthier” as a goal is that people are LESS likely to meet their health goals when they choose this as their intention. It has to do with the halo effect. Our culture makes a strong link between ‘healthy’ and:
There are a lot of people who would probably feel more of a sense of genuine welcome at the thought of a religious missionary coming to their door than they would at the thought of a conversation about “health” or “weight loss” or “fitness.”
Especially when we don’t have personal experience with these altered states of being, we find it impossible to imagine what that emotional or mental state would feel like. We can’t even begin to guess at the physical, other than sweat, soreness, and blisters. What story would we tell ourselves? All we have to draw on are guesswork, media representations, fictional characters, and our gut-level responses to advertising images.
What about health, though?
My fitness goals are at least half “moving away from” goals rather than “moving toward” goals. I eat in a certain way and move my body a certain amount because I’m deliberately trying to avoid specific inner states. I can’t alway feel that I’m on track, but when I get off track, the physical consequences come at me hard and fast. I get a rapid internal beatdown that demonstrates, once again, that I tend toward certain patterns. Patterns that are in my control should work for me, not against me. I can’t justify being my own worst enemy.
For me, it’s not a question of “healthier” but of:
Waking up several times a night with nightmares or, worse, night terrors
If you’ve never experienced a true night terror, it would be really hard to explain why this would be a motivator. Imagine waking up shaking and crying in another room, with no explanation of how you got there. Imagine someone having to pin you to the bed for three minutes because you were thrashing and screaming and you wouldn’t wake up. Imagine your heart rate doubling in fifteen seconds, launching you out of bed and onto your feet like you just touched a hot stove burner. After three years of that, I was humbled. I was ready to do anything to be free.
For the last four years, I was free. Free both of migraines and night terrors. Then, in the past couple of months, I’ve started experiencing alarming symptoms again. Flailing around in bed. Nightmares that last for two hours. Sitting straight up in a panic. About a week ago I got a headache with one of my classic migraine symptoms, jaw cramping. These two conditions don’t have anything to do with one another, as far as I know, but they are both signs that my system is out of whack.
I ate more sweets over the holidays, specifically dessert on two consecutive nights. I ate more in general. The weather got cold and I changed my default fitness habits. My weight crept up a few pounds.
Pop culture would say that I should lighten up, be gentle with myself, and quit caring about social norms or body image. (Assuming that I do in the first place, because I’m a woman, when actually I find body image norms to be irrelevant to my emotional world). Nothing about any of that remotely impacts whether I wake my husband up on a work night because I’m shouting in my sleep, or whether my eyelid starts twitching.
There’s a lot of standard, mainstream “health” advice that I either disregard, find irrelevant, or experience as harmful to my physical state. For instance, I hate coffee, I don’t care for chocolate, and alcohol doesn’t seem to work on me, so I ignore all the articles about their supposed health benefits. I don’t take a multivitamin for two reasons, one, because it’s linked to higher mortality from all causes, and two, because of consistent quality control issues turned up in independent lab testing. What they’re selling on the label is not always what’s actually in the bottle. I’ve tried a high-protein, low-carb diet and it made me feel like I ate wet cement. Not compatible with endurance sports! I gravitate toward strenuous exercise and endurance sports because they work better than anything else I’ve found when my stress level goes up.
I’ve never had night terrors on a night after I went for a run.
Where I’m going with all this is that when we look for “motivation,” the concept of “getting healthier” seems to backfire. When we choose literally anything else, such as “impress my cat,” if we find it personally meaningful, it works. I once coached a client whose goal was to look hot in an evening dress because she knew she was going to see her ex at a New Year’s party. She nailed her weight goal and reported back that she felt really smug and proud on her way home from the party. Worked for her.
Trying to escape a harsh physical reality, like a persistent skin rash, is usually more “motivating” for most people than an aspiration like a goal weight or clothing size. Emotional realities may work, too, depending on the person.
I would suggest tracking your metrics if you have issues with, say, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, gastritis, chronic pain or fatigue, or any mystery issue. This is especially true if you’ve felt that doctors were condescending and dismissive toward your concerns. Bringing them a health log with specific observations and health metrics occasionally tends to get their attention. It can also reveal patterns that you can observe and correct yourself.
When I started having night terrors, I did a ton of research. It turned out that, at the time at least, very little was known about it. I would have gone to a sleep lab, but I only had episodes about once every three weeks, with a pattern so sporadic and inconsistent that I doubted the lab would catch one in action. I talked to doctors who completely, rudely scoffed at me and told me I just needed to have better sleep hygiene. Nobody said, “watch your blood sugar and quit eating three hours before bedtime” or “stop eating sugar” or “do more strenuous exercise, at least 45 minutes per instance at least five days a week.” Those were the modifications that actually worked. I consider these behavior modifications to be objectively quantifiable and testable. That’s the goal with tracking health metrics.
Not some vague cloud of woo-woo and positive thinking - although I believe in both! When I’m experiencing a real-world, measurable problem that comes from my body, I want real-world, scientific approaches to get rid of it. I don’t want “healthier,” I want something specific that actually improves my life. When I make a resolution about my health, I want to know when I’ve completed it and what counts as “keeping” it.
It’s my run-a-versary! Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything - I’d just get it all sweaty and I like to keep my hands free, anyway. I just want to celebrate the way that literally the worst exercise I could think of became one of the major loves of my life.
I went on my first voluntary run on December 28, 2010. I was starting in advance of my New Year’s Resolution. Already at that time, I was in the habit of planning fact-finding missions, lifestyle upgrades, and life renovation projects. One day earlier that winter, the idea of running just popped into my head. It was so weird and out of character for me that I might compare it to the idea of... a root canal, say, or wrestling an alligator.
I turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do a big thing for New Year’s every year?”
“This year I think it’s going to be running.”
His head swiveled. “Really?”
Like, “You’re going to adopt a polar bear cub?” Or, “You’re getting a neck tattoo?”
I had already spoken the words and the intention had already been formed, I’m going to say 99% without my active participation. Maybe someone had a voodoo doll of me? A battery-powered one that ran on a treadmill? I nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
Once the idea was in my head, it started to make sense. I wanted to manipulate my husband to lose some weight and this seemed like a pretty tricksy way to do it. He’s been an athlete since he was four years old, a person of large build who pursues active, collision-oriented sports such as football, hockey, and armored martial arts. I knew that he’d run with me, or do any other form of exercise, if I made my pitch well enough.
It’s true that my morale for running was low and that my cardio endurance was even lower. It’s true that among my many skills, navigation and map-reading rank lowest. It’s even true that I’m sometimes wary of running in certain areas or at certain times of day. I just wouldn’t have let any of those things stop me from anything else I wanted to do, like procure a pie or get hold of a new book I wanted. I just kinda turned up the dial on those weak feelings and batted my feminine wiles.
He mapped my route and went out with me on a rainy morning. I couldn’t make it 1/3 of a mile. When I made it home, several minutes behind him and our dog, I had to lie on the floor for a while and watch the spinning black spots in my vision.
I ran the first mile of my life at age 35. By the end of the year, I was running four miles at a stretch.
That whole thing about tricking my husband into running? I tricked myself. Four years later, I ran a marathon.
I still identified as a runner after I sustained an overuse injury in my ankle and had to take three years off.
I started out reluctant, easily winded, slouching, and slow. I’d never thought of myself as an athlete in my life. I hated EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. For the first three weeks, anyway. Wheezing and suffering stabbing pains from the stitch in my side. Ugh. Running is the worst.
It crept up on me, until I didn’t feel right if I ran fewer than thirty miles a week.
I’m back up to four miles, just like in Year One. I’m team captain for a race this March, an 8k I’ll be running with my brothers and my nephew. My big goal is to run a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. I still have eight years to train, so I’d better get after it!
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
It’s not that I like running in the rain and mud. It’s not that I particularly enjoy pondering whether that is hail, or just needle-sharp icy cold raindrops in the wind. It’s not even that I have some kind of willpower or motivation, which I don’t, because nobody does. What is it? It’s the result of a decision. At some point, I decided that I would do difficult things for the sake of doing difficult things. A workout is just a physical symbol of an internal commitment. My commitment is to condition the whiner out of myself.
Okay, granted, I run in general because it feels good. Not every run does, though. When you haven’t been out there for a while, in fact, it feels terrible. Running bounces your joints, makes your muscles tired, gives you a stitch in your side. Plus, you’re reminded of how easy it used to be, and you have the added layer of humiliation that your body won’t do what your ego thinks it should.
In my mind, I’m exactly as fit as Hollywood stunt people, back-flipping off of moving trains and doing parkour all over the joint. I also have clearly defined, lean, shadowed muscles and I can punch through a wall. Can’t you?
My actual body, unlike my mental model, gets wheezy and tired. It also looks a lot different in profile than it does from the front.
I want both my body and my mind to live in the real world. Spatial awareness, proprioception, these are ways my brain learns to keep my body from walking into poles, stumbling off of curbs, and getting banged up on physical objects. My mind would always rather be thinking about something more interesting or receiving passive entertainment than navigating this world of concrete, wood, and steel. Or especially the world of mud and gravel that I traverse when I train.
Where I live, I can choose between running in the heat or in the not-heat. It turns out to be much easier to run in a jacket and tights on a rainy, cold day than it is to run in shorts on a blazing hot day. I have to remind myself, though. It’s not like my body is going to remember what it was doing six months ago. Body lives in the now.
That’s something else my mind can do for my body. I can remind myself that I’ll be done in mere moments. An hour from now, half an hour from now, ten minutes from now, I’ll be standing in a hot shower. The time will be over before I know it.
Working out in bad weather has done a lot for me. It’s made me unflappable. Standing in line, being put on hold, dealing with bureaucratic problems, are as nothing compared to running uphill with mud splattering to my knees. Soggy socks, there’s a problem. Anything I do indoors in clean, dry clothing is a non-issue.
Training in bad weather is almost completely predictable. I run the same routes, so unless a tree blows down, I know what to expect. I’ve figured out which layers I need to wear at which temperatures. I have a hat with a brim for rainy days. I check the weather report first thing in the morning, and often I can schedule a block when the clouds will have broken up a bit. Still, this training helps me to deal with the unpredictable. Rain or snow that I didn’t expect acts just like the rain or snow that I did expect. The sky is on my mind a lot more than it was when I was a sedentary, indoor person.
Grit, that’s the goal. Grit is extremely useful as a characteristic. I’m persistent and tenacious. When I want something, if I’m convinced that it’s a good idea, I’ll just keep going and going for it until I get it. It’s helped me to handle criticism, since almost anyone will mock a person for spending an hour running up a muddy hill in the rain. Your mockery means nothing to me, not unless you have a valid point you were trying to make? Valid by my standards, that is? Most of our obstacles in life are emotional and social, not physical. We’re stopped by anxiety, inertia, and commentary, and almost all of the commentary comes from imaginary scenarios we developed entirely alone. Pushing yourself in the physical world of weather and natural terrain tends to shift your consciousness and develop a bias toward action.
Is this person’s sneering critique as intimidating as a fifteen-mile run? Pshaw, sir, you are as a mere pebble in my shoe. Madam, I remove your attempted influence just as I shake out a bit of gravel.
Why do I work out in bad weather? I do it because I know how, first of all. More importantly, I do it because the weather is almost never, virtually never, going to be the way I want it. If I wait for the perfect conditions, I’ll never do anything at all. If I rely on being in the mood, when I “feel like it” and everything is perfect, I’ll live my life as a lump in a chair. I push myself to get out there in rough conditions because LIFE is a rough condition. I’ll want what I want and get after what I want to get, and I’m not going to let a little rain or mud stop me.
Running is my dog Spike’s favorite thing ever. He likes it even more than BALL. One day, he went for a six-mile run with my husband while I was at a baby shower. I got ready for my own run. Spike was eating. I went to slip out the door, visibly wearing running clothes and shoes. Spike saw me, spit his mouthful of dog kibble back into his bowl, and sprinted to the door. He’d rather run than eat, even though he’d already put in significant mileage that day. He’d like to go everywhere we do. I try to remember that while I’m wearing shoes, my dog is barefoot all the time.
I get where he’s coming from. I hate wearing shoes. I especially hate running shoes; I almost always think they’re hideous. Inevitably, when I go to replace my last worn-out pair, I think the new ones are even uglier than the ones I already have. The pair that fit me best and feel the best on my feet are usually my least favorite colorway out of the whole range. I buy one brand that has colors I like okay, but they’re something of a discount brand and aren’t really good for actually running. Just comfy walking shoes. If I’m not going outside for some reason, I’m barefoot at home. I’m even barefoot when it’s cold outside, which drives my mom nuts. “Aren’t you cold?” Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do something so foolish as to wear shoes!
The thing about being barefoot all the time is that it leads to certain choices instead of others.
When I’m barefoot all the time, it doesn’t make as much of a difference whether I get dressed or just hang around in my pajamas. Obviously I’m not going anywhere outside. If I’m not going anywhere, why should I get dressed? This can lead to a blending of morning into late afternoon. If you have the luxury of setting your own schedule, it’s more common for huge chunks of the day to somehow disappear than to suddenly start getting important tasks done at 5:30 AM.
When I’m barefoot all the time, I’m going to put off doing certain things until it’s shoe time. This means stuff like taking out the trash, dropping off donation bags, running errands, or even buying groceries is going to wait until later. In fall and winter, daylight can disappear before you even realize that most of the day is gone. Sometimes today turns into tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Without shoes, I’m unlikely to do yard work, replace outdoor lightbulbs, or even so much as sweep the porch. Months can pass this way.
When I’m barefoot all the time, how simple it is to tuck my feet up under me and snuggle into a blanket. Putting my shoes on entails bathing and getting dressed first. That has this whole domino effect of officially starting my day, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that trigger my to-do list? Can’t I just wait another hour and do it later?
It’s true that I hate shoes. I hate wearing anything on my feet if I don’t have to. It’s also true that going barefoot all the time means I can’t do other things that I love. I’m not backpacking barefoot, I’m not running barefoot, I’m not even going to the library or a bookstore barefoot. My comfort level with hanging around barefoot is a tendency that I don’t feel great indulging.
Wearing shoes doesn’t come naturally to me - or to anyone. They’re artificial instruments of civilization, not body parts. Wearing shoes does, though, assist me in my bias toward action. Wearing shoes makes me more active in every way. Wearing shoes helps me get more done and leads me to use my body more.
I think about my dog Spike and his feet when we run together. One night, he picked up three goat head thorns. They were rammed into the fleshy pads of one paw. Did he cry out? No. Did he ask to stop? No. He just limped a bit until my husband noticed and picked him up. Spike loves running so much that he’ll do it on hot asphalt, on gravel, in mud, and even when he has spiny thorns stabbing between his little toes.
We built up Spike’s feet gradually. When we started running as a pack, I could barely do a third of a mile. We added a tenth of a mile every couple of days. It was three weeks before we were running a mile at a stretch, and I think it took two years before we got to the six-mile mark. Our little 23-pound dog was there for almost every step. Running is his passion. It’s the time he feels most like himself. Because we started out with such short distances, and because we added time and distance so slowly, Spike’s footpads got tough and thick. It helps his nails to stay naturally short and he doesn’t have to go through the trauma of having the groomer trim them. He can run in his full glory, barefoot all the time.
Thinking about my little doggy helps to make me more action-oriented. I need to pause a few times a day to take him out. I would never want him to suffer, not with thorns in his paw and not with unanswered biological needs. I’m sure that if we ever put him in shoes, he’d hate wearing them as much as I hate shoes myself. For him, I wear them more often. At least one of us gets to run wild and free, barefoot all the time.
It begins. I went to the movies on Halloween, dressed in orange and black, ready for a delightful afternoon of blood, guts, and scary clowns. What should I see before me but a large Christmas tree with a little pumpkin underneath? I have just two words to say about this.
I saw my first Christmas decorations for sale in stores a full two weeks ago. As of October 30 at the latest, my local grocery store was already displaying end caps full of Christmas-themed treats. I’ve come to expect that the tyranny of tinsel now begins in mid-October and continues to flaunt itself until the beginning of February. This is why I plan now for the inevitable bacchanalia of excess calories.
I used to refer to it as “putting on my winter coat.” I had finally started to realize that I always tended to gain a clothing size between Halloween and New Year’s. I’m not a bear, and I don’t hibernate, but go ahead and try explaining that to my thighs.
Later, as I started to read up on the food industry, I learned that most American adults gain their weight just a few pounds at a time, almost entirely over the winter holidays.
Let’s work this out. Gaining three pounds a year, every year, would equal fifteen pounds in five years, or thirty pounds in ten years. Does that sound true for anyone you know? It sure does for me. In fact, it was even worse in my case. I calculated that I would gain an average of A POUND A DAY every time I visited my family. Then I would keep it.
This is basically still true. I can also easily gain a pound a day on vacation.
My husband just reminded me that the winter before we met, he gained twenty-five pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Me: “What did you eat?”
The trick is to plan around it. Just because I have a tendency, does not mean the tendency needs to manifest itself in its full form. Just because I lean a certain way does not mean I need to act it out in every situation. I’m not going out to put the ‘fat’ in fatalism. I like to eat, yeah, and I also like not having to spend three weeks burning off three days of smorgasbord. I like to eat, and I also like being able to wear the same size of clothing throughout the year.
It’s November First. Do I know where my honesty pants are?
I planned my Halloween candy purchases this year. I decided to buy a few higher-quality confections rather than a big bag of cheaper stuff. When it’s gone, it’s gone. (And I can either eat it in three days, or hoard it in the freezer, which is what I usually do).
November is not Thanksgiving, and December is not Christmas. These are special events that last one day, contrary to popular belief! I had my fill of candy on the day of Halloween, to the point that I truly did not want any more. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to eat a late breakfast, skip lunch, cook all day, and eat two large plates with at least one scoop of everything I want. There will be leftovers for the next two days, and that will be that. On Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll cook something fancy for dinner, and on New Year’s Day we’ll have Hoppin’ John. That’s it. That’s plenty.
In the past, my husband and I both would have basically spent two months eating until our faces went numb. Bags of leftover candy! Cookies! Special breads! Hot cocoa! Party food up the wazoo! I got sort of tired of that after I made the connection between my eating habits, my weight, and my various health issues. A lot of the stuff I used to love kinda quit tasting so good, especially after the Thanksgiving when I made two cakes and then ate about half of them for breakfast for a few days. As an adult, I don’t need to live out the food fantasies of Eight-Year-Old Past Me.
What comforts me now is cold-weather food. We live in a hot climate, and for six or eight months of the year it’s too hot to really use the oven. Right now, I can heat up the kitchen! Soups, casseroles, risottos, and other lovely, hearty meals are starting to sound appealing again. This is also the season when the really nice crucifers come into their own. The cauliflowers, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts start to get bigger and the chard and kale look like they have some real stamina.
The other thing that happens when the weather cools down is that it starts being appealing to run in the afternoon. The optimal temperature for running is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I can count on our climate approaching that range for a few months. Running pairs well with starchy foods. My parents, they of the tempting kitchen, happen to live within a quarter mile of a 900-foot incline. When I visit, I go running up there, every day if I can manage it. My fall and winter visits often kick off my training season for the year.
There are two months left before the annual accounting that is New Year’s Eve. I take this extremely seriously as a watershed in my life. If not New Year’s, then when? As the old year winds to a close, I find myself looking over the Resolutions I crafted so carefully back in January, asking why I got through some of them so quickly and why I’ve procrastinated so long on others. One of these resolutions is to run five miles in a stretch. Often the majority of my progress happens in the end of the year, with the deadline looming before me. The reckoning is upon us!
It’s November. Past Me would have already started our annual weight gain and would just be getting started on a sack of candy. Past Me would already have loaded up on limited-edition seasonal groceries like holiday nog and peppermint cocoa. Past Me should have already been bagging up clothes that were no longer going to fit next summer, as we bloated our way through no fewer than eight clothing sizes. Present Me, after reaching down through time to slap ourself, has learned some lessons. Now I’ve already started on training for an 8k in March. Instead of a grocery list of extra calories with mostly sweet flavors, I’ve started on a reading list of thick and juicy novels. I’m homing in on my goals for the year and starting to daydream about my goals for 2018. I’m culling and sorting stuff for my regular end-of-year decluttering. ‘Tis the season for celebrating in ways that will make January Me proud.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.