February 17th, 2012

Confessions of a Former Couch Potato

Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna Beach, CA

Workout inspiration: Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna Beach, CA

We do not stop exercising because we grow old – we grow old because we stop exercising.

–Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Cooper Institute

How much do you move? How nimble are you? How strong are you? What can you do with your body? Can your body take you where you want to go?

Several weeks ago my answers to those questions were not very affirming. A year and a half ago I had virtually no regular activity in my life. Walking around NYC with my brother I found myself plagued with aches and pains, swollen feet and shin splints. I was hobbling around, trying to keep up with 5-mile leisurely-paced walks. I told myself this was unacceptable. I needed to do something about it.

And then I waited a year to do something about it.

Nothing happens until something moves.

–Albert Einstein

I’ve been moving a lot more lately. As a former couch potato, movement is full of revelations – and the lessons keep on coming.

A few months ago I started walking a half hour on a treadmill or doing a 5-10k walk outdoors every other day. I was battling a persistent cough which kept my progress to a minimum, but at least I was moving.

Four weeks ago, I began conquering Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna Beach, CA. It’s not really 1,000 steps – it’s 218 – but the first time I went up them it sure felt like 1,000. They’re steep. The steps are divided into 11½ flights with landings in between – each staircase is roughly equivalent to a floor in a building. Never would I choose to take the stairs up to the 11th floor of any building and I certainly wouldn’t have taken them to the 40th floor. But I can do that now.

The first day I rested on every other landing and made it up once. A year ago (before I committed to walking) I rested on every single landing. Doing twice as good was already an accomplishment!

Today – on my 4 week anniversary – I made it up 40 flights (3½ times) and did it without resting at all the first one (11½ flights). I honestly wouldn’t have thought that much progress was possible in just 4 short weeks.

And I’m just getting started.

Every color change signifies where I had to stop and rest. Some days I do a lot better than the previous one – and some days my body wants to regress. Don’t let that discourage you. I ask for more from my body each day and most of the time my body delivers.

How did I go from couch potato with lower back pain, coming out of a illness with a cough that lasted two months, not much muscle and an extra 60 lbs on my frame – to being addicted to an intense workout? What keys to success would I convey to my former couch potato self?

  1. Regularity. Commit to doing it every other day (4 times a week), no matter how I feel. (As it turns out, I usually feel pretty great and it’s only getting better.) There have been days when I thought my legs didn’t have much juice in them and then they go and surprise me with a great deal of progress.
  2. Distraction. Music helps tremendously. Find your best soundtrack that uplifts and pushes you through the hard parts and pop in some earbuds. Drown out your heaving breath, the other people, the feeling in your muscles and just hear the music driving you forward.
  3. Accountability. I do this workout with my brother and brother-in-law most days. I’ve been talking about the workout and others have joined in lately because everyone wants in on a “good time”! No one overtly watches me or tsk-tsk’s about how I’m doing. But I know they’re there (so I don’t slack) and they encourage when I have progress (which incentivizes).
  4. Encouragement. I don’t do well with the “trainer” style encouragement – where I’m derided or told I’m a loser. I don’t appreciate the strategy of being told I have to do one more set (when I thought I was done). I don’t do well with people who tell me that I’m not capable of something – with the strategy/expectation that I’ll want to prove them wrong. But when someone notices how well I’m doing and cheers me on, I’m all ready to do better and better. Pick your encouragers based on what style works for you. Fight your own battles in your head – keep away from external factors that make you want to give up when it’s hard. I’m not competing with the other people on the stairs, I’m only competing with myself.
  5. Tracking. This is not about weight loss or inches lost (though I experienced both). This was all about building strength and joy and freedom by moving my body. Every day I track my progress – how far I made it overall (adding flights whenever I can) and record how far I made it without resting. I take a pretty beach photo or one of the stairs with my iPhone and caption it with my progress and then I post that to facebook for even more accountability and encouragement.
  6. Pacing. This is not someone else’s workout, it’s mine. No one is prodding me to accomplish a certain amount. I never worked myself so hard that I was sore for days later – so there has never been extreme or discouraging muscle pain. The only time I’ve felt pain was in my calves when I doubled the workout, and after a couple more times my calves were strengthened and feeling no pain. The body recovers quickly, builds new muscle and can do more. I didn’t feel a thing when I tripled the workout. Do what feels right for you. If you want sore, push it. If you don’t, build more gradually.
  7. Difficulty. I am getting a very strenuous workout in a mere 45 minutes and that means more progress sooner. The progress is more noticeable because it’s less gradual than what I could achieve walking 7 miles in 2 hours. I’ve seen and felt great increases in both strength and stamina – even though I started out at my own pace (which was minimal). I can keep adding repetitions and change up how I climb those stairs for infinite possibilities as my strength and stamina grow even further. Sometimes I do what my brother does – kick my leg out behind me on each step. Sometimes just getting up the stairs is enough.
  8. Joy. I get to work out in a beautiful environment. For me, doing the treadmill or elliptical in the gym doesn’t cut it (but will certainly do in a pinch). On the stairs I am in an ocean breeze, in cool shade, looking at one of the most beautiful views while I’m huffing and puffing. It’s about pain and pleasure: do something where these balance out, especially when you’re getting started.

Lately I’m antsy during the day in between workouts – wanting to do it again. Really? Me?! I feel endorphin-fueled and exhilarated for 1-2 hours after each workout, feeling like I could go running or leap over tall buildings (somehow I have resisted these impulses, so far). My back pain is beginning to lessen and disappear this week (4 weeks into it). I never thought I’d feel any of that. And my legs feel incredibly strong. Bonuses, all.

I’m not going to talk about weight lost or inches lost. Too many fitness goals focus on these two things as if they’re the reason for doing the workout. The reason for the workout is how it makes you feel and what you’re now able to do with your body. Not how you look. I cannot stress this enough.

Breathing Hard and Sweating

Breathing Hard and Sweating

Let’s be clear about all the things I didn’t like about strenuous exercise, because these things might be holding you back, too. I don’t like to get extremely hot (uncomfortable!), drip sweat (uncomfortable!), breathe hard (uncomfortable!) or work my muscles until they’re jelly (uncomfortable!). Lot’s of people love that stuff – but I wasn’t one of them. Now I find myself with sweat dripping down my face and back and loving it. Sometimes I breathe even harder than necessary to get oxygen to my muscles so I can keep on going. I go until my legs are jelly. Things can change.

To my former couch potato self I’d say: YOU CAN DO THIS. And you’ll see amazing results every time you repeat it if you challenge yourself to do something beyond your current capabilities.

Four weeks ago I looked for any excuse not to exercise. A couple of days ago I did the stairs in the rain and skipping it didn’t even cross my mind as an option. Today I did them with an achy, weak body that was screaming “no!” And I still did more than last time.  I also trick myself by going back to the bottom again and I have no choice but to get back up to the top. I use whatever I can to make it happen. Today I visualized how sucky my graph would look on my 4 week anniversary if I only made it up two times (when my body was giving up). No matter how I do and what my progress is, at the very least I have conquered my propensity to make excuses. And that’s quite an accomplishment.

Moving will change you. Move soon, move often. The best time to start is years ago. The second best time to start is today.

Next: Audacious Goals of a Former Couch Potato

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