It Really Is the Little Things that Matter

This post is part of my effort to tell the story of my recent health journey. Read this post first to learn why I’m doing this »

I was heading up the stairs of the parking garage as I left work the other day. I prefer to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator, and I usually take the stairs two-at-a-time, not running up them but pretty fast. A coworker saw me and asked why I take the stairs that way. I responded that it’s an easy way for me to get a little bit of extra exercise into my day. They looked somewhat skeptical of this justification.

They’re right to be skeptical of that reasoning. In the grand scheme of things, assessed in terms of exercise, a couple flights of stairs taken two-at-a-time at a good clip doesn’t really accomplish much of anything. It doesn’t elevate my heart rate for more than a minute or so, it doesn’t burn that many extra calories, etc.

And yet, I’m convinced that taking stairs this way—and eschewing elevators and escalators when possible—makes all the difference in the world when it comes to my health and well-being.

When I was in my mid-to-late 20s, I gained a lot of weight. I’d been fairly athletic in high school and college, and I maintained much of my health through my early-to-mid 20s career doing scenic and lighting work for live theater and events—hands on, physical work that kept me on my feet and moving all day.

Once I left the world of theatrical tech work in my late 20s, my lifestyle became overwhelmingly sedentary and I ballooned. I made several attempts to start exercising and get in better shape during these years, but every attempt failed.

It wasn’t any one thing that caused my efforts to derail. Rather, it was a cascade of obstacles that proved too much for me to overcome:

  • Exercise requires a commitment of time and effort, and I resented the need to give up time doing other things.
  • Exercise requires you to go out of your way to do it. Again—this caused resentment over the perceived inconvenience.
  • My diet sucked.
  • I had to fight against my own body to make myself exercise. My body had become so unused to physical activity that it just didn’t want to move. There’s a tremendous inertia behind habitual inactivity which I had to overcome each and every time I made myself go to the gym. It was exhausting. It was a losing battle.
  • The inertia of inactivity also meant that I couldn’t afford to give myself a break, ever. If I let myself skip exercising, it meant I’d never go back to it. This made exercising an all-or-nothing endeavor. That was simply too much pressure and I burned out quickly.

When I hit my mid-30s, I was at my heaviest and my blood pressure, blood sugar, and resting heart rate had all risen to a degree that scared me.

When my wife and I moved to Kansas City in the summer of 2011, my health began to improve. Over the next few years, I lost somewhere in the vicinity of 60+ pounds, and my vitals have dropped back into healthy ranges. I’m now healthier than I’ve been since high school.

So what changed? Why did I manage it this time when I couldn’t for all those years before?

How did I manage to overcome the cascade of obstacles?

Exercise requires time and effort no matter what. It’s going to be an inconvenience sometimes, no matter how much I’ve come to enjoy it or how rewarding I find it. I’ll probably always resent the time it takes up to some degree. Those obstacles will always be there.

I met my wife when I was 34 and she likes to cook. She likes to eat well and she cooks very healthy food. My diet improved immensely when we moved in together, both in terms of nutritional quality and taste, simply because she likes to cook and wanted to cook healthy. We both also dedicated ourselves to consuming food produced by more ethical and sustainable means: as much as possible, we eat small-scale, local, non-processed, and we grow much of our own produce at home. It feels like the responsible thing to do and has had a tremendous impact on our health.

The other major change is that I began to find ways to reverse the inertia of inactivity. I didn’t start out with anything major—I didn’t suddenly find the motivation to make myself go to the gym.

I started by going for walks with my wife. Leisurely walks around the block. Just a loop or two, a couple days a week. Not even fast walks, just casual strolls. These walks were as much for the time they gave us to talk as for the physical activity. We discovered that we communicate better while we’re walking and that became the main motivation to dedicate ourselves to them.

For the first time in my adult life, I had a lawn I needed to mow. The first few times I mowed it, it took me almost two hours and I was completely wiped out for a day or two. I was so exhausted by it that we couldn’t take any walks on days when I mowed—I wasn’t up for both activities in the same day.

Our walks got longer and more frequent over time. We started walking everyday. We started walking faster. Eventually, I found myself taking advantage of opportunities to take walks on my own: I’d walk to run errands. I enjoyed the movement of it and the way my thoughts flow when I’m walking. I got quicker at mowing the lawn—down from two hours to just under a single hour. I reached a point that I could handle mowing the lawn and taking a walk both in the same day.

And then, one day, I realized that I wanted to go to the gym. My body was actually craving more exercise. So I got a gym membership and I’ve been going regularly for a couple of years.

It didn’t take a herculean effort to get myself here. It was a matter of changing the inertia of inactivity in my life. Little things like taking regular walks—for fun, not even for exercise—conditioned my body to get used to being active. Doing it slowly, a bit at a time, meant it never overwhelmed me. Certainly it was challenging at times but never so much that I wanted to quit.

Reversing the inertia of my body, along with the changes to my diet, removed enough obstacles from the cascade that I can overcome the rest.

Even better: if I miss a day at the gym now, if I decide to give myself a break once in a while, I don’t worry about derailing my whole exercise regimen. I know I’ll go back when I’m ready. I’m not fighting against my own inertia to make myself do it anymore—indeed, my body’s conditioning and momentum now drive me to exercise—so there’s far less pressure. I don’t feel constantly on the edge of burning out this time.

Reversing the inertia of my body didn’t take as much effort as I thought it would, but it did take time. It took a few years of gradual small steps. But because these steps were tied into other aspects of my life—spending time with my wife, caring for our house, eating delicious and ethically responsible food—I didn’t resent the time they took up. The time spent doing these things mattered to me.

So, what does this have to do with taking the stairs two-at-a-time, as fast as I can?

Now that I’ve met and exceeded my original health goals, I have to maintain them. Maintenance is a matter of building long-term, reliable habits. All those small steps I took to reverse my body’s inertia of inactivity now help to support the core habits I need to maintain. Little things like walking, taking the stairs, etc., bolster and buttress my larger habit of exercise. They keep my body moving, they sustain my new momentum.

These little things may not be the primary seed of my new health but they’re essential to fertilize an environment in which my health can flourish.

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