At the intersection of exercise and nerdiness

[CW: exercise, fitness, possibly diet, possibly body image]

[Please don’t give me unrequested advice. Talking about exercise, fitness, and body image in a public setting is incredibly vulnerable-making for me, and well-intentioned advice is more likely to prove damaging than helpful. Just trust me on this. I do research what I’m doing and I track my health using a variety of metrics. (On the other hand, cheerleading and celebration is totes welcome.)]

[By the same token, this is a journal entry, not advice for you. I’m just talking about what’s going on in my life, not telling anybody how to become fit or how to do anything else. IANAD and YMMV]

For about three years before my kids started high school, I used to bike or walk to school. (Don’t be too impressed: we’re just talking 1.75 miles each way, so not like biking cross-town or anything.) It was a nice way to feel like I was getting a little exercise, I liked to think it was somewhat good for the environment, and it gave me the flexibility to arrive and leave at whatever time I wanted, without messing up the rest of my family’s transportation needs. When my kids started high school they needed me to transport them, and I didn’t want to fight the fight of having them walk, because reasons, so I quit. Last month they graduated from high school, and I got to thinking that I should try to take up car-free commuting again, but I knew I was in no kind of shape for it, so I decided to try to get back into shape a bit.

My initial, very modest goal was to reliably be able to walk 1.75 miles in a half hour,  so I focused on being able to walk 3.5 miles in an hour. That took less than a week to achieve, and I wasn’t experiencing any soreness. So for whatever reason I got it into my head to start running a little bit around the midpoint of each workout, and see if I could increment how much I ran each time I went out. The first time, I was only able to run a quarter mile before I had to go back to walking. (I felt the need to say only, but then I struck it out, because for me that was pretty good. For someone else that’s nothing, but as in my previous post, about finding your own path to art, everybody needs to find their own aspiration and their own goalposts. Running a quarter mile as an obese 45-year old? Freaking Huzzah.)

For several days I went on this way, feeling pleased with any increment no matter how small. Then I decided to research Couch-to-5k programs. 3.5 miles is a bit over 5k, and if I could run a 5K without needing to stop to walk, I’d feel pretty badass. I have been skinny in my life, but I’ve never been fit in that way. I ultimately decided that C25K wasn’t for me, but I was intrigued by the fact that the program’s goal was to get one 5K-ready in 9 weeks. I extrapolated out my current rate of improvement and saw that I would not be running 5K in 9 weeks, or even in 18 weeks, so I decided I could stand to push myself a bit harder.

I used a spreadsheet to extrapolate how much I’d need to increment by each workout if I wanted to be running 3.5 miles by mid-November (which is a lot more than 9 weeks, but like I said, we all need to set our own goals). Based on this I’ve been pushing myself a little harder and experiencing success and feeling happy about this, and feeling the effects of being more fit. (I’ve also been tracking my nutrition, and the combination is working well, ~45 days in.)

In my research into running-for-new-runners, I’ve learned that C25K variants don’t generally do all the running in a single block, but rather alternate bits of running and bits of walking, with the goal of having the running gradually take over the workout. For me, in the hypothetical case that I am unable to reach my goal on any given workout, then my intention is to break up the goal distance into chunks, and then keep the same target for the next workout, instead of incrementing, but try to be able to do it all in one shot.

The other thing I learned in my research was that the main reason new exercise regimens fail is because people push themselves too hard at first, and find themselves feeling defeated or too sore. (I’d add from personal experience that another issue is not really pushing oneself at all, and thus not seeing results and wondering why one is bothering.) What I’ve found is that the higher goals I started setting for myself were a challenge at first—but this is where only running in one chunk worked well for me, because it was a challenge but then it was over and I could just feel accomplished, and not have to stress about the next bit of running.

As I went on, though it got easier and easier to reach each new goal, and this is where I realized I’d unthinkingly engaged in some questionable mathematical modeling. I’d imagined my “fitness” (as measured by distance I can run without stopping) as increasing linearly. More realistically, this ability ought to increase logistically, and if I’d been approaching this as a mathematician, that should have been my assumption. Logistic functions have graphs that look like this:

An image of a logistic function's graph.

Your basic logistic graph . . .

This seems to make sense to me. Gains are easier to come by at first, until eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. For instance, at first it might be realistic to expect an improvement of 5% or perhaps 10% per workout, but eventually sustaining that rate of improvement becomes impossible in any practical sense–you can’t become infinitely strong, or capable of running infinite distances.

(I did want you there would be nerdiness.)

Now, since my total distance has been capped all along at 3.5 miles, I will never see that top flattening. So if I had it to do over again, I would probably increment by a percentage, instead of by a fixed amount each time. It probably would have helped me avoid a risk of finding this too hard at first. On the other hand, what I am experiencing now—that incrementing is getting easier as I go—is pretty good too.


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