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June 8, 2011

Apparently I just woke up today and wrote a novel about walking

After I wrote all this I went back and re-read it and thought, "How do I manage to take a simple topic like sticking one foot in front of the other and turn it into a telenovela? FASCINATING."

Mad skills, ya'll. And all while wearing earplugs. More on that tomorrow, maybe, unless I kill the guy with the jackhammer first.

- - -

Reader Julie asked, "Just wondering, in terms of an exercise regimen, would you recommend just a walking regimen? And if so, about how many miles a day would you say make a real difference?"

Hi Julie! I'm probably the least qualified person in the world to be giving fitness tips -- this time last year I was a VERY out of shape, unfit, low-energy, depressed, overweight person. Then again, now I am a completely nutty but less depressed, less fat, less unfit person. So I can at least share what's worked for me.

I have been trying to get back into shape ever since my divorce. I guess I just reached a point where I knew it was now or never, and that was in June of last year. I had to make some drastic changes to my life and my schedule and I needed to get my priorities straight.

I started slow (seriously slow, like glacially slow) and plodded along from June, 2010 to August, 2010. August was just kind of a low point, no walking, nothing. I started up walking again in late September, slow at first and worked up to 30 minutes a day. In November I saw a big difference in moving from a 30 minute walk to a 45 minute walk each morning. My body changed and my mood improved dramatically and my energy level went way up. It wasn't an overnight transformation as you can see. It took five months to work up to a 45-minute walk each day and there were lots of stops and starts along the way.

Now I do about 90 minutes each morning, but I'm also trying to lose weight (not simply maintain fitness) so it works for me. This morning the weather was great (cool and cloudy) so I walked for two hours and twenty minutes! And the first three miles were uphill. CRAZY. My stamina has increased dramatically and I'm much faster. Like everyone there are days when I do less and days when I do more but I try to do something active every day, even if it's just walking to the corner and back.

Having said all that, by far the biggest change came when I added walking up and down hills! I just started that recently after my move. I have been doing this for about six weeks now and in that time my legs have become so strong that I can see a visible difference in my calves. And my fitness level has improved, too. The first few times I tried walking up the Hollywood Hills I about died. Now I do it almost every day.

Even after having one for all these years I am astonished at how well the human body works. The first day I walked uphill I could barely breathe. It gets easier and less huff-and-puff with each passing day. It's like my body has become my own personal science experiment.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a long-range thing. You don't have to walk eight miles today or ever. I started with five minutes and just kept at it.

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Reader Faith wrote, "Hi Laurie! I'm so proud of you for getting all that walking in. I've been walking myself for 2 1/2 miles every day. It takes me about 45 min. So...I'm curious, how long is it taking you to walk those 8-9 miles? Sounds like lots of fun walking in the hills!"

Hi there! Oh, the hills are so beautiful. I had to move so fast I just took the first cheap place I could find that was move-in ready and I was not exactly overcome with happiness about it. But then one day I discovered how close I am to the Hollywood Hills and since that day my whole attitude has changed. It's just so darn pretty.

Right now I do the first two or three miles in the hills and it's slower going, then I switch to flat sidewalks. The current loop I'm doing is 5 1/4 to 5 1/2 miles and takes me almost exactly 90 minutes. If I add in an extra walk in the evenings it's usually just on flat sidewalks and I do about an hour (I seem to be keeping a 3.5-mile-per-hour pace on the sidewalk) so that brings a day's mileage to just over eight miles.

There was one day where I got a little turned around and walked seven miles at one time and that took me about two hours. I felt like I had just cured cancer or something. I was so excited I think I texted everyone I knew and told them about it. Then I showered and went back to bed.

Now I try to do a single long walk (about two hours) one morning a week, and it's about seven miles or just under. Today I walked just over eight miles in 2 hours 22 minutes, mixing both hills and sidewalks.

By the way -- and I know you didn't ask this -- but I completely understand that not everyone is going to be able to fit that long of a chunk into a daily routine right away. Obviously I had my own stuff going on and I personally needed to make this massive lifestyle change. I wanted to change my life and not be a morbidly obese person who was mired in depression and lived for "one day" sometime in the elusive future when I was thin and happy.

So I made changes. Therapy, walking, sleeping, cutting my expenses so I could live on less and have more time to get well. It's a process. It's absolutely working. But I'm not going to lie, it did not happen overnight. It's been almost a year and I'm still kind of in the middle of it. The difference is of course that I am now a whole lot closer to the "one day" version of me than I was this time last year.

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Gaile wrote, "Laurie I am sure you told us this already, but how did you get started walking? I live in a rather hilly area, and I want to get in shape, I'm embarrassed when I am winded walking up two flights of stairs at work, but I get discouraged and honestly sometimes I get scared walking. Not of the neighborhood. Of dropping dead from being out of shape! And I'm not that overweight - maybe 20 lbs - and I work a job where I'm on my feet all the time. But I know I'm out of shape, and want to start walking and enjoying it. Would love to hear your thoughts on that. Hi to Bob and the girls!"

Good morning, Gaile! I am SO GLAD you asked this question because I have a goofy story for you. I bought the Nike sport band thing in January of 2009 and my intention was of course to get back into shape. I was still working at the bank and commuting loooong hours and I had no time to sleep or walk or do anything fun. I was very overweight and I used to get winded putting on my pantyhose. I was determined to start the new year right and do some walking before work each day.

Those New Year's resolutions. What can I tell you. I installed the Nike + thingy and the very next day I set my alarm even earlier than usual to get up and go for a walk.

I was a zombie in the morning. I laced up my new shoes and put on the wrist band and did the steps you're supposed to do to get it to track your time. Then I started my walk. Fitness! You will be mine! If I don't die on this walk!

I made it a whopping six minutes. Seriously. I walked up the sidewalk and back and after six minutes I needed to go back to bed. I was so exhausted and beaten down and out of shape. And later that day when I tried to upload my stellar walk on the computer I discovered the sensor had nothing to upload. I was so mad! I'd paid good money for that thingamajig. Plus I'd gotten up at 3:45 in the morning just to take that six-minute walk.

It took me a few days to realize that I had been walking so slow the Nike chip thought I was standing still and didn't record my walk. SO EMBARRASSING. Ah the good ole days when I was a garden slug.

I kept at it, though. After just two weeks of walking every morning I could see real improvements in my stamina and breathing and all that. Getting started was the hardest part. Staying motivated was the next hardest. For the rest of 2009 my walking went in cycles... sometimes I would get my act together and walk a lot in a month and then there would be three or four months of nothing.

As you can see it hasn't been a straight path from slug to daily walker. It took a lot of stops and starts before I got active. I had to change my whole life's structure and routine and it took time. Even right after my move in March I abandoned walking and just marinated in my own sloth for a few days. The difference now is that the periods of sloth are much fewer and shorter. MUCH shorter. What would have been a three-month spiral of doom and poor eating and depression and general couch potatoness lasted about two weeks.

During my long slow many months of start-stop I did discover two things that may be helpful to you:

1) If you walk in the mornings, a cup of coffee before the walk will make a world of difference! I usually wake up, have coffee and then go out. Just one cup of coffee makes my whole day better.

and

2) You will improve. No matter how out of shape you are the first day you will see improvements (noticeable, serious improvements) in your endurance and strength in just two weeks of walking every single day. It may be a small change but the body is sort of incredible and will surprise you.

I still think about that day when I barely made it around the block. Now I walk at least five miles every morning, half of which is uphill! And this is me we're talking about -- a former slug.


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An email from reader Johnny asked, "Do you listen to music or what when you're walking?"

I'm all about the silence. And also pretty sure this makes some people cringe! No music, no tapes, no ipod, no earbuds, no audiobooks here. I use my walking time like other people use meditation. Those walks are my writing time. I compose paragraphs, work out the plot, write and re-write essays for this website all in my head while I walk. It's the closest I can get to meditating. It's also where I worked out the whole plot for my fiction book.

I've been taking two walks a day lately even when it's hot because of the LOUD CRAZYMAKING construction going on next door. Sometimes I just have to escape, so walking is my quiet time.

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Canadian reader SandyB wrote, "Eight and nine miles! That is freaking awesome. Do you know that that is 12.8 and 14.5 kilometers in Canada ... isn't that the best? And then when we convert weight from lbs to kilograms my 150 lbs is 68.8 kilograms. Rock the metric it is win win!"

I LOVE THE METRIC SYSTEM! I mean listen, I'm American so I have no idea how to use it, but I love it for just the reasons you pointed out. I was on skype a while back with a friend who lives in Europe and I told him how many miles I walked then asked him to convert it to kilometers so I could sound like more of a badass. Yes, I really am that superficial.

Also, GO CANADA!

- - - -

So I love that we're all talking about and thinking about walking. There have been lots of interesting questions and chitchat and emails about walking lately. I'm certainly not an expert and Lord knows I'm not a picture of physical fitness, I'm just a regular shmoe trying to get off the couch.

Maybe that's a good perspective, though! I think if a skinny fitness instructor type told me she had just walked seven miles in one go I would not believe I could do it. But this is me we're talking about. I am carrying some good old fashioned American heft up and down those hills. I just started slow and worked up to it and didn't give up and now I can surprise even myself with my own endurance.

Walking is probably the closest I will ever get to real meditation and I like the way my brain clears out and calms down and it helps me sleep better, too. ALL that good stuff. But let's be real, I also want to lose weight and fit into my pants.

Has walking helped me lose weight? Yes. Absolutely. I saw my friend Corey a few weeks ago and she almost didn't recognize me, in a good way. But is it slow going? ALSO YES. And only now, a year later, I've started to become OK with this. I needed this time to get my mind straight and work through my stuff and I think it's been better for me in unexpected ways, going slow, adding incrementally to progress and fitness. I have had times when I've felt impatient, times when I slugged out and wanted to give up.

A few months ago I started to see how I've always associated walking (an activity I love) with weight loss (a topic I frankly hate). So that in my life walking became something I was "supposed" to do and "should" do and that sucked a lot of enjoyment out of it. In fact, I often avoided the activity all together because there is so much mental crap tied up with being fat/being a failure/not exercising enough.

Around this time I made the division between walking because it feels good and walking for weight loss. I decided that if I never lost another ounce I wanted to keep walking every day because it feels so good. And if people don't like the way I look they can stick it up their hoohah.

So yes, I have lost weight. But I am not skinny. I will probably never be skinny. People who think I need to be skinny need to find other things to worry about. I just do. not. care.

These days I walk because I like it, not because anyone is telling me to walk to lose weight. Something about that distinction has made a world of difference to my outlook.

It has been one wild year of changiness!

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Last one, promise, about legs and pants and then some navel-gazing:

When I get back from my long walks, like this morning, I take a long, hot shower and then I rub my ankles and feet and calves with castor oil. I know it sounds like some weird old wives tale but it really works for muscle soreness and pain and stuff. And it makes your skin soft, too. I bought a bottle of castor oil at Whole Foods for about $6 and it lasts several months. If your feet or legs get sore after a long hike this may work for you. I love it.

And a few people have emailed me to say they tried the same shoes I'm using (Nike Free Run shoes) with great results. I'm so happy! I love sharing a find that works. So that got me thinking about one last thing:

Pants.

I wasn't going to write about this because it seems sort of embarrassing, but then I saw an article about some lady runner and she mentioned how important her special running shorts were (I think she called them "skins" or something) to cut down on chafing. And this lady was seriously thin and athletic, so it made me think that perhaps this is just a human body issue, not just a chub rub issue.

Last October when I really started ramping up my walking routine, I knew it was time to advance from brief 30-minute and 40-minute walks to longer walks of up to an hour or longer. But the first time I did a long walk I got some serious chafing issues halfway through the walk and had to hobble back two-plus miles home and that was a sad sight. I was just wearing regular old black track pants from Target, and the seams on my pants legs were thick double-knit bumps that rubbed and hurt.

So I went to Target and found these pants with flat seams. Now I know some of you are saying, $36 for a pair of track pants? Are you out of your mind? But hear me out.

If you pay $36 for a pair of pants that don't chafe or rub on your skin and that means you take longer and longer walks with no discomfort, then you are more likely to have better and better health from all that walking and exercising, maybe sleep better, maybe lose weight, maybe feel great. And if you keep on doing it (and don't quit because your shoes hurt or your pants rub the wrong way) you will get fitter and healthier and may even add years to your life.

Is that worth $36 to you?

This is how I've rearranged my life, and it's taken a year to get this far but it's working. I ask myself why I'm willing to spend money on Netflix or cable TV or popcorn or whatever and yet I balk at $36 for track pants. It's small things that can make a big difference.

It's been one year almost to the day that I left the bank and all those little changes have made a big turnaround. Yes, I'm poorer and I can't really afford a vacation and freelancing is uncertain. What's also true is that I'm not the same fat, sad, unhappy, lethargic, stressed-out version of me I was this time last year. I used to wake up each day already behind schedule, angry, and ashamed at what I saw in the mirror. I was depressed and I couldn't sleep and I kept breaking out in hives. Now I wake up and wonder if I should hike up the steep hill or the really steep hill, and then I think about this book I'm writing, I write, I wonder what the day will bring and I look forward to it. I have sad moments and happy moments and awkward moments, but that's normal. I'm not a broken, dispirited, gloomy woman anymore. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. Maybe I don't want you to lose hope. If I could turn the bus around I believe it's possible for anyone to do it.

It's not just about walking or eating well or doing what you love. You have to plug in, do whatever it takes to make things work harmoniously, take control of your life and body. But you already know that. I wasn't actually sure this year would work, I knew it was a risk (it still is!) but I'm here to tell you it's actually working. Somehow I managed to turn it all around. It's been slow, and it's not even over yet, but at least I am finally going in the right direction. And really, that is enough.

Posted by laurie at June 8, 2011 12:42 PM