Tools, not rules

Think that taking care of ourselves is a "you must do this" rulebook? Think again...
Think that taking care of ourselves is a “you must do this” rulebook? Think again…

A few days ago a friend from my hometown sent me a Facebook message about Every48. She’s a busy mom who had been landlocked with her kids in the house for a few days because of the snowstorms and school closings back East, and she was doing her best to get thirty minutes of exercise in each day because she “translated” my own goal of 60 minutes of activity every 48 hours into a more manageable 30 minutes every day. She asked me:

I’ve reshaped your pledge into a personal goal of 30 minutes every single day, which is my mind is equivalent to 60 minutes every 48 hours, and fits more easily into my life… but then it occurred to me that maybe it’s NOT really equivalent!  I’m at a much lower fitness level than you are but I feel good about my 30 mins on the elliptical per day.  Just trying to figure out if I should try really hard to make it an hour every other day instead.

– My friend from home, where it’s snowing and there are rambunctious landlocked kids running around her house

Okay. Let’s discuss.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to taking care of ourselves. There are only really, really good suggestions. I like to call this concept “Tools, Not Rules.”

What I’ve heard numerous times from just about everyone who knows what they’re doing in the health/fitness/preventive medicine field is this:

The best workout for you is the one you’re actually going to do.

There you go. So the key to my friend’s comment above is this: she figured out something that fits more easily into her life. Boom. Done. There you go. That’s what all of this is about.

Here’s the reason I made a pledge to myself to exercise hard for about an hour, every other day, in 2014.

In 2008, I came back from covering the Beijing Olympics. I was in the worst shape of my life. Overweight and sluggish, I went to my closet and discovered none of my clothes fit. (I seriously wondered for a few minutes if it had been an extra-hot summer in Seattle and my clothes had shrunk. Humidity and clothes issues had been a factor when I lived in southern China, so for some reason I thought it could have happened in Seattle, too. This is what is known as magical thinking.)

Anyway, two weeks after I came home from Beijing, Lehman Brothers failed and the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy. I was without work for several months. Not a fun time. (Yes, it’s good to save up for a rainy day. You’ll really appreciate it if it starts raining.)

But suddenly there was time to consider my own health. I started by trying to train for a race – running had been my usual panacea against weight gain in the past, so I thought I’d go back to “what worked before.” Then I did the race – it was November 30, 2008 –  and saw a photograph of myself afterwards that someone had snapped. (It’s the “before” picture on the About the Blog page.) And I said to myself, whoa. That’s what I really look like? It was the picture that saved my life. Because it was obvious that whatever I thought I was doing to try to take better care of myself, it wasn’t working.

Tools, not rules.
Tools, not rules.

So I signed up for an online weight-loss program and house-sat for my cousins for three weeks in Monterey, CA while they went on a dream vacation, and I visited a hot yoga studio in Pacific Grove (Bikram Yoga Monterey – if you go, tell Emily and William that I said hello) every day for a 90-minute class to wake my body up while I was in California. And then I came back to Seattle, thought I could do it all “on my own,” fought that demon for a while more, and finally walked into a Weight Watchers meeting on Saturday, February 21, 2009 and started to learn about how to actually take care of myself. It took a whole bunch of time to figure this stuff out. But here’s what hit me – not only at yoga, or Weight Watchers, but in a bunch of great health literature I’ve studied since then: There is no one “right way” to do this stuff.

When I hit my healthiest weight, I looked at my food and activity trackers to learn about what had worked best for me. Tracking is a big deal, by the way: you can do it on paper, or with an app or a device or some combination. (Check out Jane Brody’s recent New York Times article for more on why tracking our nutrition and exercise habits works much better than any “get thin quick” books that hit the shelves every January.)

I discovered from those trackers that if I go more than three days without an aerobic workout, the quality of my nutrition goes down, my energy level decreases, and a whole lot of monkey business starts to creep into my life: excuses, eating less healthfully, and magical thinking – really believing that I’m doing more than I actually am to take care of myself. So regular exercise keeps me honest. I landed on the idea of working out for about an hour, every other day, for 2014 after a couple of years of being “really close” to being my healthiest, but never quite getting there. This is a tool for me to learn more about what works for me. But I’m an experiment of one.

Be an experiment of one.

My friend’s schedule works for her. My schedule works for me. If you’re brand new to all of this, consider the American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines for activity: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week – the equivalent of a really fast power walk. The only suggestion I would give my friend is this: promising to do something every day can be a setup for disappointment on a day when things go haywire. And rest days are important too – so be sure to spend time stretching and resting, as well as time reflecting on your goals. Take care of yourself. Give yourself an out when things go nuts. Be consistent. And make sure to have rest days in your exercise schedule.

Today’s overall takeaway: it’s about tools, not rules. Now get out there and get after it.

Yesterday’s #every48 workout: BIKE at the gym – 50 minutes (5 minute warmup, 40 minutes at 90 RPMs, 5 minute cooldown)

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