A few weeks ago, I was flat-out exhausted. Perpetually. Between working at T-Mobile, studying software engineering at Bloc, writing blog posts, spending time with my fiancee, moving to a new apartment, and gearing up for my friend’s wedding, I felt like I was being pulled in a million directions.
My energy resource, since I’ve quit soda and energy drinks (minus the occasional root beer float), was coffee and any sugar I could get a hold of. I’d drink a cup in the morning (with sugar), a Soylent Coffiest drink somewhere during the day, and often a coffee in the afternoon (usually from Starbucks, also with sugar) to keep me going. As anyone who has drunk caffeinated and sugary drinks for any length of time can attest, this is a recipe for disaster. Aside from the more immediate negative results – caffeine and sugar both make you crash later in the day, and have been linked to anxiety – caffeine and sugar are both addictive. One coffee used to be more than enough for me. Then it became two, then three, and it just kept getting worse.
Ultimately, the problem is that if you work at a retail store or a desk for a living, your job is not getting you enough exercise, and tasty foods are tasty. So we consume a bunch of sugar and caffeine, notice it wakes us up, and use it as fuel. This is obviously not a good way to keep your body energized, alert, and healthy, but we do it anyway because we feel we “don’t have time” to exercise.
Somehow, I doubt that that’s true for most people. If we can binge-watch 10-hour Netflix seasons, take 100 hours to beat a video game, or flip TV channels for 4 hours, we certainly have the time to exercise for 30 minutes to 1 hour. The problem isn’t that we don’t have time; the problem is that it sounds scary and painful when you’re out of shape to try and get into shape. You’ll tell yourself “my ribs hurt when I run too much” or that it’s not the right temperature outside. You’ll give yourself every excuse not to run today, and tell yourself instead that you’ll do it tomorrow – only for tomorrow to never come.
So that’s why I figured out a way to make running fun and easy for myself.
The first thing about building a good habit – exercising daily, spending time learning to code daily, writing a blog post daily, or learning to play the cello daily – is that if you previously did not do that thing regularly (or ever), you need to accept that you are currently not good at it. And that’s totally okay! How in the world would you be good at it if you’ve never done it?
Everyone, and I mean everyone, starts by being bad at whatever it is they want to do. Sure, some people maybe have a knack for certain things, perhaps because of how their mind is wired or how their body is shaped. But they don’t come out of the womb knowing how to play a sport or run a business or film a movie.
Unlike coding, which was almost completely new to me when I started with Bloc, I was actually a runner for a brief time (I ran track in junior high school). So it’s not that I didn’t know how to do it; it’s that I tried to kill myself on every run when I told myself “this time I’ll start running and won’t stop doing it.” The flawed logic in my head was that I hadn’t run for several months, so I needed to play catch-up, so to speak, and run really hard right out of the gate.
The problem is, I’d be miserable afterward. I’d be exhausted, not energized, and wouldn’t be looking forward to my next run. So I’d quit for three months, then try again.
But trying to run a six-minute-mile when you haven't gone on a run in months (or years) is like expecting to write like J.K. Rowling the first time you try to write a book. Of course you’re not as good as J.K. Rowling; she’s been writing for her entire life, long before she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and she’s also gotten a lot of feedback ever since she made it her career.
So I decided the solution for me was to start small. I didn’t worry about distance; I figured if I kept moving my arms and legs, I would eventually get somewhere. Instead, I just focused on time – I told myself to keep running for 20 minutes (perhaps 10 or 30 is better for you, depending on your health; judge accordingly). I’d keep running even if I was running so slow I might as well walk, even if I felt terrible. I set my own pace for those 20 minutes (timed by my Apple Watch, with my phone sitting at home so no text messages were distracting me), and that’s it.
But you know what? When I did it this way, it wasn’t so bad. I was competing against myself, not people who could run ten miles at Colorado’s elevation because they’ve been running every day for a decade. I didn’t bring earphones, because I didn’t want to be thinking about the beat of the music playing. I just set my own pace, and enjoyed the sunny morning.
And since that wasn’t so bad, I rested for a day (thinking I deserved a reward for my effort) and went again for 20 minutes. And again, this time for 25 minutes. And again for 25. And again for 30. And so on.
So I’ve been doing 30 minute runs for a couple of weeks now, slowly noticing my distance-per-mile numbers improve naturally, and I feel great. I mean, we all know in the back of our heads that exercising is good for us, but we kind of forget just how much. The fact I hear thrown around a lot are that if you eat healthy, you lose weight, while if you work out, you gain muscle, and both in conjunction make you truly healthy. We’re often reminded that we’ll feel happier because of all the chemicals our bodies send out while we exercise – they even made a term for it, “runner’s high" (which is apparently caused by endocannabinoids, not endorphins. Who knew?). And exercising is known to lower your risk of getting 13 different types of cancer.
For me, that’s all been true (well, I guess I don’t know about the cancer, but I don’t seem to have it yet, so that's a good sign). But there’s much more that I notice about exercising regularly, which I’m sure we all vaguely know but many of us often forget. When I exercise regularly, I can tell the difference more clearly between when I’m hungry and when I’m just thirsty. I find it easier to recognize when I should stop eating and take that fancy restaurant meal home for leftovers. I find it easier to stay alert and focused during the day, yet I find it easier to fall asleep at night.
Generally, I find it easier to maintain lots of healthy habits, and I find it easier to be happy with myself. So my point is: exercise. Start slow. Don’t quit.