Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Exercise and Me

Today I'm going to talk about one of the dominant features of my life lately, pain.

No, that's wrong.  I'm going to talk about exercise.  Pain is just the primary by-product so far.

Not that I should be surprised.  I'm not exactly a kid any more, physically at least, so I should expect a bit of ongoing maintenance to be necessary to the continued function of the machine my brain rides around in.  Which makes me sound kind of like Krang, which is actually kinda cool.  Let's run with that.

I'm one of those people who really likes structured exercises.  That is, so many minutes doing one thing, or so many reps, or whatever.  Probably one reason for that is one of my earliest forays into exercise was under the guidance of a friend who was a bodybuilder and martial artist.  He later dropped the bodybuilding part to focus on the martial arts, but at the time he was very much into weights and such.  His early encouragement showed me that such repetetive sorts of exercise were actually pretty enjoyable and effective.

My housemate is just the opposite.  She can't wrap her head about stationary, repetitive exercises.  Her preferred activities are things like walking, dancing, stair climbing, that sort of thing.  It works for her, and I imagine there are approaches to physical activity neither of us could get into.  Team sports spring to mind here, or running.

In my case, I have a few physical limitations that cut some of those options out regardless of personal taste.  First and foremost, I can't really do outside activities due to my extremely fair skin.  My heritage runs back to the northwestern parts of Europe mainly, and generally focuses on places where the sun was but a frightening thing that appeared only in tales told in whispers.  Ireland, Germany, England, Scotland.  Home of the gingers, and I've got the freckles to prove it even if my hair has darkened to more of an auburn these days.

I don't mind being a ginger, of course. Puts me in good company like Tim Minchin and Tori Amos.  But it does carry the great disadvantage of highly sun-sensitive skin.  When you have so little melanin that you can see the veins underneath, there's not a lot there to protect you from melanoma.  Combine that with the fact that I really can't handle the humid heat of an Ottawa summer very well and the fact that winter activities have never appealed to me either (nor has cold), and that puts me solidly indoors for most of the year.  

Another thing that turns me off from outdoor activities like running, which underlies the great majority of sports, is a byproduct of my height.  That is to say, femoral-patella syndrome.  It's not uncommon among the tall and involves the thigh and knee bones being just a little bit too close together, and rubbing against one another as a result.  Obviously this isn't good for either, and the forcing of fluid between the two when flexing the knee joint is similar in many ways to cracking your knuckles, if a bit quieter.  Certainly nothing that lends itself to the vertical shock of running, whether after a ball or as part of a marathon.  By the same token, squats are discouraged whether they're with weights or not.

And that's not even mentioning the plantar fasciitis, which I grant mostly just needs shoe inserts to cope with for the most part.  That one's minor by comparison, but still a factor in deciding whether to run or not, as is a general lack of endurance.

But indoor exercise, that's actually not bad.  I like that stuff a lot, and I've tried a great many.

So why, I ask myself, do I have such trouble sticking with it?  It's not because it's unpleasant, although my sore thigh muscles and glutes aren't exactly helping my case at the moment.  I understand that's just an early side effect which will ease as I gain strength, although it can be kind of discouraging when it affects my daily activities.

Perhaps a quick rundown of the various attempts I've made at regular exercise might help a bit.

The earliest I can think of involved running in high school.  High school didn't really go a long way towards encouraging me to love sports, to say the least.  Being a rural high school in the 80's, they didn't really have a real understanding or focus on brining people into physical activity who weren't already interested in it.  The idea of changing the approach to accommodate such students really hadn't gotten into people's consciousness yet so there was no real effort to pursue anyone except those who were attracted in the easiest fashion.  So if you were into basketball or soccer or what have you, those activities were there and ready. But if you had different aptitudes, there was no effort to encourage you to like them.

However, one teacher who I liked started up a running club, where we had a personal goal of 100 km.  It was all self-reporting so we didn't all go out as a group, which I appreciated.  I wasn't exactly the best fit in many groups, so an individual event worked out pretty well.  I managed to make my goal too, although I did learn that I liked cycling more than running by quite a lot, and I began to realize that endurance wasn't my strong suit.  That was a few years before I found out about the knee/thigh bone issue, although I had begun to notice the soft crackling as I went up stairs.

The next attempt was a few years later when my friend, who I'd mentioned earlier, introduced me to bodybuilding.  Even then I wasn't interested in bulking up at all, but rather becoming more lean and he totally understood that.  Bodybuilding, when you get away from the competitive side, tends to be pretty flexible that way and you can focus in a number of different ways.  Not to mention, the university sports centre I was going to had managed to purchase a lot of quality weight equipment from a branch of Gold's Gym that had recently closed down.  Gold's was known for top-notch equipment, so it was a bit of a coup from the university's point of view and good timing from mine.

However, I ended up compelled to drop out due to financial reasons so that was really the end of that for a while.  I tried out a couple of things over the next few years such as tai chi and kyudo (Japanese archery) and while I liked them I ended up in a position where I didn't have access to good instruction or facilities so they faded into the background again.

One thing I did stick with for a while was a book I'd found at one point and still have called The Body Principal.  Apparently the actress Victoria Principal was quite into fitness and put together a book that detailed a fitness regimen and a wide assortment of exercises that she vouched for.  The exercises were all of the no-equipment variety that you could do at home, and I found that they could be quite challenging.  Some of the exercises were quite novel, like lying down and pushing your heels against a wall in order to strengthen the knees or repeatedly tightening the thighs and butt in order to work the lower abdominals.

I never really stuck with that one either for too long, at least as a full workout, but I've kept coming back to it either in full or in part, over the years since then.  It might be a bit dated in some ways, seeing as it was published 30 years ago, but overall it still holds up very well.

My most recent foray into exercise was Leslie Sansome's Walk Away the Pounds DVDs, which are basically low-impact aerobics with a walking theme.  It's pretty enjoyable and although I was hesitant about buying a workout DVD at first, I really did enjoy it and found it more entertaining than I expected.  I do get a bit distracted by some of the banter that seems a little forced, but overall it wasn't bad.  I stuck with that for a few months until I found that what with the evenings getting darker and darker with winter coming on, I was having a harder and harder time motivating myself to do it after getting home from work.  Eventually I just stopped, although I may pick it up again depending on where my current efforts take me.

So to catch up to now, my current efforts are largely organized around the habit forming and productivity tools I've mentioned several times in the past couple of weeks.  The first was the wall sit challenge from the International Geek Girls Pen Pal Club.  I made it through that for a while, adding 10 seconds every day until I hit a wall at 110 seconds.  So I gave up on the challenge and started doing 90 seconds a day on my own.  I've kept that up for a week now, and while I won't say it's easy in the least, at least it's possible for me.  Hopefully after I've gotten stronger I'll be able to add more time but for now that's my limit.

A day or so after I started that, I started the 30-day beginner plank challenge.  That one only increases in time every fourth day, and I've gone 17 days straight so far.  I'm up to a 1 minute front plank with 40 seconds on either side.  It's tough, but I'm managing.  After a few days of doing those, I began to wonder what else I could be doing, some small exercise that I could fit into my daily routine.  And since stairs were and continue to be my nemesis, I chose that.  Since I didn't know what my limits were there, I decided to try the same approach as I did with wall sits, start with two and add one time up and down the stairs each day until I got to a level that would challenge me.  As it turned out, that level was 10 times up and down, not counting incidental runs up and down the stairs during the course of my day.  I've been doing that for about a week and a half now, and while still challenging I feel it's helping at least a bit.

The last addition came about over the past couple of days, as a result of looking through the Habit RPG challenges.  This time it's yoga, namely to complete a Sun Salutation every day.  Well, that led me to ask just what a Sun Salutation was, and the answer is that it's a series of poses that are intended to flow one to the next as a sort of warm up.  In a lot of ways it reminds me of some things I really like about tai chi, save that it takes up a lot less room.  I'd been a bit concerned about that since the living room finally got fully furnished back in December, so I thought why not?

Thinking about it, choosing to start learning bits and pieces of yoga practice really fits in with something that's bothered me ever since I was a teenager, namely not being as flexible as I'd like to be.  After some reflection, I've come to realize that flexibility and graceful movement may really be my oldest fitness goals since I've always had pretty tight hamstrings, and being as big as I am (pushing 6'3") I've spent most of my life being self-conscious about my size and consider a lot of my movements to be quite clumsy and broad.  So why not address that now?

Looking back at all that, it seems pretty clear that my repeated failure to stick with exercise comes down in large part to two things: relying on courses or facilities which may become unavailable to me, and simply losing track.  i.e., not making exercise a habit.

So it seems that exercise has a lot in common with things like writing and art for me.  I'm entirely too prone to chasing after something shiny, biting off more than I can chew, and then allowing myself to forget what I was chasing after before I'm able to really make it a truly regular thing.  And like writing and art, I come back to the same solution: external tools that make use of positive motivation and to-do lists.  And looking further, I think I need to keep one other element in mind: simplicity.  

Right now I have four main exercise elements: wall sits, stair climbing, plank pose and Sun Salutation.  For someone like me, it's highly tempting to go off half-cocked and start throwing more things on that pile, but that I think is a sure way to turn myself off of the idea.  It becomes less a personal challenge and more of a chore to keep doing it, and I know myself well enough by now to realize that will destroy my motivation.  So until these four items become habitual, and I've heard it said it takes 66 days on average to build a habit, I don't plan on adding much more.  

Perhaps another fitness challenge, to keep things fun.  But nothing that'll get in the way of daily practice.  After all, it's only by doing this stuff long term that I'm going to get anywhere, and I honestly want to get somewhere with it.  For my own satisfaction, I really need to work on being fit.

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