I EXERCISED EVERY DAY FOR ONE YEAR
Taking a slow-and-steady approach to fitness, I worked out in moderation every day of 2014. Here’s the chart:
I’m a runner. I like road races and trail/mountain running, but striving to do anything “well” is time consuming. In early 2013, when our second child was born, I decided that I would have to cut back on the time and intensity of my running “hobby”.
As 2014 approached, it was clear that it was going to be another year of parenting-before-all-else. So if I wasn’t going to have a running agenda, maybe I could try a little experiment instead. On New Year’s Eve 2013, I decided that I would try to exercise every day for the entire year.
The goal for the year was to see if I could not just maintain, but increase my fitness through regular, moderate exercise. By dropping the focus from running, and thus, dialing back on “training” and “intensity”, I could look forward to a year of small adventures. On any given day, I could choose just about any activity I wanted to do without having to worry about a running schedule.
My wife was not completely on board with my plan, and for good reason. Parenting-wise, we were the busiest we had ever been, and there wasn’t a lot of time for self-improvement. I could see her point, but I felt optimistic about the moderation of it. It would take less time and effort on a given day, but was slow-and-steady growth in the long-run. If I had been a hare in the past, now I was striving to become a turtle.
Her: “It’s going to take up too much time from the family.”
Me: “I can do it late at night, or inside my workday.”
Her: “What if you get sick?”
Me: “I’ll just do something easier that day, like yoga.”
Her: “If you don’t take rest days you’re going to hurt yourself.”
Me: “If I switch up the activities, and include yoga, I think I’ll be fine.”
Her: “What if you get hurt?”
Me: “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. I’m not going for a Guiness World Record.”
Setting up for success
In order to be successful at this without driving my wife insane, I would have to be efficient about it. A one hour run takes about two hours total, if you count stretching, driving and showering. If I could find shorter options that were closer to home (ideally aiming for 30min to 1h a day all-in), there would be less chance of domestic friction. Additionally, in terms of my own will power, I needed a defined minimum activity, a backup plan, and a reward system for myself. I also needed a way to remind myself to exercise.
Setup: Defining the minimum
Aerobic. With the exception of yoga, it was important to me that the exercise be aerobic. Weight lifting or push-ups wouldn’t count. Dog walking wouldn’t count.
Soilage. I decided that if I perspired enough that I had to throw my shirt in the laundry, it would be a workout. This removed the element of time, which I think was key. I knew that if necessary, I could break a sweat in 10 minutes of full-out running or cycling, and there would always be at least 10 minutes in a day to exercise.
Trackable. I have a multi-sport Suunto Ambit GPS watch. With the exception of yoga, the exercise had to be trackable on that watch. Why? So I didn’t have to manually log everything. Every week or so I could sync my watch to the Suunto server (movescount.com) and could fill in the missing days manually with the yoga sessions I had done.
Setup: The Backup Plan
I would strive to do “nice” things outside, but I needed a backup plan. I had to have a fallback exercise for BAD DAYS. What if the weather outside was unbearable? What if I forgot to exercise until 11:30pm? What if I felt weak? What if I had no motivation? I needed a couple of “easy” options where I could shut my mind off and go through the motions if necessary.
First, I bought a bike trainer for the garage. A bike trainer is a tension controlled wheel that turns a road bike into a stationary bike. I found that it was very easy to go into the garage and watch Netflix on an iPad while bringing my heart rate up for half an hour. I could do this late at night when the kids were asleep, so it didn’t bother my wife, and I didn’t have to run in the rainy darkness of winter. It was also practically stress-free on the body, at least compared to running. It was a bit of a magic bullet: there really wasn’t any excuse not to exercise more regularly.
The second backup would be yoga. For years I have been doing an old 25 minute yoga video called “Yoga for Abs” (Rodney Yee). I’ve found it to be challenging, but not too challenging, and it’s a great counter for running. It works the abs and stretches a few key areas. I had converted it to audio so I could use it anywhere on my iPhone.
Setup: The Reward
I decided that realistically, there was no material reward that would help to motivate me in this challenge. I wanted the reward to be intrinsic, rather than a new tv or something.
Unexpectedly, even from the end of the first week, the rewards came from the calendar summary design on Movescount. Every time I synched my Suunto Watch with the Movescount website, it would fill out my calendar in such a minimal, pretty way. Each activity I had done, from road running to stand up paddling, was represented by icons. As each day was filled without breaks, it became a perfectly satisfying representation of completion.
Aside: At the end of the year, I took a screenshot of every month on Movescount and merged them together in Photoshop (the graphic above). That graphic is like a personal medal. It’s something I can look at in 20 years. It’s more rewarding than anything I could have dreamed up.
Setup: The Reminder
The reminder was easy. I use OmniFocus religiously as a day-planner, so I simply added a reoccurring daily task called “Exercise”. This worked almost flawlessly.
Motivation, October 18, and other near misses
The Good: Never once did I want to skip a day. There were a couple of days where I cursed about it late at night, but it was just something that I did… like getting dressed in the morning and sleeping.
The Bad: About five times throughout the year, my wife woke me late at night after I had fallen asleep with the kids. I surely would have missed those days had I been alone.
The Ugly: There were a handful of times during travel or time with friends when it was a little bit awkward to exercise, but I just did it. I also continued moderate exercise after a small surgery. Those were the only days where this felt like a bit of an obsession. Doing yoga in the O’Hare Airport yoga room between flights was particularly awkward, but it was an experience.
The Miss: By October, daily exercise was a fully developed habit. On October 18th, a friend and I got in the car at 6am for a twelve hour drive across the Rockies. When we got to his parent’s house, we ate and chatted with them until 1am, and I went to bed. I completely forgot about exercising. It was very disapointing, but what was done was done. I wasn’t going for a Guiness record, after all. I had to move on, so I tried not to think about it. Looking back, I think of it as a statistical error, and the mistake makes the rest of the “data” seem more real. Also, it helps my ego that I had done an extra workout on June 14.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A BACKUP
I found it hard to justify working out during the day if my wife was stuck dealing with the children. If I couldn’t exercise inside of office hours, I held off until the kids went to bed. From the calendar summary, I can see that having a backup plan was critical to success — There are a lot of indoor biking and yoga days on there.
I am surprised at how much yoga I did: about 71 days. By the end of the year, I was strong enough that most of the yoga I was doing wasn’t working a big sweat (and our house is also freezing!), but I definitely feel that Yoga “counts”.
The vast majority of the workout days though, were indoor biking on the trainer. It may have been a backup, but I didn’t slack. My regimen was to do level 1 and 2 for 5 minutes each, then level 3 and 4 for 10 minutes each, so it got harder over a 30 minute period. Sometimes I would do minute-intervals all the way to 10 and back down again, which is extremely difficult. By the end, I was spent every time, and because I was able to turn off mentally with Netflix, it could turn a dreaded workout into a satisfying workout. Biking is also great for hill running muscles. The unexpected benefit of biking was that I could work my way through some movies, TED talks, and tv shows that I would otherwise have missed.
Weight: I am 6’5″. I started at a normal, not-over-weight 205 lbs, and finished at about 195 lbs, even after the spoils of Christmas.
Fitness: At pretty much every point of this non-training year, I felt in very good shape. I don’t know if that has happened before, ever. I may have had better long-distance endurance while training in the past, but I felt more “toned” and “fit” with this slow-and-steady regime. Most importantly, despite moderate output, I could certainly take on my former running self in short distances, and saw very quick improvements when I ran for a few days at a time, because the leg strength was already there.
Mid-year, I ran a 10k in just under 43 minutes (only 3 minutes off my PR). The first 5k of that race was a speedy-for-me 20 minutes. I also did a half marathon in just under 1:40 (from 1:30 PR), which was pretty good considering I wasn’t running a lot and had barely done any road running.
By exercising every day for a year, I saw physical results through moderate, but steady output. The average workout was about 30 minutes (not including long outliers like skiing). This turned out to be a sweet-spot in terms of not getting burned out, and not annoying my wife.
Non-physical benefits included figuring out how to successfully absorb a new habit without having to cut corners elsewhere, an improvement in time management, as well as greater self-esteem / overall happiness.
All-in-all, it was very doable and worthwhile pursuit.
I am continuing to exercise every day this year, but am doing it less dogmatically. I’m allowing myself to skip days if it is inconvenient or if I am sick — I have already skipped two days because of illness — and will aim for about 95% for the year, instead of 100%. Daily exercise is the norm for me now.
I am currently attempting to pick up other mini-habits using this approach, including reading one page of a book every day.