liv: oil painting of seated nude with her back to the viewer (body)
[personal profile] liv
So two years ago, I started going to the gym; I was stressed that I couldn't do intense exercise even for one minute without being defeated by the combination of asthma and unfitness. Today I ran for 30 minutes continuously. Slowly, about 4½ mph, but I kept going, and that's still 30 minutes of moving faster than I've ever been able to purely under my own power.

I made an angsty post here about wanting to take up a regular exercise routine and not knowing how to start. And loads and loads of people gave me masses of support and advice and were super-duper helpful. What really clinched it for me was that [personal profile] mathcathy was about to join a gym and invited me to join her. So from December 2010 until March this year, we were going to the gym together. That was amazing, because I wanted not to cancel on [personal profile] mathcathy more than I wanted to be lazy and skip the gym.

Then our gym closed overnight, and [personal profile] mathcathy moved away, so I switched membership to the council gym which is about the only place I could get to without getting a lift by car. Keeping up my routine was a whole lot harder without my buddy, but I just about managed twice a week. I certainly wasn't getting up at 6 am to go to the gym; I could manage getting up and meeting [personal profile] mathcathy at the door, but I couldn't at all motivate myself to leave my warm bed in order to walk to town in the dark! That meant that I sometimes just didn't have enough free evenings in a given week, but most weeks I kept on target.

Occasionally I made waily posts here and got more encouragement and affirmation, so that also helped me to keep going. And I started logging stuff on Fitocracy, which worked very well for gamifying the whole exercise thing. I got points and level-ups and achievement badges, and simply the fact of recording as well as getting "props" and encouraging comments from friends really did make exercise a whole lot more rewarding. I also set myself the goal of nominally travelling to Rivendell, 458 miles over the course of 2012.

The trouble was that, having attained my goal I was just bored, I wasn't making any tangible progress, I was just repeating the same routines and getting the same numbers. The council gym does provide classes and individual training sessions, but on a very inconvenient schedule such that I haven't yet been able to take advantage of this. So I asked the internet for suggestions of programmes I could follow on my own. I was vacillating over taking up Couch to 5k, because I thought the structured programme would be really helpful, but I was still scared of running.

Luckily, [personal profile] rmc28 happened to be starting at just that time, so I agreed that we could be virtual buddies. She made a community, [community profile] c25k, so that we could record our progress and encourage eachother. The combination of having a virtual buddy I wanted to keep up with, and publicly recording whether or not I was keeping my commitment, has been an absolute godsend. So I worked through the programme, starting from just barely being able to jog for one minute at a time, to today when I actually ran for 30 minutes, at a pace that, while slow compared to actual runners, is fast by my standards. I haven't officially completed the programme yet, as you need to do the final week three times, but now I've done it once I see no reason not be able to manage twice more!

One thing about working in a medical school is that I spend a lot of time teaching the students how to help people change their bad habits. Whether that's smoking, drinking to excess, not taking their meds on a regular schedule, living exclusively on food that's high in calories but short on nutrients, or, well, being excessively sedentary. So I've started picking up some bits and pieces of a sub-field of psychology called behaviour change theory. And I'm essentially brain-hacking myself to be able to keep up this exercise habit. Giving myself tangible (even if very trivial, such as points or even filled in cells on an spreadsheet) rewards when I stick to my routine. Getting support and encouragement from friends. Using a structured programme that includes both short-term and long-term goals. Making specific commitments and being held accountable. Diarying how I'm doing. Incrementing how much I do gradually rather than trying to become perfect all at once. Removing as many obstacles as I can that stand in the way of doing what I long-term want. Basically, what I'm learning is that there's no such thing as "willpower", just a whole mess of psychological drives one can work with or against.

This is the kind of thing that some of the Less Wrong people are trying to reinvent just by thinking about it hard, but I'm an empiricist and always have been, and behaviour change theory is rather more evidence-based than all this business about "akrasia", though I'm sure that works for some. No, it isn't rational, but a whole heap of human behaviour is simply not based on rational decisions, however much you love rationality.

Basically, the C25K programme is amazing and I thoroughly recommend it. I didn't start out literally on the couch; I'd been exercising regularly for a year and half when I started. But I was more than usually unable to run, and had to work round exercise-induced asthma. I really do wish that someone had told me the very simple advice about starting with intervals and gradually increasing them when I was a teenager who really, really wanted to be fit enough to play hockey competitively; instead everybody just told me to lose weight. (By the way, as at one year, I am within 500g of exactly the same weight I was two years ago. The magic just doesn't work for me, and no, I have no intention of trying to magic harder.)

The advantage of working from the NHS version is that it's at least reasonably evidence-based and not trying to sell you anything, and also that the forums tend to be full of people who support and encourage eachother, rather than super-competitive, super-macho athletes trying to put down people who aren't as amazing as them. That's another thing that behaviour change theory supports: stories of other people trying to make the same change can be really helpful. For me, reading for example that other people also get out of breath and red-faced even when jogging slowly, or that the first ten minutes can be harder than the rest, or that jumping up to longer times is partly a psychological as well as a physical barrier, was really helpful for keeping going. And peer-pressure is good; knowing people who run, [ profile] atreic, [personal profile] naath, [personal profile] syllopsium, [personal profile] yvi and I'm sure there are more runners I've forgotten has also helped me get started and keep myself going. I should also mention [personal profile] khalinche who ages ago made a post about doing exercise without trying to conform to narrow beauty standards; that was what gave me the courage to even start exercising at all.

So where now? I find myself a really, really slow runner, but you know what? I wasn't at all sure I would ever be any kind of runner! I am going to try to build up until I can actually run 5 km in 30 minutes (as opposed to my current pathetic 3.5 km). My plan is to alternate running as fast as I can for 30 minutes, with running for as long as I can slowly until the two converge. Once I can run 5 km continuously, I will sign myself up for a Parkrun.

I'm also thinking about getting some equipment, now I've proved to myself that I'm actually a runner and not just a dilettante. The first priority has got to be decent running shoes; my cheapo trainers pinch and give me blisters, and that's proving quite a significant obstacle apart from anything else. It's hard to make myself continue running when my feet are hurting, and it's hard to make myself do any exercise outside my running sessions for the same reason. Also now that I'm running for a sustained amount of time, I know that cheap, ill-fitting shoes are an injury risk. A few people have suggested getting a gait analysis done; I've asked this before I think but I would appreciate any pointers for how to get running shoes that are actually helpful and well-made, rather than expensive because they're fashionable.

Other clothes: I'm basically ok running in just a short-ish skirt, with a t-shirt if indoors and a long-sleeved shirt butch enough to have a pocket for my smartphone when I run outdoors. But this does often involve my thighs chafing, and again, even the mild pain is an obstacle against running as much as I would like to. I have tried running in tights and generally found that too hot, and anyway tights never really fit me well over the groin and thighs and quite often increase chafing rather than preventing it. I've heard of a thing called "running tights", but it sounds like their job is to insulate people who run in cold weather, and my asthma means I can't really do that. I think what I really want is simply a pair of loose-fitting shorts; do those even exist for women? Men's running shorts would do if I can find any to fit me. How good are modern, breathable insulating fabrics? Enough better than brushed cotton to be worth investing in?

Everybody told me I need a "proper" sports bra. Honestly I've found a normal, but well-fitting bra to be perfectly adequate. When I tried wearing a support top I found it constricted my ribs enough that I couldn't take deep breaths, and that was more of an impediment to running than boobs bouncing about. As far as I can see sports bras are like a mild form of chest-binding, which is all very well but I'm not sure how feasible it is for E-cups.

I think maybe a head torch would be a good idea, because it would be nice to run outside after dark so I'm not restricted to the boring, sweaty treadmill as often. But since asthma means I can't really run when the air temperature is less than about 10 °C (that limit used to be more like 20 °C, by the way, another sign that I'm getting fitter!), I suspect that by the time it's warm enough to run at night, it will also be staying light enough later that I will have time to run after work anyway. In any case, I would definitely like a bumbag so that I can carry at least a wallet as well as my phone and keys; I think it's got to be a bumbag because a rucksack, even a small or light one, restricts my breathing enough to make running hard. I haven't yet succeeded in finding such a thing that isn't sold as being totally awesome cool for runners, and priced accordingly; I kind of resent spending over £10 on a pouch on a strap, and it's hard to see how a specialist one would improve my running!

I also want to get back into weight-training, because putting so much effort into running has led to my weights routine getting neglected. But that's probably for another post; I think my most likely plan is to find another incremental programme I can follow, so that I get a tangible sense of progress.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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