As I talked about in A Call to Action, taking better care of myself meant, first and foremost, being more active, which meant being more conscious about being active. It meant that I had to learn how to walk.
You would think that walking is something most adults without some kind of impediment would be able to do. It’s harder than it looks. Or, rather, engaging in purposeful walking that will return health benefits over time was something I had to get good at.
I’ve always been someone who likes to wander about and look at stuff. I’ve always used my feet to get from place to place, especially when I lived in New York and was too cheap (or broke) to pay for bus or subway fares. I’ve also been extremely lucky to only have had one serious leg injury (I ripped the sheath around my left Achilles tendon when I was @ 20), though my left knee is of questionable soundness. It will, without warning or pain, just stop working, delivering my ass to the ground in a supremely ungraceful crash.
Back in early 2011, I knew that I needed to do more moving around in a way that I could measure and manage. I’d done walking before to kinda-sorta address health concerns, and had nearly crippled myself by over-exercising in 2006 for a company health challenge. I had done too much walking up and down hills that were too steep (we live in an area with a lot of canyons) and had inflamed the damaged sheath on my left Achilles tendon. That sidelined me for weeks and left me limping for almost a year. Ironically, the challenge that had been intended to improve my health materially harmed it.
ANGLACHEL’S ACTIVITY RULE #1: Don’t injure yourself. It hurts.
The other big problem is that walking around when you have a bum knee, a damaged tendon, a semi-functional lung and are roughly twice the weight the various health experts claim you should be can be difficult. I got short of breath. My shins hurt. My ankles ached. Crossing a street with fast traffic was a challenge. I got hot and sweaty. The world doesn’t think short fat women need comfortable, properly fitting workout clothes.
ANGLACHEL’S ACTIVITY RULE #2: Don’t be uncomfortable. Life is too short for that shit.
Finally, I didn’t want to sacrifice my life and free time to some exercise regimen. Whatever I did had to fit in with what I was already doing, with room for adjustments and accommodations like less blogging. It couldn’t be something I dreaded doing. I so was not into anything remotely approaching the “Enough is never enough,” school of physical and psychological self-torment as a way of life. A large part of my declining health was not having a way of life that, simply by living it, kept me feeling good.
ANGLACHEL’S ACTIVITY RULE #3: Don’t exercise. Do things that are good for you and make you happy.
So, the first thing I did was some research. The most reassuring thing I read, and it was repeated by pretty much every organization that cares about you being healthy, not you paying them money, was how doing things regularly and in moderation was plenty sufficient for health. I figured I could walk the equivalent of 30 minutes 5 times a week on most weeks. If I couldn’t, whatever I could do was better than not doing anything. In fact, increasing the intensity of the activity didn’t seem to have any general health benefits to middle-aged women aside from heart conditioning, and even those gains were negligible.
I then found a few mapping programs on line that let me plot out some walking routes in my neighborhood that avoided the big hill climbs that had screwed up my tendon 5 years earlier. I ended up using gmap-pedometer.com most because it has a nifty elevation tracker. At the time, I didn’t have a smart phone so I didn’t have any of the fancy apps that let you track things via GPS. I just plotted out a few routes that started at .5 miles and increased in half-mile increments.
Then, I went for walks, keeping track of when I left and when I came back so I could see if I was walking for 30 minutes or more. As I went along, I made sure that I walked briskly and kept my head up and my shoulders down and relaxed. (There are plenty of resources online that have photos and videos of good walking form.) My biggest concern was to not get hit by a car when I crossed a street, because I couldn’t move very fast, so I spent a fair amount of time at busy intersections waiting for traffic. My next biggest concern was not tripping on the shitty sidewalks. San Diego is notorious for neglecting city infrastructure and many stretches of sidewalk in my old neighborhood haven’t been fixed since they went in almost a hundred years ago.
I sucked at walking.
Half a mile wasn’t long enough for 30 minutes and 1 mile was too far. I walked too fast and leaned too far forward, making my shins hurt. I would be too effing tired after work to get out and walk, and then by the time I was rested, it was too dark or cold or wet. All of my fat flesh wanted to sink down to the ground and not move. My back and arms ached from the jarring and the pulling.
So, I slowed down to reduce pain in my legs. I walked less than 30 minutes on the evenings and weekends, and only did it when I felt like walking. I learned not to “hydrate” before or during walks lest I have to take a very fast shortcut home to pee. I didn’t beat myself up for not doing even this little bit right. I just kept going out the door and strolling about the neighborhood.
The problem I faced when I started was that my muscles weren’t very strong and weren’t at all conditioned. This meant my neck, shoulders and back as much as my legs. As a result, if I had a choice to make between lifting my weights or doing my walk during the first half of 2011, I chose the weights. I needed my muscles to be stronger.
But I did persist with the walking and focused on covering the same distance (1 mile) each time, even if it took a long time and I had to stop and rest part way through. This pretty much limited my walking to weekends and holidays. After a few weeks, I didn’t ache. After a few more weeks, I could cover 1 mile without stopping, though slowly. And so it progressed. Every few weeks, I’d notice that I could go a little further and a little faster. As the days got longer in the summer, I could go for walks later in the evening. This allowed me to go on walks with the Spousal Unit, and we would talk about whatever as we went along.
A virtuous cycle was started – stronger muscles meant longer, swifter walks, meant better lung and heart capacity, meant better muscle condition, meant easier walking and so forth. As I got stronger, I started to take on a few moderate slopes, being very careful about the tendon. Because I was paying attention, I didn’t overstress anything, and I’ve had no repeats of the disastrous swelling and pain I had felt in 2006. My balance got better.
And, yes, my weight went down, though the walking was not intended to cause that. Changing my diet in a few small but key ways accomplished that. The reduced weight relieved stress on my joints and made it easier to increase walking speed, which lets me go at a pace that increases my heart rate.
In April 2012, I got a smart phone (Nokia Lumia 900 in cyan running WP 7.5) (BTW, since I carry this phone all over the place, I also drop it a lot. It is indestructible. I love my Lumia!) and started having fun with GPS tracking my routes and calculating my walking speeds. I finally settled on Endomondo as my preferred phone app. In April 2012, I was walking 3.5 miles per hour. By October, I was walking 4 mph. I was able to take on fairly steep hills without tendon issues, and I was even throwing a little jogging into the mix, mostly to scurry across busy streets.
Now? I can jog about half the time, and have even done so up and down some fairly steep hills. I love watching my neighborhood come to life as spring turns into summer and as people come out of the Great Recession and do some fixes and landscaping on their homes. I’ve started using a heart rate monitor (HRM) and have been delighted to see results there that show my heart is getting stronger. (I’ll have a post in the future about the HRM.) I can usually get in at least 2 hours a week of walking around, though sometimes I go a few weeks without anything and other weeks I get in a good hour’s walk every day. It all depends on what else I’m doing. I try not to go longer than 2 weeks without some walking.
Oh, and I’m fat. Obese, actually. I can do all this stuff and still be Teh Fatz. In fact, there are a lot of “lazy fat cows” out there who can out-walk and out-jog lots of more svelte people, and who have great heart rates, impressive stamina, and other markers of health. It’s also the case that just because Anglachel “can do it” there is no obligation on anyone else of any weight or health status to do the same as I do, or anything at all. No adult is obliged to engage in physical activity if she doesn’t want to.
Being more active has done good things for me, and I will continue to be active for as long as these good things are making me happy.