Doing hard things

I occasionally choose to do hard things.

In the book Own the Day, Own Your Life Aubry Marcus suggests making your brain chemistry work for you by creating small successes, especially early in the day: Decide that you’re going to do something, and then do it. Even a small thing—deciding to mediate for 5 minutes and then doing so—gives you a little dopamine hit. That makes you feel better immediately, and possibly for the rest of the day. More to the point, repeatedly achieving small successes like this gradually boosts your capability: You can decide to do harder things (get in your workout, go for a run, write 5 pages of your novel) and then do them.

In an episode of her Move Your DNA podcast, Katy Bowman juxtaposes the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you set yourself to do something that you know will be hard and then carry through all the way to completion, with the feeling of being comfortable, saying:

What we’re trying to create through comfort is like the synthetic version of what you get when you pass through those hoops.

Katy Bowman

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s very satisfying to decide to do something that’s hard and then do that thing. It feels good. I’m not sure it feels good in the same way that sitting in a comfy chair feels good, but I think there is a connection. Sitting down feels really good after a long run when your legs are tired; sitting in a really comfy chair kinda feels like that, without the need to go for the long run first.

I occasionally do physically hard things. I’ve run several footraces, at distances up to 7.1 miles. I did a century bicycle ride. Jackie and I day-hiked the 33.4-mile Kal-Haven trail. And it’s very true: choosing to do a hard thing knowing that it will be hard, and then doing the whole thing even though it is hard, is very satisfying.

However, there’s another entirely legitimate perspective:

A sentence I read today in an outdoors magazine: “You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.” Danger? Like, that’s my life goal. 😬First world folk are… interesting.

zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) January 13, 2019

She says that—but she also apparently reads outdoor magazines, so I suspect even she sees the value in doing hard things.

How much exercise?

I’ve always struggled to get the right amount of exercise.

I used to blame much of my difficulty on having a job. My experience over the past three years makes it clear that it wasn’t so simple. (It wasn’t completely wrong. Especially when the days get short—when I would be going to the office before sunrise and returning home only after the sun had set—it was very difficult to get enough exercise. That is much improved.)

There have been periods I have managed to get enough exercise. Three different summers I managed to do so by organizing my exercise around training for a future event (twice a race, once a century ride), but those efforts never carried over into the following winter. More successful have been the times when I integrated my exercise into my day’s activities, such as by walking to school or by bicycling to work.

The first time I was running seriously, I kept a training log. At the peak in late summer I was spending just over 100 minutes per day exercising. (That was averaging a 5-hour weekend bike ride in with shorter weekday bike rides, almost daily runs, and two or three sessions of lifting per week.)

The problem was that 100 minutes per day turned out to be more than was sustainable if I was also going to hold down a job, keep up with household tasks, and have a life. Even now that I’m not trying to hold down a regular job, I’ve found it impossible to put 100 minutes per day into exercise.

That’s all prelude to mentioning the extensive coverage in the news lately on a recent study on physical activity and weight gain prevention. For people of normal weight, it seems that one hour per day of exercise was sufficient to prevent weight gain. People who got less exercise gained weight. (The details were complicated. People who were already overweight didn’t seem to benefit from exercise.)

Still, even with the complex result, it seems like a target of 60 minutes per day of exercise is a reasonable one. It seems to be enough to maintain a healthy weight. (That is, if you can’t sustain a healthy weight when you’re getting that much exercise, the solution is not likely to be more exercise.) And it’s well under the 100 minutes that I found unsustainable.

The first news story I saw on the study had a great line, to the effect that if an hour a day seems like too much time to spend exercising, think instead that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

So, that’s going to be my goal: about an hour a day of exercise.

I’ve already got two days a week covered—on Mondays and Thursdays Jackie and I have a well-established habit of doing about 30 minutes of lifting plus 60 minutes of Taiji. If I aim to spend an hour a day on the other five days of the week walking, I can hit my target even if I miss an occasional day due to bad weather or schedule problems.

And I’ve already started. Thursday I did my lifting and Taiji. Yesterday I walked with Jackie for an hour just after lunch. Today I walked into campus for the Esperanto group meeting.

One great thing about this new exercise plan is that I don’t need to work up to it—I’m already in good enough shape to walk for an hour every day. I just need to do it.