When I moved from New York City to West Hartford over six years ago, I was thrilled to be out of Manhattan and living in a less urban environment. I was moving to a home on a lake where I envisioned rolling out of bed for a morning swim, grabbing my bike from the garage and donning my sneakers where I could immediately hit the road. It was a triathlete’s dream. The reality is that living here has far exceeded my expectations when it comes to my training life.
But recently I realized that while I train even more than while I was living in New York City, I MOVE much less. In the course of my days in New York City, I walked two to three miles a day, without even noticing. I don’t do that here. I could walk to the Stop & Shop, it’s only a little over a mile away, but I don’t. I could walk to the pool for a swim, it’s less than a mile away, but I don’t. Why? Because “I don’t have time.” At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself for six years. Now, however, I’m starting to do a little re-writing.
This fall, two seemingly unrelated events occurred. The first was that I had surgery in November. I plan everything, so this surgery was planned at a convenient time for me, my family and mostly my training. It was the off-season; thus I could accept the amount of time off necessary to recover. Maybe physically I could use the time off, but mentally I thought I would go crazy. However, the surgery was necessary and I would, I kept telling myself, survive this downtime.
The second event was that I discovered a book called American Idle; A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture. While driving, I heard the author, Mary Collins, speak about her book and the experiences that led her to write it on NPR. I was intrigued and inspired by her interview. At a red light, I wrote down the name of the book and immediately contacted her once I got home and requested a review copy. (FYI, she’s currently a professor of creative writing at Central Connecticut State University).
I decided to read the book as part of my recovery. American Idle chronicles how the American people have stopped incorporating movement in their lives. Our ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, had to move to get their next meal. This could mean up to 4 miles a day on foot. For most Americans to get their next meal they only have to get off of their couches and walk to the kitchen. It’s easy to see how many of the health issues in this country probably stem from our lower levels of activity.
But as Collins’ book points out, “personal responsibility only goes so far; lots of things out there that we feel we can’t control contribute to our biblical levels of slothfulness. Studies show that something as simple as a bike path near a neighborhood can increase people’s activity levels as much as 25 percent.”
My surgery and the discovery of this book were the perfect storm. As I read, I started to think about how I could incorporate regular movement into my daily life as well as for my eight-year-old daughter, Sofie.
Sofie is a fairly active girl. She has physical education (called P.E.) at school 4 days a week. On nice days, she’ll grab her bike and go around the neighborhood, plus this year she’s on a swim team. I still fear that as school gets more challenging and the computer, Sony DS and her iPod compete for her free time, she might lose that desire to just play and be outside. As a very active adult, I didn’t want to just model healthy behavior, I wanted to create a situation where she could start to lay the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle that she would carry into adulthood. Was this asking too much?
Collins points out that “with each succeeding generation, children spend less time in gardens, around streams, in woodlands…The rise in organized sports, with its emphasis on structured activities, coincided with the rise in obesity, as people became less and less at home with free play and other spontaneous movement.”
I realized that as fit and healthy as I am, what good would it be if my children were to become yet another statistic?
So I came up with a plan. Sofie’s piano lesson is 1.2 miles away from our house. We could give ourselves 30 minutes to get there. We would wear headlamps and bike lights on our way home since once it got darker.
Now I still had to convince Sofie that this was a good idea. Surprisingly, she agreed, with no argument. On our first day, she walked a bit slowly. She told me she couldn’t go any faster. I told her if she didn’t pick it up, we’d be late. We eventually got there and she was elated and proud when we arrived. We have walked every week for the past five weeks and her pace has picked up quite a bit. This past Monday, it was a little rainy out. I told her we could drive and she said, “We have raincoats and rain boots, we can still walk. PLEASE??” So we put on our rain gear and walked.
A side benefit of this healthy movement is the bonding time. I was so focused on getting regular movement into our lives that I had no idea how much we would love just being together – outside – exploring. We now walk to piano and swimming — three days of walking. As the weather gets colder, I’m breaking out the hats and gloves. Sofie is completely on board.
It’s been nearly two weeks since my surgery and my body is recovering nicely. I have yet to swim, bike or run, but I feel great. Not including my walks with Sofie, I have walked every day for nearly an hour at a time. I never wear a heart rate monitor and I never know exactly how far I’ve gone. For a data-driven, heart rate monitor-, gps-wearing, athlete this is revolutionary. These past two weeks have been life-changing for me.
I delayed this surgery for nearly three years for many reasons. Mostly, I didn’t think I’d be able to survive the time off. I have not only survived, I have thrived. I truly believe that getting outside, whatever the weather, has helped me heal faster both physically and mentally.
Mary Collins’ book has opened my eyes about what it means to move and connect with the world around us. Thanks to her, I am connecting with my daughter in ways I never thought possible. We both view our walks as adventures and our relationship is much better for it.
I felt the need to tell this story because as a coach I am always pushing my athletes to go faster and get stronger. I now know that there are other ways to stay healthy and fit. It doesn’t all have to be so focused on “the workout.” Finding enjoyment in any kind of activity has a value as well.
I do plan on resuming my triathlon training when my body is ready. I also know that my walks will continue. Time is always an issue when it comes to prioritizing our daily lives, but it’s worth re-evaluating how we move throughout the day and in our lives. Here are two suggestions:
1. Figure out where you can find 15-20 minutes a day to go for a walk. It might mean a few less minutes on the computer or leaving the dishes in the sink. Try taking a walk during your lunch break and eating a light lunch at your desk. When shopping, park at the outskirts of the mall.
2. Pick up a copy of Mary Collins’ book, American Idle. Read about her fascinating story and transformation. Learn about what has contributed to the vast sedentary lifestyle of over 65% of Americans. Collins also suggests ideas on how we can change your own behavior as well as open your eyes to the obstacles we all face and how we might be all be able to be part of the movement movement.
I know that triathlons – both training and coaching for them – have changed and enhanced my life. But, movement for the sake of movement, without a transition or a finish line has also had a profound impact. Yes, walking is almost like breathing, something many of us take for granted. But, this experience of re-learning how and why I move has re-energized me as I head into the new year.