When I originally decided to write up the details of how I let my health and fitness fall apart and how I was trying to piece it back together, I did it for a simple reason. There was an outside shot, I thought, that hearing me talk about my own implosion and nascent recovery might be useful in the event that someone else found themselves in a similar, if hopefully not quite as deep, hole. I didn’t think this was likely, necessarily, but I figured there was at least a chance, and if it helped even one person that was enough to justify both the effort of getting it all down as well as the embarrassment, frankly, that comes with laying out your various failures publicly.
Surprisingly, however, after writing all of this up and talking through everything from the original reboot to the details of my walking routine to a bit on diet changes, I heard from a sizable number of people. Nothing crazy – none of the posts went viral or anything like that – but since pressing publish originally I’ve heard from a lot more people than I expected to. People that I talk to every day, in some cases, others that I haven’t heard from in decades. People I knew, people I didn’t. People that I knew were struggling in some way, people who I thought had it all together.
Some of those that reached out were just checking in with encouragement, which was of course appreciated. The majority, however, have had questions for me beyond what I’d written up. Questions about all sorts of details, things I hadn’t thought to document. A lot of these I’ve tried to tackle in the follow up posts on walking and diet, but there are other questions people have asked that I’ve been answering individually in private.
After doing this for a bit, however, it occurred to me that these questions I’ve been answering privately via email, text, comments or DMs might in fact be common questions – that maybe others had the same questions, but didn’t want to ask. Which led me to wonder if it might be helpful to roll them up and answer them in one place.
So here we are.
What follows, then, are the most common questions I’ve gotten from people. And just as a reminder, before we get into them, I am completely and totally unqualified to be dispensing health and fitness advice – so take all of the following with a grain or three of salt.
Q: How long did it take for walking to become a habit?
A: I don’t remember the answer to this, precisely, but I think the answer is a couple of weeks. I’m spoiled in that the island we live on is beautiful, so I never regarded getting out for a quick walk as much of a chore.
This was my first real, tracked walking week. As you can see, I was easing into the process with a couple of walks broken up over the course of the day.
After a couple of weeks of this, and gradually adding on distance, it evolved into something of a routine. One that I now plan my schedule around, with the help of an accommodating family.
Q: Is there anything that’s been useful in keeping you motivated?
A: After walking for a couple of months last year, I thought it would be useful to have an annual goal to work towards. So after looking at what I was capable of at the time and what I could reasonably expect to accomplish given my schedule and available time, I set a goal to walk 40 miles a week for the entire year. I take one rest day a week, so for six days a week that comes out to an average of a little under seven per day. This goal was highly motivating, because it gave me something to shoot for, and as I write this I’m a tick over thirty miles from completing it.
As a result, I’ve set new goals, like hitting the full Appalachian Trail distance (I’m probably not going to make the distance to City Beer Store this year, however).
Tl;dr: as any real fitness person will tell you, in other words, goals are a Good Thing.
Q: Do you use any particular tools to track your walking?
A: I use an Apple Watch and Strava. The Apple Watch is ok, except for its miserable battery life and its tendency to pause my walks because it apparently can’t differentiate between human skin and a wet raincoat.
Strava, on the other hand, is an absolute joy. It tracks my walks, my effort, my goals, my time – it even tells me when I need a new pair of shoes.
And as an aside if you’re thinking of trying to find me over there, my account is all private. It’s the one social network on which I am aggressively non-social.
Q: What is something you wish you’d done sooner?
A: Mostly I wish I’d started walking years ago, but more specifically I wish I’d gotten a full rain suit and waterproof boots. When I started out walking, I had an old delaminated raincoat that was not remotely waterproof. I eventually upgraded that to one that is waterproof, but after walking in the rain my entire lower half would be soaked. These days, I have added rain pants tucked over my waterproof Hoka hiking boots, and as you can see from the picture above even in a storm that dropped 3" of rain I stayed mostly dry.
There’s no bad weather, as the saying goes, only bad clothing. Given my Mom’s Scandinavian heritage, I should have remembered that sooner, but better late than never.
Q: Do you need to change everything overnight, and completely overhaul your life?
A: This is what I thought at one point, and you’ll see this advice frequently. As one example, over the last decade or so, I’ve watched a lot of YouTube woodworking videos. One of the folks who has made a lot of the videos I watched is Steve Ramsey. Off the topic of woodworking, he talked about his own fitness journey and had some very specific and dramatic recommendations – among them that you had to quit drinking, get up at dawn and that any exercise had to make you sweat – that you had to exhaust yourself with any workout you’re doing.
With all due respect to what he’s accomplished, which is fantastic and impressive, I’m here to tell you that none of that is true. And more importantly, I think that advice can be actively harmful when you’re starting out. If you’ve gotten yourself off track fitness and health-wise, and someone tells you that you have to start rolling out of bed at 5, quit alcohol completely and work yourself out until you’re crushed to make any difference, I think you’re much less likely to get started on the road to recovery. It’s too daunting.
Also, none of that is necessary. I still drink on weekends. I do get up at 5, but certainly not every day and that wasn’t until months into my process. And while some of my summer walks left me soaked through in sweat, I’m not exactly destroying myself aerobically. Yet I’ve lost a serious amount of weight not doing half of the things he recommends as essential.
Net net, if someone tells you that only massive, immediate and radical changes can get you back on track I’d reconsider that advice. Changes will be necessary, almost certainly. But every little bit adds up, and small changes that lead to progress can make it easier to make other small changes and so on.
Q: What got you started? What was the inspiration?
A: This one I haven’t talked about anywhere publicly before. My friends and family know this, but no one else has heard it. A year ago in late September, with Eleanor now back in school, I finally felt that I had the time and energy to start trying to reverse my slide. I started a line diet on September 26th. My progress was there, but slow and uneven.
Twenty days later, I found myself in the ER. Here’s a picture.
The short version is that I woke up one morning with significant pain in my arm – my left arm. If you’re not a doctor, generally left arm pain is Not Good. I was pretty sure I had just slept on it wrong, but knowing that I was woefully out of shape and not too far away from a problematic age for that sort of thing, I called urgent care. They were full, but told me based on that pain that I should go to the ER.
I was admitted within twenty minutes of showing up, and they ran a chest X-ray, did an EKG and did bloodwork to see if I’d had or was about to have a heart attack. The good news was that all of that came back clean. I was not having a heart attack, nor did it appear as if I was about to have one.
But the bad news was that my BP was sky high, my resting heart rate was through the roof and as I sat there looking at my feet, the only thing I could think was that while everything was fine this time, on the track I was on I’d end up back here sooner or later. And with the way things were headed the next time I probably wouldn’t be that lucky. As I sat there on the gurney, then, waiting for the test results to come back – by myself, because COVID – all I could think of was how I’d be letting down my family if I let things continue on as they had been.
In my family growing up, there was no greater sin than not doing your job, and I had not been doing my job. I had failed. But fortunately it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
One year later, I still have work to do, but I’ve come a long way.
Q: What’s the hardest part?
A: For me, at least, it was getting started. By far. Getting on the scale for me, and seeing how far I’d let things go, was deflating and discouraging. I know this has been true for a few of you as well. The thing that made that bearable, however, was the line diet. Because once I’d gotten on that scale, and absorbed that blow, I could forget about that number and just focus on hitting the next number the next day. Without that feedback, and being able to measure progress, I would not be where I am now.
Q: What do you listen to while walking?
A: Other than work briefings, conference talks or Red Sox games, it’s mostly audiobooks. I tried podcasts, initially, but I didn’t want to have to keep juggling episodes mid-walk. Having to get my phone out on the bridge to the island – which is windy and always twenty degrees colder than the rest of the island – in the middle of winter and manually pull up new episodes with gloves off gets old fast, so I switched over to audiobooks pretty quickly.
One of the common reactions from people I’ve talked to about audiobooks is that they prefer the experience of real books, and my reply was "so do I." My retention from audiobooks, for one, is not the same as when I physically read a book, whether that’s on paper or in digital form. But the audiobooks I prioritize for walking are primarily for entertainment, so retention is not a real concern.
Back when I was getting started, I made the decision to re-read – or in a few cases, read for the first time – Stephen King’s back catalog. I was fortunate, in that they were all available as audiobooks, and I’d accumulated dozens of them from an old emusic.com subscription (subsequently I’ve started using audiobook service of our local library). When King started walking himself for fitness, audiobooks weren’t a thing so he had to pay his children to read books onto tape for him to listen to. Most of the things I listened to I had not read since I was a teenager, or in a couple of cases, since I was ten or eleven. If you’re looking to kill time while walking, King’s books are tough to beat. They have the twin advantages of being both long and entertaining, so I killed mile after mile after mile listening to It, The Stand, The Dark Tower novels and so on. I’ve since gone on to read a great many other authors – most recently it was revisiting Susanna Clarke’s transcendent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – but I feel a particular debt to King, in fact, for playing a part in getting myself back on track health-wise.
King or otherwise, if you find yourself needing to be entertained while walking, then, audiobooks are your friend. Now’s your chance to "read" things you’ve been meaning to read, or re-read things you haven’t checked in on in a long time.
Q: Do you have a link to a line diet spreadsheet?
A: I do. I didn’t find this myself, so I can’t claim credit for discovering it, but unfortunately I can no longer remember who did find it and point me at it. Regardless, this is the public spreadsheet that I made a copy of and have used ever since.
Q: What if you’re not seeing improvements?
A: I’ve gotten this question several times, and my response has generally been two things.
First, make sure your goal is reasonable. If you’re trying to lose too much weight, too quickly, that can become self-defeating. If it’s taken time for you to dig yourself into a hole, it’ll take you time to dig yourself out of it – regardless of how quickly you might have been able to drop weight in the past. Give yourself a reasonable pace, and just try and hit your mark every day. And on that note…
One thing I have definitely learned is that weight loss is decidedly non-linear. I’ve had stretches where I’ve eaten light, walked 14 or 15 miles in a day and lost minimal weight or even gained a bit, only to "drop" four or more pounds overnight a day or two later. It’d be nice if weight loss was a straight line as it is on the graph, but that hasn’t been my experience. And even if you end up going up a bit from that new low mark, the baseline is now lower. Over time, if you’re putting in the work, that number will inch its way down one way or another.
Doing this for a while, I’ve learned to not really sweat today’s number. My focus instead is always on the baseline. As long as my baseline continues to drift down, I don’t sweat the occasional gains from things like weekend indulgences – because they allow me to live my life in a way that makes this whole process not onerous.
So my advice is to just keep on it. You’ll get there.
Q: How much weight have you lost?
A: I haven’t gotten this question as much as you’d think, but it’s one I’m still not going to be public with. My condition could have been worse, to be sure, but it could have been a hell of a lot better. Let’s just say that it’s a significant fraction of my prior body weight, and enough that I’ve had to get new, smaller jeans once already and (hopefully) will need one more set before I’m through.
Q: How often do you need to replace your Hokas? (I find I need to replace mine every 4-5 months)?
A: I’ve settled into a routine where I replace them between 450 and 500 miles. I’ve got Strava set to email me when I hit 400 miles, and after that I play it by ear with the shoes. If I begin to feel smaller rocks or acorns underneath the forefoot and midsole, or if I start feeling the miles more than usual, that’s a sign that it’s time for a new set. I’m on my sixth pair now. Four pairs of Bondi 7’s, and now on my second set of Bondi 8’s.
For what it’s worth, however, my walking mentor Dean has something like a thousand miles on his shoes. I chalk it up to him being a lot smaller than I am.
Q: Have you encountered any injuries along your journey?
A: The only real injury I’ve had was when I fell on an icy trail this past winter and broke a rib or two. That was a funny injury in that I could not roll over in bed, cough or sneeze, but walking was mostly fine. I got my 40 miles in each of the weeks after I fell, because per my Strava comment the day after:
Didn’t get lucky with the ribs, pretty sure at least one is cracked. Only hurts when stopping or starting, though.
Other than that, I haven’t really injured anything. Lots of aches and pains along the way, of course. Usually it’s a tight back because my posture sucks, but I’ve had some very transient knee pain, a couple of scary days when I thought I might have been coming down with plantar fasciitis and numerous other bruises from falls.
But otherwise, I’ve been lucky so far. Fingers crossed that continues, because I can’t imagine not being able to get a walk in every day.
Q: Are you curious about adding anything in to your wellness – for example yoga? massage? Acupuncture?
A: I have, and in fact, I’ve been doing yoga daily longer than I’ve been walking. Initially, it was an accessible way to ramp up to some physical activity, and more recently it’s been a way to try and heal and stretch out some of the aforementioned minor aches and pains I accumulate. I was telling someone a couple of weeks back that my primary practice now consists of me Googling "yoga with adriene + body part that hurts the most today." They thought I was kidding, but I was not kidding.
In addition to the yoga, I do some basic bodyweight work. Pushups before yoga every day, and then some simple upper bodyweight routines via TRX straps in our basement three days a week. Nothing terribly fancy or sophisticated, but trying to make sure the upper body gets some work in as well.
As for acupuncture or massage, I haven’t yet tried those yet, though I have no doubts about the therapeutical value of either. It seems probable that I end up trying one or both before too long.