Last week, I decided it was time to change my habits. I’ve been a fan of Todd Tyrtle of Go Outside Today for a few years. He writes a lot about how easy it is to let your brain talk you out of things by throwing up niggling worries and obstacles until doing a simple activity seems as onerous and difficult as climbing a mountain—something that has definitely resonated with me. (For a good example, see his recent post, “A Ride through the City“.) He also writes about the benefits he gets from daily exercise, and recently, he’s inspired me to reclaim a part of my life that I’d nearly forgotten.
Ever since my early twenties, my eating, sleeping, and exercise habits have been getting worse and worse, mostly due to gradual changes in circumstances. Without consciously choosing it, I’ve ended up in a place where I eat too much sugar, starch, meat, and fat, and not enough fruits and vegetables. I sleep too little, at irregular hours, and I get almost no exercise. But it wasn’t always that way.
In junior high and high school, and I walked pretty much everywhere rather than taking the bus. Both schools (which, though unrelated to each other and facing different streets, were within the same block) were less than 2 km from my house, an easy 20-25 minute walk. As long as it wasn’t a white-out snowstorm (and sometimes even if it was) I put in my earphones and set out. Back then, I avoided the TTC for any trip shorter than a half hour. It helped that there was no student Metropass back then, so avoiding the TTC also saved me a lot of money.
Even in university, I did a lot of walking. While it was a little far to walk to campus every day—about an hour each way—U of T’s St. George campus is beautiful, so I walked a lot between classes. And I had classes all over the place, since I was majoring in history and English with a minor in classics. At U of T, history courses were generally taught on the western side of campus, while languages were on the eastern edge, with classics courses scattered all over the place, since they didn’t have their own building at the time. (I’ve taken classics courses in the Mining Building, in an auditorium in the Rotman School of Management, and in both the McLennan Physical Labs and Lash Miller Chemical Labs, among other very random locations.)
It was when I switched to working full time and going to university part time that I stopped walking much. I had classes every day from 9 until 11 or 12, and then I went straight to work at Mount Pleasant & Eglinton, 6 km away, too far to walk every day. However, I usually got my lunch at the grocery store across the street from work or at the French bakery next door, so it was generally something reasonably healthy, like salad or soup. I still had a roommate then, and we took turns cooking dinner, which ensured dinner was a fairly healthy and balanced meal, too.
My habits got really bad when I started tutoring freelance. There aren’t many good hours of tutoring time between when kids get home from school and when it’s too late for then to do schoolwork, so my goal was to squeeze in as many as possible. Since most of them live pretty far apart, fitting in 2-3 students per weeknight and 5-6 on each weekend day meant taking the TTC everywere. No exceptions. The only time I walked was between my student’s houses and the bus stop, usually no more than 15 minutes.
I’ve never been a fan of gyms or exercise, so cutting most of the walking out of my life meant I was basically sedentary. Worse, running around between students meant I ate a lot of fast food, sometimes twice a day. Even when I still had a roommate, we couldn’t share dinners anymore, so there was less motivation to cook healthy meals.
The schedule I was working didn’t help. Being out of the house for work from 3 until 10 or 11pm every weeknight, and then working all day on Saturdays and Sundays (9am to 9pm on many days) made it hard to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. I found it hard to force myself to leave the house on weekday morning, so I often left only to go to work, doing my grocery shopping on the way home. Of course, the only supermarkets open at 10pm are the expensive ones—the Loblaws above St. Clair West subway station was convenient in some ways, but it encouraged me to buy a lot of pricey and unhealthy gourmet food. Shopping for food that late, when I was already tired, also encouraged me to buy more prepared and packaged foods, rather than picking up fresh ingredients to cook from scratch.
But last week, I had an epiphany: I have time to walk, sleep, and cook again.
COVID-19 means I have fewer students, so I can spread them apart more. Not only that, but I can leave a little earlier in the afternoons and walk part of the way, and I can walk at least part of the way home afterward—two things I could have been doing all along, but never thought of. This has the added benefit of less time on the TTC, which means reducing my chances of COVID exposure as well as reducing the amount of time I spend in a face mask, both big pluses.
Sure, I’m still working weeknights, but with fewer students, I’m coming home a little earlier, usually before 9pm, so I can maintain a more consistent sleep schedule if I try.
I can run errands in the morning or early afternoon, then drop my groceries or other purchases at home before heading to my students. Again, this is something I could have been doing earlier.
So here are my goals for the rest of 2020:
- Walk at least 25 km/week (approx. 3.6 km/day or 40–50 mins/day)
- Gradually increase my pace (currently it’s at about 13 mins/km)
- Walk at least 10,000 steps every day
- Eat a reasonably balanced diet, including at least 3 vegetables and 3 fruits each day, and cut down on junk food, meat, and dairy
- Start sleeping 7–8 hours/night.
As a reward, I have promised myself that if I keep it up until Christmas, I will put new wireless earphones and a FitBit on my Christmas list, and if I don’t get them, I’ll buy them for myself.
Of course, millenial technophile that I am, I’m using apps to track and support my new habits, and so far, it’s working well.
MapMyRun is great GPS run tracker that is simple to use, and feeds my love of maps by tracking my routes, encouraging me to find new and interesting places to walk.
GoogleFit has a great, simple interface and gives “heart points” for exercise intensity, as well as importing step tracker data from the Health app, which encourages me to pick up the pace and complete my step goal each day.
LifeSum is a calorie tracker that’s been pretty simple to use so far, with an attractive and streamlined interface. I find recording what I eat very helpful, not so much because I’m obsessed with counting every calorie, but because it forces me to be more conscious of what and when I eat. Just knowing I’m going to record it has already made me pass up unhealthy snacks, or at least cut down on my portions. It also makes it easy to track water, vegetable and fruit consumption for the day.
The best part is that the apps feel simple enough that I’ll likely keep using them even after the initial enthusiasm wears off. LifeSum is the only one that’s a little bit of a pain (as any calorie tracker ultimately is), but it’s about as simple as it can be and has worked well so far.