27 November 2011

On the Importance of a Single Lampshade to Exercise

Can rearranging furniture lead to a change in a lifetime's thinking about exercise? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be yes.

My husband recently rearranged the family room furniture. He created a beautiful office space for himself within the book-lined walls at the back of the room. But, a consequence is that our treadmill--that once had a perfect view of both the television and backyard--had to be moved. Its new home is an awkward location: you have to walk around it to get to the seating area and the viewing angle for the television and outdoors is uncomfortable. But his new work space is lovely, so I am happy to walk around the treadmill.

We've had that treadmill for many years now. We bought it with best of intentions. We wanted to be able to to exercise regularly, regardless of the weather conditions, while watching whatever we wanted on television. And sometimes my intentions matched reality: I used it regularly while I watched old movies and art quilting programs. But more often it sat lonely and neglected.

The other day I was reflecting on how the winter's loss of light affects me. I am less active and spend less time outside. My energy drags and I can feel low. I decided right then that I would get on the treadmill and see how more consistent activity would counteract the lack of light.

I set the treadmill to a slow speed and started walking. It was a different experience walking on the treadmill in its new home. Instead of a view of the television or backyard, I had a perfect view of a single, white lampshade.

At this point, I need to share something: I have a fairly competitive personality. I was one of those annoying kids in grade school who would race to finish tests first and then invariably get an A. When I was in high school, I was part of a very competitive group of friends who competed over grades, accolades, and awards. Although I was a very good student, the unrelenting competition diminished my desire to compete with others. But it did not mean that I stopped competing with myself.

So when on the treadmill, for example, I would try to better my previous day's result. I would want to go faster, or longer, or on a steeper incline than I did the day before. I'd keep charts of all the statistics--mileage, time, calories burned--and gave myself gold stars for my personal bests.

What would inevitably happen is that I would burn myself out. I'd force myself through tougher and tougher workouts until I was red-faced, sweaty, and out of breath. I'd get shin splints and muscle strains from increasing the difficulty too quickly. Is it any wonder that the treadmill so often sat lonely and neglected?

So there I was, on my treadmill, looking at a white lampshade. I couldn't turn on the television to distract and entertain me while I pushed past my limits. I couldn't let my mind wander as I gazed at the backyard. All I could do was look at a white lampshade. So what I decided to do was to walk very mindfully, using the white lampshade as a focal point.

I focused my attention on how the muscles in my legs felt as I took each step, on how the air felt traveling through my nostrils as I inhaled, and on how it passed through my mouth as I exhaled. Whenever I wanted to look at the display to see how long I had walked or how fast, I would return my attention to the white lampshade. Whenever I wanted to speed up or raise the incline, I would return my attention to the white lampshade.

After walking for a while, I decided that I would stop while I wanted to keep going (rather than keep going until I had to stop). I got off the treadmill, did some simple stretches, and realized how energized I felt by taking it easier (rather than how exhausted I would usually feel after overdoing it).

Walking mindfully changed my experience. That would be my new approach to exercise. I set myself a few simple rules to counteract my natural tendency to compete with myself and also to promote a more mindful experience.
  1. I would set myself a time limit for each session. 
  2. I could stop before I hit the time limit but I could not exceed it. 
  3. I could increase the time limit once a week, but no more than a 10% increase. 
  4. If I had the urge to speed up or increase the incline, then I would slow down or decrease the incline. 
  5. I would get off the treadmill while I still wanted to keep going. 
  6. When my mind wanders I return my attention to the white lampshade.
What it boils down to is that I get on the treadmill because I get on the treadmill. I don't get on the treadmill to walk faster than the day before, or to burn a certain number of calories, or to walk longer than I ever have. I don't have any other goal than to get on the treadmill. The action itself (to get on the treadmill) is the goal (to get on the treadmill).

This has revolutionized my approach to exercise. It's easier to get on the treadmill because that is all I have to do. Once I am on it, I have achieved my goal. Of course while on it, I enjoy the movement and generally walk until the time limit. It's a gentle and mindful approach that allows me to enjoy movement for movement's sake rather than obsessing about pushing past my limits.

I want to reflect more on this idea of doing something because I do it. Can I apply this more mindful approach to other areas of my life? How would my art change if I simply created art for art's sake, rather than with thoughts of gallery shows or sales? How would my writing change if I wrote because I wrote, rather than thinking about who will read it or whether I can be published? Do these goals I set work for or against me? I'll share with you what I discover.

Thanks for reading. I'd love to read any thoughts you might have.

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