Habits of a Fitness Routine

Author’s Note: This post is a few days late, as I’ve been trying to post every Thursday. But it’s been a rough week for me between fights with family and friends, and feeling the weight of what has been happening in the world the past few weeks. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news, start looking up these names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Robert Fuller, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Mills, and more. I decided that if I were going to be an accomplice in this movement, I needed to get back on track with the things that help me stay mentally strong. None of this is easy, especially when you are an empath with depression and anxiety, but that’s not an excuse. So, I’m building up my habits again so I can take care of myself in order to take care of others and maintain integrity in all things.

 

People used to call me crazy. Well, they still might, but that’s the subject of another blog post. But people called me crazy because every day before work, I would wake up to my lovely sunlight alarm clock at 0440, put on my workout clothes, and hit the gym. I got into the habit of morning workouts as a rower. As the saying goes, “Rowers do more before 8 AM than most people do all day.” This is absolutely true. It’s especially true for someone like me who fails to workout 90 percent of the time if I don’t workout first thing in the morning.

My morning workouts were my jam. They helped me with my stress, my anxiety, my depression. They kept me cool on the road, since having to drive on roads with other people in their cars is apparently not something I enjoy. The workouts also meant I ate better (there’s plenty out there talking about why this is the case). And I managed to get these workouts done even with a packed work and social schedule!

So you must be wondering why I’m writing this post now. You would think that, with all my free time at home during the pandemic shutdown that I would be absolutely ripped, right? I mean, that’s what I expected! I thought I would perfect flavorful, healthy meals, and do full cardio and weight routines every morning. I thought wrong. Very wrong. I did perfect some cooking, like these bagels, and I did find some solid fitstagrammers to follow with creative at-home workout routines. But somehow, I got lazy as f*ck. I have never considered myself a particularly energetic person (being an empath, HSP, and an introvert will do that to you), but damn did I learn quick how lazy I was! Some of this I can definitely put down to the fact that my mental health, while solid in the first month, took a dive after my pharmacy decided to switch out my regular oral contraceptive for a generic (subject of a forthcoming post). But once my routine got thrown off, I found it nearly impossible to get back to the norm.

Fortunately, at the beginning of the pandemic shut down, I had time to read Atomic Habits by James Clear*. I might do a separate review of the book in its entirety, but for now, I’ll just saw that Clear laid out some simple ways to build new, better habits into your life. I actually meant to start building in some better habits months ago, but here we are now.

One thing I have really enjoyed during the pandemic is sleeping in to my natural wake up time, which is about 0500 if I’m stressed, and between 0630 and 0700 if I’m not. Since traffic has been minimal, I have been leaving for work around 0830. I’ll probably move this time up since we’re now in Phase Two of reopening (not for long, I’m sure, since cases are already picking up in other parts of the country), so I am trying to leave by 0800. It’s entirely possible for me to workout and get ready for work in 1 to 1.5 hours, especially since I’m intermittent fasting and don’t eat breakfast until 1100. However, getting up at 0630 doesn’t leave me time for my 30-minute cardio and a circuit routine and the stretching I have to do just to be able to function because of my old injuries. So I decided I should break up my routine a bit to two a workout twice a day, since I’m really not doing anything after work at the moment anyway. Hence, the habit goals I’ve outlined below.

In his book, Clear provides several suggestions about how to build habits into your life, but the two that immediately stuck out for me were Intention Implementation and Habit Stacking. Intention Tracking is fairly straightforward: Write down your plan, and be specific! The specificity of it really struck me. Below you’ll see my Intention Tracking, which follows a basic formula laid out in the book.

Intention Implementation:

I will complete a 30-minute cycling workout at 0630 every day in my apartment.

I will complete a 30-minute circuit workout at 1700 every day in my apartment.

 

Habit Stacking was something that was new to me as a concept, but something we do regularly in our daily lives. Clear writes, “One of the best ways to build a new habit is to find a habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top of it.” Working out after work is nearly impossible for me. I’m always exhausted and stressed, and I just want to lay on the couch and watch mindless TV. I needed a way to get into the routine of working out after I get home, so I decided to try habit stacking. Clear again provides a basic formula we can use to state our intentions here: After [current habit,] I will [new habit]. Check out my habit stacking attempts below.

Habit Stacking:

After I brush my teeth, I will lay out my workout clothes.

After I complete my foam rolling routine, I will choose my cycling workout, and write down my circuit workout.

After I get home from work [for me, this involves a routine of changing and putting things away], I will change into workout clothes. After I change into workout clothes, I will complete my circuit workout.

Now, I have no idea if this will work for me, so I will keep you all posted. While I know this routine will help my overall mental health, I’m going to focus only on these individual actions rather than the greater impact they may have. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t see an immediate or direct impact. So every day, I’m just going to check off whether I followed these intentions or did not. I’m not going to pay attention to whether I felt better at the end of the days I achieved these intentions or whether I felt worse on the days I did not achieve these intentions. I’ll check back in with y’all in my next post (which will hopefully be Thursday).

 

*I support ordering from local bookstores, especially bookstores owned by women and BIPOC. The link above is to my local bookstore, but here is a list of other bookstores you can order from (or you can research for your own) that may be closer to you: https://lithub.com/you-can-order-today-from-these-black-owned-independent-bookstores/.

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life Cover Image

Have you ever wished you’d been more present during moments of your life? Do you regret not appreciating what, and who, you have? Are you constantly stumped about how to be one of those happy people you see in yoga ads? Same.

As with many things Gratitude in my life, my reading of The Gratitude Diaries came after a particularly and unexpectedly stressful period of my life. I’d just gone through an intensive training that, when complete, left me feeling a bit bereft and out of place with the world around me. It was not an dissimilar experience to that of returning from a deployment. I didn’t know how to connect with people anymore, and I got angry over the smallest things.

The worst part about this time is that I joined my dad on a trip to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro with some family friends. I was ecstatic about this trip, even though I only agreed to do it so my dad wouldn’t be on his own (I was worried about him). I lived in Tanzania for some time when I was younger and I looked forward to returning to a country I loved. I also love hiking and camping, so this trip was really right up my alley. In hindsight, it was definitely necessary for my mental recovery, and I wish I had known then what I know now about gratitude.

There were several times during the trip where I felt irrationally angry at my dad. For no reason at all. I was angry if he was too slow. I was angry if he went ahead. I was angry if he wasn’t paying attention. I was angry if he was paying attention. I was just angry. When I got back from the trip, I was so upset with myself for not appreciating the time more, especially since my dad is getting older, and he’d worked hard to be able to go on that trip! I didn’t appreciate any of that at the time. I still cringe thinking about it now, and wish I could go back in time. Unfortunately, a time machine has not been invented. At least not one available to the general public! 😉

I talked to my best friend about what I was feeling, and she recommended I read The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan. As I mentioned in my post on the Z-Card, I always thought gratitude and gratitude journaling was a little hokey. But, since I had already learned the benefits of the Z-Card, I was open to trying The Gratitude Diaries.

Let me tell you, this book spoke to me. Kaplan records the year of her life when she decided to practice active gratitude. Between sharing her personal experiences with this effort, she also talks to professionals and laypeople who have experience with gratitude and its effects. The format is also appealing, as she discusses a different topic in each chapter, including marriage, kids, and friends. You could easily skip around if you wanted to jump to topic you were most interested in, but it’s worth reading the entire book to absorb all the learnings. Kaplan also shares some examples of her gratitude at the beginning of each chapter.

I found the book to be a compelling read, and Kaplan provided several ways to incorporate gratitude into your life. An exercise she focused on was writing three things she was grateful for every day. Well, she worked up to three things. Her list of gratitude differed from what I’d been doing in the Z-Card primarily because it was full sentences. Hah! But also because I challenged myself to also write down why I was grateful. So I didn’t just say “I’m grateful for my friend.” I said, “I’m grateful for my friend because she’s always ready to support me and guide me.”

I incorporated this into my nighttime Z-Card routine for a few weeks to see how it worked for me. It did make me think a little bit harder about my gratitude, and when I’m feeling especially stressed, I will take the time to do this. I found that, in general, I preferred my Z-Card method of bullet points, but this is truly an individual preference. Try both and see what works for you!

Did The Gratitude Diaries erase my guilty feelings about my trip to Kilimanjaro? Unfortunately not. Did it inspire a desire to read Epictetus and study stoicism? Weirdly, yes. Kaplan cites several Epictetus quotes in the book that truly spoke to me. One favorite is this:

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not. Remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.

That’s what I love about books like this, and my journey into gratitude in general. There is always something that will speak to you; you just have to find it. I challenge you to read this book and find what speaks to you. Something I’ve realized over the years is our society doesn’t teach us to understand and embrace our emotional selves. One of my goals in life is to understand myself better and find what works for me, even if it’s not the normal path. Gratitude is one of those ways. You could say I’m unlearning what we’ve been taught and relearning myself. I’m enjoying the journey so far.

If you want to talk more about gratitude, I’m always here. And check out my bestie’s review of The Gratitude Diaries on her blog, My Week is Booked.

 

The Z-Card

Not long ago, I was going through an extremely stressful period of my life. I was working long hours under immense pressure with people regularly telling me I wasn’t doing enough. As miserable as I was, I somehow managed to be the healthiest, physically and mentally, I have ever been in my life.

How was I able to do this, you ask?

A gratitude journal. (Among other things.)

I know, I know. I could hear your scoff from here. I used to be a scoffer, too. But I work in a high stress world, and I didn’t want to bring that stress home with me. Especially since, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), others’ stress often becomes my stress. Talk about a double whammy, huh?

I had the opportunity to hear from someone in my field who let his stress get the better of him. It made him miserable and it made his family miserable. So, he decided to do something about it. I learned a lot of tips from him, which I’ll likely share, but the most useful thing I learned was how to use gratitude to help with my stress.

One major way stress impacts me is during sleep. Sometimes I find it impossible to sleep, but more often, I wake up between 0100 and 0300 with something on my mind. It’s then difficult, if not impossible, to fall back to sleep. I talked to my doctor about ways to deal with this. He prescribed me a few different sleep medications, but it’s tricky to tackle that middle-0f-the-night insomnia. Plus, I tried one medication that helped me fall asleep, but didn’t keep me asleep, and when I woke up at 0300, I had sleep paralysis. I didn’t like that.

My colleague talked to me about what he referred to as the “Z-card.” If I’m being completely honest with you all–and I strive to always be–I didn’t listen to the first part of what he was saying, so I am actually not sure where he learned of the Z card, but I do know it was tied to someone who worked in the field.

The Z-card is essentially two lists. Take your card (or a piece of paper, we’re not strict here), and draw a vertical line down the center. Title the left size “Z” and the right side “G.” (That’s G for Gratitude. We’ll get to that.) Under Z, list everything that is on your mind. What’s bothering you? What’s keeping your brain from relaxing? This can be as simple as your irritation that you ate an entire packet of Oreo thins in one sitting, or as complex as injustice.

After you’ve listed everything that’s on your mind, and I do mean everything, move to the right side of the card. Now you will list everything for which you are grateful that day. This can, again, be anything. Sometimes all I have on the G side is that I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee that morning. The point is to have at least one thing on this side, no matter how small.

Take a look at one of my lists:

So how does this help you sleep? Well, remember above when I told you I didn’t listen to how my colleague got to the Z-card? In my pretty much blind Google research that involved search phrases such as “Z card” (there’s apparently some sort of credit card with that name?) and “Z sleep psychology stress theory,” I came upon the Zeigarnik Effect, a phenomenon first studied by Bluma Ziegarnik, in which your brain is more likely to remember something unfinished or interrupted. I feel fairly confident that Zeignarik is the name my colleague mentioned in his talk, but I’m not sure who actually developed the Z-card. (Maybe it was my colleague?)

Regardless, the Z-card works like this: By listing everything that’s on your mind under “Z,” you are telling your brain that that task is done, finished, complete. That means your brain doesn’t have to think about it anymore. It’s no longer an unfinished or interrupted task. Now, logically, we know that’s not always the case. If I write “cancel cable,” but don’t actually cancel my cable, I’ll still be paying for overpriced television. But our brains are both complex and remarkably simple. And the act of writing down “cancel cable” means my brain no longer has to hold onto that reminder, thus letting it relax.

The G side of the card helps us to build up resiliency to stress. We start small, with our cup of coffee, but eventually we can add something, “saw a nice sunset.” The positive effect of the G side is a little harder to identify. (You will see a positive effect from the Z side of the card almost immediately.) But stick with that G side, and I promise you, you will see a difference. I think it probably took me a few weeks, but I started to notice that, while I was not, by nature, a bubbly person, I was less stressed. Things that normally irritated me either didn’t irritate me, or irritated me less. If I was faced with a stressful issue at work, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Where before I could only focus on how much I had to do, now I could say to myself, “You’ll get through this, it’s only a few days moments of misery.” I got to a place where a stressful event was only a speed bump rather than Dead Man’s Curve.

I love delicious bagels, and I cannot lie

As was typical for me during this time, I found myself going down an Internet rabbit hole. Don’t ask me what I was looking for when I fell in this particular hole. If I had to guess, I was looking up homemade bagel recipes as I had been obsessed with making my own bagels after watching the Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings on Netflix. I don’t actually remember deciding to look up recipes, since I’d watched the bagel episode several days earlier. But given the outcome, I can make an educated guess that this is what happened. This kind of Internet search is very similar to highway hypnosis: You don’t know how you got to the [insert destination], but you got there. While I do not recommend highway hypnosis in general, especially when driving, in this case, it worked out okay, as it led me to an easy bagel recipe from Skinny Taste.

Not only did this recipe not require yeast (which I have just acquired, but is still a precious commodity in these times), I actually had some Greek yogurt I needed to use up! Why I had Greek yogurt at all is beyond me, since I try my darnedest to not eat dairy. But they say things happen for a reason, so I was apparently fated to make four-ingredient bagels.

Now, you can check out the actual recipe on the Skinny Taste site, but let me tell you, I was impressed. These babies were super quick to mix up, and I was even able to roll them out and shape them in my tiny kitchen. If you haven’t seen my Instagram stories, then I’ll just tell you here that the available counter space in my kitchen measures approximately 11.5 inches by 20.25 inches. I can sometimes double this space by setting a cutting board over half of my sink, but this only helps if I haven’t also decided to cook dinner at the same time I’m baking. Unfortunately, I’m usually cooking dinner at the same time I’m baking, because I haven’t learned better.

Yes, hello, heaven?

Now, my bagels didn’t get quite as brown as Gina’s, so after their 25 minutes I just turned on my broiler for a few extra minutes to get that beautiful color. I dug deep and found the willpower to save the first taste of bagel for my breakfast the next morning, but it was worth it! I did toast the bagel to warm it up before I made my breakfast sandwich. While they didn’t toast the way you might expect in a store-bought bagel, they had a really lovely texture when I bit into them! They weren’t tough or chewy, and they had just enough crunch, which I love in my bagels. I will say on the second day, I noticed my bagel was slightly more chewy, but I’d also left them in a container on my counter overnight and it was pretty humid here. I don’t expect anything to stay too crisp in this weather. I tossed them in the fridge tonight to see if that changes anything. For the next batch I make, I’ll try to slice them up and put them in the freezer right away so they last longer, and to test if this changes anything in terms of the texture and taste!

If you’re looking for a super easy and fun baking idea to do for yourself, or with your kids, I highly recommend this one. It will also impress all your thousands of 20 Instagram friends! You can top these babies with anything. I happened to have Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel Seasoning on hand, so I just added the bagel to it! I also made two Rosemary Sea Salt. I think these were actually my favorite, but I can’t make an unbiased choice there, since I am obsessed with Rosemary Sea Salt bagels. I think next time I may attempt some cinnamon swirl bagels and test these out with some cream cheese (there I go again with the dairy). Try these out and let me (and Gina) know what you think!