how to get back on the wagon

My lovely dance friend Jan Marie recently posted about various lifestyle adjustments that are leaving her much happier and more resilient than she has regularly been before, even in the face of various troubles in her life. There are no real surprises here: exercise, diet, hobbies, taking time for oneself, and so on. Things we all know are good, but which some of us still find difficult to do regularly.

I can relate. Unsurprisingly, the week I start my exercise routine again — and particularly cycling to/from Mt. Stromlo — is the week I start feeling better after many weeks of not having much energy. Given my past experience, I think exercise has to be non-negotiable, no matter how stressed out I am. Even if it takes time that I could be spending on work, the efficiency and quality of my work is so much higher when I’m fit that I won’t reach my potential without working out at least half an hour every single day.

Of course, external disruptions always present an obstacle — major sources of anxiety, illness, injuries (though these can be worked around), and especially international travel (which disrupts exercise, diet and sleep). Naturally, the best solution is to be so disciplined and focused that you can maintain your routine even through these disruptions. Nevertheless, I’ve fallen off the wagon several times now, so I felt it would be worthwhile to have a “how-to” document for getting back on it faster in the future. This is particularly true because sleep, diet, exercise and mood all feed back on each other, so if more than one is out of kilter it can be difficult to set things right: you try to work on one thing, but they’re all connected so really you need to work on them all at once, or in quick succession.

This is not so much license to stray, as a way of staying gently focused on the goal of being healthy. I’m assuming that anyone still with me here recognizes the value of leading a healthy lifestyle, had at one point a regimen of which their doctor wouldn’t disapprove and was doing well on it, and is maybe just a bit overwhelmed by the potential barrier of all these crazy things. My own recent experiences have led to something like this order for me:

  1. First, reduce caffeine, alcohol, and sugar intake to sensible levels for at least a week. It’s hard to put energy into work, exercise, or anything useful if your pancreas won’t let you forget that last eclair or espresso, keeping you on the blood sugar roller coaster. By drinking tea instead of coffee, I found I could get the alertness and focus I needed for my work without keeping myself up too late. This detox period will help you get your rest, and also put you in the psychological frame of mind to start the virtuous spiral.
  2. Sometime during this period, make a list of everything that’s got you anxious. If these are little things you’ve been procrastinating on (and for me, they often are), just do them. Dig yourself out slowly, a bit every day.
  3. Start exercising again after a week or two of detox. It’s okay to go slow or take longer than you want at first in order to avoid killing yourself; you can ramp up slowly later. Both cardio and strength training are good, but cardio is the more important of the two for energy levels and overall mental functionality.

There’s probably more to the story than this, so I may edit and refer back to this periodically.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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