If you are like me, you love reading ‘how to do lists’ and chances are that you never put them to practice. However if, like me, you are spending the summer in the library working on that dissertation or thesis, perhaps you will want to hear how I got rid of my writing-induced stress. My answer in two words: slow jogging.
I confess that I am not the sporty type. I only got involved in sport clubs once (fencing) since undergraduate years, and never could summon the courage to try any charity marathons. In some people’s terms, I am close to the ‘couch potato’, a tendency that has not really improved after many years of postgraduate studies spent sitting, either listening to lectures, reading or writing.
I am not proud to say that I have reached my maximum weight in life recently, but what really worried me the most was the anxiety that led to this weight gain. I figured that once my PhD thesis is actually submitted it will be much easier to go on a diet or a full-on boot camp. So what to do to deal with anxiety while I am still writing, that also leads me to occasionally binge eat?
My solution has been the mildest form of exercise I could find: jogging. I have recently started the “Couch to 5K” challenge, which is supposed to bring you from zero exercise to being able to run 5 kilometres in one go. There are various ways to achieve this, each with their various advantages, but as a poor student I chose the free podcasts available on the NHS website. The pod casts are meant to be listened to three times a week while doing your exercise, with at least a day of rest in between each run.
In practice at first you do a lot of fast walking, interrupted by short bouts of slow jogging. The whole ‘session’ is timed already, with a voice telling you when to start and stop. So once you have your shoes on and headphones in, you don’t have to worry about anything but breathing regularly and minding your surroundings. As weeks go by, the ratio of walk/jog changes progressively. Officially after 9 weeks you are supposed to be able to run 30 mins without stopping, and to complete the 5k without feeling overly tired.
Now as I started downloading these podcasts I realised the greatest challenge was not to exercise once, but to keep myself to a challenge and do it regularly, consistently (same as my writing, in short!). So I decided to go ‘public’ and announce it on my social media of choice, so that people would ask me about it and that I would feel forced to keep to it. It worked well! My friends actually encouraged me and shared their own tips. I started a ‘no added sugar’ month challenge at the same time as I thought I might be able to switch my addiction to sugar towards an addiction to adrenaline.
How has it gone so far? I can barely believe my social media’s testimony that I started the ‘Couch to 5K’ podcasts at the end of February 2017. Wow! So far, I won’t lie, I am still in Week 8 of the pod casts. I have had to stop my progress several times because I left my usual settings (gym, local park) to go to conferences or visit my family abroad. Instead of giving up I am very surprised that I managed to just ‘redo’ the last week of pod casts before the break and then carry on. I did not feel any shame when a ‘week’ was too hard, and just did the same exercise a few times longer than prescribed.
Now I am officially in Week 8, which means that I am able to run a slow jog for 28 mins straight, with an extra 5 mins of fast walking before and after. I never would have thought I could achieve that! According to my gym’s treadmill I am not yet reaching 5k in distance, but I have to test that on the ground. One thing is that I am sweating buckets, whereas in the first weeks I felt barely sweaty after each jog. Bear in mind that you can run as fast as you want during those sessions, so perhaps you would sweat much more than me!
What are the benefits? Honestly it has been and still is really liberating. The music in the podcasts is not to my personal taste, but it really works well in terms of beats to pump you up. Even before I got myself a gym subscription I could run in the park, and do my 30 mins three times a week. I spend much of the session thinking of other things, rearranging my writing in my mind, or thinking of what I want to eat next meal. The podcasts help you realise that you could already jog that length of time, but it was just your mind that rebelled against it at first. So the result is that I was taming my mind and exercising my body for almost free (you do need some sporty shoes)! I realised that my stamina got much better, which is always useful when climbing the hills in Sheffield. I suspect it helped me towards a longer distance goal of weight control, but mostly I have really liked the effect on my stress levels, which have considerably lowered ever since.
In summary, I recommend slow jogging to anyone stuck in a library this summer! It will get you outside for a bit, work up a gentle sweat, and either stop you thinking or help you think. For me, it is the equivalent of a good brainstorm but longer and more focused! Of course like with any form of exercise, you should check that you don’t have any pre-existing health condition preventing you to jog. However unlikely, you should also be mindful of any signs of sport injury, especially knee pain (where you stop at once and consult your GP).