What I Learned from 31 Walks in 31 Days (Part 1)

This May, I challenged myself to take a walk every day, for the whole month.  I had several reasons for doing this, but one was to help me become more consistent about exercise.  As someone who regularly works with clients to help them set realistic goals related to health, I followed my own advice and set a goal that was challenging but that I felt (pretty) confident I could achieve.

My goal:  Take a daily walk of at least 30 minutes and never walk the same route twice.

The challenge was such an eye-opening experience for me that I decided to write a two-part post about effective goal setting and the importance of safely challenging what you think your physical (and emotional) limits are.

Here’s what I learned about setting realistic but challenging physical activity goals for myself: 

1. You know your body better than anyone else… I have almost 40 years of experience living in my body.  Like many therapists, I ended up in my profession as the result of my own history of injuries and pain.  I have learned how to work within my body’s limits over time, and I know what to avoid in order to minimize pain flare-ups and prevent a recurrence of old injuries.

For example, there are certain yoga poses that I’ve stopped trying to master because no matter how I modify them, I still end up in unnecessary pain.  And I choose not to run for exercise because it’s too much impact on my spine, and since it doesn’t really interest me, to me it’s not worth the risk.  So I set a walking goal because I knew it was realistic for my body and could be made more challenging by changing speed, incline, and distance.

2. …but give yourself the chance to prove yourself wrong.  While it’s important to know and listen to your body, what many people don’t consider is that our bodies continue to change over time.  Getting older doesn’t just have to mean that your body is slowly breaking down or declining in ability, it could also mean that your body may be gaining in ability and outgrowing some of the physical issues from your younger, developing years. 

For example, I’ve walked full and half marathons in the past, and I often walked in a lot of pain.  But my experience with this walking challenge was completely different, even though I’m older now.  Partly, that’s because I varied my speed, intensity, and distance from day to day.  When I have trained for specific distance events in the past, I needed to get in long distances in order to meet my goal, so that often meant training through the discomfort.  But for this challenge, the goal was consistency – getting a walk in every day.  And the outcome was different as a result.  My body didn’t need the rest days that were necessary when I was intentionally building up endurance for 13 and 26-mile events (even though, ironically, some weeks of the challenge I ended up walking more miles than I used to when I was training for long-distance events). 

As it turns out, my body responded differently than I assumed it would, and it proved my pre-existing beliefs about my abilities wrong.  I was much more capable than I expected!  So know your body enough to set reasonable and safe goals, but don’t assume that your limits and abilities can’t change over time.

3. Don’t underestimate the power (and cumulative effect) of lifestyle changes.  My experience with back pain specifically is that it has changed over time, sometimes without me necessarily intentionally changing anything (more evidence of “aging” not always being a bad thing!).  But I have also seen gradual changes in my pain experience that coincide with lifestyle changes. 

For example, since I switched to a plant-based diet, I have noticed a significant improvement in how quickly I recover after challenging exercise.  And I have less pain in general because my overall level of inflammation is less since I’m eating fewer inflammatory foods and more nutrient-rich foods.  As I told a massage therapist friend recently:  “It just doesn’t hurt as much to live in this body as it used to.”  And for me, that is the result of making changes in my diet. 

My eating habits, and the positive effect on my pain level, didn’t change overnight.  But staying consistent created a cumulative effect that I benefit from now and am motivated to stay committed to. 

4. Stick to your goal (but be willing to adjust if it isn’t truly realistic).  It took a few days for me to really start feeling committed to reaching my goal.  I was diagnosed with asthma at the end of last year, and for a few months, I had difficulty breathing easily even without much exertion.  As a result, I had become fairly deconditioned (compared to my normal).  So during my challenge, there were some days when I thought I had aimed too high by expecting myself to walk every day. 

I had a few moments of doubt throughout the month when I was feeling tired or out of breath and wondered if I had been overambitious in my challenge.  As it turned out, I just had to stick closer to the minimum side of my goal (30 minutes) on those days.  But other days, I was able to push myself more and walk for 2 hours or more.  My goal wasn’t unrealistic, I was just getting frustrated with myself on days when I wasn’t able to greatly exceed it.  But if I had set a goal of walking every day for 2 hours, I likely would have had to adjust it in order to continue to walk every day and not give up on it completely.

So if you are having trouble meeting a goal you’ve set for yourself, take a step back and re-evaluate it.  Is it truly realistic for what your abilities are right now?  Does it need to be adjusted?  Too often, we don’t break our goals down into realistic increments, and then we get discouraged and give up when we can’t reach them!

So how did it all turn out?  Did I meet my goal?  At the end of the month, I had met the two main requirements of my goal (time and consecutive days), but I far exceeded my own expectations in ways I never expected as the challenge took on a life of its own.  And in some ways, the physical benefits of consistent exercise ended up being just a bonus to what I learned about myself in the process.

In my next post, I’ll share the results of my challenge.  And I’ll also comment on what I learned about mindfulness and slowing down, the power of curiosity, breaking out of a rut, what was really limiting me physically, and why the term “dead end” is all relative!

Have you proven yourself wrong in terms of what you thought your body could do?  Have you overcome physical limitations through changes in lifestyle?  If so, leave a comment and inspire the rest of us! 

And if you want help setting realistic goals to improve your health (and the support of an experienced health care provider as you work to reach them), I’m here to help.  Contact me today and let me know how I can support you!