Lessons from the Gym, Part III

Lessons from the Gym, Part III

I started going to a local health club about two weeks ago, with the hypothesis that I could build this on top of my waking up early experiment. The surprising result of the waking up early experiment was that it had originally failed after two weeks, but the act of going through the exercise had allowed me to discover the factor that was most effective: regular early morning social interaction. It makes sense in hindsight, as I’ve come to recognize that I’m more motivated by people these days than concepts. Once I focused on the people I was talking to in the morning rather than planning, or merely trying to establish the mechanical rhythm of wakefulness, everything seemed to align. So now, my morning routine reminds me a lot of waiting for the school bus with my “bus stop friends”, grabbing a few minutes before work to just chill and catch up on the events of the day. I would never have guessed that this was what I needed, but there ya go. The journey is the reward, and it’s the experience that defines the journey step-by-step.

Using Momentum

One principle I follow in both graphical user interface (GUI) design and teaching is to provide choice of action in the immediate context where a choice will make all the difference. In GUI design, this means being aware of what the user is really doing, and making sure that the most useful controls are as close as possible to the “action” part of the screen. In teaching, I’ll try to help my students visualize the grand scope of what we’re attempting to do, pointing out the salient details that will make a difference. Then, I will offer an immediate action for the student to take themselves where they can visibly make a change in the scenario. In both cases, I’m trying to preserve a kind of working momentum relating thought with action and observed result. I was just thinking that the same principle is applying to my gym experiment, as I’m using the momentum from being at the coffee shop every morning to carry me over to the gym. The school bus analogy works pretty well; when you’re sitting outside in the early morning chatting with people, the idea of going to work isn’t always that enticing, so by going to the gym I get to defer that “healthily”. I chose a gym that was very convenient to the coffee shop, and this seems to be working out (no pun intended :-)

Counter Measures

As I mentioned earlier, my waking up experiment taught me a few things I didn’t know about myself, and I was very curious whether the gym experience would result in the same thing as impressions built up over time. When I started the gym membership, I expected that the following would be the major challenges:

  • Boredom.
  • Quitting after a few weeks.
  • Frustration with lack of observable progress.
  • Embarrassment at my lack of physical prowess or gym-like appearance.

For each challenge, I developed a preemptive countermeasure:

  • Boredom: countered by writing about the experience, and by finally buying an iPod so I could catch up on all the interesting Podcasts I was missing.
  • Quitting: countered by the desire to really stick with this, as I know it’s good for me. Also, realizing that I can get some money back from my self-paid health insurance. Calculating the cost relative to having coffee at Starbucks everyday, and telling myself it’s about MY HEALTH puts this into perspective: I’m responsible for myself, and this trumps the impulsive desire to just be lazy. Principles have been invoked!
  • Frustration: I know from prior experience that diet and exercise have observable results after only a couple of weeks, though I never stuck with the routine for very long.
  • Embarrassment: I decided that being embarrassed about this was not worth it. So I’m fat and balding, big deal. The principle that comes into play is that pushing past what other people think to do something you believe in is awesome, just awesome. This is a kind of coping mechanism in a way, as I do tend to be embarrassed about my lack of social and physical grace in front of people, but the principle of just doing and saying what you think is the ideal I strive for. And so, I just go.

By coming up with the list above, I constructed the winning rational argument for joining a gym, but I can’t claim the credit for the initial impulse. I never would have even thought of it if not for a friend that planted the idea in my head in just the right way.

Unexpected Lessons

I was feeling pretty cool about having pre-thought of all these things, and as a result I had the confidence to enjoy myself in unfamiliar surroundings. Paying $99 for the 8 sessions of “training” in the use of the gym facilities toward strength, cardio, and weight loss was well worth the money. The interesting thing, though, is how my actual gym experience differs from the anticipated one.

  • Countering Boredom: I associate boredom with being mentally distracted and unstimulated by what I’m doing. Because I perceived the gym as being a lot of repetitive exercises that one did because “it’s good for you”, I thought it absolutely essential to load up programs like This American Life onto my iPod to keep my mind engaged with something. This trick works for me on long road trips; I usually get sleepy after only a couple hours on the highway, UNLESS I’m listening to an audio book. The same principle should have applied to the gym. What actually happened: I have in the past thought of my body as a large lump of fat, muscle, and bone. This lump had a certain caloric burning potential (the metabolic rate); to lose weight, one increases the percentage of muscle while lowering caloric intake below the metabolic rate. Over time, the calorie deficit leads to steady weight loss. In principle, this model is quite sound (it is from The Hacker’s Diet, which I followed for a while). The actual gym experience has opened my eyes: Because I was so concerned about overdoing it and causing some kind of heart problem, I’ve been noting every little sensation of my work outs. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the body is a remarkably adaptive system of interconnected components, and that there is quite a lot to explore and develop. I can see how mastering one’s body can develop into a fascinating hobby, one that you can bring with you on the road very easily. I think I’m hooked. Also surprising: I have no desire to listen to podcasts or catch up on the news while I’m working out. Instead, I’m listening to a bunch of “favorite songs” that I ended up completely by accident: I had been trying out one of the iPod functions that added the current song to the built-in “On the Go” playlist. When I listened to it to see if I was really doing it right, I found that it was very pleasant. I nuked out the songs that were “marginal favorites”, and ended up with a bunch of songs that completely bypass my rational mind and impart a sense of musical pleasure. A nice side-effect is that I am loathe to stop a workout in the middle of a song, and often the next song is compelling enough that I want to keep going. “Just one more song.” I’m 50% convinced that I won’t have to adjust the playlist much, because I’ve picked songs that I really really like from a vocal, production, and compositional perspective (lyrics I usually don’t hear as words). My mind is engaged, just in a different way. Maybe I’ll gain the uncanny ability to compose hit pop songs in a few months! :-)

  • Quitting & Frustration: I know that I have historically have not pushed myself hard physically. I remember there used to be some kind of long run we had to do in Phys Ed back in the 80s, which I absolutely hated. I was sweaty, sore, out of breath, and slower than everyone. Every single sensation cried out to me that I was doing something I didn’t want to do, that I was being forced to do something uncomfortable, for no reason other than to fulfill some stupid requirement in the subtropical sun. So I avoided this sensation as much as possible. When I would feel that burning sensation or any kind of physical discomfort, I would immediate stop. This did have some unexpected side benefits: because of my highly-sensitive pain avoidance techniques, I’ve avoided repetitive stress injuries from typing. I had not made the distinction, though, between actual warning pain and muscles working hard. Fast forward to about 2001, and I going snowshoeing for the first time with some coworkers from Interactive Factory in Boston. I had imagined that this would be an hour or two walking in the snow, but to my initial dismay Jean pointed at what appeared to be a small mountain. “We’re going to make a light trek up the hill there.” On the second look, I realized that it wasn’t actually too bad. It was just a rocky hill. I could do that for an hour. Around four hours later, I realized that Jean and her boyfriend were far more fit than I, and that the massive height of the hill had been hidden by a low-hanging cloud that was the same color as the sky. Still, I pushed myself along as much as possible to not slow down our small group or complain…I was determined to be a good sport about this, as it was nice of them to invite me along. I had to stop and pant periodically, but I figured it would end quickly enough, my mind calmed by the thought that the group would know how to administer CPR “just in case”. When we finally got back to the B&B, I was incredibly tired, hugely enjoyed my dinner, and slept a deep dreamless sleep. The next day I was very sore, but surprisingly feeling very good physically. I could even still move. I hadn’t recaptured that feeling in a long time. Going to the gym and doing the 30-40 minutes of cardio has helped me recapture the feeling, and I’m realizing it’s balancing out something that had been missing. The body likes to consume and perspire, otherwise it just sits around unused growing stale. The resistance I feel in my muscles isn’t pain, they’re just sensations related to certain states of energy depletion. It was my mind that was whining and complaining, associating the sensations with unpleasant memories of PhysEd. Over the past few days I’ve been analyzing my body responses. For me, I found that the 2-minute to 5-minute period was the hardest hurdle for me to get over, but after that something changes and the muscles become conditioned to a certain sustainable pace. Once that pace is found, the body adapts and seems to lock it in for the next 5 minutes. At the 10 minute mark some actual weariness starts to set in, and an adjustment needs to be made in speed or resistance. I start feeling the sensation of energy use in parts of my body that aren’t immediately in use; for example, when I’m on the treadmill, I feel it around my belly button at around the 10-minute mark. A very interesting breakthrough yesterday happened when I decided to just stay on the elliptical for longer; I had fallen asleep on the couch the night before and my back was feeling kind of sore, and I remember reading Bo’s comment about how he had lost 40 pounds on the elliptical despite back problems. I got through the 5 minute and 10 minute mark fairly easily, having learned that my body was capable of pushing past these sensations and would be fine. At the 15 minute mark, I was starting to feel a little weary of being on the elliptical and was about to switch. Just then, the song on my iPod changed to a really long and fun-sounding “ABBA” dance remix, and I was screwed because I don’t like to stop in the middle of a song (a vestigial habit from not disrupting live musical performances, I guess). At the 20 minute mark, I realized that there were probably additional thresholds to push past…could I stay on the same machine for the entire 30 minute session? So I kept at it, and kept things interesting by monitoring my heart rate. I noted that it was varying between about 140 and 150, which was a good range according to the chart. The elliptical motion had also started to remind me of running in a field when I was 6 or 7, and I would run as fast as I could to try to outrun the cat. I remembered feeling like I was just on the edge of my ability, my legs almost not keeping up with my speed. So I decided to do a small 10 second burst to see what the heart rate response would be. I was at 140 bpm, which was fairly low, and then tried moving about 50% faster for 10 seconds before dropping back down. It was a good feeling. I watched my heart rate climb over the next 30 seconds to 160, then drop down to 140 again over the next couple of minutes. Fascinating. I tried a longer burst of 30 seconds, and watched my heart rate climb to about 169, which was slightly alarming. I was carefully monitoring my heart rate and body for adverse reactions, and decided that things were nominal…I didn’t feel any feelings of pressure in any blood vessels, and my heart was beating fast but I wasn’t out of breath. I kept things at a lower level for several minutes, just monitoring myself. It struck me then that I had been on the elliptical for longer than I had been on any machine, and that apparently the body had more reserves than I had thought. I decided not to push my luck on the bursts that day, just keeping things at a steady pace, but it was fascinating to see the “system response” of my body to a certain level of exertion, and how I could control the amount of exertion to stay within a good range.

  • Embarrassment: This had never really occurred to me before, but there are a lot of attractive women at the gym. Ordinarily I might have been very self-conscious about my own lack of outward healthiness, but the tone of the entire gym is “we’re each here individually to do a job” and I’m allowed to stay in my own world. People are all shapes and sizes, but there’s a common sense of shared mission. It’s also encouraging to see the results of all this work, and it’s strangely empowering to be in such a space where people come as they are, and work to make themselves better.

General Empowerment and Productivity.


p>I realized today that there’s also been a mental shift in my perspective toward work. Learning to push through the 5- and 10- minute marks on the various machines to get into that self-sustaining state of mind is entirely applicable to my design work. When I’m sitting in front of the computer starting to do some work. Sometimes my mind just complains and wants to do something else, and oftentimes it wins; I switch to something else. I know that if I just stick with something for 15 minutes, I can get a lot done, but the commitment to do that is often not there for the more challenging projects.

I’ve started to enjoy the feeling of getting through the initial discomfort of exercise and finding my stride. It just occurred to me that perhaps I am starting to get into “The Zone” more regularly, and this is contributing to my general sense of well-being. Also, there is a sense of accomplishment from having pushed through the initial resistance and achieved more than we anticipated; we often have fewer limits than we imagine.

As a supplementary technique for anti-procrastination training, I could see prescribing a 30 minute cardio session for the first week to get the body conditioned (I slept a LOT more that first week), then adding more challenging workouts in following weeks. This may be the most visceral way to provide the experience of pushing past a threshold to a meaningful achievement. Physical stress has a way of bringing out different parts of our behaviors, and it’s certainly measurable (in terms of time) and tangible (in terms of the after effects of soreness). Dealing with the mental challenge of getting moving on a project make take similar discipline. We’ll see how that theory works out this week, as I’ve got tons and tons of stuff to do.

» Missed part 1 and part 2? Or read on in part 4 of this series.


  1. Mike 17 years ago

    Awesome. Keep it up.


  2. So great!

    The two parts I really loved were:

    1) the “self vs. elliptical”… and the 5-min, 10-min, 15-min, 20-min, 30-min, etc. marks.  And how you have this awesome GOOD constraint to not stop in the middle of a song.  So fun!  So productive.

    2) how you’re finding that the gym machines self-discipline is spilling over into work practices such as giving a project at least 15 min to get something done!  This sounds remarkably like the spill-over effect of self-regulation.  I find this too from going to the gym – my house is tidier, my food habits are better, and I have a stronger ability to focus, and the research bears this out!

    Love these gym stories – they really draw me in, and I can tell your thought process as well as your accustumization process is moving at a steady pace.  Really interesting, thanks!


  3. Penny 17 years ago

    These posts are fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. This may be the most genuinely motivating post that I’ve read in months, and I read a lot of productivity blogs.


  4. Britt 17 years ago

    Yeah, Dave!

    I think it’s great you’ve the keys to keep you moving. For me, it usually takes signing up for a race, otherwise, I wonder, what’s the point.

  5. Posco Grubb 17 years ago

    Go, Dave!

    Wow, this is an awesome post! And it deserves my first comment here. I’ve been following this Gym thread with interest because it’s a habit I know I should acquire but just cannot get off my chair to do it.

    I really identified with your four “challenges”, especially the bit about P.E. class in the 80’s. Ugh! One additional challenge for me is to know that regular cardio and weights will make me feel (and look) great… I’ve been blessed with a fairly good metabolism, so my weight has stayed fairly constant since high school, through college, and even after marriage to a wife who can cook!

    Thanks so much for your effort in documenting this part of your life.


  6. Beverley 17 years ago

    What I’ve learned to do is switch “me” out and to try to listen to my body – and do what my body wants i.e. some days I just do a slow 20 minute walk because thats what I feel like and other days I push myself past limits which I thought I had. I don’t feel guilty on the 20 minute slow walk days – just pleased that I got to the gym. Of course on the “break the limit days” I feel FANTASTIC.

    Still I think it is important to listen to one’s body as not all days are equal and I think the fact that I am kind to myself and forgiving of my lapses is the reason that I persevere. I’ve been going to the gym for several years. I’ve had occaisional lapses, usually brought on by some external break in routine, like holiday, illness, injury, etc. but I always go back.

  7. Chette Soriano 17 years ago

    I’m glad I am not the only one feeling this way. Just started going to the gym a couple of days ago. I just let my body deteriorate for the past 5 years, & I decided to do something about it already.

    It’s only been a couple of days, but I already feel real good about it. I also got a trainer, to FORCE me to get out of my office, more than anything else ;)

    The subtle interaction, the little smiles, & quick hellos with the other people in the gym is also a welcome change. I really do need to get away, once in a while, from my fortress of solitude.

    Keep us updated on how you’re doing with the workout!