Reflecting on my physical activity

A story about technology, built environment, and social media

Ever since I started my PhD I got into the Quantified Self (QS) movement and having my boyfriend doing his PhD on understanding how physical activity is impacted by the use of activity trackers has made ever so more interested. I started off tracking my steps, then my productivity (using RescueTime), my sleep, my emails, and my food.

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 22.41.26Most of these things I’ve tracked only for a short while (from a few weeks to a few months), enough to gain some sort of epiphany, or ‘digital epiphany’, which usually was something like “right, now I know more about how I behave, and this is no longer so interesting”. While I might start tracking my emails or productivity again in the future, just to touch base again on my way of working, I have been sort of consistent in tracking my physical activity so I thought it would be interesting to think about it a bit more in depth.

When studying behaviour change, I realised how important reflection was particularly in the initial stages of change, but also in later stages, given that behaviour change is not a linear process. So here is me being reflexive on my physical activity, around the QS movement.

[Just to warn you, it’s quite long so stop here
if you’re not interested or don’t have time].

I’ve done and tried lots of sports while growing up. The only actual sports I’ve been committed to for a long time and where I got to the level were I was competing were horseback riding for 4 years (8-12 years old), dance (balleScreen Shot 2015-05-13 at 22.44.58t, jazz and hip-hop) for 6 years (11-17 years old). After that, I’ve done some sort of physical activity for a term or a year at a time (yoga, Zumba, swimming, sailing) and tried all sorts of sports on single occasions throughout the years (rock climbing, windsurfing, tennis, Pilates, ice skating, skiing, snow boarding, canoeing, canyoneering, hiking, kayaking, aikido). Clearly, from this list of activities, I’m not a team sport person, nor a ball sport person. Most of these sports are done outdoors, in nature. I’m definitely not a fit person, but I’ve always tried to be active in a way or another. When I lived in Italy I tried walking a lot, especially since my hometown is not that big and public transportation is not reliable. When I got my driver’s licence though, I started going out in different places where a car was required. Despite all this, I’ve always been attracted to running: the idea that you rely only on your legs to get somewhere, that you can do it outdoors and virtually anywhere in the world, and you don’t really need any equipment for it. I find it empowering, but I’ve always struggled to keep myself motivated.

 I remember going running for the first time when I was 16. I was in the U.S. and I had just discovered something that really upset me. I was angry. I stormed out the door and ran until I was out of breath, and after that I kept walking until it was dark and I was lost. I wanted to get all the anger out of me.

I ran again a couple of years later back home in Italy, during my first year of BSc. There were no parks close by so I ran along the river, making sure I was as much covered as possible. Long track pants, sweatshirt, and baseball cap. I didn’t want to be recognised. I didn’t want to be seen sweaty. I was thinking that people might think “look how unfit that girl is!” rather than “look, she’s running! That’s more than I do”. Needless to say, those runs did not go well. I felt unfit, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was trying to alternate jogging and walking but without a watch or someone telling me when to switch it was hard. There was no C25K (couch to 5km) program/podcast/app… actually there were not smartphones! Plus, I was more concerned about the people around me, than focusing on my jog.

I ran again during my MSc, while I was writing my thesis. I was given a gym membership for which I didn’t have to pay and I believe that made the whole difference. Also, the gym was almost always empty – definitely clear of all of those sports fanatics that make me feel embarrassed. It wasn’t a cool gym. It was in a warehouse and it wasn’t very big. But the treadmills had a TV so when I came home from Uni, tired of sitting all day and commuting for 4 hours, I would get in the car and drive to this little gym and run my guts out. I told myself that all I had to do was stay on that treadmill for 30 min. I used one of those pre-set programs and watched TV. I almost always ended up doing also some of the weight machines and some yoga. After a few weeks I stopped watching TV and started enjoying seeing my progress on the display. But I didn’t commit myself to a fixed number of times per week. And I didn’t keep a log of my activity, although I kept an eye on my progress during each session. During that year I was very stressed. I wouldn’t say I was angry, but I was definitely not happy. As the hand-in deadline for my thesis approached, I started staying late in the office (yes, I got given an office during my MSc to work on my thesis. It was a 10am to 9pm job) and eventually I stopped going to the gym.

Three months later I moved to London. At first, while I was very timidly getting into the QS world, I downloaded Moves app. I had absolutely no idea how much I walked (or didn’t walk) every day. I started seeing people around me jog to and from work, people going around dressed in gym clothes on the tube or on the streets – and not as a fashion statement. Back home I had never see this. People were always dressed trendy and were never seen sweating. It was not cool.
The first month in the UK I signed up to the university gym but from day 1 I saw it was crowded with those gym fanatics and decided I was not going to go there to run. I signed up to yoga classes once a week but didn’t continue for long because a) I had to sign up every week hoping I’d get a place and b) it was at 4pm on a Friday, which for me was the most productive part of the day.

Screenshot_2015-05-13-23-27-51After a few months I started going out my boyfriend and after almost a year of dating, and him sharing insights from his PhD, I convinced my self and bought a Fitbit. As I collected data I started reflecting more on my daily routine and levels of activity. As the novelty effect wore off after a couple of months, I walked less (and charged the Fitbit less too consequently). But then new years came around and the usual resolutions started. By then though I was a lot more into the whole QS movement so I re-downloaded MyFitnessPal, I made a paper caleIMG_20150513_215628446ndar and started tracking my food, my activity, my drinking and my steps. I was very good for a month, until I went on holiday and that broke my routine.

Now, five months later, I’m again thinking about tracking my ‘health’ and getting fit. As I’m writing this I start seeing a pattern here: my desire to become healthier and get running is happening around a crisis moment. This time it’s my PhD. I feel stuck, I feel demotivated and I fear I’ve lost the passion. I keep telling myself it’s normal, it’s ok to feel like this, but as the weeks go past the feeling is not going away. 2015 did not start well for me nor for those I love. A very close friend is going through a really hard time, life-threatening in a sense. One of my best friends lost her mom to cancer and another is fighting it right now. All this has put my life in perspective and I can’t stop asking my self “why am I doing this? I should be enjoying every second I live and stop stressing because life is too short”. I’ve felt powerless since January or so and focusing on my PhD has become ever so hard as a result.

But this time, when I started running again, I did something different: I signed up for a 5k to raise money for cancer research. I wanted to be pro-active I knew I couldn’t let my friends down, even though they never asked me to run a 5k. I have 9 weeks to train for it, I have a goal, I have a plan, and I am tracking my progress and sharing it online. I downloaded one of the C25K apps, I downloaded Strava, I have a park near the office and one near home and more importantly I have someone to run with that supports me and that I feel comfortable with being seen all sweaty and flushed. I am on week 2 of my training and I finally start feeling the endorphins kick in. Yesterday I couldn’t wait to get home and get my running shoes on. Today I woke up motivated to fight and train harder.

I hope that having this goal and having to be consistent in training for almost 3 months will help me keep going when the stress fades away. I’m hoping the motivation for my PhD will come back soon and that it will be because of running and feeling better. I’m not doing it to loose weight or be more fit. I’m doing it primarily for my mind and because my legs cramp after a long day in the office. So as part of my commitment and self-encouragement to keep going, here is what I’ve learnt in the past year (and whilst writing this post) about my physical activity and in particular about running:

  • Tracking has made more active. But tracking alone is not enough.
  • It’s also seeing people around me, of any size and level, being active.
  • It’s having an social and cultural environment where physical activity is cool and more importantly FUN.
  • It’s sharing pictures of my runs and what I eat on social networks that makes me feel more committed, and seeing how those pictures get the most likes. I feel supported.
  • It’s having a clear and achievable goal (my first 5k!).
  • It’s having friends and family who are supportive and encourage me to go out. I bought my dad a Fitbit last months and he’s super excited by it and keeps showing off how often he achieves his daily step goal.
  • It’s having parks near by where I can go and run and hear birds singing. To be honest, it has been very nice out lately so I haven’t had to find an indoor solution so far – I can imagine that on rainy days I might be less motivated to go out and run and being in England this could happen often. But I’m hoping that as summer approaches and I’m building a new habit, I will be able to go out running no matter the weather.
  • It’s having loads healthy eating options in supermarkets (which are everywhere!) and no vending machines in the office. During my MSc it was so easy (and CHEAP!!) to grab a chocolate bar rather than walking a long way before I could find a grocery store to get some fruit.
  • And it’s also the gear, because let’s face it: if you look like a pro runner, you also feel like a pro and run like a pro!

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 22.41.22

I’ll let you know how my 5K goes on the 19th July!

P.s. If you want to support me, please consider donating here: https://www.justgiving.com/martacecchinato2015

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