The Couch Potato Rises From Slumber

The night I signed up for the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk, I knew right away how I’d   advertise to raise the money. I made posters and postcards that featured a color photo of me a couple of months post-chemo and a headline that screamed across the top: Couch Potato Pledges to Walk 60 Miles in 3 Days.

The claim was not an exaggeration. I’ve always leaned toward the sedentary. I’m not a sit around, eat chips, and drink beer in front of the TV couch potato; I am more the high tech variety—the hunch in front of the computer and lose track of time couch potato. Hours can go by while I read articles online, write my blog, create lesson plans, check email or tinker with my website. Did I forget to stretch? To eat? To pee? Oops.

During the past twenty years, I have had periods when I’ve walked to the beach every morning, often before first light, but after consistently walking for weeks or months, something happens and I start staying up late and “sleeping in” (in my house this means getting up at 6:30). Quite easily, I slip back into couch potato mode.

Never having been athletically oriented, training for the Walk was a major challenge, but since I had a concrete goal and a meaningful purpose, I was able to successfully complete my training. Obsessively marching toward a goal is something I’m very good at.

When I crossed the finish line after walking 60 miles, I felt proud as hell. And I assumed that it would be easy to keep walking—nothing too dramatic or rigorous—just three or four miles a few times a week. After walking thirty miles a week while training, this seemed like it would be a piece of cake. After all, I’d discovered the power and pleasure of endorphins. I’d gotten to see a whole new side of Santa Cruz. I loved the slower pace walking required and I felt good both during and after my walks. After all those months of training, I had developed a new habit, right?

Wrong. I am chagrined to report that it has been a struggle to walk since my triumphant return from the Breast Cancer 3-Day. Granted, the first week, I needed to rest. I was exhausted and deserved to slack off. But now it’s been three weeks, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had good intentions, even to the point of putting on my socks and sneakers, and not made it out the door. Instead of walking, I’ve found one more task to complete, one more email to respond to, someone under 18 who needs me, a sink full of dishes to wash, a novel I was dying to get back to, or a nap that had my name on it.

I seem to be an all or nothing gal.

I have continued meeting the Butt Busters early Tuesday mornings to walk Sea Cliff Beach. But when the next Tuesday rolls around, I realize it was the only walk I took. All of a sudden, I don’t have the time. Let me correct that.  All of a sudden, I am not making the time.

I have been observing my behavior and giving this a lot of thought. Today, I actually did walk to pick up Lizzy’s camera from Carlos, the man who repaired it, about a mile from here, and as I walked, I noticed how good it felt, how easy, how comfortable, and I began to muse a lot on the nature of habits and how hard it is to let go of old ones, how difficult it is to really, deeply adopt a new one.

Intellectually, I know walking is good for me. Studies show that regular walking, three times a week, reduces the chance of breast cancer recurrence. Weight-bearing exercise helps prevent osteoporosis, which I am at high risk for because of the estrogen-blockers I take to keep my cancer at bay.

Emotionally, I feel happy and peaceful when I walk. I think more clearly. Problems are easier to solve. Creativity flows. I feel inspired and at peace.

Physically, it feels good to move. It feels great to have endorphins flowing through my system. And spiritually, I can practice walking meditation or listen to dharma talks from some of my favorite spiritual teachers.

You’d think that with so much positive reinforcement, it would be easy to keep walking. But it’s not. I have stronger and more entrenched habits that get in the way. These are habits of physical lethargy, compulsive doing, and regularly expecting to accomplish more in a day than a balanced life allows.

Since I’ve had cancer, I rest more and expect far less of myself than I used to, and I’m grateful for that, but I am a working mom who runs my own business and my days are full. Still, there are times I have a half hour between things or need to wait downtown for an hour or even two while Eli or Lizzy finish a martial arts class. I could easily walk at those times. But instead I find myself tipping back the front seat and taking a nap (I’m not knocking naps; I love them), running errands, sitting in a coffee shop working on my laptop, or playing Trism on my iPhone.

These are choices I make every single day, choices to work, to zone out or to “disappear.”

The desire to walk is there, the capability is there, the knowledge of the pleasure and benefit is there… yet time and again, I chose to do something else with my time. Why?

I have to conclude that the old, habitual grooves on the record are pretty deep. No many how many transformational experiences I have, and I’ve had many, aspects of my old personality structure seem to stay intact.

It’s true, I’m not as anxious as I used to be. I don’t worry like I once did. I’m more flexible and take most things in stride. I’ve learned to live more in the present, to spend less time obsessing about the past or planning for the future. I no longer feel I have to prove anything to anyone. And I feel more connected and loved than I ever have before. These are all good, significant changes.

But other things have not changed. Most days, I still systematically complete a pre-set series of events. There are always more to-dos on my list than there ought to be. My priorities—demonstrated by how I spend my day—continue to revolve around doing, rather than simply being. And exercise has dropped back down to its habitually low place in my list of priorities.

Scientists insist that the brain is flexible and that old dogs can learn new tricks. But what does it take to actually create new neural pathways? What would it take for me to put walking up near the top, rather than at the bottom of my list? Perhaps the fact that I’m writing about it is an important step toward lacing up those shoes.

Maybe I can learn to do something joyful, not because I’m raising money or recovering my health, but just because it feels good.

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