[Disclaimer: although I AM Dr. Clue, I must confess I am not a medical doctor. As a result, please consult with your physician before attempting to follow any of the advice I put forth below about exercise and diet. The opinions expressed are those of an ordinary guy, much like many of you, who found a system for getting off the couch and making some pretty significant changes in his life. ]
So, what is a “couch potato”?
Apparently the term is one of the very few slang words or phrases whose coining is impossible to trace. Clearly it emerged into public consciousness in 1983 with the publication of a popular book called “The Official Couch Potato Handbook”. For our purposes, let’s just try this definition: a couch potato is a lumpy, inert, starchy, vegetative object covered with eyes –
all of them pointed at the television.
To tell the truth, although I’m much more active these days, there will always be a bit of a couch potato in me. I love the big white couch in my living room; it’s soft and squishy — perfect for sprawling out on. Many of my favorite activities take place on this couch: reading, meditating, playing board games, working on my laptop, watching movie marathons and of course, OD’ing on TV (particularly football and basketball, although I found the World Cup this summer to be eminently Couch Potato Worthy ). A great day for me, traditionally, would be to watch two football games on Sunday followed by a movie double feature that night. Heaven!
But not very healthy of course…
I have tried, on numerous occasions over the years, to get up off the couch — with only sporadic success. The first time was back In college, when I went so far as to run a 10K, which almost in did me in. You see, it was a 90- degree day in smoggy Los Angeles. I thought I was going to die! It took me 5 years to recover psychologically from the experience, at which point I got up the nerve to try it again, only to find that my hips and knees were hurting, so I dropped it once again. Clearly, running wasn’t for me! As it turned out, I had a leg-length difference: it seems my left leg is shorter than my right. Although I eventually resolved this with shoe inserts and such, I pretty much convinced myself that running isn’t for people with sore knees and leg length differences – not to mention my particular kind of body type, which is stocky, big-boned and broad shouldered –not exactly the classic runner’s body. Runners are built like birds, right? And then, of course, the dreaded metabolism change of my 30’s started to kick in, further confirming for me that I am just not a runner. Even though I was still trying to work out in other ways during that decade, my weight was beginning to balloon up. By Labor Day, 2003, I had reached 224 pounds and was feeling pretty lousy. So what did I do? Start running again? Nah! I did what millions of Americans do in such straits: I began dieting. Weight Watchers was my diet of choice…and I’m proud to say I managed to summon up sufficient self discipline to actually lose 60+ points over about 8 months time. Congratulations to me, right! The problem , however, with diets — most of which center on portion control — is keeping the pounds off once you reach your goal weight. Although I made it to down to 163, I haven’t really been able to keep it there over the last 10 years, with my weight yo-yo-ing between 165 to 190. In fact, I was at 190 about a year ago when I started to re-evaluate whether my whole boom-or-bust, inactive/diet lifestyle was really working for me.
In order to cast aside my couch spud persona, I had to make both some internal shifts and some external strategies. Let’s talk about the externals first.
External Strategy #1 is DON’T TRY TO DO IT ALONE. It’s way too hard. There’s probably a reason most potential-runners are still on the couch. Most of us just don’t have 100% self discipline. So I say, find someone to run with… Someone who wants to succeed at this as much (or perhaps even more) than you do. Someone who you like talking to – because talking makes your runs go faster. Someone with whom you can share accountability. Myself, I run with my girlfriend who absolutely thrives on being in nature. It’s our time to catch up on things. We put our running days on the calendar and consider those sessions as dates to connect with each other.
External “Strategy #2: START SLOW. Get out for a hike or two first…see how it feels to moving around again, in nature. Then proceed to walk/jogs. What that means is that you walk for a while and then say, “Okay, I’ll jog to that next tree.” Then you walk for a while more and then decide, “I’ll jog past that bench.” Eventually those jogging sections will get longer and longer, until you find yourself jogging the whole route. For me, I remember one day thinking, “Let’s see if I can jog the whole way”…which I did. The point is not to try too much too soon and then get discouraged and plop back on the couch.
External Strategy #3: CHOOSE A REGULAR ROUTE – someplace beautiful – and do it 3x/wk. I run up in Annandel State Park, in Santa Rosa, CA. I highly recommend running trails…and by trails, I mean, running on dirt rather than pavement. It doesn’t have to be hilly; it just has to be a surface with some give. I know too many street runners who have had to give up the sport by the age of 50 because they’d beaten up the cartilage in their knees. Do yourself a favor and stick to dirt and grass. It’ll pay off in the long run.
Strategy #4: PICK THE RIGHT TIME OF DAY. Some people are morning people; others not. Some people like running cold, others warm. Myself, I hate getting over-heated; I’d rather run first thing in the day, or towards sunset, than during the height of midday. Experiment. Try a few different times of day and see which one you like the most. If you can choose a time of day that works with both your body and your schedule, you’ll have more of a chance of sticking with it, which is the whole point.
Strategy #5: GET SOME GOOD EQUIPMENT. What I mean by that is good, comfortable running shoes, shirts that breathe, slitted running shorts and even running socks. They all make a big difference, and you don’t have to go overboard. One pair of each is good enough to start with (if you wash them often, of course).
Now let’s talk about the internal strategies for getting off the couch…and this is where it gets really interesting. When I say internals, I’m talking about both the fuel you put into your body and also the thinking that you put into your brain (or is that the other way around?).
When it comes to eating, there are hundreds of books out there about the optimal running diet. Some say to carbo load before you run. Others advocate this energy shake or that one. Honestly, you can drive yourself crazy (and poor) trying to sort through the advice of all the so-called experts (and their high-priced supplements). None of which I’ll be shil-ing at the end of this article. J What I will say about diet is this:
Eat light before you run. At least at first, you’re not going to be running a marathon, where your food intake and calories must be carefully monitored. You have more than enough energy, right now, to go out and run a couple of miles. Have some fruit…perhaps an energy bar. That’s it.
Use the restroom…and I’m talking about both #1 and #2, if you know what I mean. You’ll be much happier if you’re light on your feet. Drinking a ton of water will facilitate this, I guarantee you.
Eat foods that avoid inflammation. Think about it. What causes most wanna-be runners to quit running? Joint pain, that’s what! Particularly sore knees and hips, not to mention aching backs, ankles and necks. A large amount of soreness is caused by inflammation, and food has everything to do with this. Again, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve done a good deal of research on my own and determined that there do seem to be certain foods that encourage inflammation throughout the body. One of them, of course, is sugar. So if you want to stay on the trails for the long term, enjoying the experience rather than feeling incessant pins and needles, start cutting down on the processed sugar. Sadly for you milk and cheese lovers, there is a good body of research indicating that dairy also contributes to inflammation, as do grains (particularly those with gluten like wheat, barley and rye). So I say, talk to your doctor and do your own research…and then do whatever it takes to reduce the achiness in your joints. The less you hurt, the more you’ll run.
Now let’s talk about the internal shifts. Who of you has ever said to yourself:
“I’m too old to take up running”?
How about: “My legs are too short.”?
Or: “My knees are too sore.”?
Or: “I don’t have a runner’s body type.”?
Or: “I’m too busy to work it into my schedule.”?
Or: “I tried running once and failed. It’s bound to happen again.”?
These internal messages keep us in spud mode and we have to interrupt them. The problem is, they all sound true, don’t they? But are they based on recent experience or on faulty, un-tested or out-dated information and beliefs. In order to permanently get off the couch and into action mode, we have to ruthlessly talk to ourselves in a new way, assessing the “truth” of our excuses.
Take the first one: “I’m too old to take up running.” Where does that one come from? Chances are this is a limiting belief. It could be a friend who told you this. Or your parents. A spouse. Someone on TV. But have you tested it out for yourself? How do you know until you try? In fact, there are plenty of people running in their 70s and even their 80s. I even know of a 75-year-old marathoner! So test your hypotheses—don’t take any of it for granted…take nothing second hand.
How about the second one: “My knees are too short” “I don’t have a runner’s body”. Chances are this is an Interpretation…a story you created for yourself.
Or that last one: “I failed before and I failed again.” Will you now? Will you really? This is an Assumption. How can you be so sure that history will repeat itself? You’re a different person now! You’re eating better…you’ve cut down on the inflammatory food…you’re meditating and visioning. It could be totally different this time!
George Bernard once said:
“Progress is impossible without change, and those
that cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Running or jogging, call it what you like, is a wonderful discipline, with tremendous potential results. It’s certainly changed my life for the better –calming me down, getting me out in nature, and trimming the waistline. It started from working on both my outside and my inside.
There are a lot of running magazines out there right now offering 10-, 20-, 30-day plans for jump-starting a running regimen. I recommend you check them out. Or you can just start doing it today — for 10 minutes.
It’s time to mash that couch potato and let loose that trail runner inside you!