My Best Blog Post (to date)

I set up  this blog as a way to force myself to write.  With a few minor exceptions, I’ve managed to put out a post every Monday morning for the last few years.  While the tone and theme of the blog shifts around a bit, it’s been a pretty consistent thing.

One thing that is surprising to me is the top blog post on the site.  There is one post that consistently gets more traffic than any of the others (almost daily, in fact).  If I didn’t have access to the metrics, I would have never guessed which one it is.

My best blog post, to date is ……. (*drum roll*)….

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

Yeah, no kidding.

It’s far and away the most popular post.  It’s more popular than my landing page, which means that people often find my blog through a Google search before clicking through to the rest of the site.  Below is my top 15 pages according to views.

Top 15

I suppose there are a few good takeaways I could make use of if I were looking to optimize this blog for hits or monetization.  First, writing reviews of popular apps gets a lot of clicks.  As does talking about health and fitness (or, more specifically, failing at health and fitness).  And finally, people like reading about life/career developments – and posting your content to Facebook for your friends and family to read will get you a good number of hits each time.

I suppose now I have a goal to write something that will drive more traffic than Zombie, Run!  Good luck to me.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Locus of Control – I Re-Assembled the Elliptical!

While I have recently joined a new gym in our new city after the move, I have used it once as of writing.  I have yet to work out a schedule that allows me to easily pick up the habit of exercising.  This is, of course, a terrible excuse to not exercise.

Exercising at the gym will either be something I do before work, or something done after work.  Each of these options have complications that provide just enough friction that implementing them is stopped by my slothful lizard brain.

In order to exercise at the gym before work, I’d have to wake up earlier.  This is hard for me for a few reasons:

  • Because I work at the bar a few nights per week, my sleep schedule is variable, so keeping a consistent bed and wake-up time is challenging.
  • I’m a heavy sleeper, so finding a way to wake me up without disturbing my partner is difficult.
  • I’ve developed a habit of snoozing when my alarm goes off.
  • Being late to work is bad, so if I’m late to get to the gym, it throws things off for me.
  • I’m lazy.

In order to exercise at the gym after work, I have a few barriers that I’d need to overcome.  Ideally, I’d go straight from work, but:

  • On days when the dog is at daycare, I’m usually the only one who can pick him up before they close since my work is closer.
  • On days when the dog is at home, I need to go home first to take him out to relieve himself.
  • Because I’m the first one home, it makes more sense for me to start dinner.
  • I have the habit that once my “pants come off,” or if I sit on the couch, it’s hard for me to get up and go again.
  • Exercising after work is challenging if I’m tired from work.
  • I wouldn’t be able to workout on days after work when I also work at the bar or have board meetings (mornings are more likely to be clear of other scheduled activities).
  • I value spending time with my significant other over going to the gym.

These are all excuses.  They are in no way real impediments to going to the gym.  Instead, they provide just enough friction to stop me from making a change.

Another option would be for me to workout at home.  Until recently, we’ve been limited in what we could unpack while the renovations were ongoing.  However, now that the renos are done, we are in a position to reclaim more space in the basement.  The disassembled elliptical was buried behind boxes of stuff, and there was little extra floor space that could be used to set up the machine.

Last week, I decided that I wanted to finally set up the elliptical so that I had no excuses for skipping some form of exercise.  I wanted to take back some locus of control for my fitness.  Everything listed above is coded in language that suggests I have no control over my situation.  There’s always a reason outside of myself that prevents me from committing to exercise – “if only things were different, I’d exercise.”

But this is wrong.

In truth, there is nothing stopping me from exercising.  I’m making excuses on why I’m not modifying my behaviour.  Instead of whining and whinging about why I can’t exercise, I need to address the nagging feeling that I am drifting about in my day to day life.  I don’t feel in control of things, but this is false.  I tend to react, without intention.  I act as if I don’t have an active agency in how I spend my time.  By not making decisions about how to fix my behaviour, I’m still making a decision – only now I’m pretending to be a victim of circumstance and pushing off ownership of that decision to do nothing.

And so, last week I decided to take back some locus of control and re-assemble the elliptical and go for a run.  This is not a behaviour change, but merely a first step.  (Or several steps according to my FitBit…)

Now, I must be responsible for continuing to take those steps.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Honest Gym Update

Earlier in July, I joined a new gym.  It had been some time since I went to a gym, and indeed I had cancelled my last gym membership due to not attending in months.  I researched some of my local options, and I settled on a non-chain gym to join.

My first workout was July 5th.  The gym has 24-hour access for members, and I wanted to blow off some steam, so I went out to run on the elliptical and do some light weight lifting.

All in all, I like the gym so far.  The layout is different than what I’m used to, but I like the aesthetic and vibe.  You have a decent mix of people using it, from muscle-heads to grandmas, and everyone seems welcome.

However, since July 5th I have not been back to the gym.  Despite wanting to get back into the routine of exercising, I have yet to make any progress towards forming a new habit of going to the gym.

Granted, things have been hectic as we dealt with the fallout from the move, the renovations, wedding planning, etc.  Still, this is not a good excuse and I should be doing better.

I figured this accountability post would be a good thing to share, because it’s going to take some work before I change my behaviour.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I (Finally) Cancelled My Gym Membership

I finally got around to cancelling my membership to my gym.

My last visit to the gym was at the end of November last year (I thought it was October, initially, so I wasn’t doing *that* bad…).

I have been away from the gym for so long that the branding and colour scheme has all changed to Crunch Fitness in my absence.  It was strange to walk in and see all the same equipment, but with new branding stickers adorning the equipment and different paint on the walls.  The vibrant reds and blacks have given way to more muted blues and greys – a shadowy ghost of the former company.

I’ve written before about my poor habits with going to the gym, and how much it costs me when I fail to go for months at a time.  I’ve had some successes, but mostly I tend to fall off the wagon.  The longest string of success I’ve had with exercise is using the elliptical at home with the Zombies, Run! app.

The decision to cancel my membership is motivated by three reasons.  First, since we are moving in May, I will be too far away to reasonably commute to the gym (and if I was inconsistent before while living close to the gym, there is almost no chance that anything would change in my habits after the move).

Second, I reviewed my finances and wanted to clean up some unnecessary recurring charges to my credit card.  Things like the gym and my subscription to Crave TV were cancelled since I rarely use them.

Third, with the move to the new house, I’d like to take a crack at exercising more from home.  I’m fairly regular with the elliptical running, and I would like to purchase a few more items to create a bit of a home gym.  While I doubt I’ll have a home gym like Jujimufu on YouTube anytime soon, I can add a few pieces that will allow me to get a reasonably comprehensive workout from home, such as a barbell, bench, and maybe a squat rack.  Stretch goals would include battle ropes, a heavy bag, and kettlebells.

If the home gym fails, there is a commercial gym and a more specialized gym in the town I’m moving to, so I could always sign back up when things settle down.

In the meantime, here’s a salute to World Gym (and Cruch Fitness who took over all the World Gym locations here in town).  I very much liked my experiences at World Gym, and I don’t regret our time together.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

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This blog post is not a paid sponsorship.

On Friday, I completed my last training mission for the Android version of the Zombies, Run!  5K Training app by Six to Start.  While this is supposed to be an 8-week training program, I’ve been at it since mid-October.  Having completed the program, I wanted to give some of my thoughts on the experience.

Overall, I loved it!

Imagine taking an audiobook about a zombie outbreak, and attaching a step-counter/GPS tracker to it.  That’s what the app is at its core.

Story

You play the silent hero, Runner 5.  The adventure opens with you in a helicopter bound for the Town of Able.  While en route, your helicopter is shot out of the sky, and you are forced to make your way to the settlement with the help of Able’s radio operator, Sam.  Once you make it to town, you meet a diverse cast of characters who you “interact” with throughout the 8-week plan.

The bulk of your interactions take place with Sam and Maxine, the town’s doctor, who also serves as your training coach while you build stamina and prepare to take your place as one of the town’s Runners.  The Runners are a group of people who are sent out on missions outside the guarded walls of town to run messages, look for survivors, gather supplies, and occasionally serve as decoy bait to lure zombies away.

While managing a zombie outbreak is bad enough, you still have the lingering question of who would shoot down a helicopter from the middle of the zombie-infested countryside, and more urgently, who is stealing supplies from the town’s quartermaster.

I found the story very immersive.  It brought me back to my old radio drama days from high school, with well-acted characters and sound effects to help you believe that you are being chased by zombies.  The creators took time to ensure the voice acting was well-done as you rely on the characters to help you experience the story.  There is no narrator telling you a story, but instead the story unfolds around you while you run.

Despite the fact that this is a training app, there is a surprising amount of story given to you.  You learn a bit of the backstory of the main players, and there is a lot of world building going on about life and the history of the zombie outbreak.  You learn a little bit about the politics of the various surrounding towns, and you get swept up in the human drama.  Indeed, your final mission is not just a 5k run, but a race against the clock to make a critical delivery to someone you’ll never meet but means the world to a close companion of yours.

The App

I found the app easy to use and well-designed.  As I mentioned above, the app is basically an audiobook and a step-counter.  There is a bit more to it, but those are just extras that help with customization.  The app tracks your progress in one of three ways – a GPS tracker that lays out your run via a Google Maps integration, a step-counter if you want to use a treadmill, and an estimated distance tracker for use on rowing machines and ellipticals (how many minutes it takes you to go 1-kilometre).  I chose to use the step-counter feature despite using an elliptical, which meant my in-app distances were skewed, however I corrected the distances with the tracking done by the elliptical itself.  I also used my Fitbit to track caloric expenditure and heart rate, since they were calibrated to my height and weight.

The best part about the app is that you can choose to use an external audio player when the app isn’t talking to you.  I used both Stitcher and Spotify and found that the integrations were smooth.  This allows you to listen to music on the run.  When the training app needs to deliver information to you, it pauses what you are listening to and continues the story, before switching back to your preferred audio.  Even taking phone calls mid-app worked well.  There was only one time where my music didn’t start back up after I took a phone call.

One note of caution is that the first 3 or so weeks of the app are free to use, but you need to pay a nominal fee ($5.49) to unlock the rest of the missions.  While this might be annoying, or a bit of a barrier for people, I liked it because a.) I’m in favour of companies making money off of users to keep creating good content; and b.) letting you use the app for free lets you test it out.  By the time I was ready for week 4, I wanted to find out what happens next, and I thought a buy-in of around $5 was worth it to continue on the adventure.  The full (non-training) app uses a subscription model, but still allows you to trying things out before you need to unlock the full app.

Training

I found the 8-week program to be a little easy for me, but using an elliptical meant that there was only so much crossover I would experience.  If I were to have tried running, I suspect the app’s difficulty would have been scaled more appropriately to me (and my knees would have taken a beating).  But the main purpose of the training is similar to most other “couch to 5K” training programs – get you moving a couple days per week while the difficulty is slowly ramped up.  I appreciate this approach, as it is enough to challenge you, but easy enough to keep you coming back for more.

To keep the difficulty scaled for me, I would often run through rest breaks, and I ensured that I kept the resistance level at a good place to maintain a heart rate of around 140bpm.  To ensure I was running fast enough, I monitored the elliptical’s RPMs, and used the following markers:

  • 40-50rpm: slow walk/rest
  • 50-60rpm: brisk walk/warm up
  • 60-70rpm: steady running pace
  • 70+: hard exertion/sprint

Before each mission, you can review what the day’s exercise routine will look like.  The training sessions involve a combination of walking and running periods, and some sort of ancillary movement to develop your leg muscles, such as knee-ups, skipping, and body-weight squats.  Some days are straight training, where you get little story development, but learn more about the people you are interacting with.  However, some training days morph into mini missions where you need to divert due to zombies or pick up critical supplies nearby.  One time, you even risk you life to help a downed runner in the field.  This is probably what kept me so engaged.  If it were just a disembodied voice telling me when to walk and run, I doubt I would find it very engaging and would have likely lost interest quickly.  However, because the training prompts are integrated into a narrative, and the characters are cheering your development on (because you are expected to take you place as a member of the community), it breaks the monotony of running up into more interesting chunks.

I’m not entirely sure to what degree I improved my cardiovascular health.  Because I didn’t feel like I struggled with the difficulty, it’s hard to measure my progress.  The best I can estimate is that my running distances did increase over time, even if you were to control for the duration of walking in the training cycles and the differences in run duration from week to week.  Despite having not measured with any amount of accuracy what my abilities were pre-Zombies, I’m fairly confident that I am in a better state of cardiovascular health having completed the training program.

Final Thoughts

If I have one complaint, it’s that the narrative move from the training app to the full app ends up restarting the story a bit.  The first mission in both the training app and the full app is  the same, meaning your story doesn’t really continue after the training app.  I suspect that once you start running the story missions, things will feel more integrated, but I was a little sad to have to “meet” Sam and Maxine for the first time again after having “developed” a relationship with them while I trained.  This is a relatively small nitpick on my part because narrative and story are important to me, but it’s not something that takes away from the experience.

I have already recommended the app to friends of mine, and I officially recommend it here.  I got well more than $5 in value from the app’s minor cost.  This is a well-made app that is easy to use, and integrates well into my exercise routine.  It makes exercise fun and engaging and the story is compelling enough to keep me coming back for more punishment.  If you are looking for a way to help you commit to a cardio routine, but you are starting off from scratch, this is a great option if you don’t mind running from zombies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

2017 Sleep Check-In

This is it!  I’ve finally hit the end of the sleep challenge and I can finally look back at a year of data and see if I can spot anything interesting from the data.  This post will give the quarterly update from October through December, and then I will look at the results from the entire year.

For those just coming on-board with this post, in 2017 I set out to track my sleep each month with the target of sleeping for at least 7-hours.  I used a Fitbit Charge HR to track my sleep and I gave monthly updates on my progress.  I also used a few quarterly updates that looked at data over longer periods of time to see what sorts of trends and patterns I could extract from the results.  While I wanted to try and maximize my sleep, in truth I am terrible at keeping a nightly routine, so at the mid-point of the experiment, I set the goal of trying to get at least 10 nights in each month where I hit my target of 7-hours.

To see a recap, you can go to the individual posts below:

You can also see my quarterly updates:

First, let us look at the fourth quarter’s results.

Fourth Quarter – October through December

Q4 sleep
Note: 1’s denote nights where I hit my target.

The fourth quarter results fall in line with what I’ve been seeing over the course of the year.  Sundays prove to be the most consistent night of 7+ hours of sleep, followed by Saturday.  Monday usually gets a high number of hits, but this time around it appears that I’m not sleeping as well when I transition from weekend to work week.  I don’t have an explanation for this, other than I probably am going to bed too late (as opposed to lost sleep due to anxiety of going to work the next day).

And now, time for the final reveal!

Sleep Results for 2017

The grand total for the year are:

January – 4
February – 8
March – 6
April – 7
May – 4
June – 7
July – 11
August – 11
September – 9
October – 8
November – 7
December – 10
Total: 92

Out of the 365 nights of sleep for 2017, I hit my target 92 times, for a 25% success rate.  This is a very strict number, which reflects poorly on the overall experiment, but one bit comfort I take from this is that, as I have pointed out a few times over the course of this challenge, the data is skewed when we look at the time I spent asleep, versus the amount of time the Fitbit tracker tracked me as asleep.  Any amount of sleep disturbance or restlessness meant that the device wasn’t counting it as sleep time.  So, while I might have been asleep for over seven hours if I had any kind of restless sleep, the quality sleep tracked came in under 7-hours.

Is there another way of seeing the data to determine if the 25% rate is overly skewed?

Time spent Sleeping

We can adjudicate this by looking at the actual time I was asleep, versus the target sleep.  This way, any nights where I slept more than 7-hours would pull my averages up and cancel out some of the nights where I slept less than 7-hours.

Screenshot_2018-01-21-20-36-37

 

sleep
*Note: for simplicity, I rounded the sleep values to the nearest hour.

For 2017, the Fitbit tracked me as sleeping 2,137-hours.  If I assume 7-hours for all 365 days, this would give us 2,555 hours of sleep.  Viewed from this perspective, I hit 84% of my target sleep, with only a 418-hour deficit of sleep spread over the 12 months.

The problem with tracking only the successes throughout the year is that it ignored any sleep that falls under 7-hours.  Month over month, my progress tended to looked bad and reflected poorly on my ability to set goals and maintain progress.  While it’s true that I was failing in hitting absolute targets of sleep, the presentation almost suggested that if I didn’t hit my sleep target it was because I wasn’t sleeping at all.

So, while I was only 25% successful in hitting targets, I was able to get 84% of the sleep the target would imply.

One note of caution – if I’ve learned anything these last two years, it’s that I’ve learned and reflected on what it feels like to be sleep deprived.  Running a theoretical sleep deficit of 418-hours for a year might not seem bad, but in practice is something to be concerned about.  Sleep deprivation has consequences that affect me in many ways, such as my ability to resist temptation, my productivity at work, the likelihood that I will exercise, and my interpersonal interactions with friends and family.  There was one time where in my sleep-deprived state, I let a door swing shut before my dog was fully through the threshold, and it caught him in the rear paw.  Despite a yelp of pain from him, there was thankfully no physical damage to his paw.  Still, I felt terrible about my carelessness and it was a reminder that my ability to focus and pay attention is compromised when I don’t sleep.

Moving Forward

Tracking my sleep for this blog was an interesting experience.  I do not plan to continue giving regular updates as I progress through 2018, though I will still be monitoring my progress in my personal notebooks.  I found a lot of value in seeing the aggregate results.  The monthly updates were mostly in line with my intuition, but it was still good to objectively see how poorly I am with sleep.

It will be an ongoing work of progress to do better.  The main takeaways from this experiment are that,

1.) I’m terrible at maintaining a disciplined nightly routines to go to bed at a reasonable time;

2.) working at the bar, even 2-nights per week, dramatically impacts my sleep during the week; and

3.) I need to pay more attention to the things in and out of the bedroom that cause disturbances in my sleep (such a the dog jumping on the bed, evening alcohol consumption, and potential sleep apnea due to my weight).

There are many avenues I can explore to improve the quality and quantity of sleep I get each night.  Perhaps, I will explore them in time.  However, it’s time to put down the measuring devices and enjoy a bit on unquantified time.

Thanks for following this journey of sleep.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ellipticals and Zombies!

In my search to find exercise routines that I can make stick around long enough to build habits from, I am experimenting with a running app and a new piece of home equipment.  My fiancee and I have recently purchased an elliptical machine for our home.  While I was initially hesitant about the cost when I was already paying for my gym membership, I have since come around to the convenience of using the machine at home.

One issue I’ve had with fully embracing exercising at home is my limitations.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I drop our dog off for daytime boarding, since both my fiancee and I work during the day (it gives our dog some socializing time and exercise).  This means that I have to be out the door a bit earlier than I otherwise would need to be, which cuts into time I could be at the gym.

I have been going to the gym Tuesday mornings for the last month and a half, but Thursdays are a write-off because I work at the bar Wednesday nights and don’t get to bed until 1am at the earliest.  Outside of weekend, this means that my morning exercises are limited to body-weight work, or the rowing machine that currently serves as a clothes rack.

Enter: the Elliptical

The elliptical, on the other hand, allows me to jump on for 30-45 minutes in the morning, then I can immediately shower and get ready for work and still get out the door in time.

(Note: I realize that these are not good excuses for why a more disciplined approach to my morning wouldn’t fix my problems.  While this is true, I’m trying to address these shortcomings with solutions, rather than relying on a fantasy alternative reality where I am a morning person.)

The elliptical is also good because it’s low impact on my knees.  I’ve recently discovered that 330lbs is the magical number where my knees are starting to hurt by the end of the day.  Ideally, I want to get  back into running, like I had done in undergrad, but I know that my knees and shins wouldn’t hold up to the abuse of trodding at my current weight.  The elliptical provides a good middle-ground to improve my cardio in the interim.

ACK! Zombies! RUN!

The last hurdle is that cardio is pretty boring.  This is where the zombies come in.  I’ve downloaded the Zombies, Run! 5k Training app (this is not a paid sponsorship; I just like the app).  It’s a fun spin on the Couch to 5k (C25K) training systems that gradually build a person’s endurance over a multi-week period to get them from complete novice to a 5km run through weekly drills and timed runs.

I’ve used it for a couple of weeks as of writing, and I’ve been enjoying the experience and sharing my “runs.”

My experience with the app have been good so far.  I like that it allows for external audio to play while the app is running.  I run Spotify in the background for music, then the running app interjects periodically to give me instructions, such as when to run and when to walk.  The app makes these instructions fun by forming them in terms of a story about a town fighting for survival during a zombie outbreak, so when you are running, it is from zombies that you can “hear” behind you.  The training is framed as you learning to be a better runner for the town (runner scavenge for supplies out of town, hence why they need to learn to run faster from zombies).  It adds a sense of purpose to the training, and provides a fun context to help you progress the story along.  At its core, it’s an audiobook laid over a GPS/step tracker.

Because I can complete a mission in under an hour without leaving the house, it fits well with my time restrictions in the morning.  I’m enjoying the experience and I hope to keep this going beyond the 8-week training module.  Combining this with lifting weights at the gym a few days a week (or the occasional YouTube lead yoga session), it provides a sense of novelty to keep me engaged in the process.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan