The Challenging Challenge of Challenges

Let me just say it: I hate challenges. 30-day challenges, 100-day challenges, Do X-number-of-such-and-such challenges, etc.– I hate them all.

And yet.

There’s something seductive, promising, even magical about the challenge. All I have to do is start with 2 pushups, and soon I’ll be doing 384 of them a day. Or all I have to do is eat only grapefruit for 30 days and I’ll fit into that outfit. Or all I have to do is roll out my yoga mat now, and soon I’ll be able to hold a plank for 170 minutes. Apart from the sheer pain of the thing, who has the time to hold a plank that long? I’m joking, of course, but there’s definitely an appeal to the idea that the challenge promises us a goal beyond what we could imagine doing in our real lives.

Now, before you get annoyed with my tarring all challenges with the same brush, I know that there are lots of other challenges that are about process, not product. They help establish supposedly modest behavior change through repetition.  One such recent challenge was the the Runner’s World Run Streak challenge.

Runner's World 39 days of Awesome challenge: Thanksgiving to New Year's run 1 mile a day, every day

A bunch of FFI bloggers and friends decided to take on this challenge.  I chimed in, saying that I would walk a mile a day (my knees don’t let me run).  I even volunteered to do a group post on the results.

Why did I do this?  I was nearing the busiest, most hectic part of my fall term, a term in which I was the most overburdened with work that I’d been in some time.  I say this with full awareness that I have a job and life filled with privileges, for which I am lucky and grateful.  Still, my experience of being me last fall was not fun.

And yet.

The siren song of the challenge was irresistible.  I wanted it to be true that somehow I would transform into a person who took better care of herself– who took the time to stop what she was doing, get outside, stretch her legs, clear the cobwebs, and do something good for her body every day.  And honestly, walking a mile only takes 15–20 minutes, plus a few (like 5?) minutes for getting ready.  So surely I could manage this.

Well, no. Of course not. Hoping against hope that somehow my life would become different, that I would become different just by saying “I’m in!” is not an effective technique for completing a task like this.  I had none of the tools I needed.

I was stressed out from overwork, from being behind on a bunch of work tasks, from swimming in a sea of ungraded papers and exams.

I was in a state of suppressed (and sometimes non-suppressed) panic about my lack of fitness and failure to activate myself into a person working on fitness.

I was dying to feel and be like the other people doing the challenge, who (from my perspective) were fitter and happily ensconced in comfortable  and rock-solid physical activity patterns.

I was ashamed of my failure to meet my own physical activity goals.

I was ashamed of my body: how it looked, how it performed, how it felt inhabiting it.

So I did the only thing I could.  I said “I’m in!” and hoped for the best.

What happened?  Well, I have no idea what happened with the rest of the bloggers.  I was in fact too ashamed even to contact anyone to see how things went and organize a group blog post.  As for me, I did some walking on some days.  I did some documenting of the walking I did.  I did not walk 39 days in a row.  And I felt bad about that.

Okay, lesson learned:  don’t sign up for a challenge when just getting through your work day is a challenge.  Got it.

And yet.

The notion of the challenge, as much as I hate it, is still calling me.  Last weekend I was cross country skiing with my friend Janet, and talking about my fitness goals:  be able to ride bikes with my friends, learn more kayak techniques and get increased stamina to be able to paddle with folks over the summer, lower my levels of anxiety about partaking in physical activity with others and also on my own, and develop a rhythm of regular and fun activity.

That’s a lot.  There are a bunch of challenges in those goals.  Meeting them requires commitment to regular bike training (on the trainer and outside when possible), kayak classes and training and trips, anxiety-reduction through self-care, meditation, yoga, etc. starting to go on group rides with folks, and developing trust within myself and with my friends as I work toward fitness for me in this stage of my life.

So this is what I am doing now to meet these challenges:

I’m documenting my food intake– every meal, every snack, every day.  I want to eat in a way that feels healthy-to-me, that supports my body and helps me feel good and strong.  Knowledge is power, so looking at how I’m actually eating is a big step toward making any changes that I decide I want for myself.

I created a somewhat aspirational but not entirely unrealistic activity weekly schedule.  It includes walking, riding the trainer (which I don’t love but know will help me with my riding goals) and Friday–Sunday longer outside activities.  I also added daily yoga– sometimes a class (my local studio, Artemis Yoga in Watertown, MA,  is fantastic and very near my house), and other times a 20-minute yoga DVD.  I have the DVD cued up and ready to go, and my mat and blocks are in the living room.  I want to at least play the DVD while doing something-or-other on my mat to help me de-stress, stretch my body and relax.

I’m documenting all of my activity every day.  I printed out a calendar, tacked it to my bedroom door, placed a pen next to it, and am writing up what I’ve done each day.  In 4 weeks I’ll look at it and then devise another 4-week plan.  By then, the time will have changed (YAY!) so there will be more light later in the day to work with, opening up the possibility of rides after work.

This is my challenge: going on record with myself about what I want for my body.  Documenting what I am actually doing.  Reflecting on that information. Making adjustments.  And above all, being accepting, nay, kind to myself, remembering that challenges are, well, challenging.


11 thoughts on “The Challenging Challenge of Challenges

  1. This is a great post for the way it documents the mental roller coaster of signing up for a challenge full of hope and then slowly watching the resolve fade over time. Sound familiar? I think of pretty much all diets in the same way. And yet… I too did the 39 day challenge. My experience was a bit different. On some days, it got me doing something instead of nothing. I had modified it a bit because I do other things besides run and some days it just didn’t make sense to do X PLUS a run, no matter how short. Also, I was training for a half marathon that would be just two weeks after the end of the challenge. Note to self: when you’re already training for a half marathon, you do not need to sign up for an additional challenge. In the end, the whole thing got me reflecting on the existential question: “why do I do these things to myself?”

    For what it’s worth, I think you are not aware of how much your approach to fitness– with careful reflection on the process, willingness to admit that you’re human (which is basically what you’re doing here) and so not perfect, and willingness to try again, try something different, incorporate multiple levels of learning and self-knowledge into the next “phase” of your “journey” (sorry)–is admirable and even inspiring in its humanity and self-compassion. Thank you for being a part of this blog and I’m still willing to write that group post if you want to pull it together. I can promise you that no one had a perfect 39 days!

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback and positive comments. It felt very good to write this and articulate what the challenge reveals to me about myself. And yes, let’s do the group post for the 39-day mile-a-day challenge. That would be most interesting, and I will certainly contribute!

  2. Oh Catherine, you are not the only one harbouring secret shame about that challenge. I’ve been avoiding writing about it. I think I did 14 ish days and then my body just rebelled. It wasn’t so much the physical stress but the emotional stress of finding time. I just couldn’t do it every day without running at midnight or 6 am. And running at midnight or 6am is not a good thing for me. So I crashed. And burned. And I’m slowly coming back. Thanks for this.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Susan! I’m tearing up, feeling moved by the support and solidarity I get from being a part of this blog community- readers and bloggers alike. Yes, running at midnight or 6am is not a good plan for just about anyone, so how or why would anyone sustain such a thing? Maybe we can all contribute to a group post, which might be helpful for all our readers and ourselves.

  3. I relate to this so much! Glad I’m not the only one. They make challenges seem so “easy”. It is awesome you have implemented so many strategies that you recognize you need to help you. Best of luck 💜

  4. Love this post Catherine. Love all of your struggling and your successes. We’ve all been there. Sometimes challenges work for me (the burpee and last year’s running challenge work really well) and sometimes they don’t. What I seem to lack, for better or worse, is a sense of shame about failure. I try a bunch of stuff and some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

    1. Thanks! Knowing we are not alone in struggling and succeeding really helps; it helps me a lot. Glad you can relate!

      1. Oops- same reply got posted twice! To you Sam: thanks! It would be interesting to hear more about this no-shame feeling. I’m working on that. And it’s do great to see and read about your experiences, as it gives me a sense of possibility, cool, huh?

  5. Whenever I do one of those “challenges” I wind up getting injured! Ask my Angry Hamstring how 30 days of yoga in January went… now I’ve had a no-yoga February because I can’t do a forward bend.

    I like the idea of challenges for motivation, but any plan that requires a strict “Do X every day” feels like it’s asking for an overuse injury.

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