The Journey Begins With 10,000 Steps a Day

I suffer from an alphabet soup of mental illness - PTSD, OCD, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, there are probably some more in there. Surprisingly, I manage to function miraculously well most of the time in spite of this. Sometimes I am medicated, and sometimes I’m not. Some days I’m amazing, and some days I’m a god forsaken disaster. I’ve learned to accept this and to ride out the bad moments. Learning to do that one thing alone, has made the disaster days fewer and farther between. But they’re still there, and I still need coping mechanisms to get me through.

For the past few years, in addition to traditional methods of dealing with mental illness - for the love of all that is good if you don’t feel well go to a god damn doctor, there is no shame in this PLEASE - I have also been experimenting extensively with every alternative therapy, remedy, and whatever else I can find (and afford). Admittedly, I’m doing this partly for my own entertainment, but I’m also doing it because I am skeptic enough to give other people, who are also dealing with the same shit as me an honest account of what works and what is complete and utter BS. I’m going to write about share all of my experiences with you in the hope that I can help you too. At the very least, some of my escapades will surely make you laugh, and as they say, laughter is the best medicine. Except, that’s a ridiculous cliche, and I think SSRIs might be the real best medicine, but whatever. Laughing is good, and I like to make people laugh.

Here is the story about one thing that has worked, even though I’m slightly pissed that it did. I discovered this one a couple years ago when one of my thousand diets wasn’t producing results.

I know, like we all know, that the real only way to lose weight is to eat less (starve yourself half to death), and exercise. Exercise, at least enough of it, was what was missing from my weight-loss equation, but look, I’ve never been good at math, and I barely scraped by with a C in college algebra, so finding X isn’t exactly my forte over here. I don’t even like writing mathematical metaphors, so I think I should be given a temporary pass for ignoring the most obvious reason that I wasn’t slimming down much sooner.

You can’t expect to lose weight without exercise, and while I was still regularly practicing yoga (I worked at a yoga studio at the time), I probably needed more cardio (I don’t know, it sounded good), so I started taking walks around the block. I was soon discouraged when I learned that my little jaunts burnt a grand total of forty calories, and I calculated that in order to eat what I wanted and still lose weight, that I’d need to walk to Key West and back each day. I wanted better results, but I felt far more motivated to watch the next episode of my favorite TV shows than I did to break a sweat.

I’d never been the type of person who enjoyed exercise. My sister did. She said she felt awful on days that she skipped the gym, which was incomprehensible. I’d always thought that exercise tended to make me feel worse. Being winded, sweaty, sore, and exhausted was the very definition of misery to me, so was there any hope? Could anything motivate me?

It turns out, there was.

Around the time that I went on my lifestyle change, I began to notice that everyone I knew was suddenly wearing identical black rubber wristbands. All of the women I saw at yoga, who, incidentally possessed the enviable BMIs of hairless show cats, wore Fitbits — jazzed up pedometers, synced with their smartphones that allowed them to obsessively monitor their calorie intake, heart rate, hours slept, weight lost, minutes active, and steps walked. The device set daily and weekly goals, and when met, the user could earn virtual “badges” to mark their progress. Fitbits were all the rage, and I obviously needed one.

One of the many things I hate about myself is how easily I fall prey to fads. One of the other things I hate about myself is that whenever I fall prey to a fad, I am always the last one to find about it. I’m always the person who only starts liking a band once they’ve had a big hit. I can never claim the hipster-level cred of having loved Coldplay back in the late 90s before everyone got sick of “The Scientist.” In fact, I am still not sick of “The Scientist.” So basically, I will never be a trend-setter, only a follower, and to be truly cool, you have to be the first to do something, but I’ve never been the first to do anything, because that would require too much social risk. Yet at the same time there’s another kind of social risk in taking too long to catch on. I’ll never forget the time I brought my brand new Cabbage Patch Doll to school in the fifth grade, only to find out that the popular girls had abandoned theirs the previous weekend.

Timing is key when it comes to trends, and I was already late to the Fitbit party, but this time I didn’t care because I was still determined that being thin was the ultimate solution to everything. At the very least, I believed that if I were a size two that my career would take off, my marriage would be secure, I’d have lots of glamorous friends, and I would finally HAVE IT ALL.

I got my husband to buy me a Fitbit because this would kill several birds with one stone: I didn’t have to pay for it, I could prove that I was taking concrete proactive steps to be healthier and more attractive, and I could also harbor resentment toward him for not telling me that I was flawless as-is and did not need a Fitbit in the first place. For the record, my perfect relationship would be with someone who required absolutely nothing of me except my existence. I once saw a viral Internet post that was a picture of a guy hand-feeding his girl chicken nuggets while she got her nails done, and that seemed like a couples’ goal worth striving for. I put the photo on my vision board, but as yet my man hasn’t run to Chick-fil-a while I’m at the salon.

My husband is one of those people who is excellent at putting things together, hooking up electronics, and filling out online forms. When confronted with any of those tasks, I lose the ability to function normally, decry all technological advances, and melt into a heap on the floor gnashing my teeth, wailing how I should have been born in pioneer times. Except, if we are going to be totally honest here, I am no Ma Ingalls, either. I have zero interest in making hoop cheese, and I’m consciously grateful every day that the only corset I have ever worn was an ill-advised late 90s purchase from Charlotte Russe. So needless to say, my husband was in charge of setting up my Fitbit.

The Fitbit came with parts: chargers, cords, mysterious chips that needed inserting into USB ports in my laptop. Like everything in the complex new millennium, there were logins and passwords to create and confirm, emails that must be exchanged, and endless questions that the device wanted answered. I even had to tell it my actual weight, and I was honest, because I had a sneaking suspicion that it would know if I lied. My husband helped me with all of that, but then it was my turn. I’d have to do my part by walking.

“Take a spin around the block and try it out,” he said.

I gave him the side-eye. I may have audibly growled, but I laced up my sneakers and went outside.

The bracelet syncs to a smartphone app that tracks steps and time spent consistently active, so while I walked I stared at my screen (obviously a safe thing to do) watching the numbers tick up. It was practically euphoric. My initial goal was to walk 10,000 steps per day, or just under five miles, and to log at least thirty active minutes. Although the device didn’t say this explicitly, it definitely implied that if I did this every day that all of my dreams would come true.

They say that it only takes one time smoking crack to become dangerously addicted, and the same rings true for walking with a Fitbit. I was hooked after approximately 2,000 steps. When I got home from my first jaunt around the block, it rewarded me with a push notification, further sealing the deal. I knew I was in trouble when later the same evening, when I went to Target for the 76th time that week, I parked at the far end of the lot just so I could grab a few hundred extra steps. Normally, I’ll circle the lot a minimum of twenty-minutes just to get a spot three feet closer to the door. Later that night, I took another walk, this time longer than the first, because I needed to reach that goal. I was almost scared of what might happen if I didn’t, because the Fitbit looked like it might zap me with electricity as punishment if I didn’t stay in line. But no. The bracelet sent me more texts, colorful with praise and exclamation points. The next morning, I bounded out of bed predawn to take another walk.

I barely recognized myself.

In the spring of 2000, a psychiatrist formally diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’m not one of those people you see on TV who washes the skin off their hands, or counts the ceiling tiles — my version of OCD is a lot less theatrical. Over the years, I’ve learned to manage my symptoms, to channel them into productive activities like baseboard scrubbing and closet organization. Sometimes, when my compulsions have gotten out of control, I’ve had to tone them down with medication, but this hadn’t happened in a long time, and I’d come to think of my OCD as more of a personality quirk that I could live with instead of a full blown disease. That was before I got a Fitbit.

The Fitbit had awakened a sleeping monster in my basal ganglia. It was the ultimate OCD trigger, appealing to everything that made my brain spin and whir like a windmill in a hurricane. Calculating, logging, and tracking, the Fitbit showed me that my actions produced measurable results. On top of that, the damn thing praised me incessantly, which was more than I could say for any of the human beings in my life. Whereas the people around me had often become impatient and critical of my faults, the Fitbit was an electronic source of the unconditional positive regard I’d always craved. Don’t even get me started on its connection to my iPhone addiction. It wasn’t like I needed another excuse to mess with my phone, but I certainly welcomed it with open arms, or thumbs as the case may be, checking the app a few times an hour to rate my progress. I struggled with loneliness too, and wished that my friends would text me, and where real people failed, technology succeeded. I heard from my Fitbit hourly as it cheerily encouraged me to get up and move. People weren’t that reliable.

Within a week, I had turned into Joaquin Phoenix in Her, only instead of being enamored with a computer program, I was in love with my Fitbit. It had managed the impossible by turning me, the girl who was so unathletic that she’d been suspended in high school for cutting the dreaded gym class to buy potato chips at an off-campus convenience store, into a woman who couldn’t stop exercising. On more than one occasion, I found myself pacing the floors of my darkened house close to midnight while my family slept, because I was THIS CLOSE to my 10,000 steps and could not go to bed without making my bracelet buzz.

I loved my Fitbit so much that I began to wish it tracked and rewarded other aspects of our lives like parenting, or romantic relationships. Imagine the possibilities.

I would love an app that rewarded me for all the things I did as a mom. Forget earning a badge for walking the equivalent of the length of India. I needed a parenting app that sent me motivational quotes, logged my hard-earned milestones, and awarded me with a message like: “Fantastic! Between camp, swimming, Mommy and Me, Kindermusik, the grocery store, and a last-minute playdate, you drove 250 miles in two days while listening to Kidz Bop. You are excused from cooking dinner. The calories from fast food drive-thru officially do not count tonight!” Or how about a “Zen Master” Badge for not cussing out that smug crunchy mom at the playground who told me my daughter’s picky eating could be solved with something called “Thieves?” That was a real milestone, especially when it was obvious she was just trying to sell me some overpriced MLM essential oils. Talk about thievery.

Husbands everywhere could use a romance Fitbit reminding them of their wives’ birthdays, and sending words of encouragement for finally fixing the ceiling fan, or making a simple snack without the kitchen looking like a scene from Apocalypse, Now. Think of how many marriages would be improved if our partners wore bracelets that purred with approval each time they brought home flowers, or let their other half sleep in while they took the kids to the park.

But maybe my regular Fitbit was enough for now. It had, after all, consumed me. Incidentally, I hadn’t lost any noticeable weight. My husband commented, after I’d worn the thing for about three weeks, that I appeared more toned, but I saw no difference. Instead, I felt a difference.

I am absolutely loathe to admit this, but when I walk ten thousand steps a day, I am a lot less sick and depressed. There. I said it.

One day in yoga, my teacher said something that registered with me as both obvious and simple, but totally profound all at once.

“What is the purpose of the human body?” she asked.

I immediately thought of a list of things that pissed me off about my body. A lot of the time, it seemed to me like its purpose was to be attractive to others, and that it continually failed at that one job. Thanks, stretch marks on my ass and rogue hairs. Or maybe my body’s purpose was to thwart all of my efforts to live how I liked. I mean, why else would I always get diarrhea when I was nowhere near a bathroom, or start my period the day before vacation? It tended to get sick before parties too, and it further summoned my ire by refusing to bend and twist into advanced yoga poses. It hurt, smelled, made weird noises, and remained stubbornly animal and abject no matter how much vanilla-scented, glitter mist from Bath & Body Works I tried to spray on to transform myself into a fairy princess.

“The purpose of the body is to move,” the yoga teacher said, “Think about it. Your body is the container for your soul, your consciousness. You need this body to transport your spirit around, like a vehicle, through the world. You experience life and creation here through your physical body. When you are sedentary, when you refuse to use your beautiful body for its intended purpose of movement, it stops working properly. Everything malfunctions. You get sick mentally and physically.”

It made so much sense. My body, even with its limitations, craved movement even when my mind tried to convince me that the healthiest possible activity was reading in bed. Reading in bed is still wonderful, but when I walk, everything is more balanced. My digestion improves and my stomach hurts less, and I”m able to focus my thoughts better so they don’t spin out of control quite as much or as dramatically. Since I’m essentially wearing myself out I also sleep better, and for me, walking is my favorite form of exercise because I have always enjoyed being outside.

On my daily walks, I look forward to seeing the birds, or petting my neighbor’s cats at the edges of their driveways. I liked seeing some orchids blooming in a sabal palm, and watching the progress on a home being remodeled down the street. Some days I go to the beach, kick off my shoes and walk in the wet sand looking for sea glass and shells. If it rains, I walk in the mall and entertain myself by admiring the new summer collections in the store windows. None of these things seem like a work-out. They just seem like fun ways to pass time.

Eventually walking became something I looked forward to, instead of a chore, or some weird OCD compulsion that I had to satisfy lest I feel even more anxiety. Taking walks turned into something pleasant that I did for myself to shake out my joints and clear my head, instead of a miserable obligation, because lord knows, I already have enough miserable obligations.

Exercising, and using our bodies for their intended purposes, shouldn’t feel like torture. In fact, walking became such a part of my life that eventually I forgot to obsess so much about my weight (this is a lie) or my Fitbit. I’m proud to say that my Fitbit has integrated nicely into my life as more of a pleasant reminder to get up and move throughout the day instead of a freaky obsession. It doesn’t feel like punishment, it doesn’t hurt, and although I still don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model, I’m glad I’m using my body for its intended purpose more.