GETTING BACK IN SHAPE IN LOCKDOWN (by Jason Whyte)
I ended my previous post teasing the transformation that I’ve undergone since we entered COVID-19 lockdown 14 months ago.
When the shutters came down on normality, I was in the worst shape of my life. Since my Aconcagua adventure, I’d fallen out of the exercise habit. I had a couple of excuses: my office had moved from central London to Canary Wharf, extending my cycling commute from 8 miles to 12 and the elapsed time from 35 minutes to 55 courtesy of the London Cycle Superhighway’s strategy of separating cyclists from motorists by sticking a complex light sequence at every junction. The extra time on top of a long working day became a practical and psychological barrier to cycling.
And while my office had moved, my clients hadn’t, and I’d frequently find myself ending my working day at a client site where it made no sense to go back to the office to get my bike before going home. Gradually, the cycling fell by the wayside and the pounds began to accumulate around my waistline. Even my habit of walking home when I had the time and the weather was amenable didn’t help.
The upshot was that at the start of lockdown I weighed 117 kg… 257 lbs… 18 and a half stone. Even at my height of 6’4” (193cm), it was too much excess baggage to carry, and I was paying the penalty. I was barely able to follow my kids around the rugby pitch, which given I was usually the referee wasn’t a good place to be. My suits and jeans were just barely containing my bulk.
I realised that in lockdown I had a choice: I could subside into a sedentary and increasingly stout existence, or I could use this period of enforced change to my routine as a chance to make a deliberate change in my behaviour.
I set my goal: I wanted to get back to the weight I was at university. 97kg, or just over 15 stone, was a deliberately tough target. Even after Aconcagua, the best I had managed was around 104 kg. But I felt it was a target worth going after. I even allowed myself a prize: my wife had bought me a gift card for a t-shirt tailored to my measurements, and I decided that the measurements I would submit would be taken when the scales said 97 and not before.
I started by getting back on the bike, figuring that I could use the time I would have been spending commuting to complete a circular ride. Riding during the first few weeks of lockdown was a strange experience: the roads were almost devoid of cars, and it was a glorious experience swooping along the empty streets in the spring sunshine.
The biggest danger in those weeks was from pedestrians, presumably giddy with the lack of traffic, straying into the road without looking for whispering two-wheeled missiles. On one particularly bizarre occasion I nearly ran into a man as he sprinted across the road in front of me. It was a close enough call that I could have reached out and tapped the back of his head as I passed, and it was only then that I realised he was football commentator and English national treasure Gary Lineker.
Believe me, or don’t. But it’s a true story.
As people came to terms with lockdown and those with essential jobs went back to work, the cars came back to the roads and cycling became a bit less fun. I also wanted to work on my shape as well as my weight, and cycling on its own is notoriously good for the legs but not so good for the core and upper body.
I’d also developed a bit of a Kickstarter habit in lockdown - which was where I first discovered Graphene-X - and over the summer the nice folks at https://monkii.co/ sent me my monkii 360. It’s a weighted ball with a set of bungee cords of varying resistance and an app loaded with a variety of workouts and exercise programmes. Working through them over the summer was hot, thirsty work, even at 6am in the communal underground garage at our house. But it burned a lot of calories and improved my core strength to the point where the periodic back pain I’d accepted as the price of being an incompletely evolved biped of unusual height has almost entirely ceased.
In parallel with this, two things were changing in my working life. Like everyone in a white collar job that could be done from home, video calls became a central part of the working day. In my particular role, it rapidly reached the point where I had six to eight hours of calls scheduled each day - a level that has never really subsided. And I was becoming increasingly aware that I was stuck in a chair for all of those hours.
I realised quite literally on day one that sitting on a dining room chair would wreak havoc with my then un-monkii’d back, so my wife kindly picked up a Swiss ball for me on her last food run before we closed the door.
Balancing on an unstable ball was quite good for my lower back, but to sit at the right height I had to have the ball inflated to a point where squeezing out from behind the table was a slapstick routine of trying to edge my legs out from under the table before the ball worked out what was going on and slipped out from under me.
I eventually graduated to a wobble stool with an uneven, rounded base, which was far easier to negotiate and actually quite fun to sit on. But only for short periods - a full day’s calls left me with a very numb bum and the end of the day would see me constantly fidgeting for comfort, even after I added a gel seat cushion.
By this point, my exercise routines were well grooved and I had lost 10 kilos, but my weight was stubbornly refusing to budge any further.
It was clear that I had to do something more.
One of my favourite authors is Neal Stephenson, who mostly writes breeze block sized science fiction thrillers set tantalisingly just beyond our technological reach. But he also writes non-fiction essays from time to time, and in one of those, Arsebestos (available in the collection Some Remarks), he talks about the dangers of sedentary life and of his own solution: a walking desk.
It occurred to me that if Neal Stephenson can write 300,000 word novels while ambling along at a couple of miles an hour, I could handle my mix of calls, emails and the occasional PowerPoint while doing the same.
So I bit the bullet and ordered a standing desk and a walking treadmill to fit under it. A walking treadmill is a bit different from the ones you see at the gym - no risers, a low profile, quiet motor, a top speed limited to 6 or 7 kph and no adjustable incline. It’s all geared towards allowing you to walk at a slow and steady pace for long periods at a time.
A setup like that is a serious outlay, but I justified it by offsetting the cost of the commute I would still be doing if it weren’t for the coronavirus. Nevertheless, I approached my first day with trepidation: would I be able to make it a habit?
I knew I could handle several long days walking in short bursts. My son and I had done a couple of long distance walks in the summer holidays - we completed the West Highland Way and got some way into the Coast to Coast before a combination of the hottest weather on record and a debilitating and unpredictable cramp in my son’s knee made us decide to cut it short. But each of those lasted about a week. Could I keep it up indefinitely?
The first few days went OK. I picked up a few blisters - but I am used to blisters and know that if you leave them alone and just keep walking then in a day or two they stop hurting and just cushion your feet while your toes toughen up. I was exhausted and ravenously hungry at the end of the day, and my middle-aged joints were a little creaky in the mornings, but I’d proved to myself that I could do it - I just needed the motivation to stick to it and not backslide.
That motivation arrived a few days later.
By pure serendipity, my employer’s in-house charity decided on the spur of the moment to run a fundraising contest where the idea was to cover the equivalent of the distance between all our UK offices by the end of 2020. The target of 1,772 miles or three and a half million steps was clearly intended as a team task, or at least one for keen cyclists, but how could I refuse? The combination of doing something I was already planning to do with a public commitment to a charitable target was an irresistible siren song. I signed up, and started logging my daily totals.
Along the way, I had to solve a few more problems. You can’t keep your hands completely still while walking, so I had to relearn how to type when walking (hint: a gel wrist rest helps a lot). I also had to explain to colleagues and clients what I was doing and why. One person thought I wasn’t taking our meeting seriously, but most of them were fine with it. A few even asked for the details of my setup - and one brave soul not only bought one but also started using it on camera. I’ve also been told by colleagues that some clients have taken to asking if “the walking man” will be joining them.
Slightly more problematic was the question of attire. I bought the treadmill at the end of July, so I was marching through the heat of summer. A pair of Merrill Telluride sandals proved ideal for the first few months, giving way to a pair of Inov8 F-Lites as the leaves began to turn.
Finding the right legwear proved trickier. Jeans or even walking trousers had three major problems: at the end of a day’s walking, they were soaked with sweat, and the friction between the inseams was not only wearing through my trousers at an alarming rate, but causing some unpleasant chafing. I could solve the second problem with Paramo’s Montero jeans, which are made from recycled plastic and have an unusually smooth finish and impressively flat seams, but they helped less with the other two.
I found my answer in going back to the traditions of my forefathers. Although I am technically qualified to play sport for Scotland through my paternal grandfather, I always felt slightly fraudulent (if also very dashing) wearing a kilt. But the ancestral wisdom called to me like a lone piper summoning me to battle from a distant glen. A canvas “utility kilt” from the Scotland Kilt Company was duly ordered and proved to be an excellent and practical answer to all three problems, with the added benefit that it mortifies my elder daughter should I venture out in public wearing it.
Through it all, I was tracking my weight and my mileage which had a gratifyingly negative correlation. As one rose, the other fell, and since I’m not co-ordinated enough to walk backwards, you can guess which was doing which.
Those last, stubborn kilograms fell off a few tenths at a time and I ordered my t-shirt in early December. The 1,772 mile target was a bit more of a scramble; the UK’s second lockdown saw a temporary end to my children’s weekend drama classes and their rugby, both of which had been contributing significant mileage. I realised a little late that I needed to up my working day mileage to compensate, and spent most of December pelting along at 5kph instead of my normal 3. Even then, it needed a couple of short family walks over the Christmas break to hit the target - but I got there on Boxing Day, one of only four individuals to achieve it and the only one to do it primarily by walking.
Four months later, I continue to walk. In fact, it feels weird not to. I don’t push it quite so hard, and I allow myself breaks when I don’t have calls and need to think. I haven’t kept my weight at 97 kg, but as long as it stays around 100 I am pretty happy and I know that some of the additional weight is now muscle rather than fat. I’ve been able to dig out trousers I haven’t worn in decades, and I’ve gone down at least one t-shirt size and more if I want something close fitting.
Most importantly, I feel much healthier, and while I haven’t been able to fully reverse the decline in my sprint speed, I can now keep up with the action when reffing a full hour of touch rugby.
Before lockdown, I thought I had lost the battle with middle age spread. But now I know that it’s possible to fight back at any age: you just have to find a way to fit exercise into your day. It doesn’t matter how; just do what works for you, however idiosyncratic or unusual it is. I’ve had colleagues join me on meetings on their exercise bikes, or taking a walk in the park. Some of them get up first thing to cycle or work out, or take a break in the middle of the day. Whatever works for you - as long as it’s active.
Jason has been a keen user of outdoor kit for over three decades. Mostly he wears it for coaching rugby, cycling between his children’s weekend activities or taking family walks. But he’s also done longer expeditions, including walking the Scottish West Highland Way with his son, visiting Everest Base Camp and climbing Aconcagua.