This year (2020) has been a duzi, and we all have our own personal challenges and struggles that came a long with it. Mine has been no different, and while I wouldn’t want to try and suggest how you should deal with yours, I do want to share my story with the hope that it would resonate with someone.

I know it is a gross generalization, but according to my South African heritage and upbringing a typical response to adversity would be to buckle up, put your head down and work harder. And that’s pretty much what I did this year, until I realized some months later that things were no longer working towards my own general wellbeing…

The back-story

Physical activity, and sport in particular, has always been a part of my life. In school I participated in every sport imaginable, and up to March this year not a single week would go by without me playing touch rugby (the equivalent of tag football for my American friends), refereeing a rugby game here in Arizona or doing some form of physical activity (gym, golf, etc.). Sometimes I underestimate the amount of physical activity I actually do because it has become so ingrained in my daily life, but to give you an idea of how much physical effort goes into refereeing a rugby game for instance, look at the stats below:

My typical run pattern during a rugby game
This is the last game I refereed at NAU, at an altitude of 7,000 ft.

The GPS tracking is just for fun, but the distance is misleading here because the GPS in my Garmin watch cannot keep up with the constant change in direction. If I look at my step count, the average distance I do during an 80-minute game is about 4.5 miles. I refereed two back-to-back games on that day and burned about 2,000 calories!

All of that stopped abruptly in March, along with the other balance-inducing activities (travel, restaurants, etc.) that someone who has been working from home for a long time needs and has gotten used to in order to break away from the stress of everyday life. I instinctively put my head down and focused on the one thing that was at least going and constant…work. And before I knew it I was working 12-hour days, wasn’t sleeping well, had zero good habits and heading towards a glorious burnout.

The turnaround

Towards the end of May I realized that things needed to change and that I had to find some kind of normality. With fitness centers closed and all sports activities stopped, the only thing I could really do was to go for a walk as a means to clear my head and get some much needed exercise. We have a road in our neighborhood that is fairly quiet and which loops around, making it an ideal route for walking, biking or running and I decided to try and walk the 4.5 miles a few times a week.

The distance was ideal because I could finish it in 75 minutes (at a brisk walking pace) which seemed manageable, and with my newfound sleeping habits I could start at dawn to beat the deathly heat of the Arizona summer, force myself to take a break from work and not take too much time out of the day to do it. I figured that taking just one hour out of my day a few times a week, it would be manageable and better than nothing.

Without being too hard on myself and prioritizing sleep over exercise (which I needed to do at that point), I managed to walk twice a week in June and covered a total distance of 33 miles. July was pretty much the same, but I decided in an effort to decrease my time as I wasn’t going to walk any faster or further, to (attempt to) run a portion of the route. I’m not a runner, so the running part was super hard and I only managed to run for about a mile out of the 4.5 miles.

What was interesting is that I could cut my time by 10 minutes if I ran for a mile or so, and before long it turned into a challenge to run a little further once I got used to the running distance. Fast forward a few months and I am now completing the 4.5 miles in about 46 minutes, running for 4 miles at a time and more than 60 miles a month. I am not there yet but I can definitely feel that my fitness is getting back to where I want it to be, my eating habits have improved and my general mood is a lot better. I am still not putting too much pressure on myself to do x amount of exercise a week, but I now look forward to my walk/run.

My takeaways

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when your world is turned upside down, which is exactly what happened this year. And while we do well in our professional lives when dealing with complex problems by breaking them down into smaller manageable chunks, I at least found myself wondering how I am going to get everything in my life back to a normal state instead of just focusing on one small piece at a time.

The message for me is this: Don’t try to change everything at the same time. Take one thing and one hour, and see how you can make that one hour what you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be exercise…do whatever will bring you back to some kind of normality or where you’d like it to be. The world is going to be different for a while, but you can take your life back…one hour at a time.

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