My Life on the Road: Metrics and Mindfulness

The campground we wintered at here on Vancouver Island was flat. You want that, when you're dealing with larger RVs and fifth wheel trailers. What might seem a gentle grade to someone in a car or a 20-foot long motor home can tear the front or ass end right out of a larger rig, like ours. It's very easy to bottom out. We've lost a tailpipe to it, once already. I'm not keen on losing another, anytime soon.

However, flat sucks, at least for me, for exercising.

In my misspent youth, I was dragged, by my ankle, for close to a city block. No, I am not going to tell you why—honestly, it's not a great story. What you need to know here is that the ligaments in my right foot are now largely composed of scar tissue. Running and jogging, are not in the cards. I can't wear shoes anymore. Meandering, for me, has been a boot-only affair, for years. It's not so bad. It gives me an excuse to invest in a sturdy pair of kicks like the Red Wing Iron Rangers I wear as my daily drivers.

Anyway, flat is bad. One of the first things I was told after having a stent jammed into my heart in 2019 was that I need to exercise, daily. At the time, flat was fine. For the first few months that I was out of the hospital, it was all I could do to shuffle a few blocks before feeling the need to turn around. Much of this had to do with the fact that my brain is something of an asshole. Despite the fact that having an 80% blockage removed from my ticker had left me in better shape than I had been during my previous decade of self-destructive behavior, any exertion that left me winded or sweating and I'd spiral into a panic attack. My brain was insistent that I was dying; that my heart was giving out. I learned to live with this problem, in a couple of ways. With the help of my therapist, I trained myself to become more mindful of my body.

"Jesus fuck, am I having a heart attack? No. Feel your body. You're safe. That pain is coming from a pinched nerve in your shoulder. It's radiating to your chest. Your body is safe. You are fine."

On with the walk.

The other part of how I talk myself down, is by paying attention to the heart rate tracking on my smart watch. As my body goes through imaginary death throes, I get all up in my mindfulness and, to reinforce what I'm explaining to myself, I check on the metrics the wee computer on my wrist spits out. If my heart rate gets too high, according to my watch. I stop and allow my ticker to slow before pushing my chubby ass forward again.

Over time, I built up the mental and physical resilience to be able to walk for hours.

On the flats of the RV park we stayed at this past winter and, while tromping through the wooded paths that surround it, I would walk for around two hours a day, as fast as I could, in an effort to increase my cardiovascular health. Some days I came home sweating with kilometers under my belt. On others my brain would throw frequent fits, insisting that the end was near. In such instances, I'd return home, pop a Lorazepam to get my body back in line and promise myself that I'd try again tomorrow.

For two years, this pattern and these tools have shaped my physical well-being. Last week, I realized that the technology that has insinuated itself into every moment of my waking life was driving me insane. So, today, I thought I'd try a little experiment.

The location where we're currently parked is half way up a cliff, overlooking the water on Vancouver Island. The road to get to our site? Not flat. Since we moved here at the start of April, I've walked the equivalent of 24 floors up and 24 floors down to the country lane at the bottom of the hill. After a winter of flat, it's been kicking the shit out of me. I love it. I do not, however, love how often walking the hill has my brain telling me that there's a grave for me and its time to fill it. At least once each ascent, I do the work to calm myself out of a potential panic attack. I talk myself down and reinforce it with metrics from my watch.

On my first trip hoofing it up the hill, I used my tools and took the time to ensure that I was all right. I had to stop, twice. Each time, I gasped for air. on my second run up the hill, I turned my watch off. Instead of looking to it for reassurance, I gave all of my attention to my body, mindful of my physical pain and my breathing. I found that I could feel more and, more importantly, was better able to regulate myself in my uninterrupted mindfulness. Getting to the top of the hill, on my second go-around, I was less exhausted than I had been on my first ascent.

While I'm wary of confirmation bias, I think I may be on to something. For close to two years, I've relied on my smart watch as a crutch, to such an extent that it has kept me hobbled. In turning it off, I was able to pay more heed to what my body had going on.

Meeting a step count feels great. Being awarded a new badge for your fitness accomplishments? Great bit of dopamine, that. But neither match the wonder and frustration I felt today when I discovered that switching a supposedly helpful device off may well be healthier than leaving it on.