Learning From Excuses
sports & fitness
Over years of tracking exercise, Valerie Lanard inadvertently compiled an incredible data set by documenting her excuses for not exercising. From this unexpected trove she learned why she tended to get sick, how she's prone to injury, and also the importance of logging a little extra context.
Learning from ExcusesHello everyone. I want to tell you what I’ve learned from tracking my excuses. Okay, that’s not what I set out to do. In 2004, I wasn’t feeling active enough, so I decided to set myself a goal of 120 days. I wanted to exercise 120 days in the coming year, and this is a view of the goal as it progressed through the years. So I set about tracking.
I am a huge Excel nerd. I love Excel. It’s so futureproof. It’s so easy. It’s so accessible. Everything’s about Excel. And I’ve had a file open on my computer for fourteen and a half years now. I keep it open. I created the habit. It feeds the habit.
So I created a very simple spreadsheet, a date, a text column about what I was doing to exercise. A notes column. This is the important column for this, where I would put a little bit of extra context if I wanted to and a progress column. The only important thing about that is that if it’s negative it means that I’m falling behind my goal for the year.
So, just a quick sneak peek of this is what it looks like today. There’s a lot of automatic stuff happening. Most of this is automatic. I still only do a couple of columns that are manual, and the rest is calculating things kind of on a yearly basis etc. and my sheets have evolved from then to now. I’ve extracted a lot of interesting things. I’ve correlated a lot of interesting data, and there were so many talks I could have given. But I chose one. I chose what I learned from excuses in my note’s column.
Here’s a time when I hurt my left ankle. I didn’t take it seriously when it happened. I went on a trip the next day. I was super active. It flared up. And then you can see a gap where I’m not exercising, and my progress is going super negative because I was injured.
Here’s a time when I had a cold. Over the years somehow, I started tracking colds and illnesses in this particular way. So pre-sick is usually where I have a scratchy throat, and I feel a little off and I know there’s something coming.
I’m so happy to say with 14 years of data that it doesn’t always come. Sometimes I dodge it but usually it manifests, so then I just track high-level symptoms. And the remnant stage is where I feel like myself again but maybe I have some residual symptoms.
So, by tracking in this way I’ve actually learned that I’m super predictable in the way that I get colds is like almost the same to the hour and I know what to expect when I get that feeling.
So, I was tracking things like this and then I realized, wow I bet I have some really cool stuff in that note’s column and not just my workouts, I should pull it into its own tab. So, I created this tab and I started digging in for patterns, started creating some automatic calculations. I wanted to see why I was getting sick, how often, what could I learn.
So, these are basic Excel pivot tables. What I found is that I usually get sick in early winter most often. I get sick any day of the week. There’s really nothing interesting there. I’m super happy to say that I get sick less often now than I used to. I would like to think that all of my exercise has paid off and given me a magical immunity. But probably it’s some combination of that and paying really close attention to getting sick and trying not to get sick, and maybe just aging.
That dip where it goes to zero is where I worked from home for a few years and I wasn’t exposed to random people’s microbes, and I didn’t get sick for almost two years. But why do I get sick?
Okay, so about a little over half the time I feel really confident that I know why I got sick, and then I write it down if I know. So these are the two big culprits, my family and planes.
So this is a timeline from the times I’ve gotten sick from my family. There’s one particular family member, who I really love but he gives me his germs. And he also has a family and they pass things around. So I’ve learned to ask in advance now is anyone sick. If you are I’m going to postpone on seeing you until everyone’s better.
But I make exception on major holidays. I like to be with family you know, on the big holidays, which is why the last three times I’ve gotten sick from family have been within a couple of days of seeing them on the holiday, when I should be on vacation, kind of a bummer.
So, I’ve also taken 36 trips in these years. Each trip is one to 10 flights. I go to somewhere. I travel. I come back.
I divided them for this conference into a new slice, International versus domestic trip, and it turns out I did figure out early on that I was getting sick from planes when I pulled the data into the sick tab. But I didn’t know until I sliced the data this way that I’ve only ever gotten sick from my International flights.
So within four days of being on a plane, five of the 10 times I’ve been traveling Internationally, five of the 10 times I’ve gotten sick, and I’ve never gotten sick from all of the traveling I’ve done domestically.
I do have this whole protocol I’ve developed to try to avoid getting sick. I sanitize. I hydrate and moisturize. I have this whole thing I do on planes and maybe I don’t need to be doing it on domestic flights at all. But maybe it’s helping, because it does look like it’s happening less often on the International flights. And if I break down the number of planes that I’ve actually been on crossed referenced with my email records, look at how many times I haven’t gotten sick that I’ve flown. I looked for any incidents of being sick within seven days of flying.
So back to that early slide, my goal was tracking exercise. It took about three years when I finally hit my goal and I raised it, so every year I started raising it a little more until what I really wanted to happen happened and exercise became a real habit and I love it. Now I depend on it every day, and that’s what I want to do and that is awesome.
Unfortunately, my injury rate has gone way up with my exercise. So for that reason I instituted a new rule in 2018 that I must try to take a rest day every week. So I have one day where I force myself to recover.
So this is a real-time visualization of what hurts that impacted my exercise, and if I ran the numbers, 94% of the time it’s actually something on my lower left limb. I could have told you it’s usually my left side, but I did not know that it was 64% of the time.
Also, I’m sad to say that 31% of these years I’ve been tracking I’ve been in some state of injury. That’s a lot. That’s not something I expected when I set out to exercise more. It’s something that I’ve learned that when you move more, you have to learn to contend with new kinds of injury. And there’s a couple of cases where it’s like overuse wear and tear, and there’s also just like, ‘oh I hurt myself a little bit and I’m not going to stay off it, so it’s going to take a really long time to heal kind of injury.
So, I’m going to continue to do the things I love and bring me meaning, and joy, and travel and see my family. Do all these things, exercise. But look at how much l learned, just from that incidental data that wasn’t even about exercise. There’s so much more in there. There’s so much data I just can’t wait to see what else I learned.
I’m going to keep tracking to see where this takes me, and I hope that injury and illness go to zero. I want to leave you with one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my years of tracking and that is that rest is not an excuse.
So thanks, and come and say hi.