To be honest, until two years ago, the idea of wellness was a foreign concept to me. Paradoxically, I was surrounded by some of the fittest people on earth, at least on paper. But as a sports journalist and an amateur-elite cyclist and triathlete, I was anything but "well"—and neither were most of the elite racers around me. We were all focused on two things: getting faster and stronger. And while that's an admirable (...sort of) trait, it can very quickly tip into overtraining, burnout, and a decidedly unwell state of living.
There were months during my worst years where I would use a cane because my DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) was so bad that I couldn't really bend my legs, and I would walk with that cane to the deck of the pool so I could still get my 3,000-yard swim for the day in. I was getting slower, gaining weight, and feeling like garbage—admittedly, I was perplexed by this.
Thankfully, a stressful job that took up 80 hours of my week "saved me," in that it forced me to pick journalism or serious competition, and I opted for journalism. Slowly, my body returned to homeostasis as my training dropped to reasonable human levels. But I could tell my hormones were out of whack after three years in this high-stress job, trading one type of burnout for another.
I shifted jobs and—despite working the same number of hours, but now on my own terms—I started to find a balance. But working from home provides little by way of routine and stability, and when I wanted to start getting fitter (dare I say, race-ready) again, it was an uphill battle of the cycle of over- and undertraining, rarely listening to my body. I'd never really learned how.
I heard about an app that would measure my heart rate variability (HRV) from the pulse in my finger, on my phone. The data the readout provided upon waking would let me know where I was in terms of recovery, not caring what I did for a workout the day before or how easy I thought I went. It would tell me objectively if I should be resting or going for it on any given day. I figured it was a training tool that might come in handy, signed up, and started taking my measurement every morning, dutifully sitting for five minutes, one finger covering the camera flash and lens on my phone.
A year and a half later, I can honestly look back and say that the five minutes changed my life, shifting me from a fitness junkie to someone who's still on the elite side of athletics but prioritizes well-being above all else. For a type-A ball of stress, those morning minutes changed my days entirely. Here are the small building blocks I put in place:
1. Build your routine.
Working from home is a struggle when it comes to setting a routine, and it's made even worse by the fact that we live semi-nomadically, traveling from place to place for work and play. Having any kind of regular routine is all but impossible, with shifts in bed, kitchen, and office setups on a daily or weekly basis. But consistently, I have a place to sleep, which means I have the ability to wake up, grab my phone, and take my HRV measurement every day.
2. Ease into meditation.
I admit, I'm a "wellness lover" who won't carve out time, space, or energy for meditation. Anyone else with me? I've tried every trick in the book, but the only one that has stuck has been the five minutes that I get when I take the HRV test. Because the app vibrates at the start and end, and the only thing you're supposed to do during is breathe smoothly and deeply, you're set up for a perfect mini-meditation session. I found that for me, repeating a mantra (in English, not Sanskrit) was the best way to clear and focus my mind (ahem, "I am focused").
Repeating that for five minutes every morning made hopping online and starting the workday of emails, blogging, and podcasting a whole lot smoother. (This, by the way, makes perfect sense: One study done in 2012 showed that it's easier to meditate if you can find the type that works for you. It's not a one-size-fits-all practice.)
3. Increase body awareness.
As someone who has been in states of exercise addiction and overtraining, it's really easy for me to fall into old bad habits, thinking more is better. Now that I'm back to racing (a little), it's even harder to tame my brain into keeping my volume at the right spot, not overdoing it. Because the app provides you with a clear opinion—proceed with your training, take it easy, or take the freaking day off and recover—it's helped me focus my training. It's also improved the quality of my workouts because I know when I'm primed to go hard, and it's made me really think about how I feel. If you jump between workouts like HIIT and yoga, this can give you a better idea of which makes more sense any given day. Now, I can almost always predict what it's going to measure any given morning, whereas when I started using it, I was consistently overestimating how good I felt, only to end up cramped and miserable later.
4. Make your wake-up slow, but practical.
I am a total snooze-button lover, but my poor husband is a jump-out-of-bed guy. I love the idea of being a morning person, but I was finding it hard to quit hitting snooze for just a few more minutes. The extra five minutes I can spend sitting comfortably in bed with my eyes closed let me swap the snooze button for HRV testing. If you're trying to beat the snooze habit but don't want to wake up feeling frazzled, this is a more gentle approach than something like the Clocky, the alarm clock that rolls around your room until you catch it.
5. Stack your habits.
In her book on habits, author Gretchen Rubin writes about the idea of "habit stacking."
Essentially, it means starting with one habit and adding other small ones on top. Since starting to test my HRV and meditate in the morning, I've stacked a few more habits that make my morning work sessions and workouts significantly happier and more productive. Adding another app—DuoLingo, a language-learning app—means I get my few minutes of French lessons every day. It's something for me, not for clients, and that's a lot better for my mind than immediately indulging in the email spiral.
From there, I get up and run through a quick set of sun salutations and whatever other yoga stretches I'm feeling at the moment… And I can safely say that I was never a yoga-in-the-morning person, no matter how much I wanted to be one. There are plenty of other habits that come once I'm in the kitchen or getting on my computer that I won't dive into here, but suffice to say, once you start your day with something so good for you, it's easy to want to add more!
6. Feel victorious first thing in the morning.
I am a major fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done method, which relies heavily on lists-on-lists-on-lists. I use an app that lets me log daily tasks, including ones that recur every day. When I wake up, most days I usually have 20-plus tasks waiting to be ticked off. The fact that I can check one off before lifting my head off the pillow makes my day start with a productive win, and it makes checking through the rest of the tasks feel a lot less difficult. Five minutes is less than half a percentage of the time we have in a day, but it can completely change how the other 99.7 percent goes—for anyone looking to get a better snapshot of their fitness while adding a meditative moment to the start of their day, you really can't beat HRV monitoring coupled with a few mindful breaths.