Experiment: 21 Days of Cardio

Each year I give myself a birthday present. In previous years, my self-gifts have included a bass guitar and amp, an adjustable set of dumbbells, and high quality bed and bathroom linens.

This year, after 8 years of grad school, 4+ years of major life changes, and nearly a year of preparation to move across country, I looked in the mirror and asked myself “What does this body most want?”

This Year’s Present: Physical Conditioning

Over the last two months, my local church has been hosting health screenings and info sessions: blood donations for the Red Cross, heart fitness, and blood pressure tests in the lobby. But it was a BP screening that got my attention with the highest diastolic reading I’ve ever had in my life. I was so shocked that we came home and I retested it. Our home reading was lower than the reading in the church lobby—but still, it was far too high for my comfort. I was unnerved.

Throughout my life, my BP has been obnoxiously low: my British doctor once took a reading and asked me if I were dead. I have always been active in some way, whether as intensely as sport 4-5 days a week (a decade ago) or as moderately as walking most days to and from campus with some light weights at home (last year).

As we age, however, our bodies change and so do our routines. I carry around about 25 more pounds than I did when I first moved to the United States. I no longer play team sports, but I’ve done light resistance training on and off over the last few years, with great results each time. But the bottom line this time: my BP was ridiculous (for me), I hadn’t trained consistently since moving, and what my body most wanted for its birthday was more muscle tone!

21 Days of Cardio

So I made a commitment to myself to do some cardio/aerobic exercise every single day for the following 21 days. I’d planned to increase my activity level this year and love exercise when I’m in the middle of it, but I’d struggled most with getting into it and staying consistent. The recommended standard of 3-4 days per week hadn’t worked for me: I spent too much energy trying to adapt to a shifting daily schedule.  So rather than try to remember whether “today is cardio day,” I decided to make every day cardio day.

I kept the entry barriers low: no new clothes, no gym subscription, and only 20 minutes per session. My favorite person has a recumbent bike; I decided to use that. And there were no other rules, though informally I decided that once I started pedaling, I would not stop until my daily time was up. That was doable. So 20 minutes on the bike non-stop every day.

How did I do? See for yourself.


21 Days of Cardio: Feb 26-Mar18
Day Miles Calories Routine Style
Day 1 4.51 156 Rolling, Level 6
Day 2 5.03 143 Rolling, Level 4
Day 3 5.00 122 Interval, Level 4
Day 4 5.18 130 Rolling, Level 4
Day 5 5.23 132 Rolling, Level 4
Day 6 5.02 122 Rolling, Level 4
Day 7 4.85 115 Interval, Level 4
Day 8 5.08 125 Rolling, Level 4
Day 9 5.20 131 Rolling, Level 4
Day 10 5.20 131 Rolling, Level 4
Day 11 5.08 126 Interval, Level 4
Day 12 5.32 137 Rolling, Level 4
Day 13 5.23 132 Rolling, Level 4
Day 14 5.20 131 Rolling, Level 4
Day 15 5.10 127 Interval, Level 4
Day 16 5.19 130 Rolling, Level 4
Day 17 5.28 135 Rolling, Level 4
Day 18 5.22 132 Rolling, Level 4
Day 19 5.09 126 Interval, Level 4
Day 20 5.28 135 Rolling, Level 4
Day 21 5.13 128 Rolling, Level 4
TOTAL 107.42 2,746

You’ll notice I rode a rolling circuit at Level 6 on my first day (the bike apparently goes up to Level 16, which is insane). I finished my 20 minutes that day, but it was hell! For the rest of the experiment, I stayed at Level 4, and switched from rolling circuits to intervals every fourth day so I didn’t get too comfortable.

And my blood pressure? It dropped 20 points in the first 4 days and was at 113/63 by Day 18. I have more energy through the day, feel more toned, and my thighs are lovely… I’m cool with that. It was my last session today, but I think I’ll be seeing the bike again tomorrow morning for a new round of 21. Happy birthday to me!

How about you? Have you run any short-term experiments with your own lifestyle? Did you finish the testing period? And did you keep the change afterwards?

Edit: The original post’s total miles and calories calculation did not include Day 11. This post has been updated to reflect the correct totals.


2 thoughts on “Experiment: 21 Days of Cardio

  1. carobcarrotcake

    Wow, I did this in January, with much success since I was in a Facebook group with lots of other enthusiastic peeps. 😀 Well I did loose 8 pounds and felt much more energy than before, I also lost about 1 inch off the waist line. I stopped the group which required that we have some daily proof of the workouts. I wish I stayed in the group though because I am again inconsistent. I think exercise works better when you do it 7 days a week instead of 3 and for my body to experience success, I need to mix up my exercise routine with toning, stretching, and cardio. What do you think is the best way to keep yourself motivated to keep working out all through the year, some can go it solo, but I think group support helps?

    1. mackenzian Post author

      Great outcomes, Luanna! I also agree with the daily approach now; this was one of the things that surprised me the most. But also this is why I have maxed out my sessions at 20 minutes. It’s long enough to stretch me but not long enough to make me feel like it’s become my new master.

      As far as support: you have to know which of those two basic people you are: the person who’s most comfortable with group support or the person who runs easily with more internal motivation. But even as you figure that out, you can still “hack” your customs and adjust as your needs shift.

      I love Walt Whitman’s line from “Song of Myself”: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Even when you are by yourself, you can call on various aspects of yourself to witness what you’re doing. You do your stretches, observe your form as you do them, and adjust to keep your form on point; if you count as you go, you are already coaching yourself. You can expand on that. Have you explored why you want to maintain your program? Make that explicit to yourself, perhaps in a journal or blog entry and return to it to remind yourself it’s not just a routine but it’s a grounded goal, is meaningful to you, and helps you produce an outcome you really want. If you want to, you can share some of those insights with others so that they also understand why the program is important to you and why you’re setting these expectations of yourself.

      If you don’t have access to that Facebook group and don’t want to rejoin because of the reporting requirements, what would stop you from creating a smaller group of cheerleaders/sponsors? An option is to draft a circle of friends who won’t mind your updates (perhaps you’ll send them a short email every fortnight or let them know how things are going in a call). Another option, but not my preference: use your existing social media network as your circle. Many of us already report personal changes through social media; the challenge with this is that our connections haven’t explicitly opted into a witnessing relationship. And I’m a big believer in not having passive witnesses.

      What support do you have in the home for your routine? I don’t believe one necessarily needs to pull in one’s partner, but it’s important to have them 100% on board and not subconsciously nervous about what your changes might mean for them. For instance, will they not be as free to eat what they want when they want because you’re more conscious? As your body changes will you be looking at theirs sideways? If your routine eats into your sacred time together have you made schedule adjustments? How might your change change your relationship; how will you both adjust to changes you notice? (And any change always changes things!)

      So these are the three big areas that I’d look at: self, circle, home.
      Does this help?


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