Figuring out how to get better sleep and more excise and is hard—which is why we tried out some new programs for you. Every year, Outside reporters put their bodies and minds on the line to test new routines designed to help us become healthier, happier, more productive human beings. Hear from three of this year’s subjects about what stuck, what didn’t, and how you can benefit from our mistakes.
The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.
Maren Larsen: From Outside magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
I’m Maren Larsen and I’ve been working at Outside for over three and a half years. Over that time, I’ve gotten used to an annual pattern: Every January, our print issue features a group of stories centered around building better habits. True to Outside’s adventurous spirit, staffers and contributors report these pieces by subjecting themselves to a series of immersive investigations: we try out the latest exercise routines and athletic diets; we test new methods for better sleep and see what innovative work schedules do for our creativity and mood; and sometimes, we even engage in radical social experiments. All this in an effort to learn what it really takes to be a healthier and happier human.
For today’s episode, we bring you the latest findings from some of our intrepid writers.
Maren: So, let's start off with if you could introduce yourself.
Abigail Wise: Okay. My name, wait, Maren, I'm sorry. Shit. Now my computer's dying, but, but I have a charger.
Maren: This is my coworker, Abigail Wise. She's one of those people who always seems to be doing everything at once.
Maren: If you asked any one of her coworkers what she does exactly, we'd likely all have a different answer. Because it seems like there's nothing she doesn't do.
Abigail: I am the digital managing director of outside magazine Ski Backpacker and Climbing.
Maren: In order to help run four titles, Abigail is always going a million miles an hour. And on top of her demanding day job, earlier last year Abigail had a baby. I genuinely don't know how she has enough hours in the day. Which is what brings us to her story for the better habits package in our January-February issue.
Maren: Awesome. Um, and then let's just start off with why you need naps.
Abigail: Well, I'm a very tired person. I am the mother of a nine month old, who's generally a pretty good sleeper, but then they go through phases where they're waking up multiple times a night. And, I was going through a really rough patch, when this experiment came about. And I was just very, very tired all the time.
So my experiment was to take naps. And so every day during the workday, I was supposed to take about a 30 minute nap. But it turns out that napping is very, very hard.
Maren: I had a roommate in college who, no joke, could take a five minute snooze. Just set her alarm for five minutes, put her head down, close her eyes, and be out like a light. But not everyone is so blessed.
Abigail: I am the world's worst napper, like I am the person who, even if I only slept two hours last night, I know that I am better off without a nap because it takes me so long to fall asleep that usually I will have like just fallen asleep and then my alarm goes off and I wake up super grouchy and like sluggish and foggy and just not, it's just not good.
Maren: Did you go into this with a plan other than just like force yourself to take one nap a day?
Abigail: I did not, and I maybe should have. Hindsight's 2020. But even though historically I haven't been a good napper, I also historically have not been the mother of a new baby. And so I have never been this tired in my life. And I figured I am so tired right now that certainly I'll be able to just lie down, close my eyes and take a quick snooze for 30 minutes. But that's not how it went.
Maren: The experiment was slated to last a month. And Abigail's first week of napping was, in her words, a complete failure.
Abigail I'm constantly thinking about all the things I have to do and jotting them down. And so I would find that I would get all ready and I'd close my eyes and I'd remember like, ‘oh shoot, I forgot to respond to that email.’ Or, ‘oh man, like I still have to edit that story.’
And so I'd quickly wake up and like jot it down again. and then I'd be like, okay, now I'm ready. I can sleep. But I just felt like almost guilty. Like, I was like, why am I sitting here just wasting a half hour? I need to be doing all of this work that I have left to do. and I just found it really hard to calm my mind. And I actually, I don't know if I ever fell asleep for that first week for even like a minute.
Maren: The second week wasn't much better, as you can hear in one of her audio diaries.
Abigail: I am in my second week of my nap experiment where I'm supposed to be sleeping for 30 minutes every work day. I have yet to sleep for more than like 10 minutes. And, I do not have a lot of faith in today's nap either.
Maren: At this point, Abigail was ready to throw in the towel.
Abigail: I was slacking Molly, my editor, who asked me to do this, and I was like, ‘Molly, I'm really sorry this isn't going well. I, I just, I think this is gonna be a fail for your package.’
And she said, ‘hey, it's okay if you fail. Thanks for trying. Please keep trying. And also maybe you should talk to an expert and try and get some tips.’
And so I did.
One of the first, or I guess the first person I called, was Kelly Murray, who is a sleep coach, and she had a lot of really good tips.
In talking to her, we identified that my number one problem was that I was drinking way too much coffee, which I probably should have realized.
Maren: Because of her restless infant, she was starting her days off so tired that she chugged coffee.
Abigail: I was probably drinking three to four cups of coffee a day And so by the time I got ready to nap, it was actually like very much still in my bloodstream and like pumping through my body. So that made it really, really hard for me to sleep.
Maren: Kelly Murray told her that, even though more caffeine felt like the answer, really it was working against her.
Abigail: She did suggest cutting all coffee, which I must admit I did not do, but I'd have one cup of coffee in the day and then I actually switched to decaf tea and like herbal teas.
Maren: Step one to better napping: cut down on caffeine. Check.
Abigail: She also told me that environment is a very key part of our sleep. So things like, sleeping in cooler temperatures. Any kind of lavender scent can be very calming and have that sort of soothing effect. Making sure it's dark. She suggested an eye mask, which I didn't do, but I did install some better blinds. And also, oh, changing up your environment.
So it's really hard for your brain to turn off if you're like trying to nap in the exact same environment as you're working in or really doing any other activity in, because your brain is just still sort of stuck in that work mode.
Maren: Step two: don't nap in your stress space. When Abigail was working at home, she would leave her office area and nap in her bedroom.
Abigail: I also called Valerie Cacho, who is a behavioral sleep physician, I believe is her title. And she actually had a really interesting take on everything she said that I really needed to focus on warming up to fall asleep. She said you would never go to the gym and start doing the hardest part of your workout. You would warm up. You'd go for a jog or something like that to sort of get your blood flowing. And she said that sleep is the same thing.
You need to warm your brain up and get it ready to sleep. And, she suggested doing a nap journal or pre-nap journal as a way to sort of quiet those busy thoughts that were whirling around in my head.
Maren: Abigail's thoughts played a starring role in her audio diaries of the experiment.
Abigail: Right now I'm lying in my bed. I'm working from home, so I'm able to try a nap in my bed. But instead of sleeping, I'm thinking about all the things that I need to get done today. And then I remembered that Maren asked us to record notes from some of our habits testing. And so I thought, ‘Oh, that's something I could do now.’ Anyways, I should turn this off and try to sleep now.
Maren: Sorry for adding to your to do list, Abigail! To quiet those endless thoughts and make room for sleep, she took Valerie's advice and started a journal.
Abigail: I would use it to sort of like jot down my to-do list. And I think the difference of doing that on pen and paper instead of on my digital to-do list on my phone is that I wasn't staring at my phone screen and like maybe seeing a quick slack notification or a text or something pop up.
I implemented those techniques and I actually did start to nap. Not, not every day, not a thousand percent success or anything like that, but I did nap more times than I didn't. It was the first time in my life that I had that high of a success rate when it came to napping.
Maren: And, even better, the naps seemed to actually work.
Abigail: I really did feel like I was refreshed when I had successfully napped and I came back to my computer. And sometimes even when I didn't successfully nap, I think that time away from your screen is really helpful. And it made me wonder if, even if I'm not gonna take a nap, I should probably take 10 minutes to go for a walk around the block or go walk and grab a cup of coffee or a cup of herbal tea, and then come back to work because I do think there's something sort of re-energizing about stepping away and returning.
Maren: In her final audio diary from the experiment, Abigail celebrates her success. You can hear the change in her voice: napping is really doing it for her.
Abigail: I did sleep today, which was great. I actually slept in the office on my floor, on a yoga mat, which I had not at all been successful doing historically, at least not for more than like three minutes. And I feel great. I feel refreshed. I feel happy. I feel like I did not fail this experiment in the end.
Maren: So the experiment ended like a month and a half ago or so. Do you continue napping these days?
Abigail: Maren. I have not taken a single nap since the experiment ended.
Maren: Oh, no.
Abby: But, but I am only drinking a cup of coffee, maybe two a day, and I now drink almost exclusively herbal teas. So that's a good thing. Um, I also really do try and step away from my computer more. And so even though I'm not necessarily napping, I will take 10 minutes to go feed the dog or go walk with a friend.
And I think that that is something really beneficial that I took away from this, is that even if I'm not actually gonna fall asleep, there is a definite positive to just stepping away from the screen for a second.
Maren: So it turned out to be maybe not so much like a nap experiment, but like a caffeine and rest experiment.
Abigail: Yeah, you could say that. I will say, because I know that people will listen to this and they'll be like, oh my gosh, she's so lucky. She got to get paid to nap, and she didn't even take advantage of it. And I am here to say that that is what I thought as well. And it's a lot harder than you think it is.
Maren: It turns out that all those naps your baby is taking are actually pretty hard work, huh?
Abby: Oh yeah, he works super hard.
Maren: Next: an aspiring extrovert's mission to make a habit out of chitchat. After the break.
Maren: While Abigail was making a concerted effort to take more time for herself, one of Outside's columnists was forcing himself out in the world to do something that felt to him like a daring adventure: talk to strangers.
Would you consider yourself more of an introvert Yeah, I suppose I'm, I'm more of an introvert than an extrovert, let's say.
Maren: Meet Fritz.
Fritz: My full name is Martin Fritz Huber, but I usually go by Fritz. And I write a column for Outside Magazine. I write about running and occasionally other things as well, but mostly running.
Part of me has always wanted to be the kind of person who chats up people that he meets on the street or that he meets in line at the grocery store. and I think I've always harbored a mild envy towards people who struck me as natural extroverts in this way.
I just had the assumption that they lead more interesting lives or that they are just more likely to get into all kinds of fun mischief just because they strike up conversations with people without really even thinking about it.
Maren: Before this experiment, do you know when the last time was that you had an actual conversation with a stranger?
Fritz: Off the top of my head? To be honest with you, I couldn't think of one.
Maren: Fritz was coming to the experiment with absolutely no experience. But unlike Abigail, he did have a plan: one designed by experts.
Fritz: Jillian Sandstrom is a lecturer of psychology at the University of Sussex, and she has for a long time done research into the benefits of these kinds of social interactions, so-called weak-tie social interactions.
These are people that are perhaps more in the periphery of our lives that we have, just brief contacts with, over the course of, of our days and, and weeks. And her research had shown her that in general, these interactions are very good for our just general wellbeing and our mental health, because it makes us, I think in some sense, feel less alone and more part of a community.
Maren: But Sandstrom also found that we often tend to actively avoid these weak tie social interactions, mostly because we worry that the strangers we approach will see us as an inconvenience or an annoyance.
Fritz: And as a, as a kind of countermeasure, she created a list of 30 different types of people. And these are people described with very broad, uh, physical descriptors. It could be somebody wearing a hat, somebody with a beard, somebody who's eating something, somebody who you find attractive. And the whole idea was that over the course of one week, the people taking part in what she called the treasure hunt, would initiate conversations with these strangers
And her thesis going into it was that these, these random interactions were going to end up being far more pleasant than her subjects would've anticipated. And that thesis was in fact the way things played out.
Maren: So you decided to basically just do her experiment, right?
Fritz: exactly. So my thought was like, if it worked for all these random people taking part in this experiment, surely I, I can do the same thing.
The fact is, like you, you live in New York, you see a lot of different types of people just going out on the street in the morning so I just figured it would be relatively easy for me to do this, this treasure hunt, at least in terms of finding people who met these descriptions.
Maren: Okay, so what was your very first interaction with a stranger like?
Fritz: So I was in a park and there was a guy who was sitting on a bench happily eating a bagel. Sorry, this is very kind of stereotypically New York. Um, but it's just, it's the way it plays out. People eat bagels in New York. And so I just kind of blurted something just asking him about the cream cheese and we found common ground, talking about everything bagels. He did not have an everything bagel. He had a poppy seed bagel. And, I complimented his choice of bagel.
But yeah, we eventually got the talking on the, you know, that the everything bagel is in fact too much and is sort of a kind of decadence. And, we had harsh words for the everything bagel, but it was a wonderful conversation.
Maren: So how did, what did you walk away from that interaction feeling like?
It had a positive afterglow for sure, because the difference between the discomfort I felt, When I was initially engaging this person and the kind of ease at which the conversation came once we got rolling, was heartening.
And, it did make me think that oh, actually probably, not all, but the vast majority of prospect of potential conversations you could be having with the millions of strangers around you will be similarly uplifting and that you just need to get over your kind of initial trepidation of engaging people.
Maren: So did you successfully complete the experiment?
Fritz: I was able to, within a week go through and hit all, I think it was 32 missions in total, and I was able to do that with, with relative ease.
The initiation was always the hardest part, and then once you get rolling, it was surprisingly easy. And I will say this in, in, in total honesty, that I never had a not one conversation that went badly where I felt that like, ‘oh,I'm really actually not happy that I, that I engaged this person and I feel worse now than I did before.’
In a way, it's sort of like the opposite of using social media. I've always had this thing, whenever I log into one of these platforms that I always feel slightly worse when I log out a slightly more deflated and depressed or envious or angry, and it was the exact opposite when I was engaging people I would see on the street.
I would feel a sense of being uplifted by having this conversation with this person. And usually we never spoke about any kind of deep philosophical matters or had some kind of profound exchanges. But I don't know. I just found them kind of delightful.
Maren: Mm-hmm. . I mean, I do think that your choice of bagel is a pretty profound conversation topic.
Fritz: Yes! No, fair enough.
Maren: Existential bagel debates notwithstanding, most of the conversations Fritz had were small in scale and impact. But together, they added up to a big change in perspective.
Fritz: I never had one conversation that was life changing or, or somehow grandly life affirming. It was more just like the small sort of quotidian things that ended up being uplifting and in a way that's, that was counter to my expectations where I thought that, ‘oh, if I become a person who's more likely to have these conversations, I'm gonna get invited on some kind of amazing, sexy adventure,’ you know? but it was more that your, you know, everyday exchanges, like pleasantries that we would dismiss as being shallow or superficial are actually, kind of essential to our wellbeing or sense of being connected to a larger social fabric. You know, and I realize that might sound a little cheesy or whatever, but I, I, I really do think it's true.
Maren: Since the experiment ended, Fritz has not continued speaking to strangers in the street. But he has started making more trips to his local sports bar, where he finds these kinds of small uplifting exchanges abound.
Fritz: The takeaway for Fritz at the end of the day is he's gonna spend more time going to the bar. I think is the–that's the, that's the healthy habit that I will have established.
Maren: In the end, both Abigail and Fritz walked away from the experiment with new healthy habits–just maybe not the ones they had bargained for. So as you start off your year–
Michael: Wait a minute. Maren, you did something for this habits package too, right?
Maren: I decided to start going to the gym. That was my habit that I was trying to build.
Michael: Right. So your healthy habit was to get ripped.
Maren: Something like that. I think honestly it was like to go from like an uncooked noodle of a human being to like someone with something resembling core strength.
Michael: Okay, so like how much gym history do you have?
Maren: Maybe a little bit during like a high school track. But, I've never done weightlifting in my life.
I was just terrified of gyms. I had no idea what to do when I walked into one. They seemed very intimidating, very scary, lots of like chrome and heavy black weights that I don't know how to use. A lot of like large grunting men. A lot of mirrors that are not particularly flattering.
Just the whole thing felt completely baffling. It was like a whole nother language to me. So I decided to try and become like a real proper weightlifting gym rat.
Michael: All right. Well that's an admirable challenge you took on. So, how did it go?
Maren: Well, I pitched it to my editor as a one month challenge. I would get a personal trainer because that was the only way I could imagine being able to learn how to use this equipment cuz I had literally no idea. And so I looked up a gym in my neighborhood. It was about a 15 minute walk from me and they specialized in personal training.
And, sent an email to the owner of the gym and was like, Hey, uh, I don't know how to use a gym. I've never done it before. I'd like to try. And he said, come on in. So the first day I walked in there, the woman working at the desk set me up with a waiver and then she told me that, uh, personal training was not included as part of the first day.
It was actually just open gym and I was absolutely terrified.
I was like, what am I gonna do for an hour in this gym by myself?
Michael: What did you do?
Maren: Well, luckily my trainer, Todd, showed up. The guy who was the owner of the gym. And he was like about four or five inches shorter than me and like twice as wide, just like super, super stacked. And he introduced himself and he said that we would start training that day, thank God.
Michael: Did you like it right away? Did you hate it? How did it go?
Maren: Well, um, the warmup for the workout was 10 squats, 10 lunges, 10 pushups. And then you do that three times. And by the end of the warmup, I was like, how the hell am I gonna get through this workout? Like, I hadn't done squats or lunges in months.
I was doing like knee pushups. I was barely getting through. And then he was like, well, it's leg day. Let's get going. And we went to the machines and did all kinds of things that I can't even remember at this point. I think I just blacked out. Honestly, I don't remember most of the workout.
I just remember. Everything hurt a lot. And my legs were just like wobbling, and by the end of the workout we do abs to finish things off. I thought I was gonna barf but I finished the workout.
I get through, Todd gives me a fist bump says, ‘I'll see you tomorrow.’
And I was like, ‘uh, tomorrow?’
And he was like, ‘yep, tomorrow.’
And I was like, ‘all right.’
And then I walked back to my apartment, which took me a couple minutes longer than it did on the way there. I almost fell down the stairs in my apartment because my legs buckled.
Um, yeah. So I was not in good shape. As you can hear in my audio diaries:
I feel like trash. I feel very tired. Um, and like sitting down on the toilet seat is really hard. So I don't know how I'm gonna survive tomorrow, but that's where I'm at. Um, hopefully. Tomorrow isn't leg day, although I get the feeling that like every day is leg day
Um, so yeah, we'll see how this whole, uh, workout thing goes.
Michael: I'm sure people told you this, but the only way to make the pain go away, there's only one answer for that.
Maren: Which is to keep working out?
Michael: You have to work out again. It's the only thing that–
Maren: See, this is the thing. Todd was like, movement is medicine. Movement is medicine. That was his whole thing. And the next day I literally, like, I had to like pull myself out of bed. Like the, the way that I got out of bed can only be described as inelegant.
I have to fucking show up. Can't, [yawn] I can't let Todd down.
And I hauled myself to the gym. I drove instead of walking cuz I could barely do it. And then I was like, ‘Hey Todd, I showed up. Day two. But you literally can't make me do anything because I can't do anything.’ There's no way I'll be able to do a workout today.’
And he was like, ‘oh, it's not leg day, you'll be fine.’
We did arms, um, today instead of legs, which meant that my legs got a little bit of a break. We still did squats, um, and those hurt. But honestly I feel better at the end than I did at the beginning.
Michael: Okay. But at some point, I mean, that's the thing is everyone hates the gym, especially if you're new to it. But at some point, did you, did you come around to liking it at all? Because that's why people do it. It at some point it starts to feel good.
Maren: Well, over the weeks I slowly got a little bit stronger. I came back the next week and I was like, ‘Todd, I can't be that sore. I need to be able to use my legs.’
And he was like, ‘don't worry, you'll never be that sore again. You will be 50% less sore this week.’
And I didn't believe him because the workout was harder, but I was actually 50% less sore. I was way better the second week. And I started learning things that I had never learned before, like how to use some of the machines and kinds of muscle groups we were targeting and how to position my body. And, I started to feel like not such an idiot. And as I started to feel like less of an idiot, I also felt a lot stronger. My weights went up, and I saw something that might be an ab, who knows, but like maybe one ab. That's something I didn't actually hate it.
Michael: That, that's a lot. But what about that like emotional lift? Did you ever get that?
Maren: I do think that the days that I went to the gym in the morning ended up being better days overall for me. my mood was better, I had more energy. I would usually be more tired at the end of the day, but throughout the day I would feel More motivated, more inspired, happier overall.
Michael: Okay. So do you think you can overall say this was a healthy habit for you?
Maren: I mean, it was absolutely a good thing for me. It taught me a lot, like I learned a lot more than I expected to. So it was really good for my brain. And it was definitely good for my body. And I am not getting personal trained three times a week anymore, but I am still going to the gym occasionally, like once or twice a week.
Michael: What do you feel when you walk into the gym now?
Maren: I still feel a little intimidated. I'm like working off of exercise plans that Todd created. Sometimes I still have to google what the exercises are cuz I forget what the shorthand means. Sometimes I still don't really know which equipment I should be using or what the gym etiquette is. But, I feel like I'll learn it over time and I don't feel so afraid of sticking around and making mistakes and learning things now. It just feels a little bit more approachable and I feel like, I can build up those skills over time.
Michael: Well, congratulations Maren. You did a good thing for yourself.
Maren: I created a healthy habit and hopefully I will continue it into 2023.
Maren: Thank you to Abigail Wise and Martin Fritz Huber for trying new things and for sharing their stories with us. You can read all our stories in the January/February issue of Outside Magazine, or online at outsideonline.com
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.
Listener, if you have a story about trying something new that you'd like to tell, record it as a voice memo and email it to us at email@example.com. And if you're enjoying this show, leave us a review wherever you listen, or strike up a conversation with a stranger about it.
The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.
Follow the Outside Podcast
Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.