Hot Stones, Keystone Habits
The sauna is a powerful keystone habit for one simple reason: 90 degree heat does terrible things to a smartphone
And welcome to edition 317.
For those of you new around these parts — hello! My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel.
I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better: stories about the antifragile advantage of veganism, cycling around Britain (twice) and how to find your tree mentor.
This week I have three smaller stories for you, sounding three chiming notes of my writing: keystone habits, bike adventures, and trespass environmentalism.
Hot Stones, Keystone Habits
I thought I knew why I sauna.
There is a legend that I tell around the hot stones about how, five years ago, I got injured while training for a half marathon.
So it was that, six weeks out from competition, I found myself frantically casting around the Internet for scientifically-backed endurance training techniques that involved, well, zero training.
Then I came across this 2007 study on club runners where three saunas a week for only three weeks led to an astonishing 32 percent increase in time to exhaustion on a treadmill.
Okay, so the saunas were taken immediately after training and the sample size was only six runners — but still.
If I could simply maintain my endurance fitness until the race, then I’d be golden. And so I signed up to the local leisure centre and started sauna-ing.
Lo and behold, six weeks later, I recorded my best ever time at the Gosport Half.
Okay, so the only other time I’d run there it’d been blowing a gale — but still.
I was sold on saunas and have been telling the story of why I sauna to anyone who would listen ever since.
But it’s not true.
A single low-powered running study might have been what first got me through the glass sauna door, but it’s not the reason I keep going back.
And the reason I keep going back has nothing to do with the evidence that saunas reduce blood pressure and inflammation, reduce chances of Alzheimer’s and depression, and 40 percent less likely to, ya know, die young.
No, none of them.
The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.
But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.
And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.
But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.
That sentence deserves its italics.
Busy Is A Decision
Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.
I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.
When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.
Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.
On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.
Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.
This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.
But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.
A Note On Accessibility
Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.
Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.
That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.
Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.
Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂
Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.
My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.
100 Days Of Adventure
Tercile Update and Round Britain IV
We are almost a third of the way through the year and, happily, I am almost a third of the way through my target of 100 Days Of Adventure for 2022.
As it happens, 100 DOA is a low bar for this year, what with me spending six weeks on tour with Thighs of Steel in the summer.
I’m exceptionally lucky that my hobby has become my job. Starting on Tuesday, for example, I’m basically being forced to spend nine days cycling from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh.
It’s work, I tell you!
This is also the fourth instalment of my post-Brexit, mid-Covid, pre-Apocalypse cycle around Britain, a journey that I first sweated out in the 58 days after the death of my nan in 2011.
I pedalled into Kings Lynn on 5 August 2020, following in the footsteps and pushsteps I took on 21 July 2011, after my hapless police auction bike had bust a spoke for the nth time in five days.
On Tuesday, I’ll catch the morning train, just as I did after buying a new bike in London back in 2011 (RIP Martin), and continue north into Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland — and Scotland.
My younger self managed to reach Edinburgh inside a week, cycling nearly ten hours a day to cover the 884km at an average of 133km per day. Yikes.
Luckily, I have eight full days and two half days. I’m also reassured that the route I have planned out on Komoot is only 654km.
With the infinite zoom of a smartphone in my pocket and the all-seeing eye of a GPS on my handlebars, cycle touring is a far cry from the bygone days of map creases and keeping the sea on your right.
It means that I can worry less about navigation and concentrate more on story-seeking. I can’t wait to get started.
The best thing you can do for the planet is be here
I’m spending this weekend supporting young people as they devise and execute their first ever overnight outdoor expeditions. Pretty cool.
I am also cautiously optimistic on reading the following news that they might even have an outdoors when they grow up:
Analysis of climate pledges by nations at the COP26 meeting indicates that such commitments could ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 ºC before 2100 — but only if backed up by short-term policies.
It is easy to set ambitious climate targets for 30, 40 or even 50 years in the future — but it is much harder to enact policies today that shift energy systems towards a more sustainable future.
I’m a believer that the best thing you can do for the planet is be here. Properly be here. Show up to nature in all your glory and bask in the wonder of being.
Happily, Sunday is also the ninetieth anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Trespass, which has become a potent legend in the fight for our right to roam.
As I wrote in my anniversary article last year, ‘spending time in nature is the keystone of a healthy society and, in England and Wales at least, there is not enough nature to go around’.
These are not idle words, but based on scientific findings like this, from a Spanish study published last year:
Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.
Again: for the sake of our future and the future of our children, we need you to trespass and win back our inalienable right to nature.
Stay honest, people.