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May 22 2012

Quantified me

For some reason I have an aversion to the quantified self terminology. I guess I'm suspicious of excessive overt tracking of stuff that I hope to make into unconscious habit. It probably goes back to when I used to be a runner. I ran a couple of marathons and I would of course log every run and used upcoming races to motivate my training. I ran with a pulse monitor and used the real-time feedback to adjust my pace to the intention of each training session.

I was incredibly disciplined about my training right up until I stopped improving. Once I plateaued I just couldn't stick with it. I experienced a similar pattern with biking, rowing, yoga, and everything else I tried. Train hard, track everything, plateau, quit.

Then a few years ago I read about a study that looked at motivation and it made the point that sometimes leaving things open ended actually improves our ability to stick with it. I've been looking for that study for two years but can't find it again. It has stuck in my head though and fundamentally changed how I think about things. It's made much more skeptical of the value of competitions and other goals in achieving long-term fitness. And something is different for me now because I've been doing CrossFit for three years without quitting. Of course, it might just be that I haven't plateaued yet. But I also think nurturing an open-ended mindset has helped.

Having plateaued and quit so many times I guess I'm just skeptical of the value of tracking the minutia of my exercise life. I wouldn't have known I plateaued if I hadn't tracked the data after all.

So not too long ago when Sara Winge forwarded me a link to an article on the "datasexual" with the subject line "You've been memed" I was taken aback. "Me? I don't track stuff. I don't own a Fitbit. In fact, I'm a huge skeptic of the value of all this stuff. To me it seems too much like putting the cart of technology before the horse of just doing the work." But then I thought about it honestly and I had to admit it. Who am I kidding? I'm an obsessive tracker.

I track every Crossfit workout on Beyond The Whiteboard. I started a paleo / ancestral health diet in December and I use a kitchen scale to measure portions. I kept a journal of every meal for three months and when that got cumbersome I started taking a picture of them with my phone. I do it to encourage consciousness of what I'm eating and to make sure I'm keeping my macronutrient balance where it should be. I weigh myself at least three times each week and log weight, waist, and neck measurements each time to estimate body fat.

Quantiifed data

Not too long ago after I rowed what felt like a fast 2k during a crossfit workout I dug up my old logs from the '90s to see how it compared to the twenty-something me (slower of course, but not awful). I still had those logs and knew where to find them.

From there it gets more obsessive. Once I changed my eating habits I started getting a full lipid panel and other tests every three months to assess the impact of my new high fat / low carb diet (I get over 2/3 of calories from fats now). The next time around I plan to add tests for inflammation markers and a few other things.

I wasn't happy with my doctor only being able to order fasting blood sugar though, so I bought a glucometer and started monitoring my own real-time blood sugar. I measure fasting and +1, +2, and +3 hour postprandial glucose levels after various meals to evaluate my insulin response and to better tune my diet. I also occasionally measure pre- and post-workout glucose levels to optimize when to workout relative to mealtime.

Periodic at home A1c tests verify that my long-term glucose levels are in keeping with what I'm measuring in real time — as a correlation to verify test accuracy and to help me interpret the short-term results. Oh, and I ordered a 23andMe test kit to see (among other things) if I have any genetic disposition to diabetes.

So, I guess I have to admit it. Quantifying the self isn't just something other people do, it's something I do. Yet I remain a skeptic.

The line I'm trying to walk is between obsessive tracking that results in post-plateau burnout and using tracking to maintain awareness and intention while trying to remain open ended. "Maybe I'll work out today." "Maybe I'll lose a few pounds, or maybe I'll gain a few." But at the same time I want to take advantage of the awareness that comes from tracking. More importantly, I want to know what the data says about how healthy I am. A degradation in insulin response wouldn't just be a problem with a plateauing exercise program after all, it would have major long-term health impact.

Related:

April 26 2012

Fitness for geeks

Programmers who spend 14 hours a day in front of a computer terminal writing code know how hard it is to step out of the cubicle and learn how to live a more healthy lifestyle. But getting fit doesn't need to be so daunting, and a growing number of technophiles are finding ways to make the process more appealing and relevant to their interest in data, design, and discovery. The increasing popularity of projects such as Quantified Self, smartphone apps, and gadgets dedicated to monitoring your body, generating metrics and routines for your exercise regime, and tracking your progress has created a community of like-minded geeks to share in your struggle, and even make it fun.

I recently talked with Bruce Perry, author of the just-released Fitness for Geeks, about some of the tools this crowd is using, some others they might be missing, and how the rest of us can use these tips to get healthy too. Highlights from our conversation include:

  • Debug your wetware. A programmer becomes fitter by becoming more knowledgeable about her internal software and learning how to optimize it for maximum performance and efficiency. [Discussed at the 00:21 mark]
  • Get some sleep. This one's pretty obvious, but now there are many new ways to quantify and analyze your sleep. Zeo Sleep Manager monitors your brainwaves during sleep and displays graphs for your review when you wake up, communicating wirelessly to a software-enabled clock and the web, Use your personal dashboard to identify your sleep cycles, analyze your REM, and measure the effects of different daily events (such as a stressful day or a drink before bed) on sleep. [Discussed at the 1:54 mark]
  • Use apps to assist your workouts and quantify your health. Tools such as FitBit, Nike+, Garmin Connect, AlpineReplay, and RestWise connect you and your health to the digital world where so much of the rest of your life is lived. [Discussed at the 3:46 mark]
  • Just get outside. You don't need a sophisticated routine, as long as you're moving. Doing the same thing over and over tends to create a static effect that plateaus. But you can randomize your workouts to make them more interesting. Tools such as GAIN Fitness and CrossFit's Workout of the Day (WOD) Generator will use algorithms to generate your own daily protocol. [Discussed at the 4:53 mark]
  • Fast. Intermittent fasting has been shown to lower blood pressure, normalize insulin and glucose levels, and even provide more efficient workouts while fasting. The basic guidelines for intermittent fasting is to eat only within an 8-hour window (eat dinner, don't eat at night, skip breakfast) and go the remaining16 hours on just water, coffee, and tea. [Discussed at the 7:26 mark]
  • Resist extremes. Bruce says it's okay to do a marathon or similarly challenging event for the experience, but that the oxidative stress can have a significantly negative effect on your overall and long-term health. Instead, revolve your exercise program around short-duration, high-intensity training, such as sprinting, followed by 30-40 minutes of high-intensity weights. [Discussed at the 09:09 mark]
  • Practice good stress. Various forms of acute stresses (known as hormesis) — such as moderate and high-intensity exercise, hot and cold exposure, one drink at night — can improve your health. [Discussed at the 13:02 mark]
  • Personal experiences with fitness apps. Bruce talks about using Endomondo, GPS data, and Google Earth to scout out an off-piste ski area, and I mention my own use of Google's MyTracks Android app for marathon training. [Discussed at the 15:19 mark]

The full interview is available in the following video:

Fitness for Geeks — This guide will help you experiment with one crucial system you usually ignore — your body and its health. Long hours focusing on code or circuits tends to stifle notions of nutrition, but with this book you can approach fitness through science.

September 16 2011

Visualization of the Week: Running for a year

This summer, YesYesNo partnered with Nike+ to visualize running data. YesYesNo created installations for Nike retail stores that displayed one year's worth of runs through the streets of New York, London and Tokyo.

From the YesYesNo project page:

The runs showed tens of thousands of peoples' runs animating the city and bringing it to life. The software visualizes and follows individual runs, as well as showing the collective energy of all the runners, defining the city by the constantly changing paths of the people running in it.

Here's a screenshot of the visualization:

Nike Plus Visualization

This video shows some of the visualization in action:

The visualization was created with custom designed software, produced in collaboration with DualForces using OpenStreetMap maps.

Found a great visualization? Tell us about it

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring visualizations. We're always looking for leads, so please drop a line if there's a visualization you think we should know about.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

Save 30% on registration with the code STN11RAD



More Visualizations:


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