How should a human be?

I’ve managed to arrange my life so that I work really hard for a couple of months and then take a month off. Having just finished a big assignment I didn’t have much of a plan of how to spend my time off. It’s not the best time of the year to be free and at loose ends. It’s still winter in New York, apart from a few crocuses here or there, and walking’s a bit bleak. Instead I’ve had a sudden and urgent need to feast on classical concerts, history books and museums. They’re an infusion of beauty but also inspire me to think and explore.

I’ve always been fascinated by how other cultures and other ages are dealing with the questions we’re all dealing with every day. How to be a good person. How to be healthy. What physical and mental ideal to aspire to.

I used to subscribe to dozens of health and fitness blogs and websites to a point where it became a deranged echo chamber. I’ve pretty much stopped all that stuff cold turkey last September because I was losing sight of the bigger picture.

One the continuous themes off which so many of these blogs feed is the idea that The Media/Marketers/The Diet and Fitness Industry/FitSpo Memes/Society/The Man is creating an unrealistic health and beauty and diet ideal to which we are forced to conform. This is such a prevailing theme that marketing itself has begun to recycle it. And it’s a theme I grew a bit tired of. As a one-time observation it seems fine, as a prism for looking at life it seems just not very useful or substantive.

Having wandered the halls of the Met Museum and the Brooklyn Museum and poring over various books, I’m once again reminded that this supposed media-fed frenzy isn’t such a new thing. Check out these Fitspiration images:

bikinigirlsall

Mosaics from the Villa Roman del Casale, 4th Century AD

Ancient-Egyptian-Clothes-for-Women

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

 

These images represent some pretty entrenched beauty norms. And not only did they have fairly normative ideas on beauty, Greeks and Romans, for example, spent a lot of time thinking about the right way to eat. The dominant debate was whether to eat simply, with an eye on health, or whether to abandon oneself to the delicious creations of the culinary arts. This was part of the larger tension between austerity and decadence.

Refined cuisine could be moralized as a sign of either civilized progress or decadent decline. The early Imperial historian Tacitus contrasted the indulgent luxuries of the Roman table in his day with the simplicity of the Germanic diet of fresh wild meat, foraged fruit, and cheese, unadulterated by imported seasonings and elaborate sauces.”

“Produce—cereals, legumes, vegetables, and fruit—[were] considered a more civilized form of food than meat.”

“Some philosophers and Christians resisted the demands of the body and the pleasures of food, and adopted fasting as an ideal. As an urban lifestyle came to be associated with decadence, the Church formally discouraged gluttony, and hunting and pastoralism were seen as simple but virtuous ways of life.”

Plus ça change. Insert discussions around veganism, farm-to-table artisanal food, intermittent fasting, and so on.

It seems to me that narrow beauty norms, and moralizing and agonizing over what foods to eat are perhaps not as old as mankind but they’re considerably older than our mass media, social media, blogs, Photoshop or fashion mags. The idea of a golden age when people didn’t worry about their appearance or didn’t obsess over their food might be more fantasy than reality. These things have likely always been socially, morally or religiously charged.

But the ancients have also bequeathed us a set of coping tools. We can get angry about cultural norms, prescriptive diets and and “lifestyles”, climb into the trenches and lob grenades in that never-ending battle.

Or we could spend our energy elsewhere. Stoic thinking is a brilliant way of not worrying so much about what other people think, and not obsess over what are ultimately trivial.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
– Marcus Aurelius

In other words, get better at not caring.

“Display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?”

And focus your energy on the virtues you would like to cultivate.

 

 

 

Extreme navel gazing

Just as I was one of the first people to have my genetic information parsed (I joined 23andme in 2007), I simply had to jump on the microbiome bandwagon. Gut microbiome to be specific; call it navel gazing at a slightly deeper level.

And even more than with genetic information the science has yet to catch up with the general excitement. Everyone knows that the gut microbiome is super mega interesting and important. But nobody really knows much about what the specific bacteria do and how they interact with each other, impact your health and well being, and so on.

So they become these perfect Rorschach blots. Everyone sees what they want to see, especially people with a cause, mission or hope.

Anyway, at the end of 2012 I signed up for uBiome‘s Indiegogo campaign, and 16 months later finally got the results. Needless to say, it all took much longer than promised, but it’s early days, and everyone’s learning.

So, what’s the state of my gut microbiome?

Here’s a smattering of the results:

I’ve got a lower than average proportion of  Bacteroidales, bacteria who don’t digest fat well. In other words, it means I get more calories out of the fat I eat than the average North American. Which might well be true, since I seem to need fewer calories than other people. Perhaps my microbiome has adapted to me being borderline underweight all my life.

I’ve got way more Lachnospiraceae than most people. These guys help to digest fiber. I eat a ton of vegetables, so they would be useful.

I’ve got way lower than average levels of Faecalibacteria, who are common gut microbes that break down resistant starches such as legumes and unprocessed whole grains. Even more extreme, I’ve got zero Butyrivibrio in my microbiome. Butyrivibrio digest wheat bran, and play a major role in breaking down simple and complex sugars. Because I rarely eat grains and really no legumes at all, that isn’t perhaps surprising.

Confoundingly, I have lower than average levels of Lactobacillales and Lactobacillaceae, which are the bacteria in ferments, including dairy. I eat from several different strains of yogurt and kefir every week so these should in theory be high. However, there is some debate of whether these guys actually survive in the gut once you eat them, and I’ll be following to see where the science ends up.

Anyways, like I said, the science isn’t there yet. And I’ve got a feeling the answer will be complex, which will annoy all the extremists. That most bacteria types are neither “goodies” or “baddies” in the absolute. We’ll find out that humans are able to thrive with a broad spectrum of diets, and that the biome fluctuates and adapts to all kinds of seasons, foods and geographies. And they’ll find that ultimately all diets that contain a wide range and a large amount of vegetables will be beneficial for your microbiome.

Jeff Leach of The American Gut has recently embarked on a series of self-experiments in which he’ll plot the shift of his microbiome under a wide range of dietary/environmental conditions. While this sounds a little stunty, it might just generate a few interesting hypotheses. And The Human Food Project‘s research into the biome of the Hadza people seems like a worthwhile project.

Finally, I’d argue that the time for having your microbiome analyzed has not yet come. You will not learn enough for the results to be useful, and in any case they’ll support whatever your beliefs are. Like a horoscope, you’ll single out your own truths.

(C) Micah Lidberg

(C) Micah Lidberg

 

 

From the swamp to the ocean

I spent Thanksgiving with the in-laws and associated family who live deep in the hinterlands of Florida, just a mile from the hard edge between suburbia and wilderness. Staying there makes me sad, I’ll make no bones about it. Nobody moves very much at all, and all the food comes from bags and boxes, and the there are veritable dunes of sweet junk accumulated in various places around the house, which the kids consume at all hours of the day. Not just on Thanksgiving. All the time. Much of day-to-day conversation is taken up by what’s on sale where. Perhaps understandable because they are so barely hanging on economically, having painted themselves into small corner via revolving credit, car leases and no retirement savings. So much fear, barely kept at bay with Xanax and Wellbutrin, and a reluctance to accept it or address it. I try not to judge. Self control comes easy to me, generosity is a bit harder. I try to see my in-laws as heroic but tragic figures within a larger game they haven’t quite figured out how to control. I wish I could figure out how to connect. They think I’m odd and a bit nuts. I probably am, in my own way.

But that’s why I get so restless there. After just a day I’m yearning for escape. In my self-tracking days I used to just wander for miles and miles through the de-peopled “communities”, along the strip malls, trying to make up my daily distances, six miles, seven miles or even eight miles, trying to control what can’t be controlled.

Now that I only walk for pleasure I decided for something more ambitious and perhaps symbolic; to walk from the swamp to the ocean, which happens to be 14 miles. The purpose of the walk was not only to shake off the mental confinement of being trapped between kitchen and couch, but to look at the Sunshine State from a pedestrian perspective rather than from a minivan or SUV, and perhaps impress upon those nieces that the world doesn’t end at the bottom of their cup-de-sac, that there is a way out.

Here are some of the pictures from that epic walk, which took me just over three hours:

2013-11-30 13.58.44 2013-11-30 15.14.58 2013-11-30 15.18.51 2013-11-30 17.24.00 2013-11-30 17.38.55 2013-11-30 15.36.082013-11-30 17.39.36 2013-12-01 18.14.442013-12-01 18.06.582013-12-01 18.13.352013-12-01 18.51.17 2013-12-01 18.41.532013-12-02 10.51.262013-12-02 11.14.142013-12-02 11.33.432013-11-30 18.04.27

I know the images are pointedly melancholic and not at all how most people experience South Florida, but that’s how it feels to me. I only saw a handful of pedestrians on my walk. Like, a few people standing on the sidewalk with boards announcing bargains. Some unexpected shared humanity there.

Needless to say everyone thought I was crazy, even crazier to take the bus back, but on that bus, humming with conversations, I felt I was somewhere, a real place.

Survivorship bias: when we focus only on success

Great post on survivorship bias from the always spot-on Ethical Nag

The Ethical Nag

We were sitting around with friends and family recently over some very nice red wine when our friend Noel asked me about my weekly Toastmasters meetings, and specifically about whether I thought there are some people who simply never learn to feel comfortable speaking in public even after Toastmasters training. After a moment’s contemplation, I replied to Noel:

“I can’t really say – because those who actually feel too uncomfortable probably just stop attending after a while. The ones who stay seem pretty happy!”

It turns out that what I was describing is essentially what’s known as survivorship bias.* 

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The church of Crossfit

Yes, dear reader, I do Crossfit.

I know, I know. I don’t do Crossfit because I bought the gospel. I think the whole thing is a bit dubious. The faux-patriotic thing. The not-focusing-on-one thing approach to training. That annoying obsession with stupidly named workouts. And so on.

I never heard of it until a couple of years ago, but when I had done the paleo thing for a few months I realized there is a Crossfit gym (sorry, I won’t call it ‘box’) two blocks from my apartment.

I used to half-heartedly lift weights in my thirties, in a regular gym and at home, but I didn’t really have a clue and I didn’t get very far.

I thought getting more serious about exercise, beyond walking, running and cycling might be a good idea. So I joined.

I sucked pretty bad at the beginning and then I got slightly better. And now, almost two years later, I haven’t really improved much. My personal records have mostly stood unchanged for a year or so. Given that I’ve done Crossfit three or four times a week, all out, for 21 months that looks like epic failure. Failure on my part? Failure on my coaches’ part? Failure on Crossfit’s part?

Weirdly, I actually look pretty muscular now; more muscular than some of the much stronger women at the gym. Maybe because I’m relatively skinny, so it shows more. But my (now discarded) scale said my body fat percentage didn’t really change.

I used to get really depressed after workouts (I refuse to call them WODs), wandering home ready to burst into tears, when I’d attempted some heavier weight and failed miserably. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I was angry with myself for not getting better. I’m sure my coaches were a bit frustrated too – they’d given me a lot of extra attention, and if it wasn’t working, it either meant I wasn’t trying hard enough or their coaching wasn’t good enough.

I used to search for “crossfit failure to gain strength” or “crossfit women plateau” on some of the bigger Crossfit message boards and never find much, which made me feel worse. Was I really the only person out there for whom Crossfit wasn’t working?

Now, it could well be that this is really a case of technique, and chances are that if I adopted a more rigorous program focused on strength like Starting Strength I might actually improve. Get over those half-assed, random combinations at my gym. And yet, most everyone else there seemed to always get better, just not me.

But then again, I’ve always been really lousy at almost every sport from a very early age, even though I spent my childhood outside, running, cycling, digging, rollerskating, scootering, building and whatnot. Which made me think there had to be a genetic component. And it does turn out that some people are exercise non-responders.

As the New York Times reported “Hidden away in the results of almost any study of exercise programs is the fact that some people do not respond at all, while others respond at an unusually high rate.”

Which makes me think that I might be one of those people for whom exercise does not lead to many measurable changes.

But why do I seem to be the only one so afflicted among the many people at my gym?

Well, the penny dropped about half a year ago: survivorship bias. The people for whom Crossfit does not lead to measurable improvements tend to drop out and choose some other kind of exercise. New people start all the time, but only a few become regulars. In other words, I am the only idiot who doesn’t get measurable improvements and keeps going regardless.

That changed my thinking completely. I still go, I still don’t make any “progress”, my coaches still give me the ‘sad’ face whenever I fail at my attempts to get to new personal records. But I absolutely, totally do not care. I am not interested in any serious strength programs – I get obsessive about stuff, and the last thing I need is yet another thing to get obsessive about. Crossfit is a decent workout, it’s fun, the people are nice, the gym is two minutes away. I give it my best, and then wander home and do something else. It’s not part of my identity. I don’t do the weird lingo. It’s just exercise.

That’s enough.

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Kill your darlings

Not the movie.

An invitation to never stop questioning all the beliefs you hold dearly. Chances are, at least half of them will turn out to be wrong. If your identity becomes too wrapped up with them, you’ll either end up demoralized or deeply wrong. I come from a long line of people who built their lives on grand explanations of everything, and then spent years sorting through the wreckage.

Life is messy and whatever truths there are don’t take the form of bumper stickers, memes or Pinterest platitudes.

This post is really a tribute to one of the bloggers I’ve been following for 11 years. Most people will take a few wrong turns in that long of a time, and if you slavishly follow them they’ll take you down with them. Krista‘s been a critical thinker, a skeptic, a learner, a hater of dogma, a rejector of certainty and just a general badass.

Here is an edited list of some of her thoughts on turning 40. The full list is here.

  • Being addicted to “a solution” is just as fucked up as being addicted to a substance. This is characterized by rigid all-or-nothing thinking (“If I eat one cookie, I’ve failed”); shame and guilt (“I hope nobody finds out I’m a bad ___ and a fraud”); cult-like devotion and fanaticism; self-righteousness and intolerance (“Diet X is good, and if you don’t believe that, you’re an idiot”); along with reductionism and over-simplification (“Everyone should do Workout Y”; “Food Z is the answer”). If you find yourself obsessively seeking, information-gathering, surfing blogs and websites, arguing your point of view on the interwebs, analyzing or ruminating over your “issues”, and generally in continual “self-helping mode”… your problem-solving behavior is part of the problem.
  • “Training” and “working out” are good. “Movement” and “living actively” are better. If you focus too much on a single sport, or on a structured “plan”, then it’s easy to get overtrained and bitter, out of balance, and/or bent out of shape when stuff doesn’t go your way. Waah, I missed a scheduled PR on a bench press!! Waah, my foot hurts and now I can’t go on your scheduled run! Waah, doing the same exercise the same way for 6 months has given me tendonitis! Who gives a shit!? Fuck the plan and the percentages. You have a million other things you can do if your mantra is “live actively”. Plus then you don’t sit on your ass feeling smug for 23 hours of the day because, well, you “worked out” today. Magical things happen at a biochemical and spiritual level when you move your body. Mix it up, get out there into the big ol’ world, and just fucking move as much as possible.
  • Talking about your workouts, your body fat, your weight, and/or your food intake is very, very boring. Put the fucking iPhone away and have an actual unmediated experience with a meal. Nobody gives a shit if you’ve gained 3 lbs, what your Fran time is, whether you knocked a few minutes off your 5K, or whether you’re currently off grains. Mention it only if it’s crucial — like, if you have a peanut you’ll die, or explaining to your physiotherapist how you busted up your knee — and shut the fuck up about it otherwise. I apologize to all my friends for 2007-2010, during which I was deep in crazy exercise-compulsive/food-obsessive town and considered my diet/body fat/general neuroses an acceptable conversation topic for about 3 years straight. (See “good listening skills”, above.)
  • The only way to “get over” your body issues is to live as if you are already over them… which means not ruminating over them, or posting apologetic approval-seeking selfies with the caption “I know it’s not perfect, but I’m OK with that.” Go have fierce and fantastic sex with the lights on. Go have an adventure. Go sit and listen to your wondrous immune or circulatory system humming and marvel at its orchestrated splendour. Go do anything other than navel gazing. Please. You are already perfectly fine and a testament to Nature’s brilliance.
  • Also, the world does not need more articles by bourgeois educated white women whining about they’ve “come to terms with” their thighs. Jesus Christ people, there are bigger fucking problems in the world. Pull your head out of your privileged arse, toss your skinny jeans, and go help someone who actually has problems. Part of your social privilege blinders is thinking that everyone needs your public display of self-loathing narcissism. (And yeah, I can take this just as much as I dish it out. As Part of The Problem and the One Percent, I vow to never produce such an article. Every time I even think of writing that article, I will go and volunteer at a soup kitchen.)
  • Get over yourself. Nobody cares about your dreams. Except maybe 1 to 3 people. Love those people hard and try to see yourself through their eyes, instead of the tunnel vision of a harsh, impervious mass culture that has nothing to do with reality. As my esteemed colleague Craig Weller once told me, “The minute I start worrying about whether my eggs are cooked just right, I’ll put myself back on a plane to Somalia.”

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Think before you track – the uncertain future of the Quantified Self

I used to be a self-described adherent of the Quantified Self movement. Like many movements it does not have a strict definition nor formal membership requirements, so everybody brings their own definitions, goals and needs to it. It’s pretty obvious, given the name of my blog, that I’m moving into a different direction, but that’s not to say that I think Quantified Self is fundamentally misconceived. I do however think there are costs and risks to certain Quantified Self approaches that are not immediately apparent, and as more people start tracking behaviors, buy trackers, and buy into the general hype the more those risks will become apparent.

Like I said, there isn’t one definition of Quantified Self. Instead, there a different strands to the movement, serving different purposes, and pull the movement into different directions.

Quantified Self as short-term experiments

These are tracking projects to help answer specific questions, usually over the course of a few weeks. For example, “will this supplement make me more alert?”, “does coffee cause my headaches?”, “will sleeping in a colder room help me sleep longer?”. Ideally, these experiments are simple, testing one variable at a time, with a duration that’s long enough to let you see patterns, but no longer than they need to be. This kind of self-quantification can yield actionable results but does not commit the experimenter to a lifetime of tracking drudgery. This is an enlightening, low-risk activity, as far as I can see.

Quantified Self for goal-directed healthy habit reinforcement

Typical examples of this approach are setting a weight and/or health goal and using tracking to keep yourself honest. Followers will, for example, track their intake (calories) and their output (exercise, steps), and will usually set smaller daily goals in pursuit of the bigger goal. Other measures that often get tracked alongside include body fat, macros, blood sugar and so on. This kind of tracking has been around for a very long time, and popular diet programs like Weight Watchers are built on it. While this tends to work well for many people the challenge is to keep going when you’ve reached your goal. You can treat it as short-term intervention and cease tracking when you achieve whatever you wanted to achieve. The fact is that the vast majority of people find it hard to stay at goal. For example, well over 90% of people who have lost weight on a diet gradually backslide and end up where they started or heavier.  The alternative is to keep tracking to keep yourself at goal, potentially for the rest of your life. The cost of perpetual tracking is  high – in terms of time consumed (tracking calories in particular is a pain), non-intuitive relationship with food, obsessive exercising after overeating and so on. It can be a life-long commitment. Few people are fully aware what they’re taking on when they embark on a project like this.

Quantified Self as long-range observation in search of correlation

These kinds of one-person “studies” are often gadget-driven, and basically involve generating a multitude of data sets over a relatively long period of time with the idea of discovering interesting patterns and unexpected correlations. The promise is that if you track ten different variables from sleep, to mood, to exercise, to food, to emails, to keystroke quantity, finance, to weight, to day parts, to energy levels, to you-name-it, that the data will give up interesting, surprising insights about you, that will allow you to tweak your behavior, fix problems and optimize your life. In terms of commitment these kinds of projects ask a lot – a lot of time and dedication. While gadgets can log some of the data for you, there is still a lot of data that you have to put in yourself, such as mood, sleep quality, food intake and so on. A certain amount of obsessiveness certainly helps.

There are many people now how have embarked on these kinds of open-ended projects. The continuing proliferation of gadgets will only fuel this particular kind of quest. And yet, of all the different ways of quantifying the self, these are by far the most problematic. In the vast majority of cases they yield only trivial insights: that sleep quality impacts mental acuity, that exercise can boost mood. In other words, they generate the kinds of insights you could have pretty much figured out by observing yourself for a couple of days without the use of any kind of complex gadgetry.

The quest for insight ‘gold’ continues and there are now more apps and services that promise that they’ll sift your data output and find that elusive non-trivial insight, yet the results so far have been less than impressive.

That’s because there’s a fundamental flaw in the thinking. One of the basic principles behind scientific inquiry is that it needs to always be driven by hypothesis. Science is propelled forward by testable theories, around which experiments get designed, which will either confirm a theory or refute it. Science does not happen by watching streams of data unspool, with the hope that an interesting finding will emerge by itself.

And yet it is the two less interesting and less productive streams within Quantified Self that seem to be on the ascendance. This is no doubt driven by gadget manufacturers and tracking app creators who have the most to gain by a population of obsessive, only vaguely purposeful self-trackers. Quantified Self would be well advised to be careful about its new best friends. They might inject excitement and noise in the short term, but dilute the experimental spirit of the movement in the long term.

What really counts?

I am, for reasons too obscure and irrelevant to explain right now, an expert in kitty litter. Having spent a lot of time having to think about it made me appreciate its profound role in people’s lives. Humans have adopted cats in order to fulfill a profound need, to love and to take care of others. This love and care is manifested in many ways, including cat food. All this love and care and affection conveyed by cat food finally ends up and gets absorbed by kitty litter. A $7bn industry that gets absorbed by a $2bn industry. While love, and care and affection are profound, what gets left in the litterbox isn’t. Humans create a lot of data “exhaust”, but not at all of it is interesting and meaningful, and analyzing the aftereffects does not tell you much about the complex human causes.

Robert Gober, Cat Litter, 1989

What I would to love to leave you with is the following:

Think hard before you track.

Obsessive tracking cost me a lot of time, made me obsessive, less adventurous and more harsh on myself, undermined my intuitive relationship with eating, walking and exercise. The “insights” it yielded were trivial and few in number.

If you are going to track, focus on testing interesting hypotheses using simple experiments lasting a relatively short time.

If you must track calories and steps do it for a short time, until you’ve got a good basic idea, and then switch to using your intuition. It’s one of your most precious tools. Don’t mess it up.

As for the Quantified Self movement, it’s been oversold as the cure to all of society’s ills. It is anything but. It doesn’t have much to say about the messes and moral complexities of human emotions and interactions of our everyday lives. Tracking is hard and time-consuming, and the majority of people don’t have the time or discipline to do it. And just because you give someone a tracker doesn’t mean they’ll change their behaviors in the long term. Because that’s hard. Most people will end up tracking for only months, perhaps a few years, which is as it should be.

If you can’t live without self-tracking and quantifying yourself ask yourself where in your life you fear losing control, and face those fears.