Kamal's Quantified Self Experiment, Week 1: A New Hope
Have you ever weighed yourself too often? Have you ever weighed yourself not often enough? Well, there’s a movement afoot that makes your weight measurement concerns look teeny tiny. It’s called “Quantified Self”, and consists largely of [highlight type="yellow"]young, healthy males[/highlight] who track every possible health-related measurement, usually beaming these measurements to their smartphones or computers and analyzing the trends.
Just one second…if Quantified Self might help healthy people, it could surely benefit unhealthy people…even more? Well, I loosely fit the bill, so let’s see [highlight type="yellow"]how quantifying myself affects my health[/highlight]. Here’s a ten second synposis of relevant facts: I used to be fairly lean and fit, and then had a few (failed) orthopedic surgeries and a diagnosis of a genetic disorder called “Ehlers Danlos Syndrome”. After five years of being in continuous pain every single moment, my habits suck. [highlight type="yellow"]I either eat great or eat like shit[/highlight], depending on things like the weather and whether or not I’m taking vicodin, oxycontin, methadone, or nothing. On the other hand, I perform great when given any external reason, like during this two-month “low-reward lifestyle” experiment. So I’ll be reporting on a bunch of metrics once a week, observing correlations, and making adjustments. It’s been a tough few years…unrelenting chronic pain makes it easy to stray to the Dark Side. But the Force is strong in this one!
Weight and Body fat
I weighed 135 pounds in 1998-1999, my freshman year of college. At a height of 5′ 9″, that’s [highlight type="yellow"]pretty scrawny, even for an Indian nerd[/highlight]. By stroke of luck (and misfortune, as we’ll see later), my next-door neighbor was a world champion powerlifter. Learning some basics from him, I went on to read everything I could about nutrition, and in the next few years ballooned up to 170 mostly chiseled pounds. My bench press max went from 65 pounds (yes, the bar plus ten pound plates…you can stop laughing now) to 305, my deadlift went from 115 to 410, and my squat went from 70 to 325. In preparation to compete in either bodybuilding or powerlifting, I measured my body weight as well as fat regularly, using many different methods. I went into the lab twice to get a DEXA/DXA and measured body fat weekly using calipers and bioelectrical impedance.
From 2008 to 2010 I had three surgeries to reconstruct my left shoulder and one surgery on my mysteriously torn left wrist, and took a couple years of medical leave from my PhD program due to pretty darn bad pain. Stupid weightlifting. My muscles disappeared, and I became chubbier yet lighter (no pictures of this period, unfortunately). After learning that I had a genetic disorder that made surgeries a bad idea, I quit with the endless surgeries and resorted to loads of TV-on-DVD and fulfilling my quest of trying [highlight type="yellow"]every Ben and Jerry’s flavor[/highlight]. (Mission: Almost Accomplished. Haven’t tried Dublin Mudslide yet). My goal weight is similar to my current weight, but a bit less fat and a bit more muscle. I can’t lift more than 10 or 20 pounds at the gym, so I have to be creative with how to go about this.
Pretty much all I think about is pain. I know that’s bad, but it’s hard to stop. One time I was crossing the street and a tendon in my ankle randomly tore. My big toe and a couple fingers hurt all the time, for no reason whatsoever. Why is my hip torn when I’m neither 80 years old nor an athlete? I went from being a world champ sleeper to taking a couple hours to fall asleep due to pain. I’ve taken more pain meds than Dr. House, which is no small feat.
That being said, [highlight type="yellow"]I’m quite lucky![/highlight] I have a mild case of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome — others end up in wheelchairs, with weird fainting episodes, or with fragile heart vessels. My desire to help people with pain is incredibly strong, but my own problems get in the way. Since a good diet, exercise, and posture program can reduce pain levels a point or two quite easily, time to get crackin’ with the trackin’. I’ll rate my pain levels every day and see what the strongest associations are. Nightshade intake? Sleep? We’ll see. I’ll also be tracking some other subjective measures like mood, digestion, and whatever else comes to mind. And lastly, I’ll be formally experimenting with [highlight type="yellow"]new pain therapies[/highlight] and writing about the science behind them and my experiences with them. Bottom line: I’m going to be posting almost every day. Get ready to hear about some weird pain research as well as my pet nutrition theories.
Time spent on Internet and TV
This is a big one. A HUGE one. My name is Kamal, and [highlight type="yellow"]I’m an Internet-a-holic[/highlight]. Like many people my age, I read too much reddit, facebook, tech blogs, sports news, and funny cat picture websites. Unlike most people my age, I’ve attempted to slow down the creep of tech addiction into my life several times a year. This has ranged from apps and browser extensions that track your web use all the way up to canceling my apartment’s internet. All-or-nothing attempts rarely last though, so I’ll track my web use and try to keep it under an hour a day, every day. I’ll also track my daily TV viewing. I’m totally fine with watching Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc, but am trying to watch less [highlight type="yellow"]TV during meals and as a form of distraction[/highlight]. Don’t get me wrong — distraction is my third favorite pain therapy next to opioids and ice cream…but internet and TV is simply too addicting for this weakling.
On my test day, I [highlight type="yellow"]used the Internet for 12 minutes[/highlight] (Leisure browsing, that is. Not using the web for school or work. I’m highly proud of this accomplishment.) and [highlight type="yellow"]watched TV for 3 hours and 15 minutes[/highlight] (not so proud of that). There’s also a weird/stupid/cool metric that I’m thinking about measuring: the amount of time I’m being totally awesome, like Bradley Cooper in the movie “Limitless”. Thoughts? We’ll see if that’s at all measurable or useful.
For me, [highlight type="yellow"]sleep quality is more important for life quality than almost anything else[/highlight]. Too little sleep guarantees that I’ll eat crappy, feel crappy, not deal well with my pain, and do little to no work.
Sleep was my original quantified-self project. About a decade ago, I did two experiments simultaneously. Diet-wise I did a high-fat ketogenic diet, and sleep-wise a biphasic sleeping experiment. I bought an expensive sleep tracking device and measured everything, for about a month and a half. Now ten years later, most everyone can do this without buying expensive gadgets — just use your phone and download a free/cheap sleep tracking app like “Sleep as Android” or “Sleep Cycle” for iphone. I’ll be using a few different modes to track my sleep, and a couple different gadgets to try to improve my sleep. For a couple years, I’ve sporadically used blue-light blocking glasses and a dawn-simulating wakeup alarm. But I’ll be using them more often now, and upgrading to improved gadgets soon.
On my sample day, according to my phone app plus my FitBit and JawBone Up devices, [highlight type="yellow"]I slept for 8 hours and 5 minutes, being in deep sleep for 34% of the time and waking up 11 times[/highlight]. The Fitbit was pretty off in some ways (it took me 1.5 hours to fall asleep, which the Fitbit recorded as being mostly asleep), and the phone screwed up once, so I’m still working out the kinks here.
Exercise and Physical Therapy
Oh, exercise. What a bittersweet relationship we have. Between 1999 and 2007, I worked out religiously. I bought a big metal sled, loaded it with weights, strapped it to my torso, and dragged it around the alley while scared onlookers considered calling the cops. For the the past five years, I’ve gone to the gym a few times a year and lifted embarrassingly light dumbbells, sometimes even the little pink ones. And I’ve STILL gotten hurt a couple times! Last year I tried my hand at [highlight type="yellow"]“Body By Science” workouts[/highlight] because they’re much easier on my joints. These workouts have been made popular by Dr. Doug McGuff, but the concept is decades old — lift a small amount of weight very slowly, usually on a machine. One twelve minute session a week will constitute my weightlifting regime, with assorted physical therapy thrown in and some walking to get the blood pumping. My shoulder therapy routine for now is one I learned from Professor Dr. Andro. It’s a bit much for my left shoulder, but I’ll titrate up the reps and experiment with other stuff once my habits are ingrained.
I’ll be tracking steps taken and stairs climbed using a FitBit One, and will loosely track how much formal exercise I do using Fitocracy. On my sample day, I [highlight type="yellow"]walked 6,100 steps, climbed 2 flights of stairs[/highlight] (weak sauce) and did half of my shoulder and hip physical therapy prescription (double weak sauce).
Nutrition and Supplements
This is my favorite part. And not because I’m a nutrition PhD student, but because sustained nutrition experiments can produce surprisingly great results. My base diet will be similar to Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet. The first couple weeks, I’ll try to stick as closely as possible to the book. Then I’ll change it just a bit according to my preferences and thoughts on which supplements I would most benefit from. I’ll post a collage of pictures showing all my meals for the week, and give some basic data points such as calories, carbs, protein, and fat, as well as any highlights for vitamins and minerals. In my test days last week, I ended up with [highlight type="yellow"]1,700 and 2,300 kcals[/highlight], with pretty variable carb levels, and hitting most vitamin and mineral targets. I used Cronometer for tracking.
Every few weeks I’ll get some blood work done — cholesterol, blood sugar, all that jazz. At the last reading, I had super high HDL, pretty high LDL, and good trigs. Half my family is diabetic though, so I gotta be careful, especially with my mega sweet tooth. I’ll also report on more interesting stuff like gene test results and omega-6 / omega-3 ratio.
Meditation and Volunteering
I used to meditate daily, and then it became way too annoying to do while in pain. This might not work, but my current thinking is that it will just take a long time to get used to sitting still by myself with pain, and [highlight type="yellow"]accepting reality[/highlight]. I’ll time my meditation for reporting purposes and use a variety of techniques, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response, some walking meditation, meditating on compassion, and other random stuff. During my test day, I meditated for 11 minutes and it was rough.
Similarly, it’s been ages since I volunteered. The last thing I did was organize a potluck in Boston Common for homeless people, and a good time was had by all. Except when I broke out my gross salmon salad dish. Who makes a mayo-heavy salmon salad for homeless people? Stupid. Then a couple years passed with nothing but focusing on my own issues. So it’s time to get back to volunteering, but I’m going to wait a little bit to start while the rest of my habits are gelling.
Every week I’ll post either a picture of my girlfriend’s cat Chloe doing something amusing, or another cute animal from the web. This is important for Quantified Self efforts because it’s too easy to get caught up in numbers and shit. Lots of people have lived very fulfilling lives without measuring anything, and doing research on animal pictures should remind me each week to chillax. Tomorrow: part 2 of my review of the book “Perfect Health Diet”. The next day: a review of online nutrient-tracking websites. Next Monday: Week 2 of My Quantified Life!