Saturday, May 19, 2012

How I Lost the Beach Ball

How I Lost the Beach Ball

This is how I got back into control of my weight, in case it might be of value to anyone else.

In my 30's my weight was stable at a dumpy but manageable 220 lbs.

My adult weight from late 20's to late 30's: 220 lbs

Sometimes in martial arts practice I would suspect that an injury was partly due to my excess weight, so I would try to lose a bit to lighten the load on my joints, but it never stayed off for very long, I dropped as low as 180 for a few months but I always came back to 220. 

In those days, the most successful technique I had found was relying on the prepackaged convenience foods from NutriSystem and combining that with a lot of low intensity activity.  Those were never permanent habits though and when I stopped them the weight came right back. 

Then in my late 30's, I started gaining steadily again beyond the previous 220 and when I hit about 260, all hell started breaking loose with my health.  My wife Sue would tell me my breathing was stopping during sleep, I had almost constant reflux sensations, and even more frightening, my feet started getting sores that weren't healing.  One night I woke up choking on my own reflux and it terrified me to the point that I pretty much assumed I was going to die soon if I didn't lose a lot of weight. I don't have a picture of myself at 260 and I'm not sure I want to see one.  Here is me at 240.  This is gross enough to give the sense of where I was headed.  I was 260 pounds in June of 2005 at the age of 46.

240 lbs.  20 pounds less than my heaviest 
Age 38: 240 lbs - I swallowed a Beach Ball and was still growing!

Being that obese and motivated that strongly, it wasn't terribly difficult to lose about 70 pounds over the next 4 months.  However my strategy this time was long term.  Based on the fact that I had been so successful with NutriSystem, I came up with a strategy based on what I thought was the principle that made NutriSystem so successful temporarily.  I combined convenient rationed meals with new activity habits. 

I came up with small set of convenient meals that I liked which I felt I could turn into permanent habits rather than a temporary weight loss strategy.  Things that I wouldn't mind shopping for, preparing, and eating indefinitely.  My criteria were that the portions had to be reasonable yet satisfying, and not things that triggered me to eat huge amounts, and other than a limit of about 400 cals per meal, the only nutritional guidelines I gave myself were to keep the overall glycemic load as low as possible and to include as much protein and fiber as possible.  These were intended as satiety factors that prevented me from being hungry while on a calorie deficit as well as being intended to help address the insulin resistance I was pretty sure was responsible for a lot of my health problems as well as being a factor in my weight gain. These rules still guide my every meal, they have become easier and easier to apply, and now I don't even think about them and I don't feel like I'm dieting.  I also splurge once a week on high glycemic foods just so I have a day set aside to break the rules and in theory maybe re-calibrate my leptin levels.  Mostly just so I have a day set aside for special treats and I strictly avoid hedonic or trigger eating at other times.

I established new sustainable eating habits, and started walking a lot in the park, which I love. I also fasted periodically because it gave me a motivational boost to realize I had gotten so much control over my eating habits and it gave me the sense that I could make the scale move virtually by force of will if I needed to.  That sense of control was I think one of the big success factors in the long run, not just the fact that I was fasting or just eating less. When I started adding exercises to my walks it also helped me feel like I was in a lot more control. I could see my strength and mobility improving as well as my weight diminishing.

Losing the Beach Ball:  June 2005 through December 2006

By the time the sleep apnea study I had scheduled came around, that problem was already gone and my dropping Hemoglobin A1C was evidence that my insulin sensitivity was probably improving.  My triglycerides and HDL also improved dramatically.  For me at least this pretty much cinched the conclusion that health and obesity were directly related and kept me motivated to maintain the habits I'd established if I found myself starting to drift from them.  Here's what I look like at 190, not exactly lean but I've at least lost the beach ball and my health is a world better. And still improving.

I've been continuing to track my bodyweight for the past few years to help maintain a longer range perspective.  These dramatically show the struggle of trying to bring bodyweight down when it is NOT terribly high to begin with.  It's a whole different problem.  You can see the constant fluctuations and the slow overall progress over time as well as the occasional slip ups.  But over time, the right sustainable habits keep dragging the weight down kicking and screaming.  It looks nothing like the dramatic progress I was able to see when I shifted from terrible habits to good ones and lost the beach ball.  But it still shows gradual progress.  And that's fine with me right now.

Here's a short term graph showing what my weight fluctuations typically look like when I have good control of my eating and activity habits for about a month and a half.  If I were focusing on the short term only, this would probably be pretty discouraging I think. However it is actually a progression.  

Short term relative stability over a month and a half
Watch what happens if I expand the graph out to about 9 months.  You still see the local stability and constant ups and downs, but you also begin to see the overall trend over time.  One of the reasons people give up is that they expect to keep making dramatic changes, they don't realize they are still making slow progress and they get discouraged.  Or they try radical changes rather than manageable new habits and they find them unsustainable.  This is actually a sustained degrading trend of about a pound a month on average.  It just isn't a continuous one, it has constant fluctuations in different time scales.  And there is plenty of backsliding.  But the trend never stops because the habits are maintained and altered over time experimentally to work better.  It isn't an optimal loss rate but it is a successful one in the long term because there is nothing about it that isn't permanently sustainable.

And here's what it looks like if I throw away the good habits for a few months.  My weight goes right back into the stratosphere.  A natural experiment that happened when I got involved in a particularly challenging project, and gave into the stress by minimizing my workouts and going back to eating whatever I wanted to comfort myself.

Lessons Learned

1.  Being fat as a result of poor eating and activity habits was rapidly, though not easily, reversed by creating new healthier habits.

2.  I deliberately devised a small set of convenient meals that I enjoyed but which also contained large amounts of protein and fiber and fluids for satiety, added reasonable amounts of fats (mostly unsaturated) while keeping total calories at about 400 per meal and kept overall glycemic load of every meal very low.

3.  I kept glycemic load low by avoiding breads and pastas almost entirely, except in small amounts along with protein and fiber.  

4.  When I need a snack, it is almost always lean protein or a small amount of nuts for friendly fats. Never sugars or starches, which I find makes me feel hungrier.  Sometimes if I'm really hungry between meals but I want to maintain a calorie deficit I'll have a "Zone" style snack of protein, low glycemic carbs, and friendly fats.  That usually satisfies me for a while.

5.  When I had a large calorie deficit all week, it seemed to help to add a cheat day a week, which put a few pounds back on but which were then quickly lost again the weight dropped even further.

6.  I added routine varied activities every day that I enjoy and whenever possible do them first thing in the morning.

7.     I remind myself that I'm in control of my habits by fasting for 24 hrs once a week.

8.  I don't fight myself, I leverage habits that I enjoy but also take me closer to my goals.

9.  I remember that the long term is what matters, not the daily fluctuations.  I don't let daily changes throw me off track once I establish new habits that work.  I track things on a daily basis but I don't react to them on a daily basis, and if I see a problem I adjust my routines every week or two based on the trend.  I use moving averages and trends to measure progress, and how my clothes fit, rather than reacting to the scale every day.

10.  Losing weight further became a different problem than initially losing massively excess weight.  Maintaining the same habits caused progress to slow but not stop.  I would probably have to create a new set of different habits to drop significantly more weight more rapidly.  My body eventually adapted to my initial changes.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Review:  You Are Your Own Gym

by Mark Lauren
Kindle edition available, review based on Kindle edition.
Text-to-Speech enabled on Kindle version.
165 pages.
Ballantyne Books (Random House)

Link to full review on Amazon

In a nutshell:  A lot of useful and clever exercise variations, good use of periodization for long term training goals, a number of good sample routines with progressions, very solid, practical advice for practical fitness through bodyweight exercise.  Straight to the point: exercises, protocols, and sample progressions.  A few tips of nutrition but mostly focuses on exercise.  Some of the protocols are tricky at first but the associated iPad app makes them a lot easier to learn if you can train with an iPad next to you.  A useful reference if you are interested in bodyweight training.  See the full version of the review on Amazon for more details.

Amazon review:

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book Review: The Blind Spot by William Byers

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

William Byers

Princeton University Press, 2011

Full review on Amazon.

Interesting food for thought, a reason for some humility, and an argument for perspectivism

I got some real value out of this book because it made me think more deeply about an important and fundamental philosophical problem, the problem of knowability.  How well do we directly know the universe we live in, and how well can even our best explanations really help us grasp it?  In the Western intellectual tradition, the question goes all the way back to the ancients, and we still frame it in much the same way they did.  The problem is fairly obvious to any reasonably reflective person I think, but I suspect most people tend to assume it is either an illusion or something of little consequence.
We have come to understand a massive number of details about our existence in various ways through science and we have discovered that with a bit of ingenuity, we can use mathematics to describe and predict the behavior of real things remarkably well.  This gives many of us the sense that we can grasp just about anything about our existence in the same way.  Afterall, from the modern humanistic point of view, what else is there besides our scientific causal explanations, our mathematical models, and our various superstitions? 

Byers seems to be playing something like the mischievous role of Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park here in some ways. He is telling us that we shouldn't be so certain that we really understand everything the way we think we do.  Nature will always surprise us.  And he is not saying this because he thinks we should believe in miracles or because science doesn't work as well as we think.  He is saying it because science and mathematics cover the universe as we experience it rather like a lumpy carpet covers a smooth floor.  You can push down the lumps, but they always pop up again somewhere else. 

Our ability to explain our existence doesn't quite map to the totality of that existence in any uniform way.  We end up taking different perspectives on the same things in order to understand what we perceive.  This need to take different perspectives is "ambiguity." Our sense of certainty about what we understand, the perception of smooth areas of carpet, is not an illusion, but neither is it absolute, perfectly generallizable, not even entirely objective.  We tend to ignore ambiguity when we see it because it makes us feel uncomfortable.  Byers claims this discomfort creates a permanent blindspot in our perception of our own existence. 

The central theme of the book is that there are many different expressions of ambiguity in nature, and that they are all expressions of the same underlying limitation in our ability to grasp nature in terms of concepts and symbols.  It isn't just that there are some problems more difficult than others, it may be, according to Byers, that some difficulties are impossible to resolve permanently, they will always appear again in another form whenever we grasp them.  Blindspot tells us that something about the territory makes it fundamentally unmappable in any complete and consistent sense.  This, for Byers, drives us to keep trying to explain by grappling with the ambiguity in nature.

Byers makes some fascinating points and uses a lot of good examples from mathematics and science to make his points.  Most of the examples will be familiar to avid readers of science and math.  They include the usual suspects such as Godel's Incompleteness, Heisenberg's Uncertainty, wave/particle duality, the problem of the objective and subjective perspectives, intentionality, self-reference, and so on. Byers also draws on his own field of mathematics for some less well trodden examples such as real number theory and differential vs. integral calculus. 

While this book is definitely worthwhile in my opinion, I don't quite share the same excitement as some of the other reviewers because I also found it very repetitive and for me personally it sometimes seems to jump from point to point without really taking on important points in the detail they deserve.  I think this impression I get comes from Byers background in mathematics.  He will often start to talk about something I find really interesting, like the problem of intentionality or the problem of mental causation, but quickly turn it back into a logical question instead of exploring the scientific or philosophical questions in more detail.  I suppose my criticism is that Byers seems to be a "math" but not a "polymath" and the ambitious topic he has taken on may require someone with deep understanding of many different fields, since the thesis is that the blindspot is not just a quirk of mathematics but of our symbolic and conceptual abilities in general.

Ultimately I think the claim Byers is making is basically that the perception of clear understanding of nature is a local phenomenon not a global one because we can never get rid of the problem of incompatible but valid perspectives.  We can make the carpet perfectly smooth in an area, but we can never make the whole carpet completely smooth.  The "consilience" of nature's laws will never have a final expression in one scheme because we can't ever reconcile the different viewpoints that: (1) accurately describe situations, (2) are each self-consistent, and (3) are not only different but incompatible with each other. 

From my perspective, I think Byers has identified the problem in a legitimate way, but his logical arguments don't really convince me that the problem of perspectives is forever irreconcileable.  I agree with him that we should take the problem(s) more seriously than we do, since we usually wave this sort of problem away through various tactics.  I also agree that we should incorporate the challenge of multiple perspectives in our thinking.  It is not clear to me that the lumps are an intrinsic part of nature, or that they are all manifestations of the same blind spot, and Byers doesn't seem to me to exhibit the depth and breadth of scientific knowledge across the various relevant disciplines to make that point stick, but it does seem reasonable to think of them that way until we have actually smoothed them out and to take Byers' claim seriously as at least a sensible policy and a reason for humility.