Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Adventure + Scaring the crap out of yourself + Making a story you'll tell for a lifetime = Fitness

Isn't it great when you experience a challenge and adventure that generates a story that you tell for the rest of your life? There's something unique and differentiating about these adventures – like mountain climbs. Maybe it's the small-scale petty stresses and too-frequent inanities of modern life that throw unique events in remote landscapes into stark relief, not just the fact that you're stretching your personal limits; pushing the envelope in a way you were not sure was possible.

"Sensation seeking" and novelty is also part of our evolutionary past. Professor Marvin Zuckerman has done a lot of research on this issue. We have a built-in drive for novel, even risky contexts that manifest themselves differently in people. Here's an excerpt from a Q&A with Prof. Zuckerman called The Genetic Basis For Risk Seeking:

Question: Was sensation-seeking a factor in human evolution?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well we can surmise that particularly since a particular gene has been found to be related to sensation-seeking, a dopamine receptor gene. So that means it’s been there a long time. Well, actually they estimate though that it’s been – not all evolution maybe 50,000-100,000 years old in our species, this particular gene but there may be genes that are older even. But you see this in other – the point is, you see what I call emalogues of sensation-seeking behavior in other species. In fact, a lot of my work is compared sensation-seeking expressions exploration approach to novelty in other species. And I explored to the extent that do they have the same biological roots in humans and in other species. So, in that sense we look at evolution – we have a modern test of evolution when you can find something that exists in humans in earlier species, particularly primates ****, but also even in rats, when you can find this and it’s linked to the same biological indicators in both humans and other animals. That indicates it has an evolutionary history rather it’s more than merely an analogy. Well this looks like what we do. But it’s more than that, it’s the fact that it looks like sensation-seeking and has the same biological roots.


I'm climbing the Monch and the Jungfrau in about a month with a guide. I'm now training specifically in earnest for it – heavy-pack hiking and weights. Remember, specificity is what training for an event is all about.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

How Sports Tracking Software Estimates Calories

A lot of fitness issues like weight are ruled by hormones. Similar to messaging software, objects talking to each other, hormones relay messages to the body about breaking down fats (growth hormone; glucagon), for example, or storing fats and grabbing amino acids from the bloodstream (insulin), or telling the brain that "I'm not hungry anymore" (leptin). Leptin is an interesting biochemical because it is mostly synthesized by fat itself, and is designed to inhibit hunger by acting on the hypothalamus.

This anatomical reality of hormones affecting hunger and fat storage makes counting calories alone a simplistic strategy for managing weight, but it still has its place.

A longterm calorie deficit, if somehow you manage not to put them back, will result in some weight loss. Or you might have your own reasons for aggregating calories burned, such as goal-reaching or motivation ("hey, I burned 30,000 extra calories last month!"). At any rate, your sports tracking software probably estimates the calories you are burning and spits out a number all the time.

How do they do it?

As I've mentioned before, they start with your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the baseline amount of calories you'll burn in one hour just keeping your internal systems (like the heart beating) going: about 70 calories for a 154 pound male.

The BMR is higher for a larger person, and slightly higher for males. A rough estimate of the BMR for women is 0.9 times your weight in kilograms (e.g., the hourly calorie burn for a woman weighing 64 kilograms or about 140 pounds is about 58). For men, the hourly BMR rate is 1.0 times their weight in kilograms.

You've probably entered your height, weight, and gender in the sports tracking software's preferences, and this "data" goes into the software's algorithms for estimating calories expended.

But this is only part of the picture; a bigger factor might be how you configure your sports activity first (such as running or cycling).

The way Endomondo seems to do it is by the activity you choose in the app, before it starts tracking the workout. For example, if I ride for one hour in "mountain biking" mode, as I did yesterday, the app estimates almost 850 calories expended. However, if I change the mode to "cycling transport" and ride for an hour, on the same course, the app only chalks up 350 calories. Huge difference. They don't seem to take into account factors such as elevation gained and lost, meaning how much climbing you're doing.

So there is obviously some software in there making assumptions about the exertion level of each mode of exercise. They figure a mountain-bike ride involves steep climbing, bouncing off roots, more mental concentration/stress, etc. For the sake of accuracy, you have to try to choose your exercise mode carefully, to get an accurate calorie-expenditure count, if you care about that.

Your tool might be overestimating your calorie count by a factor of 100 percent (I actually think Endomondo underestimates the calories expended by weight training).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Never Cry Wolf": The Wisdom of The Ages

In the wonderful, now older film Never Cry Wolf, based on the autobiographical book by Farley Mowat, a couple of things crossed paths with research and thinking I had done while writing the FFG book.

The movie is about a biologist who's dropped onto the Alaskan tundra alone to study the caribou and wolf, and basically fend for himself, which he's not very good at in the beginning. A couple of Inuit hunters take him under their wing; they teach the naive but eager, willing scientist about how to connect with the animals and the spiritual ethos of the northern wilderness. He's de-modernized, in other words, the baggage of civilization seems to palpably fall off of him.

You get the impression the biologist had arrived with untapped potential. When he discovers that the wolves are actually living off of hundreds of mice per day in the temporary absence of the giant caribou herd, he begins living exclusively off of roasted mice, to test the theory that a large mammal can thrive on limited, crunchy carniverous offerings. It's kind of gross but comical. The narration notes that he "does well" on the mice diet. (He had been eating cans of asparagus.)

At one point one of the Inuits talks about spoiling his encounter with a woman by smiling and revealing the gaps in his teeth: "that's what happens when a meat eater becomes a sugar eater," he ruefully admits.

Later the hunter tells the story, in the guise of a mythical narrative that's passed from generation to generation, about how the wolf saved the caribou herd by killing the weak and the old, leaving the "healthy and fat" caribou for the Inuits. Caribou meat, fat, and organs clearly were and are important, if not vital, food sources for traditional people living in arctic regions (similar to the Plains Indians of the 18th and 19th centuries).

In many ways, we are all meat and plant eaters who've become sugar eaters, not just sweets but all the cereal, muffins, bagels, crust, waffles, etc. with not so good results. We could also use the fat and organs of healthy ruminant animals too. We urban types are closer to those Inuit guys than we think (the movie is really about how the biologist has discovered himself).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When Little Things Add Up In The Fitness Realm

Odd, random things I did yesterday that I wrote about in the book: I had an intermittent fast; 17 hours between meals and 14 hours without any eating; I used an equation to estimate a repetition maximum, based on a sub-maximal weight (see below).

Woody Allen has a line in Annie Hall that goes something like "a relationship is like a shark – it has to keep moving forward or it will die." I have to keep moving too; I'm like that shark (although I hope not tempermentally). I've always had trouble with office settings for any length of time. After a while I feel like a caged animal, and have to get up, move around, leave the room, go outside.

I'm also pretty good at not moving (I try to sleep a lot). The difference, however, between being stationary and motorized (living out of your car) as opposed to active can be quite profound in the longterm. It's an example of how little things add up for your fitness.

Someone who expends 200 calories per day more than another, simply because they take one moderate-sized walk and are fidgety throughout the day (they accumulate more steps) burns 24 more pounds in a year (two pounds a month) than that other person. And that doesn't involve any dietary changes (although it would help if the diet focused on real food) or formal physical training. It might involve more playing, however, like tubing and running back up the snow hill.

This study also points out that getting up and walking every 20 minutes makes a rather substantial difference for the all-important glucose and insulin metabolism: "Interrupting sitting time with short bouts of light- or moderate-intensity walking lowers postprandial glucose and insulin levels in overweight/obese adults."

Lots of things, you find, fall into that "seems innocuous at the moment but may make a significant health difference longterm" category, like cold-water exposure. The moral of the story is – be fidgety; keep an open mind, try new things, even if they seem kooky.

Repetition Max

The repetition max is the most weight you can lift for an exercise like the bench press. This is a sometimes dangerous thing to test on your own if you're not properly spotted by another person. Therefore, you can estimate your RM using a fairly accurate equation: (# of reps / 30) + 1 * weight lifted. So if someone did 6 reps of 175 pounds, then their RM would be about 210 pounds (see Chapter 8 of the book).