Body Accounting and The Quantified Self

March 3, 2009

Thinking about one of Kevin Kelly’s blogs, The Quantified Self, has me thinking about what those of us who start to get serious about our personal fitness begin to do. We take up some forms of body accounting, maybe starting with using a digital scale to record our weight each morning, or a tape measure around the waist. I record this data for reference and to create a trend line as to where my body mass is going. I also weigh and measure much of the food I eat, or at least gage the calorie amount. This is entered in a sort-of double entry bookkeeping model in my head, where I know that if I fill my body beyond a certain energy level, it will begin to store fat for my future needs. I track my sets and reps and poundages at the gym, and when I do steady-state cardio I record the times and settings. I know there is a dose-response effect curve with exercise, and I measure how much I need verses fatigue and mood variables. Sleep also gets measured, at least in terms of hours in bed.

I suppose I am becoming more of a self-tracker, and I plan to do more of that as technology improves. If better tools existed, we could reach more of our human potential. Check out Kelly’s site – it will give you something to think about.

Not sure how I missed the release, but there is a new book out by Doug McGuff and John Little, who are prominent advocates of high-intensity (single set to failure) weight training. It’s called Body by Science and it looks like it might be worth checking out. Not sure when I will have time to read it, but I will post a review when I get a hold of a copy.  I’m partial to many of the HIT tenants, although I am “self-experimenting” with slightly higher volume right now. One thing I think about every day: I wish I could exercise in a professional noise-free, effort-focused environment like the ones the HIT and SuperSlow advocates favor. The local gym chain where I work out is full of distractions and multiple blaring TV sets, and idle conversations. Not to mention equipment picked for its low cost, and not its superior functionality.


Save Money By Drinking Better Coffee

March 1, 2009

A while back I started to get disgruntled with my morning coffee routine. I’m a habitual coffee drinker who has a good tolerance to the effects of caffeine and I drink multiple mugs full daily. But, I found myself unhappy with the sour, off tastes of my morning brew, and relying more and more on buying mediocre coffee at work or from local by-the-cup shops.

That’s where saving money comes in. Even if you don’t regularly waste calories on lattes and cappuccinos (calorie bombs, anyone?), a large regular coffee or two bought outside the home can add up to a $2-5 expense, per workday. $10-25 per week. That’s roughly $45 out of pocket, and usually much more, especially if you are buying a high-calorie breakfast (extra large bagel or muffin) with your coffee.

I did a lot of reading and researching online, visiting the CoffeeGeek forums among many other websites. Making good coffee doesn’t take much work. Here’s what it does take.

  1. Fresh, good coffee.  Fresh means whole bean. I resisted this at first, because it seems inconvenient.  You can’t get around it. If you don’t grind your own beans, you are drinking a stale tasting cup of coffee. You don’t need an expensive burr grinder, even though they heat and degrade the beans less when breaking them down.  You also need to grind right before you brew to avoid oxidation and the development of staleness.  Also, if you can find a local roaster, use them.  Even premium whole bean coffee from a fancy marketplace has probably been sitting around for more than a month before you purchase it. Consider mail ordering fresh whole beans weekly.
  2. Hot water, 200 degrees F.
  3. Freshly ground coffee in the hot water for about 4 minutes.  7 grams of coffee for each 6 ounces of water. It’s much easier and more consistent than measuring with a tablespoon or coffee measure.  If you are reading blogs about diet and fitness, you need to pick up a quality digital kitchen scale.  Weighing my coffee instead of measuring was one of the most important changes I made to my coffee routine.
  4. Filtering out the grounds, which your quality automatic drip coffee maker does for you, along with heating the water to the right temperature and managing the contact time.  You can use a gold-plated filter to save money and the hassle of stocking paper filters at home.
  5. Not heating the coffee pot, preferably using an insulated pot and no warming plate. If you don’t have one, then set the warmer on low.

So, how can you make it healthier? Coffee’s full of antioxidants, the largest source in the average US diet. Most people tolerate caffeine well, although a few can’t drink coffee due to GI upset or irregular heart rhythms.  To make it healthy, stop putting high calorie cream or half-and-half or trans-fat laden whitener in your drink.  I drink mine with skim milk, which I think improves the mouth feel by adding a small amount of protein, slightly sweet carbohydrate and a trivial amount of fat for depth and richness. I don’t use sugar, or artificial sweetener, since I enjoy the taste of coffee and don’t want the calories.  I count the skim milk in the day’s calories and also get some protein and calcium for my efforts.

If you have an insulated mug, you can bring some of your morning brew to work and not have to buy any coffee out.  Since making a decent cup is difficult at work, I often drink tea during the day.  Now that I’m used to decent tasting coffee, most of what I purchase by-the-cup tastes stale and full of off-flavors.

If you are thinking about upgrading your set-up, first try to clean up your current machine, or even use a commercial descaler to get it in better shape.  Here’s what I use and recommend:

Cuisinart DCC-1200 12-Cup Brew Central Coffeemaker

  • This is a basic, quality automatic drip coffee machine. It isn’t perfect, including brewing into a glass container on a warming plate rather than an insulated mug. But, it has held up to my hard use without breaking or breaking down.  You will want to purchase replacement charcoal filters when you buy the machine, as they get changed every 60 days.

Swissgold Gold Foil Filter 12-c.

  • Better quality than the one that comes with the Cusinart machine, not necessary until you decide you prefer to brew with a mesh filter vs. paper.

Salter 11-Pound Square Stainless-Steel Digital Kitchen Scale

  • If you don’t have one yet, this is an essential part of a diet and fitness oriented kitchen. You can put the grinder on it, zero it, and pour in your beans until you get the canonical 7gm per 6oz water. It’s faster than measuring with a scoop and more accurate.

Krups Fast Touch Coffee Grinders

  • The cost is so much less than using a burr grinder, it’s hard to justify the small increase in quality you would get with the burr.  Only use it for coffee, you don’t want various seed or spice flavors to intermingle.

If you can’t find a local roaster, try ordering beans online.  If you don’t know what you like, start with a medium roast, like a city roast, or talk to your roaster about your preferences.  You can adjust from there, now that you can brew a decent consistent cup for comparison.

Let me know how it goes!


Calories In vs. Calories Out

October 31, 2008

Calorie counting back in vogue? From the NY Times.


Sodium and high blood pressure

October 31, 2008

Here’s the article from The Economist. I eat too much salt, but it isn’t hurting my blood pressure right now (I’m normotensive).  I don’t add any to the food I cook, but it’s present in large quantities in the processed foods I often eat.  What do you do about salt in your diet?


10000 Steps to Fitness Walking

October 11, 2008

How much physical activity do you need

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate activity every week, along with twice weekly strength training sessions, for healthy adults. That comes out to a thirty minute walk, five times per week.  If you engage in more vigirous activity, only 1.25 accumulated hours are needed each week, or less than three 30 minute sessions.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which echos the recommendation of the American Heart Association recommends adults under 65 get moderate activity for at least 30 minutes 5 days per week, or vigorous activity for three 20 minute sessions, along with the resistance training.

You can see where this is going. While exercise fads come and go, the minimum recommendations for health have clearly emerged and been consistent for some time now.  While more exercise may be better to a point (5 hours of moderate activity is better for you than 2.5 hours), there is a minimum amount of physical activity needed to achieve health and longevity benefits.

Making the recommendations work for you

Meeting the minimum recommendations requires only two circuits of strength training weekly, which could be performed inexpensively at the closest fitness club or gym to your home or workplace. A single set of 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 exercises might take only 20 minutes, but could be rounded out with some stationary cycling to keep the heart rate elevated for 30 minutes.  Some may prefer three resistance training sessions per week.  Adding in a 30 minute walk each night after dinner would make out the remainder of the program minimum.

Using a pedometer

Getting in the habit of clipping a pedometer to your belt every day has been proven to be a motivational tool for people who want to increase their level of physical activity. If you walk a lot during the day at school or work, or in the course of running errands, that activity can count towards your daily totals.  Actually, only sessions of activity that last at least 10 minutes should count, but there is some evidence that all activity accumulates and has benefit.

10000 Steps Per Day

10000 Steps Per Day was started in the 1960’s in Japan.  The number seems to represent the equivalent of 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per day, according to the Cooper Institute.  To start using a pedometer to measure steps and meet your minimum physical activity needs, buy a simple pedometer, and start to wear it daily for a week.  You can see where you are at for a baseline of physical activity.  Next, try to add little bits of activity where ever you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, and park further from the entrace to the grocery store. Try to build the habit of the evening “constitutional” walk, with a partner or spouse, the dog, or alone with your iPod.  If it’s bad weather, hit the treadmill at the health club where you do your strength training.


Physical Activity Guidelines 2008

October 9, 2008

The US Department of Health and Human Services has released government guidelines for physical activity.  Nothing groundbreaking. The recommendations for adults:

  • strength training 2 days per week, 8-12 reps for each major muscle group
  • aerobic activity: if moderate, 2.5 hours per week; if vigorous 1.25 hours per week

Moderate is basically going for a walk, something like the daily 30 minute after dinner walk Ellington Darden recommends in his fat loss books. Vigorous activity includes traditional cardio activities, like running, jogging, biking, but also karate and fast dancing.

I have been thinking more about getting a pedometer to wear all day and have some feedback as to my activity level. I walk and move a lot at work, but I rarely get out to exercise in the evenings, other than my strength training.  The best pedometers for me would be small and simple, I really only care about the number of steps I take each day.

More on the guidelines to follow.


New Program for Fall

September 3, 2008

Inspired by Ellington Darden’s article Florida Dreamin’, and his book Flat Stomach ASAP, I’m setting out to do something similar.  If you like Dr. Darden’s writings, check out his short piece called Chiseled Abs: A Little Understanding Means A Lot. He tells it like it is, no b.s., which is unusual in the “abs industry.”  If you don’t know Dr. Darden’s writing, he is associated with the Nautilus and Med-X fitness equipment companies, and most recently with the Bowflex, and has been writing books about fitness for years. His perspective is from the high-intensity training school of strength training, where usually a weight lifting exercise is done for a single set until the trainee can’t lift the weight anymore.  This approach is not the mainstream, but it is consistent with the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine.  Except for the fact that Dr. Darden does not recommend cardiovascular exercise for slimming.  I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if one of his clients were active, walked or played some recreational sports, though.  

So, what am I up to. I will lift 3x/week, a single set to muscular fatigue of: leg press, leg curl, machine crunch, chest press, seated row, overhead seated press, cable pulldown, seated chest flyes, preacher biceps machine, triceps pushdown.  10 exercises, with three seconds of lifting and three seconds of lowering, for 8-12 reps each (increasing the weight when I can get over 12). After the initial workout or two, I will lift as many times as I can until fatigue even if it goes over 12 reps. Then I will increase the weight in the next workout.  Since I get hardly any activity outside of work and exercise, I will start each session with 5 mins on a bike, do my lifting, then return to the bike for whatever time makes it a 20 minute total session.  As long as my heart rate stays elevated, I will comply with the basic exercise recommendations of the AHA/ACSM.  Keep in mind that this is not what Dr. Darden would advise, based on my reading of his works.

Diet plan will be 1500 calories per day. Less than the 1900 in the Florida Dreamin’ article, because I am older, fatter and less active.  It will be as follows:

Breakfast (400 calories): 2 large omega-3 eggs, 1 packet instant oatmeal (TJ’s Heart Healthy flavored brand), 1 cup strawberries, coffee, 1/2 cup skim milk.  Alternative: 2 frozen TJ’s blueberry waffles, 2 T maple syrup, 1 cup strawberries, 1/2 cup skim milk, coffee

Lunch (400 calories): 2 slices 100% whole wheat bread, 3 oz deli chicken/turkey, 1 oz slice Jarlsberg lite, 1 T sweet pickle relish, 1 T light mayo, 2 tomato slices.  Alternative: 2 slices whole wheat, 1 T light mayo, 1 T relish, 1/2 can tuna, 1/2 apple, 1/2 cup canned corn (recipie from Dr. Darden’s site)

Dinner (400 calories): choice of frozen meal: for example TJ’s Kung Pao Chicken Rice Bowl, or Lean Cusine Comfort Classics Chicken Parmesean + 1 1/2 slices whole wheat bread (to make the calories up to 400), etc. See this article by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for a list of better frozen meal options.  I realize this isn’t for everyone, but for a time pressed bachelor it makes sense to enable having some variety and calorie control with no waste, cooking, cleaning, or time wasting.  I stole the idea from Dr. Darden’s article.  It’s hard to be too specific on the meals right now, depends on what’s in the store or on sale.  Alternative if I want to cook: 1/2 cup dry whole what pasta, 3 oz grilled chicken, 1 cup broccoli, 1 t olive oil, 2-3 T pasta sauce.

Snacks (300 calories):  2 string cheese sticks, apple, orange.  May substitute in some almonds, yogurt, etc.  Right now I have some string cheese to use up.

Shortfalls?  Well, obviously there isn’t enough vegetation.  It probably technically hits the 400 gram “five a day” standard but mostly because of fruit.  Right now I am going for convenience, and a way to avoid calorie bombs when I get home late and feel wiped out. Usually I order some take out, and have some beers. Frozen entrees are not necessarily health food, but I am looking for improvement not perfection. I will be looking to make it more healthy after I pick up some momentum.  

The other shortfall is so little exercise. We’ll see how it goes. The scale and the mirror will tell the tale, and I can adapt from there.