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!

February going by fast, almost Spring!

February 17, 2009

If you have been following along, I’m still around 180 pounds at 6 feet 2 inches. Normal BMI.  Exercising three times per week with weights, and doing steady-state cardio 1-3 times as time permits. Work has gotten busier, and I have been eating a little more than usual. Probably some combination of winter blahs, job related stress, and increased muscle driving my metabolism to burn a little hotter than in past months.

I’m following a program from Tom Baechle & Roger Earle’s fantastic Fitness Weight Training.  Except for an editor naming the programs “Body Sculpting” and the like, the information is solid and conservative. It isn’t single set to failure, which is an effective and sensible way to train. However, I decided to add volume to my workout, and periodize variables, to see how I respond. If you are thinking about starting to exercise, that book is written by two highly respected exercise scientists, who have held leadership positions in national organizations. They have program descriptions that allow you to use a variety of equipment, and nothing exotic that you won’t feel comfortable doing at your local fitness center.  If you are heading north of 50 years old, you might find that latest edition of Wayne Westcott’s Strength Training Past 50 to be useful instead.

So, the above program, plus a somewhat low calorie maintenance diet of mostly healthy foods (whole grains, 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables, nuts, making some attempt to reduce saturated fats  in meat and dairy) along with sensible lifestyle habits.  It’s working well.  I’m still going to try to tear it up and get down to around 170 lbs. by summertime just for the experience of having a near six-pack, but I am certain that will be a hungry ordeal.  Full details to follow, as they become available.

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?

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.

Calorie poisoning

August 22, 2008

Here’s an older post from a practitioner of calorie restriction for longevity purposes, called “Calorie Poisoning: Civilisation’s Exploding Killer Disease“.  While I’m working on getting to a normal BMI for health reasons, and aesthetic reasons, there is a lot of food for thought in the article.

9 Ways to Save Money and Eat Healthy

August 7, 2008
  1. Start the day with breakfast at home. No expensive and fattening bagels or muffins on the run to work. Even on weekends, you don’t really need that lumberjack special, have something better for you, home made. At least you can have real maple syrup on your frozen waffles like I do.
  2. No coffee out. I wish I would consistently follow this one myself. Most of my pocket cash goes to these sellers of adrenalin by the cup. Not that coffee is so unhealthy, just expensive unless you make it at home. And you can take it with you.
  3. Brown bag your lunch. Try the eBags Lunch Cooler, or something similar. I usually bring a sandwich, with quality nitrate-free fillings which are much better than what I would get at a deli or cafeteria. Bring along some fruit for a side. If you have the patience to get it ready, a big salad with some chicken on it can work as well.
  4. No take out! This can be a diet and a budget killer. Nothing like ordering out after a long and hard day at work. Think instead about easy, lazy cook at home weeknight meals. If you are a crusty bachelor consider adding some quality frozen entrées to your regimen.
  5. Rely on frozen vegetables. After a completely unscientific analysis of where my wastage was going in the kitchen, these were the findings. From my greengrocer, into my refrigerator, into my trash. Plans change, and produce goes bad quickly. Quality frozen vegetables are pre-washed, precut, and cook up fast in the microwave. Some butter or olive oil, some spice, and you have a healthy side dish.
  6. Plan and eat three meals per day, not an endless array of grazing and snacking. You will be surprised at how much you can save in terms of cash and calories by not keeping snack food on hand.
  7. Eat the same things over and over again. Admit it to yourself. Even if you are nowhere near as repetitive as Slowfit, you probably have a limited number of things you eat for your meals. When you hit the grocery store, do it with a plan.  Run through your typical meals in your head and make sure you have enough of the usual not to run out for a few days.
  8. No nutritional supplements. If you feel compelled to waste money, a cheap store brand multi-vitamin may be a lesser evil.  You will find more and more people pushing these on you, since they are a high margin, recurring purchase. Say no!
  9. Be careful of organic and local, artesian products. I love the idea, too, but they are often 50-150% more expensive than mass produced varieties. Stick with what you can afford, and what you enjoy. A trip to Whole Foods can blow a middle-class food budget in no time at all.