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The Change

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 2: The Change

When I was obsessed with Cryptography, I learned about this cool photo. It was on the desk of William F. Friedman who ran a government agency that we now call the N.S.A. In the photo, his World War I, cryptanalysis students were instructed to tilt their heads precisely to make a binary encoding of the message “Knowledge is Power”.

Knowledge is Power

Riverbank Graduating Class, c. 1918

Cryptography was an obsession. My adult life has been a series of intellectual obsessions. I’ve kept a journal over the years that logs these obsessions, going back to 1985. I now keep it in Evernote. Here’s an excerpt from the early 2000s.

08/05 PUZZLES Sudoku Generation
11/05 Printable Mazes
12/05 AUTOMATA Clocks, Automata
12/05 Kakuro Generation (& books)
12/05 Krypto Kakuros
01/06 Wooden Clock Build

My intellectual life is a cycle – when I’m at the peak of an obsession, I’m learning about something, I’m buying books about it, I’m building things. Then, over time, my interest wanes. I feel scattered. I am interested in a few things simultaneously. Then something new (or a revisit of something old) comes along, and then I am obsessed anew, and the wave crests again.

This very blog has been a document of some of these obsessions. Automata, mechanical music instruments, computer chess, mockingbird song analysis, electronic music, puzzle construction, and so on. The topics cover a fairly wide range, but there are a few common factors: 1) computers are usually involved. 2) math is usually involved. 3) They tend to be fairly abstract.

For most of my adult life, these obsessions were the tool that kept me away from the things I disliked. Thinking about my current living situation. My family. My body. My mortality.

So, because I had engineered such a perfect system for avoiding thinking about my health, and my impending demise, it has always been extremely unpleasant for me to contemplate improving my health, because it runs counter to my basic life coping strategy.

The last time I lost a significant amount of weight, when I was approaching my 40s, I joined Weight Watchers. This is what my obsession journal looks like from that period:

08/99-09/99 Computer Chess MuChess (reprise)
09/99 Depression
10/99 Losing Weight, Weight Watchers  (lost 50 lbs, down to about 185 lbs)
11/99 PDFLib
11/99 Lego Robots
12/99 Depressed
02/00 Constellations, Astronomy Trigger: Barnes and Noble – browsing science rack, “Stars” by H.A.Ray
03/00 Apache/Perl/Website (big website update)
03/00 Algorithmic Flash/Perl Generator

What I see is that for a period of time – basically starting in October 1999, I made losing weight one of my obsessions. This obsession lasted for a few months, and I managed to lose about 50 pounds, getting down to the same weight I am now, in the first few months of 2000.

In other words, during that period, I made weight loss my hobby. I devoted a lot of intellectual energy to it. I remember I had a PDA (Palm Pilot) during that period, and I used it to log stuff. I worked out the 1999 version of the Weight Watchers points formula, and wrote little pieces of software to do conversions. I did a lot of logging and journaling. I gained a lot of insight, much of which I later forgot, and some of which I relearned this year.

The log shows that my other hobbies didn’t go away. I kept them up. Over time, the Weight Watchers routine because easier, and I didn’t have to devote as much mental energy to it. My other hobbies increased, and at some point, the amount of mental energy I devoted to Weight Watchers dropped to zero. At some point, I don’t know when, I stopped weighing myself. I don’t know when because when it happened, I was already asleep at the wheel.

This year, in many respects, the change has been very similar. Around March 1st, I made health and fitness my primary hobby. I started logging stuff in a spreadsheet. Here’s the first few lines of that spreadsheet.

Fri, Mar 4, 2016    240.5   cereal+milk, 12 oz salad / minestrone soup, bbq chicken salad, tequila)
Sat, Mar 5, 2016    240     veg. omelet,fruit,corn tortillas,   3 tacos,  trail mix, popcorn)
Sun, Mar 6, 2016    239     egg muffin, large cafe au lait w non-fat, home-made sandwich on thin-sliced bread + veggies, chili with celery, fruit)

At this point, I was simply weighing myself every morning, and keeping track of what I ate. I wasn’t counting calories. From my previous experience, I knew roughly how I used to eat when I was on Weight Watchers, so I mimicked that. I remembered that it was better to have 3 moderate meals, rather than the 2 giant ones I was used to. So I made sure to have a little breakfast, and then I ate more sensible foods for lunch and dinner. I didn’t starve myself, but I definitely didn’t gorge, and I stayed away from between meal snacks.

Most importantly, I thought about what I was doing. I remember at this point, toying with the idea of going back to Weight Watchers, and I could have, it probably would have been fine. But I felt like I was smart enough to do the same basic activities on my own.

Weight Watchers has two basic components: 1) The System, and 2) The support (the meetings). When I was on Weight Watchers, I never got a huge boost from the support elements. The meetings didn’t always do it for me, and I felt like a bemused spectator much of the time. This might be a “guy” thing, akin to my desire not to ask for directions, or the location of items at the supermarket. I don’t know. But I found the system useful, because it worked for me. At the same time, I felt like the system was dumbed down a bit. It was designed to avoid calorie counting by replacing it with a simple “points” system.

I remember, at Weight Watchers, we were encouraged not to weigh ourselves every single day. Instead, we were advised to weigh ourselves just once a week, at the Weight Watchers center, so that day-to-day minor weight fluctuations wouldn’t get us down, and we’d just see the overall average. So in some respects, the system is a kind of filtering, or smoothing a trove of more complicated underlying data. I imagine this is appealing to the math-phobic.

But I’m a nerd. I’m not afraid of the details. So why not expose myself to the underlying data, rather than masking it behind a layer of abstraction? Why not weigh myself every single day? Why not weigh myself even more often? What happens if I weigh myself before and after I poop? How much does poop weigh? How much does pee weigh? Perhaps by exposing myself to these minor weight fluctuations, I could understand more deeply how my body works, and what affects weight gain and loss.

So, over the next few weeks, my logs grow more detailed. Perhaps more detailed than you care to read…

Date                Wt     Cals-In Cals-Out Deficit Food                                                                               notes
Wed, Mar 23, 2016   231.5  1,700   3,391   1,691   apple, pistachios, coffee, sm tan tan ramen w egg, orange, sandwich, fruit  none    first full day with fitbit, 234.5 in evening (no poops this day)
Thu, Mar 24, 2016   232.5  2,010   4,516   2,506   yogurt, 12 oz salad, 12 oz soup, 12 oz chili, apple, 12 oz chili, 2 oranges, nuts, pudding  none    griffith park hike made me hungry so i ate more when i got home, 234 on scale
Fri, Mar 25, 2016   231    2,050   4,149   2,099   yogurt, moussaka, cod, veggies, sm orange, garlic pork, handful pistachios  small #5    gonna try to reduce more carbs and increase protein 234.5 in evening

Now my obsession was coming into full bloom. I couldn’t get enough data. I was measuring my food more precisely. I was tracking caloric intake, by using Google to look up nutritional information for the foods I was eating, and I got a Fitbit (Charge HR), so I could track Calorie expenditure.

I was even keeping track of my poops, and how they affected my weight. I learned something I didn’t know before: my poops follow a cycle (just like my obsessions). I won’t poop for a day or two, and then I’ll have a series of them over a few days that ascend the Bristol Stool Scale, typically going from about a 2 to a 5 (sometimes up to a 7). Fascinating. Disgusting, but fascinating.

And the mantra I kept repeating to myself, at this point? Knowledge is Power. The same elaborate edifice I had constructed to avoid thinking about mortality was now a tool I could use to fight against it. I was shining a bright light where none had shown before.

Next: Old Age Superpowers

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