Non-deadly, yet perhaps actinic rays

Sun shining through a lily flower.

I went for a long-for-me, 7.22-mile run this morning, and listened to a podcast about light therapy.

(I go back and forth on listening to podcasts during runs. When I listen I feel like I miss out on being fully embodied in my physical activity. When I don’t listen I fall behind on stuff I really want to listen to. Today I listened.)

The podcast had Paleo Magazine‘s Ashleigh Van Houten interviewing Scott Nelson, the founder of Joovv, talking about the health benefits of exposing your skin to red and near-infrared light. I’d heard about this, but had assumed it was some woo-woo new-agey thing. Turns out it’s probably not. There’s been a huge amount of research on the benefits of exposing your skin to red light in the 660-nanometer and near-infrared light in 850-nanometer range.

(There was apparently a lot of research funded by NASA back in the 1990s when they had to use lasers to get light of just the right frequency. Nowadays LEDs make it easy to get the intensity and frequency of light that you want.)

So, I’m out on my run, listening to Ashleigh and Scott talk about all the health benefits to your skin (of the red light) and to deeper connective tissues (of the near-infrared) and thinking that it all sounds really cool, but knowing that I’m probably never going to want to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars to buy a device that will shine bright red light on my skin.

At around the mid-point, maybe 4 miles into my run, I paused for a drink of water out of the fountain in Morrissey Park, thinking it was pretty hot for just 8:40 AM . Which made me think of this giant glowing orb in the sky, which was shining down on me with pretty intense light at a wide range of frequencies, most definitely including red and near-infrared.

Turns out, sure enough—the energy in the red and near-infrared frequencies of sunlight is right in the range of therapeutic doses shown to have health benefits.

Of course, full sunlight is full of other frequencies of light, including blue (prone to mess up your circadian rhythm if you’re exposed too close to bedtime, but just what you want to get your circadian rhythm set correctly if you get your exposure in the early morning like I was doing), and ultraviolet (dangerous in excess, but the UV index was zero when I started my run at 7:40 AM and probably didn’t reach 5 before I was safely back indoors). So you need to treat sunlight with respect. But I already knew that.

I have mentioned before that I feel better when I spend a lot of time outdoors, and have speculated that sun exposure is part of the reason. (Along with time in nature, moving more, appropriate quantities of community and solitude, etc.) The information about red and near-infrared light exposure seems to lean a bit in the sunlight direction—but with the welcome news that it’s not just the vitamin D that helps make me feel better, which means maybe I can feel great without having to expose myself so much to the deadly actinic rays of the sun.

Maybe there are non-deadly actinic rays!

Doing hard things

I occasionally choose to do hard things.

In the book Own the Day, Own Your Life Aubry Marcus suggests making your brain chemistry work for you by creating small successes, especially early in the day: Decide that you’re going to do something, and then do it. Even a small thing—deciding to mediate for 5 minutes and then doing so—gives you a little dopamine hit. That makes you feel better immediately, and possibly for the rest of the day. More to the point, repeatedly achieving small successes like this gradually boosts your capability: You can decide to do harder things (get in your workout, go for a run, write 5 pages of your novel) and then do them.

In an episode of her Move Your DNA podcast, Katy Bowman juxtaposes the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you set yourself to do something that you know will be hard and then carry through all the way to completion, with the feeling of being comfortable, saying:

What we’re trying to create through comfort is like the synthetic version of what you get when you pass through those hoops.

Katy Bowman

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s very satisfying to decide to do something that’s hard and then do that thing. It feels good. I’m not sure it feels good in the same way that sitting in a comfy chair feels good, but I think there is a connection. Sitting down feels really good after a long run when your legs are tired; sitting in a really comfy chair kinda feels like that, without the need to go for the long run first.

I occasionally do physically hard things. I’ve run several footraces, at distances up to 7.1 miles. I did a century bicycle ride. Jackie and I day-hiked the 33.4-mile Kal-Haven trail. And it’s very true: choosing to do a hard thing knowing that it will be hard, and then doing the whole thing even though it is hard, is very satisfying.

However, there’s another entirely legitimate perspective:

A sentence I read today in an outdoors magazine: “You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.” Danger? Like, that’s my life goal. 😬First world folk are… interesting.

zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) January 13, 2019

She says that—but she also apparently reads outdoor magazines, so I suspect even she sees the value in doing hard things.

Parkour workshop

I went to a parkour workshop yesterday held at 25 O’Clock Brewing in Urbana—one small bit of the UnConference (a very Urbana thing).

I’ve been interested in parkour for years now. I have included various bits in my own training, and also gone to train with the campus parkour group (the same people who led this workshop) a few times. For various reasons (social timidity, physical timidity, lack of fitness) I haven’t managed to establish a regular practice of training with the campus group. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested, so I was glad to learn about this workshop, which seemed like a safe, easy way to get back into it—and was.

We were led in a warmup, followed by some quadrupedal movement: Bear crawls, aka foot-hand crawls, both frontwards and backwards, followed by a move I know by the name “traveling ape,” although there are probably other names for it.

After the QM we went for a very short run to a wonderful object that could perhaps be described as a free-standing wall of old railroad ties locked in a wire cage. It had a flat metal top which together with the cage made it great for practicing cat hangs: The cage provides enough of a toe hold that even people with limited grip strength can hold on long enough to get a good workout.

The next thing we worked on was shoulder rolls. I was particularly glad for this part because I used to be able to do shoulder rolls, but at some point in the last 35 years lost the mix. Starting from a kneeling position, though, I was able to recover my roll. In just 15 minutes of practice I was back up to doing rolls from a squat. From there I’m sure I can work up to rolls from a standing position pretty quickly.

(Actually, the main delay is that for some reason the rolls made me queasy. I don’t remember that from 35 years ago, but yesterday I got queasy after a few minutes rolling, and my stomach didn’t completely settle down for several hours.)

After rolls we did some vaults. We started with the safety vault, which I’d already learned (and have continued to practice, because it’s really handy for things like getting across downed trees while out hiking). Then we proceeded to some initial progressions for the kong vault. I’d always thought of the kong as the most advanced vault, but that’s when it’s used to traverse a gap beyond the thing you’re vaulting. It can also be used like the safety vault as a way to get on top of some object, and that’s what we learned yesterday. With a low-enough wall (waist-high, rather than chest-high), I can already get on top with a kong vault.

Shout-out to restorative exercise specialist Ashley Price who spotted that the parkour workshop was going on and suggested that I attend.

Today I’ve already included a bit of parkour in the day’s activities, adding a bit of QM to my afternoon walk, both foot-hand crawling and a bit of ground kong. (The latter is excellent practice for reminding myself that I need to keep my knees together, something that does not come naturally.)

A little about HRV

HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is one of the metrics that the Oura ring tracks. I’ve begun to learn a bit about it, and thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far, and then share a small personal observation.

Very briefly, HRV has to do with the variations in the timings between heart beats. If your heart rate is 60 beats per minute then about one second will pass from one heart beat to the next—but only about one second. In actual fact, sometimes it will be a few milliseconds more, and other times it will be a few milliseconds less. Those “more or less” amounts are your heart rate variability or HRV.

Most of what I know about the HRV comes from an interview on Human OS Radio podcast with Phyllis Stein, Director of the Heart Rate Variability Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, called Introduction to Heart Rate Variability (HRV). It’s definitely worth a listen, if you do the podcast thing.

A lot of HRV is related to respiration. I noticed this when I got my first heart rate monitor thirty years ago: Every time I inhaled my heart rate speeded up, and every time I exhaled my heart rate slowed down. This effect is pronounced enough that the Oura ring can calculate your respiration rate just by watching your heart rate speed up and slow down with each breath.

HRV is widely used as an indicator of the balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems: If your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning well you’ll see quite a bit of variation. When it’s not functioning well—for example, when you’re persistently stressed—the amount of variation in your heart rate will decline.

Since I got my Oura ring, I’ve been tracking my HRV, looking to see if this or that bit of self-care practice will increase it, and I’ve noticed one thing that seems kind of interesting: Very often my HRV will be quite low in the first half of the night, and then be higher (and with higher variability in the variations) in the second half of the night. Here are three recent examples:

I speculate that this is related to the fact that I’m still digesting supper at bedtime, or perhaps that alcohol I’ve consumed is not fully metabolized yet. I’ve been hoping that life would produce a natural experiment to test those two theories, but so far haven’t gotten one. (That is, days when supper or cocktail hour were very early or had to be skipped have also been days when some other factor—such as illness, an unusual bedtime, or unusual stress—confounded things such that I couldn’t really draw any conclusion about the effect on my HRV.)

Maximizing the Oura ring activity score

First, let me say that maximizing my Oura ring activity score is, in and of itself, of no value whatsoever—except to the extent that it reflects and reinforces my efforts to get an appropriate level of physical activity.

Happily, I find that getting an appropriate amount of activity generally results in a higher score. So it works at that level, with perhaps a few mismatches between what I think is appropriate and what the Oura software thinks is appropriate, the main one being their idea of what counts as a recovery day.

Periodization of training—getting a mix of training days and recovery days—is a great idea. In fact, the lack of periodization is one of the limitations with Google Fit, whose model is to have a daily activity goal which is a little aggressive—a goal that motivates you to to get out and walk just a little more than you otherwise might. The problem is that a goal that’s even a little bit aggressive is going to be excessive for your recovery days, while still being much less than you probably want for your training days.

This is where the Oura ring software is a big step up from Google Fit. It strongly encourages both training days and recovery days. Unfortunately, its idea of a recovery day seems a bit too strict for me:

For Oura, an easy day means keeping the amount of medium intensity level activity below 200 MET minutes (200-300 kcal/day), and high intensity activity below 100 MET minutes (100-150 kcal/day).

In practice this can mean doing lots of low intensity activities, getting healthy amounts of medium intensity activity (30-60 min), but only a small amount of high intensity activity (below 10 min).

Now, that’s all well and good, except that ordinary walking is a medium intensity activity, and (except when the weather is crappy) it’s a very rare day indeed that I don’t end up walking more than an hour—meaning that I basically never get a recovery day in Oura ring terms.

The result is that whenever the weather is nice my activity score starts dropping, because I’m not getting what my ring thinks is appropriate recovery. Then, when there’s a couple of days of crappy weather and I sit around the house all day, my score will climb (as my recovery time value improves). Then, as soon as the weather gets nice again and I can get out and be active, my activity score can shoot up into the high 90s:

However, I can only get five days of such high levels. Since I need to have at least two recovery days per week, a string of more than five nice days means my recovery suffers once again, turning into lower activity scores.

I haven’t fully characterized the behavior so far, but it seems like the software may well be doing just what the quoted text above says: Getting between 30 and 60 minutes of medium activity makes a day a recovery day, with a hard end to any “recovery” at 61 minutes.

If true, that would probably be the place to make a fix. That is, I’m not trying to suggest that I have any data to show that an average person could walk more than 60 minutes and still recover as well, nor do I have any good metric for identifying some subset of people who can walk more and recover well. But I am pretty sure that the 1 h 3 min of medium activity that I got the day before yesterday is not so much more than the 60 I got yesterday that the former should count as a training day rather than a recovery day.

Oura ring warned me

For a week now, the forecast has been that yesterday would be the first really nice day of the season, and I had decided a week ago that I’d go for a long run.

I tried to set everything up for good readiness, with a medium run back on Monday (so it wouldn’t be too long between runs), and then ordinary amounts of walking on Tuesday through Friday.

However, it wasn’t to be. I felt weak and sluggish right from the start, and found that even just maintaining a slow pace required that I ramp up my heart rate as the run went along:

(All that stuff in the yellow is too high, which is basically the whole run. I kept it almost in the green for the first mile, but after that it was way too high the whole time. The tiny bit where it spiked up into the red at the end was when I was sprinting to the button to get a walk signal.)

I have to say that my Oura ring warned me that my readiness was only so-so yesterday:

The main negative contributors, from the Oura ring’s perspective, were a mediocre night’s sleep, and a slightly elevated resting heart rate—and in particular, a resting heart rate that took most of the night even to settle down to that slightly elevated level (the “recovery index” part):

Last night my sleep was much better:

But it didn’t lead to a much higher readiness today, because yesterday’s run, even though it was a pretty feeble effort, was enough to mean that today I should at least somewhat take it easy:

As it happens, I was pretty happy to do that. I got a reasonable amount of movement today, while nevertheless taking it pretty easy. Included in the day’s movement was the first bit of barefoot walking of the season. I also spent just a few minutes punching the heavy bag, mainly to get some photos for an Esperanto blog post on one aspect of my summer training plans.

Achievement unlocked: Winter running habit

Every year I try and fail to establish a winter running habit. This year I managed, and learned a bit about why I usually fail.

In my imagination, the key has always been to keep running through the fall. As it gradually gets chilly and then cold I’ll gradually adapt.

That never works.

The main reason it never works is that seasons don’t work like that. One gets frequent warm days in early fall, then infrequent warm days in late fall, and then at some point—identifiable only in retrospect—there’s a last warm day, which is then followed by months of winter weather.

But it’s even worse than that, perhaps especially so for people like me who don’t have a regular job. Since I have pretty complete control over my schedule, I’m able to get out for my runs whenever the weather is optimal. In the summer I can run in the morning or evening when it’s not too hot. In the fall I can gradually shift my runs toward mid-afternoon when it’s not too cold.

The upshot of that is that I’m never confronted by gradually cooler temperatures when I go out for my runs. Rather, I get to run when the conditions are perfect right up to the last day of perfect conditions. Of course, there are days when conditions are imperfect all day, but I can adapt by just shifting my run to the next day or the day after—a strategy which works fine right up until late fall, when all of a sudden conditions are imperfect every day.

This fall as usual I failed to establish a running habit. I ran into mid-September, and then quit running for two months. But somehow I managed to get started again in mid-November, and proceeded to get in 24 runs from then until April Fools Day. Why this year and not other years? The answer comes out of looking at the reasons why I don’t run in the winter: Cold, dark, and ice.

For ice I have to chalk this success up largely to luck. We had an ordinary amount of snow this year, but the size of each snowstorm and the timing of warm and sunny bits after snowstorms meant that it was rarely more than a week or so before the sidewalks were clear enough that I could get out for a run. (In my running log I only spot five weeks with no running, and only one spot where two of those weeks are consecutive.)

For dark the credit goes back to my not having a regular job. There’s no boss expecting me to spend my daylight hours sitting at a desk. I can run whenever I want.

So it comes down largely to cold.

I have always been of the opinion that dealing with cold is just a matter of having the right gear, and I had some of it—a pair of very warm tights, a half-zip capilene top, some sweat pants, some mock-Ts, some sweatshirts, a silk baselayer, and a bright-red buff with reflecty bits.

To this I gradually added a machine-washable merino wool hat in high-viz yellow, a pair of high-viz yellow gloves, and a pair of lighter-weight tights suitable for wearing in moderate cold.

That little burst of consumerism turned out to be highly effective. First, it meant that I had the right clothes for the conditions, from pretty cold up to just barely too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. Second, because I wanted to give my new gear a try, I got out for at least three (probably more like six) runs that I’d otherwise have skipped, just because I wanted to wear my new tights or my new hat.

And so, for the first time since 2004 I have come into spring with a running base that prepares me for serious training right off the bat. I can comfortably run 10k, so I could compete in any 5k or 10k race this spring. I could easily be in shape for the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Race in early June. I’m probably within striking distance of being in shape for a half-marathon (although not the Illinois Marathon half-marathon in less than three weeks).

Mainly though, I’m in shape to just keep running on through the spring and summer. And maybe, just maybe, next fall.

Behold a gallery of running-related images from the winter, most of which were shared to my twitter feed sometime along the way:

Hang out with healthy biomes

Everybody knows that you come to be like the people you hang out with, and most people understand that you can take advantage of this to improve your life. If you want to be more productive, hang out with productive people. If you want to be an intellectual, hang out with intellectuals. If you want to be healthy, hang out with healthy people.

I rather suspect this last is something hardwired in our brains, probably explaining part of the stigma faced by people who are disabled or disfigured. Probably strongly selected for in circumstances where infectious disease is a major cause of mortality.

I have always assumed that this is primarily mediated by lifestyle, with the shift largely produced by adopting pieces of the lifestyles of the people you hang out with. Hanging out with people who read a lot normalizes reading a lot. Hanging out with runners normalizes taking up running.

It should have been obvious—maybe it is obvious to everybody else—but it only recently occurred to me that a large part of this may well be mediated by microbiomes.

Your microbiome will shift to converge with the microbiome of people you hang out with. (Of course, theirs will also shift to converge with yours.) If you share meals with someone, your intestinal microbiome with shift toward theirs—probably more so and more quickly if you share a kitchen, utensils, or food prep tasks, and probably more so yet if you share a bathroom. If you share a touch with someone, your skin microbiome will shift—again, more so and more quickly if you share a bed with them.

Actually, an anecdote on this last: When I met Jackie she had a fungal infection of the skin that she’d picked up in India, and that had persisted for years. She treated it with tolnaftate, which worked adequately to knock it down when it became annoying, but had not cleared it up, either in India or after she came home. However, a few years after we got married I noticed that it seemed to be gone. With no evidence whatsoever, I’m inclined to take credit for this, figuring that my skin microbiome contributed useful organisms that her skin microbiome integrated in a way that eventually let it displace the fungal organisms.

So far, all the efforts to find an “optimal” microbiome have foundered, probably because the problem is intractably complex, being inextricably connected with the genes of the host, multi-generational epigenetic history, the immune system (and its lifetime history of chemical and biological insults), along with all the obvious factors—what organisms initially seeded the microbiome, history of antibiotic use, diet, etc.

Because of that, I’m much less interested now in interventions such as probiotics. More and more I’m inclined to prefer what used to be pretty obvious: Trust your immune system to cultivate a healthy microbiome (and hang out with healthy people to give it a little extra to work with).

Sleeping with my Oura ring: Body temperature

As a big ol’ data geek, I’m by default interested in any metrics that I can get, especially ones related to me.

One of the metrics tracked by the Oura ring is body temperature, which is a metric don’t normally pay much attention to unless I think I might be sick, and I haven’t wanted to get sick just to explore this feature of the Oura ring. But a couple of days ago I did something much better: I got my shingles vaccination.

(I’ve been trying to get my shingles vaccination for months now, since they changed the recommended age from 60 to 50 and my insurance company started covering it for young folks like me. But with all the younger boomers thinking the same thing, the vaccine became scarce. Jackie and I finally tracked down shots last week.)

My immune system viewed the shot as something of a stern challenge, and sure enough my body temperature became elevated. In the graph below observe the last three data points, which show a spike to 0.7℉ above my baseline, followed by a 0.6℉ elevation the second night. Last night was only 0.3℉ above the baseline and back down in the normal range. (Near the middle you can see another spike to 0.7℉ above baseline followed by a negative deviation of a similar amount. That excursion was, I think, related to life stress.)

Graph of body temp, ending with a sharp spike gradually returning toward normal
My average nighttime body temperature deviation from baseline for February 10 to March 16 2019.

Observing that I was under some stress, the ring has been advising me to take it easy for the past couple of days. Knowing that the stress in question was a healthy one, I didn’t take the warning too seriously. The weather was nice the day after the shot, so I went out for a run, despite my ring’s advice.

Despite disregarding that particular day’s advice, I’ve actually been paying rather close attention to the ring’s indications as to my readiness. For example yesterday, when my body temperature and other factors suggested that I was still not recovered, I did take it easy—and I have been rewarded with an excellent night’s sleep and a moderately high readiness score for today:

Sleep panel from Oura ring dashboard.

Perhaps today will be a good day for a long walk. By the middle of the week we’ll have some more excellent running weather, and hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Our 8-movement taiji form

I have always let my students make videos of me doing the form, for their own practice. This session it turned out that, instead of several people wanting their own video, everybody noticed one video being made and all asked for copies. So the guy posted the video he took to YouTube.

There’s both a front view (so you can see my hands) and a rear view (for following along).

If you’re a student and want access to the video to study or practice with, or if you’re just interested in the taiji form I teach in my class, here you go.

Front view:

Rear view:

I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Videography by Randy and Marti Markward.