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.)

The most important context is internal?

At least since David Allen’s Getting Things Done it’s been widely advised that to-do lists be specific to “context”: You have a list of things to do at the office, a list of things to do when you’re at the phone, a list of things to do when you’re in the car, etc.

In the fascinating article Productivity for Precious Snowflakes, Tiago Forte suggests that these sorts of context are much less important than one’s internal context.

Trying to make this work with a to-do list is crazy:

It is not at all clear what must be done and in what order; in fact, it becomes ever more clear that most of the tasks we execute don’t make much of a difference, while a tiny percentage randomly and dramatically influence the course of our work and our lives. It makes sense to invest more and more resources in making that distinction, because the absolute fastest way to complete a task or reach an objective is to realize you don’t have to.

The article goes on at some length with tips for figuring out what state of mind is best for what tasks. And more to the point, figuring out what tasks are best suited to be completed given your current state of mind. And, even more to the point, how to break up your larger tasks into pieces that can be effectively worked on by you in different states of mind as you happen to find yourself in them. There’s also some suggestions on how to learn to enter states of mind that you’ve found to be useful.

Not a new article, but an interesting one.

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.

Book Review: Happy Money

Does money come with new-agey energy flows or emotions attached? For most of my life, I’d have said no (or more likely just rolled my eyes at the question). As you might expect from an economics major, I bought into a free-market model of how money worked.

Experiences over the course of my career, gradually convinced me that those ideas were . . . Well, not wrong exactly, but incomplete. I came to understand that money isn’t the kind of neutral object that it is in economic theory.

Ken Honda’s new book will let you skip over the 25 years of first-hand experience it took me to figure this out.

If you think money is a neutral, transactional artifact, then it just makes sense to earn as much as you can in the easiest ways possible. Because I was a software engineer whose career started in the early 1980s, it was pretty easy to find a job that paid well, and salaries grew rapidly, so I was doing just fine as an employee. There are certain things that come along with being an employee, the main one being that you’re supposed to do what your boss tells you to do.

I was okay with that. More okay than a lot of my coworkers, who objected when the boss wanted them to do something stupid or pointless.

My own attitude was always, “Yes, attending this pointless training class is a waste of time that I could be spending making our products better. But it’s easier than doing my regular work, and if my boss is willing to pay me a software engineer’s salary to do something easier than write software, I’m fine with that.”

The idea that I was fine with that turned out to be wrong. In fact, putting time and effort into doing the wrong thing is a soul-destroying activity. Getting paid a bunch of money for it doesn’t help. That money is, in Ken Honda’s terms, Unhappy Money.

Money that flows into (or out of) your life in a positive way is Happy Money—money that you receive (or give) as a gift, money that you earn by doing something useful (or spend to get something that you want or need). Unhappy Money is money lost or gained by theft or deceit, paid grudgingly by someone who feels cheated or taken advantage of—or, as in my own case, paid willingly, but paid to someone who doesn’t think what he’s doing to earn it is worth doing.

Honda’s thesis is that if you adjust your life around this idea—so that your own money flows are all Happy Money (and that you refrain from receiving or spending Unhappy Money)—your life will improve. My experience is that this is true.

If that insight is the key to the book, probably next most important is understanding that “There’s no peace to be found in always wanting more,” which is one of the points I tried to make when I was writing for Wise Bread.

To be honest, probably one reason I like the book so much is that a lot of the practical advice sounds a lot like what I talked about for years at Wise Bread. (For example that the strategy of just saving more quickly reaches limits in terms of its utility for making your family more secure.)

Much of the book is on the details of how to shift all aspects of your financial life toward Happy Money. There’s a long discourse on what he calls your “money blueprint”: The attitudes and practices passed down from parent to child (or rejections of those attitudes and practices), people’s basic personalities, and simple ignorance about how money works. A crappy money blueprint will predictably lead to people into cycles of Unhappy Money flows.

I’ve been interested in money for a long time, at least since sixth grade. Between studying economics in college, and embarking on an enduring interest in investing, I’m sure I’ve read hundreds of books on money. Among them, Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace with Your Money stands out.

Facebook and Instagram: Even worse than Twitter

Whenever I tweet about a company, I like to go ahead and tag the company in the tweet, so they can see what I’m saying about them. Besides that, I’ve a natural inclination toward brand loyalty (for companies whose products I like), so I like to keep up with what the company is doing, and twitter is a good way to do that. (Not nearly as good a way as an RSS feed, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The upshot is that I’m not infrequently searching for a company’s twitter handle—and just lately, I’m pretty often not finding one. More and more companies are limiting their social media presence to Facebook and Instagram—both of which are terrible choices.

Facebook is very bad. It tries to monetize passing on information! It deliberately holds back information that the company wants to share and that I want to see, specifically in order to pressure the company to pay up.

Instagram may be even worse. It is inherently about sharing pictures, whereas information is often best presented as text. Worse yet, it won’t share links, which is almost always what companies (should) want to do, if they’re trying to tell me about the sorts of things I want to hear about.

Twitter is a bad company that provides a service which is bad in many ways, but at least it will show me all the tweets of the company I’ve followed, tweets which can include text and links as well as pictures.

The photo at the top is of a donut I bought this morning at Industrial Donut—the latest company I noticed limiting its social media presence to Facebook and Instagram.

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).