Jackie was fixing blue-corn pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and eating that many carbs first thing in the morning can be a problem for me. However, I have come up with a strategy for dealing with it: Getting in a pre-breakfast fasted workout. My theory is that by doing this I deplete my muscle glycogen, so that my muscles are primed to soak up all the carbs I eat, minimizing the degree to which the glucose spikes my blood sugar.

I have no data to show that this works, but anecdotally I can report that it seems to help.

I’ve been wanting to go for a run. I had planned to go for a run yesterday, but it ended up being rainy enough that I decided to postpone the run for a day. So I might have gone for a run for my pre-breakfast workout, but Jackie was hungry early, and I didn’t want to delay breakfast by an extra hour.

So, I did what’s becoming my standard HIIT workout: I warm up with 3×25 Hindu squats, and then I do 3×25 kettlebell swings with my 53 lb kettlebell. It’s a quick workout—it’s all done in 20 minutes, including some amount of pre-warmup warmup—and it’s of high enough intensity to burn off plenty of glucose.

After breakfast (and a bit of digesting) I went ahead and got out for my planned run. After the persistently sore foot I’ve been dealing with for months now simply refused to get better, I had taken a full month off from running to see if all I needed was plenty of rest to fully recover, and that may have done the trick—I went out for a 3.33-mile run, and I had no foot pain whatsoever.

I don’t wear my Oura ring for the kettlebell workouts (or other workouts where I have to grip something, because handles, bars, and (gymnastic) rings don’t play well with the Oura ring). However, my Polar heart rate monitor will tell Google Fit about my workout, and the phone app for the Oura ring will read that data and give me credit for what I did while the ring was off:

My peak heart rate during the kettlebell swings would have seen me to much higher activity levels than the just-barely “High” levels shown, but that’s because it’s an interval workout. A set of 25 swings takes me just about 50 seconds, and then it takes about 3 minutes for my HR to drop low enough that I can do another set. The software is averaging those periods together. Unless I’m doing sprints (which I didn’t today) a run is just a steady-state effort. I try to keep my HR down in the MAF range, but didn’t manage it today (because of the prior HIIT workout).

Looking at my “readiness” score for today I’m perhaps slightly less ready than I was five days ago, when I let my Oura ring mislead me into postponing a rest day in favor of some hill sprints.

In fact, I felt enormously better today, and my performance shows that. Today’s run was a bare one minute longer than my run at the beginning of the week, but I ran a full mile further:

I’m not sure there’s anything to learn from this. Maybe “don’t skip rest days” would be a good start. I’m sure “listen to your body” is always good advice. Whatever lame platitude you want to go with is fine with me. As for me, I’m just glad I got in a good run.

In other news, the replacement kettlebell for the one I ordered on July 1st, but which vanished into some black hole at FedEx’s Ellenwood, GA location, only to vanish itself in exactly the same way, seems to have been discovered, and is now supposed to be delivered next week! We shall see.

View from a run

My Oura ring produces a “readiness” score each day, and I’ve found it to be a pretty good indication as to whether or not I’m up for a long run or a hard workout. The times I’ve ignored it when it said I needed to take it easy, I’ve often found it was right and I was wrong. Today was a rare instance of the reverse.

According to my plan, today should have been a rest day. But I wanted to go for a run.

The ring gave me a readiness score of 88 (out of a possible 100), which is rather above my average (my average this month has been 80), and I took that as a license to go for the run I wanted, instead of taking the rest day my plan suggested.

Turns out—this time—my plan was right and my ring was wrong. I went for my run, but I felt tired and sluggish throughout.

It wasn’t a catastrophe. I didn’t hurt myself. I just don’t think I did myself much good. I ran to Colbert Park, did three hill sprints (in actuality, feeble jogs), and then ran home again. But I didn’t have any oomph behind the sprints, so I don’t expect they’ll have done their job in terms of boosting leg strength or aerobic capacity.

The Oura ring’s readiness score has been a very reliable indicator for me—which is why it helped me fool myself this time. So this is a good reminder to me to interrogate all of the factors that go into making a workout decision—my plan, my intuition, my ring, etc.

So one thing I’m doing is looking back at the factors that feed into the score, looking to see if there’s one that looked better than it really was.

Nothing really jumps out at me. Given the same information, I’d also figure that I was ready for a hard workout. (In fact, I had that information, plus my own sense that I felt ready for a hard workout. That’s exactly how I overrode my plan and went out for a tired, tiresome run.)

Oh, well. Insert your own pithy “live and learn” aphorism here.

For a couple of years now I’ve been experimenting with time-restricted eating.

I guess I really started about a year and a half ago, after I got my Oura ring. One of the first things I noticed was that the early hours of my sleep were disrupted unless I had finished dinner at least 4 hours before bedtime. (This in contrast to the “common wisdom” that you want at least three hours between the last thing you eat and bedtime.)

Once I notice that I started pushing Jackie to arrange things so that we could finish supper at least 4 hours before we went to bed. The issue here was that while working at the bakery Jackie had gotten into the habit of getting up at 4:00 AM—because that’s when she needed to get up if she was going to be able to have coffee, breakfast, dress for work, and then spend most of an hour walking to work. As she has been so far unable to break herself of that habit, she finds herself very sleepy starting at about 8:00 PM. If you work out the math, you can see that we need to finish supper no later than 4:00 PM.

Jackie found herself somewhat daunted by the prospect of having to prepare lunch at mid-day, clean up the kitchen, and then prepare supper to serve at 3:00 PM so we could be done by 4:00 PM.

We experimented with various lunch/supper timings with limited success. But back in December, when Steven brought Lucy and his boys to visit, we fell into the habit of just having two meals a day. I went to his hotel for the breakfast that the hotel served to guests (Jackie made her usual breakfast at home), and then one of us (often, but not always, Jackie) prepared our main meal of the day sometime in the afternoon.

This turned out to work great, and Jackie and I have continued the practice since Steven and family departed. Jackie gets up at 4:00 AM as usual. (I tend to sleep until closer to 6:00 AM.) We linger over coffee, then have breakfast at 7:00 AM or so. Whatever we hope to get done in the day happens between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM, at which point we have “dinner” consisting of our main meal of the day. We finish it by 3:00 PM or so.

(In these pandemic days we follow that up with a virtual happy hour with Steven and Lucy via Zoom, so we’re still consuming cocktails until 4:30 PM or so, but I try to make sure to limit both the carbs and the calories that late in the day. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll be able to arrange things such that happy hour doesn’t extended until so close to bedtime.)

Jackie and I usually enjoy some video entertainment in the evening, and then retire to read for a bit before 8:00 PM and time to go to sleep.

I’m sure that’s way more detail than a stranger could be interested in, but the gist is that our eating window is compressed to just 9 hours a day or so (from 7:00 AM until 4:00 PM), putting us within striking distance of a 16:8 time-restricted eating window.

And I have to say, it’s working pretty well. Jackie especially appreciates not having to prepare both lunch and dinner every day. Keeping my weight stable has been especially easy—if I’m hungry in the morning I fix a bigger omelette, if I’m hungry at mid-day I take a bigger serving of whatever Jackie is fixing, or just have something more (peanut butter, cottage cheese, jerky, protein powder, whatever). And if I’m not extra hungry, I just eat a regular breakfast and a regular mid-day meal.

The result has been that I easily get enough food, don’t overeat, get done eating four hours before bedtime, and spend nearly 16 hours per day in a fasted state, with all the attendant benefits described in the post linked just above. And as a bonus, Jackie doesn’t have to prepare two meals after breakfast.

Time-restricted eating: Highly recommended.

I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.

Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.

The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).

Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:

  • Taking delight in things. In particular, I take delight in the opportunity to wear seasonally appropriate woollies. I also like to spend time in the Conservatory, go to art galleries or museums, listen to live music, and generally go on artist’s dates.
  • Getting plenty of exercise. Last winter I managed to get out for a run almost every week. As fall approaches I’m getting back to my lifting. (Here’s a great resource on the current science on using exercise to treat and prevent depression.)
  • Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
  • Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
  • Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
  • Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:

  • There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
  • Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
  • Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.

I know that I need to write in the morning if I’m going to be productive at fiction. Even just 20 or 40 minutes of early morning writing gets my head into the story space, and once it’s there I’ll continue to have story ideas through the day.

I’ve had trouble making this work since I started teaching taiji. For most of the year I need to start getting ready early enough to be out the door no later than 8:40 AM. I’m only gone for a couple of hours, which isn’t such a big hole in the day, but it’s big enough that it’s made it hard to get in the necessary early-morning writing session.

But after months—years, really—of not getting my fiction writing in, I’m taking a fresh stab at making an early-morning writing session happen.

I started a week ago so I could test-run the new schedule and get the kinks worked out before the last week of August, when the first fall taiji session starts. So far it’s working pretty well. I got my early-morning writing done every day except one, and that day I managed to get in a good writing session in the afternoon.

The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to just start even earlier. That isn’t easy because I’ve put together an early-morning routine that I’m finding really satisfying:

  1. Do a tiny bit of mobility work first thing.
  2. Weigh myself and check to see what my Oura ring says about my sleep.
  3. Sit down at my computer and record that info.
  4. Drink some coffee.
  5. Do the Daily Jumble with my brother and my mom.

After Jumbling and a couple of cups of coffee, I generally have breakfast, after which is my window to get some writing done before taiji.

What I’m doing differently is simply that I’m trying to start breakfast no later than 7:00 AM (ideally a little before), so that I can finish before 7:30.

I need to leave by about 8:40 to be sure I get to the Rec Center in time for my class, which gives me a generous hour to write.

If I manage that—spend enough time writing to get immersed into the story space of whatever I’m working on—then my brain gets started working on story problems. All through the rest of the day I’ll have plot points, possible story twists, clever turns of phrase, bits of dialog, and so on, popping into my head.

Until I start writing, none of that happens. It’s actually kind of awkward when I don’t get a chance to write during the day, and then try to squeeze in a writing session late, because then I’ll be getting those ideas while I’m trying to go to sleep.

Actually, it turns out it can be kind of awkward even when I do what I’m trying to do. Two days last week I skipped the group taiji practice session, but on Friday I did pretty much just what I’m planning to do going forward, and the result was that my brain was fairly fizzing with story stuff at the point I was getting set to head out the door. That’s fine for the summer practice sessions where I’m just a participant and not in charge of anything, but when I’m the teacher it’s my job to be fully present and mindful in the class, not in my latest fictional world.

It was okay this time; my fizzy brain had settled down by the time I was in the car ready to drive. But it’s another thing to take into account as I calibrate this new routine, which is why I wanted to have these couple of weeks for a test run.

Still, if I want to get fiction written, it’s best to get started early. And for a week now, I’ve been managing it. (And as a consequence, have finished a draft of my first new short story in a long time.)

For an article in the New York Times, technology writer Brian X. Chen wore a sleep-tracker for a couple of weeks. He reports:

Ultimately, the technology did not help me sleep more. It didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know, which is that I average about five and a half hours of slumber a night. And the data did not help me answer what I should do about my particular sleep problems. In fact, I’ve felt grumpier since I started these tests.

Source: The Sad Truth About Sleep-Tracking Devices and Apps

Breaking news: Looking at your power bill every month does not cut your electricity consumption! Checking your speedometer does not slow down your car! Tracking your spending does not make you rich!

I’ve been using a sleep tracker (the Oura ring) since December. Neither wearing the ring nor checking the reports I get has increased the amount of sleep I got. However, I have learned a lot about how to get more and better sleep.

Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned is that the standard advice that you should have supper at least three hours before bedtime isn’t sufficient for me: I sleep much better if I finish supper at least four hours before I lie down to go to sleep.

That’s actually a specific example of my larger point: A sleep tracker makes it easy to run little experiments and quickly see the results.

My intuition as to whether I got a good night’s sleep is an excellent guide (as I suspect it is for most people). But even a good intuition isn’t always enough to run a good experiment, and this is an example of that. Although the Oura ring’s report isn’t better than my own intuition, it provided some specific information that led me to that particular insight: On days when I had a late supper, my sleep quality was quite poor for the first couple hours of sleep, a pattern that I didn’t see on days when I had an early supper.

I’ve used it to run other experiments. For example, it appears that I get more deep sleep on days when I have only one drink than on days when I have two. (This is very sad news, and will have to be confirmed by many more experiments before I use it to modify my behavior—but at least I can run the experiments.)

After a rough patch last fall (which is what prompted me to order the Oura ring), I’m actually sleeping pretty well now, so I’m not aggressively running new experiments to try and improve my sleep. I am, however, paying attention when a natural experiment presents itself. For example, we generally sleep with the windows open all summer. Over the next two nights that will probably produce sleeping temperatures in the 70s, whereas over following several nights I’ll get to enjoy sleeping temperatures in the 60s. I know from experience that the cooler temperatures will produce better sleep, but the Oura ring will give me detailed metrics that will let me investigate if there’s an optimal temperature—information that may be very useful in the winter for deciding how to adjust the thermostat.

That’s the value of the ring for me: It lets me run experiments of specific sleep interventions, and gives me results that are more fine-grained than just a general sense as to whether I slept well or not.

Here’s one more natural experiment. I observed decades ago that I need more sleep in the winter than I do in the summer. I can now put a couple of numbers on that.

Here’s my total sleep each day in January and February this year. The report from the Oura ring lets me see that I averaged 7 h 50 min of sleep each night:

Here’s my total sleep each day from June 1st through last night. I can see that I averaged 7 h 03 min of sleep each night:

I’ve perceived each period as being roughly equally good in terms of getting “enough” sleep, so I’m inclined to think of the 47 minute decrease in sleep as being a decrease in the amount of sleep I need when the days are long and sunny and I’m getting plenty of fresh air and exposure to nature. In the winter I need darn near 8 hours of sleep per night. In the summer I can get by fine on just over 7.

That information doesn’t make me sleep better, but it’s still useful (even if it just confirms something I’ve known for a long time).

In other breaking news recently published in the science journal “Duh!”: Stepping on the bathroom scale every morning neither increases your muscle mass nor reduces your fat mass!