Targeting minimums versus averages for movement

There’s a downside to my plan to hit my movement goal every day in December that I had not considered.

As I discussed a few days ago, I was aware of some of the downsides of using an unbroken streak for motivation—that it can tempt one to continue a streak when doing so would be unhealthy, and that it can be terribly demotivating when it is finally broken.

This is different. It has to do with setting a target that’s a little aggressive, and then making it a minimum.

My current goal, as far as Google Fit is concerned, is 90 minutes of movement. The default was 60 minutes, but I bumped it up right away back when I was manually entering my taiji sessions. They’re typically an hour long, so one class put me over the top; the lower goal didn’t motivate me to move at all.

It’s not a very aggressive goal. Looking back at my history, I generally hit it more than half the time—about 4 days a week. Looking at it on a per-week basis, I do quite a bit better than that, totaling at least 7x my daily goal about 4 weeks out of 5.

Looking at it terms of miles rather than minutes, I walk between 20 and 25 miles almost every week, but I don’t do it by walking 3 miles per day. Rather, I walk 4 or 5 miles three or four times a week, and then one day I take a long walk in the 8–15 mile range. I think it’s healthier to have a mix of short, medium, and long days, and to include an occasional rest day when needed.

And that’s what’s been lacking so far this month. My goal isn’t so aggressive that I’m suffering from the lack of adequate rest days, but it’s aggressive enough that I’ve reduced my scope for including a really long day every week or two.

I suppose Google Fit could accommodate this a programmatically, through something like separate minimum and average goals, but that seems like an unnecessary complication. Probably better to just do what I was doing before this month, and aim to hit the target on average.

I wouldn’t want to continue this unbroken streak forever, but so far it is doing what it was supposed to do: encourage me to get a good amount of movement during the dark days of early winter.

Now that I’ve noticed this issue, I should be sure to get in a long walk soon. If I don’t go overboard, I should be able to take a long walk without needing so much rest that I can’t hit my minimum the next day. And if I can’t, well, the unbroken streak is a motivational tool, not an end in itself.

The photo above was taken at the University of Illinois Conservatory, which was a destination for our walk a couple of days ago. Here’s another, with Jackie.

Jackie in the Conservatory

Sunrise?

My friend Chuck​ likes to point out that we’ve already reached the worst of the winter darkness: Tomorrow the sun will set at 4:27 PM, and that’s as bad as it will get. As early as December 12th the sun won’t set until 4:28, and it just gets better from there.

For people working a regular job, a later sunset is a big deal (although it’s not really a big deal until January 24th, when sunset time is finally after 5:00 PM).

For me, though, it’s sunrise that really matters, and that keeps getting worse for a long while yet. We don’t hit our latest sunrise until December 30th when it’s not until 7:15 AM—and then it just stays there for almost two weeks. Things don’t really start getting better until January 12th, when the sun rises at 7:14.

So really, I should be luxuriating in the relatively early sunrise this morning. The sun will be up at 6:59 AM—before 7:00! Why, it won’t be this good again until February 5th! That’s after Groundhog’s Day!!!

(All these dates and times local to Savoy, Illinois in 2015–2016. Ephemeris data for your location will vary. But if you live in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, they won’t vary by enough.)

This tree, with some sort of little red fruits all covered in ice by a freezing fog, kinda looks sunrise pink. Maybe I could pretend it is the dawn. Of course, before dawn it’s too dark to see it.

Frosty pink

Despite my anticipatory angst, I’m actually holding up pretty well so far. I’m sure the extra time spent walking outdoors is helping. Yesterday, I walked to my taiji class, then walked around during the time between the two classes (with Jackie for the first half of her walk home, and then around playing Ingress), and then walked home again after my second class. It was just a little over 6 miles, but my longest walk in a good while. I’m sure the two hours of taiji helped as well.

Sore knees; decluttering my workspace

I hurt my knees and toes a few weeks ago, being too aggressive with a new natural-movement thing. Recovery from this sort of injury is best accomplished with a mixture of rest and gentle movement, and that’s what I’ve been doing. My toes got better pretty quickly, but my knees have continued to hurt.

Gentle movement in the form of walking did seem to help, but as the soreness persisted anyway, I started ramping up the amount of rest, figuring that was what was needed. My knees would get better and then get worse again. Extra rest didn’t seem to help. It was very frustrating.

Yesterday it occurred to me that the problem might be the way I was resting: I was spending extra time sitting at my computer.

In particular, I was spending a lot of time tucking my legs back under the chair, resting my feet on two of the chair’s wheels. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d stretch my legs out, but my left leg (the one with the persistently sorer knee) was constrained in how much it could stretch out, because I’d put the subwoofer for my computer speakers under the desk on the left.

So, this morning I made two changes. First, I moved the subwoofer out from under the desk, freeing up space to stretch out my left leg. Second, I lowered my chair, making it easier to put my feet flat on the floor, and less tempting to tuck my legs back under the chair.

I’d had the chair height set with the screen in mind, after some neck issues seven or eight years ago. Those had been resolved by getting computer glasses (I had been tipping my head back to read the screen through the progressive part of my glasses), so I feel free to rejigger the space to address other issues.

Not being an idiot, I’m also trying to spend less time at the computer today, and will go on doing so until my knee is all better.

On a related note: One of the things I’m less able to deal with during the dark days of winter is clutter. Unfortunately, I’m also less able to get my ordinary decluttering tasks done. In the past, this has led to a vicious cycle of clutter making me more depressed and depression making less able to tidy up my workspace. Doing my other workspace reconfiguring left me with a bit of momentum, so I carried on with some preemptive late-fall workspace tidying. Behold:

Workstation 2015That grey box at the far left is the subwoofer, no longer under the desk.

My screen desktop is a photo taken in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration, about five minutes walk from my house. Here it is on Flickr:

Snowy late-fall day at Lake Park Prarie

It’s a beautiful image and well worth clicking through to embiggen.

I share a lot more photos in my Flickr photostream than I end up using in blog posts. After you click through to admire that one, check out some of the others as well.

The vitamin D window has closed

Me in the Snow
Me in the snow. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

Seven or eight years ago, I became aware of research that suggested that vitamin D deficiencies were a possible cause of seasonal depression. As I have long suffered (albeit mildly) from SAD, I figured it was worth trying a vitamin D supplement, and it did seem to help.

I worry just a bit about taking a supplement, because there are dangers with excessive doses of vitamin D. (A random site on the web suggests that doses over about 10,000 IU per day are dangerous, if continued for a period of months.)

So, I prefer to get my vitamin D via sunlight. A pale-skinned person like me can make upwards of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in just a few minutes of mid-day summer sun—but there’s no danger of getting an overdose: your skin keeps making it as long as you’re in the sun, but once saturated with an optimal amount, it starts un-making it as fast as it makes it.

But it’s the UVB light in the sun that makes the vitamin D, and at my latitude (I live at almost exactly 40° north), little or no UVB gets through the atmosphere during the winter. Specifically, the vitamin D window closed this year on November 20th. It’ll open again on January 20th—although of course it’ll be too cold to expose much skin to the sun for a month or two after that.

This past summer, I spent more time in the sun than in years past, and found that it made me feel especially good—like the opposite of seasonal depression. I imagine it’s the extra vitamin D, although I don’t see any way to tweeze evidence for that hypothesis out from the many other possible reasons. Perhaps it was just more bright light (as opposed to the UVB in particular)—surely the sun is the world’s best light box. Perhaps it was just being more active (I tend to get my sun walking or running, not sitting or lying in the sun). Perhaps it was the endocannabinoids produced during the longer runs in particular. Perhaps it was more time in nature (I spend a lot of my outdoor time walking or running in our local prairie and woods), which is known to be good for the mood. Perhaps it was the extra “together time” Jackie and I got on our very long walks. Perhaps it was the solitude of walks and runs by myself, providing space for meditation.

Whatever it was, I miss it in the winter, and I fixate on a vitamin D deficiency as a possible culprit. Maybe I’ll up my supplement dose. Of course, I won’t do just that. I’ll use my Happy Light™. I’ll go for long walks in the cold and snow. I’ll get out in the prairie and the woods. I’ll try to cover all the possibilities. But I’ll keep taking my vitamin D.

Feeling good

Most years, as the winter gloominess lifts, there comes a day when I think, “Hey! Things are just fine! I feel good!” Although I worry just a little that I’m being premature here—in Central Illinois it’s entirely possible to have a whole winter’s worth of snow and cold weather in the first month or two of spring—for me this year, that day was yesterday.

In fact, today I’m just a bit manic—enough that I think Jackie was finding me something of a pest, although she bore up well. (It’s worth mentioning here that my manic—as manic as I ever get—is really quite calm. Let me put it this way: an average person on a day with an ordinary mix of good and bad news probably goes through swings of emotion that cover my entire annual range.)

Jackie and I have been re-watching the TV series “Chuck,” and last night we got to the episode where Chuck and Sarah have finally gotten together—the episode that ends with Chuck suggesting that he’s found the song to be Sarah’s favorite, a song by Nina Simone. I don’t have a recording of her version, but I some years ago grabbed a recording posted by fellow occasional Wise Bread writer Nora Dunn performing “Feeling Good,” which is still there at Nora’s site, and which I commend to your attention.

 

Comfort activity (and a novel update)

A few years after we got married, Jackie and I planned a Key West vacation for February. I figured early-to-mid February would be perfect—we’d get to escape a week of winter weather, and when we got back in mid-to-late February it would be almost March and it would be safe to start looking forward to spring.

Probably most important—to my mind, more important than the vacation itself—was the anticipation of the vacation. My plan was that we’d spend all January looking forward to the vacation. We’d be kept busy with preparations and packing, we’d be researching things we might do in Key West and making plans. Looking forward to our vacation was supposed to make January zip by more quickly.

Unfortunately, that was the year the airline pilots threatened to go on strike, with the planned strike date the day before our flight to Key West. So, instead of spending all January looking forward to my vacation, I spent all January wondering if I’d spend my vacation in the airport, waiting on labor negotiations.

In the event the pilots did go on strike, but Bill Clinton ordered them back to work for a month, so we got to Key West and had our vacation as planned. It was a fine week in Key West, but a real dud of an anticipatory month of January. The experience strongly reinforced my view that the anticipation is worth as much as the vacation itself.

I mention all that because I’ve found our party preparations similarly diverting. We picked the date a couple of months back. (I’d proposed a New Year’s Eve party, a date Jackie rejected as too soon for us to be ready. She counter-proposed Groundhog’s Day, and then we settled on Groundhog’s Day Eve because it was a Sunday and we wanted to do an afternoon party.)

So we’ve had most of two months to anticipate our party. We would have been busy anyway—still unpacking from having moved, family visiting early in the new year, both on top of all our usual activities. With party preparations as well, we’ve been busy every minute.

All of which I figure is worth mentioning, because this was probably the best January I’ve had in about as long as I can remember.

I used to suffer from seasonal depression pretty routinely. It’s been better of late (probably helped by using my HappyLight™, by taking vitamin D, and by not working a regular job), but it’s never gone away. I still suffer from anxiety starting in early fall just from knowing that the days are going to get short. But this year has been great—and I think being busy with the activities of party preparation have been a big part of it.

Clearly it’s worth planning something for early February that I can spend January anticipating. I don’t know if it should be a party every year though. Perhaps a vacation that didn’t come with a month of worry about airline pilot’s strikes would be even better. (With the bonus of getting us someplace warm for a week.)

I did want to mention that progress on the novel proceeds apace. Despite being busy, I’ve managed to work on the novel very nearly every single day since the solstice.

As of just a few days ago, I’d made my way through the middle third—and I’m pretty pleased with it. As I feared, the final third is in rougher shape than I’d like. I’d gone through it once already, reworking it from a short story into the final third of a novel, but now that I’m here, I can see that there’s a lot left to do.

There’s also a good bit of new writing that needs to happen. The short story wrapped up with an explanation of why things were going to be okay. It didn’t quite work as a short story, which is part of what made me want to expand it to a novel. But as I pressed through the first two-thirds, I realized that what needs to happen is that events predicted in that explanation need to actually happen in full-blown scenes. And those scenes haven’t been written yet.

That’s okay, though. I’ve really enjoyed the bits here and there during the rewrite when I came upon a scene where, in the first draft, I’d said, “Since they’d remembered to do X . . .” and went back to write the scene where they did X. Now I’m looking forward to writing two or three or four scenes of additional climax and dénouement.

It’ll be great.

Dealing with the dark

I’m prone to a particular bit of black humor this time of year. Usually a little earlier—maybe at the beginning of November—I’ll mention how early the sunsets are, how late the sunrises are, and point out that things are just going to get worse for six more weeks, and that it’ll be twelve weeks before things are this good again.

I joked similarly to my brother a day or two ago, and he pointed out that, although my joke is true in October or November, in December it’s wrong: by this point in the year things almost don’t get any worse. And he’s right. After all, the word solstice comes from the Latin for standstill.

Today there’s going to be nine and a half hours of daylight, and on the solstice there’s going to be nine and a third hours of daylight. Big whoop. I can deal with that.

Rounded to the nearest minute, we have already reached our earliest sunset of the year. That is, today the sun will set at 4:27. It will continue to set at 4:27 until December 13th, when it will set at 4:28.

(The sunrises continue to get later for a bit. It’s not until December 29th that we get a sunrise at 7:15, and not until January 4th that we get a sunrise at 7:14.)

I didn’t use to take much comfort in this. Knowing that things didn’t get much worse from here on out didn’t help when I was already depressed. But these days I tolerate the dark pretty well, and that means that I can take comfort from knowing that things are already about as bad as they’re going to get. Yes, it will still be mostly indoor exercise weather until March, but that’s okay—I have strategies for indoor exercise.

I’m not sure exactly what to credit for the improvement. I suspect that not working a regular job is the biggest factor, but taking vitamin D supplements seems to have helped as well. And, of course, getting enough exercise is both a cause and an effect.

 

Losing weight

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

That’s partly because the topic is so loaded with cultural baggage. I think there’s pretty good evidence that eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are both associated with better health. There’s a lot less evidence that being thin is associated with better health—and none at all, as far as I’m aware, that trying to lose weight improves your health, or that exhorting someone else to lose weight improves their health.

Having said all that, my weight is something I’ve been paying attention to, so it seems like something I should talk about here.

What prompts this post at this time is that I’ve reached my lowest adult weight. That is, at 179 pounds this morning, I’ve matched the lowest weight for which I have any record.

I have pretty good data on my weight since 1999. For Christmas that year my brother gave me a Palm III and I installed a weight-tracking app called Eat Watch, which I used fairly regularly from early 2000 until mid 2007. At that point there’s a break in the data, because I lost access to the good doctor’s scale at the Motorola office when the site closed. My bathroom scale wasn’t up to the task. In May of last year I finally bought a good digital scale, and since then I have almost daily data.

Although I’ve been heavier than I’d like pretty much my whole adult life, and have often paid attention to my weight, I’ve largely avoided the curse of yo-yo dieting. Really, there are only two other periods when I’ve lost weight.

The previous one began in 2003. Early that year blood work showed modestly elevated blood sugar levels. The idea that I might break my pancreas was upsetting enough that I took steps: I quit drinking soda and I started running again. From February 2003 through September 2004 I lost 40 pounds, getting my weight down to 188. I kept the weight off for a while; at the end of 2005 it was still around 195, but it was already inexorably rising. By the time the Motorola site closed, it was back up over 200 pounds.

I don’t have much data on my weight from before 2000, but the one exception includes the other period I was losing weight. Back in 1991 I started running, and my running log from that period tracked my weight. I don’t have a value for every week, but I weighed 201 in March that year, and got my weight down to 179 by the end of running season.

In my experience, losing weight is either easy, or else impossible. The easy times are generally summer, when I’m getting plenty of exercise. I’ve tended to blame difficulty in getting exercise for the fact that I gain weight in the winter, but I don’t really have data to show that. It could be other things. Maybe in the dark months I burn fewer calories on incidental movement, such as by fidgeting less. Maybe in the dark months I eat more.

It would only have to be slightly more. One thing the data does make clear is just how few calories it takes to make a large difference. Since May of last year I’ve lost 26 pounds. That corresponds to a daily deficit of just 134 calories. Any little thing—an extra soda, an extra cocktail, an extra beer, an extra snack, an extra serving—would have more than wiped out the deficit. An almost imperceptible change in my amount of fidgeting could easily add or subtract more than 134 calories per day.

It’s pretty much impossible to impose that difference by effort, which is, I think, why diets don’t work. There are extremely complex mechanisms in your body for controlling your weight, which bring to bear powerful forces like appetite and satiety. Making a point of eating less is no more likely to be successful than making a point of breathing less. Losing weight requires changing how you live.

Changes like eating a healthier diet and being less sedentary are likely to lead to weight loss. I used to despair of making such changes. Eating more healthily is tough because (unlike Jackie), I don’t really like vegetables. Being less sedentary was tough because so many hours per day had to be allocated to sedentary activities—sleeping and working.

I’ve improved my diet some. Over the past 20-some years I’ve steadily cut back on the amount of fat and sugar I eat. I’ve also learned to pay more attention to how much food I really want, which lets me get those complex mechanisms for controlling my weight working for me, rather than against me.

Not working at a regular job has helped with being less sedentary—more of my hours are my own. I’ve also made a bit of an attitude adjustment: Before I thought that an hour a day was probably more time than I could afford to devote to exercise; now I figure that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

Last winter I described a fitness regimen that allowed me to maintain a stable weight. Briefly: Three times a week we lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days a week I try to walk for an hour. It worked. My weight was stable. (Specifically, from the beginning of September last year though the end of March this year I lost weight at the rate of 0.03 pounds a week, implying a calorie deficit of 17 calories a day. And that right there is a crystal-clear instance of those powerful mechanisms working. Imagine trying to match your calorie intake and activity level within 17 calories by counting calories. It’d be hopeless.)

Maintaining a stable weight over the winter was key. It was perfectly ordinary that I lost weight last summer and this summer. What was different was that I put two summers of weight loss back-to-back.

That’s pretty much the extent of my plan for the rest of this winter as well—a stable weight, so that I’ll be starting from here next summer.

I don’t have much data on which to base a longer-term plan. The National Institutes of Health suggest that the highest healthy weight for a person my height is 164 pounds. That seems like a good medium-term goal.

Looking slightly beyond that, I observe that Jackie is looking very trim these days. To match her body mass index my weight would want to be around 144-151.

That target is supported by my only reasonably specific recollection of my weight from longer ago: When I was a freshman in college, I got mononucleosis. The combination of nausea and a very sore throat resulted in eating a lot less for several weeks, producing considerable weight loss. I don’t have any records, but I’m pretty sure I remember my weight dropping under 150 (which is to say, probably down to 149¾). Despite having gotten there by being sick, I was by no means wasted away at that weight. In fact, I remember looking pretty good.

So, that’s my weight loss story. I don’t expect to talk about it much beyond this. “Let me tell you how I lost so much weight” is just not a useful or interesting story. I only mention it at all because I’ve been paying close attention to it. It would seem to make my own story incomplete to leave it out.

Beginning a new work year

My dad and his wife gave me this light-therapy device for staving off SAD.

I took advantage of the fact that my brother was off work for the holidays by playing a whole lot of StarCraft.

My plan had actually been to continue that through today, but I got email from an editor expressing an interest in a story I’d finished a few days ago.

I’d done my “final” rewrite of this story back in December. But one of my Christmas presents was the book Save the Cat, and reading it had crystallized a couple of aspects of story structure that hadn’t quite been clear before. So, I’d cracked the story open to do a bit of restructuring.

Once the email arrived, I had to wrap that up right away. Fortunately, there wasn’t much left to be done. I did the restructuring pass in a couple of hours, made two editing passes to smooth off a few bits of awkward language, and sent the story off.

So, a day early, the work year is begun.

When I’m unproductive

Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
This statue at Allerton Park is called the Three Graces, but I like to think of it as the Three Muses.

I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.

I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.

I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.

I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.

Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?

I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).

Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.

As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.

I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.

More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.

In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.

In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.