Learned Aversions

The new Sofa

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As of yesterday, we have a new sofa in the living room. One of those things that has been on my long-term “one of these days” list for a while. The old sofa has done yeoman’s duty but was beyond tired. As it turns out the city we live in had an annual anti-blight cleanup campaign where once a year you can take all of your junk and stick it on the curb, and then we get to watch random strangers patrol the streets for a few days between doing that and having the city come and actually haul the stuff away. We call it the annual city rummage sale, and it’s quite useful.

So I figured if I could time the delivery right, I could haul the old sofa out to the curb and it would magically disappear. And if not, there’s always 800-got-junk who’ll deal with it for me. As it turns out, I did time it right, and this weekend was the weekend for our neighborhood to drop stuff off at the curb, and Sunday was the day the sofa was delivered.

The only problem… That sofa was ancient, and was in the house before we had the new (slightly narrower) front door put in. Which… Yup. You guessed it.

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The good news is that many problems are a lot easier to solve when you own a demo saw. So after an hour or so and a bit of grunting and some cussing, the old sofa is out at the curb. In pieces. And I’m happy, because the new sofa is sitting nicely in its home in the living room against the wall. And no, that sofa was not denotable, it was time for it to retire permanently.

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P.S. My hamstrings are pissed at me this morning.

Missing office hours

I haven’t been good about announcing office hours that last week or two, but that’s because I’ve been scheduling in coffee with people (that I can’t name) to talk about things (that I can’t discuss) and so they weren’t times I could open up to people wandering by. It looks like that may happen again this week — this sabbatical thing means I finally have time to catch up with friends, and start exploring options and opportunities — but when I stop running around seeing people I haven’t seen in years, I’ll start advertising hours again. It’s fun when people show up for a nice chat, and I think this sort of informal sit and talk is a good thing to encourage everyone to consider.

Learned Aversions

Let’s say you you get yourself a nice bit of salmon and you grill it up and you eat it… And it’s gone bad, and a few hours later you really regret eating that salmon. It’s very possible that the next time you go to eat salmon you may hesitate, or decide to simply not eat salmon again. If it happens to you twice (it did to me) it might be a while before you go back to eating salmon again, if you ever do. This is known as a taste aversion.

These kind of aversions can happen with other things as well, and it’s something I’m fighting to get my exercise program on track. The challenge is simple: I hit a point where I decided that every time I got started exercising I ended up injured, and at some point my brain went into why bother mode, so I stopped. It’s something I’ve talked to my doctor about, and there really is no easy answer other than keep beating your head against the wall until the wall falls down, and so I am. But it’s tough.

I’m not talking sore muscles here, either. Back in 2010 I went for a walk and fell and ended up effectively spraining the left half of my body — and six weeks on the shelf. That was my last serious attempt at a fitness program. The time before that was when I stepped in a gopher hole and tore the meniscus in my knee, which is how I discovered the arthritis, the joys of cortisone shots and the specter of knee replacement surgery some day.

It’s not a conscious decision; it’s something you notice in retrospect. The place where I fell is one of the best birding areas, and yet I realize looking back at my photography and birding reports that I just stopped going there. It sort of disappeared out of my reality.

April wasn’t a great month for the fitness program, partially because of the spider bite which took about ten days out of my plans by leaving my really happy to just sit and feel grumpy, and part of it was recognizing the mental fatigue that was underlying my decision to take sabbatical, and so I realized it probably made sense to allow for some time to recharge the batteries a bit and focus on some of the simpler projects, like the web site redesign.

Towards the end of April I found the energy levels and enthusiasm coming back, and so now here I am in May and trying to ramp up the exercise again. I’m starting simple: I’ve pushed up the daily calorie goal on the Apple Watch activity monitor, and I’m pushing myself to make sure I hit it at least four times a week. Remember I’m in a situation of extremely poor conditioning where I do need some recovery time after some real exercise, so I’m trying not to push it if I don’t feel it the next day (today, the day after tearing apart and moving the sofa, which blew me past my goal for the day, my hamstrings hate me; it’s a light day). I’ve got the exercise bike, one of the tools here is if I don’t get to the limit I’ll be getting on the bike to push the calories and activity forward — and I really am not a fan of sitting on a stationary bike, so that’s motivation to get the calories in earlier.

Right now the plan is to push the calorie goal up every week and continue hitting it 4 times a week until I get the conditioning up a bit, and then push that to 6 times a week; once I get there, start ramping up the calorie as fast as my conditioning will allow.

And we’ll start with that and see what happens. I’ve added tracking these numbers to my magic spreadsheet of personal analytics — since about 2008 I’ve been tracking daily weight, my blood sugars, blood pressure, etc. And now I’ve committed to tracking these activity numbers in there as well, which means I can’t pretend not to see lack of progress — which I’ve found is the best motivator for me. Whatever works…

There are some physical complications I need to factor into this as well — there are simply days where various body parts aren’t interested in supporting my goals. On the plus side, Wednesday is cortisone shot day, so by the end of the week the knees should be a lot less grumpy about life… For a while.

Weight and Exercise and Fitness

I’ve recently started reading a book someone pointed me at called The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz, a deeply researched book that goes into the details of how and why much of our nutritional policy and knowledge is flawed —and often flat out wrong. It, along with Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes and Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss are all books that are attempting to help reshape the dialog around food, nutrition, diets and bring forward some of the challenges and controversy that are driven by the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

And in the United States there’s a societal tendency towards shaming over helping, and this Calvinistic and simplistic attitude that it’s all about hard work and eating less and if you don’t somehow magically lose weight and keep it off, it’s because you’re weak and lazy, not because of other factors; this despite the visible reality of watching a huge chunk of the population now fighting obesity and losing the battle.

It should seem obvious that there are factors beyond these people being stupid and lazy, but it’s been a very long, slow trip of the medical establishment being willing to admit that maybe some of this problem is because everything the establishment’s been telling these people to do is flawed. The Taubes book does a good job of explaining a lot of this, and the Teichholz book follows up on that with updated and newer info, while the Moss book takes a hard look at the food industry, and how it’s gotten itself into a situation where producing unhealthy food is good business, and the struggles it’s had in trying to change its business models away from that.

I’ve talked a bit in the past of the how “eat fewer calories” is a fallacy, because your body can adapt and streamline your metabolism to be more efficient; in my case, at the calorie levels I typically eat, I ought to be losing about a pound a half a week — except my body metabolism is suppressed and so that reduced calories keeps me at weight stasis. I also know from sad history that if I do reduce calories, I can get about five pounds off and then my body will push back, going through hunger and cravings, and if that fails dropping my energy levels and cutting my metabolism. My body seems wired to want to keep this weight now that it’s achieved it.

That’s why I’m not trying to lose weight just by dropping calories (and yes, my doctor and I have talked a lot about this); been there done that and it hasn’t really worked. The strategy I seem to need is to manage calories while pushing up the metabolism, which means exercise and activity. And to do that, I need to reshape a whole bunch of lifestyle elements, and… and..

It’s complicated.

It’s interesting to see that these kind of struggles are starting to be recognized and talked about. The NBC show Biggest Loser has been very popular in the ratings and been seen as a showcase of how people can solve their weight problems if they just work hard enough at it — and yet what the reality turns into is that after the show ends, pretty much all of the winners have struggled, and mostly lost, the fight to keep the weight off. A study recently came out that’s become known as the Biggest Loser study, where study of 14 of the winners shows that they all have put some or all of their weight back on, and metabolic studies show all of them have reduced metabolisms: in other words, all of the exercise they used to lose weight taught their body to become more efficient with the calories they eat, so after they stop with the exercise, the bodies uses fewer calories for basic metabolism and can store the rest as fat. A nice summary of this is at the Huffington Post.

In other words, high exercise levels sets you up to find it easier to gain weight on the same food later. A lose-lose situation. Vox did a follow-up on the study rather click-bitingly titled Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies, and the core of it seems to be true: pushing your body to burn calories may cut your weight in the short term, but looks to set you up in the long run for problems keeping it off.

So what to do? I don’t know that anyone really has the answers, especially for the general population; I haven’t even opened the discussion to other complications like how gut bacteria and your biome may affect or dictate your weight or how, as the Moss book talks about, decisions and products in the food supply channels affect your ability to manage your eating and weight. There are easily half a dozen other complicating factors I could throw in, from whether the hormones big meat producers use in their animals affect you when you eat the meat, or whether pesticide residues on your fruits and vegetables are impacting your overall health, or…

It’s complicated..

Where I’m at is here: sustainability. It’s not about diets that cut calories because when you stop dieting you gain it back. It’s not about exercising yourself into losing weight, because that drops your metabolism, so when you slow down on the exercise, it comes back even though you eat less. It’s pretty well understood in the medical literature that weight loss yo-yoing is worse for you than not losing weight in the first place, so one of the things my doctor and I agreed on early was a strong preference towards lifestyle change leading to permanent weight loss rather than doing things that take it off only to have it return.

And while it may seem that my plan to ramp up my exercise flies into the face of the data I point to in that Vox article, I don’t believe that’s true. I’m currently significantly under normal for activity and conditioning, and what I’m trying to do is get myself back to a more normal, sustainable level of activity. The key is sustainable activity and a sustainable diet that in combination shift the body to a sustainable weight over time.

Which when it’s put that way, should probably make us all go “why aren’t we talking about doing that all the time?” — but in fact, our society is oriented about easy fixes and fast results and short term changes, rather than long term sustainability.

God knows if it’ll work, given the fight I’m having getting it kicked off. But I do know none of the other stuff has worked any better… And not for lack of trying…

Volunteer work

Closing on a somewhat more positive note… One of the things I wanted to do during the sabbatical was find some ways for me to get more involved with some of the organizations I’ve supported over the years because I’ve felt that writing checks is fine, but sweat equity is even better. This last week I’ve kicked off one such activity where I’ve taken on the a project with San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory to help them digitize and organize their photographic libraries. They have photos going back into the 1980s, all sitting in boxes and none of them organized or curated, and so I’m starting to sort through their boxes of priceless history and working on getting them digital and into a form where they can be used and searched. It’s a fascinating project with lots of little fussy details, especially since the goal is to make this stuff usable and not just go from a bunch of photos in a box nobody can find anything in to a bunch of photos on a disk nobody can find anything in.

As this moves forward I’ll talk about some of the techniques I’m coming up with to try to turn this into a resource instead of a data dump.

This was always a part of this sabbatical, to give me the opportunity to try to put these other opportunities and activities into place in my life, knowing that once I have these things going on that when I go back to work I’ll be able to build the work tasks and schedules around them; but what I kept finding was that my habit of work was such that it was hard to break it to make time for these other things.

I have one other volunteer opportunity that I’m exploring, with another organization I’ve long supported. If it comes through, it’ll be a longer term and more potentially interesting situation for me, but this is a nice and interesting project I can do here at my desk and I’m committing to a few hours a week to move it forward, and when it’s done in a few months (‘m estimating this at 100ish hours of work right now) I expect there will be other ways to continue helping out SFBBO down the road.

These organizations make differences in things I care about; my putting hours back into them is a way to help make a difference for these organizations. Writing checks to support them is nice, but donating time and sweat equity is a lot more fulfilling.