Running just as fast as we can, now

Spoiler - we just ran a 5k!
Spoiler – we just ran a 5k!

I am not a fitness guru. I’m not even a fitness padawan. I’m a “fitness happens to other people” kind of person. I just did a search of “running” on my blog, and in the first two pages of results, there are none that actually involve… you know… running.

But I also follow the latest research. It turns out that being a great cook and having a job where you sit for a living is not a recipe for happy longevity. I’ve noticed that over time, my mass has gradually crept up. I never lost the baby weight from Grey. Or Thane. And to be completely honest, it was cold water on my face when I stepped on a scale and saw that my weight was about as high as it had been when I was in my third trimester. Taken just on it’s own, that’s bad enough. But as a trend line it just had to be stopped. At some point – perhaps not that far from now – the extra weight would start affecting my mobility (if not my health). Like most people, I find it extremely difficult to lose weight once I’ve gained it. This makes not gaining weight of critical importance.

Tragically, the “easy” ways to lose weight don’t work. Heck, the hard ways to lose weight only work very grudgingly and with great pains. But this spring, I got back to carefully watching the calories in vs calories out.

Pretty typical lunch for me - I'm extremely lucky to have access to free, super high quality healthy food at work
Pretty typical lunch for me – I’m extremely lucky to have access to free, super high quality healthy food at work

If you’ve ever done that, you know that the calories in required to reduce your mass is a desperately small amount. A 1500 or even 1800 calorie diet means that every meal is super small and there are very few snacks. And wine or beer? Fuggedaboutit. But there’s this great tradeoff you can make. If you increase your calories OUT you can take more calories IN. Want a piece of cake? Desperate for some brie and crackers? Longing for lemonade? If you go for a run, you can have eat your cake, and make your goals too.

I picked running because my friend Julie mentioned how much she’d been enjoying it. Also, it was free and immediately available. Don’t underestimate free and immediately available as important criteria for your workout plans. I have access to a gym at work. (But no time.) I used to have a local gym membership (but hated the locale – it was the sort of place that has dire warnings in the locker room regarding the dangers of steroids). I’d run a bit before I blew out my knee, and I’d done track in high school (badly). So I had decent shoes, something to wear and enough training not to hurt myself. Although it’s worth noting that my orthopedic surgeon has said I should try for lower impact sports – I’ll never aim for a marathon because I don’t have enough cartilege in my left knee to support it.

Remarkably consistent with one run a week the last few weeks
Remarkably consistent with one run a week the last few weeks

I ran for about a mile, stopping to walk. The next time, I ran for a mile and didn’t stop to walk. Then I ran longer distances. Julie recommended I use RunKeeper to track my runs, since data is motivational. (She’s right, by the way.) Then Adam started joining me on my runs (Tragically, I slow him down. Men. It’s not fair how much more easily he gets in shape than I do!). Then, we ran in our town’s super low key 5K race. (Side note, the organizers at the Boys and Girls Club of Stoneham deserve all the credit in the world for putting together such a nice, safe, and well run race!)

Maybe next time I'll be in the top half of my age group....
Maybe next time I’ll be in the top half of my age group….

Julie asked me if I get the runner’s high that’s so talked about. For months now I’ve tragically lamented that I don’t seem to get that part. But I wonder if it’s sneaking up on me. It takes a lot of willpower to 75 miles. But somehow, it appears that I’ve done just that. How remarkable!

Let's go!
Let’s go!

Yes, kind sir, she sits and spins

I find myself at an odd confluence of events today. I hope that you know me well enough by now to know that although I pay attention to my body and appearance, I’m far from obsessesed with the Western standard of beauty for women. It helps to have realized it is unobtainable for me.

However, I am starting to think that the pregnancy weight I put on with Thane will not actually come off by itself. Call it a hunch. I would like my maintenance weight to be the weight I was before I started procreating lo eight years ago. This is a matter of 25 pounds. I believe this is achievable, having worked my way back to it before between the boys. So when my husband asked if I would join him in this diet he’s done a ton of research on, and which he has found efficacious before, I figured this was a good time to attempt the challenge again.

The diet is a called the Slow Carb Diet and is more or less a geek’s attempt to optimize weight loss. In some studies, it’s been shown to be more effective than other forms of diet. My husband did a ton of research on it. The basic concepts are this:

1) Eat all low glycemic index foods: lean meats, vegetables and legumes
2) Eat no high glycmeic foods: any form of carb, fruit, diary, sugar, sweetener. Any food that “comes in white” is right out. (With exceptions).
3) Take one cheat day in seven and eat all the carbs you want (to prevent other cheating, and to prevent your body from going into starvation mode)

In practice this means that breakfast is eggs and beans (breakfast is the hard part). Thank HEAVENS I drink my coffee black! Lunch is dinner leftovers. Dinner is a compliant meal like split pea soup, cassoulet, black bean casserole, morrocan chicken, lentil soup…

Snacks have been the hard part. I’ve probably had more nuts than I should. Hard boiled eggs are great for this. Veggies with hummus become the culinary highlight of your day. My husband says the hardest part is that you get absolutely not taste of anything sweet with this diet. It’s true. Even artificial sweeteners are out. He says the flip side is that you “reset” your perception of sweet, so that a glass of milk or an apple seems deliciously sweet.

I’m on day three, and so far I’ve been compliant. We’ll see how it goes. I figure that an attempt is better than no attempt, and that the possibility of success is motivating. My weight is pretty stable, so once I’ve lost the weight, i believe I will be able to keep it off using more normal dietary constraints.

If you’re curious, here is some other information on the diet:

A few weeks ago, I had finally decided that my knee was far enough from right — nearly 18 months after massive knee surgery — I was not content with the condition of my knee. I can’t cross it. I can’t kneel. It hurts with the weather. And most importantly, the differences in strength between repaired left knee and normal right knee are more than obvious enough to be seen in my legs. They’re still working differently, and my body is pulled off center. Like weight loss, I’ve concluded this won’t fix itself. So I went to my orthopedic surgeon – expecting a PT prescription.

Instead, he gave me a prescription for spinning class. Greaaaat. Now, I believe that when you ask for medical help and advice you should consider it, and assuming it passes the sniff test, you should implement it. I suppose I shouldn’t have needed an orthopedic surgeon to tell me that I needed exercise for my knee, but apparently I did. Having gotten that advice, I treat it as sacred as a PT prescription, and decided that logistic impossibilities aside, I needed to comply.

In truth, I am really feeling the need for exercise. I don’t feel strong, or flexible, or powerful. I feel weak and fragile. My two mile a day walking simply isn’t enough, or the right kind of exercise. Of course, the flip side is that I truly do not know where I can find two hours a week to go to the gym. I will simply have to be opportunistic about it. But that is no excuse for not trying.

So I have signed up for a froo froo gym with a gazillion classes* and exercise equipments and the kind of strutting gym rats that have provided disincentives for unathletic, pudgy geeks like me since the gym was invented. Fortunately, I’m no longer 22 and do not care for their disregard.

So here I am, in February, with mounds of snow on the ground, on a wacko diet that means I can’t have Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast and the kind of gym membership that everyone has and no one uses.

I’ll let you know how it works out!

*Critically, it has about 16 spinning classes a week and child care and is less than 5 miles from my house.

When programmers work out

You might wonder why the stereotype of a programmer is a rather largish person. Here’s the real reason: we can’t stand doing hard things that don’t have data associated with them that we can measure and make pretty graphs about. So let’s say you, normal person, go for a run. You think, “Wow, I’m tired. That was a good run!”.

Here’s what a programmer thinks:
1) Calculate length of run (Google maps)
2) Calculate number of strides executed (pedometer)
3) Measure time elapsed in run (watch)
4) Take samplings of heart rate (???)
5) Calculate calories burned by run (web app)

Really intense programmers might also capture relevant variables like “Hours after eating the run occurred” or “Ounces of water consumed on day of run” or “Mean temperature and humidity during run period” or “Health on a scale of 1 to 10”.

For each run executed, one of those numbers needs to change in order to demonstrate progress. To measure that shift over time, a programmer might chart it all in a nifty spreadsheet/database. Hmmm… maybe that database needs a web front end. I think I could whip that up in jQuery pretty fast. But if there are multiple runners, I’ll need to change my data model. I bet I could turn this in to a great iPhone app….

Man, that’s a lot of work. You know what’s less work? Sitting here at my desk, eating a Snicker’s bar and making my existing data dance. Dance data! Dance!

This is why programmers have trouble exercising. And I am no exception.

Fortunately for me, I’ve found some exercises that throw off the lovely, lovely data I crave. Our elliptical machine at the gym here, for example, is a delight (if only it had some sort of wireless interface so I could download my data!). It gives me length of workout, strides per minute, resistance and heart rate. So if I do the same workout with the same strides per minute at the same resistance… if I’m getting in better shape the heart rate should go down. Mmmm… data.

Today, being an exceptionally lovely day in New England, I decided to go on a run. The last 3 times I did this run, I did not manage to run all the way. I am told it’s about 1.6 miles. I know I am out of shape. But today! Today! I ran the WHOLE WAY. Look ma! One of the variables improved! It’s satisfying to note that nicely empirically-proven improvement.

Maybe next time I’m on the elliptical I can get my peak heart-rate under 180 a minute while holding all the other variables the same. Wheeeeee!!!!!

I love data

I usually think of myself as a liberal arts kinda girl — all about poetry and language and music and history. But back in high school, I took the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) in order to get out of class and (this is the real reason) because I always liked taking standardized tests. (I know! I’m sorry!). Anyway, the results of this test weren’t wildly surprising except one: I aced the code-breaking section. According to the military and my fuzzy 15 year old memory, I was unusually good at translating one list to another. It indicated that I might be a capable computer programmer. I scoffed.

And here I am, a computer programmer. Go figure. I guess what I’m saying is that my image of myself as a words only person is just that: an image. I actually do have this well of unappreciated ability in the less subjective. One of the places this shows up most is in data sets.

I just cannot resist real numbers. If it can be measured, it makes me happy. For example, as you may recall, I carefully measured and calculated my milk production while pumping at work, doing my best to note and avoid problems with my data set. Why? Um, because data is cool? And of course, halfway through you think of other data you should’ve collected (time spent pumping, quality of audio book being listened to, frigidity of server room and impact on milk production).

So for Christmas my brother bought me a Wii fit. It plays exactly into my weakness. Oh, the Wii throws off fantastic data! It has charts and graphs. How much of the time I spent in my workout was done using strength training exercises? How consistent have I been? How many calories did I burn doing X activity? What is my BMI, with a precision of 2. Love! Love love! Data! It gets even better for me, because I find data highly motivational. Give me a measurable objective and watch me make it and then exceed it by a little bit because, um, that’s just how I roll. So fantastic, right?

Well…. there’s just one problem. Let’s say I have half an hour to workout (aka: a miracle has occurred). Which activity is likely to produce the best fitness results: Wii fit, or a half hour fitness workout (I have a Bollywood dance workout DVR’d I’m dying to try)? Chances are the non-Wii workout will get my heart rate higher longer. But! But but! It won’t provide me with the delicious, delicious data I crave. I’ll have to go by estimates and feelings! Bah!

Exercise isn’t the only place where I face this conflict between the measurable and the likely more effective. This happens all the time in food. For example, which one of these is probably all-over better for you: the delicious turkey-burgers my husband made for dinner last night, or a frozen Healthy Choice dinner? Right. Homemade food from actual ingredients has numerous benefits over prepackaged “food” products – not the least of which is taste. Now, which one of these is easily quantified? That would be the prepackaged one, of course. On the other hand, this “from scratch” food may have nutritional surprises. I’m pretty sure that the turkey-burgers were pretty healthy, but what about the chili that I make about once every two weeks? I think it’s pretty decent nutritionally, but I could be wrong.

So I can rigorously and accurately count calories, or I can make my food from scratch.

The last time I set about losing baby-weight, I accomplished it through rigorous calorie counting in both intake and output. I believe that I switched the way I ate from a mostly home cooked to more prepared. That’s harder now, because there are more people eating the food we cook. I don’t think I’m willing to do that again. (Also, the site I used for calorie counting is still stuck in Web 1.0 and has a painful interface. Oh, for an iPhone with a food and exercise log app!) It will be interesting to see whether I can pull this off: reduce calories and exercise regularly without constant data streams and numbers. So motivational do I find numbers, I’m actually not entirely sure I can.

What about you? Do you love data or find it irrelevant or constrictive? What pointless data sets do you obsessively maintain? What are other circumstances are there conflicts between an optimal outcome and a measurable outcome? Which one do you pick when they are in conflict: optimal or measurable?