Friday, February 23, 2007

Exercise, Diet, Self-experimentation

Today I weighed 179; two days ago I weighed 177; at this rate, I'll be over 300 pounds by Christmas. Oh, well.

I was a skinny six-footer back in 1971, and decided to make heavy use of the weight room at St. John's College of Santa Fe. I remember I weighed in the upper 160s and bench-pressed 180 when I started as a banquet waiter (and set-up guy) at the Santa Fe Hilton Inn, a while later. My weight, but not strength, very gradually rose as I went on through graduate school and the first few years of being an asst prof of geekery, so when I stopped teaching in the early 1990s, I'd weighed within a couple of pounds of 183 for several years. (I know that, because I was routinely teaching simplistic statistics and modeling with spreadsheets, and a starting questionnaire included weight and height -- along with questions about how many of your classmates will refuse to answer this honestly even though the identifying questions are separated from these. It's fun to be able to ask simple questions like "Look at this table comparing means, medians, and modes for the past few years; the means and medians are quite stable, but the modal height jumps by several inches and then jumps back. Why?")

That lower-180s weight stayed put through the next ten years, even though my occasional exercise got serious again in early 1996, when I learned that we'd be having a late-life child, more than 20 years after our first. I remember when it hit me that I was going to be old for this kid...of course it has been a long time since I could carry my family (wife and two small children) upstairs, but I remembered taking her big sister to boarding school for fall 1995 and finding two young ladies, one of them my 15-year-old, greeting one another in the doorway I needed to get through, so I hugged them both and set them down out of the way. Would I be able to do that at age 60? Would it matter? I wasn't sure -- I can't help being a relatively old dad, but I didn't want to be an old and feeble dad. So I started to run on a regular basis. When my ankle gave way, I started low-impact stair-climbing, on actual stairs. My current routine is nothing for an athlete, but it's what I can make myself do: three times a week I do forty sit-ups, forty pushups, twenty minutes trotting up and downstairs for a total of 900-something feet up and the same down, and then twenty chin-ups or pull-ups on a doorway chinning bar. (Palm outward on odd-numbered days, like today.) Today my ankle did not feel good, so I used the cross-trainer for twenty minutes instead; same workout, even more boring, but zero-impact instead of low impact.

Curiously, no matter what I did gradually building up this routine in the late nineties and early naughties, and no matter how my diet changed, my weight stayed in the low 180s -- until two years ago (I was at fifty sit-ups and push-ups, twenty-five chin-ups) the doorway chinning bar came apart from my failure to do a routine check on the bolts, and I had to stop for a while. My weight rose to the upper 180s, for the first time ever. I actually wrote down "190" on a life-insurance form, which wasn't quite true but I told myself it soon would be. Then I resumed and my weight came back down -- to the lower 180s.

Meanwhile, I had read about a psychology professor's very strange diet (and a self-experimentation program that it came from) on a statistics blog I like, and then again on the economics blog which had, I think, originally recommended the statistics blog. Then it was discussed at the Freakonomics blog, which isn't as interesting but I did like the book so I've stayed subscribed to the blog. And I kept thinking about the diet, which I called the Mary Poppins diet because Roberts was claiming that a spoonful of sugar (or several, every day) could actually make you lose weight. I wasn't worried about the weight, now that I was back to the low 180s, but I was interested in the diet. So I tried it -- and found myself a couple of months later in the upper 170s, for the first time in at least 20 years. It really was as if my body had been at one setpoint and now had shifted to a new one.

So I tried larger doses; no further effect. I switched from sugar water to oil; still no further change. I dunno, but I am reasonably confident that this is not a placebo effect; I have many times expected changes that didn't happen. Indeed, the whole history of the diet industry suggests to me that long-term placebo effects just don't play a major role: people believe, and belief doesn't work.

So, this morning after exercise (and therefore an hour after coffee) I downed a shot glass of reasonably-flavorless walnut oil (high in omega-3, it seems; it's a bit more than two tablespoons).

And then I went out and shoveled snow, so my wife and our 10-year-old daughter could go to the mall on this particular vacation day.


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