Category Archives: Health

Fika off

My round at the coffee machine

I’m about to be deported:

I don’t drink coffee. Bye!

Hmm… seems like I’m still here… I’ll continue until the police arrive.

In Sweden, drinking coffee is a cultural institution. A fika — drinking coffee and eating cake socially — is the primary way to bring people together.

This is so important that it has even become a verb — fikar — meaning ‘to have a sociable coffee together’. You can tell from the length of the English translation that this concept does not exist back in the UK.

The hipster Swedish dude above has a coffee in one hand and a kanelbulle — cinnamon bun — in the other. Buns / Cake are also a critical part of the fika.

Without them, your coffee tastes sad and lonely. And you will soon be sad and lonely too, because by not including bullar you will have committed a serious social faux pas.

On my first day at work, I felt I must absolutely join the post-lunch fika. Coffee makes my brains shake, so I figured I would compromise with tea. I’m English not Italian, I can get away with that.

In my experience, tea comes in a teabag — but there were no tea bags, only a set of apothecary’s jars with loose leaves rustling around inside them. So I tipped some leaves into my mug and poured in the water. Hold on a minute. That doesn’t look right, why won’t it blend together? Apparently loose tea is not like a milkshake, you can’t just mix it in…

Truth is, I don’t drink tea either.

If I am deported, I may be unwelcome in England too.

/Todd

Aggressively Healthy

Activewear, Everywhere

 

The slip-slippery ice coating every pavement in Stockholm creates a genuine hazard. If this were the UK, the council’s Health & Safety jobsworths would be working dangerously long hours, setting up Take Extra Care signs to warn innocent citizens of the perils beyond the doorstep — and, of course, to offset any claim by a litigious local that his bruised behind was the sole and sacred responsibility of the nearest authority figure.

In Stockholm these signs are either entirely absent, or have been swallowed whole by the relentless ice. Maybe Swedes trample them unwittingly, and the signs stare mournfully upward from an frozen tomb.

Ice presents a challenge for the inexperienced foreigner. Expats must navigate the city with chameleon eyes swivelling in opposite directions, wary of a double danger: not only the slippery surface underfoot, but also the sprightly legion of sure-footed Swedes who gambol across the ice with little regard for their less able cousins.

Just yesterday, one sprinted past me on the footway near our apartment. She was a vision in a dream, walking on frozen water: feet floating, arms swinging, hair fluttering gamely beneath a bright-pink hat, long legs whirring in easy locomotion. She even hummed a few bars as she swept through the gap between me and the lamppost I was about to grasp for support.

I wonder what she thought of me as she passed? Perhaps she felt sympathy, a youngish man turned frail geriatric, in whose every step you see hear the future echoes of the melancholy phrase: “He’s had a fall”. Maybe she appreciated my Bambi On Ice audition.

Thankfully for the nervy expat, it is easy to spot the tormentor’s approach. The playful, ice-loving Swede will invariably be sporting items from a very singular branch of the fashion family tree: Activewear.

Not since my brief but colourful stint as a rower (two outings, three nights out) have I seen so many grown men in lycra. The present trend for 80s retro seems to have sprung from the tightly-girdled loins of the Activewear Alliance, as neon shapes, slickly ironic patterns and baggy-top/tight-bottom combos are the sign and signal of a confident ice-runner. They can recognise one another with vibrant speed, and no doubt at a great distance. Perhaps their retinas respond faster than ordinary humans’ to electric blues and acid greens. When they mate, what new colours are born?

I certainly cannot beat them, so last week I decided to join them. I found a pair of yak tracks — detachable shoe spikes — and carefully affixed them to my sturdiest boots. I tramped happily to work. But my colleagues laughed: yak tracks are for old men. This is the wrong kind of Activewear. I slipped off my spikes, and slid away.

/Todd

Image: Van Vuuren Bros (YouTube)

What I learnt from tracking my body fat % every day for 6 months

That’s not me, that’s 50 Cent.

50 Cent likes Vitamin Water. He invested in the company early on and regularly advertises its products.

50 Cent is in good shape, so Vitamin Water must be good for you.

But then… Vitamin Water also contains a remarkable amount of sugar: almost 4 teaspoons per bottle.

So is it healthy (vitamins! water!) or not? And what about other foods? What are the factors that make a real difference to health?

I felt confused by conflicting messages about diet and exercise. So decided to measure it for myself, by tracking my body fat % every day for six months.

Why body fat %?

I figured this would be a good way to capture the effect of both inputs (food/drink) and outputs (exercise). I assume that the body fat % is a net result of those two.

Also, I thought that whatever I saw in the data should be reinforced by visible changes when I looked in the mirror:

Poor guy who went through that before/after photoshoot.

What happened to me?

Headline news: my body fat % went down :)

  • My fat % went down for the first three months, then stabilised
  • Two possible reasons why it stabilised:
    • After three months my daughter was born (less sleep, slightly less healthy eating, slightly less exercise)
    • It took a little while to burn off the excesses of Christmas
  • Fat takes 1-2 days to form in your body (even after a pizza party, the effects would not show up in my body fat % for 24-48 hours)

What did I conclude?

  • You manage what you measure – i.e. the simple act of writing down the numbers influences your choices about what you eat and how often you exercise
  • Tracking this stuff is very easy now (much easier in fact than they way I did it, with a combination of Tanita scales and Evernote – there are devices/apps that record all this automagically)
  • The impacts of bad food/booze and exercise were exactly as I suspected. Bad food/booze = more fat, exercise = less fat (duh!)
  • Pizza is still delicious, no matter what you do…

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If you’re interested in self-tracking, jump to the posts on tracking money and running.

For more miscellaneous musings, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or sign up for emails.

Cheers ~ Todd

 

 

Primitive car safety testing

Another story from the Robert McNamara archives.

Before becoming Secretary of State, he worked at Ford on car safety. He described their testing programme in The Fog Of War.

I said, “What about accidents? I hear a lot about accidents.”

“Oh yes, we’ll get you some data on that.” There were about forty odd thousand deaths per year from automobile accidents, and about a million, or a million two injuries.

I said, “Well, what causes it?”

“Well,” he said, “it’s obvious. It’s human error and mechanical failure.”

I said, “Hell, if it’s mechanical failure, we might be involved. Let’s dig into this.” I want to know, if it’s mechanical error, I want to stop it.

“Well”, they said, “There’s really very few statistics available.”

I said, “Dammit, find out what can we learn.”

They said, “Well, the only place we can find that knows anything about it is Cornell Aeronautical Labs.”

[Cornell] said, “The major problem is packaging.” They said, “You buy eggs and you know how eggs come in a carton?”

I said, “No, I don’t buy eggs. I never have — my wife does it.”

Well, they said, “You talk to her and ask her: when she puts that carton down on the drain board when she gets home, do the eggs break?”

And so I asked Marg and she said “No.”

So Cornell said, “They don’t break because they’re packaged properly. Now if we packaged people in cars the same way, we could reduce the breakage.”

We lacked lab facilities, so we dropped the human skulls in different packages down the stairwells of the dormitories at Cornell. Well, that sounds absurd, but that guy was absolutely right. It was packaging which could make the difference.

Testing and iteration by dropping skulls down stairs. Smashing!

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More McNamara here (my post on the terrible odds for WWII US pilots). Full interview transcript here (I made a few edits for clarity’s sake). Image by pegasus22 on Etsy.

If you’d like more McNamara-related posts, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or join the mailing list.

Quantified Selves

The Quantified Self blog has recently featured not one, but two of my posts – as part of best-of summaries on money tracking and on running.

How kind! Thanks very much to Ernesto Ramirez for that.

My next QS project is about health. Every day since 1 January, I’ve been tracking my body fat %, plus recording what exercise I’ve done, and noting down any ‘bad’ things I’ve eaten/drunk.

I want to find out:

  1. How much body fat do I have – and what is a healthy amount? I assume 0% would look a bit weird
  2. What effect do exercise, sloth, bad foods, and booze actually have on fat? Is the effect immediate, lagging, or seemingly random (i.e. dependent on other factors that I’m not recording)?
  3. How often do I actually eat/drink ‘bad’ stuff?
  4. Will I manage what I measure, and gradually reduce the % as time goes by?

It’s been two months so far, and patterns are starting to emerge. Full write-up coming either later this year or early next, depending on how long I keep up the measuring.

Stay tuned to find out what I learnt, how you cut down your body fat, and whether I am indeed mad enough to keep track of my own for a full 6-12 months.

Cheers!

~ Todd

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To find out what happens, and what you can learn from my experiments in order to manage your body fat %, join the mailing list.

Three Years of Running Data: 1,153km with Nike+ and Mind

In 2014 I did 56 runs, averaged 1:00 hours per run, and covered nearly 400 miles – enough to get me from central London to Aberdeen, Galway, Limouges, Frankfurt, Bremen, or deep deep deep under the North Sea.

I’ve been digging into the data – first for 2014, then all the way back to April 2012 when I first started using the Nike+ app – to see what the patterns are.

Here’s a chart showing km per month (bars) and km per run (line). Orange bars are for months in which I did a proper race event. For imperialists: 10km = 6.2 miles, 21.1km = half marathon (13.1 miles), 42.2km = full marathon (26.2 miles).

So, what does this data show?

  • Inconsistency: I haven’t run evenly across the years – the peaks around the orange bars show that I build up for the race events
  • Specific training schedules: In some cases you can actually see my training/resting schedule for the race months in the data – e.g. in October 2014 I did four half marathons (4 x 21.1km), and it’s clear from the total (84.4km) that I did absolutely no running in between – I needed the rest!
  • Recent sloth: I’ve pretty much taken a break for the past two months :)
  • One crazy month: I went nuts in February 2014 (two months prior to my first full marathon), and did 123km in one month

February 2014 is certainly an outlier. Doing 123km in a month meant an average run of 15km every 3 days. Just thinking about it makes my knees hurt.

What was my motivation for doing so much running that month?

There were three reasons:

  1. I enjoyed it
  2. I wanted the best possible marathon time
  3. The marathon helped to raise money for Mind

The first two reasons are easy to see in the overall numbers. 2014 was a big year: 1.5x more miles than 2013, and over 5x more than 2012. In 2014 I did my first marathon (Manchester, 6 April), and then the Monster Month – which comprised six half marathons on six consecutive weekends (1 training run, 4 half marathon races and 1 Tough Mudder, September-October).

Overall, since starting to track my running in 2012, I’ve done a total of 123 runs, covered 1,153km = 716 miles, and logged almost 100 hours on the road. That would get me to Barcelona, Bologna, or Oslo.

But while the running data is interesting, it’s not the full story. The charity element – reason number 3 for all that running back in February 2014 – is important too.

I combined the Nike+ data with the donations data. What is every mile on the road worth to Mind?

  • £24.03 donated per hour of running
  • £3.32 donated for every mile
  • £2.06 donated for every kilometre

That is unbelievably generous, especially when you scale it up to >1,100 kilometres, >700 miles, and almost 100 hours of running over the past three years.

Total donations to date stand at £2,379.20. Incredible. Thank you so much!

Medium-difficulty sporting events like mine have become a very popular way of raising money for charity. So here are a couple of notes on what I’ve learnt about fundraising:

  1. Ask and ye may receive – or rather, do not ask, and ye certainly shall not receive
  2. Share a personal story – I raise money for Mind because several people close to me suffer with mental health issues. Sharing that information not only laid plain the reason why I had chosen Mind, but also led to donations from long-lost friends – presumably because they know people with mental health problems too.
  3. No pain, no gain. After 7 days with zero donations, I received £150 within 6 hours of posting this photo:

If you’re planning an adventure like this – good luck. Keep track of what you’re doing and you’ll be surprised what you can learn.

And yep – that’s blood coming from my nipples. Don’t forgot your tape!

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Thanks for reading – for more posts like this, sign up for emails or follow @toddmgreen on Twitter.

And if you’re specifically interested in posts about running, the best one I’ve written so far is this: 10 Surprising Discoveries During My First Marathon.

10 Surprising Discoveries During My First Marathon

I finished the Manchester Marathon in 3 hours 38 mins. That’s how I felt at the end.

If you are bloody-minded enough to do the same, there’s masses of advice on the internet already. So instead of repeating or summarising all the usual stuff, here’s a list of things that surprised me.

Surprise #1: Starting fast worked well

The night before the race I made a last-minute change of plan. I decided to start fast. That was the opposite of what everyone told me to do: you’re supposed to start slow, then speed up towards the end if you can manage it. Pah! I knew I’d be knackered at the end and wouldn’t want to speed up even if I could. I’m 100% certain that I got a better time as a result.

Surprise #2: Gel packs to the max

I showed up with two energy gel packs, but the experienced-looking runners had bandoliers full of them. I had brought too few. By the end I was dependent on well-wishers’ jelly babies – goddamn it I loved those little guys. A shot of sugar straight to the bloodstream. Would’ve liquified and injected them if I could.

Surprise #3: Pain, pain, go away

I was fine for the first 5 miles, then my right leg started to stiffen up. Not good, that was way too soon. I decided to push on at the same pace and hope it went away. It did – but then my left ankle started to hurt. That stopped about the same time as my arms started aching (arms, wtf?). And so on and so on. Different bits hurt at different times, you’ve just got to roll with it. Had a couple of painkillers in my pocket, and finally gave in and took one at about 15 miles. It made no noticeable difference to my body, but having painkillers with me helped psychologically.

Surprise #4: It’s a race against the course and the clock, not against the other runners

Aka *EVERYONE IS PASSING ME*

The consequence of starting fast is that you will inevitably slow down as the race progresses. Even those going at a steady pace – never mind the freaks who are speeding up – will begin to overtake you. This is not a good thing psychologically. I felt like I was going backwards from about 9 miles in. Runners streamed past me, like I was like driving at 40mph in the middle of the motorway. It took me a mile or so to reset: I’m running my own race, for my own time; I don’t need to beat all these people.

Surprise #5: Obsession with my split time

My gradual slow-down was measured in precise detail by my Nike+ app. Every kilometre a robotic American lady told me how long I had been running, how much distance I had covered, and what my average time per kilometre was. Time per kilometre was my main guide. I knew that an average of 4:59/km = 3 hrs 30 mins, that 5:19 = 3 hrs 45 mins, and 5:39 = 4 hrs 00 mins. I started out around 4:51 per km, but I knew I couldn’t maintain that pace. The average km time kept creeping up. As I passed the halfway mark, I worked out that I’d need to stay under 5:13 to finish in under 3 hrs 40 mins. As the average time per km crept up, I got more and more nervous – 5m05s, 5m06s, 5m07s… every time a the American lady started on a new kilometre announcement I whispered a silent prayer that the average pace would not have increased. The battle lines were drawn: I had to slow down my slow-down.

Here’s my pace chart, showing speed per km. Thankfully I managed to stay just ahead of the 3 hrs 40 mins pace. I averaged 5:12/km for the marathon as a whole.

I didn’t feel like I hit the famous ‘Wall’ at any specific point – but looking at this chart, I guess it was at around 16 miles, when I started to shift down before stabilising at a lower pace. Coincidentally, it was at around that point that I decided I would never run a marathon again.

Surprise #6: Terry Prachett, runner’s friend

I spent ages beforehand crafting a lengthy, pumped-up playlist for the race, and deliberately avoided the songs on it so that they would sound fresh on the day. But by the time I reached halfway through the race, I was bored. Even I can only listen to so much Britpop. So I switched to an audio book, and found salvation. I can recommend Terry Prachett’s The Night Watch as a pleasant distraction to all future marathon runners – though I have had to re-listen to the chapters that played during the last few miles, as somehow I don’t seem to have followed that part of the story.

Surprise #7: Random supporters are there for you

Thousands of people lined the route and cheered the runners on. That really helped, much more so than I expected. I managed a weak thumbs up to most of those who shouted for me personally. Pro tip: write your name on your top in big letters – it will substantially increase your share of random personalised encouragement.

Surprise #8: Runners’ cameraderie

Another nice surprise. It’s daunting to see paramedics treating stricken runners, and it’s nerve-wracking to see ambulances racing past you to some unknown pain point – what lurks just a few miles ahead? But those who were still standing would actively encourage fellow runners who were in trouble. Many people began to walk near the end, but they got regular pats on the back and kind words in the ear from those passing them – come on mate, nearly there now!

Surprise #9: Time and space warp towards the end

The last 10km seemed like entire marathons that had been surreptitiously added on to the main event, and the same for the last 3km. I literally could not imagine how I was going to run that far. It boggled my mind, the sheer thought was exhausting. (This is rather ridiculous in hindsight, because by the time you’ve only got 3km to go you have already run 39km!). So I tried to trick myself. The last 15km became three sets of 5km, a distance which I know I can do ok. But when the first kilometre of the first set of 5km took what seemed like half an hour, I realised that my targets had to get shorter. By the time I got into the final kilometre, I was running two traffic cones at a time – just get to that one… now just get to that one… And then for the final 500m, all I could aim for was to get from one group of people to the next – just get to the girl in the pink coat… now just get to the guy in the glasses… come on, nearly there…

Surprise #10: What’s next?

You can’t train for a marathon just by running a bit further each time. I ran 220 miles over 6 months in training – but I also had to cross-train (interval training, hill running), do weights in the gym for the first time ever (intimidating!), eat more healthily, drink less beer, etc. Without a specific goal in mind, I’m rather lacking in direction sportwise – I need a new (and preferably less gruelling) challenge!

Here’s my training plan for the final three months.

For now, I’m happy to fill the time with writing :)

So thanks for reading!

~ Todd

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Monk-ey business

The bones of four thousand dead friars line the walls of this Capuchin Crypt in Rome.

They want to remind visitors of the brevity of life on Earth:

We were like you once. Soon you will be like us.

Cheery stuff, thanks lads! There’s lots of this kind of thing around – ‘Do it now, don’t wait’ / ‘Carpe diem’ / ‘YOLO baby!’.

It’s easy to scoff, because scoffing is easier than acknowledging it’s true. Tick-tock, time keeps marching on. Time never comes to an end, but you and I will.

The consequences of embracing this idea are unsettling: every second is precious, so every second is under pressure.

But this quickly becomes impractical. This had better be the best shit of my life!

The feeling of living on limited time might put getting older into perspective. Those years ain’t coming back, and my inevitable demise draws ever nearer.

But in the past month I’ve started a new blog, had a mad idea for a pizza festival, and put my name to a funding proposal for a digital history project at a London university.

So long as things like that keep happening, you’re all good. It’s only when they stop that you notice the time passing.

Today’s my 30th birthday. Can’t hear a ticking sound just yet…

Thankfully it wasn’t cancer

There was a lump on my testicle and it needed to be investigated.

I went to the doctor and she sent me to the hospital for tests – a bad sign. There was a lump and the doctor was worried.

I walked around those few days in a trance. I couldn’t taste anything. I felt like my whole body was inside my head and that I was one step removed from what I was doing, like there was a pane of glass between me and the world.

Maybe I should have been thinking about all the stuff I still wanted to do with my life but actually all felt was fear. It consumed me, froze me, jellied my brain. I couldn’t talk to people properly but I didn’t want to tell anyone what was going on. I just wanted it all to go away, I didn’t want to be me any more and I really didn’t want to be ill.

I went to three different departments at the hospital and in the last one you could see people who actually had cancer and were going through treatment. I remember one guy in a wheelchair being pushed past the seating area I was in. He had no hair, his skin was pale white, he had the sweats you get when you’re feverish, and he looked totally zoned out, in a daze.

This guy looked really ill and I think he was going to die.

‘Todd Green?’ – my turn.

I stood up and walked with the doctor through to a dark room. I lay on the bed and the scan began. My head started spinning and it was like in books and movies where you see all the things you’ve done and people you’ve loved whirling past at once.

The doctor stopped scanning.

‘Mr. Green, you’re ok. It’s not cancer. You’re all clear.’

Thank fuck for that.

‘The lump is just a …’ – I don’t actually remember what it was because as soon as I got the all-clear my brain was flooded with relief and gratitude and love for this wonderful life and all I wanted to do was run up a mountain and jump the moon and sing ‘You and I are gonna live forever’ from the roof of that terrible, beautiful hospital.

If it really had been a film then some profound life change would have happened that day – as I walked out through the hospital doors I would have gone down on my knees and sworn to the universe that I would never again take anything for granted, that I would love and honour my fellow human beings in some new and cosmic way, and that I would immediately quit my self-serving job and dedicate my life to helping the afflicted.

That didn’t happen.

But the thing that has stayed with me, nearly four years later, is the feeling of fear.

For that short time I really felt utter, engulfing terror. Writing this has made me peer back into the abyss but I was a few steps down there for a while, and I can barely imagine what it must be like for people who live there for real.

I’m pretty sure my brain prevents me from feeling that fear every day – the whole experience has been assimilated now because in the end I wasn’t ill, and because otherwise it would be difficult to get on with stuff.

And I’m glad of that, because I don’t want to be thinking ‘Make the most of today, who knows what tomorrow will bring!’ all the time, or even ‘This could be your last pizza, better enjoy it!’.

But revisiting that experience is a powerful thing, even if it’s only once in a while.

It does make me more excited about the day. It does make me more grateful. And it does make me worry less about what’s 5 or 10 years down the road, and focus on what’s happening right now.

Today I’m writing my blog, playing tennis, and going for dinner with my girlfriend. And I’m going to bloody well enjoy it.

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