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13 Weeks: Is Health a Thing of the Spirit?

Week 13 of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.

We're now in the last week of my second 13-week experiment.  I'm planning another 13 weeks and I want to talk about what I'm going to change and why, but first I think it might be useful to look back at when I started this, six months ago:

It struck me just a couple weeks ago. I’m 57, weigh 300 pounds, massively deconditioned, verging on type II diabetes if not actually there, and I don’t want to die.

It’d been a hard year. A year ago this week, my mother had a heart attack, and over the ensuring months failed and died, passing away on 11 January, two days before her 77th birthday. Following that, I had a succession of illnesses that put me in the hospital for a day, four times between January and August. One of those times was with pneumonia, and as my friends all insisted on reminding me, “you can die from that!”

A sense of mortality struck me on my birthday, 57 this year; arithmetic started showing up for me. My father died in 1994, at 69. That’s only 12 years older than I am now. Mom at 77, only 20 years older than I am now.

Now, my Dad weighed in the neighborhood of 450 lbs when he died, and he smoked. My Mom, around 200 lbs and she’d smoked heavily, drunk heavily, and generally been rode hard and put up wet nearly her whole life. I’ve got some advantages, since I don’t drink or smoke; on the other hand, I’ve been struggling with my weight since I was literally 6 years old. You can hear a lot of bad diet advice in 50 years.

The long and short of it is that I want to change this and need to change this, and there’s relatively new science that suggests there are better, faster, more efficient ways to change this. So I’m doing an experiment: for 13 weeks, which I plan to start a week from today, 4 November 2012, I’m going to start an experiment where I’ll be keeping a very low carb, more or less “paleo” diet, and doing “high intensity interval training” and “high intensity strength training” two sessions a week. This scheme has good reasons behind it, biochemically and otherwise.

Then I’m writing about it, and I’m going very public with it, so, frankly, it’ll be too embarrassing to quit.

And I have changed my situation.  I've lost 30 pounds, 10 percent of my bodyweight.  My blood sugar is down, way down.  (As we saw a couple weeks ago, maybe a little too far down.) I have been more successful with exercise, if not astoundingly successful.  And my health is definitely better, both by objective medical measures and just in the way I feel.  But I'd still like to lose maybe another 50 pounds, and I'd like to get completely off diabetes meds. And I'm bored with what I had been doing.

Here's the basics of the next 13 week experiment:

  • I'm going to change over to Tim Ferris's Slow Carb Diet as defined by his 5 rules. Now, that's kind of the Reader's Digest Condensed version of his full diet plan, but I like simple things. Also, his full-fledged diet cuts out dairy and I like cheese. This is still low-carb, although not quite as low, but with the episodes of hypoglycemia I'm hoping to maybe level out by blood sugar some.
  • I'm going to pick out two (gasp) goals: by the end of this 13 weeks I want to do 100 pushups in a row, and I want to do at least one unassisted pull up.  I'm going to continue to track my Fitocracy points and plan to get 2000 points or more a week.
  • I will continue to track weight and glucose, and I'll make a full set of body measurements at the beginning and end of the 13 weeks.  Measuring body fat is going overboard; I'll talk more about it next week, but basically I don't think any method I've got easily available is turning out to be either precise or accurate.
  • I'm going to concentrate more on mental, or if you will spiritual, aspects. As part of that in a way I'll explain in a minute, I'm going to ask those of you who are inclined to try to change something in your life to join in.  We'll talk a lot more about coaching and support; I'll also want to know what tools you feel would help you perform a 13 week experiment of your own.

The mental/spiritual idea is, I suspect, a surprise. It sure as hell was to me: Dave Swindle, who edits the Lifestyle section, suggested it to me as an addition for the next experiment and -- well, I replied "Hm. I'll think about it." but what I meant was "Don't like it, no." But there was a chain of events I didn't know was happening. Dave had put the idea in my head. I recently became enamored of the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coehlo, and was reading his book Aleph.  (I recommend Coelho, by the way, even if he did get noticed because Bill Clinton was reading his book The Alchemist.)  Aleph is a sort of fictionalized (I think) biography; in a powerful scene, in a ritual in a church Coehlo asks a woman he wronged in the past for forgiveness. Then she continues by spontaneously saying essentially the same words, forgiving herself for past wrongs she had done to herself.

Reading that, I had one of those moments of visceral, pleasurable electricity, and I realized that there had been an emotional theme I'd been working on during the last 26 weeks. Part of it was seeing the ways I'd been hurt by things said about my weight and appearance, general lack of athletic motivation, extreme nerdiness and the emotional distance that comes with long-term depression. I've devoted a column on several occasions to various kinds of baggage, including that column about the car wreck, which I found hard to write because it felt like I was admitting to failings.

Reading Aleph, I realized there was a central theme: I needed to forgive myself for sometimes being imperfect.