Geek Fitness

Have you listenend to this week’s MacPowerUsers podcast, episode #301 titled Geek Fitness? What a great show! They had Liana Lehua on who has experience as a personal trainer and knows what she’s talking about.

Last year, I wrote A small guide for a healthy life and introduced a new Healthcategory on my blog. If you want to save the article for later, it’s a quick read and gives an overview on what you can to do get more healthy. Being a doc, health and fitness are topics that I just can’t talk enough about. So I felt inspired to give them another run down. Here are my two cents on David and Katie's latest show. 

The foundation of geek fitness (or any fitness, for that matter)

You should approach fitness with a strong focus on getting and staying healty. Growing old and staying capable - as in not suffering from diseases, staying able to play with your grandkids, retaining a sharp mind and being supple enough to walk and handle your daily activities by yourself until old age, should be the prime motivators behind your fitness ambitions. 

If you focus on health, everything else you consider important in terms of wellbeing, fitness and body composition will fall into place. Optimize for health and you will feel better, perform better and look better in time. Don’t approach fitness with only minor aspects in mind like „How do I look better in a bikini?“ or you will set yourself up for failure.

Another central aspect in fitness is: don’t stress out too much about it

This is not supposed to serve as an excuse for unhealthy habits and cheats. It’s about your mindset around fitness. Getting healthy is not a quick fix you can buy on the internet. It can't be done on a fad, a diet or a detox that's supposed to turn your life over within 4 weeks. It's about having fun and enjoying the process while staying engaged with it.

Three operators to achieve your goals in health and fitness are focuspersistenceand perspective: don't get overwhelmed by all the advice out there, stick to what works and keep the bigger picture in mind. 

Which practical steps and workflows can you take towards better health and how do your devices and apps come into play?

Why I no longer track my calories

Let's start off with a controversy: In my point of view, the calorie is a dead metric for weight management. Stop focusing on calories that you eat or "burn".

I challenge your assumption that you should track your calories in order to achieve fat loss. In fact, my advice is to uninstall calorie trackers like MyFitnessPal or Lifesum from your phone and don't waste your time with them. Calorie tracking on a mobile device isn't much more than a pain with very little payoff and it is potentially misleading. 

The calorie as a metric for health is increasingly being questioned by scientists and it's about time that we jump ship, too. Ars Technica just published a great overview of the debate

Calorie tracking is supposed to work on you by increasing your food awareness. However, there is a lot of friction involved in entering foods into an app and most of the time, the logging happens after the fact of eating. 

I have been tracking my calories for over a year with Lifesum on a gold membership and it’s been a daily struggle to keep on track. Most of the times, I found myself trying to recap my days in the evenings and I was never sure whether I didn’t forget about foods that I had eaten. Even more so, the data that I acquired had no actionable value to me as for most of my daily food items the database turned out be to largely incomplete. Even though Lifesum is one of the more comprehensive apps on the market and offers a strong set of "approved" foods (the data of which supposedly has undergone an official review), information on major micronutrients like sodium, cholesterol or fiber for example are still widely missing from the entries. Therefore, the data it scribes to your Health.app is questionable. For instance, I never trusted the data as to whether I was still within the recommended range for daily salt intake.

I am on a whole-foods-only diet and my personal goal is not so much in weight loss but in improving the overall quality and nutrient density of my diet. With this in mind, calorie trackers fall short in terms of usefulness. They encourage you to consume packaged foods that have a barcode on them. Unlike fresh foods, these processed foods can be entered fairly quickly via your device's camera. It’s ironic: calorie trackers support the wrong behavior by matters of convenience - just like Apple Pay at McDonalds.

I terms of diet, I am suspicious of everything that comes in a package and you should be, too. Packaged, barcoded foods come with all sorts of additives, flavorings, industrial processing and sugars. These things are among the major culprits for health issues of all kinds these days. They will increase your chances to get fat no matter the count of calories. 

In fact, we got the whole story behind energy balance ("calories-in, calories-out") wrong. It’s not too many calories that get you fat. It’s the other way around. You overeat because you are too fat. Obesity involves similar mechanisms that explain why you overeat in puberty: growth and hormones.

Cutting back on calories won’t sustainably reverse obesity for most people. It won’t get your hormones and genes working for you and towards a leaner, more healthy body. On the contrary, calorie restriction might make things worse for you as it introduces yet another stressor to your lifestyle. Your body might respond to calorie restriction with idleness and inactivity. In turn, you will "burn" less and decrease your likelihood to go after healthful activities like walking or exercising.

Instead of quantifying what you eat, you should focus on the quality of your diet. Trust in the power of real foods like sustainably-sourced animal products, vegetables and nuts to reprogram your body towards health and eat those without regrets and worrying. You won't get fat on them. 

Cutting back on processed foods and eating whole foods instead is the number one thing you can do to get healthier and this just isn’t fostered by using calorie tracking apps.

Losing weight is about enjoying foods again and not obsessing about the numbers.1

On actionable metrics and using Workflow as a health tracker 

While I told you to ditch your calorie tracking apps, I still think tracking actionable metrics is a viable means to get healthier.

I find health tracking is powerful if the metrics tracked can be correlated with specific outcomes and thereby steer your behaviors according to your individual needs.

A while ago, I have switched from dedicated tracking apps on my phone to the app Workflow. Workflow is a staple on any geeks iOS device and it has recently acquired the ability to access data inside Health.app. 

With Workflow, you can easily build your own tracker for the metrics that matter to you and they can be logged much quicker via the Notification Center widget or 3D Touch gestures on your home screen than with any dedicated tracking app.

Tracking caffeine with Workflow from Notification Center.

Tracking caffeine with Workflow from Notification Center.

I use Workflow to keep track of my water intake, my daily consumption of caffeine (as I am a slow-metabolizer and even little amounts of caffeine can mess with my sleep architecture) and my vitamin D and magnesium intake. These latter two, I take as supplements as I have a magnesium deficiency and vitamin D cannot be gained through the sun during winter months in the latitude where I live. I want to keep my intake for both nutrients in the optimal range, as they are vital to numerous aspects of health from muscle function, sleep quality, mood regulation, cognitive capacity to cancer prevention. For both magnesium and vitamin D, I get regular blood testing 2-4 times per year and the statistics that Workflow writes into Health.app have helped me find my optimal supplement dosing. 

My data inside Health.app.

My data inside Health.app.

The Geek Workout or getting the most bangs for your buck

A lot of people don’t work out because of time restraints. There is always something else to do and we are just too busy. And who finds the energy to start a workout after a hard day’s work, anyway?

That’s a fallacy and you shouldn’t fall for it. Working out doesn’t have to take long. Even short and simplified workouts can come with all the desired benefits. Further, training can turn out to be less taxing than you think. Instead it generally raises your energy and improves your mental focus.

To me, training is an essential element in my routine. Due to its beneficial effects on my producitivity, creativity and focus, it has become a non-negiotable item on my calendar.

Optimizing for time and efficiency can be done in fitness without compromising on the results. That's why even the slouchiest geek can transform himself into a strong and fit human being without being scared and without countless hours of monotonous huffing and puffing. 

In recent years, there has been a huge shift in philosophies when it comes to fitness. Old schemes of "doing cardio", running on an elliptical for heart health or mind numbing sessions on machines to "build muscle" are being put in the dust bin and rightfully so. These concepts haven't supported us in becoming fitter, but they have more likely served to alienate a whole generation from movement and physical activity all together. 

There is the special case of running. It's a fundamental pattern of human movement, yet the fitness industry has led us to believe that it's the gold standard for getting fit. Just get up and go, right? 

Countless people have spend their money on running shoes and embarked on a "couch-to-5K", only to hamper their physical development along the way. 

I believe running is a difficult and advanced skill that requires focused practice and proper form. It's not ideal for beginners and less so for people who spend most of their days behind desks.

Even though everybody seems to be prepping for a 5k, 10k, marathon or whatever these day, no beginner should start off a fitness routine with jogging.

You should break with conventions like "running is good for you" if you want to train better and more effectively. Another convention to break is that you have to engage in long lasting, endurance-type workouts to get fit. This "burn more" notion derives from the aforementioned calorie-counting myth that is so fundamentally flawed. 

It's time for a nuke-and-pave of what you thought about training and to refocus your efforts. 

Effective training can be done with minimal equipment and little time. For geeks, apps and mobile devices can provide great support. 

I believe body weight exercises are a great supplement to any training routine and we all should be doing more stuff like crawling, rolling, planking, squatting, push-ups and pull-ups. If you want an easy, quick and allround program of body weight exercises, I recommend you check out the New York Times’ The Scientific 7-Minute Workout. There is an advanced version of the program, too. You can do both directly from your broswer or your phone.

For optimal health however, there still is a strong case to be made for functional whole-body resistance training with added weights.

If you had to pick one piece of weight training equipment only, make it a kettlebell.2

If you have never done or seen kettlebell exercises like the Russian Swing or the Turkish Getup before, I encourage you to check it out on YouTube. There is nothing like kettlebell training and it's the best way for anyone to get stronger and more conditioned. It offers a perfect balance between effectiveness and affordability. 

There is nothing scary about kettlebell training and the risk of injury from kettlebells is minimal. That's why it is optimal for beginners (even though it's never wrong to get proper coaching before starting it). 

For my own kettlebell routines, I use the Rogue kettlebell as Rogue offers highest American-made quality. I use 44 and 53 lbs for most of my workouts, but I would recommend that you start off with no more than 35 lbs for males and 26 lbs for females if you are new to the game. Go for all-metal versions only. You can get them reasonably priced online.

The training I do with kettlebells is simple and focussed. For the Russian swings (which is my preferred exercise), I do Tabatas which are short 4-minute training sessions that consist of 8 repeated cycles of „20 sec on, 10 sec off“. For the timing, I use Liana’s recommended app Timers. You really don’t have to do any more than a single Tabata every other day (a total of 12-15 minutes per week) to quickly make major improvements in your cardiovascular fitness.

Me and my kettlebell.

Me and my kettlebell.

If you want to take your training even further and if you love barbells (like I do), than the simple 5x5 program Stronglifts may be just right for you. I am an enthusiast for weightlifting and CrossFit. These sports are indeed beginner-friendly and the smoke clouds that surround them like „Free weights are only for the experienced.“ are unjustified. In fact, beginners can make great progress on a free-weight, barbell program and Stronglifts offers a great starting point and a clear direction.

In all my training, nothing has had a bigger effect on my strength, mobility and overall feeling of fitness than going through the Stronglifts program for a few consecutive months. You can do Stronglifts in a regular gym or in your own basement. A single session takes about 45-60 minutes and the online resources and videos tackle about every question you could have about the program. The app is easy to use and does all the calculations for you from how your warmup should look like and which plate combination to put on the bar. It gets regular updates and was featured by Apple in the past.

The main menu inside the StrongLifts app.

The main menu inside the StrongLifts app.

How to improve your posture

If you work all day on a computer or sit on a desk for hours on end, chances are you are effected by postural issues like back pain, neck pain, hamstring tightness, shoulder issues or RSI.

It's about time you take advantage of your geekiness to hack your way towards a better posture!

You can’t avoid all sitting, but maybe you can decrease the amount of time you spend in your chair by converting your office to a standing desk setup or implementing a system of standup timers. This is where the Apple Watch and its reminders shine for me. 

Ever considered leaving your desk for a walking session to get a writing job done? Dictation is a great way to jot down lines or outline a piece on the go.

Furthermore, you can make on effort to offset the negative effects that sitting has on your mobility by using clever and effective online mobility programs. There are a couple out there, but I recommend that you check out RomWOD. It is a subscription program with daily videos that take you through a series of stretches and relaxation exercises loosely based on a practice called Yin yoga. Once you sign up for the seven day free trial, you can easily follow the videos at home from your Mac or iOS device without any special gear required.3

RomWOD is the single most profound change that I undertook on my mobility and mental focus within recent months. It has completely turned my days around. I used to be as flexible as a rice cracker and problems with tendons and ligaments were a regular occurrence in my training.

With RomWOD, my range of motion has greatly improved in a short time. This translates into numerous benefits in everyday life as well as in sports. Further, with its focus on relaxation, passivity and breathing, it has helped me grow a state of mental ease that's a welcome counterweight to a stressful work life. 

These days, I can now longer go to bed without having competed my daily RomWOD. You should try it out, give it a few weeks and see for yourself. It's appropriate for even absolute beginners and those of you who haven't kneeled on the floor or bent over to your toes in ages. 

More tidbits for the healthy geek

There are a few more apps and workflows that I rely on in my daily health and fitness routines: 

  • I am a long time user of the app Dminder, even though it hasn't been updated recently and therefore lacks some UI polish. However, it still allows for easy and fairly reliable tracking of the amounts of vitamin D you get from sun exposure. A low vitamin D level might just be the reason for a lack of energy that you experience throughout your days and it’s a good choice to get it up in the optimal range. The app taps into geographic and weather data your iPhone provides and calculates vitamin D units generated in your skin based on how long (and how naked) you expose yourself to sunlight. With this input, it estimates a current serum vitamin D level which corresponds reasonably well with an actual lab tested value.4
My statistics inside the Dminder app.

My statistics inside the Dminder app.

  • Sleep and the lack thereof may well be the most important contributors to all kinds of modern health issues. Recent scientific research has highlighted sleep as a contributing factor in diseases as far reaching as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Us geeks are especially at risk. We are highly susceptible to sleep issues due to irregular work schedules and nighttime screen exposure. Personally, I suffer from regular sleep deprivation as I am a shift worker and often have to work long nights on an intensive care unit. I have made improving my sleep quantity and quality a personal priority and I wrote about it in a recent article. Over the last year, I have become reliant on the sleep tracking app Pillow. Pillow is an iPhone app that tracks your sleep via in the iPhone's motion sensors. The app has to be running with the iPhone lying face down on your bed while you are sleeping in order for the tracking to work. If you do use the app in bed, however, Pillow works surprisingly well and the analyses it provides in my opinion far outclass its competitors like the more popular Sleep Cycleapp that probably everybody has heard about. Pillow also has a smart alarm function that wakes you up in a lighter sleep stage, similar to the marquee feature of Sleep Cycle. However, what makes Pillow shine is a sleep quality score which it presents as a percentage number. Factors that influence this number are the minutes spent awake and restless during the night as well as the cycling through different sleep stages such as deep sleep or REM sleep. 5 I can no longer live without this score as it allows for easy correlation of my sleep data to behaviors such as sports activities or caffeine intake. I have found that dedicated environmental and behavioral changes, can significantly improve my score. This has been a primary focus of my personal health quest, lately. 6
Pillow's sleep quality score.

Pillow's sleep quality score.

  • Finally, I couldn't end this article without emphasizing how much I consider walking a priority. It's the original human movement that we all don't get enough of. It's also the best thing you can do for your mental fitness. I track my daily steps and it has become my goal to surpass the threshold of 10000 steps per day the WHO proposes for the prevention of diseases like depression and Alzheimer's. The iPhone (5s onward) offers the ability to log these data automatically. However, it's either hidden inside Health.app or you have to use a third party app to get a readout of your step count. The nifty little app TodaySteps provides a Notification Center widget whereby you can easily access your data with a swipe from the top of your phone. I found it to be a great helper to getting more steps into my days. 
TodaySteps in Notification center. I no longer use Lifesum or do any calorie tracking, at all.

TodaySteps in Notification center. I no longer use Lifesum or do any calorie tracking, at all.

  1. For all you reality TV geeks out there, have you seen Kurt on Abel James’ the Wild Diet in My Diet is Better than Yours? He’s perfect proof of this concept. ↩︎
  2. Some call kettlebells „an ancient tool against weakness“. ↩︎
  3. I found a basic yoga mat and a pair of yoga blocks a useful addition to the program, though.  ↩︎
  4. In my own testing, it tended to underestimate my current serum 25OH-vitamin D level. Therefore, the apps encourages a higher-than-necessary daily amount of sun exposure which is of little concern as you can't overdose from vitamin D generated in your skin. All the time you will spend in the sun with Dminder is way under the threshold for sunburns and the app as an integrated warning system if you might be out for too long.  ↩︎
  5. After a hard night shift recently, I „managed“ to achieve a total of 0% REM in my sleep. REM serves mental recovery and helps the clean up of neuronal junk from your brain, while deep sleep helps physical regeneration. I am worried about my long term brain health if these non-REM-nights keep adding up.  ↩︎
  6. For example, I have started to use a sleeping mask, ear plugs, blue blockers and I am considering completely blackening out my room. Further, I have bought a new mattress and a buckwheat pillow to improve my posture in bed.  ↩︎