Oct 31, 2012

Developing Physicality

Socionics suggests that some types are innately more "physical" than others and are more in tune with their bodily sensations and physical interaction with the outside world. Other types tend not to register these things consciously and tend to lack physicality, focusing attention instead on verbal, emotional, or mental interaction with the world.

This is how I saw things myself, until I gradually came to a recognition of the importance of physicality and vitality in my life and realized that I must take responsibility for these things myself. My personal experiments and research have convinced me that all [basically healthy] people are designed to be athletes — regardless of personality type — and to lead a life that is much more physical than that of most modern urban dwellers. 

This subject is very broad, so I will break the post into two parts: personal history that readers will no doubt find as interesting as the information in part two, which will be about developing physicality and vitality in general. 

Part 1: adventures in health and physicality

Despite my [presumably] personality type-related inclination to neglect my physical needs, I have always been mildly physically gifted, with naturally good coordination and endurance and a good degree of trainability. While most guys seem to begin their physical decline right out of college, I had kept in the same reasonably good shape by periodically starting and giving up exercise regimens, by frequently walking in the woods, playing frisbee, and by developing my hiking and biking hobbies, which provided me with the connection to nature that I craved. 

Over the years, my attempted exercise regimens gradually evolved to something more and more appropriate to my actual needs and abilities. Things like resolving to go to the gym X times a week and perform there a certain set of exercises tended not to work for long. Trying to do a set of exercises at home on a Total Trainer was only slightly better. Taking a one-minute detour on the way home to do pull-ups worked better, and I kept that up for some months, but that was just a single exercise. More successful still was combining enjoyable activities; leave the apartment in the morning, walk or jog in the woods, sometimes taking a quick dip in the lake afterwards, and finish up at the exercise bars at a nearby school to do a set of 5 exercises. This allowed me to ease into the exercise part by first doing something intrinsically enjoyable and getting my body warmed up. Note that this worked much better when I lived 2 minutes from the forest as opposed to 5 minutes, leading me to formulate some of the principles I wrote about in Willpower as a Limited Resource.

Around 2007-2009 I began to take much more interest in diet and health and finally began to understand something about nutrition, which until then had seemed like a contradictory and structureless field. I got into what you might call "lightweight speed backpacking" and long-distance backpacking, which are essentially athletic activities. Again, the reason I pursued this was not to improve my fitness, but to experience nature on a deeper level. Keeping fit came to be almost synonymous with experiencing nature. But, as far as upper body was concerned, all I did was occasionally do strength exercises. I didn't really have intrinsically rewarding activities for the arms and torso.  

Starting in 2009-2011, I began to be aware of mild, but nagging, health issues: problems getting enough sleep, digestive issues, frequent colds, and often struggling with the blues and compulsion-like behavior. These gradually increased or remained steady for several years, though I noted that they seemed to go away during backpacking trips, leading me to believe that they had to do with aspects of my city lifestyle. 

Then, in March 2012, I passed out and could have died of carbon monoxide poisoning after a long shower as a result of a faulty gas water heater installed in the kitchen of the apartment I was renting. I eventually came to, feeling absolutely horrible, and was barely able to crawl around to find my phone and call friends and ask them to bring an ambulance with them. I was lucky and did not develop any long-term neurophysiological sequelae, which often plague victims of acute CO poisoning. 

I was extremely alarmed by this incident and began recording all the physical and emotional complaints I had after that to better discern whether my quality of life was affected by the accident. I felt I had to take better care of myself and not let something like this happen again. The CO poisoning wasn't my fault, but on that day and the preceding one I had eaten very little and at first had thought my collapse was from low blood sugar. The symptoms and my subsequent research, however, confirmed it was indeed CO. A bit later, I found a house cleaner and cook who made my life a lot easier. Eventually I concluded that it wasn't healthy for me to be living alone (for the first time in many, many years), and I moved into a room in a shared apartment and immediately recognized the subtle emotional-physical benefits — as long as there is not too much tension among house residents. 

I found this exercise of writing down how I felt very useful for focusing my attention on this side of life, and developed it further during my next visit to Ukraine. First, for a month I wrote down everything I ate, my sleep times, and how I felt that day. Then I created a sleep spreadsheet where I applied a formula for calculating my sleep deficit. (I'm a real numbers geek, so I'll give it to you: 8.5 hrs. is my observed ideal sleep duration, and 0.8 is the coefficient by which I multiply yesterday's accumulated sleep deficit before adding to it today's deficit or proficit. This means that if I sleep on average 8 hrs. a night, then I will on average feel like I'm missing about 2.5 hrs. of sleep due to the accumulation of deficits. This is not always entirely true, but it's usually a good approximation). Along with sleep times I recorded my level of alertness on a scale of 1 to 5 to see how it correlated with my supposed sleep deficit.

I liked the idea of rating aspects of life, because it meant that I paid attention to them during the course of the day. I often translate quality of life questionnaires for use in healthcare in Ukraine, so I am used to the idea of rating these kinds of things. So I started adding other aspects of life that clearly contributed to my overall wellbeing, and had them average up to produce a quality of life index for each day. 

At first these were purely physiological indicators such as alertness and presence of physical complaints (illness, pain), but soon I added psychosocial indicators such as "speech apparatus" (ease of speech and communication; voice tembre), "acceptance" (how accepted by others and free to be myself I felt), and general emotional state. These were clearly very much intertwined with health and wellbeing. Later I also added a couple intellectual indicators: "flow state" (how much of the time I was in an engrossed, pleasurable flow state) and "breadth of awareness." I realized that neglecting my personal work activities (writing and site development) for weeks or months on end had been having a subtle harmful effect on my ego and self-confidence, so I added "professional development" to the mix of indicators. In the end, I've got a set of 12-13 indicators that approximate many areas of life that actually determine how I feel — about myself and life as well as physically. In addition, I began writing notes next to the number regarding significant factors that had influenced the individual ratings that day.

Turns out I am hardly unique in this sort of quantitative approach to improving well-being. There is a whole movement that espouses these methods, called "The Quantified Self." 

I found this practice to be a massive leap forward from typical records that people keep when they have some self-development goal, which usually involves contriving a goal that you think will make your life better and writing down your results for the day. 95% of the time, the results are not what you planned, and efforts are abandoned within weeks. I sigh when I see people start up a new "watch me lose weight" or "watch me get fit" self-delusion blog that will almost inevitably contain no more than 3-5 posts. This time, rather than deciding what should make my life better, my approach necessitated from the beginning that I observe my own body and see what was happening to it, with no implicit goal in mind. And yet each of us has the same organismic goal: to increase quality of life — happiness. Finding out more about what brings you happiness causes you to do better at seeking those things out and integrating them into your life. 

When I went to Crimea for over a month, I decided to finally get serious and see some doctors and take some tests to address "everything that had ever bothered me in the past 10+ years." A lot of online research was also involved. I read about nutrition, vitamins and minerals, psychosocial factors, mood, stress, and fitness. Before that, I had read the well-researched and fascinating book The Four-Hour Body and had read about the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet, and the benefits of sprinting-like exercise and "evolutionary fitness" (listen to interview here). After some research, I began to suspect my diet was deficient in some vitamins and minerals and began to correct those by adding a variety of nuts and different foods. Turns out deficiencies tend to cause apathy and depression in addition to physiological problems, but the symptoms are often vague and can easily be confused with other things. (My hunch about the deficiencies turned out to be correct). 

While in Crimea I would go to the beach every day with my friend, going down a 170 m. high cliffside via a cement staircase. Soon we started running down and walking back up the stairs as fast as possible. Needless to say, we also swam in the Black Sea, each of us developing his own kind of bathing routine that started with just going 5 meters out in the water, taking a dip and thinking, "what do I do now?" and eventually evolved into (in my case) a 15-30 minute swim up and down the beach using different swimming strokes and enjoying the views of the beach and cliffs and the increasingly cold early-autumn water. I also spent a lot of the time minimally dressed, my skin exposed to the fresh air and sun, both on the way to the beach and back and around the house and yard. A pull-up bar is welded into the balcony, so I also did chin-ups whenever passing by, inventing stranger and stranger ways of doing them to involve more muscles. After about a week of this, I experienced a new jolt of alertness that would override any sleep deficit I had, i.e. thanks to some kind of hormone injection I was now getting from my rigorous daily physical activity. 

Then, in the midst of this idyllia, I received a large translation assignment. Over the course of the week that I was preoccupied with it, I observed — through my rating system — how my quality of life plummeted in almost every way. I had no idea this type of stress could have such a powerful disruptive effect on everything. This led me to read and reflect about stress response and what kinds of stress the body is or is not designed to handle well, due to our evolutionary past. I realized I needed to watch out for and steer away from potential negative stressors. I also managed to work out a routine that helped me deal with potentially stressful computer assignments. The solution was to inject physical stimuli and pleasure by taking breaks and doing something physical every 20 minutes, which I'll talk about more in Part 2. 

I had to give up my intense beach-swim-sprint-shirtless living routine when I left again for Georgia, but after a week of chaos I've managed to settle into a new one that's just as good except for the shirtless part (Georgians are more conservative). On the weekends I'm usually backpacking, and during the weekdays I meet a good friend every evening to go bouldering at an indoor rock-climbing place, where there are also a few workout machines and bars. We often follow this with a visit to a restaurant or bar for relaxing conversation. I also have started playing ultimate frisbee twice a week with another group of people, and other physical, but non-strenuous activities are also part of the physicality menu. Key here is that all these activities are pleasurable, playful, require skill development, and involve other people and socializing. 

I can say that at age 35 I am the fittest I have ever been in terms of both strength and endurance, and that I see physical development as an essential part of life of the same degree of importance as intellectual and social development. 

In Part 2 I will write about why all this is necessary,
and what it does for you (cascading effects and so on).

1 comment:

Liutauras said...

Glad that you have survived. And thanks for this interesting post. Looking foward for the second part.