It’s hard to be fat in general, but as a spokesperson for a movement purporting to advocate the evolution of humanity to greater health, ability and longevity I was always embarrassed about the weight I was carrying around. (I have a New Yorker cartoon on my wall of a fat man telling a disappointed thin man “I’m from your future.”) Recently through cyborgification I’ve been able to get back into my recommended weight range. Knowing that some of my friends are either curious if I’m seriously ill, or how I accomplished this, I thought I’d share the story.
I was chubby as kid, but not obese. I did not want for lovers, and one described my teen tummy as “cherubic.” I’m 5’ 8” and was probably at my skinniest, about 140 pounds, back as a Buddhist monk in 1984 at age 23.
Then I went to grad school and got married. By the time my daughter was born in 1993, in the midst of writing my dissertation, I had ballooned to over 200 pounds.
After moving to Connecticut and getting involved in the transhumanist movement I finally realized I had to get a handle on my weight around 2003 when I reached 235 pounds. My back and knees hurt, I took pills for acid reflux, and suffered intermittent bouts of shame and depression about my body.
I exercised regularly, but in January 2003, while organizing my first transhumanist conference, I took on the Atkins diet, and got a PDA with a diet diary to start counting calories and carbs. I exercised forty minutes daily on my elliptical and ate a diet of mostly red meat and vegetables, trying to stay below 1800 calories a day and 20 carbs. By May 2003 I was down to 190 pounds, and my pants were falling off at the big Transvision meeting at Yale.
But like all crash diets this one was unsustainable, and pretty unhealthy (although my cholesterol only rose slightly). I could maintain daily exercise and a low carb diet overall, but I stopped calorie counting and went back to drinking resveratrol-boosting levels of red wine. By 2008 I was back to 220 pounds.
This time I took on the South Beach diet, which is low carb but low fat, and ate a lot of sliced turkey and salad and got back to 195. Then I went back to my habits, and after three years I was back to 220.
So in 2011 I recommitted to keeping a food diary, and began to think seriously about self-quantification as an avenue to permanent lifestyle modification. I started using the free MyFitnessPal food and exercise diary app. Setting a daily goal of burning more calories than I ate made sense to me as a statistician, and I loved the wealth of data the program began to provide about the content of my diet. Within six months I had lost another twenty pounds and was plateauing around 200.
But the problem with food and exercise apps is that we are prone to over-estimate the intensity of our exercise and underestimate the amount of food we have eaten. I began working my fantasy of a cyborg diet and exercise tracking system into my talks on moral enhancement technologies, pointing to the inadequacies of self-reporting compared to something that measured food content and actual calories burned. When MyFitnessPal teamed up with the e-health device firm BodyMedia in 2012 to release a wearable sensor I eagerly adopted it.
The BodyMedia Fit is worn on a strap around your arm, and measures motion, galvanic skin response, body temperature (ambient, skin and body) as well as heat flux. It feeds all that data into an algorithm that updates every minute the number of calories you’ve burned, steps you’ve taken, amount of different kinds of activity you’ve done that day, and the amount and quality of your sleep. Then it pulls in the food diary data through cloud sync with MyFitnessPal, and displays a real-time monitor of your progress towards your goals. You can see your activity charted minute-by-minute bluetoothed to your phone or tablet, and download day-by-day records, or weekly and monthly summaries, of dozens of measurements.
Immediately using the Fit gameified my day. Getting those progress bars to inch past my goals was a motivator for me as good as a personal coach. I only take it off to shower since I want every step to count. I had a daily goal of steps (currently 12,000), calories burned (2700), and minutes of activity (2 hours). Some days I would do a lot of walking around and my low intensity walking would boost steps, activity and calorie burn. Other days I would have to get to all three goals on the elliptical. I was disappointed to discover how little standing at my desk (which I’ve done for the last three years) and mowing the lawn added. When I started with the device I recorded about 90 daily minutes of activity, and now I’m up to 170, about 90-100 minutes of which is usually on the elliptical.
So in the last eight months I’ve lost another thirty pounds, and now am down to my original target weight of 170, the technical edge of “overweight” for my height. My new goal is to reach the middle of my target BMI at about 155 pounds, and do more resistance training, body-shaping and yoga. In the Fall BodyMedia releases their new, smaller, waterproof, and more stylish “Core 2” monitor and I’m looking forward to using that. My son is also using the Bodymedia device and, having achieved a young Adonis look, plans to keep using it when he goes to college in the Fall.
I’ve also started recording my meditation with a Neurosky device, which doesn’t tell me a whole lot more than that I am in fact meditating, but which has given my meditation practice the same kick in the pants that the BodyMedia gave to my fitness. Seeing that steady tick of dots across the BioZen output motivates me to get to the cushion as well as the clang of a temple bell. I’m very much looking forward to the release of the Melon headband this Fall, which promises to measure EEG more discreetly and during many more types of activities. Integrating a moment-to-moment mindfulness tracker during daily activities outside of meditation would be even more transformative than steps and calories.
The next nut to crack is the diet tracking, which I’m still a horrible liar at. If I’d only eaten what I recorded I’d have died of starvation. There are implanted and wearable blood glucose monitors in development for diabetics, and stomach pacemakers that turn on satiety for the morbidly obese, but nothing to replace manual recording in the immediate future. So I also need to bring some of that renewed mindfulness from my cushion to improving my diet tracking.
I’m 52, and I have a pall of cancer in my family. Both grandmothers died of cancer, my mother got ovarian cancer at 38 and my father died from oral cancer at 59. So I feel the press of time and mortality, and carrying all that weight for twenty years made me feel much more pessimistic about the future. I’m delighted with my progress, and with the improved prospect that I will live to see a lot more of the exciting future I have so eagerly anticipated, whether I ever get to cross Kurzweil’s second and third longevity bridges, or take the SENS cocktail and live another thousand years. I have the outline of five more books in my computer – I’m aiming for a Cyborg sextet oeuvre –which will take about fifteen more years to write. My kids are 17 and 20, and neither is in any hurry to breed despite my insistence that I wanted grandchildren yesterday.
So I need to stay on that elliptical, and that is now something I look forward to thanks to the rapidly improving cyborg quantification of the body.