Quantifying Seat Time
diet and weight loss
Mark Leavitt is a physician and engineer. He has been on a quest for five years to use self-tracking to take control and master his personal health. In this video, he discusses how he did it, what tools he used and what it did for his health.
Excel | seat
Mark Leavitt - Quantifying Seat Time
All right, hello my name’s Mark Leavitt. I get the three word intro; emancipated, physician, engineer and that resulted in some weird stuff as you can imagine. I’ve been on a quest for five years to use self-tracking to take control and master my personal health, and I didn’t know that was Quantified Self but I found out six month ago it was and there were other people as crazy or as weird as me and I’m so glad to have found you all.
So let me tell you a story and maybe you’ll learn for for it.
This is me five years ago. Comfort junkie would be the two words introduction. Comfort food, comfortable couch, I had a really comfortable life. And then I got a wakeup call. I spent Thanksgiving of 2007 in a cardiac cath lab. My heart said I’m not loving the comfortable life. I didn’t have a heart attack; it was a near miss. I had angioplasty with stents, but being a doctor I knew that the problem wasn’t solved and I had to solve it myself.
Simple, just change three lifelong habits you’ve been doing for 57 years; typical American diet, typical American sedentary exercise free life, and in my case too much sitting at the computer.
So the first two there’s lots of techniques. I got the motivation, the message. I reeducate myself. I had to unlearn everything I learned in medical school about nutrition and health, and kind of relearn that and I used self-tracking with a spreadsheet, but that third habit I didn’t want to break it. I loved using the computer. It was my career, it was a hobby. It was good for my brain, so was there some way I could keep making it good for my brain and stop it being bad for my heart.
So other people have faced the problem. There’s the standup work station. Instead of sitting you stand, and after a while if you’re doing a lot of computing at least in my case I got tired back, tired feet, and varicose veins. And then there’s a more expensive elaborate solution the treadmill desk, which is cool and optimal exercise that you’re walking, but it has its issues. Noise, electricity; I’m from Portland so we don’t want to consume electricity and your eyes bounce when you’re walking for fine work, so I don’t want to do that. I’ve got to build it myself.
So I went to hack something; a healthy seat. I started with my favorite chair and I took the arms off it and rebuilt those to host a split key board and a touch pad. In a moment you’ll see why I want the keyboard split.
I went to Walmart and got a mini elliptical exerciser for 80 bucks, and I tilted it up with a wood frame and ripped out the tiny digital display and put in a multicolor LED light, kind of a soft glow shining through a white plastic.
Then, I took aluminum foil and put it in a baggie, tucked it inside the seat cushion and hooked it to an Arduino so I had a capacitor sensor so basically butt in/butt out this digital signal. And everything is interphase with the PC, so I know session time, how much I’m cranking the pedal.
So it looks like this. By the way this is not commercial; I name my projects, it’s fun to name them. I’m not trying to create anything commercial but there it is and I’ve been using this for six months. And one of the important questions for me was will I be able to use this efficiently? And it turns out that I can type just as fast with a split keyboard, and I bet anyone here who types – touch types can.
The other little interesting thing is I’ve gotten a little smarter. Now I haven’t quantified it but I can spend longer computing before I get sort of dazed because I’m moving. But if I sit there and don’t pedal the red light will slowly go on and I’ve played with the algorithm. Basically it accumulates and in a few minutes it’ll go from yellow to red; it doesn’t flash, there’s no cattle prod yet. And all I have to do is pedal and over the course of a minute or two it will go green. And if I keep pedaling it will stay green and it lets me take some breaks.
The point is though simple, ambient feedback. I don’t want to distract myself from the computing. So it’s in my peripheral vision. Red and green are pretty obvious to most of us. That’s working really well for me. It’s been working for six months; let’s look at the data.
This is five years of data. The top graph is my weight. The middle graph is steps; both aerobic dark blue and equivalent steps in purple for the healthy seat and the bottom is weight training on a weight machine.
And there are flags at the bottom for key life events that my little system does that I built myself, but I blew them up here so you can see the motivation of the heart event. That was good I lost 35 pounds, and the typical slow backslide, that after a year we get. And then I retired from my day job and it turns out I retired from tracking, so that was an interesting correlation. And that’s when I built my own tracker so that it would be more interesting; basically eating your own dog food always tastes better. I loved what you just said about building your own dashboards.
Blowing up the last year only and there’s the weight graph and you can see something good happened. I un-backslid and what actually happened is I switched to a 100% plant based diets. I’m not here to pitch particular diets. My own experience is I went to a vegan diet which I felt the best, and then I added the healthy seat in March of this year and that is where the purple starts doubling and tripling my number of steps per day.
And I’m working on the weight training to get more consistency in that week to week variation. And actually my latest data is I’m succeeding. I hooked my weight training to breakfast, so there’s no breakfast until you finish your weight training. So that’s simple, and I have like a 10 week stretch without missing my three time a week sessions.
So here’s three things I’ve learned. If you get one thing out of this I’ll be so happy to have been here. So let me give you three things I’ve learned about self-tracking and about habits, and about myself and maybe some of them apply to you.
The first is that don’t assume you have to break every habit; maybe you can hack the habit and you can turn it around to something good.
So I took the fact that I was sitting down two hours a day computing on the average and made it time that I was getting some moderate exercise. The statistics for me was that 75% of the time I am actively peddling and I’m getting on average an extra 5,000 steps per day since I put the healthy seat in use.
The second thing that I’ve learned from this is that the visualizations matter and I’m going to say something and hope this is provocative. Science usually tries to drive the emotions out of the data. I think we want to drive the emotions back in. the data needs to tell a human story, now I wanted to tell me my story so I want it to be emotional.
So that weight graph that turns red when I gain and green when I lose, those are weekly averages and that bar is how far it changed, is better than the scientifically nice yellow thing that exactly hits the points.
So make it emotional, and finally echoing just what Sasha said, if you can own your tools that adds engagement and motivation. You don’t get bored because you’ve got this project that’s driving you beside just the results. I know everyone can’t program the thing and build the chair and do all that. But maybe you can insist on on customizing your graphs. And I hope the whole QS echo system develops so that we don’t lose that ability to own, hack, and customize.
So that pretty much wraps up what I’ve said. The best part for me is the next seven and a half minutes, where you all tell me stuff and ask questions, and of course the rest of the conference which I thank you for putting on.