A Philosopher's Blog

Weight Loss, Philosophy & Science

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Running, Science, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 2, 2017

When I was young and running 90-100 miles a week, I could eat all the things without gaining weight. Time is doubly cruel in that it slowed my metabolism and reduced my ability to endure high mileage. Inundated with the usual abundance of high calorie foods, I found I was building an unsightly pudge band around my middle. My first reaction was to try to get back to my old mileage, but I found that I now top out at 70 miles a week and anything more starts breaking me down. Since I could not exercise more, I was faced with the terrible option of eating less. Being something of an expert on critical thinking, I dismissed all the fad diets and turned to science to glean the best way to beat the bulge. Being a philosopher, I naturally misapplied the philosophy of science to this problem with some interesting results.

Before getting into the discussion, I am morally obligated to point out that I am not a medical professional. As such, what follows should be regarded with due criticism and you should consult a properly credentialed expert before embarking on changes to your exercise or nutrition practices. Or you might die. Probably not; but maybe.

As any philosopher will tell you, while the math used in science is deductive (the premises are supposed to guarantee the conclusion with certainty) scientific reasoning is inductive (the premises provide some degree of support for the conclusion that is less than complete). Because of this, science suffers from the problem of induction. In practical terms, this means that no matter how carefully the reasoning is conducted and no matter how good the evidence is, the conclusion drawn from the evidence can still be false. The basis for this problem is the fact that inductive reasoning involves a “leap” from the evidence/premises (what has been observed) to the conclusion (what has not been observed). Put bluntly, inductive reasoning can always lead to a false conclusion.

Scientists and philosophers have long endeavored to make science a deductive matter. For example, Descartes believed that he could find truths that he could know with certainty and then use valid deductive reasoning to generate a true conclusion with absolute certainty. Unfortunately, this science of certainty is the science of the future and always will be. So, we are stuck with induction.

The problem of induction obviously applies to the sciences that study nutrition, exercise and weight loss and, as such, the conclusions made in these sciences can always be wrong. This helps explain why the recommendations about these matters change relentlessly.

While there are philosophers of science who would disagree, science is mostly a matter of trying to figure things out by doing the best that can be done at the time. This is limited by the resources (such as technology) available at the time and by human epistemic capabilities. As such, whatever science is presenting at the moment is almost certainly at least partially wrong; but the wrongs get reduced over time. Or increase sometimes. This is true of all the sciences—consider, for example, the changes in physics since Thales began it. This also helps explain why the recommendations about diet and exercise change constantly.

While science is sometimes presented as a field of pure reason outside of social influences, science is obviously a social activity conducted by humans. Because of this, science is influence by the usual social factors and human flaws. For example, scientists need money to fund their research and can thus be vulnerable to corporations looking to “prove” various claims that are in their interest. As another example, scientific matters can become issues of political controversy, such as evolution and climate change. This politicization tends to derange science. As a final example, scientists can be motivated by pride and ambition to fudge or fake results. Because of these factors, the sciences dealing with nutrition and exercise are significantly corrupted and this makes it difficult to make a rational judgment about which claims are true. One excellent example is how the sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard to downplay the health risks presented by sugar and play up those presented by fat. Another illustration is the fact that the food pyramid endorsed by the US government has been shaped by the food industries rather than being based entirely on good science.

Given these problems it might be tempting to abandon mainstream science and go with whatever fad or food ideology one finds appealing. That would be a bad idea. While science suffers from these problems, mainstream science is vastly better than the nonscientific alternatives—they tend to have all of the problems of science without having its strengths. So, what should one do? The rational approach is to accept the majority opinion of the qualified and credible experts. One should also keep in mind the above problems and approach the science with due skepticism.

So, what are some of the things the best science of today say about weight loss? First, humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and getting enough calories was a challenge. As such, humans tend to be very good at storing energy in the form of fat which is one reason the calorie rich environment of modern society contributes to obesity. Crudely put, it is in our nature to overeat—because that once meant the difference between life and death.

Second, while exercise does burn calories, it burns far less than many imagine. For most people, the majority of calorie burning is a result of the body staying alive. As an example, I burn about 4,000 calories on my major workout days (estimated based on my Fitbit and activity calculations). But, about 2,500 of those calories are burned just staying alive. On those days I work out about four hours and I am fairly active the rest of the day. As such, while exercising more will help a person lose weight, the calorie impact of exercise is surprisingly low—unless you are willing to commit considerable time to exercise. That said, you should exercise—in addition to burning calories it has a wide range of health benefits.

Third, hunger is a function of the brain and the brain responds differently to different foods. Foods high in protein and fiber create a feeling of fullness that tends to turn off the hunger signal. Foods with a high glycemic index (like cake) tend to stimulate the brain to cause people to consume more calories. As such, manipulating your brain is an effective way to increase the chance of losing weight. Interestingly, as Aristotle argued, habituation to foods can train the brain to prefer foods that are healthier—that is, you can train yourself to prefer things like nuts, broccoli and oatmeal over cookies, cake, and soda. This takes time and effort, but can obviously be done.

Fourth, weight loss has diminishing returns: as one loses weight, one’s metabolism slows and less energy is needed. As such, losing weight makes it harder to lose weight, which is something to keep in mind.  Naturally, all of these claims could be disproven in the next round of scientific investigation—but they seem quite reasonable now.


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Aristotle & the Quantified Life

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Sports/Athletics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2015

While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.

His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.

While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.

While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).

While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.

What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.

The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.

Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).

The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep.  Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.

So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:

  1. Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
  2. Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
  3. Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
  4. A cool name.

So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.


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Easy Exercise 2: Motivation

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2009
Lance Armstrong finishing 3rd in Sète, taking ...
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When it comes to exercise, two of the big obstacles are time and motivation. I’ve written about finding time and now I’ll turn to motivation.

I have noticed that almost everyone says that they would like to exercise and get fit. This usually happens around the holidays (“damn, I’m packing on the pounds…I better start exercising”) and most especially around the New Year (“time for yet another empty resolution about fitness”). In most cases, these good intentions result in one or two feeble attempts at exercise and then lead the person back to the hell of Cheetos and plenty of couch time. So, how can a normal person get motivated and, more importantly, stay motivated? Naturally, this varies from person to person, but here are some ideas.

Negative Motivations
People often try to self motivate by using negative motivations.  Negative motivation is when you exercise in order to prevent or undo something negative-like being fat or having a heart attack.  For example, after devouring all that Halloween candy, Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies a person might decide that they need to exercise because they are fat. As another example, a person might find they have hypertension and decide they need to exercise to avoid being found dead on the couch, covered in moldy Cheetos.

Negative motivators can work, but they are based primarily on fear and worry. The main downsides to using negative motivation are as follows. First, it is easy to stop exercising when you think that you have solved the problem. Then the problem comes right back. Second, such a negative approach can be psychologically problematic. For example, if someone focuses on being fat, this can lead to issues and problems. Third, it can be difficult to maintain the worry or concern that provided the initial motivation. For example, people often get quite comfortable living with being overweight or having higher blood pressure.

Rewards & Punishments
People are, of course, motivated by rewards and punishments. One way to motivate yourself to exercise is to reward yourself for exercising or punish yourself for slacking. For example, a person might treat herself to a slice of her favorite pie when she sticks to her workout schedule all week. If she does not meet her goal, then no pie for her. The plus side is that  rewards and punishments do tend to work. One problem is, of course, the fact that if you are rewarding yourself, then you will need the willpower to hold back rewards when you do not meet your goals. Also, it can be a bit creepy to hear about a person rewarding and punishing themselves-and such behavior can lead to some psychological problems (like a person cutting way back on her food for being “bad”).

The way I use this method is a very minor way. If I exercise more, then I feel free to eat more of the fattening things I like. If my exercise hasn’t been quite up to par, then I’ll (for example) have a smaller slice of key-lime pie.

Exercising with Others
One effective way to stay motivated is to exercise with other people. This has many motivational benefits. First, a person is less likely to back out of exercising if s/he has planned to exercise with others. This adds a social push to sticking with it. This is especially true if you are involved in a team sport. Second, people can support each other when the exercising becomes challenging. Third, if you like the people you exercise with, you will want to spend time with them and this is motivational. On the downside, being in a group can sometimes make it easier to stop. For example, if you are just one person on a big softball team, it can be easy to say that someone else will cover for you if you miss a game or six. Another problem is that you might become reliant on others so that if they stop, you will stop. And, of course, there is always the risk of personality conflicts. But, in general, exercising with other people can be a big help-just be sure to try to find people you like and who will stick with the activity.

This method can be very effective if you exercise with family members or friends. Spouses often find it motivational to exercise with their spouse-although some do not.

Some people have the money to spend on a personal coach or trainer. Such a person can be quite a motivator in two ways. First, they are supposed to professionals at motivating slackers. Second, if you are paying them, you might be more inclined to actually use their services.

On the minus side, they cost money and it is easy to get dependent on a trainer. If for some reason you can no longer afford your own trainer, then it can be very easy to quit.

You can, of course, get free or cheap coaching and training. Sports clubs and teams often provide such services freely or at low prices. For example, my running club has running classes for beginners and intermediate runners that provide excellent training. As another example, softball leagues typically provide practices and coaching for little or no cost. People who have been in a sport or activity for a while are often quite willing to help out beginners.

Before the web, the way to find out about such groups was to go to a sports store and look for fliers. These days, the web is the place to look. For example, to find a running club, just Google using “running”, “club”, and your city/town/area.

Schools also often offer low cost classes and activities to members of the community, although some universities limit participation to students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Getting proper coaching and training can really help with motivation. A good trainer/coach can inspire a person, provide reasonable goals and also help a person do the activity right. After all, when people do poorly at something, they are often inclined to give up.

Set Realistic Goals
While all sorts of TV ads promise amazing results in a short time, fitness is a slow process. The body will begin to adapt to exercise quickly, but the results will not be very noticeable for a while. For example, weight lifting usually takes about six weeks before any results (other than soreness) are noticeable. Running also takes time to improve endurance. The martial arts require years of training.

So, how do you know what sort of goals are realistic? The best thing to do is to research this-and not by watching TV ads. Find people who have been in the activity a while, check on credible web sites, talk to trainers and coaches and read a credible book or two. While finding the truth about exercise might be a bit disappointing, having realistic expectations actually helps in sticking with an activity. For example, if a person thinks he’ll be ready to run a marathon a month after he starts running, then he’ll probably give up running when he has a horrific marathon. In contrast, someone who runs her first 5K after three months of training will be more likely to stick with the sport.

You will also need to assess yourself. People vary a great deal in their abilities. For example, it was realistic of Lance Armstrong to plan on hitting the three hour mark in the marathon despite not being a runner. After all, he was a world class cyclist. In contrast, a person who is an ex-smoker, overweight and hasn’t exercise since high school gym class will need to set fairly modest goals initially.

One common mistake that people make is that they overdo their exercise the first time they try it. When a person starts out, they are well rested and will probably feel pretty good running more than they really should, biking too far, or lifting too much. They will then feel really awful, sore and tired the next day or two. This tends to seriously dampen a person’s motivation. As such, it is vitally important to have realistic goals right from the start.

Schedule & Don’t Skip
It is a good idea to have an exercise plan and schedule. A person who exercises “whenever’ will find it much harder to stick with exercising. So, I’d suggest working out a realistic schedule.

Exercise is in some ways like quitting smoking. If a person tries to quit smoking, but decided to just have “one smoke”, then they will most likely not quit. Likewise, if a person who is trying to exercise decides to just “take today off”, then that breaks the exercise pattern and makes it easier to just stop. This is not to say that a person must or even should exercise everyday. In fact, it is best to take a day or more off each week to avoid injury and over-training. However, a planned exercise should not be skipped.

Of course, it is easy to say that you should stick to a schedule. The challenge is making it stick. The way to this is habituation. This, of course, comes right out of Aristotle‘s discussion of moral education. His view is that by habituation people become virtuous. In the case of exercise, the more you exercise, the easier it becomes to stick with it. For many people, the trick is to stick with it until that critical point of habituation is reached. For example, when I first started running I did not enjoy it at all. it hurt, made me feel sick, and was tiring. But, I stuck with it and eventually reached a point where not running was far harder than running.

Habituation requires the obvious: repeat the activity on a regular basis until it becomes a habit. This, of course, generates something of a paradox: to be able to stick with exercise, you must first stick with exercise. But, if you can stick with it, then you would seem to not need to habituate yourself to stick with it. If you can’t stick with it, then you’ll never be able to habituate yourself. So, how do you unravel this paradox?

As noted above, you have to stick with it until you hit that habituation point. This means that you need just enough will to get to that point, then after that it will be easier. To use an analogy, it is like biking a hill: you need enough strength to get to the top and then the rest is easy. Getting to this point requires using the other motivation methods. Once you hit the habituation point, then you’ll find it much easier to stick with it.

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