Your body. It's the thing that transports around the essence of who you are and will do so until the day you die (or it dies, depending on your philosophical outlook). While each person has different hobbies and interests, what we all have in common is being the owner of our own personal Meat Vehicle (as Joe Rogan puts it). Everyone can benefit from taking an interest in the health, care, and maintenance of their vehicle. There are lots of ways to learn about what's going on in your body, ranging from free to expensive. Here are some of my favorites...
Morning Resting Heart Rate
Your resting heart rate is a good indicator of your cardio vascular fitness. A healthy, strong heart needs to pump less often to deliver oxygen rich blood to the body. A RHR in the 50s is generally considered "athletic" (more detailed charts by age/gender available here). But the trends in your resting heart rate can tell you even more.
There are plenty of free apps available for your smart phone that will take your heart rate using your finger held over the camera of your phone. First thing in the morning, before you've really moved or gotten out of bed, measure your heart rate. After a week or two you'll have a nice baseline. A deviation of more than 7 BPM from the norm indicates that the body is experiencing an out-of-the-ordinary stress. For athletes, this can be a good indication of over training and when it's time to take a rest day. If your training volume has not been more than usual, an elevated resting heart rate could also indicate that your body is fighting an illness, or in the case of the picture below, recovering from a "cheat day" meal.
Cost: Free (just have to own a scale)
I know, I know... a lot of people have a dysfunctional relationship with the scale and prefer not to weigh themselves every day. But if we can detach our weight from being a measure of our self worth, it can be a useful window into your body. Day to day fluctuations in your weight will be mostly due to changes in fluid. A sharp drop one morning might be a good reminder that you need to drink more water. An uptick might indicate some inflammation from a tough WOD, fluid retention from a "cheat" meal, or a change in hormones (girls you know what I mean).
Just make sure to weigh yourself under the same conditions each day, ideally first thing in the morning before you've had any food or water.
Every once in a while, plunk yourself down at one of those blood pressure stations at the grocery store or pharmacy. Sit still and breathe normally for a few moments if you've been rushing around. If you're new to fitness and starting off pretty unhealthy, improved blood pressure will be one of the first signs that you're on the right path!
Log Your Workouts
Difficulty: Moderate (a small investment of time)
CrossFitters are all about logging workouts and tracking work capacity to see improvements over time. If you're putting the time in to your fitness you damn well better be keeping track of what you're doing and making sure it's worth all the effort.
Greg Glassman has given many excellent lectures on the idea of graphing your performances and increasing the "area under the curve". Being capable of doing more pull ups, squatting more weight, or running faster is one of the best ways to gauge the upgrades to your meat vehicle. In fact, it's the only one that actually matters. Ultimately none of the other things you can geek out on matter at all unless you have real, quantifiable improvements in your physical capacities.
Difficulty: only available in major centers
The scale can tell you a bit of information, but if you really want to know what you're made of, then a DEXA scan is what you want.
DEXA will tell you your composition of hydrated fat and lean tissue, as well as bone density values. A snapshot in time is interesting, but a "before" test and a follow up months later after making changes to your lifestyle would really give you good information about the improvements you've made within your body.
Unfortunately there isn't a publicly available DEXA unit in Saskatchewan. Other provinces have them, but if you want a scan here you'll need to participate in a research study at the University of Saskatchewan and request your results.
Blood Glucose (and Ketone) Testing
Difficulty: Done at home, but you have to prick your fingers
Cost: $75 for 100 glucose test strips (might be covered by your health plan) and the meter is free
Blood glucose testing doesn't have to be just for diabetics! Healthy people too can take an interest in the changes in their blood sugar in relation to training, diet, and stress. For energy levels, health, and disease avoidance the goal for most people is to keep blood sugar levels low/stable and avoid wild fluctuations that lead to a cascade of hormonal disruption. Robb Wolf recently conducted a series of tests on his wife where she ate 50g servings of carbohydrate from various sources and then tracked her blood sugar levels at 1 hour and 2 hours-post. Not all foods are created equal and not all people are equal. This is a great, very personalized, way to determine which foods work best with your body.
If you're intrigued by the possible benefits of a Ketogenic diet (5% Carb/20% Pro/70% Fat) and interested in self-experimentation (as I am), the FreeStyle Precision Neo Meter will also measure blood ketone levels. I've been doing some guinea pig work on myself and documenting the results on an Instagram account @theketoathlete The strips are quite expensive ($25.99 for 10) but the investment can be worth it. Strategic measurements after fasting (ie first thing in the morning), after eating regular meals, after eating "cheat" meals, and after exercise can all help you figure out what works best for your body.
23 and Me
Difficulty: Easy (just spit in a tube!)
23 and Me is a service that will sequence your DNA and give you all kinds of interesting facts about your ancestry, inherited health conditions, and disease risk markers. I shelled out this money for this kit, spit in a tube, and eagerly awaited the results for several weeks. I learned I am...
A fast metabolizer of caffeine (it's less likely to give me a heart attack)
Lacking the enzyme to digest lactose
A high responder to exercise
A carrier of the gene for Celiac disease
Likely to hate the taste of cilantro
Likely to have a lower BMI on a high fat (specifically monounsaturated fat) diet
More likely to be an explosive athlete than an endurance athlete (more type 1 than type 2 muscle fibers)
A person with an increased memory and also a decreased sensitivity to pain
They can also tell I'm shorter than average, blonde hair, brown eyes, and 100% European (also 2.7% neanderthal). There are dozens of other reports on inherited conditions, chronic disease risk, and how your body processes certain prescription medications.
Extra cool, is that you can take your 23andMe data and feed it into Dr. Rhonda Patrick's Genetics Tool on her website at www.foundmyfitness.com. They will tell you even more about
"polymorphisms that affect the absorption or utilization of nutrients like omega-3 ALA, vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin E, as well as polymorphisms that affect the interaction between our bodies and other dietary components like to saturated fat or heterocyclic amines which are formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures (among other things)."
From there I learned
Supplemental Vitamin E might be harmful for me
I'm not at risk of a vitamin D deficiency
I'm more efficient at converting the Omega-3 fat ALA into the more useful EPA
Saturated fat will not have a negative effect on my insulin or blood glucose
Overall the 23andMe profile was super interesting, but not life changing. It mostly gave me a concrete explanation for many things that I had already figured out about myself through years of trial and error. If you are the kind of person that is relatively in tune with your body you likely won't learn anything new about yourself. But if you enjoy the ultimate in geeking out on your meat vehicle then this is for you!