Help for the metrically obsessed

Last time I checked, I thought we were in the business of working with human bodies, movement and physical experience. So how then, did we ever get into the numbers business? Physical movement used to be about, well, moving your body. But today we've gone from quality to quantity, from experience to data, from romance to spreadsheets, from exuberance to accounting. The whole miserable business began back in the 1970's, when "target heart rate" was all the rage. You probably remember the formula: Maximum heart rate = 220 − age. Everyone was supposed to stop moving every so often and check their pulse, do the conversion and then start moving again. Mystified by this sudden interest in numbers, I started asking around: "Why do we need to do this?" The "experts" explained that "people really need to know when they're in the target zone, otherwise they might work too hard or not hard enough." This struck me as preposterous. Can't the human body actually feel when it's working hard? And in fact, don't our bodies come fully-equipped with internal nervous system receptors (interoceptors) that sense things like heart rate, blood pressure and the like? And isn't it the case that no other animal on the planet ever stops moving to manually check its heart rate? But of course, my protests went nowhere; I was using words, not numbers, to make my case. No one could understand what I was saying. But that was just the beginning. Target heart rate was later abandoned in favor of something called "pulse product" (also known as "composite cardiovascular measurement"), which is calculated by combining pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, and diastolic blood pressure. Hard to count in the middle of an aerobics class, but great for inputting into a data base.

About that same time, someone came up with METs: Metabolic Equivalent of Task, or simply "metabolic equivalent." This is a measure of the intensity of aerobic exercise: the ratio of metabolic rate during a specific physical activity to a reference rate of metabolic rate at rest. Whatever.

And of course, the cardiophiliacs had to have their own numbers, so they came up with VO2 max: maximal oxygen uptake or aerobic capacity. This number is supposed to reflect the physical fitness of the individual, or at the very least, their position in the athletic pecking order. Big numbers get big respect.

Naturally, strength athletes had to get into the numbers game too, this time with the hallowed 1RM (One repetition maximum). For some reason, this formula is now considered vital for strength training. There are now some 24 different formulas for assessing one's 1RM, but fortunately, if you want to find out how much you can lift, there's no need to actually lift something, you can just go a website and fill in a form to get the answer.

All of this counting has led to an epidemic of charting, logging and tracking of miles, heart rate monitors, laps and reps. We've convinced the average exerciser that he or she needs to consult a computer and a biometric specialist before moving a limb or taking a step. The raw experience of sweat and heavy breathing has now been domesticated by the rows and columns of the spreadsheet. The purpose of the body, it now seems, is to produce data.

Even worse, the whole thing doesn't stop with exercise; the nutritionists had to get in on the action too. So now we have ANDI, the "Aggregate Nutritional Density Index." (Calculate nutrients against calories, etc.) At the low end, we find sweet and empty food products like soft drinks. At the high end, we find the really dense, revolting foods like kale. If you really want to be healthy, you're supposed to calculate your meal's ANDI rating before taking a bite, but fortunately, there's probably an app for that.

As you might imagine, all this measuring is taking me out of my body and stressing me out. Where did this obsession with digits come from? And who can make a case that it's even remotely necessary? Wasn't there life before numbers? Didn't millions of people stay healthy through most of human history, entirely without the benefit of METs, 1RM's, VO2 maxes and ANDIs? And don't non-human animals function just fine without the benefit of quantification?

I could rant about this for years, but today I've decided to throw in the towel and resign myself to the inevitable. Now that it's "measure or die," I suppose that I too must offer up some sort of metric, a magic  formula to calculate some dimension of human physicality so that I too can have a seat at the table of professional expertise. If I'm going to have an impressive set of letters after my name or a book contract, I'm going to have to knuckle under and start coming up with some metrics. To that end, I offer two proposals:

ape units

First is the APE unit, aka the Ancestral Physical Education unit. An APE unit is simply a full day of sustained, outdoor locomotion, physicality and exploration: a sunup to sundown effort of moving your body in the natural world.

For example, John Muir logged thousands of APE units during his lifetime, walking tens of thousands of miles across the North American landscape. Adventurers, backpackers and hikers log them too. Mountain climbers and rock climbers also get credit for APE units. And of course, our Paleolithic ancestors logged APE units almost daily. In contrast, the average modern American likely has only a handful of APE units to his or her credit, if that.

The APE unit is an ideal metric for the modern human health predicament. No actual research has been done to date, but we can suppose that there's a correlation between one's APE score and their physical happiness, health and longevity. It's just an assumption, of course, completely hypothetical, with no evidence to support it. It's a rash speculation and will remain so until someone actually logs the metrics and publishes his or her work in a respected, peer-reviewed journal.

Note: Subdivisions of the primal APE unit are not permitted under this model. In other words, you cannot take a walk in the park, kick your shoes off for a half an hour, and lay claim to ".001 APE units." This would constitute a perversion of the system and is antithetical to our purposes. It's a full APE unit, or nothing.

combined physicality rating

If APE units aren't to your liking, how about CPR? This metric has nothing to do with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but it may very well prove pivotal in bringing nearly dead people back to life. The formula for CPR goes like this: Sensation + Effort = Total Physical Experience

This metric is more subtle and difficult to measure than the APE unit, but it is essential nonetheless. My assumption holds that physicality is the vital quality we're looking for in the modern world; it's physicality, not exercise, that's the biggest deficiency in modern life. Sure, movement is vital, but exercise is not enough to keep the whole human organism healthy; there has to be an authentic sensory experience, a touching of the world, to get the body's full attention and to make the experience complete.

For example, if you run on a smooth treadmill while wearing heavily-cushioned marshmallow shoes, you might get a good score for "effort," but a low score for sensation - thus a mediocre CPR rating. But now suppose that you hike a big mountain or go for a barefoot run on natural terrain. Lots of bushwhacking, rocks and roots on the trail, a couple of stream crossings and lots of hot sun, cold wind and biting insects. This satisfies both requirements of the CPR: high sensation plus big effort adds up to impressive physicality for the day.

This is what our bodies need at this moment in history. Not METs, not "pulse products," not 1RM max, not VO2max. We need physical striving and intimate tactile contact with the natural world. Without contact, we remain lost in space, disembodied creatures of low health and vitality.

count or get out

By combining CPR with APE units, we find an ideal solution that should keep everyone happy. By working together, we can create a composite metric that we can log into a spreadsheet and upload into a data base and then get down to some serious, laborious number-crunching. We can work some formulas and write an iPhone app that will help us keep the whole thing on tap for instant reference and comparisons. Or, we could just go outside and move our bodies. It worked before and it can work again.