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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘health’

Optimizing Effort/Outcome=Minimal Effective Dose

Some time ago I wrote about the Minimum Effective Dose (MED), the concept in which we seek to optimize our results with the smallest amount of whatever it is that we are using to achieve that outcome. The quest to find the MED is one that crosses quite easily between my day job (medical) and my own quest for health (CrossFit). A quick mention of Eva T in Outside magazine and the program she uses with her clients sounds a lot like MED. The Everyday Math column in the WSJ provided an enhanced vocabulary for the journey.

Sometimes the MED really is a “something” you take. Here one thinks of medicine or food, for example. More often is the case that we are looking at a dose of time or effort. Or perhaps both. In this case we are seeking to optimize the effort as it relates to the outcome, to make the value of outcome divided by effort as large as possible. The rate limiting factor here is the Law of Diminishing Returns, of course: at some point additional effort produces such a small incremental increase in the outcome that it becomes not worth making. This applies to everything from WODs/week (or day) to decorating a birthday cake. At a certain point you just have to feel you’ve succeeded.

How, then, to know when you have reached this optimal level? Eugenia Cheng, the mathematician who wrote the WSJ piece, offers the concept of the “minimal acceptable standard”. Once she has reached this outcome the additional effects garnered from more effort have moved beyond the point where Diminishing Returns kicks in and she simply accepts the outcome. We would call these “minimal standards” goals, but the concept is essentially the same. We want an outcome; setting a target or a goal is step one in optimization.

Cheng then goes on to refine optimization with a discussion about boundaries. One is your goal, of course. In real life others also exist, things like a 24 hour day and a 7 day week and the need to make a living. The dose you choose, both qualitatively (what it is) and quantitatively (how much you get) is unavoidably affected by boundary conditions over which you have less control.In the end no outcome worth getting happens without effort. Health, friendship, or the unraveling of a gnarly math problem–you’re going to put effort in to get your results out.

Maximizing your outcome-to-effort ratio is just another way to say you are seeking your Minimum Effective Dose, in CrossFit and elsewhere.

Sunday musings: Opiate Overdoses and American Health

To the victors go the spoils. History is written by the victors. Truer words, eh?

I find myself turning off all manner of information outlets of late because they are all just so many repeats. The other side of that victor coin is that the vanquished simply repeat the lines of the victor when s/he was losing. Look no further than the kerfuffle about the Accountable Care Act. If you remove time stamps and the naming of characters what one hears or reads is essentially unchanged today from what was said or written some 7 years ago.

Try it.

My sense of ennui is so strong that it is fairly paralyzing. Is there no one out there who is willing or able to propose something that is truly new? Can we not even even come up with new or original complaints and criticisms? Must we be doomed to this endless cycle of sameness about seemingly everything?

It’s almost as if the vanquished do not so much fail to learn from history but that they work very hard to faithfully replay history in exquisite detail, dooming us all.

We are looking at a true health crisis in the U.S. In 2016 some 40,000 Americans died from opiate overdoses. This is more than the number of deaths by firearms by a factor of 4, and is similar to the number of deaths in automobile accidents. This morning I read a startling statistic: 7 million working age men are out of the employment market, and 1/2 of them take painkillers on a daily basis. Crazy, huh?

On CrossFit.com we agree that there is a general crisis of health in the American populace stemming from over-consumption of calories (most of which are high glycemic index carbs) and under-consumption of physical activity. Another equally startling story in this week’s news is the growing acceptance of excess body weight fat as some kind of new normal, a normal that should somehow be institutionalized.Total capitulation, that.  In this discussion one must add the over-consumption of alcohol, because countless studies have shown that this legal substance is responsible for all kinds of negative health effects, both direct and indirect. (As an aside, it does give one pause when one considers the possibility of legalizing another neuro-depressant, marijuana). As if this isn’t enough, we now must add to this toxic recipe the ingestion by any route of opiates.

The U.S. is regularly taken to task for its failure to sit at the top of the world’s life expectancy leader board despite spending the largest amount per capita on healthcare in the world. This criticism becomes more and more unreasonable as we dive further into what it is that actually drives statistics such as life expectancy. Deaths from overdoses are illustrative of the folly of conflating health and healthcare: there is nothing in the healthcare system of treatment that drives this statistic, and the death of these primarily young people has a disproportionate effect on the life expectancy statistic in which it is years lived that we are counting (and losing).

What, then, is to be done, especially in the setting here of health-conscious individuals? It behooves each of us to take a bit of personal responsibility in the discussion and pledge that we will utilize accurate nomenclature, and in turn demand that everyone else in the conversation do likewise. Health and healthcare are not synonyms. Likewise, healthcare and health insurance (itself somewhat of a misnomer) are not the same; one does not lose healthcare when one does not have health insurance, and for certain the ownership of a health insurance policy does not guarantee one access to healthcare. Indeed, because the outcome was inconvenient to the majority of entrenched healthcare interests, the landmark study of Oregon Medicaid recipients that showed no improvement in health outcomes in those with Medicaid compared with those without has been mostly ignored and purposely forgotten. We need to engage in this conversation, but do so with strict fidelity to meaningful terms.

From there we should lead in whatever way we can. This effort is not at all about the treatment of disease, at least not as far as we here are concerned, but rather one of Public Health. There are quite specific areas to be addressed if we wish to effect change. Each area must be subjected to a root cause analysis. Over-consumption of low-quality carbs is near and dear to CrossFit, Inc., and the battle against “Big Soda’s” influence has been engaged. Other influences such as agricultural subsidies should have a similar bright light shined in their direction. How is it that the dramatic reduction of drinking and driving has failed to render deaths from drunken driving a statistical anomaly? Perhaps someone can convince one of those know-better do-gooder billionaires globe-trotting in search of a trendy problem to throw money at to look a bit closer to home when they apply their famous intellect to new thinking about old problems.

As to the tragedy that is opiate overdose deaths, can we please have someone with no skin in the game be given no-risk access to any and all applicable data and just turn them loose? Some guy did a deep dive into the issue of scrubbing the internet of all vestiges of child pornography using a combination of massive computing power and an outsider’s view. Give someone like that the ability to examine the entire opiate ecosystem to uncover some of the hows and whys so that we can make some decisions of the whats of our response with more than just our typical SOP of some self-designated, conflict-of-interest-infected expert who declares that his/her solution should work because of what they are sure must be going on. This seems to be a new thing, after all, and rather young, too. Prior opiate societal infestations surely share some aspects with our present crisis, but I don’t recall the opium dens in the days of the Crusades so routinely offing their customers.

Anything that can be measured can be analyzed. Anything that can be analyzed can be altered utilizing the results of that analysis. What is needed is the double-edged sword of courage to uncover an unpleasant truth, and strength to set aside all manner of short-term personal gain in favor of a long-term solution for societal benefit.

We ought not let 40,000 lives representing hundreds of thousands of years not lived to be lost in vain.

Emotional Well-Being: Mental Health Deserves Equal Footing

Some time ago I wrote about creating a way to measure health. Real health. Health that encompasses every aspect of what it means to be alive and well. As a CrossFitter I definitely included Coach Glassman’s Disease -> Health -> Wellness continuum, and I also acknowledged the critical importance of his concept of “Fitness over Time”. As a classically trained physician/scientist there is clearly a place for more traditional metrics like blood pressure, serum lipids and the like, although they may, indeed, be an variable that is ultimately tied to fitness.

Where my thoughts on defining and measuring health seem to depart from most current trends is in the recognition that mental health–emotional wellbeing—is as much a part of being healthy as any other thing we might examine.

Think about it for just a moment. Most of what we would classify as mental illness has as many outward signs that we can see as diabetes and hypertension. Which is to say, none. Yet we—all of us, not just CrossFitters—see nothing but the good in treating diseases like diabetes openly and aggressively. There is no stigma attached to seeking care for your hypertension or your elevated LDL. To the contrary, if someone who loves you discovers you quit measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses, including addiction, are looked at quite differently. No one is asking the person with chronic depression whether she is taking her life-saving medication, for example. We might notice an insulin pump on a friend or family member, but then it’s quickly forgotten. Everyone seems to be very uncomfortable around the young man who has very obvious hand tremors from the life-saving medication he takes for his Bipolar disease. We all seem to be so much more understanding when we have to wait for a response from someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease than from the young women who has the same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not even necessary to look only at these kinds of severe mental illnesses when we are examining the importance of mental or emotional wellbeing as an integral part of being healthy. What good does it do to have a 5:00 mile, a 500 lb. deadlift, and a 1:59 “Fran” if it was self-loathing that drove you in the gym to get there? You may be quite accomplished, the envy of your peers, at the peak of whatever life mountain you wished to climb, and yet you cannot feel joy. How is it possible to be healthy without joy? I look at Usain Bolt and what I see is quite possibly the healthiest man alive. My friend Tim, the writer, tells me that Justin Gatlin has nearly everything that Bolt has—youth, fitness, wealth—but the combination of failure to knock off Bolt, and the public disapproval reigned on him as boos from the Rio stands has left him emotionally broken. It’s subtle, but if you look at his face in the blocks of the 100M Final it’s there.

Our complex and conflicted attitudes and feelings about mental illness are especially evident when the topic of suicide comes up. Just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Even how we describe suicide is fraught with hidden meaning that reflects our discomfort: someone has “committed suicide”. Right? Someone committed an act that we simply cannot fathom, one that leaves the survivors completely without any understanding whatsoever. How could someone DO that? It’s as if every suicide is the same as the suicide of the crooked prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car.

In reality most of the time it’s simply not like that at all. Nothing about it is simple at all.

The outer walls at the periphery of my world have been breeched by suicide twice in the last couple of months. One of them actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, just stopped me in my tracks when I heard. The loss was profound.It has also introduced to me a new vocabulary that I truly believe provides a starting line from which we can change how we think about not only suicide, but all of mental illness. A friendly acquaintance lost his wife when she was killed by suicide.

We don’t need to know all of the details of the story. Suffice it to say that in the face of a child’s illness she suffered quietly. Too quietly to be noticed. Perhaps she didn’t realize how badly she was suffering, or maybe she was like so many of us and couldn’t bring herself to see her illness for the life-threatening entity that it was. No one will ever know. What is clear, though, is that this was not anything about commitment. Kidney failure may be cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of death was suicide. Her disease, her depression is what killed this young woman.

Each of us has a very few moments in our lifetimes that forever change us. On the second Tuesday of July in 2006, unbeknownst to me, one of those moments was transpiring in a lonely, dark corner. Joyfully, the moment was a beginning, not an ending. Regardless, once learning of the moment I was changed forever. Now I knew. You cannot see any marks from mental illness, no swollen appendage or insulin pump. But it is there all the same, and it must be acknowledged and accorded the same degree of care as any other disease that may take our loved ones from us. Mental illnesses are real, and they can be deadly. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in treating them.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy.

 

Population Health v10.0

There is a certain arrogance in the academy, that vaunted group of professors who opine righteously from afar about pretty much anything they study. Add to that the well-known arrogance of youth with its inherent disregard for any and all history which transpired before the youthful reached the age of cognition and you have either a toxic combination of ignorance and impetuosity, or simply a laughably vacuous collection of paper thin pontification. Such is the case with a series of statements quoted yesterday morning from a lecture given by a young academic physician on the state of population or public health in America. He posits that there is a new movement toward moving healthcare from inpatient to outpatient. There is an equally new and heretofore unseen effort to make people healthy rather than treat them when they are not. This young doctor is calling his observations Population Health v1.0.

I’m calling it Bullshit.

The lecture in question was being live-Tweeted, but that is probably the only thing about the subject matter that can reasonably be v1.anything. Instantly available dissemination of medical information to a general audience is a truly new phenomenon. With it comes the danger of the wider audience simply accepting the information since it comes from an “expert”. However, along with the relatively naive broader audience we thankfully have a small subset that is either a) informed enough on the topic to offer a “con” opinion, or b) simply old enough to remember that there is a deep and meaningful history that predates what the young expert is proposing as new. Count me as able to check c) both of the above.

Population Health is simply a better term for what historically has been known as Public Health. While Public Health typically connotes some sort of governmental involvement, Population Health is a more inclusive, more powerful concept because it includes not only government programs but also private initiatives of all kinds. Public Health typically equates to top-down implementation of global governmental policy, whereas Population Health covers everything from large for-profit publicly traded companies to the tiniest solo-practice pediatrician. In fairness to the speaker (and in a kind of peace offering for what is to come) I do think his choice of a label is spot on. The rest of his thesis and its development? Not so much.

There is literally nothing new in the entire exposition. How can you call anything v1.0, the first iteration of something that is truly new, if everything that is used as an example is simply today’s version of yesterday’s news. Let’s start with his primary assertion, that there is a new move afoot in which healthcare is only now being provided in the outpatient, rather than the inpatient, setting. This can’t be a doctor who is taking care of any patients in the real world. It is long been the exception rather than the rule that a majority of surgeries take place in an outpatient setting. Heck, 99.9% of eye surgeries have occurred in this setting since the 1980′s. So, too, for invasive testing like colonoscopy, bronchoscopy and cardiac catheterizations of all kinds. It would be much more accurate to state that we are in the end game phase of this transition, v10.0 if you will. For crying out loud, this is such a mature part of the evolution of healthcare in America that any essence of patient-centered care that would require an admission to a hospital is dismissed outright, one more nail in the coffin of that now meaningless label.

How about the assertion that we are only now engaging in a concerted effort to improve the health of our population as opposed to simply treating various maladies? This one kills me. Really? All of a sudden the entire healthcare/government/industry axis is only now finally seeking to improve the general health of our people by preventing illness? Now, in 2016, we have population health v1.0?! That’s laughable. If our young scholar is anything like yours truly, the last stop he made before making his way to the lectern was the loo. HeLOOOoh. Indoor plumbing anyone? You can make a sincere argument that v1.0 of population health efforts occurred a hundred hears ago with the introduction of the kitchen sink and the toilet.

If we confine our discussion to matters more purely medical any reasonable view must acknowledge the tremendous life-saving effect of mass vaccinations for childhood illnesses. Smallpox, polio, and measles each killed hundreds of thousands every year before the advent of widespread vaccination programs. Even efforts which we would now condemn like the sequestration of TB patients in sanitariums must be considered a type of population health program. Despite our modern day fetish with privacy issues, the near elimination of syphilis  in the Western world through mandatory case reporting and contact notification cannot be forgotten or ignored.

When we talk of Population Health in this day and age we are typically talking about mitigating the effects of modern society. Indeed, in cases such as nutrition, we are actually talking about undoing the adverse effects of prior Population Health efforts. The U.S. government either simply got it wrong, or was led awry by a cynical effort by food producers who surreptitiously funded self-serving research. No matter. We are now in possession of a sedentary, overweight population susceptible to once less common diseases that now run rampant. There is little argument that the healthcare community should engage in the effort to keep people healthy as well as treat them when they are not. The notion that this is something truly new is a fanciful notion bred of what must be purposeful historical ignorance.

So, Population Health v1.0? Hardly. A process that arguably began with the invention of the flush toilet cannot be labeled new, no matter how good this makes a speaker, a system sound, or a concept sound. Those who fail to study history may be doomed to repeat it, though in this case there really is no need to do so. Acknowledge the past, make a sincere effort to place your idea in its appropriate slot in that history, and then make a case for your proposal. Have a little humility. There’s nothing wrong with being v10.0. Especially if it works.

 

 

 

 

 

A Quick Thought on Measuring Health

Thoughts I’m thinking while following a vacuous, arrogant, self-congratulatory, and epically ignorant of history exposition on public health over on my Twitter feed…

It seems as if the entire world is in search for the magic metric that will allow us to measure, and then manipulate, health. Frankly, I’m stuck in my own search for a metric that combines Fitness (as defined by Greg Glassman), traditional western medical measurements (serum lipids, BP, waist/hip, etc.), and emotional well-being. Wouldn’t it be something if all you needed to do was accurately measure your pulse? What if your pulse, one of the easiest things to measure there is–all you need is a second hand and the ability to count–could predict everything about your health with the exception of bad karma stuff like depression or cancer? More than that, what if you then could be told what your pulse pattern needed to be and how to effect that?

In Scandinavia a long-term study was done on men looking at specific variations in pulse. Resting, peak, speed to peak, speed to recovery and the like were all recorded, and cardiac events/deaths were then analyzed against the data. The result of this research was a proprietary algorithm, the PAI (owned by a company called Mio Global) that posits a direct association between specific pulse patterns and longevity. Indeed, they boldly state that a PAI of 100 equals up to 10 additional years of life, presumably free of decrepitude (reflecting my CrossFit-affected view of life). Imagine for a moment how earth-shaking this would be. Having an actionable metric for health, especially one that is as easily accessible as your pulse, would allow us to critically evaluate a majority of health interventions available.

Nothing is that simple of course, but it is quite easy to envision a pyramid of health, not unlike our CrossFit pyramid of fitness, with a base that consists of your PAI. Layer on whatever you please, but the smart money is that something that looks an awful lot like CrossFit’s 100 words of fitness will be in there somewhere.

I’m off to take my pulse and then do a WOD.

 

Measuring Health Part 4: Fitness ‘F’

Health should be defined along the lines of individual human potential. An actionable definition would go something like “the ability to live at the limits of your fullest potential without any encumbrance now or in a foreseeable future”. Fitness as defined by Greg Glassman and CrossFit–work capacity across broad time and modal domains–should therefore be seen as “applied health”. As such, since fitness at any given time is an accurate measurement of one’s functional ability, our variable ‘F’ should have the heaviest weighting in our Health Index.

Let us begin our discussion of Fitness by reviewing and dispelling several myths and misconceptions about the interrelation between health and fitness. First, is it really necessary to review all of the date which now stares us in the face as far as the importance of exercise in health? By the same token, it should be clear to any sentient being that not only is what we eat important (although we must concede that this may differ across populations) but how much?  Simple carbohydrates, manufactured substances meant to cheaply replace real food, harmful (trans-) fats–it doesn’t matter what KIND of nutrition plan you follow, these are all BAD. As I write this I am recovering from surgery and I am not able to exercise. Does anyone believe that I will NOT gain useless weight if I maintain my pre-operative food intake? This part isn’t rocket science, folks. Coach Glassman says it as well as anyone: “Eat [protein] and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

Next up is the canard that fitness is simply being able to do something for a very long time. This view, promulgated and propagated by the likes of Outside Magazine and others, is not only insufficient but has been shown to be false as well. In the last couple of years there have been a number of very important studies showing a degradation of heart function in so-called “Ultra” athletes in any area. Decreased cardiac output and an increase in cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation have been shown to be caused by excess endurance training. Endurance as the sole defining characteristic of fitness is as incomplete as would be strength. One need only look at the life expectancy of the strongest humans on record to see that strength in and of itself is not sufficient to produce health.

The question of what constitutes fitness is one that has been answered, at least insofar as health is concerned. It is not enough to be able to run or bike or swim long distances if you cannot also lift heavy things, including your own body. In the same vein one is not truly fit if one can deadlift or squat 3X his or her own bodyweight but cannot run a mile in under 15:00. One must have some measure of BOTH. As such the inescapable conclusion is that Greg Glassman is correct when he says that fitness equals work capacity across broad time and modal domains. You must be able to lift heavy things over a short distance when necessary, but also possess the ability to carry lighter things a longer way for a longer time as well. While I am not naive enough to expect that this will be accepted without spirited debate, when it comes to any measurements of health now available, all arguments to the contrary are not supportable. Glassman has won this battle.

As an aside, this should once and for all put to rest the myth of the “healthy obese”. What good is it to be happy, ‘W’ off the charts, with a stratospheric ‘M’ because all of your bloodwork is perfect, to go with your BP of 120/70, if your joints will cave under pressure decades sooner than they need to? You simply cannot escape the reality that health requires physical fitness.

If fitness can be described as “applied health”, it stands to reason that it will have the greatest contribution to our eventual Health Index. As such it is especially important that our chosen tests meet the criteria outlined in Part 1, that the measurement be as broadly accessible in all ways as possible. In the purest sense we would be able to measure an individual’s “work capacity”, the totality of his or her expression of fitness as measured by many tests covering different loads, distances traveled, and time. In CrossFit we talk of this as the “area under the curve” of a graph that records Power (lbs-ft. per second) on the X axis and Time (in minutes) on the Y. In a perfect world this would be part of every individuals ongoing pursuit of health, but alas, even in the CrossFit world where a very committed everyone records everything, this has proven to be problematic. In designing a series of tests to be applied to the broadest possible swath of humanity this ideal must yield to a more pragmatic approach.

What, then, should we measure, and how? Let us first propose a couple of general characteristics of the tasks in our test and then see what fits the bill. We should test an individual’s ability to move from one place to another under their own power–running is a fundamental human trait and should be part of our evaluation. Likewise, the ability to pick something up off the ground is a pretty basic, everyday movement and would qualify as our test of strength. Lastly, in the U.S. we have a storied heritage from the 1960′s, The Presidential Council Fitness Challenge (PCFC), in which candidates are tested on their ability to perform calisthenic exercises for both speed and endurance. It would be fitting to include something that evokes this historical element.

Once again I anticipate a vigorous debate about the particular elements we include. I’ll go first. We can reward both speed and endurance by starting with a timed run in which the result is distance traveled. The most common example of this comes from athletic programs and the military: a 12:00 timed run for distance. We live in the U.S.; the unit is yards. Pick up something heavy? Sure sounds like a deadlift to me. Any deadlift you wish, standard or sumo, will do. My bias is that a lifting belt is just fine, but except in very special circumstances (e.g. one-armed subject) I would say that straps to help you grip the bar are not a good idea, especially for the very inexperienced subject.

After giving considerable thought to the exercises and format in the original PCFC I think we should simplify the test while at the same time bringing it into the modern fitness world. In the PCFC one sought a maximum number of reps in 2:00 of pull-ups, 2:00 of sit-ups, and 2:00 of push-ups. What exactly are we testing with sit-ups that reflects true fitness? I would favor swapping out sit-ups for air squats. With a nod to CrossFit and Greg Glassman’s outsized contributions to this discussion, let’s use the format made famous by the CrossFit WOD “Cindy” with a small adjustment. To test our subject’s ability to perform bodyweight movements and move quickly, repeats of the triplet of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats in 6:00, counting as our result the total number of repitions achieved.

There you have it. A definition of “Health” and “Healthy”. The introduction of the three variables that go into the measurement of “Health”: traditional medical values ‘M’, emotional well-being ‘W’, and Fitness ‘F’. Next I will address how we will value each of these measures, and then ultimately how they will be combined to give us a meaningful, actionable health measurement ‘H’.

 

Measuring Health Part 3: Emotional Well-Being “W”

2016 is an Olympic year. We will hear stories, as we do in every Olympic cycle, of the extraordinary physical accomplishments of Olympians in sports which require otherworldly amounts of what we in the CrossFit world would consider “Fitness”. Strength, speed, and agility. Uncanny feats of coordination and accuracy, some performed over distances and times that are so far beyond the reach of the average human as to defy credulity. Many of these athletes, certainly the ones we will meet through the intercession of NBC, will match our expectations of the happiness that must certainly accompany such outsized achievements. Mary Lou Retton, anyone? Indeed, what we will see on our screens will fairly scream “Healthy”.

But there will be others, too. And for all of their physical fitness, expressed so dramatically for our viewing pleasure and patriotic zeal, the lack of emotional health will make it obvious to anyone that they are not healthy. Bruce Jenner, anyone?

Remember our proposed definition of “Healthy”: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities. Health is therefore the state in which no infirmity is, or can in the future, impede this ability to fulfill a potential. It takes but a moment to think of how mental illnesses such as depression, bi-polar disease, and schizophrenia can be hidden from view when examining only physical metrics. There are examples all around us. The woman who partners with a 1400 pound horse in the rigorous, physical tasks required to compete in the three-part test that is eventing, so poised and accomplished in the arena, who retreats to solitude outside the barn because she is incapable of overcoming her anxiety around people. The outdoorsman who in his manic phase performs feats of strength and endurance others can only marvel at, and then plunges into the depths of depression from which he cannot see the noon-day sun. Much more prosaic and much more common is the individual who continually increases his or her fitness by any and all measurements due to a deeply held sense of low self-worth, perhaps even self-loathing, pursuing an unreachable ideal and always falling short.

A truly universal measurement of health must include some element of emotional well-being. Let’s call it “W”. You could certainly call it the “Happiness Factor”, and some undoubtedly will. I imagine criticism directed toward this to take the form of “Happy Face” mockery. No matter. Well-Being is a better term for this part of our equation because it encompasses more than whether or not you are happy, whatever happy may mean to you, when you are measured. Are you content with your circumstances at the moment? Do you have the ability to persevere under duress?  What is the state of your relationships? A recent study of Harvard men carried out over decades found that both happiness and longevity were tied quite closely to the quantity and quality of your relationships with family and friends. Where are you in your pursuit of your goals, your dreams, and how do you feel about that? How much stress do you perceive in your life and how are you managing that? All of these make up what one might think of when we consider Well-Being.

How, then, should we go about measuring ‘W’? Remember, all of our tests should meet the dual imperatives of being accessible to pretty much everyone, and as inexpensive as possible. We could certainly use something like the classic anesthesia “smily face” pain scale, relabeling the figures, but this feels too simplistic and too momentary to be truly applicable. Our measurement should require a bit more thought than that. I have to admit here to countless hours of internet crawling trying to find a validated test of emotional well-being that has a track record in a heterogenous group that mirrors our population; most have been utilized in very specialized populations (e.g. soldiers) with a very specific research interest. Those that might apply must typically be purchased.

John Pinto is a well-regarded consultant in the world of my day job, ophthalmology. He has long had a list of clients that spans the gamut of pretty much every measurement you could think of in a group of doctors. Men and women. Young and old. Fantastically successful doctors and those that could only be described as spectacular (if unexpected) failures. As part of his quest to better understand his clients in order to better serve them, John used a questionnaire that measured emotional well-being. He found that external measurements of success such as volume of surgeries, income, and professional acclaim did not always coincide with his clients sense of success, their emotional valuation of their professional lives. These were certainly variables that mattered, but his happiest clients were not always his wealthiest, and his least happy not always those who had less. The assessment he used is the best one that I’ve been able to find, notwithstanding the fact that it is not free.

(http://psychcorp.pearsonassessments.com/HAIWEB/Cultures/en-us/Productdetail.htm?Pid=PAg511 ).

I am not wedded to the Psychcorp assessment and would happily review any alternatives. Especially if they are free! As is the case with ‘M’, our traditional health metrics like blood pressure and serum lipids, I expect a vigorous debate as to the relative weight of ‘W’ in our final Health Index. My bias is that ‘W’ is a current factor with a greater impact on health, and it should have a correspondingly greater weight in our formula. Let me start the “bidding” with double; however the final formula shakes out ‘W’ should have twice the value of ‘M’.

Mental health is an inextricable part of health. It must be included in any serious definition and measurement of health. Our variable is “Well-Being” or ‘W’.

 

Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.

 

Measuring Health Part 1: Rationale, Definitions and Background

In 2010 I had a bit of an epiphany. At the time I was a bit over 4 years into my CrossFit journey. It became painfully obvious that the genius that Greg Glassman had applied to physical fitness–a definition of fitness that invited measurement, and in turn the critical evaluation of the efficacy of different fitness programs–was nowhere to be seen in the fields of health and medicine. Indeed, an informal survey carried out in person by my friend Dr. Kathy Weesner and I made it clear that the majority of physicians couldn’t come up with an actionable definition for health despite the fact that we are charged as professionals with helping our patients become “healthy”.

At around this time Coach Glassman published a theory that health was precisely defined as “fitness over time”. In CrossFit Fitness is work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Fitness over years could be depicted as a 3-dimensional graph with axes time, work, and years. As I thought about his thesis, that a backward looking view of an individual’s fitness as defined by CrossFit was a proxy for health, I found myself with the feeling that the definition was intriguing but incomplete. In response I took it upon myself to develop a broader definition of health, one in which fitness was a primary, but not the sole marker or metric. That April I submitted a draft of my definition of health along with a new, broader base of proposed tests that would generate the data that could be used to measure an individual’s health. Over the years it has become clear that Greg and I are more in agreement than not, but a key CrossFit employee at the time had a fundamental disagreement with my thesis, and consequently the article was rejected by the CrossFit Journal. I published my draft here on Random Thoughts later that year.

For almost 6 years I have been mulling this over, threatening to return to the problem of defining and then measuring health in much the same way that Coach Glassman defined and then measured fitness. The quest was derailed by all of the usual time sinks of mid-life. In a humorous irony, the majority of my real, true free time was consumed by the task of helping my sons run their CrossFit Affiliate gym. It is time, now, for me to finish what I started in 2010 if for no other reason than to establish the provenance of the theory.

In order to effectively address any issue whatsoever it is first necessary to have a clear understanding of the definition of terms that may be important to the discussion. I made a similar statement in one of my earliest posts on the importance of understanding the difference between health, healthcare delivery (medicine), and healthcare finance. Here again I fall back on the genius of Greg Glassman: just as one cannot evaluate either fitness or fitness programs without first defining what it is that you are discussing when you say “fitness”, one must first have a definition of “health” before one can begin to measure it. What exactly is “health”? What does it mean to be healthy?

Let’s return for a moment to the physician survey that Dr. Weesner and I did in early 2010. During face-to-face meetings we asked groups of physician colleagues to give us their definition of “health” or “healthy”. The majority of the answers couldn’t have been less inspiring or more disappointing. Indeed, the most common answer was “I don’t know”! Not very comforting, that. The second most common answer was as anticipated: health is the absence of disease. In our American medical system of “disease care” this is an understandable response, of course, but as the basis for the development of a true measurement of “health” it is obvious on its face that this definition has never translated into any actionable metric. Why? Well for one it fails entirely to take into account the very real importance of “fitness”, the expression of health. More specifically, like fitness as a proxy for health, “absence of disease” also fails to address a key requirement for any measurement of health: there is no forward-looking predictive value to simply stating that you have no disease today.

A measurable, actionable definition of health is one that takes into account the degree that disease is present or absent at any given time. It must address physical fitness; to be without a named disease but to be unable to walk up a flight of stairs should not ever be construed as “healthy”. Of equal importance to these factors, any definition of “health” that will generate a meaningful metric must have a predictive value. Your Health Value should provide some measurement of your future likelihood of being disease free and fit. Our little survey of our physician peers did produce just such definitions. Given these requirements I propose that the following are actionable definitions that can be used in healthcare to create measurements in precisely the same way that Greg Glassman’s definition of fitness is used in that realm:

HEALTH: The state in which no infirmity of any kind suppresses, or has the possibility of suppressing the ability to express the full extant of an individual’s potential capacities.

HEALTHY: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities.

With these definitions we can move on to developing a “health metric”, one that can not only assess our present degree of health, but can also predict to some degree our ability to remain healthy. I believe this metric has three component parts: physical fitness as defined by CrossFit, well-being or emotional health, and a factor that addresses traditional or standard medical factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, genetics and the like. Furthermore, I predict that these three variables are as evident and as logical for “health” as Coach Glassman’s definition is for fitness.

One can have an otherworldly degree of fitness as defined by CrossFit, but what good is it to have a 500 pound deadlift and the ability to run a 4:00 mile if your physical achievement is driven by self-loathing? By the same token, in addition to having a normal result in every conceivable medical test your countenance is as sunny as an 8 year old on vacation, your disposition so Zen-like that the Dali Lama himself wishes he were as happy and serene, but you can’t walk a mile. This surely cannot equal healthy. You are a world-champion long-distance runner, and yet you drop dead from a heart attack, unaware that you have a cholesterol of 800. Fit for sure, but hardly healthy. Fitness, well being, and modern health metrics all have a role in an actionable Health Measurement. Vigorous debate will be necessary to parse the relative weight given to each of these factors, but as I first proposed and wrote in April 2010,all three are clearly necessary components.

In short order I will offer follow-up posts that delve more deeply into each of these three components. I will include suggestions for what and how to measure them. I will conclude with a re-statement of my proposal for a single measurement of health with my suggestion as to the relative weight of the three variables, hopefully inciting the above-mentioned vigorous debate. By doing so I wish to document the originality and timeline of my proposal, acknowledge the intellectual debt owed to Greg Glassman for inspiring me, and reassert my contention that healthcare cannot reach its fullest potential without first agreeing on both a definition of health and how to measure it.

 

 

 

Fitness as Health Marker

The human body as a machine is an endless source of fascination. Designed at this point in evolution primarily as a vehicle to carry a brain, our bodies can withstand famine, thirst, and physical stress beyond what our brains can imagine. When one part starts to fail we have a series of “fail-safe” backups in many cases that allow us to carry on. Interestingly, the greatest harm to our “vehicles” is actually excess (gluttony) and lack of physical stress (sloth).

Kinda Biblical, eh?

There is a complex daisy chain of effects that can ever be traced back to a cause when our bodies begin to break down. My own musculoskeletal system is failing me miserably, and it has taken the eventual unavoidable breakdown of one of those fail-safe mechanisms for me to finally figure out the original cause. Last month’s programming with its emphasis on our core was the last straw.

For the better part of a year I have struggled on and off with progressively worse failures of accessory muscles for mid-line stabilization. The posterior chain (gluteus maximus, hamstring, erector spinae) precisely balances your anterior chain (rectus abdominus) in maintaining a rigid core so that you can do, well, everything. Progressive movement failures in the gym (massive retrograde numbers in lifts, need for major scaling of loads) has now given way to rather plebeian challenges: spasms of the gluteus medius, priformis, and obturator (not to mention that rat bastard the extensor fascia lata) which sometimes drop me in the simplest of movements.

My initial reaction, of course, was to address what must be a weakness in these accessory muscles due to inattention. Surely this would be all that I needed to return me to my previous level of physical prowess. Naturally, since these “failures” were actually the fail-safes going down, accessory work on these muscles only worsened the problem by OVER-working the already overburdened.

How, then, did I figure it out? Well, as I noted, the chariot that rolls along carrying our brain is ever set to do its job, and eventually it sends up a signal when all of the backup systems failed. A tiny little dull ache appeared in my lower abs, an annoyance that escalated to Def-con 1 whenever I braced my anterior chain for any task whatsoever. There was no difference between a back squat or a “bear in the woods” squat–I could not use my abs to secure my midline, and guarding against the pain had shifted that burden to all of those little helper muscles.

A tiny little tear born in an area of inherited weakness turned out to be the cause. My friend the general surgeon describes the defect as “a dime with aspirations of becoming a quarter.” A half-dozen really smart folks had failed to see it, all of them equally fascinated by the epic failure of my Piriformae. And so it is that I will engage the knife as I seek relief on behalf of my accessory warriors such that they may return to their proper roles behind the front line of the midline stabilization battle.

What’s the point of all this sharing you ask? It’s pretty simple, really. Very basic. Each one of us is, or should be, engaging the CrossFit prescription of strength and metabolic conditioning aligned with proper nutrition in the pursuit of better daily function. Better, clearer thought. Stronger, leaner, faster bodies. In order to do so it is necessary that we are ever aware of those bodies, ever vigilant in our pursuit. CrossFit provides us a metric that allows us to monitor the machine that transports our brain. My performance began to suffer. I stalled, then backed up. Measurable and observable that I was failing at repeatable. To discover the root cause I eventually used the degree and manner of those failures to work back to the source. I think fitness as we describe it is best seen as a real-time marker for health. CrossFit approached properly is the thinking athlete’s fitness program, the inquisitive athletes health monitor.

Now to be fixed and resume my quest.