Improve your Life and Your Health with Self-Experimentation and a Flexible Mindset

“We conduct experiments to find out something we do not know.”
(Murray Sidman, 1960)

 Experiment.

That word likely triggers some thoughts and visualizations for you. Perhaps you picture a nerdy scientist with disheveled hair, wearing funky glasses and long, white lab coat. You might also think of words like research, data, manipulation, science, numbers, and laboratory.

While it’s true that research scientists conduct many experiments within laboratory settings, it’s also true that we (YOU and I) conduct mini “life/s self-experiments with varying degrees of complexity and rigor on regular basis.

Earlier this month, I share that I’ve committed to intentional flexibility in 2018 in order to better support my personal and professional wellbeing. Intentional flexibility requires a high level of self-awareness, and I also believe it thrives on self-experimentation.

Over the last 4+ weeks, I have experimented primarily with a flexible (vs. rigid) approach to weight training as a way to recover from earlier injuries and retraining movement patterns. Instead of following a specific training program or performing a pre-determined set of exercises, I train 5 movement patterns:

  1. HINGE
  2. PRESS
  3. SQUAT
  4. PULL
  5. LOADED CARRY

I do have a primary exercise in mind for each movement pattern, BUT I test it each time I’m in the gym. If something hurts (physical pain), I adjust or switch to an alternative exercise that works for my body that day. For example, if barbell back squats are painful, I might try step-ups or split squats.

Self-evaluation of progress includes in-vivo assessments of pain, stability and smoothness during movement, fatigue, increases in weight (load), or increases in the depth from which I hinge (e.g., rack pull/deadlift) or squat. I use a workout log to track my training, and I take video of my lifts as a means of immediate, objective feedback. The videos allow me to review how my body and muscles are performing, make adjustments in between sets, and assess general progress. I also send videos to Chad (one of my favorite humans) to get some objective feedback, guidance, and verbal reinforcement.

No Pain. Improved Confidence. Enhanced Self-Awareness. Less Stress.

I am enjoying this approach for multiple reasons. I have been without physical pain and have improvement my scapular movement significantly over the past 4 weeks. I no longer experience twinges of pain or discomfort in my hip, and I have a lot less “clunkiness” in my shoulders. I have heightened self-awareness and improved confidence with weight lifting and moving my body. I also find I am feeling less stressed without having a rigid number of secondary movements, sets, or reps to complete.  I call this PROGRESS!

Little did I know, though, just how important my practice of intentional flexibility would come to be in a short period of time…

When the difficult stuff shows up, will you allow it to be present without letting it steer you away from what matters?

At the end of last week, my resilience “superpowers” were put to the test. Friday was a tough and emotional one. I cried. I shared my feelings of self-doubt and vented my frustration to someone who gets it because they have been where I am. These are healthier, more flexible coping strategies than ignoring, withdrawing, or avoiding, which used to be some of my “go to” ways of coping.

I admit I have goals that don’t align with my core value of physical health, and that can make recovery from injury and health conditions a challenging experience. On Friday, I received additional insight about the underlying cause of my secondary amenorrhea. I only became aware of this condition after discontinuing use of hormonal birth control in 2012. However, I suspect I have had this condition for far longer, as the use of birth control for many years would have masked the symptoms. There are several potential causes of secondary amenorrhea, and I’m not going to go into all the details in this post because I am not an expert and am still playing “detective” to figure out the cause of mine.

At this point in my life, I am adamant about treating the cause and not using a “bandaid medication” to treat the symptoms. There is a time and place for Western medicine, but if there is another, natural way, I’d prefer to experiment with those options first. I believe the improvements I’ve made in my psychology flexibility, along with the support of others, have allowed me to accept the feelings of frustration, anxiety, and worry without letting my feelings “hook” me. I value my health, and I also value science and experimentation.

You can learn about yourself, and many opportunities exist to improve your life and health through self-experimentation. The good news is that you don’t have to be a scientist to self-experiment; you must only be willing to be a curious observer.

When I work with my students or clients, we discuss how they might try out a tool or strategy with the only expectation that the outcome of its use will inform them whether that particular tool or strategy will stay in their ‘toolbox’ for future use.

If something works, you keep it; if it doesn’t work, consider why (maybe the tool or strategy wasn’t implemented properly) and determine whether you will try again or toss that tool or strategy in the “not for me” bin.

It’s important to note that what works for one person or the “average person” may or may not work for you. You are a unique person. Embracing and implementing self-experiments allows you to figure out what works for you. And so, I am embarking on a self-experiment to treat my condition by making additional adjustments to both my training and my diet.

What does this look like? Well, I was told I pretty much need to do everything different!!

Over the past several years, no matter the program I was following, my strength/weight training has consisted of performing exercises using a higher rep range, anywhere from 4-25 reps per set depending on the type of exercise/movement. Outside of strength/weight training, I have incorporated various forms of cardio, including everything from low intensity walking to high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts on the spin bike, rowing machine, or elliptical trainer.

Essentially, my body acclimated to the type of stress produced by the type of training I had been doing. Therefore, I need to change my training to produce a different type of stimulus to elicit a different stress response.

My first training-related experiment will be to adjust my workouts so that all of my work sets will be in the 1-3 rep range, and I will have long rest periods in between each work set. For example, this week I will work up to heavy doubles for my primary movement, and then I will do 10 work sets of 2 with a 2:30-3-minute rest in between sets. I will perform warm-up exercises, mostly consisting of what used to be accessory lifts) using bodyweight only movements or very light weight, and I will limit all cardio to very casual walking (keeping my heart rate below 120 bpm). I will still go to yoga when it works with my schedule. Basically, I am trying to do what I can without taxing or overstressing my body.

With regard to my diet…well, I’m starting something new TODAY. For the next 30 days, I am going to try something that is a little “out there”, and I will post an update in a couple of weeks with more detail about what I’m doing and how it’s going. I’ve successfully experimented with my diet in the past in order to identify food sensitivities. Experimenting with my diet has allowed me some pretty cool insights about what works for me and keeps my digestive system ‘happy,’ so I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn from this. I’m following a diet that other females, with a similar history, have used to successfully heal their amenorrhea. I figure I have nothing to lose…at the end of 30 days, I’ll reassess and make my decision based on the data I’ll obtain—I’m tracking weight, energy, gut/digestive symptoms, sleep quality, training performance, and, of course, whether I have a monthly cycle over the upcoming 4 weeks.

If you’re looking to begin your own self-experiment and want to set yourself up for success, check out the tips below:

SELF-EXPERIMENTATION TIPS

  1. State your target behavior in specific, objective, and measurable terms.A good way to assess whether your target behavior passes this criterion is to share it with someone else. If you said that you wanted to “improve running performance”, would someone else know what you mean? Probably not. You can make this more specific and objective if you record “the amount of time it takes, in minutes and seconds, to run 1 mile.”
  2. Create a tracking system to record your data. I have a workout log to keep notes related to all things related to my training, and I use MyFitnessPal to record everything related to my diet. You might also create a computer spreadsheet or use a simple notebook.
  3. Collect “baseline” data on your target behavior. This is SO important if you want to objectively evaluate change, but most people skip this phase and jump into the “intervention” phase wherein they implement their action plan and try to make the desired change. I understand the ‘excitement’, but if you can hold off for a few days or a week, you’ll thank yourself. Trust me!
  4. Use baseline data to inform your intervention (action plan). The intervention is whatever you believe will evoke a change in your target behavior. You will ideally generate your intervention using the knowledge you have about your body/situation and any relevant, existing research and evidence. What do you believe will directly influence your behavior? Does any existing research or evidence exist to support the intervention you want to try?
  5. Implement your intervention and continue to track your behavior and record data. Assuming an intervention will work, no matter how well informed it is, will often backfire. How will you know if your plan is or is not working? Continuous recording is necessary for identifying behavioral patterns and trends over time. If your initial action plan fails, you will have useful data to guide whatever you try next.
  6. Examine your data. I always recommend tracking data in a visual format. If you can, use graphs. You will be able to see whether a meaningful change occurred between your baseline and intervention phases. If what you did worked, keep doing it; if it didn’t work, consider why (maybe the tool or strategy wasn’t implemented properly) and determine whether you will try again or toss that tool or strategy in the “not for me” bin.
  7. Be willing to be curious. You can always repeat the step 1-5 with a new intervention! 🙂

“Greater psychological flexibility implies people have a willingness to change their action plan when it no longer serves valued ends or persist in important behaviors in the face of adversity.” (Moran, 2015, p. 26)

–Julie


Did you know? As a performance psychology coach trying to make a positive impact within the sports and fitness industry, I want to give all people the knowledge and tools necessary to take action toward their goals in a healthy way. I don’t offer “quick fixes” or suggest that the process is linear or easy. I’m realistic. The journey is not easy and sometimes you need to backtrack. In the end, I firmly believe the journey is worth it.

If you’re looking to make some small tweaks or a big change in 2018, I’d love to help guide you as you take the steps necessary to move in the direction of what’s important to you. Contact me, and let’s make it happen! Be patient during the journey but be impatient about taking the first step TODAY!!


 

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