Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Why You Should Do Regular Blood Tests: Benefits of Blood Testing and Blood Tracking

Blood testing is one of the most powerful ways to know about yourself and your health. If you are tracking other aspects of your life, then I recommend tracking your blood too. Blood testing will tell you if you have a disease (or predisposed to one), how your organs are functioning, the effectiveness of medicines, supplements, or fitness regimes, or even if you are pregnant. Blood tests are quite easy and fast, and they provide a wealth of information.

Blood is a bodily fluid that handles several important biological functions. Like checking the oil to know a car’s engine, you can understand the state of your body and its organs by testing and examining your blood and its constituent parts.

While blood testing may come with a periodic medical check-up, they are often reserved for when you have a medical problem and need a more intensive evaluation for a disease. By contrast, I would argue that everyone should get their blood work done regularly and not exclusively when you are sick. Moreover, everyone should gain a basic understanding about what is blood testing and how to read lab results. Your blood tests can help you optimize for wellness and performance. You should consider tracking your results too.

For me, as a self-tracker, understanding my blood and blood testing are logical extensions of a more comprehensive regime to track my health, productivity and life. Blood testing is a form of professional manual tracking. They aren’t hard, but unlike other forms of passive or manual tracking, blood tests require professional equipment, time, and money.

Blood testing can cost as little as 20-50 dollars to several hundred dollars depending on the specific tests. Personally I get my blood tests a few times a year, including at least one comprehensive health panel per year. I use various DIY blood testing services like Life Extension.

Unfortunately, like much of the medical space, blood testing can feel highly professionalized and difficult to understand for the layperson. This is unfortunate since blood testing results shouldn’t be the domain of experts nor exclusively used when you are unwell. In fact, blood tests should be something any health-conscious person can get done regularly and can easily learn to understand.

In this series of posts on blood tracking, I want to look at a range topics related to blood and how it can be used to help self-trackers and people in general understand their health.

Admittedly this is a topic that can get pretty technical. Even getting started tends to unravel into a new vocabulary and obscure acronyms. I’ll do my best to approach an explanation of blood testing step by step and cover the essentials and most useful aspects.

My emphasis is on how to use blood testing as a measurement for getting feedback on your body and yourself. I want to use blood testing as a framework for being “data-driven” in your health decisions and health tracking.

Here is the plan: First, in this post, we will look at why you should do get regular blood tests and some of the basic aspects of blood testing. In later posts, we will be examining some of the best blood tests, how to read your initial results and how to track your blood work over time. While the main focus will be some of the most common blood tests, I will highlight a few specific blood biomarkers and blood tests (like Vitamin D and Homocysteine) that are particularly beneficial. Finally we will look at some resources and steps you might use to create a data-driven process around your blood testing, your health changes and lifestyle improvements.

Let’s get started by looking at what is blood and blood testing.

Types of Self Tracking: Passive vs Manual Tracking

There are a lot of different ways to track and quantify your life. Before getting overwhelmed by all the kinds of tracking and even the time it might take to setup, let’s first categorize the types of tracking.

Broadly speaking, you can separate tracking into two categories: passive tracking and manual tracking. You can then separate the types of manual tracking according to the effort, time and/or professional equipment required to measure something.

In general, the best form of tracking is passive tracking, but there are several examples of both simple manual tracking and more intensive manual tracking that are worth the effort and provide extremely valuable insights.

We shouldn’t forget though that tracking itself is just the first step in a process to become data-driven and, ultimately, to optimize your life. Don’t just track. Use it to make better decisions and changes.

We can breakdown tracking into three categories: passive tracking, minimally manual tracking and professional, manual tracking. The difference lies in the amount of on-going action required to track the thing and need for professional help or tools for measurement.

Running in Koh Tao: Where to Run and Hike on This Diving Paradise?

Are you heading out to the diver’s paradise of Koh Tao, Thailand, but not sure about keeping up your running?

I recently spent about a month in Koh Tao, Thailand, a small rocky island in the Gulf of Thailand, and I would summarize running options in Koh Tao as: running along the roads, lots of hills, hot and humid conditions, and don’t be afraid to get wet.

In spite of its small size, there are a few routes for running and hiking on Koh Tao. It’s not ideal running situation, but with nice beaches on all sides, it’s easy to end any run with a swim. My best advice: prepare for some steep hills!

Finding My VO2 Max: Running and the Pursuit of Measuring Improvement

How fast am I right now? What is my physiological running capacity? What about my running efficiency? How am I running?

These were some of the questions I was asking myself as I stepped into the Singapore Sports Medicine Clinic. I was there for my first VO2 Max Test. I was more curious than nervous for what is essentially a maximal effort running test on a treadmill with a mask attached to your face. I looked a bit like Bane from Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the reality was that like any assessment or race, a few butterflies were in my stomach knowing that I would be pushing myself close to a physical limit.

What is VO2 Max? VO2 Max was one of the oldest measurable aspects of sport physiology yet it continues to be used today. A form of VO2 was tested and used by Edmund Hillary and his team before first climbing Mount Everest and during the lead-up to Roger Bannister’s epic four-minute mile. Nike’s Breaking2 Team used VO2 Max in the battery of tests during their attempt at breaking a sub-2-hour marathon.

In short, VO2 Max is your maximum-oxygen-processing capacity. It’s a number that varies from athlete to athlete depending on the level of cardiovascular fitness, but at its core VO2 Max represents your current fitness level.

How is VO2 Tested? While there are a few different ways to estimate your VO2 Max, the most common way to determine your VO2 Max is a sport lab test. With a mask attached over your nose and mouth, you progressively increase your running speed on a treadmill until your oxygen exchange rate no longer increases (or you can no longer go faster). You capture this data point at maximum exertion.

In this post I want to share a bit about what is VO2 Max, my lab test and results and a few conclusions and lessons learned.

The Data-Driven Weekly Review: How to Use Data and Self-Reflection for Iterative Improvements

Weekly Review 2.0: Of all my habits and routines, writing a weekly review is one of my favorite and most productively beneficial.

A “Weekly Review” is a period of time you set aside each week to pause and take a higher level look at your projects and tasks. In contrast to your doing and working mode, a weekly review is a reflective one. It’s about checking-in on how things are going, dealing with the mess, organizing it all and planning the future.

Each week I set aside about 30 minutes to take a step back. I see how things went during the previous 7 days. I pull out some key data points and write down my key takeaways. Then I set some objectives and mental visualizations for the week to come. Great weeks and shitty weeks happen, but the war is often won in finding consistency in your forward momentum. This is the power of the weekly review.

As I’ve become more and more focused on self-tracking and data collection, my weekly reviews have become increasingly data-driven.

In this post, we are going to look at the basics of what is a weekly review and using your tracking data to improve how you can do your weekly review. The goal is to make your weekly reviews data-driven. I’ll share my simple recipe using Google Form, Google Sheets, Zapier and Evernote to collect and log your data, to calculate and compare your trends and, finally, to generate a weekly review template for high-quality reflection and writing.

Export Your Apple Health Workouts to Your Calendar

DIY Workout Dashboard: Calendars can be much more than a tool for your appointments and time management. By pulling in workouts you track, your calendar can become your data-driven dashboard to health and fitness too.

As we looked at in detail in Calendar as a Self-Tracking Tool: How Visualize Your Life and Quantified Data, there are various tracking data that you can link to your calendar. We can pull in your movements, your cycling and running sessions and your tracked time. These data points let you see an overview of your goals inside one of the tools you use the most: your calendar.

Let’s add one more data point to our data-driven, tracking-aggregating calendars: your logged workouts from Apple Health.

This post is a simple recipe about how to export all of your workouts logged in iOS, import them into Google and display them in your calendar. If you are logging your workouts in iOs (and your really should be!), then it’s quite easy to bring this into your calendar.

How to Unpack

Unpacking is just as important as packing when it comes to long-term, productive travel.

There are a lot of articles that talk about how to pack when you travel. Whether you are a hardcore minimalist or pack for a combination of work and play, these guides aim to provide tips and best practices. The aim typically is to pack light for freedom and mobility, but pack enough so you have the essentials and can enjoy experiences. The emphasis is high quality, versatile gear.

But what about about unpacking? As a long-time traveler, I find that unpacking is just as important as how you pack. I regularly bounce between two or three cities and/or countries per month. That means a lot of hotels, AirBnBs, logistics and, of course, packing and unpacking.

Sure, it’s great that you have the latest luggage for minimalist travel and have this great method to get everything in the bag, but once you arrive at wherever you are staying, you want to feel right. That means unpacking right.

You can improve your travel by unpacking in a positive, organized and “homely” way. From my nearly a decade of constant travel, I want to share some my insights on the “art” of unpacking. This includes my “philosophy” around packing and unpacking as well as some actionable tips to make your stay anywhere a bit better.

Calendar as a Self-Tracking Tool: How to Visualize Your Life and Quantified Data

Calendars can be great self-tracking tools. While we typically use our calendars to plan things in the future and organize our day-to-day, calendars also provide a portrait of things we did in the past. Moreover, if integrated with some of our other tracking data (productivity, location, exercise, etc.), a calendar can become a comprehensive dashboard about our life.

Calendars and the time-management aspects of calendars are also a key tool for being productive and organized. Once your calendar is a dedicated tool for scheduling and planning, it also becomes a great life log too.

But appointments and meetings aren’t your only time-connected data. Essentially anything that is tracked and happens in time becomes more meaningful if visualized in the context of our calendars. This can include our health data like steps and workouts, but can also include our various computer usage data too.

In this post, we are going to look briefly at a few tracking services and how we can integrate them into your calendar. We will specifically be looking at Google Calendars, but most of these integrations work for Outlook and iCal too.

It’s time to go beyond thinking about your calendar as a planner and record of your events and appointments and to transform your calendar into a self-tracking tool, a life logging, visualization tool.

Productive Calendar Usage: Using Your Calendar for ‘Getting Things Done’

We all use our calendars to mark off meetings, events, due dates, and appointments. At its most basic, anything with a date and time should go in our calendar or agenda. Whether it’s a physical, paper calendar or its digital equivalent, a calendar is one of the important organizational, productivity tools.

Along with a dependable filing system for information and a good task manager, a calendar can help you work better. By having a process for organizing and managing your calendar, you can lower your stress, stay on task and gain more work-life zen.

For the modern, digital worker, if we exclude relationships, there are three key areas that we all struggle to manage effectively: information, tasks and time. We get stressed out dealing with information overload and distractions. We struggle to get a grip on all of our To-Do’s, priorities, projects and what’s next’s. And we all at some point feel like we don’t have enough time to get everything done. Everything is competing for our limited resources of time and energy, and we feel like we run out of time

Improving how we deal with our information, tasks and time can significantly improve our work and personal lives. While total mastery might be the goal and even if we can’t get there, we can get better. We can improve our processes and better equip ourselves to deal with these challenges.

The three cornerstones of a productivity toolkit are managing information, managing tasks and managing time.

In this post, I want to share how I manage my calendar. Specifically within the context of how things in general and specifically how I manage tasks and information already. For productive calendar usage the focus is on how I process time-dependent tasks, i.e. meetings, appointments, travel, etc. as well as how I structure and organize my time productively.

The First Quantified Self Tracker: A History of Weighing Scales From 17th Century Weighing Chair to Today’s Smart Scales

While self-tracking and the quantified self might seem like one of the most modern of practices, its origins date back to the 1500s and a group of Italian scientists. Galileo Galilei might have emerged as the most well-remembered, but it was his contemporary and friend Santorio Santorio who might best lay claim to the title as one of the world’s earliest quantified self trackers or a person who attempts measures his life to understand it.

Born in 1561, Santorio Santorio was dedicated to a quantified approach to medicine, which focused on measurement and experimentation over tradition and dogma. He was an inventor and contributor to two of the most measured areas of our daily lives: our weight and our temperature.

Personally, he was obsessed with measuring these and other areas in order to understand the process that made the human body “tick,” specifically perspiration (sweating) and metabolism (digesting food into energy). Through simple but consistent measurements, Santorio made the profound observation that the amount he ate and drank didn’t correlate with his feces and urine.

Santorio was obsessed with measuring stuff. His goal was to try and understand himself and various human systems through consistent measurements and observations.

By contrast, much of the history of weighing stuff was out of commercial necessity. Weighing scales, specifically the balance scale, date back to some of the earliest human civilizations. As trade increased, merchants needed ways to assess the value of irregular shaped objects, include precious metals like gold. If you couldn’t accurately measure things, you couldn’t do business.

In this post, I want to look at the history of weighing scales and its evolution from a mode of business and trade to a tool for scientific measurement and finally today’s smart scale. We will look at the different types and ways to measure weight as well as look at Santorio’s weighing chair as an amazing example of how to measure a life. Hopefully this story and quantified self tracker will inspire you to measure your life.