Data overload

I am weary of all this nutty data we seem obligated to collect. In med school, when you didn’t know what to do about a patient, you just dug deeper and collected more data. Which is why medical students write the longest notes in the hospital chart and document everything from the psychosocialsexual history to the details of a bunionectomy on a routine ER visit for the common cold — all on the theory that more information is better, even if they don't know what to do with all that information. The attending cardiologist who was my mentor in Residency and one of the smartest docs I know would typically write her hospital Progress Notes succinctly: “Breathing improved. Exam normalized. Home soon.” Less was definitely more.

I made hard cider this year after an abundance of apples grew on the small orchard in my back yard. I had even bought a hydrometer and measured the starting specific gravity to be able to calculate the precise alcohol content, but when the cider was fermented and tasted pretty good, I decided the hydrometer was irrelevant. My brother Paul, who liked my cider, asked what the alcohol content was. My answer was, “Don't know it, but I do know that if I drink one glass of it, I feel completely normal; if I drink two, I feel a little buzzed and sleepy — which is exactly the same thing with Budweiser.” I may be a lightweight, but isn’t that a more meaningful measure of alcohol content than some number?

Exercise has fallen into the same data trap. It’s not just a four-mile run, but now there’s the peak heart rate and caloric burn that people chart electronically and measure against their peers online, or try to extrapolate to a VO2max. I admit that I, too, got a watch and started charting data, but when I wore the thing playing tennis and was more concerned with my heart rate than whether I was having fun, I decided that I’d had enough. After all, do I really need a fancy gadget to tell me when I am getting exhausted and sweaty or if I'm enjoying myself?

A friend of mine and his wife were trying to have a baby but were having trouble conceiving. He switched to boxers, and they changed their diet. No luck. Then they did what every medical student does when in doubt: gather more data. They studiously measured and charted her body temperature and when they calculated — based on their charts and graphs — that she was ovulating, well, my friend left work early and the phone calls went to voicemail. When my friend emerged a few days later, he looked exhausted, eyes sunken and with bags under them. “Who knew that I would ever consider it hard, painstaking work, trying to make a baby. It’s not so much fun,” he said. After a few months, they gave up on the temperature charts and trying to time conception activities and stopped worrying. They eventually had a baby. I’m guessing (but I didn’t ask) that it was more fun the old-fashioned way.

Well, now that it’s January, we have finally finished with the seasonal weight-gaining, overeating, stomach-aching, acid indigestion, I-can’t-believe-I ate-the-whole-thing time of year. And that's when people start exercising again. Many will take out their Christmas gift watch with heart rate monitors and start measuring and charting their caloric burns, their peak and average heart rates. I say nuts to that. Put away the heart rate monitor and just go out and have fun. Play in the snow. Hike. Ride a stationary bike in front of a Netflix series that your spouse doesn’t want to watch. And in the spirit of doing it the old-fashioned way, make sure it is fun.



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