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Monday 13 September 2021

Ninja Laser Robots Stole My Belly

Over the years, this blog has featured a veritable cornucopia of topics great and small. I've covered why babies are useless, the reasons hurricanes are over-rated, why radio astronomy is pretty, how there are no whales in Boston, and there has been many an over-lengthy monologue on why philosophy is awesome.

But there's one thing I've never said a word about, and that's fitness.

"But Rhys !" you surely say, "That's because physical fitness is about as interesting as a documentary about hippo vomit."

You're not wrong. While I do like walking up a good mountain, exercise for its own sake is abominably, frighteningly dull. I'm never going to munch on a carrot as a healthy snack because that is just all kinds of nasty. I'm not adverse to expending physical energy so long as it serves a clear, enjoyable purpose, like walking across a nice glacier or seeing a lovely solar eclipse. Or even just a good view of a bunch of trees. But simply expending energy for its own sake... urrrrgh, no ! That's as bad as deliberately choosing a kale smoothie when a perfectly good chocolate milkshake is available. It's just not me.

Now, back in the day I'd be walking the dog for a good hour each day. In Wales. Which is to say, a country where flat land is at a premium and you have to be very careful getting up each morning in case your house has fallen off a cliff. And since I didn't eat particularly much, I was probably closer to being described as "scrawny" rather than "normal".

For all sorts of reasons, this has shifted over the years. I've come to enjoy eating and (especially drinking) out, and the feasibility and terrain for dog walking has changed markedly. So very, very slowly, things have... enlarged.

Me last summer sinking into a black hole behind our institute, after eating too much goulash.

Last Christmas things reached a tipping point. At 81-82 kg, I was a good six or seven kg over a healthy BMI : not awful, but not good either. And I just didn't like the excess flab that was building up. Nobody said anything (hah, they wouldn't dare), I just didn't like it. So I decided to do something about it the only way I know how : obsessively and with technology. Which, coincidentally, is also literally the exact plot of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Though the end results are quite different.

Prior to this I'd been discovering the wonders of virtual reality on my Oculus Quest. Having heard that such devices were being used for fitness, and finding that the training dojo in Vader Immortal could leave me sweating profusely, this seemed like a sensible way for me to go.

It also helped that Shirley bought me a TickWatch Pro for Christmas. With a built-in heart monitor, it can track your heart rate and calories burned during any sort of exercise program you care to try. Why does this matter ? Because then you have data. And you can very easily monitor data in a way you otherwise can't for physical appearance. You have quantifiable, measurable, objective goals you can either meet or miss.

See, a lot of people I know go running or whatnot (BORRRING !) to lose weight, but, with one or two notable exceptions, I can't say I've ever noticed any change. And I knew full well that if I tried to do something really dull with no obvious, visible benefits, I'd pack it in in about twenty minutes. But give me some objective numbers to follow, and the lack of immediate reduction in the protruding gut might not have me throwing in the towel after a week or two.

Meaningless counters aren't always so meaningless.

So, in the first week of January, with as much knowledge of fitness as I have of snail physiology, I set about devising a daily exercise program. I began by deciding to monitor my weight systematically and as scientifically as possible. That is, I would only do so at the same time on the same day each week, to minimise natural variations. And I'd only do so once per week, avoiding the temptation of the sort of constant-checking-for-important-email-every-five-minutes to which I routinely fall victim*. I'd monitor my activity using my watch, recording the calories and average heart beat for each exercise session.

* Later, I did give in to this temptation, but I only graph the data weekly.

I started with a 30 minute session of Vader Immortal every lunchtime. The story element of the game doesn't involve much in the way of moving around, but the training dojo is another matter. This is under-rated as an exercise game, as you're kept moving rapidly around to hit targets from all directions and at different heights. There's a natural tendency to swing your arms forcefully even though you don't really need to, and the easiest move to avoid getting hit is (by far) to squat or duck. You can minimise this by making the smallest movements possible, but only to a certain extent - and you can't escape the need for speed. So although not really designed for it, it's definitely useful.

This is from the third game, but I find the one in the first game the most challenging.

It must be said that this is terrific fun. You start with the same primitive training drone that Luke starts with under Obi Wan's tutelage, then progress to a whole series of robots firing laser and wielding lightsabres of their own. You get the characteristic "hmmmmmm" and "pssssshhhhh ! sounds and some nice haptic feedback to convince you you're holding a proper laser sword. And things generally respond as well as is physically possible given that they have no physical substance. It's a simple game, but in terms of quality I would rate it AAA.

"And this is gonna help me defeat the Empire ?" "No, I just thought you were looking a bit tubby."

Initially the 30 minute session was more than enough for me. That was about as much as I could comfortably handle.

Over the first three weeks my weight seemed to be going down very promisingly, dipping under 80 kg. I had no preconceived idea as to how fast this should be, but this felt great ! For a miniscule time commitment to doing something I actively enjoyed, things were dropping very nicely.

I began to very gradually increase the intensity and duration of the sessions. After four weeks I increased the length to 40 minutes and started on more challenging levels (the dojo has 40). The calories I burned went from ~300 to 400 per session. Yet, despairingly, my weight seemed to level off at a bit over 80 kg. After five weeks, this was very unsatisfying.

Crucially though, I enjoyed what I was doing. I was having a lot of fun blasting stuff with a lightsabre. So I didn't stop the process - I escalated it. 

I really like VR archery games, so I bought one called Holopoint that's specifically recommended for getting a workout (the much more popular Beat Sabre doesn't appeal to me - I found the demo a bit lifeless and I don't understand what the hype's about). Like Vader, Holopoint involves hitting targets coming at you from all directions - but there's a good deal more movement involved. Each time you shoot a target, it explodes and fires a projectile straight at you, forcing you to immediately either sidestep, duck, or otherwise swerve out of its way. This naturally encourages you to keep in motion at all times, so that the projectile is aimed at somewhere you've already moved from. You can't shoot and then fire, you need to fire while already moving. And the area in which you can move is very much larger than in Vader Immortal.

These extremely crude graphics recently got a massive overhaul. It now looks a lot less cartoonish and more detailed, without being distractingly detailed.

Like Vader, you get a variety of targets, from simple cubes to samurai warriors and annoyingly sneaky ninjas. The virtual world doesn't have the physicality that Vader does, but it's again simple, easy to learn - and demands a whole other level of strenuous exercise. In Vader you squat and swing your arm. In Holopoint, you're going a bit mental.

It must be said that Holopoint is at first very frustrating indeed. Initially, I could play it for maybe 20 minutes before I was just too exhausted to continue - and I'd feel the effects for hours afterwards. Getting past level 6 is pretty darn tough, and reaching level 16 took frickin' ages. The hardest part to learn is how to rapidly load and fire consistently, and in the first few days I was extremely irritated by constantly fumbling at a critical moment. Oh, and you only get two lives per level, and checkpoints are limited, so if you foul up you can't just try again immediately. By design, this game is difficult. At times, this does become annoying.

But it works. My calories burned went to 400, 500 per session. Six weeks in I switched from a hybrid Vader-Holopoint combo to pure Holopoint, increasing the duration to 50 minutes. Calories burned became 600-700. My average heart rate stayed at a steady 130 BPM, although looking back over the records things got a lot more consistent. I learned how to move in such a way that things became more unconscious and less tiring.

(Later on, I also started jumping and squatting in response to specific targets. This definitely helps, as does deliberately trying to play as though things were much more urgent than they were, e.g. shooting targets as though they would explode more quickly than they actually do. Of course, you can also dial Holopoint back and play with much smaller body movements - the flexibility is a very nice feature. I play using flexible "rules" of my own : if I start feeling exhausted, or I'm in danger of losing a level, I reduce the intensity.)

By the middle of March, though, I was still 79.5 kg. But no matter, I was having fun. I continued to increase the intensity and duration. Whereas at first 20 minutes would have left me exhausted for hours, now I could manage a full 60 minutes and recover faster. So I was optimistic that something was improving, even if the flab wasn't falling as fast as I would like.

Around this point I decided I should graph my weight :

It's a fallacy that the vertical axis should always start from zero.

Which was both good and bad news. Just from reading the list of numbers I'd had no real clear idea of the overall trend - it was hard to say if I was seeing a genuine steady decrease, or just fluctuations in the noise. The graph made it inescapable : things were heading in the right direction. Slowly, perhaps, with an average loss of 0.15 kg per week, but nevertheless steady and continuous. I'd been initially fooled by the sharp post-Christmas drop (look at those first three points !), but overall things were positive. And it was probably a good thing I waited this long to graph it, because it's only at around week 12 that the trend starts to become really clear. Before that, things would have looked a lot more ambiguous. This clear decrease was a big morale boost, and I was very surprised by just how darn linear it was.

Still, this felt very slow. If you Google stuff like VR fitness, you'll find all kinds of outlandish anecdotal claims about massive weight loss that seems more on a par with what you'd expect from amputation than exercise. Maybe some of them are even true, but I wasn't experiencing such huge improvements.

Two key things, however, were that I could monitor everything, and I was still very much enjoying the process. Being able to show that I was indeed expending significant amounts of energy doing an activity that I was both good at and enjoyed was hugely important in continuing.

So in mid April I upped the ante dramatically, adding a 40 minute session in the morning in addition to my lunchtime hour*. And that made the world of difference. Having stalled on Holopoint's level 27 for the longest time, I managed to complete the full 30 waves - at first by luck, but then it started to become routine. I made the top 10 on the scoreboard, the best result I've ever achieved in any game ever (I'm currently number 5). And I increased the morning run to a full hour. Then I really started to notice the difference : where 20 minutes had once left me feeling dead for the day, now two hours was no burden at all. My average heart rate during the sessions increased to 140 BPM and I was burning 700-800 (even 900 on occasion, though that was overdoing it) calories each time.

* With hindsight, I could have increased the intensity/duration a lot more rapidly than I actually did, but the advantage of doing it so slowly was that I barely noticed any increased difficulty.

I also started Googling stuff. It seems that it does take a while for the effects of exercise to filter through - it takes time to both lose the weight and increase muscle strength. While in some sense it's simple (more energy consumed = more weight lost), in others it's not : muscles have to heal, which requires gaining weight initially. And while it seems that actually lighter exercise is more efficient at burning fat, the total amount of fat burned (which is what's relevant) it always higher in more intense exercise. Different levels of intensity consume different proportions of fats or sugars, but in terms of weight loss and sheer amount of fat burned, more is always more. 

Basically the mantra seems to be, "do as much as you can, as often as you can, as hard as you can - but no more than that". At one point I found that I'd reached a point of too much intensity, where things were so tiring I'd simply have to stop - consequently I'd burn less calories than a longer, gentler, more fun session. So I dialled it back a notch, sticking with a steady pace I could happily maintain rather than a more demanding one that I couldn't.

This worked. My weight began to fall very much more rapidly :

Around week 25 I thought things might be plateauing, but this was just the effect of statistical variations. It's really important to remember that one can hardly see week-by-week changes, but recording the data is essential for discerning long-term trends. Also, I noticed no pattern in the weekly wiggles whatsoever - the human body is just darn complicated, so trying to ascribe a particular cause to any given data point (e.g. "it must have been that pizza I ate") is a fool's game, and one would do well to avoid it.

During all this I'd made minimal changes to my diet - and I really do mean minimal. I'd eat one toastie for lunch instead of two. I'd eat a couple less snacks. I'd drink a bit more juice. And honestly, that's it. No kale smoothies. No munching carrots. No replacing bacon with broccoli. And of course, no deadly dull morning runs, or gym subscriptions, or anything really horrible like team sports (urrggh !). Just doing an activity that I enjoyed when and for as long as I enjoyed it.

If I can do it, then dear reader, I assure you that you can do it do. Maybe it's more efficient to lose weight by changing your diet, but that isn't going to work for me. The better solution for me may be less efficient, but so what ? It's one I can actually do and actively want to do instead of feeling like a chore. I don't wanna kick a ball around. I wanna shoot robots and ninjas. I don't want to feel like I'm doing exercise, I want to do something I'd enjoy anyway. Get that right and the rest is easy.

So efficiency can go hang. The point is to expend as much energy as possible, not expend as much energy as fast as possible. As pointed out somewhere, it takes the same amount of energy to get from A to B by walking as by jogging. Sure, jogging is faster, so you can burn up the energy more quickly, but if it's so tiring that you won't do it at all, it's far better to walk. 


At week 22 I hit a just-about-healthy BMI according to the NHS. I'd also dropped a jeans size. Not until week 32 did I hit a perfectly healthy BMI level, however. Had I upped the exercise routine earlier, I could probably have hit my target a couple of months earlier without too much bother.

From my smartwatch app, my initial exercise routine looked like this :

30 minutes of Vader Immortal's training dojo. It felt intense at the time.

My latest routine (of which I try to do two each other workday ) looks like this :

About 40 minutes of Holopoint and then 20 minutes of Ninja Legends, which I've just recently discovered. I note that my watch's accuracy isn't perfect, and spikes which are anomalously high or low are quite common.

Eventually I'd like to reduce this back to an hour a day, or ideally every other day. Currently it's twice every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (my home office days) and once on Tuesdays and Thursdays (weekends are rest days, which are important). This means I don't get as much time for blogging or other free activities as I'd like, which is a bit of a burden.

Finding the sweet spot, the equivalent of neutral buoyancy, is a challenge. In the last few weeks a variety of factors beyond my control (pulling a muscle in my side, the light breaking in the hallway - which messes up the Quest's tracking - the need to avoid exercise after vaccination) conspired to reduce my routine significantly. Yet overall, the trend kept going down just as steeply. Exactly how this works is hard to say, and nutrition, I've learned, is darn complicated. One of the interesting things that everyone seems to agree on is that the lost weight escapes, just like a car or a plant, through breathing, and a little bit through pee. Which is to say you can't try and poop yourself thin - either your exercise/diet is working or it isn't.

Annoying, when after I returned from my holiday I'd gained 3.5 kg back, despite walking the dog each day, though I did also indulge heavily in much-missed British snacks. I regret nothing. Still, the search for a sustainable minimum continues.

Let's finish with a word on economics. A full-price Oculus Quest version 1 cost ~£400. Gym prices in the UK seem to be around £20 per month, so £240 per year. In the Czech Republic things are (surprisingly) more expensive, with £360 yearly being more typical. The Quest 2 is also substantially cheaper at £300. So purely as a replacement gym - if all you want to do is lose weight and don't care about lifting heavy objects - the Quest is competitive. Factor in that you can use it whenever the hell you want, don't have to deal with other human beings, and of course it can do an awful lot more than just exercise games, and it becomes a thoroughly good investment.

My take-home messages :

  • Losing weight is difficult. It's a long, arduous process. If you don't find a method you continuously enjoy, it isn't going to work. For me that's fighting through wave after wave of ninja laser robots. For you it might be making a tastier salad. Go with whatever works.
  • By the same token, efficiency is over-rated. Like the Orion nuclear pulse propulsion drive, waste isn't always important if you've got plenty to throw away. I can sustain battling ninjas indefinitely, and that's more important by far than the fact that guzzling kale smoothies would probably be a lot faster.
  • Do not worry too much about weekly variations. It's the trend that's important, and you're not going to be able to discern that until at least two months in, unless of course you're doing a much better job than I did.
  • You now have a good economic health-based justification for buying that fancy VR headset you've always wanted. You're welcome.

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