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In a recent exchange in the comments section on a supposedly skeptical post about the Wim Hof Method, another commenter brought up the following argument:
Here’s another idea, and I know it sounds super crazy, TRYING IT FOR YOURSELF. I know this idea totally violates everything, I mean god forbid we try something and it doesn’t benefit us like it should. It doesn’t matter how carefully these experiments are performed, at the end of the day, everyone’s body responds differently and uniquely. Whether studies show that this works Great or works like S%$£, all that matters is how it works for you. Test it out yourself, if it works for you it works for you, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. F&^% experimentation by outside sources, be your own scientist. That is true badassery. Daniel Hernandez
The idea of Self-Experimentation, or N=1 if you want to be trendy, is an ever more popular concept, going hand in hand with the idea of the quantified self, and personalised diets, routines and supplement regimens, tailored specifically for the individual.
Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Now, maybe I’m just not badass enough, but I’m not totally sure trying every single diet, fitness and health trend for yourself is a sensible approach.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I am against self-experimentation.
On the contrary, I think self-experimentation is 100% essential, and I totally agree with Daniel that, at the end of the day, “all that matters is what works for you”.
Where I differ in opinion, is in the idea that we should forget outside sources, and simply rely on self-experimentation alone.
Rather than badassery, I think ignoring all the many hours of hard work and vast amounts of money invested in scientific study, and believing you can do a better job on your own, is perhaps better termed naivety.
Imagine if all our ancestors had relied solely on self experimentation.
Each time they went foraging in the woods, they’d just try the mushrooms for themselves to see how they effected them personally. Not a good recipe for survival. One of main the reasons for the success of the human race, is that we can learn from one another, and save ourselves the time/money/pain/hassle of having to try everything for ourselves.
This doesn’t mean there’s no room for self-experimentation with mushrooms. Perhaps you find some tastier than others, some are more worth the hassle than others to forage, some go better on pizza, others in risotto. What you want to avoid though is needlessly eating the ones that make you vomit until your intestines come out through your nose, or simply kill you on the spot. That’s the kind of N=1 experiment best left un-conducted.
Trying the latest training routine, fad diet, or nutritional supplement probably isn’t going to result in projectile vomiting or death (or will they?), but it could well result in a big waste of time and/or money.
Plot Yourself on Someone Else’s Graph
There are so many different diets, therapies, training modalities and so on out there, to try to test them all on yourself would take a lifetime, plus a small fortune to boot. Not really very practical.
Accepting that it’s not feasible to try every single intervention yourself, how do we go about deciding which ones are worth the effort? Random selection? Best marketing campaign? Most celebrity endorsements?
Personally, I’d rather let science inform my decision.
It’s true, science cannot tell you definitively “what will work for you”, or at least very rarely.
What it can tell you, however, is how likely something is to work for you. From here, you have a good starting point from where to begin your self experimentation.
If a study has been conducted with 10,000 people, and the intervention didn’t work for any of them, it’s probably a good bet that it’s not going to work for you either. This is IMHO the main reason for looking to the science first.
While science may not be so reliable for telling you what WILL work for you, it can certainly tell you what WON’T work for you.
If on the other hand, an intervention works for 9000 out of 10000, things are looking much more likely.
It’s still no guarantee – this is why self experimentation is so important. There’s a 1 in 10 chance that you’re going to be one of the unlucky ones. For this reason, you should never just mindlessly consume a product, or follow someone’s advice, because it’s “Proven by Science”.
On that subject – don’t forget, there’s an awful lot of Bad Science out there (I strongly recommend reading that book!).
When choosing what interventions to try on yourself, look for ones that have studies conducted on large groups of humans, with a double-blind placebo control group. Ideally, on humans from a similar demographic – i.e. gender, age, health, training experience, etc.
An intervention that works great for genetically engineered obese mice, doesn’t necessarily hold much promise for a fit, young, healthy person!
A Quick Guide to Effective Self Experimentation
In my opinion, N=1 Self Experimentation is essential, but it’s also very hard to do effectively.
As by the definition of N=1 you can’t have a control group and you can’t give yourself a placebo, it’s very hard to know if any perceived changes are due to the intervention, or are simply down to other factors outside of your control, or placebo.
One should also bear in mind that if you’re considering a permanent life change and/or doing something really out there, if it does turn out to have serious long-term side effects, it’s going to be too late!
Here are my top tips for getting the most out of turning yourself into a human guinea pig:
- Pick Something You Can Measure
- Try and Control Other Variables
- Always Use a Crossover Study Design
- Give yourself a Placebo?
- Compare Interventions
- Keep assessing
Hopefully fairly obvious, but worth stating nonetheless.
Body weight, body fat, resting heart rate, blood pressure, 1 rep max or max reps of a strength exercise, time trial for a set distance, etc.
Interventions that make claims such as “strengthen immune system” “boost energy” “enhance mood” etc are vague, wishy-washy claims that can’t really be measured, and are generally a sign that the intervention is pseudoscientific snake oil.
The exception to this, would be chronic pain. If you are suffering from some kind of chronic pain, be it knee pain, back pain or any other such affliction, it certainly warrants a good deal of experimentation to find a solution, but with caution!
The experience of pain is highly subjective, and also high receptive to placebo. It’s for this reason, after “self-experimentation” many people come to believe that a specific intervention, be it acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, or voodoo magic have “cured” them. In order to find what’s really going on, it’s even more important to follow the remaining guidelines to try to sift what really works, from random coincidence and/or placebo.
The classic scenario – Skinny dude has been working out for a while, but getting no results. Makes pals with a Gym Bro who tells him, come workout with me, and take this protein powder. Within a few weeks, Skinny Dude has gained a kilo and can start to see some delts and biceps forming.
Wow, this protein powder is really doing the trick he thinks – a new lifetime customer for “Big Supplement”.
The problem is though, Skinny Dude hasn’t taken into account the fact that he also changed how he was training when he hooked up with Gym Bro. He’s now training with frequency and intensity – two factors lacking from his routine before. In reality, it’s most likely these changes which have brought about the newfound gains, not the protein powder. That’s just coincidence.
Herein lies the main pitfall of N=1 experimentation. It’s nigh impossible to know for sure if it’s the intervention having an effect, or some other uncontrolled variable.
Sleep quality, changes in stress levels (be it emotional from work/relationships/financial etc or physical from sports/activities/physical labour), diet, illness, even the weather, can have positive or negative effects on health, well-being and performance.
Perhaps your deadlift has shot up 20kg over the last fortnight; “These new compression socks are amazing!” you proselytize to all your friends… but you’ve not taken into account that the baby has finally started sleeping through the night and you’ve been getting 8 hours of solid shut-eye for the first time in donkeys.
On the other hand perhaps you discount a new diet as ineffective as you’re feeling low in energy and flabby, but you’ve not considered the fact that it could be a highly stressful work situation which is actually taking its toll on your physical well-being.
Due to the fact that it’s basically impossible to control all the variables, you essentially have to act as your own control group.
Clearly you can’t test the intervention, and be a control at the same time, so you’ll need to do a crossover type design – i.e. test the intervention for x period of time, then stop the intervention for a period while continuing to monitor results, before returning to the intervention for a second time.
This step is essential, though perhaps the most difficult.
If you try an intervention, and it appears to be giving great results, to stop it and risk seeing the benefits disappear can be tough.
Equally, if an intervention appears to have been ineffective, or even counter productive, trying it for a second time may be a hard sell to yourself.
In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t actually bother with re-testing an intervention which didn’t appear to work after the first test, unless I came across new and compelling evidence of effectiveness from well conducted studies.
It is more important (IMHO) to re-test, and perhaps re-test again, interventions which appear to have “worked”, as we have an amazing capacity for fooling ourselves.
Creating effective placebos is a tricky business under any circumstances.
Trying to do a placebo control on yourself it going to be damn near impossible in the vast majority of cases.
Perhaps if you were testing a supplement, you could create a placebo by finding identical tablets/capsules/powder, that were indistinguishable in appearance, taste and calories, and getting a friend to administer them to you, so you didn’t know if you were getting the real thing or not.
Not exactly practical! Personally, that’s why I’d leave the science of such things to the professionals, and go by their results (which overall indicate that at best most supplements are a complete waste of money)
For other interventions, such as a training program, diet, physical therapy or so on, a placebo is going to be completely impossible.
Don’t despair, however, as actually this isn’t such a problem.
Placebos are important if we want to know if an intervention has an effect. What we are really concerned with, however, is whether or not it is effective, or better yet, the most effective option to achieve our goals.
A trick of drug companies (one of many) is to show the results of a new medication in comparison to a placebo.
In comparison to what is in reality an empty pill, any medication that has even a tiny effect is going to look great. To know whether a drug is worth prescribing/taking however, we must see how it compares to other drugs on the market, already known to work. Only if the new drug proves to have benefits over the established medications should it be considered a success.
The same is true for diet, exercise and physical therapies etc.
Changing from the typical highly processed junk food diet eaten by most people in the West today, to pretty much any other way of eating, is going to improve health and body composition. This is why we see such glowing testimonials for all ranges of diets – from paleo to vegan, low carb to low-fat. People quickly come to believe that their new diet is the one true diet to rule all diets, when in reality it was simply that they’ve changed from a truly terrible diet, to an OK diet.
If you put into Google “[Insert Diet Name Here] Testimonial” you will get something along the lines of:
Since I went [Paleo/Vegan/Low Carb/Mediterranean/South Beach/Petarian/IF] I’ve lost 10kgs and feel amazing. My energy levels are higher, my arthritis has stopped troubling me, and I haven’t had a cold or flu since. Everyone should go [Paleo/Vegan/Low Carb/Mediterranean/South Beach/Petarian/IF], it’s the best diet ever!*
*NB I did find a testimonial for veganism which said that butterflies now land on them, which I admittedly haven’t seen for any other diets
Now I’m very happy for all of the people who have changed their diet and now feel much better than they did before. Please, however, don’t go around shouting that you’ve found the one true diet for everyone when A) There are still lots of other diets out there you’ve not tried, and B) You have no idea whether the diet you’ve tried will have the same effects for someone else.
The same is true for different types of exercise –
A person goes from being a couch potato, to doing [Crossfit/P90X/Yoga/LatestFitCrazeTM] and they lose fat, build muscle, get stronger, more flexible and feel energised. They are now a convert for life (or at least until they get injured or bored), and want to tell the whole world they’ve found the best exercise program on the planet.
Now perhaps there’s nothing wrong with simply sticking with the first intervention you find to be successful.
If your aim was to lose weight, feel better, improve health and fitness, and your chosen diet and exercise program has done this for you that’s great.
Just don’t kid yourself, or attempt to convince other people, that you have found the “best” or the “only” way to achieve these goals.
Let’s say you really did find the most effective intervention for your goal at the time – either by trial and error, or pure blind luck.
It’s still important to keep making assessments of the effects of an intervention over the long-term because:
>Your goals/needs made change over time
>There may be unforseen long-term side effects
>Newer, more effective interventions may come to light
Diet A, for example, might be great for short-term rapid weight loss. Once you’ve reached a low-level of body fat however, Diet B might be more appropriate as it provides greater nutrient density to help support muscle growth and maintain health.
Training Program A may be fantastic in the off-season, but lead to over-training during competitive season.
Vitamin D supplementation might have been necessary while you were working as an IT consultant in Denmark through the winter, but now you’re a surf instructor in Bali probably not so much.
Just as you’ll find mountains of glowing testimonials for every diet, exercise routine, health and fitness fad out there, you’ll also find just as many horror stories of how Diet X left them undernourished and neurotic, training program Z over-trained and injured.
Avoid the trap of becoming dogmatic. When you find something that works, celebrate the fact, but always keep an open mind that the results may be temporary, and that in the future there may be other, better options to which you should switch.
So there’s my guide for effective N=1 experimentation. A brief recap:
- Pick something which has been shown to work for some people at least – don’t be a total guinea pig!
- Measure carefully, and do your best to control for other variables – only test 1 thing at once
- Even if you appear to be getting great results, stop, and test an alternative for a while to ensure said results aren’t placebo/coincidence/something else
- Once you are convinced of the effectiveness of an intervention, keep monitoring results, stay open to alternatives, and be aware that it may only be effective for you/at this specific stage. Don’t try to convince the whole world they should do it all the time!
So there we go. If you are a keen N=1 experimenter, I’d love to hear about your experiences, findings, or any extra tips you may have to add. Please add in the comments below!