After years of lunchtime, weekend and evening studying, I finally got to a point where I could really go all-in with my fitness routine. What that meant was reading fitness and weight training magazines, finding out as much as I could about different movements I could do and getting advice from real-life bodybuilders (Mr Universe no less) on how I could amend my diet to get the right amount of protein, carbs and fats in order to shape the body I wanted.
At one point, I even had a personal trainer who gave me a muscle toning and building routine.
It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t looking to compete as a bodybuilder or even have the associated aesthetics. I just wanted to build a bit of muscle and change my body composition to be leaner. The minute I had started working in a job where I was sat down all day, well, the inevitable happened. I was no longer a carrot I was a pear.
As part of this “all-in” attitude, I was writing down my workout routine – exercise done, number of sets, number of reps. In other words, tracking my progress by monitoring the increase in weight I could lift for a given rep range. I’d change the routine every few weeks, just like the pros did, and the hard work started paying off.
Then I did what so many of us do – I started using a tracker. It started with a food tracker (MyFitnessPal) so that I could find out what I was eating that was contributing to the desired results, then eventually I got a fitness band. Surely using an electronic tracker would tell me everything I needed to know, wouldn’t it?
Making Tracking Work For You
The thing with tracking food, heart rate, steps taken and so on, is that it only tells you what is and it’s so easy to get hung up on the numbers. What you really need is interpretation. What does it mean if I eat 2000 calories? What will 10000 steps do for me? What does 3 hours of light sleep mean?
We discussed last week about tracking what you are eating and how it makes you feel. By far that is the best way to not only learn to enjoy food but to also know which ones to cut out. A food tracking app should complement that initial tracking.
Food tracking apps, such as MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople, Calorie Counter and Noom all tend to focus on calories. It’s not the worst place to start, but it’s not the only thing you should look at. Focusing only on calories is where a lot of our excess baggage around health lies.
When you first start using a food logging app, do just that – log your food. Don’t worry about the calories just yet, what you need to know is what nutrients you are getting from the food you are eating at the current levels. Then you should be able to go back and see what macronutrients – fats, sugars, protein, starchy carbs – and fibre you are getting. That day you felt off – what spiked it? Too much sugar? Lack of protein? Overload of fatty foods?
The other aspect is whether you were hungry or not. This is where your calories can come in. Were you hungry because of not enough calories or because of the wrong kind?
The final element is what most of us use a food logging app for – weight change. I know that if I eat sugary foods or breads then I put weight on and particularly around my belly. Rice and potatoes are great for me though. (You see, carbs are not the enemy as they are vital for energy – no energy, no workout).
This is where you can use the details of your carbs-protein-fat ratio. (Bit of maths here but the apps do it all for you.)
Perhaps you are currently averaging over a week at 45% carbs, 25% protein and 30% fats. Perhaps you would be better at 50%-30%-20% or maybe 40%-30%-30%. Slight tweaks here and there will allow you to see the perfect combination for your body.
Of course, some days will still be different from others so that you can continue to indulge in the food that you love, no matter how it makes you feel, but it’s worth keeping to the weekly target ratio that you set. You may then want to look at calories, making sure you are getting adequate for the amount of activity you are doing, without falling into the food reward trap.
After a few months, don’t feel like you have to keep tracking everything. Although you’ve probably covered most of the foods you eat and it has become easier to add a meal, you should also be able to quickly assess what is or isn’t a good choice for you, and the amount that you eat.
My first fitness tracker was a Jawbone Up. I chose it because of the bracelet style and it had step counting, resting heartbeat and sleep monitoring. Eventually, I succumbed to the FitBit and I have to say, I’m pretty happy with it. Obviously, I like the step counting aspect of it but, in particular, I like that you can set it to prompt you to move throughout the day. That’s the main thing you should be doing. This “10,000 steps” business is not the be-all and end-all. What matters is that you do actually get some movement in your day and then build on it. If you’ve been sedentary for the majority of your life, the first step (if you’ll pardon the pun) is to find out how many steps you do in a day and work from there. Perhaps you’ll get to 10,000, perhaps not.
Also, perhaps you are already doing 10,000 steps a day but how fast are you doing them? Can you up the speed in any way? Can they be done in a shorter time period? Are you taking steps or is it some other movement? I’ve found that I float to the bathroom in the middle of the night (no steps recorded) but can get my hourly 250 target completed just by straightening my hair.
That is to say, they aren’t entirely accurate. Do you really want to be measuring your success entirely on your step count? Perhaps distance would be better, or time spent in fat loss or cardio zones regardless of the activity undertaken, which most fitness bands offer. Don’t get too hung up on that step number, but use it as a basis for steady progress. The likelihood is that if you have recorded 2000 steps, it’s a fairly sedentary day, but 10000 is more active. Aim to be just that bit more active the next day, and again look for weekly progression because every day can’t be a marathon day.
Oh, and make it fun whenever you can.
Admit it, the sleep tracking thing was what prompted you to buy that particular fitness tracker, wasn’t it? Because we are just obsessed with sleep these days.
Do we really need to track our sleep though? What function is it playing?
How often have you woken up and thought, “that was a really bad night” only to see that it is telling you that you got a good night’s sleep? ‘You score 90!’ Err, no.
What use can you find for it then?
Start by ranking your sleep manually – give it a mark out of 10. Then take a look at some of the details it gives you, such as the amount of time you have slept. After a few weeks, determine what your best sleep start and end times are, or the number of hours of sleep you need and aim to keep that regular.
Then ask yourself, “is all the other information really necessary?” I’ve found that if I have around 30 minutes of deep sleep then I feel more alert in the mornings and at around an hour I feel groggy, but what influence do I really have over that? Perhaps it can be useful for understanding what food choices I might make in a day.
The final thing around sleep tracking is that we obsess that we aren’t getting enough – but what is enough?
The key is, to put it into context. Find a balance between what the numbers say and how you feel. Then you will know you are on the right track. Your 2000 calories and 10000 steps will look different to someone else’s. And sleep? Well, let’s look at that next week.
Have you found yourself focusing on the numbers too much and not on the outcomes? What trackers do you use? Let us know in the comments below.
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Until next time, remember, if the excess baggage is weighing you down, you can always leave it in lost luggage.