One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around when I started to lose weight was how to actually do it. When the time came to get down to business and start losing the chub, I was lost before I even started. The Diet Craze was in full effect during that time so honest, useful information was tough to come by.
I learned a lot of what I know about health from the magazine Men’s Health. I have not read it in a while but, when I was, it was a veritable trove of great eating tips, sound nutrition advise, and good ideas for new exercises. I would read each issue cover to cover and use what I learned at the gym and at the restaurant. The constant barrage of biceps and six-packs did nothing for my self-esteem but the filling snacks and stretching techniques more than made up for it.
One of the things I learned from Men’s Health was the concept of keeping track of things. Losing weight is just a numbers game – calories consumed, calories expended – and without a system to keep track of these numbers, you’re losing essential motivation and valuable information. Trust me on this one; creating a system to keep track of everything you do related to your fitness and weight loss gains is worth every second you spend perfecting it.
There are three types of tracking you’ll want to do, especially when you first start: caloric intake, exercise, and general statistics. The big pain in the ass on that list is caloric intake, a topic I’ll cover in a future post (it’s safe to say that it played a major part in my weight loss then, now, and forever). The other two, general stats and exercise, can be combined together to make things easier. I made a simple fitness tracking spreadsheet you can use (it’s got all my data so you can see how I use it).
What you track is up to you and depends on what you’re doing. I recommend, at minimum, tracking the following:
- daily weight
- body fat (if you have a scale that can do it.. less than $100 and worth it)
- measurements (I have waist, chest, legs… this is pretty typical)
- weight lifting (yes or no is fine)
- cardio (I would include some kind of quantitative measurement that you can watch improve… distance, calories, time)
- notes (record your accomplishments)
For me, the more I track, the better. I read a great Wired article on personal data and got really excited that other people found this stuff interesting. I track my sleep and how often I drink as well because these are both things I’m trying to improve.
Why track all this crap?
This is a valid question with an easy answer.
We are motivated by our accomplishments, period. Whether these accomplishments are selfish/shallow (how much money I made, how many things I have, how many dates I can get) or helpful/noble (how many people I’ve helped, how much money I’ve given away, how successful and healthy my children are), they are still accomplishments. We all love to see how well we do and how much better we can do.
So, how can we measure our success? Depending on the goal, this can be easy to do or hard to do. Tracking how much money I’m spending on my credit card and what I spend it on is easy; every transaction is saved and listed and I get a reminder of how responsible (or not) I am on a monthly basis. I’m assuming most people want this to decrease and, if so, it’s easy to see whether this is happening or not. Other more ethereal goals like “treating people better” or “increasing overall health” might be harder to trrack but you can still find a few things that you can keep track of to give you some kind of indication of how you’re doing.
But it’s not just data collection, right? Collecting the data not only shows you how well you’ve done but it also shows you how much better you could do. It keeps it right in the front of your mind. That goal you want to achieve is quantified and those numbers, if you pick the right ones, don’t lie. Want your weight to be lower next week? Well, you know what to do… eat less and get your ass in gear. Every choice can come down a number you want to affect.
Is this motivational? Damn straight it is. If you’ve never tried it, now is the time.
Tips and tricks for collecting data
- I think the real power of data comes when you can visualize it so graph that shit! I set my vertical axis to include my starting point and my goal so I don’t get an unrealistic view of the information. I also only graph the weekly numbers because those are the only ones that truly matter. You need a couple of weeks to make this worth your while.
- Weight data is easy; get a scale and weigh yourself in the morning, every morning. Weight can fluctuate 3-5 pounds for various reasons (food in your digestive system, water retention, etc) so don’t freak out about the daily number. Start taking a weekly average and track it that way. This is much more accurate and a much easier way to see if your weight is actually declining.
- Buy a scale that can track body fat. If you’re exercising a lot, particularly with weights, your fat content could be changing but your weight could be staying the same which will be frustrating. Check your body fat in the afternoon when you’re hungry and not right after working out. Check it the same way each time because this number can go all over the place. Check it regularly and take an average, just like your weight.
- If you run or walk, keep track of your distance. I bought a Nike+ and really like it because it makes the whole process very easy. If you don’t have the right iPod or don’t want to spend the money, just track it on Google Maps.
- If there’s something else that you attribute to good health, put it on there. Like I mentioned, I track the number of days I drink and how much sleep I get. You could add water consumption, nutrition rating (scale of 1 to 5 how well you ate that day), sugar consumption, whatever. Adding these things to the general spreadsheet, for me, keeps all my goals tied together and makes me feel very accountable.
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