Calorie counting doesn’t work, they tell you. It worked for me, but only because I am a CSI-minded person. If I get weird data, I keep researching and experimenting. I’m married to an aerospace engineer who is willing to humor me with the occasional statistical model. He’s taught me to think about emotional topics like weight loss in a more numbers-based, scientific way. One of the first precepts of this rational model is that when we record data, our instruments need to be reliable. This is where it gets interesting.
I started to notice that I had synced multiple apps to my food log, and it was logging redundant data from the same workouts. I would go on one walk, but I would get separate totals from my Apple Watch and from RunKeeper. I already knew not to trust the alleged calories burned from my workouts, so I tend to disregard those numbers. It took a while for any kind of insight to arise from this.
Then it hit me. People need to know. The number of calories burned that shows up on any kind of fitness equipment can be about as reality-based as the dollars that show up on a hospital bill. In other words, not very.
I set up an experiment. I worked out on my ancient, consignment-store treadmill for half an hour. I tracked it as an Indoor Walk on my Watch. I took photographs of the treadmill data. I logged the manual data into RunKeeper. Then I compared the three results.
Treadmill: 31:32 minutes, 2.081 miles, 361 calories.
RunKeeper: 31:32 minutes, 2.08 miles, 149 calories.
Apple Watch: 31 minutes, 1.86 miles, 163 calories.
Let me summarize. This is me, walking on the treadmill in my garage, and getting three sets of data for the same workout.
Just to make things clear as mud, here’s a fourth data point. MyFitnessPal says that walking 31 minutes at 4 mph burns 143 calories. (I have to set the treadmill at 4.0 mph in order to get my heart rate up enough to impress The Overlord).
I walk a lot, so I have more data points to add. A week or so earlier, I happened to take a walk outside that lasted 33:46 minutes. That includes waiting at the occasional crosswalk, walking uphill, wind conditions, and other variables such as non-workout clothes. It is, however, more reflective of my typical walking workout. RunKeeper says that 34-minute walk of 1.91 miles burned 137 calories. Apple Watch gives 31:12 minutes, 1.88 miles, and 103 calories for that same walk.
You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Or, maybe you can, but GOOD LUCK KNOWING WHAT THE TRUTH IS!
Okay, I think I have that out of my system. It’s actually more straightforward than it looks.
Compare my indoor and outdoor walks again. What I’m trying to do on the treadmill is to get my heartrate up enough to qualify as ‘exercise.’ Whatever it is about walking on the treadmill compared to walking on the sidewalk, I have to work much harder to get that digital green wheel moving. That’s why there’s roughly a 60-calorie difference in data generated by the same device for the same exercise (“walking”) over the same block of time. (It isn’t the same exercise, not really).
Metrics are just numbers. They only mean anything when we put them into a particular context. The standard model is to want to ‘check the box’ by showing up and doing at least some form of workout, and then, in the face of suboptimal results, being able to claim, ‘I’ve tried everything.’ We’ve only tried everything when we’ve full-on interrogated those data until someone alerts Amnesty International. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!
The most important thing I learned, in two years of tracking every metric I could think of, is that weight loss is both complex and complicated. We have to standardize our behavior patterns as much as we can, at least for a defined time period, so the trend lines start to emerge. I didn’t get the results I wanted for the first six weeks, but I was highly rigorous in my tracking, and I had a partner to do peer review of my results. I learned that if I ate approximately the same amounts of food at the same times of day, it became much easier to tease out the salient points. I learned that, at least on my tiny frame, exercise makes no discernible impact on whether I lose or gain weight. It’s completely about what I eat. If I knew I stood a chance of burning off a special treat, I would definitely do it, because I enjoy moving my body. There are at least a dozen types of workout that I like to do. I could just install a clamp on my elliptical to hold a quart of Soy Dream and tuck a napkin into my collar. Good times.
What I’ve learned is that the subjective elements are more important than the objective factors. I have the same tendency everyone else does, to overestimate the duration, intensity, and frequency of my workouts. I have the same tendency of everyone else in the world to underestimate how much I eat and how often. I have the universal tendency of treating my own Future Self like a poison enemy, sabotaging her life and expecting her to solve problems I’ve created for her. “Hey, Future Self! Have fun burning off this entire box of Thin Mints! Hahahaha! Oh, and by the way, I’m spending our retirement money on books!” What I don’t have is a tendency to care that much about body shaming. My physical appearance is largely irrelevant to me, and I don’t give a [FIG] how “the media” thinks I’m “supposed” to look. I’ve had a worse time getting flak from people since I lost my weight than in all the years I was fat, combined. I don’t care because being strong, fit, and healthy is worth more than not having other women glare at me and occasionally call me rude names. Subjectively, I like being lean more than I care about fitting in.
Objectively, I believe it is possible to maintain a lean physique, and I have the knowledge to do it. This is another way in which my subjective experience of life differs from the majority of Americans.
I work out because after about the 45-minute mark, I feel physically ecstatic. I’m sitting in my pajamas right now, writing this with my hair still damp from the shower. The feeling of resting after a hard workout, a hot shower, and a hot meal is one of the best feelings in life. I was in a mopey mood earlier today, having been woken up by a thunderstorm, but even a half hour of walking was enough to shake off that sad feeling. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.
I eat clean and plan predictable, micronutrient-based meals because my quality of life suffers when I don’t. For me, what came naturally to me, eating what I “felt like” eating and what tasted good, led to dreadful results. Excess body fat was one relatively minor symptom of a larger problem. While I was no longer having issues with thyroid disease, migraine and night terrors were still regular crises for me, and after a certain weight, my fibromyalgia symptoms started to come back as well. Carefully tracking my health metrics helped me figure out which behavior patterns affected my health issues, and which didn’t seem to make an impact. While it may be correlation that both my migraines and my night terrors disappeared two years ago, when I finally got to my goal weight and quadrupled my vegetable consumption, correlation is good enough for me. I’ve finally arrived at a system I can live with.
That’s what it all comes down to. We’re searching for livable systems. Life is complicated enough, and it’s hard to make sense out of conflicting information from our friends, media reports, advertisements from the weight loss industry, and the kind of contrarian stuff written by bloggers like me. Collecting contradictory data from various fitness apps and equipment is not helpful. What is helpful is to take the long view, be as aware of our behaviors and attitudes as possible, and keep on trying to build better experimental models for our own lives.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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