Tools: You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

Don’t kid yourself. You cannot expect success from your weight loss program if you don’t measure yourself. You cannot manage what you don’t measure. How can you make adjustments and determine what is working for you and what isn’t if you have no point of reference?

I know we’ve grown up dreading that scale but you gotta do it. Here’s the funny thing. Your weight is probably the worst measurement you can use. It doesn’t tell your whole story and for many is one of the most demoralizing things to have to face on a regular basis if you are trying to lose weight. So don’t let it be the whole story.

I measure myself along three vectors: weight (using the same scale every time), inches lost (using a body tape measure, sum across 14 points of measurement), and percent body fat (using a Body Metrix ultrasound unit from Intelametrix). For the first 6 months I did that every day. Probably not practical for most, but I was recuperating from back surgery and needed something to keep me from going insane from boredom. Now that I am very familiar with my body and how my daily nutrition and activity impacts it, I measure once a week. I’ve gotten so good that I can usually predict what I will weigh in the morning within 0.2 lbs.

Even if my weight doesn’t seem to improve much during certain periods, my %BF and inches lost kept dropping. That’s why you can’t use weight alone in your measurements. It will not tell you that you are gaining lean muscle, which is more dense than fat. I’ve also made notes for particular observations at the bottom of the spreadsheet.

Notice I only talk about loss and not absolute measurements. My measuring instruments are probably 5% off from true measure. At some point, I will have my weight, inches, and %BF measured by a high tech facility. But for now, as long as I use the same technique and the same tools, the comparative loss measured should be fairly accurate.

I also take photos of myself. Every day for 6 months, then weekly. I’ll spare you those photos as those are in my boxer brief drawls and I’m not that confident yet. Still got the double F-K-C thing going. That’s Former Fat Kid Complex (FFKC). Copyright, bitches.

Perhaps the most gratifying qualitative measure are your clothes. They won’t lie. Every time I have to buy new clothes is a celebration. It’s gotten pretty crazy, actually. I was having to flip clothes every 3 weeks. The photos at the beginning of this article series were me at a 54R. I am now at a 46R. I’ll never be able to go below a 46R because my shoulders are that wide but my waist is about a 42 (hips are a 38). A good 1-2 inches of that is excess skin. Told you I’d keep it real and tell you all my secrets in this story. I’ll still drop another 4-5 inches there before I’m done.

You know one thing I don’t measure and you will never hear me obsess about? Calories. The idea that calories in must be calories out is so flawed as to be laughable. You know how they measure calories? They burn certain standard foods and measure the heat expelled. Your body doesn’t work like that. Plus, even if it did, you assume your body is 100% efficient at processing food and energy. It isn’t.

Another more practical way to tell calories as a standard of measure for weight loss is bupkis? A healthy, active adult will consume between 2,000-2,400 calories a day. Assuming a 160-lb adult, that means you’d need to walk your dog for about 600 minutes to burn that off. Do you spend 10 hours of your day walking? Or running a marathon (about 2,500 calories)? If you’re not and you aren’t gaining weight, then calories must not be the whole story.

One more thing that is total BS is BMI. BMI is a computation based on the relation between your height and weight. It doesn’t account for bone or muscle density. I include it in my measurements because the tool spits it out anyway, but I totally ignore it. You know how I know BMI is crap? At my height, if I am 165 lbs I am overweight. 165 lbs! If I do not gain or lose a single ounce of muscle between now and then that means at 165 lbs I am at 3% body fat. That’s olympic and elite athlete level. Do not use BMI as a standard of measure in your program. Not even sure why it’s still around.

It’s tough looking at those measurements every day and not obsessing over every measurement. Worrying about whether I lost enough weight or freaking out if my percent body fat fluctuated. I just kept reminding myself that these were just tools, markers along my path. That’s also why I have a section in my spreadsheet that constantly reminds me how I’m doing from where I started. No matter the ups and downs of each day or week, that starting point kept moving further and further away, reinforcing the progress I was making over time. Whenever I had a bad day, I’d take a look at that change from the starting point and immediately felt better.

Measure. Measure. Measure. It was perhaps the greatest improvement I made over prior weight loss attempts. I actually faced up to tracking the measurements. No single measurement tells your whole story. Try to understand what is going on by comparing the different vectors of measurement. Perhaps you didn’t lose weight because you gained lean muscle (which is denser). You will see your %BF improve in that case. No movement in weight or %BF? But you lost in inches. You had to go up another notch to tighten your belt. Be deliberate in understanding what is going on with your body. You’ll see in my notes that I would have hypotheses on why I didn’t achieve a desired change. Then I made adjustments to test the hypotheses until I found the culprit and course corrected. There is no way I could have achieved success without measuring and tracking with intent.

Revision (updated 11SEP12): while I do still firmly believe that an unhealthy fixation on calories is counter to one’s progress it always bugged me that I had neglected to include the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) in my rant. I do also track BMR. Your body will naturally burn calories over the course of the day based on its own metabolic and maintenance activities. Just sitting on a couch you will burn calories. So my exaggeration of running marathons and such was perhaps misleading. However, what I hope folks take away is that the source of calories rather than the absolute quantity is far more important to your success. As with anything, within reason. I’m not going to tell you that eating 10,000 calories, no matter where it comes from, is going to be a good thing. I’m just suggesting that if you make somewhat sane choices and focus more on where your calories are coming from, you’ll be in a pretty good position for success. I still don’t count calories, but as I point out in the entire article, I do other things–frequent doc checkups, blood work, consistent measuring–so I have other indicators that will help me course correct if my neglect of calories is going down the wrong path.

Next: Quick Start and Morale Boost

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