In very general terms, your fitness level is determined by what you eat and what you do. From the perspective of simple weight control, it’s a balance between calories eaten and calories burned. But the equation is more than just weight. You can be a beast in the gym, but your gains will depend on supplying your body with the fuel it needs for exercise and the materials to rebuild after a workout. Likewise, you can have a stellar diet and maintain a healthy weight, yet not be really fit in terms of strength, muscle tone, and endurance. Like any equation, changing one of these variables will affect the other.
When I first started trying to get my weight under control and get myself in better shape, I thought I could just use a common sense approach. I cut out fast food and cut down on soda and snacks. I took the stairs instead of the elevator. I bought a membership at Fitness 19 and tried to go at least once per week. In the beginning, I did see some progress. I lost around 20 pounds, and my clothes seemed to fit better. Lulled into a false sense of security, I let my guard down and gained half of that twenty pounds back. I clearly needed a better system; something that would quantify my efforts and hold me accountable.
Enter Fitbit and MyFItnessPal. I bought a Fitbit Charge HR, thinking that it would be plenty since I was not planning to train like an athlete. It tracked my steps, my gym workouts, and gave me some information on heart rate. Fitbit has a native application to track food and diet, but it was a little clumsy to use and I didn’t really care for it. By week two, I had moved on to MyFitnessPal. It is very intuitive, and offers the ability to scan bar codes on packaged food, making entry a breeze. It has a database to search for foods, and it remembers things that I have eaten so that they can be quickly added when I have them again. Getting used to the FItbit was easy. Just wear it, it does its magic and syncs the data to a smartphone app for your viewing pleasure. The companion website offers a more in depth look at the data and an easy way to view progress over time. Getting used to MyFitnessPal was a little more challenging. Even with my background in managing data, tracking everything that I ate was a chore at first. The app does a lot to make it easier, and it was second nature by a month in. In something of a cliché, I started my new program on New Year’s Day. By June, I had hit my initial weight target, dropping 36 pounds. I was at the gym at least a couple of times per week, and had stepped up my game to more than just a half hour on the elliptical. Even though I’d reached the goal I had set, I wasn’t done. It became about what more I could do.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of the diet tracking portion of the program. Keeping track of everything I ate also made me pay more attention to it. I began to read and understand the nutritional information labels on food. I learned about macronutrients (fats, protein, and carbohydrates) and, from that, I adopted the IIFYM approach to diet. Unlike traditional diet plans, If It Fits Your Macros doesn’t restrict me to eating foods from one list and avoiding foods on another. I can eat whatever I like, remaining mindful of the impact on my macros. A screen in the MyFitnessPal app breaks it all down. It shows me where I am now, allowing me to weigh whether or not adding cheese to that burger is worth it. Over time, keeping track and reading labels trained me to make better choices with my food. It’s amazing how much I came to be motivated to avoid those red numbers with the minus sign in front.
The Fitbit had a similar effect on exercise. It became a point of honor to make that daily step goal and see how many days in a row I could string together. On my longer hikes, I got excited to see what the steps and distance would be at the end. An understated aspect of using an app to track food or a wearable to track exercise is engagement. Unlike simply trying to eat better or move around more, interacting with the apps and devices kept my efforts front and center. There was a continuity to the whole process that I was loathe to break. That helped me over the hump on days when I may not have been feeling it quite so much.
By the end of that first year, I had progressed beyond what the Fitbit could do for me. I had taken up trail running and dusted off the mountain bike that had been sitting in my garage for years. I moved from the storefront Fitness 19 gym to an actual fitness facility with free weights, an indoor track, and group fitness classes. The Fitbit lacked GPS to accurately track distance on outdoor activities, and really didn’t measure much beyond steps. I had also outgrown the Fitbit app. It was great for a more casual user who might not be interested in a lot of detail, but I was getting into heart rate zone training, and the Fitbit app simplified the data a bit too much. I moved to a Garmin Forerunner. It did everything I needed and left me room to grow. The app tracked things I had not previously known existed…VO2 max, running dynamics, and training load. Just when I think I have it all down, Garmin adds a new feature giving me another insight into my data.
I won’t lie, those first three months on this program were not fun. I awoke every morning a little sore, and went to bed each night a little hungry. I was fortunate enough to have friends who had walked the path before me for advice and encouragement. I try to repay their kindness by offering those things to others when I can. I’m not a certified personal trainer, and I don’t play one on TV. But I do think that this approach can be tailored to work for anyone. MyFitnessPal is free and tracking could start out as simply and inexpensively as a pedometer.
For more information on the If It Fits My Macros approach to diet and some handy calculators to get you started, visit If It Fits My Macros.