Category Archives: Fitness

Can a Fitness Tracker Help You Lose Weight?

Sure, but a fitness tracker can’t tell what behavioral changes will result in a change in your body fat percentage or a smaller waist.*

Last week, a Washington Post writer reported “Apple told me it does not track research about weight loss because that is not the focus of the Apple Watch.” So far, good. Then he added, “(That’s disappointing.)” I applaud Apple for declining to make weight claims, because a watch simply cannot “make” that happen. Changing your daily habits consistently enough to change your body in a sustainable way requires a lot of moving parts, and a fitness tracker isn’t a mind reader—it just collects and displays the information that the maker has set as defaults or that you ask it to display. Fitbit, in contrast to Apple, makes weight claims because it has gone in heavy with providing devices to wellness programs and other contexts that have (of course) additional information available for users.

A fitness tracker can nudge you in a particular direction, but you have to have at least the direction (if not a destination) in mind. Is it more steps? Is it more sleep? Is it a particular mix of high- vs moderate-intensity exercise? It is a number of minutes of exercise per week? is it spending less time sitting? It doesn’t know what’s important to you. And I don’t think any of them have integrated food records—food recording is a whole thing with enough twists and turns to earn a master’s degree, and the most a fitness tracker will do is import a calorie total from a dedicated food tracker. And that’s the other common theme, also hit in the article linked above—the writer even passes along the opinion of the WW Chief Scientific Officer to present the typical, binary-opposition response to any discussion of exercise and weight, “But a fitness gadget still can’t automate what Foster considers most important data in weight loss: what you eat.” Of course, says the CSO at the company dedicated to helping people adjust how and what they eat.

What you eat and what your activity pattern is, along with how much and how restfully you sleep, contribute to the condition of your body—from your health to your performance to your body fat percentage to your waist size to your alertness during the day, and on and on. Your fitness tracker can assess your sleep, too—sort of**—but again, just observing it (or including some nudges to remind you that it’s important) isn’t enough to make change happen. People rarely end up with unhelpful eating, activity, and sleep patterns because they want that; they have made a variety of choices against the backdrop of many external factors that are not always easy to change—or, in some cases, identify.

Fitness trackers are undermined by two main issues: People buying one for the first time don’t necessarily know what they want, and once they have one, they almost never know how to configure it to be most helpful. In the early years of Fitbit availability, they were often called “glorified pedometers,” and even the first release of Apple Watch was essentially in that category. There is nothing wrong with a glorified pedometer—for people who just want to nudge more activity into their day (lots of people!), tracking and gradually increasing daily steps is a great approach (and Apple kind of lives this strategy in its track record of offering simple initial versions of hardware and then building on them). But pedometers are simple enough that very little explanation is needed, and as these devices have become more and more glorified, one wonders if people are expecting more simplicity rather than less, as if every new capability is as easy to understand and act on as a steps goal.

Modern fitness trackers are not that simple, and people aren’t prepared to do homework when they get a fun new device (or have it given to them by a workplace wellness program). Someone on Quora recently asked whether it was OK that his watch showed well over 200 “heart points” for the week after he completed a 10k running event, because the “recommended” number of weekly “heart points” is 150. Which brings up another risk: that using a cutesy name to differentiate your exact same base fitness recommendations as every other device—based on CDC, WHO, and AHA† recommendations for the minimum recommended activity level—may increase the probability of that default being misinterpreted.

The WW expert said their users don’t use trackers consistently. This makes perfect sense. WW members don’t need to rely on a fitness tracker; WW is a supportive system that offers them an accounting method for food and basic activity tracking. Indeed, the WW points system is a really nice framework for approaching these things. The recent UCLA assessment of use of the Oura ring‡ (a very simple, screen-free device) found that personalized feedback based on fitness tracker results helps people improve their behaviors and get better results, a classic for the annals of “well, yeah,” but it’s important to have the data. And it’s not like this is easy; having live humans provide that feedback is labor-intensive and costly, and fitness trackers can’t offer that automatically. My own fitness tracker has an “insights” feature that is supposed to do something like this but has literally never, not one single time, told me anything other than the absolutely simplest thing to guess at and thus nothing insightful at all. I have configured that thing to kingdom come and look at it at least 25 times a day, and it still can’t figure out what I care about on its own.

Is it possible to build something inexpensive and easily accessed that can help a person get the most out of a fitness tracker from day 1? I think it could be done to some extent in a booklet or website—and working on a project like that sounds like a dream job to me—but it would go far beyond the user manual (“this option is on that screen”) and deep into helping people identify and prioritize different kinds of goals at a much more granular level than “fit into the clothes I used to wear.” Indeed, it would probably end up being a kind of choose-your-own-adventure curriculum of quizzes and knowledge base that would require a multidisciplinary team and regular updates to do well. Because at the end of the day, a fitness tracker is not a trainer or a coach (or a doctor or a dietician). It’s a compass. It can help you stay on your route, but it can’t plan the route for you.

*The notion of weight loss in and of itself is of no interest to me, and in many cases it is harmful. For example, weight loss is a common feature of serious illnesses such as cancer and dementia. A more rational goal is loss of excess body fat, and while there are no good, cheap, easy options for measuring that with precision, what most people are looking for in a way to track whether a “weight loss” plan is working (losing excess fat, not key body tissues) can be estimated from changes in waist measurement.

**Sleep tracking in a fitness tracker is generally a mix of accelerometer and heart rate data, trying to estimate a rest state from a lack of motion and using heart rate patterns that have been observed in sleep studies to be correlated with one sleep stage or another. Any avid “quantified self” enthusiast can tell tales of a watch that said they were in deep sleep while they were reading in bed or perhaps in REM sleep while playing a video game.

†CDC ; WHO, ; AHA, .

‡”Lifestyle Modification Using a Wearable Biometric Ring and Guided Feedback Improve Sleep and Exercise Behaviors: A 12-Month Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.” The study compared simply using the ring with some generic information provided with using the ring while also receiving personalized, reinforcing messages. You’ll never guess which group showed the most improvements.

Oprah, Weight Watchers, and “Impossible”

Ready to head back? Cartoon by Robert Leighton (2003)

So Oprah is on Weight Watchers. She recently bought WW stock, which then appreciated like gangbusters, so she has that going for her, which is nice.

I’m seeing a lot of posts chewing over this news, many with disappointment and general comments about the “impossibility” of losing weight. Even if you are Oprah, and rich, and capable, and surrounded by opportunities for help and support.

It’s not impossible to lose weight, but it’s difficult, frustrating, and draining to do things you dislike for reasons that are tied to sadness. If you are mired in a belief that “inside every overweight woman is the woman she knows she can be,” then your framing is your prison. Because if that woman is “inside” you, she IS you.

You can’t take good care of something you hate.

Acceptance in its various forms is often denigrated as passivity, as giving up, as the sweatpants and pint of ice cream of the soul. But sweatpants and ice cream are a perfectly enjoyable part of anyone’s life, and then you put them away, have a good night’s sleep, and get dressed for work and have an apple or whatever and life goes on. You can choose to make a habit of healthful living, and you can choose to make a habit of self-care and enjoyment, too.

Ultimately we are what we repeatedly do. If you keep punishing yourself for some notional failure, trying every 30-day fix out there in hopes something will stick, what will stick is restless program-hopping and the sense of failure. Give yourself the gift of walking away from that. Don’t try to change everything at once, but instead choose one small thing and practice it until you don’t have to think about it anymore. Then build on that track record of success.

I blogged about these issues for a year at Starter Steps. Here is a little more about how to make changes with more confidence, and how to think about which changes to focus on. Give yourself time, treat yourself the way you would like to be treated, and you can make changes that make your life better.

“Ready to Head Back?” by Robert Leighton (2003)

“Move More” Is About More Than the Obesity Epidemic


White men have been fretting about losing their *mumble*something* for at least 100 years. (Nitpick: I guess ‘lumbersexual’ is a play on ‘metrosexual,’ but it sounds too much like homo/bi/heterosexual to me, possibly because it’s so compatible with the hypermasculine archetypes in the gay community, so I keep thinking the lumbersexuals should be the ones lusting after these Bunyanesque figures.)

As silly as this particular instance is, I feel like this might have a useful connection to other conversations, like boys doing worse in school as more schools do away with recess and popular — and sometimes data — support for stereotypes like men being more likely to die doing something stupid.

As a society, we have recently been putting too much emphasis on sitting quietly (or at least being reasonably orderly) — first, explicitly, with public schools, designed as a method for pre-training a ready workforce, and even more so in the last century as the manufacturing economy gives way to cubicles as far as the eye can see. Women have an advantage in such constricting environments by being socialized to “go along to get along,” but it shouldn’t surprise us when men, who retain “boys will be boys” socializing in spite of these macro changes in our social environment, have more trouble “adjusting.”

I’m not advocating going along to get along — I think rejecting that expectation is healthy, and it’s explicitly a form of privilege to feel free to reject it. I feel like we are seeing a wide range of signs that are telling us we need to move more, do more hands-on activity, inhabit our environments more actively. Women, too! We just don’t have the handy stereotypes to model on.

The Atlantic article goes on to explain that the romance of the lumberjack image was deeply at odds with the hazardous and tenuous life of actual lumberjacks, especially as the industry expanded. Logging remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, a lot of risk for barely $35k a year. This makes the appeal of the mythos greater, of course, rather than less — however you feel about logging today, the historic image is one of honest work to help build a growing nation. Even for people who also enjoy knowledge work, that is a powerful draw — getting up, getting your hands dirty, having a physical object to show for it, a feeling of righteous exhaustion, all in the service of something tangibly useful. You don’t have to wear plaid to split wood, and you don’t have to split wood to enjoy making things. We clearly yearn for more than cubicle life, so let’s make sure we get out more.

Dear Trainers, Please Stop

Jen Sinkler prefers actively planning her lifting routines to incorporate cardio conditioning, rather than splitting out cardio and lifting, and she has developed a host of circuits to help others get this all-around benefit, too. Similarly, cardio athletes (like me!) who choose heavily resistance-oriented sports like rowing and swimming combine our enjoyment of cardio with a great full-body strength workout.

Please stop saying “No cardio, just lifting!”

Trainers who focus on resistance training like to use this as a sales pitch. Sometimes they even claim that cardio is harmful, but the more honest among them simply say, hey, cardio is not for everyone (and I’ll get to that later), so we’re just going to lift, because it’s just as good.

Here is the reality: when lifting is just as good as “cardio” for overall health, it’s because it includes cardio.

A good cardio (aerobic) base is, like a good strength base, essential to good human health. Both contribute to various aspects of health: respiratory health, hormonal balance, blood sugar stability, sleep regulation, bone density, mood regulation, and of course heart health — because who cares how good your nutrition is if your heart can’t pump the nutrients through your body?

How do you know you’re doing cardio? Listen to your heart. The aerobic exercise “zone” is estimated to be about 75% of your maximum heart rate, so roughly 140ish for many people. That’s a good place to be for healthful exercise, and roughly the level of effort where you can pass “the talk test” — have a conversation while exercising. You also get health benefit from any level of exercise around 100 heartbeats per minute or more. So wear a heart rate monitor and see what your average heart rate is during an activity you like to do for a half hour or so — like walking or a weights session at the gym. If it averages over 100, you’re doing cardio.

Some trainers will say, “I’m not talking about that! I’m talking about endless hours on the treadmill or elliptical! That’s cardio!” Look, I get it — you don’t enjoy that. I don’t either, for what it’s worth. But you don’t get to make a pile of things you don’t enjoy and call it “cardio.” Because cardio already means something. And not what its detractors say it means — which generally boils down to ineffective training combined with poor nutrition.

Triathletes and ultra-distance athletes, the ultimate cardio athletes, don’t just lean on treadmill rails for a half hour, read the machine’s calories-burned count, and go to Starbucks. And, no matter how much (or little) time you spend on exercise, neither should you. Mix it up — alternate a little faster and a little slower — and use your balance. Try different machines, if you like machines, or walk more during the day. Take a strength-training class. Heck, do a little bit of all of it. If you’re not a competitive athlete, the exact workout you do is much less important than being active — regularly — and being attentive to what you’re doing while you’re exercising. And eat right — that means protein, vitamin-rich foods, and enough. Undereating just leaves you run down, and tears down the important tissues you need for health.

Here are some examples of cardio:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Rowing (sport or just in a rowboat)
  • Dancing
  • Walking
  • Climbing stairs
  • Flipping tires
  • Martial arts, from fencing to MMA
  • Gardening
  • A brisk lifting session in any strength disclipine
  • Yoga
  • Scrubbing floors
  • Shoveling snow
  • Calisthenics
  • Sled drags and sled pushes
  • Hiking
  • Canoeing
  • Skate-, surf-, snow-, or wakeboarding
  • Table tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Badminton

Don’t like running? Don’t run. Hate the elliptical? Don’t even look at it. Hate cardio? I doubt it. Almost every person I’ve heard say they “hate cardio” has also said — sometimes in the very same breath — that they love a good hard workout. And that’s cardio.

There is one thing that the more traditional cardio activities will do much better than just lifting weights faster (or with better management of rests), and that’s make you good at cardio activities. You won’t come away with from a brisk, athletic lifting-only program being able to run a fast mile or run for a half an hour straight. (Same way doing some basic strength training won’t turn you into a powerlifter.) This seems like a non-issue to me, but you will hear a lot of people list benchmarks like that as “what it means to be fit.” They’re wrong, too. That’s a particular form of performance, but basic fitness is really basic, and is not really defined by numbers of pushups, percent of bodyweight lifted on a barbell, or 3-mi run time. Advanced fitness is like any other kind of advanced example of something that fits well or is fitting: dependent on the context.

Basic strength and basic cardio conditioning are a foundation for health and for training performance, and it’s OK to prefer one and be “just OK” at the other. I sometimes wonder if that’s part of the sticking point for “no cardio, just lifting!” advocates — so many of them act as if every exercise has to count and has to be focused on a goal of excellence or at least progress, and they can’t tolerate the idea of doing something they aren’t good at and don’t want to take the time to be good at. So I’d like to offer another piece of advice that has been helpful to people training athletics for ages: leave your ego at the door.

It’s OK to have fun. It’s OK to do stuff you’re not great at. It’s important to eat your vegetables, and it’s even better if you can find vegetables — or recipes for them — that you really, deeply enjoy.

So how about a new pitch? One that has the advantage of reassuring people interested in strength training, that is not actually insulting to perfectly enjoyable other sports, and that, you know, describes what you’re offering? Get a great full-body workout with barbells! Or kettlebells, or whatever. It’s not that hard to just sell what you’re selling — instead of going out of your way to tear down something else.

When You See Someone You Find Unattractive

[Fat|scrawny|ugly|whatever] people shouldn’t be allowed to wear [bikinis|spandex|yoga pants|whatever].

If you find yourself thinking this, you can solve this problem once and for all:

Don’t like someone’s body? Stop looking at it.

So easy! One simple step that anyone can take. Try it today!

But I’m entitled to my opinion!

Yes, absolutely. So take responsibility for it. Own it. Say “I don’t like the way bikinis look on that body type.”

But that makes it sound like it’s just about me, like no one has to care.

Right again! No one has to care about your opinion of their body.

But it’s not just personal — it’s about standards. People should have some pride in their appearance, and not look like that.

Nope. Wrong. Nobody has an obligation to please you with their appearance. (Unless you are a Drill Instructor doing an inspection, I guess. Are you?)

This isn’t just about appearance! It’s about health. Those people aren’t healthy.

Ah yes, the “just trying to help fat people” defense. That may be true, but you don’t know, you don’t know whether they’re working to change that, and you don’t know what obstacles they’ve faced.

You’re probably [fat|ugly|scrawny|whatever], too!

Yeah, probably. There’s a lot of people in the world, and I’m sure there’s plenty I don’t appeal to. Plus, all those terms are moving targets — they don’t have consistent uses among different people.

Anyway, now you know what to do about it!

I wish I could, but …

What’s your excuse?

I have a love/hate relationship with this question. How does it help people to act like not “eating clean and training dirty” – or whatever someone is evangelizing right now – means they must be lazy whiners? Whenever we fail to do something we know we should do, but can’t seem to manage, there is a reason. Yes, there are some excuses, and some reasons are worse than others, but people who fail to act usually do detect a genuine obstacle of some kind. Here are some examples:

  • “Nothing works – I know, because I’ve tried a bunch of stuff.”
  • “Honestly I’m not sure how to start – everything I read says that I could get injured doing X or ‘ruin my metabolism’ doing Y. What to believe?”
  • “It’s truly a struggle to get up earlier, and by the end of the day I’m totally run down.”
  • “I have to work around an injury, and it’s frustrating on top of hard.”
  • “If I’m serious about getting in shape, I have to go to the gym 3 or 4 times a week, and I can’t make that commitment.”

None of these are very good reasons, but they are real. The fitness industry is chock full of bizarre claims and crazy promises, and high-circulation magazines are under pressure to offer simplistic answers with lots of variety – not harping on the tried and true every month. And there’s no money in the boring, yet effective, messages of better health, so even when health agencies and other groups try to get the information out, their efforts are underfunded.

Another complication: because people have such a wide variety of preferences and obstacles, it can be hard to know how to match them up with the information that will help them most. “I can’t seem to lose this pudge” could be down to very different needs:

  • How to tell the difference between snake oil and evidence-based recommendations – or even get just a base of good health information
  • How to start small, as with simple home exercises that will put them on the right track – and help give them the energy to try more
  • How to find a gym that is convenient to home or work – or even how to choose a gym in the first place
  • How to keep good track of what they are eating – enough information to make good decisions and easy enough to stick with
  • How to exercise in a way that supports their goals without making them feel like they are being punished

If those high-circulation magazines thought deeply about all the different details that go into the millions of ways to combine healthy food and different forms of exercise, they’d never run out of truly useful information to share. But it still couldn’t be teased as well on the cover as “DROP A DRESS SIZE IN 7 DAYS,” “KILLER ABS,” or “BUILD A BUTT THAT DEFIES GRAVITY.”

The next time you catch yourself thinking, “Ugh, this person should just get out of a chair once in a while,” try asking something simple, like, “Well, what’s the toughest hurdle to getting started?” You may be able to help them figure out something that now seems so second-nature to you that you’ve forgotten that you had to learn it somewhere, too.

Some things aren’t a race

Like a lot of people, I enjoy doing things well. I enjoy doing some things better than other people do them, too, but I learned long ago that being the best, being number one, edging out someone else, doesn’t just not matter to me – it makes me uncomfortable. It’s partly an energy thing – there are few areas where I want to spend the immense energy it takes to get the marginal returns that deliver that level of performance. I’d rather be darned good at lots of things, so I can solve more kinds of problems, and so I always have options. And honestly I don’t much care for the attention that comes with being at the tip-top of any game.

I didn’t have a terrible experience in P.E. classes in school. In grade school, I was always one of the bigger, stronger kids, and my parents made activity a regular part of our lives, so I had good physical confidence as well. But I hated the team sports aspect. It was boring. Picking teams was a stupid popularity contest. There was always a lot of standing around waiting for stuff to happen, instead of just diving in and doing something. I loved recess – monkey bars, hopscotch, jump rope, tetherball, whatever sounded good that day, and not much time so you had to get right to it.

I look around me, and I see adults who have, almost all of them, been disappointed to some extent by that kind of early P.E. class experience, some of whom may even have scrambled out of the way when kids like me swarmed to the yard for recess. Some were always picked last, or never developed much physical confidence and felt tormented by class activities. Some had asthma or other serious issues, and were simply set aside by coaches and gym teachers that were out of their depth when it came to modifying their plans for kids who weren’t all showing up with the same health and mobility status. Other thrived on team everything, lettered lavishly in high school, and even competed in college, only to run to fat after they left school, and didn’t have the team-sports environment to structure and drive their activity – or the time after their full-time jobs to participate in neighborhood leagues.

I don’t believe in “Everyone gets a trophy.” If the activity is competitive, there should be rankings. If there are a real consequences for failure, there should be incentives – and measures – for success. But I do believe that more activities should *not* be competitive, and I think school P.E. classes are at the top of that list. There are good arguments for grading kids, even grading on a curve, in academic classes – it is important to impress the value of acquiring information and the means to use it well. It is important to help kids develop study skills – that form of discipline and organization carries over into all activities, and school is an excellent structure for it.

But physical education classes should not be about striving for excellence – they should be making sure everyone is active and comfortable with it. Some regular physical activity is mandatory for everyone, even – maybe especially – people who will never really get into it and would always rather read a book. Physical education should be a place where everyone learns some basic exercises – a range of activities that can be done with or without equipment – where they can develop some confidence in their movement, and ideally discover something they enjoy enough to be happy to do a little every day. It’s important for heart health, blood sugar stability, sleep regulation, muscle development, mood regulation — an awful lot of things that makes life better.

In short, phys ed is too important to risk turning kids off to it. There is no “first place” when it comes to physical and mental health – everyone needs those, and our society is worse in countless ways whenever people are held back or discouraged.

We all deserve to make it.

May Day

Women are in the midst of an important struggle: they must find a way to reject societal and social pressures to be smaller, lesser, and more conciliatory. For years, they’ve been advised in the workplace to “act a little more like men” – to toot their own horns, to negotiate firmly, to proactively seek raises and promotions, as well as more humiliating advice that clearly defines women’s normal traits as undesirable at work. But time has borne out the weakness of that strategy. For all the same reasons that sexism is institutionalized, institutions don’t quite know what to make of women who refuse to get the memo. Backfire ahoy. But that doesn’t mean that women have to give in entirely to their harshest critics: themselves.

In fact, the more tabloids comment on men and women’s weight in equal measure, the more they underscore the shame gap between them. On DiCaprio, extra pounds are incidental to his identity, no more or less damning than the hideous graphic T-shirts and newsboy caps he wears. For women like, say, Jessica Simpson, being photographed at a higher weight is so humiliating and intimate, it necessitates an emotional “weight loss journey,” to be sensitively discussed on a talk show couch later. —You Can Call a Man Fat But You Can’t Fat-Shame Him, by Kat Stoeffel

Like me, the writer of this article has no desire to see the double standard expand to make men as fretful and miserable about their appearance as women. On the contrary, this is one situation where women really should be acting more like men – just brush it off, or perhaps matter-of-factly resolve to take a little more care with their health.

Not their weight – their health. Even the men who get “shamed” in this way are often being shamed for accumulating a bunch of abdominal fat, which is associated with bad health outcomes. (With a “weight problem” bias, certainly, but it’s not a random, idiosyncratic defect.) They aren’t excoriated for the sheer variety of defects that women have learned to accept.

Mean but – at least, societally speaking – true:
“I used to think there was just skinny and fat, but …

So here is to women discovering the health concerns that are most important to them, and to learning what eating, exercise, and sleep strategies will help them best address those concerns. To discovering meaningful nonscale victories, like better energy level, waking up feeling genuinely good, and thinking more about their individual style than the fashion flavor of the week. We must stop thinking of ourselves as a pile of problematic body parts, and start paying more attention to what matters most to us, whether it’s an engaging career, our families, making art on the weekend, helping with trail maintenance in nearby parks, or any combination of any of them, along with a thousand things I haven’t mentioned.

Rise up, sisters, and be whole. You have nothing to lose but your shame.

Same Story, Different Sell?

This image got posted in a Fitocracy group about body image, and it crystallizes some thoughts I’ve had about this toxic high-circulation magazine market.

Different magazines, published at different times, with almost identical cover pitches. Women’s magazines are bizarrely homogeneous in their content, with sometimes barely perceptible differences in branding.

These magazines are painfully repetitive, but in a quest for some kind of novelty they often run through all kinds of goofy flavor-of-the-moment solutions. Men’s magazines do something similar, and this phenomenon is a big contributor to people’s confusion about what works and what doesn’t. And then there’s the flaks for various would-be (and already-are) gurus, actively pitching more sketchy stuff on top of it.

I’d love to see a magazine about fitness that just built the repetition into the editorial calendar. November and December could be about stress management and family issues. January is “Tune up your eating habits” month. February is “Heart health.” Maybe March is something about the pros and cons of alcohol and how to keep it a safe part of your overall pattern. And so on.

The sheer variety of strategies that are effective for different people in handling these larger issues, combined with the developing science (physiology, behavior) around them, could provide a magazine with page after page of genuinely helpful information, month after month, year after year. It could be interesting, “fresh” (as they like to say), and good.

Too bad it wouldn’t sell ad pages.