Category Archives: Fitness

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.

What Planet Are You On?

Over 80% of Americans don’t have a gym membership. The gym market is split among low-cost gyms with limited equipment and amenities, specialty gyms (for disciplines including powerlifting, weightlifting, climbing, or CrossFit), and “fitness clubs” with extensive services and amenities including training, massage, swimming pools, and so on.

Planet Fitness hasn’t tried to woo the less than 20% of people who already want to go to the gym – it’s gone hard after the other 80%, people who don’t like gyms, feel anxious in gyms, and may feel a need for fitness activity but probably don’t have performance goals. Planet Fitness tries to make going to the gym a fun thing with oft-derided events like bagel days and pizza feeds. This approach has kept it in business for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, in its zeal to avoid judging people for not being fitness freaks, it’s swung pretty far in the other direction.

Someone who judges – you mean, like, someone who uses
pejorative slang terms to refer to other people?

In a New York Times article about Planet Fitness’s marketing, Steve Red, the chief creative officer of marketing agency Red Tettemer & Partners (responsible for Planet Fitness’s recent “gymtimidation” campaign), was quoted about the aspirational approach to promoting health clubs: “I’m never going to get to be that washboard-stomach, super-cut guy that I see in the Equinox ads,” he said, referring to the chain of upscale gyms. “There are a ton of gym brands that are all about being cut and sinewy and having a six-pack, but I would argue that approach is not aspirational — it’s inaccessible.” (A Gym for People Who Don’t Like Gyms).

Planet Fitness doesn’t try to attract people who are reaching for the stars, whether in sheer amounts of weight lifted (its gyms don’t have the equipment heavy lifters need for training) or “perfect” abs (some argue the food offerings are part of a strategy to keep members feeling “failed” in fitness goals). A place you can go to get a nice bit of exercise, indeed where food is not “the enemy,” is a nice idea for a fitness company – it would be nice to see it done well.

A wild lunk appears! From one of Planet Fitness’s ads

But nobody likes being insulted. People who love heavy weight training, in particular, love to bag on Planet Fitness – and it’s easy to understand, when Planet Fitness has explicitly insulted and derided them in ads meant to show what their gyms are not. The hostility Planet Fitness expresses toward powerlifters and other gymgoers is offensive and contemptible, but it touched a nerve in Planet Fitness’s target market, as its “we’re not a gym” branding has done for years.

This tension and cliquishness has always bothered me. Both sides say some pretty wrong things. The “gymtimidation” campaign, with its laughable stereotypes and overt hostility, handily puts the lie to Planet Fitness’s claim of being a judgment-free zone, but a lot of responses in the fitness community haven’t exactly elevated the debate — and that helps to make life worse for everyone involved. Whenever I hear someone insult Planet Fitness members — not just the company’s marketing — as unrealistic or stuck in their own headspace, as weak-willed people that just need to suck it up and learn to work hard, I think, “You are the reason Planet Fitness exists.”

Going the Distance

I did a ton of swimming over the course of about a year after I had some trouble adjusting to running. I am still having trouble, but every time I come back to it, I have a slightly different problem, which I step back and resolve, eventually to uncover a new problem. (At this rate, by the time I can actually run regularly for more than a few months at a time, I expect to have among the most perfectly balanced physiques and flawless mechanics known to humanity.)

Swimming was a way to get deeply engaged while recovering from some of the problems I had, and San Francisco makes it easy. I am a little claustrophobic in a pool (as I discovered during the coaching sessions I did to help me develop a clean freestyle stroke). San Francisco has a park in the bay with a nearly 300m buoy line, and I probably did more than 99% of my meters there, starting right after my first coaching session by going outside to do my homework instead of trying to figure out the pool’s schedule. I got a lot of the same environmental pleasure from swimming that I got from running (much of which I did on trails within Golden Gate Park) – a slight sense of isolation makes me feel good, and the occasional sea lion sighting or near-miss with another swimmer was no big deal.

I had a mini-panic of documenting places I’d spent a lot of time as my move date approached. This isn’t a great photo of Aquatic Park, but I was running out of time.

I did a mix of wetsuit only and with fins, in part depending on distance. I found after a mile or so that it was easy to add distance from a physical point of view. I am basically an aerobic engine with cyclist legs, so this was particularly true if I had fins on – it was practically a case of “lie down and watch the miles go by.”

As I prepared to move to Baltimore, it was pretty clear I wouldn’t be able to continue swimming as conveniently and pleasantly as I could in San Francisco, and I gave a little thought to what I wanted to be sure to do. Fitocracy has in-site challenges for various distances for the triathlon sports – the longest swim distance is 10km. Challenge accepted.

I doubt I ever really believed I would swim that far. I was pushing my distances out, and I was joking with others about 10km being some kind of obvious benchmark, but I was never a fast swimmer, and the sheer time commitment posed risks such as getting so chilled I couldn’t operate my car afterward. Also, I never quite adjusted to how much more I needed to eat to support swimming – I struggled to maintain my weight as my distances climbed. (I’m not complaining exactly, but it was challenging enough to make me suspect swimming was not a long-term thing.)

Of course, as soon as I committed to move away from SF, I started seeing stuff like this all over the place! And it didn’t hurt that this was a typical view from my bike commute to work.

When I got my move date more or less nailed down, I looked at the calendar and figured out how many weeks I had to bridge the gap between my longest swim so far and 10km, which by then had firmly settled itself in my head as Important. In May, I had a little over 2 months to work up from around 6km, so there was a very real possibility I would fail. I tried to swim about twice a week – 1 short swim + 1 long one – and then I don’t remember what happened, but I got busy or distracted and ended up out the water for almost a month. When I got back in, I figured I’d try for 8km but give myself a pass if I only made it 5, and then give myself 2 more tries to hit the full 10km.

June 16 was a beautiful day, and as I approached 7km, I was happy to just stay in the water. I had “only 3k to go” – no problem, as I had just done it twice and then some.

I was ready to move.

I never did visit this place when I lived there. Maybe I can go as a proper tourist sometime.

All photos from my Instagram stream.

Calm Down Bro

This is pretty good advice. Mostly.

From Skreened.

We all need a little perspective, and athletics really seems to bring out the lack of perspective in people. Usually it’s something more like Larry Bird’s “Push yourself again and again. Don’t give an inch until the final buzzer sounds,” although that quote’s unusual for its use of context: while the competition is on, you need to be, too, but there’s also an end, a time to stop pushing. For the buyers of this t-shirt, apparently the time to let it slide is whenever you’re not actually competing in a world-stage event.

Treating PE like the Olympics is almost certainly the hallmark of people who are going to make it there, though. I learn pretty easily, so it was clear to me early on that the difference between being good at something and being great at something was craft, practice, and that means drive. The greater your drive, the more you work, even when you’re already terrific, because the thing itself is the thing. We see this in many areas that cause people to ask “is it talent or practice?” It’s both. You need to do it, to inhabit it, to know every aspect of it. PE is one of thousands of dress rehearsals that will make that Olympic performance shine.

As with many things, the problem here is not a behavior but a response to that behavior. This t-shirt, whose message amounts to, “hey, crab, get back in the bucket,” has some problems bound up with its self-evident truth. But I don’t think the feeling it reflects is truly a reaction to that ultra-competitive kid. I think it’s about the PE teachers and coaches and parents who lionize aggressive, sometimes reckless competitive drive as if it is inherently valuable, thereby chiding – sometimes directly – kids who don’t have it.

I believe life is better – richer and more satisfying – when you have something that makes you feel like you’re striving for a world-class performance. Even if you never hit a truly competitive level, the IKEA effect endows your own efforts with value above the objective reality of the result. Some people will never discover anything that makes them feel that way, and some people only feel pressured by it – that’s fine, too. There’s almost 7 billion ways to live. So if you’re around kids a lot, it’s good to find ways to praise strong drive and high performance that doesn’t also trash the kids who may not have found their bliss yet, or who may prefer a less intense existence. Plus, the IKEA effect dissipates when people fail to complete a task, so don’t go actively discouraging kids who are in the midst of working on something – your downer attitude might follow them around.

People who encourage intensely competitive behavior in kids like to point out that there’s only one winner, that second place is “first loser.” I suspect the kids who are destined for the Olympics don’t really need the stick, so it’s needlessly insulting language to the kids who can plainly see this isn’t their domain, which may well sap their interest in finding a way to be engaged and excited at a different level or in a similar specialty. It privileges a few narrows ways to be successful, and it places too much emphasis on success as something one does alone. Our world is big and complex, and all the most interesting things – going to the moon, reducing the toll of childhood-preventable disease, building almost anything at a larger-than-personal scale – require groups of people, bringing different strengths and working together.

Individual achievement is inherently satisfying, an important reinforcement for continuing to put in the work that supports it. It also provides a foundation for group success, by developing the abilities that individuals will bring to group efforts in order to collaborate effectively for the majority of their lives. People are more likely to discover and develop those strengths in an environment that says “everyone is good at something – let’s find your thing” than one that just gives a few options, celebrates the #1s, and browbeats the “losers.” That all-or-nothing approach doesn’t just mislead kids on their way to learning to live in the real world, it also deprives them of a simple pleasure in community – and an important life skill: being able to share the excitement of that ultra-competitive classmate and say, “You GO! You make PE into the Olympics!”

Thing-a-day 28: Health at Different Sizes


Photo by Martha Holmes — Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Dorothy Bradley, photographed for LIFE magazine article on obesity, works out in 1949.
—From Obesity: Photos From the Early Fight Against a Health Crisis, 1954

LIFE recently published a series of photos taken during the reporting of a story it published in 1954, about the problem of obesity. It features Dorothy Bradley, who embarked on a program of losing more than 50 pounds using a combination of changes in eating habits and getting more exercise. The photos show her in the gym in sweats, in a swimsuit preparing to swim, trying on dresses, sitting at a diner counter, wedging herself through a turnstile. And finally on a dance floor in a ballgown showing off her newly pared-down waist.

I love this photo in particular. We can clearly see a strong body, and an essentially aesthetic silhouette. Dorothy probably had many advantages over people who embark on this journey today at the same starting weight she did: she probably had more activity built into her day getting to and from work, and fewer labor-saving devices at work and at home. Although she may have eaten carbohydrate- and fat-heavy foods, they were less processed than typical foods in today’s environment. Another photo shows her with a slim, grim-faced nutritionist, behind whom is a poster listing “MUST FOODS – EAT DAILY” (milk, meat/fish, citrus, other fruit, vegetables, grains, fats – one wonders if they were meant to be eaten in that order). We learn that she was pursuing nursing (and did so successfully). Yet, with all these environmental advantages, and her explicit interest in health and healthcare, she had to lose the majority of this weight twice before she kept it off.

LIFE meant to show that the obesity epidemic is not new, but I think these photos show us something important about how unhelpful our messages about weight and health have become. The buried lede is exercise. One of the captions reads, “In gym in New York sweat-suited Dorothy finds workout did not by itself remove pounds but did help avoid flabbiness as she lost weight dieting.” Fitness experts love to tell people that “exercise doesn’t work,” but that caption and the photo above tell a different story. It may well be that “abs are made in the kitchen,” but nobody needs visible, ripped abs. People need stable blood sugar, a good blood lipid profile, a good red blood cell count, enough body fat to support cell functions and aid in recovery but not so much that organs lose function by being packed in it. And those goals are better supported by regular, low- and moderate-intensity exercise than by a specific diet – and the exercise can stabilize mood and lift the energy level as well.

One notable thing about these photos is Bradley’s relative isolation. We certainly don’t see any shouting trainers. We see Bradley wrestling with her body image out in the world, but mainly we see her alone with her exercise and tape measure. I find these to be surprisingly positive images. This is doable. It helps to have some consultation, which we see with the nutritionist, and it helps to know why you’re doing this, which we see with others around her, but ultimately the work itself is you alone – it’s you with your food choices and with your exercise. And the path may not be strictly linear, but you can make it if you take the long view.

Among the least-helpful cultural baggage surrounding obesity is persistent messaging that focuses on looks. Obesity is a look onto which people feel free to project assumptions of laziness, incompetence, ignorance. We still have a way to go in understanding how body fat, conditioning, and nutrition combine to support healthy outcomes, but research results are trickling in, suggesting that you definitely can be too thin (although for good health outcomes in the US, it still helps to be rich). High-protein eaters with heavy exercise schedules are helping to challenge claims about saturated fat dating back to the 1950s, and gut flora libraries are being assembled and coordinated with food records to add more pieces to the food-and-health puzzle. I hope that this better information environment can help us pay more attention to what we’re really trying to affect when we talk about addressing the obesity epidemic: bad health outcomes, early mortality, lost productivity, rising healthcare costs. And although we still need cheap, simple methods for tracking, like weight scales and tape measures, here’s hoping we can see them for what they are – approximate tools instead of final arbiters.

Thing-a-day 25: Looking Like a Man

A Facebook friend of mine liked a post from Dana Linn Bailey tonight. Bailey is a bodybuilder, and she posted a full-length photo of herself in the gym. As always when a woman shares a photograph of herself, the post attracted lots of comments passing judgment on her appearance. Bailey has lots of loving fans, but the Internet really seems to encourage the kind of guy who has to tell the world that some arbitrary woman does not appeal to him, as if it matters. And some of those men favored Bailey with comments along the lines of her looking like a man.

This is a hot-button issue wherever women touch weights. There persists a Victorian fantasy of women as fragile creatures, perpetuated by increasingly confused claims about what’s ladylike, and idiot celebrity trainers who insist no woman should lift weights heavier than 3 lb. Never mind that a gallon of milk is over 8 lb, potatoes comes in 10-lb sacks, and children – and handbags – often weigh much more, and no one seems to think women should be exempt from handling them. If a woman has the temerity to do exactly the kind of conditioning that will enable her to handle all those womanly duties with greater efficiency, a better energy level, and less risk of injury – watch out! Who knows what horrors might lie around the corner!

Cartoons about women exercising, and similar cartoons about woman suffrage, played on the assumption that the mere possibility of women narrowing the gap between what men and women could do would necessarily lead to abusive behavior. Pretty interesting statement about what being “manly” really means. (Larger)

If a woman lifts weights or develops her body for personal reasons, she’s especially threatening. I’m sympathetic to this point of view. I remember how much more competent and independent I felt after I started doing some lifting. And those feelings can lead to confidence, and to abandoning wide-eyed gratitude for offers of help – possibly even not hearing them, because you are too busy just going ahead and lifting that box or carrying that whatever-it-is.

It’s tempting to ascribe the negative responses to women’s strength as simple misogyny tinged with a fear that strong women can treat men the way men have been treating women. But there’s a kinder, gentler fear in there somewhere, too: in a society in which we’ve defined women as needing the help of men, what happens when they don’t need that help anymore? Will they not need men? Both of those fears are as hostile to men – painting them as essentially brutal or basically worthless – as they are to women. We all deserve better than that.

In the fitness world, some people spend a lot of time dismissing women’s concerns about looking like men because they lift, and I’d love to see this stop for two reasons:

  • It’s a moving target. You don’t know what a woman is thinking of when she expresses that worry, and women do get told they are mannish, almost no matter what they look like. I suspect much of it has to do with confidence and independence – that a woman just having a can-do attitude, and dropping the slack-jawed, tentative stuff, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. So you can never reliably promise a woman that she “won’t look mannish” – the genuine concern (and negative attention she gets) might not even be about looks in the first place.
  • Who cares if they do? Seriously, who cares about this? Women may seek a particular look, and I’m all for that, whatever it is, as long as they don’t feel ashamed or coerced into seeking it – and that goes triple for “feminine” looks. And then there’s women like Dana Linn Bailey. She knows what she’s doing! She’s built a successful professional life with that look, carefully and deliberately. If you act like there is something wrong with that, it is entirely on you – it has less than nothing to do with her.

We don’t need to worry about women looking mannish (or men looking womanly). We need to worry about why we think it’s a problem if they do. Men and women have a lot of differences, and sometimes it does seem like we are from different planets, but we’re not. We’re both from Earth, and we are both part of the same species. We are more alike than we are different, and the idea that one of us resembling the other can be taken as an insult is an absurdity that has meaning only if you think that one of those things is necessarily inferior.

Thing-a-day 23: Just a Nice Place to Be

In 2011, I joined a website called Fitocracy. It was a good time for me, because I’d recently had my allergy and asthma medications reorganized. I’d always been someone who could roll off the couch and do a 30-mi bike ride or a 15-mi day hike, and the better management meant better performance. I had decided to get a rowing machine for home, and I was excited to see what I could do.

Fitocracy uses some nerdy game elements to assign points scores to activities. Users accumulate points, climb levels (more points for the higher levels), and can collect badges for achievements and quests – performance milestones and exercise combinations. It’s a compulsive’s dream/nightmare. Like Twitter or Flickr, it allows people to follow each other, post status messages and photos, and participate in social and competitive groups. And it is incredibly sticky. People routinely joke about spending more time on Fitocracy than working out.

The principles of Fitocracy are gamification of one of the few things that it’s great for – exercise – combined with a social component that invites people to share information and keep each other accountable. One of the best features of the site, though, is that it gives people a place to talk about big changes in eating and exercise habits with people who care. A common observation on the site is that coworkers, friends, and family can often be unsupportive or even downright belittling or undermining, and users are grateful for a welcoming place.

And then there’s the points. Fitocracy has a method to its scoring: in general, it gives better scores to activities the founding team believes are better for overall health. There are problems with this approach, partly because of the premises they used, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. High-volume athletes in deprecated areas can, in fact, make it up in volume, and the people who care the most about the points accumulate so many so fast that they are literally meaningless in fairly short order. And the site offers bonus points for some recipes of just about every activity a person can log – a good opportunity for specialists to explore a little, have some fun, and maybe discover a good cross-training option.

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a perfect encapsulation of Fitocracy’s diabolically effective stickiness: made-up points that don’t mean anything. But while Sisyphus may get the dopamine squirt he needs from watching his meaningless, imaginary level climb, the fitness he develops is his to keep.

As a high-volume athlete in a deprecated area, and a pretty decent nerd who also enjoys what the founding team values most, I did the obvious thing: I figured out how to do what Fitocracy likes in a way that I like, too. People also joke about doing some exercises solely because they give good points, and I laugh along with them, but I’m not quite that motivated. Or at least, not motivated in that way. I can lose my sense of proportion when it comes to things I already enjoy, though; I have to be careful what challenges I take up, because I am easily tempted to court injury if both points and a deadline are involved. Fitocracy touts its social features as helping to enable persistence in people who are new to fitness, but the same features can help people with powerful intrinsic motivation, too: nobody wants to have to slash their output because they hurt themselves even though they know better.

Fitocracy has been operating for a couple of years now, and it is at the age where it is working to establish lasting revenue streams. Founded by, for, and about nerds, the core team probably always suspected that wasn’t going to be a very supportive market financially. It’s very hard to take the game dynamics aspect far enough, in enough detail, to truly satisfy nerds, for one thing. But their vision was always helping people who never quite jelled with exercise get into a rhythm they could stick with, and that’s a vision that deserves – even demands – a much wider audience. And remarkably, even in an environment that is almost all about changing how you eat, move, and look – subjects that make people about as anxious as they get (about something that happens in public) – Fitocracy has attracted one of the most respectful, friendly, and upbeat communities I have seen online in over 20 years.

Thing-a-day 21: Maybe it’s time to let the scales fall away

If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” That’s the reality when we want to do anything important – whether it’s reaching an eating or exercise goal, writing substantively in our journal, or tracking our progress in a long, multistep project. The weight scale is the simplest, cheapest, most accessible method for tracking whether someone is the right size or on the right track, but it’s a blunt instrument (and might not match your real goals, anyway). It’s important to know what it does well, and what it can’t do at all.

How many pounds (or kilograms) you weigh is pretty arbitrary. We all grew up with ideas about ideal weights for our heights, and some of us have seen the ranges (for example, as used by insurance companies) change over the years. A pound of muscle and a pound of fat both weigh a pound, but they look really different, so two people with the same height and weight might have very, very different bodies – especially when you factor in skeletal size and the genetic tendency to build muscle.

5 lb of fat weighs the same as 5 lb of muscle, but it takes up way more space!

When people say “I want to lose weight,” they almost always mean they want to lose fat. If your nutrition and hydration are good, and you’re exercising regularly, tracking your weight can work well to help you measure your progress, but those are really big “if”s. Many people recommend, “throw away the scale,” and suggest other methods to track progress as a way to help people break the cycle of extreme dieting, followed by exhaustion, rebound weight gain, and future, even unhappier attempts at extreme dieting. But you can make the scale work for you instead of against you by keeping in mind what it does well, and how to get the best results from it. And one thing it does well is make you pay attention.

There are lots of factors that affect your scale weight:

  • Are you drinking enough water? If you get the recommended 8 glasses a day, that’s 4 lb right there, so if you’ve recently started improving your water intake, be prepared that the scale will show that. This is also the main reason you shouldn’t get excited if you “lose 2 lb overnight.” You probably just need to replenish your water.
  • Have you peed or had a bowel movement recently? These can easily make a pound of difference each. Or more!
  • Have you had a meal recently? You’re carrying that food around in one form or another until it’s all either used or eliminated, so keep that in mind if you recently had a particularly large meal.
  • Stress and lack of sleep can both lead to eating (especially comfort foods, which can be harder to have in small portions), and may have other effects that cause weight to fluctuate.
  • Many factors can lead to retaining water: a particularly salty meal, the changes in air pressure of a jet flight, or a menstrual period. A particularly carb-heavy meal can hold extra water, too – that’s part of the reason it’s been recommended for marathon runners, who can put on several pounds from a pre-race “carb load.”

Many factors cause fluctuations in your weight over the course of a day or two, and others cause major changes. One of those major changes is losing body fat. The other is gaining muscle. If you’ve embarked on a new exercise program, it shouldn’t just be treadmill or elliptical time. It should also have a full-body resistance component. That might be a circuit of machines in the gym that each work specific muscle groups. It might be choosing swimming, rowing, or kettlebell routines, to combine resistance work with cardio. It might be dumbbell or barbell work, particularly in large movements that help you develop balance and coordination as well as strength. That resistance work will add muscle, and that will hopefully – yes, hopefully! – add weight. This is where the tape measure comes in handy – so you can see how much less space that new weight is taking up. As a friend of mine says, “You’re not disappearing – you’re more concentrated!”

If you use a scale to track your weight, keep the conditions as consistent as possible.

  • Weigh yourself at the same time of day, every time. First thing after waking, after you pee, is convenient for most people.
  • Use your scale in the exact same spot, every time. (Try it – subtle differences in the floor can cause a scale to give slightly different readings in different places.)
  • Wear the same thing (or nothing!) every time.
  • You may want to weigh yourself after bowel movements. (If you’re still in good touch with your inner 12 year old, you may wish to weigh yourself before AND after.)
  • Consider weighing yourself only once a week. It gives you more opportunities to work around bowel “transit time,” and often a week is long enough to show a trend with less bouncing up and down.

Another option is to attack the tyranny of the scale head on by taking so many measurements that you can see the connection with your daily habits. This works for people who really like lots of information, but if your stomach churned just reading that sentence, that’s reason enough to not even try it. If you have a scale in the bathroom that is your enemy, though, maybe try weighing yourself every few minutes for a half hour, and see if you get the same result every time. If not, you really should throw that scale out! And don’t feel compelled to buy a new one – there’s other ways to see progress.

What about bodyfat testing scales? The technology used in home scales to estimate bodyfat percentage is called bioelectrical impedance analysis, and it has a wide margin of error. Home scales only really send current through the lower body, the condition of your skin (temperature, moistness, cleanliness) can affect the result, and so can your hydration status. So bodyfat testing scales have all the same problems as scale weight in general, and more. However, they can be good enough for trending if you’re careful about the conditions when you use them (for example, upon waking, after peeing, after washing your skin and wiping down the scale) – just take the strict accuracy of the number result with a grain of salt (or skip the actual salt – no need to invite water retention).

Did you skip all of that because you hate the scale? Are you really working your butt off (literally) just for a number? Most of us have other, more meaningful goals when we make healthy changes in our lives. It can sometimes be hard to focus on them, because they aren’t as convenient as a number on a little screen, but they will probably make the biggest difference in whether you feel a sense of success.

Here are some examples of non-scale measures – and successes:

  • Measurements: Take all the measurements a tailor would take, and repeat them every couple of weeks or so.
  • “Sentinel” clothing: Choose an item (or a couple of items) whose fit is snug, and try it on every week or so.
  • Change in habit: Realizing you walked right past the donuts in the office for the first time.
  • Change in mood: Little things at work bugging you less, for example, or realizing you aren’t feeling wiped out after lunch anymore.
  • Change in ability: The same settings on the treadmill feel easier, or you kept up with your full-of-beans kids for longer than before.
  • Change in appetite: Finding you reach for more nutritious food first because you want to, not because you’ve had to convince yourself to.
  • Change in focus: Getting more excited about a new thing you can do than what the scale or tape measure says.
  • Specific performance goals: Choosing a goal number of steps per day, and hitting goal – then hitting goal every day for a week, or 6 days a week for a month. Or maybe setting bigger goals.
  • Health measures: A lower resting heart rate, or less of a jump when you exercise; lower or more stable blood sugar or blood pressure; better test results at your annual physical.
  • Branching out: Finding you’re ready to try a new thing – a class, a new form of exercise, or maybe a group activity that you never wanted to do before.
  • Growing confidence in social settings: Actually looking forward to that big party – or even a 10- or 20-year reunion.
  • Other people notice! Coworkers or friends tell you you’re looking great, or ask you your secrets.

I once read in a women’s magazine, gosh, more than 20 years ago, that everyone should try this simple test: notice your immediate reaction when you catch sight of your reflection in a mirror or a window. Did you scowl? Jerk your eyes away? Instantly focus on that thing you hate? Or did you smile?

Non-scale victories are about the things that put a smile on your face. Sometimes we think we should be making more progress than we are, real life intervenes and just messes up our schedule for three days in a row, or we get invited to dinner and decide to just plain enjoy it. That’s life, and it’s fine – if we’re making good changes most of the time, we’ll keep moving in the right direction. And that means more smiles.

Thing-a-day 19: “What’s my problem?”

I’ve been collecting little bits and pieces I’ve written over and over again as people have asked me questions about food and exercise. One frustration I have with the fitness industry is that its sales focus tends to reduce solutions to THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK and other foolish formulas, single sizes that fit pretty much none, and that’s just when they’re not frankly bunk. What interests me more is teaching a person how to find the path that will work for them. Have a question? Ask me! I don’t expect to make any money from this, so I can just talk about it here on my blog, and see where it goes. Feel free to comment here or Twitter @caitlinburke.

There are lots of ways to gain and lose weight, but a single dominant feeling about all of them: that ultimately individuals just can’t control it for long.

It’s not true, of course – lots of people successfully adjust their weight and maintain it at a level they like, and there’s lots of interest in what makes them different. It probably boils down to the brain, and more specifically to beliefs, like “I believe I can accomplish this and stick with it” combined with “I know what I need to do to make it work.”

It can be hard to believe we can accomplish something even if we know what to do. Part of that comes from the wide variety of ways there are to get things done, so general principles often don’t help. Nobody seriously tells people how to make cookies by saying “Mix sugar, butter, and flour, and bake – easy,” but they don’t hesitate to say, “Eat less and move more – easy!” I believe both those things, but I’ve made a LOT of different kinds of cookies over the years, and I’ve also experimented a lot with food and exercise. And you can, too.

What does it mean to eat less?

Eating less means fewer calories in, overall. Thanks, Captain Obvious! We want to come up with something we can do – happily, every day, so we’ll have to come up with some specifics … that we can live with.

Eating is sometimes compared to fueling a car, but it’s more like budgeting. To support yourself, you need to match your means and your spending, and most of us have a basic complement of things we need to spend money on routinely – rent, food, keeping the lights on. Let’s assume we have a decent income, enough for bills + a little extra. Subtract what we absolutely have to pay out, and we are left with some money we can spend on fun stuff if we want.

Your daily intake is a budget that has to have basic components in it so your body doesn’t fall apart — so you have a place to live and can keep the lights on. Those components are a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, plus micronutrients like vitamins (and, of course, water). Most people can meet those basic requirements in fewer calories than they need to keep their weight the same – eating mindfully still lets you have some fun. Where most people have trouble is in the quantities and the proportions, both figuring out what they should be and knowing when – and how – to say “when.”

What does it mean to move more?

This is both the easy part and the hard part: “move more” means almost anything. It’s walking to and from a bus stop instead of driving door to door – or at least parking at the far end of the lot. It’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s getting up from your desk once an hour to take a walk around the office, or doing a bit of calisthenics when your brush your teeth. The hardest part about this is narrowing down what will work best for you. The good news is you don’t have to have a perfect plan from the get-go, and you don’t have to stick to the plan perfectly even after you have it.

There’s a single dominant feeling out there about exercise, too – that it’s a punishment or, if not actively painful, a distasteful medicine. No wonder people are so sedentary! Your body actually likes moving around, and regular activity has good effects on almost every health and well-being measure you can look at. Most people adapt quickly to exercise if they are consistent and a little bit organized about their approach – there is certainly no one way to make progress, and if you’re just starting out, it’s even easier to get going in the right direction. There’s a million ways to get your heart rate up and get your muscles working, so you can find a few that you enjoy.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

Occasionally I do something unusual, like an Olympic-distance triathlon just because I have the the day off, or 46,000 meters on the rowing machine because it’s my 46th birthday. And people say “How do you do that? I wish I could do that.” Maybe, but probably not – there’s no particularly great reason to do stuff like that. I think the best way I can help other people is with my complete understanding that you almost certainly don’t want to do things the way I do them. At least not in a direct step-wise fashion. But I know how I came to understand what works for me, and I want to help others start that process, too.

Here are some questions I like to help with:

  • “How do I know what I should be eating?”
  • “Is [some particular food] harmful?”
  • “I have to eat less! How?”
  • “I have to exercise more! How!”
  • “I though this [diet|exercise] would solve my problem, but I hate it. Now what?”
  • “What does that knob on the side of the Concept2 rowing machine do?”

I’ll visit and explore those questions during the rest of the month (and, I hope, keep going).

Thing-a-day 12: Bench Progress

Posting to my blog every day for the month of February is only one commitment I made this month. The other is do a cycle of 5/3/1, a weightlifting program developed by Jim Wendler. There are several programming volumes for 5/3/1, which you can have calculated for you at a wonderful site called Strength Standards, whose front page asks you a few questions and predicts your 1-rep-max weights for the 4 major barbell lifts: bench press, deadlift, squat, and overhead press.

I’m doing the lightest volume of 5/3/1 – just 6 sets of each of the main lifts, each on separate days. I enjoy strength training, and I’d like to have a total of over 500 lb (that’s the total of your max in bench press, deadlift, and squat). I’m close, at around 450, but I’m in no hurry. I am more of an endurance athlete by inclination, and hitting each major lift once a week is plenty for me. I am finishing Week 2 of this 5/3/1 cycle, and it suits my goals perfectly right now.

I took this photo in the Arboretum in Seattle in 2008.

Right after I graduated from college, I started going to a gym, looking to gain weight, and when the trainer asked me my blue-sky goal – something I’d always imagined but never thought I’d be able to do – I said “I want to bench press my weight.” We got me there – on a technicality. I benched my starting weight once, for 1 rep. (The real success was that I’d gained almost 20 healthy pounds.) Then I gave up the bench press.

Over 20 years later, I’ve taken it up again. There are other lifts that interest me more, and for more than 6 months, I just didn’t bother with it at all, because I could do other lifts at home but didn’t have a bench. But I got a new rack and bench last fall, and I’ve been pretty consistently benching once a week.

The 5/3/1 programming is based on percentages of your theoretical maxes, and it’s been telling me my bench is higher than my last test (in October, at 102.5 lb). So tonight I tested it again. And I benched 110. So close to that 120! But my strength is much less brittle now, and I know I’m going to blow right past it this time.