Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Power of a Single Metric

One number can't tell you everything, but it can tell you some things. For the past two years I have used the connected smart scale to take daily weight measurements in an effort to watch, and lower, my weight.

Let's start with a caveat. One number does not tell you how healthy you are. Your weight does not tell you your whole fitness story. If I had to measure my fitness, I would do it like this: I'm on vacation, I get up at dawn, go for a ten mile hike through the beautiful desert, back to the hotel, hang out at the pool, then back out for sunset. If I'm healthy, I can do all this and more and really get my money's worth. If I'm not fit, I won't be able to do half of that. If I get tired and need a nap, that's valuable vacation time wasted. So my level of fitness has a direct correlation to quality of life. The fitter I am, the more adventures I can have!

Now to the single measurement and what it can do by telling the story of my first year with the scale. At the beginning of 2015 I decided to weigh myself every day the first thing in morning. It's the least I weigh all day, so it's a bit more encouraging than weighing myself, say, after eating lunch. So it's a life-affirming baseline. Also, it tells me something about my day. If I'm below my weight goal, I can enjoy happy hour after work. If I'm above, I'd better have vegetables instead, and maybe go for an extra long walk or run in the evening. In this way I was able to watch my weight and slowly bring it down. Slowly. Losing weight quickly increases the risk of gaining it back. The body has all kinds of ways to compensate for what it sees as a loss of energy stores. It will slow your metabolism if it thinks you're starving. So I don't want to deprive myself, I don't want to go hungry long enough for the body's defenses to kick in. I wanted to drop weight, but I also want my body to see my lower weight as the "new normal."

According to my chart, my highest measured weight was 186lbs. My goal was to drop this down to 165 over the course of a year, hold that weight for a year, and then drop another 5lbs. That would take me from my pub food and beer weight down to what I weighed when I was running marathons. I wanted to go from this:

To this:

So here is a graph of my first year using a smart scale. Spoiler alert: it worked, as you can see.

You can see the peak is over 186.5lbs in February.
 My first reading under 165 was on December 30th. Just in time for the end of the year. My goal for 2015!

This gave me a sense of elation, letting me celebrate reaching my goal at the end of the year. I lost twenty pounds, right? Well, not exactly. Individual readings vary, and if we look at the 2-week moving average:

The moving average is a better measure of weight as it evens out day-to-day variations. Now we see that my starting weight was closer to 182and I didn't hit 165 until mid-February and I was able to keep the moving average around 165 for the rest of the year.

You might notice a significant drop in June. What's happened? This happened.

A friend had the brilliant idea to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and a funny thing happened there. Altitude is a terrific appetite suppressant, dangerously so in fact. We would hike all day and find ourselves not hungry at dinner. This can be a problem, so we had to force ourselves to eat despite not feeling hunger. Being unable to judge how much my body needed, I would place the amount of food on my plate that I thought I would need, visually estimating my calorie requirements, and then force myself to eat it all.

While we were all sitting around the dinner table shocked at our lack of hunger, I joked that when we got back I would write a new fad diet book, "The High Altitude Weight Loss Diet" and companion exercise book, "Eleven Hour Abs." Indeed, when we were done we were all visibly thinner, and the graph of my weight has a noticeable drop.
And the moving average...
So there was a real difference. I went from very slow progress to a sudden drop which seemed to kick off a period of further steady progress. You might also notice that progress continued after the climb. I resolved to hold on to that weight loss so I did two things. One, the inverse of mountain eating, I would visually estimate the amount of food I needed on my plate, and then force myself to eat no more than that. Two, I walked a lot more and tried to stay active. I joined a second run club and reminded myself that I'm still not walking as much as we did on the mountain. I kept up this attitude for the rest of the year, weighing myself every morning, and watched and celebrated my progress.

What did I learn? A few things:

  1. To maintain a healthy weight, I need to be hungry a few hours a day. Typically an hour before lunch and 2-3 hours before dinner. To keep from feeling deprived, I would remind myself how much better that meal will taste now that I'm hungry.
  2. It's better to estimate how much I need to eat before I start eating, and this usually means I'm still a little hungry when I stop eating. About 20 minutes after I stop eating I will stop being hungry. This is very different from the old me, who would only stop eating after I got that satiated feeling. 
  3. Taking many short walks throughout the day is better than a few intense exercise sessions per week. Perhaps it keeps my metabolism elevated, but whatever the physiological mechanism, daily weight measurements showed the difference. 
  4. Don't be afraid of the scale! Healthy weight only happens when you measure it. Being afraid of what you see on the scale only increases the risk of weight gain. Be brave every morning, step on that scale with open eyes, and more often than not, you will see pleasant surprises.
  5. Daily readings make daily plans.
Moving averages, daily plans based on daily readings, and refine-as-you go approaches are tools that helped me reach my goals. As I inevitably get older I plan to apply these tools to other biometric readings as needed to live a long and healthy life. And I hope you can too! 

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