Want fitness results? Know thyself. 4

I’m writing this blog post after getting home from my annual physical. The results were great, and my doctor is almost as proud of me as I am of myself. I’m down 30 lbs, my resting heart rate is 30 points lower, and he reduced my cholesterol meds for the first time in over a decade.

A few of my friends have asked me lately how I’m getting results, so I’ve decided to create a few blog posts with stuff that’s been working for me. Maybe some of it will work for you.  Now, I’ve lost weight before. Right around the time I turned 30, I dropped 50 lbs and got down to a downright sexy 170. But now that I’m 41, the things that worked a decade ago aren’t working any more, and I faced some frustration as I tried plenty of things that didn’t work.

So let’s start with what didn’t work. About three years ago, I decided to make some changes to increase my fitness level. I was already active with karate and kickboxing three days a week, but I also hired a personal trainer to come lift weights with me 3 days a week in my home gym. I started doing at least an hour of cardio at home daily, in addition to anything I was doing at karate. I started eating more healthy food. But after a year of all this, the scale just didn’t move. My endurance improved, I felt slightly better, but the scale didn’t budge.

So at last year’s annual physical, I asked my doctor to check my thyroid and testosterone levels, hoping they’d explain my inability to lose weight. The labs came back normal. Frustrated, I decided to kick up the cardio intensity. I’d get on my elliptical trainer for a solid 60 minutes and keep my heart rate between 155-165, and sometimes spike to 170. The screen showed I was burning between 800-1000 calories per hour, and I figured that would have to generate results. Right?

But after 6 more months of crazy daily cardio, my body still refused to drop any weight. Finally, I decided to apply the same approach to my fitness that I apply to all my business endeavors: instead of guessing at what might work, it was time to get some data and make decisions based on that data. In business, I call that “3D” – a data driven decision.

When it comes to fitness data, there are plenty of calculated averages out there. You take your age, weight, activity level, subtract this, add that, carry the one, and you have a number that applies to most people for some particular element of fitness measurement. Your max heart rate, for example, is generally 220 minus your age –meaning mine should be 179. But I didn’t want general “should be” averages, I wanted cold hard data that’s specific to me. So I contacted POTENTRx labs in Seattle. They specialize in sport-based data gathering and analysis for athletes. And after performing a base metabolism and VO2 Max test, I discovered a few things about myself. First, I am apparently designed to live 1,000 years ago, when food wasn’t so easy to find. My metabolism is 1/3 of what is “normal,” meaning that I can survive on very little food. The problem is that I love food, and I don’t want to have to eat 1/3 of what everybody else does. The second thing I learned is that my VO2 Max was classified as “very low,” a 26, in fact. You can Google to learn more about VO2 Max, but basically it’s a measurement of how efficiently your body uses oxygen during exercise, which contributes to a lot of things, including how efficiently you burn calories and convert stored fat into available energy. I also learned that my anaerobic threshold (the point at which the body stops converting fat into energy under athletic load and starts taking energy from blood sugar because taking it from fat takes too much time and effort) is extremely low, too. Most of the averages say that mine should be around 140-something heart beats per minute. In my case, at around 120 BPM my body starts to burn fat pretty well, and on a graph that line continues up until about 131 BPM, when the graph looks like it fell off a cliff. At 132+ BPM, my body is pulling energy for exercise almost exclusively from blood sugar, and ignoring my fat stores.

All this helped explain why my previous attempts at losing weight had been fruitless. When I was on my elliptical at 150-160 BPM, all the energy for that exercise was coming from blood sugar, of which plenty was available because while I was eating a “normal” amount of calories a day, my body was only consuming 1/3 of it to stay alive, and spending the surplus on my crazy cardio efforts.

The doctors at POTENTRx told me I needed to radically change my cardio approach. Instead of 60 mins of 150+ effort, I should do 90 minutes of no higher than 131. This was a bigger adjustment than I expected. At 131, I start sweating, but exercise doesn’t really feel difficult. In fact, I kind of get bored. To address the boredom, I velcroed a laptop to my elliptical machine, and I can watch Netflix, surf Facebook, or even write blog articles while I’m exercising. In fact, I’m writing this entire article on the elliptical at 130BPM.

The doctors also told me that running my heart rate up to the “crazy” levels was still a good idea a few days a week. That helps increase my cardio endurance, even if it doesn’t burn fat. So now I alternate between long+low burns and short+intense bursts. I also mix up the workouts: spinning, running, ellipting, kickboxing, swimming, weights, and karate. But the most important part of all this is measurement. I can’t do anything effectively without a heart rate monitor, since that’s the most accurate measurement of how hard my body is working.

I also changed how I ate. In addition to being forced out of eating all dairy (I became lactose intolerant last December), I now eat pretty much all day long instead of three big meals per day. I “snack” on healthy (and some unhealthy) stuff throughout the day, keeping portion sizes small. The doctors say this will help increase my metabolism, since my body is forced to burn up small meals throughout the day. I drink lots of water, and eat something whenever I’m hungry. It’s usually healthy stuff, but I enjoy my carbs every now and then. I just try to eat them earlier in the day, when I still have time to burn them off, rather than late at night when the excess blood sugar will be stored as fat. I’ll probably write a dedicated blog post about this later, since I’m still experimenting with what’s working for me.

Since the beginning of the year, armed with some data and an accurate heart rate monitor, I’m finally seeing results. My plan is to go back to PotenRx soon and see if my baselines have changed (I think they probably have), and then modify my exercise so that I’m still operating at peak efficiency.

So if you’re one of the many who seem to be killing yourself in the gym but not getting results, stop basing your exercise decisions on averages that may not apply to you. Collect some accurate data, then make some personal decisions based on that data. You don’t have to spend the money on testing at a place like PotenRx, either. My Polar FT80 heart monitor was able to calculate my VO2 Max at exactly the same level as the PotenRx test. For the same price as one test, you can get a good data collection device. In many cases, the mere act of measuring something can lead to improved results. This was certainly the case when it came to my fitness. Maybe, like me, you’ve actually been working out too hard. By calculating my personal fitness “zones” and then choosing how long to stay in each zone during each workout, I’m finally noticing results… and others are noticing, too.

Good luck, and let me know in the comments about your own experiences with data driven exercise!

  • Congrats on your progress!!

    Wow, we have a few things in common, our appreciation of the 2nd amendment, a 3D approach to solve problems (I am logic driven to the point my wife thinks I am a robot), and healthcare/fitness interests :). I have lost about 50 lbs in the last 6-8 months with very little change in my habits (I don’t workout *yet* for example), most of it was made possible by change in diet and the below story.

    For the last 10 years I have been working for a company called Cerner, where our mission is to transform healthcare, where today our system is reactive, inefficient, and isn’t taking advantage of technology to the degree that it could to fix all of these problems.

    Some more specific pointers, in addition to your work out routine (which is great, once you work that routine into your life don’t let it go, it is so hard to get into a routine, but once you have one it is pretty easy to maintain, but if you let it go, once again you have to fight to get it back into your schedule).

    Turn EVERYTHING you can into a work out, where your goal is to continue to increase the ratio of caloric burn/caloric intake.

    In the interest of preventative healthcare (healthier people cost the healthcare system less, not to mention the overall benefit of being happier people :)), my company works with a lot of different companies, programs, and ideas on preventative health care. One of the most successful has been using a device called a “Fitbit”. It is a pedometer device, but so much more than that. It is using cutting edge technology to turn a pedometer into an almost too easy to use device that tracks ALL of your daily activities, automatically wirelessly uploads all of your data to their website http://www.fitbit.com/ so that you can see what you have done on a daily, weekly, monthly either with summary or detail data, etc. They also have a huge community with regular competitions with prizes offered for the winner (or winners if it is a group competition).

    The really cool thing about the fitbit is that you wear it 24/7 (it is extremely convenient to wear), and you learn to turn almost everything into exercise. Examples include taking stairs, parking farther away from work or stores or wherever you park to walk somewhere, pacing during meetings, conference calls, or just thinking about something instead of sitting, getting one of those yoga sitting balls instead of a chair for your workstation (which requires constant balance and “walking” to maintain your balance, and those balls (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FH2W54) also contributes to working on your core strength, a great thing to do for so many reasons, especially if you have chronic back pain.

    Anyway, and the Fitbit tracks how many flights of stairs you have taken, how many normal steps you have taken, how many miles you have walked, how many calories you have burned, it even greets you and tells you what time it is. It is very small and convenient to carry with you no matter what activity you are involved in (except water sports). The battery lasts between 7-10 days, and it will text you when its battery needs to be recharged :). Another awesome feature is it helps you measure the quality of your sleep, where you start a timer when you go to bed (just hold the one button down until the timer starts), and then you stop the timer when you wake up. It tracks how active you were through out the night and for how long, and calculates your “sleep effectiveness” percentage, helping to diagnose any number of conditions that could lead to unnecessary fatigue, lower immunity, etc.

    The Fitbit wirelessly and automatically transmits all of the data is has captured up to their website where they use the data to give you hundreds of different perspectives / data analysis on your activity, more than I want to go into here, just suffice to say that how ever I have wanted to look at the data, it is a click or two away. The Fitbit only needs to be from the wireless base station (which is also the recharger), and it doesn’t have to be YOUR base station to upload it can be any ones! Since these fit bits are so popular at my jobs, There are hundreds of base stations around, meaning that my data is constantly updating to the Fitbit site almost real-time.

    That same website also allows you to log other activity (any other exercise routines, manually log steps if you didn’t bring your Fitbit with you on an outing), ENTER your meals eaten for the day (where it already has a great DB on common foods and their caloric intake, i.e. I pick Big Mac, fries, and a Coke, and it automatically populates the fact that I just ingested 100,000 calories :D. It uses all of this data to give you net caloric intake for the day. They also have apps compatible with all major mobile devices so that you can manage your fitbit account from anywhere if you have a smart phone, iPad, etc.

    Finally, their online community is huge, and they have competitions on a regular basis to help motivate the usage and the transition to a new life style where you try to become more mobile. They even have achievements like the X-Box where as you reach milestones, you earn achievements (like 1000 flights of steps is an achievement, your first 10 miles is an achievement, etc.). You also have the ability to set all types of goals (number of steps per day/week or whatever, caloric burn, weight loss, etc.) and their site will track your progress and adjustments you need to make to meet your original goal.

    FINALLY, they just released a new product called the Aria, a BT enabled scale / body fat % analyzer, which is the perfect companion to the Fitbit IMO. In the past, you had to manually enter your weight in your Fitbit profile, now you can have a scale that can do it automatically and wirelessly for you along with your body fat % (and one Aria can support several people), I am not sure about what other features it has because I haven’t researched it yet, but just the auto weight updates are enough for me to put my hard earned $ down on one :). Entering my weight into the web page every day I never got good at, but weighing myself every day after my shower is something I do already anyway, so super easy to now get my weight into my tracking program, I don’t have to change anything in my habits :). I have tried electrical resistance body fat analyzers in the past and they were not very accurate or even consistent compared to say the caliper method, hopefully the Aria will be better than those ones I have tried in the past, I will get both caliper and Aria done and see.

    FINALLY, the best part is Fitbit’s customer service. In addition to having a great community to help you with whatever you need 24/7, they are GREAT when it comes to customer service. I have several examples both personally and with others at work where people have had issues with their devices, and within a couple of days they have had brand new Fitbits (not refurbs) in their hands via overnight delivery with no charge. Fitbit recently went to a new generation of Fitbit (called the ultra, which is what added counting flights of stairs among other things), and even though I am assuming they still had gen 1 stock to liquidate, the day they announced Gen 2, people were getting those as replacements when their gen 1’s broke (usually smashed, completely submerged, or other things that shouldn’t be covered by warranty anyway). They never even ask you for the old Fitbit back. My favorite one… I called because I lost my Fitbit to order another… they sent me a new one for free… and I heard later I wasn’t the only one, how cool is that!!!

    To make a REALLY long story short, technology and fitness are coming together in new ways to make fitness much more convenient to accomplish in our exceedingly busy lives, and I just wanted to share my experiences with a company who is excelling in doing just that.

    • Hey, Mike. Congrats on your results. I’m familiar with Cerner (they manage my doctor’s patient interface – I can check my labs, make appts, etc. through the Cerner-managed portal). Many years ago, I used a product called the SportBrain. It was a digital pedometer that also interfaced with a Polar heart rate strap, which measured steps taken AND cardio-exercise. It had a base unit that dialed up via a built-in modem (yeah – that’s how old it was) and transferred data to their website. My internet connection was also dialup back then. 🙂 I remember walking in circles around my kitchen to try and get to 10,000 steps in a day. 🙂 You’re absolutely right: parking farther, taking the stairs, running up the escalator — it all adds up. I’ve been considering buying a FitBit myself, as I have a few friends who love theirs. I just wish it interacted with a heart rate strap like my old SportBrain did!

  • John

    Great write up. I’m just getting back to working out after a broken arm and too many failed attempts to lose weight by working out harder. I’ve also had questions about what target heart rate I should be working at. The charts and programs on all the elliptical machines say to keep the heart rate down to lose weight. There are a lot of people who poo-poo this method and say just get your heart rate up there and the weight will come off. Like you though it hasn’t worked that great for me.

    I’m going to look into the testing, but I also started looking at some of the heart rate monitors (I have a cheap one now but it doesn’t have any of the fancy functions like the higher end units). I started looking at the Polar FT80 but almost every review is very bad. It seems like most of them are about the GPS unit though, and I’m not much into running. Have you had any issues with yours?

    Thanks again for the write up and the info!!

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