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!