Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nothing Left to Lose - Apps, Gadgets and Challenges

This morning, Susan and I did our one-month weigh-in for her company's three-month weight loss challenge that started on June 16th.

"Huh? Why the heck do you guys need to lose weight?"

Let me clarify. I joined the program because her company was matching the $25 entry fee that goes into the winners' pot. I figure if I grow the pot, it'll reward the folks who are joining the contest with a bigger prize. I don't expect to get anywhere close to winning but we'll all be winners by participating in the end. 

Susan came to the conclusion that studying for exams last year and her work-from-home assignment this year had decreased her activity level with a detrimental effect on her overall health and well-being. With the race heavy 2013 race schedule, she wanted to shed a few pounds to keep her legs fresh. She was already 2 months into her progress, losing about 10 pounds even before the contest was announced. 

Losing weight for us has had short and long term positive effects on our life styles. I celebrated my 2-year anniversary of coming off blood pressure medication on July 14th. It's been about that long since my weight stabilized where it is today. I had a few people say how good I looked, but then ask me in quiet tones why I was losing weight.  Was I sick? Am I undergoing some kind of treatment? Did I have some drastic surgical procedure?  

None of the above. I just decided to get well. I got tired of seeing my triglyceride levels climbing with every blood panel and didn't like the soreness in my knees after doing an easy training.  In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 35.7% of adults and 17% of children in America are obese. I decided I didn't want to be on the wrong side of that statistic. I'm qualified to be listed in the National Weight Control Registry for having lost 30 or more pounds and kept it off for more than a year.  NWCR surveys their members to check on progress and gather behavioral data to see what works.

Susan is already seeing short term race benefits of faster half marathon times dropping her half marathon PR by over 16 minutes this year alone. The rule of thumb of getting faster by two seconds per mile per pound of weight loss is holding pretty true.

So say, like us, you've decided you want to lose some weight but didn't want to resort to anything drastic. What's our secret? More importantly, how do we keep it sustainable?

Lord Kelvin said "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it." While there are certainly psychological and specific medical conditions that affect the ability to lose weight, the simplest formula is to burn more calories than you take in.  With today's technology, it's a lot easier than the old days when you'd have to bring a scale everywhere and work out on a machine that would give you a generic calorie burn value. Now you can track things yourself.

Calories In: Counting calories is step one. There are many free sites that have great databases of foods and their nutritional values - calories, fat, protein, carbs, micronutrients - and corresponding mobile apps that allow you to input values by scanning bar codes on your phone.  We're using MyFitnessPal and have connected with a number of friends on the MFP network to encourage each other as we work towards our goals. Other free sites include Sparkpeople, Livestrong's MyPlate. Weight Watchers has a companion app for those in the program as well. The great thing about these apps is that you can also set goals and they'll give you a day-to-day target for net calorie burn (intake minus exercise) and monitor it as you enter food during the day.

MyFitnessPal app - first thing in the morning

The Fooducate app even gives commentary on additives and artificial ingredients to give a grade on the 'general healthiness' of a particular food. Eat This, Not That is a great iPhone app if you find yourself stuck at a fast food restaurant and want to find the healthier items on the menu. Yes, those do actually exist!

Remembering to enter food takes some getting used to, but since most people are never without their phones these days, it's much easier than toting around a notepad or depending on your memory to enter what you ate. I think the most important thing is to learn how many calories each food contains and what your 'normal' intake translates to on the scale.  For friends who are starting out, I recommend making no changes to diet for the first week or even two, but just get into the habit of tracking food, and I mean EVERYthing, so you know what your baseline is. 

Calories Out (Exercise): Recent studies are showing that lack of activity are more dangerous than people thought. Sitting 6+ hours a day raises blood sugar and blood pressure and increases your risk of dying in the next 15 years by 40% ("Sitting is Killing You").  By monitoring your activity and setting a daily goal, you can remind yourself to keep moving. Our technology of choice is the Fitbit One (shown below). It's amazingly portable and I wear it clipped inside a pocket. It can even go through airport security if you have it clipped to undergarments (or so I'm told).

Other devices such as the Nike FuelBand and the BodyMedia Fit Core are great options as well. These devices are essentially high tech pedometers that not only measures steps, but also elevation change to count flights of stairs climbed. They regularly sync to a computer (and your smartphone) and send the data to the website, translating the activity and your personal measurements into calorie burn. The FitBit calorie burn even syncs to MyFitnessPal so we don't have to enter the exercise while doing incidental steps during the day. The social media aspect of the sites also creates a good support network (or a competition, if you're into that sort of thing).

Again, get used to the device before you make major changes to your routine. Susan used to have a BodyBugg (an older model of the BodyMedia Fit), but eventually wasn't comfortable with how the armband felt and looked. Having to start over because you don't like the device can be a big deal but getting the right device for you can help a lot.

Put it together and think long term:
Once you get a good handle on how much you're eating and how much you're burning, THAT is when you can start moving the numbers in the right direction. I like to say that there are two things I wish I knew when I was growing up: 
1) learning how to spend my money to fit within my income to become financially secure and 
2) Knowing how important it was to 'spend my calorie intake' to fit within my calorie burn.   

Basically, once I worked out what my baseline intake/burn was, I started to make a few choices to reduce my 'spend' (eat less) to build up a calorie 'savings'. I started by going for smaller portions, getting a smaller side of fries and then eventually skipping the fries all together. Little tricks like using smaller plates and eating slower helped.  I chose filling calories like protein (our favorite supplement is the Power Crunch line of products) and fiber instead of simple sugars and fat and the pounds start to come off. Fruits and veggies started getting back into my diet replacing chips and cookies. I still had the sweets, but as occasional treats and not every day.

Exercising and burning a few extra calories a day is equivalent to taking a part-time job. You earn the 'budget' to eat more, or you can put those calories 'into savings' and make the road to physical security that much easier. I use a standing desk at work for 6 - 8 hours a day and a few hours at home. That alone burns an additional 300 - 400 calories just by engaging more muscles.  I also take advantage of the great California weather to get a 2 - 3 mile walk in at lunch when I can.

How long does it take to see results?  It depends on how much of a calorie deficit you can sustain. One way I like to look at it is the "10 Calorie Rule." For every 10 calories per day you can reduce your net intake, you'll lose 1 lb/year.  So set your goal for 20 lbs and you're looking at 200 calories per day. It actually isn't much. Skip a half of your order of fries or walk for 30 minutes extra on a daily basis. 

A safe weight loss rate is 1 - 2 lbs/week. It may not seem like much, but 50 - 100 lbs/year is nothing to sneeze at. I found it tough to lose more than 20 pounds a year, BUT what I was doing was completely sustainable. Losing 2 lbs/week put my net calorie intake at 1200 calories/day. Even the most dedicated people get busy and missing a tough target for a few days can discourage you enough to give up all together. Keep it sustainable and be patient. Above all, look long term. That way, you'll have a lot longer to enjoy the results.  

Month one weigh-in results:  I'm down 2.8% from my starting weight. Susan is down 7%. Since we both lost at least one pound, we qualify for this month's drawing in the weight loss competition. 

What have you got to lose?


"The Best Activity Trackers for Fitness" -  PC Magazine, May 22, 2013
"The Best Free Apps to Help You Lose Weight" - Shape 
"The 8 Best Smartphone Apps for Weight Loss" - Forbes, August 2012

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