The Tao Of Fitness Tracking.

Great post over at Lifehacker about the relative effectiveness of diet vs. exercise for weight loss. If you are a person who has ever uttered the phrase “I can eat whatever I want as long as I exercise” then this is definitely required reading. In short: you won’t lose weight without a calorie deficit. Furthermore, while exercise burns calories it doesn’t burn nearly as many as you probably think. The article actually references a study where participants showed a tendency to simultaneously over-report calorie burn from exercise and under-estimate calorie intake from food. As a nutrition logging obsessive for three years and running, this is something I’ve had some gritty in-the-trenches experience with.

While accurately tracking macro-nutrients and calories probably isn’t most people’s idea of a fun hobby, the good news is that it’s certainly easier to do now than it’s ever been. Personally, the act of installing and *consistently* using an app like MyFitnessPal–1097 day streak and counting–has changed my attitude about food and the way nutrition should fit into my life. It’s easy to think of our smartphones as black holes or time sinks, but fitness tracking is a place where proper usage can have these devices potentially adding minutes to our lives.

While it can indeed be consuming, it’s important to appreciate the useful information you can get for the time spent. Before these apps, I’m guessing if a person wanted to track their nutrition it would have been a pencil and paper process of logging calories, fat grams, sodium milligrams, and vitamin c percentages. The advent of computer spreadsheets must have made it easier to analyze the data, but a would-be DIY nutritionist still lacked portability and access to an online database. So if you wanted an accurate picture of your nutrition it took a lot of time and work–probably a bigger time investment than the value it added to your life. With a smartphone, diligent logging has given me troves of relatively accurate data about calories in, fat-protein-carbohydrate proportion, sodium intake, you name it. As an aside, the fact that I’ve freely given this data to a third party is a topic for another post.

For me, all this rigidity yields flexibility though. Do I want to binge on chocolate chip cookies? If I have the extra calories, have eaten enough protein, and consumed the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, then I go to town. It’s also about putting the counts–no matter how accurate they are–into a feedback loop with my actual appetite and weight over time. If I’m really crazy hungry one day then I’ll put in extra calories, but if that goes on for a few days and starts to show up on the scale? Then it’s time to restrict a little bit. Always on a diet, never on a diet.

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