Mar 17 2012

Personal Analytics: Track Thy Self

I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.

One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.

In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time.  Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.

I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.

I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.

For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate.  The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.

The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.

To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.

Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.

The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.

A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.

Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being.  The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc..  One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.

Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.

One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.

My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.

 

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