Don't Obsess About Numbers

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Don’t become obsessed with numbers

  • “Count all the calories you eat.”
  • “You need to burn 3500 calories a week to lose a pound of fat.”
  • “Weigh yourself every day.”
  • “Calculate your BMI to know if you’re at a healthy weight or not.”
  • “Track all your numbers or you won’t succeed.”

We love numbers. We think of them as objective measures of the truth, but when it comes to our bodies, this is not true at all. In general my advice is don’t become obsessed with any numbers: calories consumed, calories burned, BMI, or body weight. These numbers are not true measures of anything, and I’ve seen obsessive focus on numbers cause people to adopt behaviors that prevent them from reaching their goals.

Numbers are not objective representations of what’s happening or what you’re doing, they are approximations of what MAY be happening and an estimate of what you’re doing. Fitness numbers are meant to be indicators of direction, whether it’s positive or negative. The weight on the scale is not an objective measure of how much body fat you lost or gained in one day, but monitoring it over the month can let you know if you’re moving in a positive or negative direction. The calories you burn during a workout do not add up to fat lost, but you can compare them to old workouts to see your progress.

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Don’t obsess about calories consumed

Calories consumed are some numbers I tell people to pay attention to, but don’t focus on them. The point of food calories is to give people information to help them make healthy choices. Unhealthy foods tend to be calorie dense and not very filling while healthy foods tend to be the opposite. This knowledge allows you to quickly realize that ice cream is fattening and broccoli is not. Simple and obvious.

The problem is that people use these calorie numbers too literally. They start adding up the calorie numbers in fruits and vegetables like it matters and end up reducing the amounts of these healthy foods to help lose weight. This just leads to starvation and needless suffering. I’ve said before why this is an unnecessary and incorrect choice, but if you don’t trust my conclusions, even organizations like Weight Watchers do not believe you need to limit the amount of fruits or vegetables you eat. Instead of counting calories, Weight Watchers uses a point system. The higher the points, the more the food impacts your weight and the worse it is at satisfying your appetite. Fruits and vegetables count as ZERO points as far as Weight Watchers is concerned.

I’ve already gone over at length why tracking calories leads you astray, so I won’t waste time going over it again. Use calorie numbers to educate yourself about the calorie density of foods you’re unfamiliar with, but don’t ever think that a calorie of broccoli is the same as a calorie of ice cream. This image above compares 200 calories of various foods, but it also shows the problem throughout our culture. The point of the image is to illustrate that you can eat a lot more broccoli than chocolate chips before they make you fat. It’s correct in showing that chocolate is more calorie dense, but it is creating a false belief that both are fattening if you eat enough. Even though that plate of broccoli and the plate of chocolate chips technically have the same amount of calories, the broccoli will NEVER be deposited in your body the same way the chocolate chips will. You will NEVER get fat eating only broccoli. It just doesn’t work that way.

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Don’t obsess about calories burned

On the flip side of the calorie coin, don’t look at the calories you burned during a workout as a license to eat. This is probably the most common way that obsessing about calories burned gets people in trouble. I’ve seen it over and over. People think that because they burned 300 calories during their workout they can eat an extra 300 calories without consequence. The problem is they are not only underestimating the amount of calories they eat, but that “official number” showing the calories burned is often wrong as well.

Whether it’s the read out on the treadmill, the totals calculated from a wearable like the Fitbit, or even the totals in our lolo apps, don’t think of these numbers as objective measures of your exact calories burned. They are estimates based on hundreds or even thousands of exercisers. While they can get close, that doesn’t make them exact measures of what you did. In fact, the DailyMail.com just did an article about how inaccurate wearables are at reporting calories. They pointed to the problem I mentioned when they stated, “Could this be why a raft of dieters on weight-loss forums across the web are joining discussions entitled such things as ‘My Fitbit [one of the most popular brands] is making me fat!’ with tales of gaining, rather than losing, pounds?”

That’s exactly what’s happening. People look at their workouts as an unpleasant punishment, see that they burned a large amount of calories, and then think of that number as the amount of “free calories” they get to consume that day. This is a losing cycle that will lead to frustration as the scale moves up instead of down.

The point of tracking your calories burned is to help you compare your workouts from day to day. As you get more fit, you should be able to work harder, which means that number should go up. Ironically, as you get more fit (or lose weight), you use less energy to move yourself, so that number on the treadmill becomes more inaccurate for you. If you keep your workouts at the same calorie totals (according to the machine), you’ll actually be burning less and less calories throughout your program. I’m not saying you need to increase by big margins, but your trend line should go up over the first 30 days or so, not stay flat. Increasing indefinitely is impossible, but you want to keep pushing in the beginning to force physiological improvements.

On the subject of wearables, the point of using them isn’t to figure your exact calories during the day, but to track the trends in your movements. When people start to diet or they begin a new exercise regimen, they tend to slow down throughout the rest of their day. This is another subconscious trick your body uses to conserve calories. If you move too much during a workout, your body tries to even things out by moving less the rest of the day. Wearables are an excellent tool to monitor this defense mechanism. Track your activity level before you start a new routine and make it a point to (at the very least) not let your movement decrease once you start. Preferably, you should aim to increase your movement throughout the day as well.

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Don’t obsess about how few calories you burned

On another topic concerning calories burned, I want to address a misconception I always come across concerning high intensity interval training (HIIT). I’m a big fan of it and I’ve seen it lead to a lot of success, but people seem to think it’s a fad that can’t possibly lead to weight loss since you don’t burn many calories during the workout. Low carb diets were once a fad too, but it has time and again been shown to be one of the most effective forms of dieting and it had led us to understand the role sugar has played in our ever expanding waistlines.

Any workout is only going to account for a tiny percentage of your day. The point of your workout is to set your body up to succeed later in the day when you’re no longer actively working out. Short workouts are fine, but only if the intensity is high enough. You don’t need to work at maximum effort every minute but your breathing should be elevated throughout.

You also don’t need to squeeze all of your exercise into one session. Getting in 3 minutes here and 5 minutes there quickly adds up for some significant health benefits. In fact, studies have shown that multiple short workouts can burn more fat and better stabilize blood sugar levels than one long session. There are five main reasons why multiple short bouts of exercise seem to produce better results than one longer session:

1. Higher overall intensity. People can maintain a higher intensity over the short duration than they could over a longer session. If you don’t need to conserve your strength for the end, then you can push yourself harder throughout. This ultimately means that you can push yourself harder during each minute than you normally could have. Higher intensities cause different biological adaptations than slow workouts, so you not only save time, but you ultimately cause healthier changes than you would if you slaved away for an hour.

2. Better adherence. Other studies have shown that people are more likely to stick to their exercise plan if it is composed of multiple short sessions. The biggest key to success is sticking to your exercise plan long term, and silencing that little voice in your head that tries to get you to give up is important. If you dread that long workout, you will jump at any excuse to avoid it. Short sessions may be more intense, but they don’t feel nearly as brutal so you’re more likely to stick to your exercise regimen long term, which is the only way to have any success.

3. Increased fat mobilization. In order to burn stored fat, you first need to mobilize (release) it from your fat cells. Multiple sessions have been shown to mobilize more stored fat than a single session. This means you will be able to burn more fat in subsequent sessions because your body already mobilized it from the earlier session, making it readily available to fuel your workout (and the rest of your day).

4. Improved blood sugar levels. While a workout will lower blood sugar levels in the short term, studies have shown that multiple short workouts extend these positive effects for the next 24 hours. Controlling your blood sugar levels is not only important for your health, but it is important for weight loss as well. When blood sugar levels are high, your system is flooded with insulin which prevents your body from releasing stored fat and causes it to store any additional fat you consume. The less insulin your body needs to use throughout the day, the more capable your body will be of releasing stored fat.

5. No compensation. This is one of the biggest pitfalls to snag new exercisers (and even seasoned fitness buffs). A common refrain I hear all the time is “I’m working so hard and eating right and I still can’t lose weight. Why isn’t it working?” When I dig deeper into each person’s history, it always ends up being the same story. They suffer through a long brutal workout early in the day, sit around miserable and exhausted the rest of the day, and then reward themselves with an unhealthy treat to balance out the pain. I’ve mentioned the ways losing weight activates subconscious defenses to hinder your results, and long, plodding workouts seem to trigger these reactions far more than short and intense workouts. They may be tough, but the quick durations mean they’re over before it becomes a chore. The less your workout feels like a punishment, the less you need to reward yourself later. While I apply this to HIIT workouts, it really works for any activity. Pick something you enjoy doing and just move. The more you like the movements, the healthier your choices will be later on.

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Don’t obsess about the scale

I’ve been guilty of this myself many times, but the worst thing you can do is let the scale decide how you should feel about yourself for the rest of the day (or week or month). I’ve explained how your body stores glycogen in your muscles to power certain activities. To keep your cells in proper osmotic balance, your cells need to retain 3 to 4 parts water for every one part glycogen, and that adds up to a lot of weight.

It’s why we lose weight so quickly in the beginning and why we gain weight back when we stop. Even if you’re not doing a low-carb diet, running a calorie deficit of any kind will deplete stored glycogen and cause your body to quickly shed the no-longer-needed water. A typical person will lose about 5 pounds in water weight when they begin. This isn’t fat, just water. It’s why crash diets and cleanses seem to work at first, but then all the water weight comes back the day you go back to your old ways of eating. It’s also why people get so frustrated when their rapid progress “stalls.” Nothing is stalling, you just got rid of the water, now the real work begins. Various resupplies and depletions of glycogen can even cause the scale to go up or down unexpectedly. Don’t think a one pound gain from a little slip up is one pound of fat. You really would need to eat an additional 3500 calories in one day to gain one pound of fat.

The scale is meant to help you correct course as needed. If the scale doesn’t move for about 7 to 10 days, then perhaps you do need to make adjustments to your diet or workout plan to see if you can’t get things going again. We all want fast results, but unfortunately, it’s a slow process that requires consistent effort. You can’t live and die by the scale each day, that taxes your willpower too much.

I personally like to weigh in daily, but that doesn’t work for some people. I’m still bothered by an expected jump, but I can typically understand where they come from, and educating yourself on why it’s happening does help to lessen the sting a bit. There are things other than glycogen that can also cause water retention. For instance, I have a brutal leg workout I do once a week and I am always 1 to 2 pounds heavier from water retention the next day due to nutrient rich fluid being rushed to the area to help recovery. If I didn’t weigh daily and then happened to weigh on an odd day like this, the results would be more discouraging.

I’ve found that too many days in the dark without a weigh in makes stepping on the scale far more impactful on my psyche. When I weigh in daily, a random jump one day is quickly cancelled out by an odd drop the next day. If my one weekly weigh in day happens to be a random jump, then it feels like the whole week was off course. Maybe it was, or maybe I just missed all the good days. There is an important mental component to weight loss and you need to figure out a weigh in strategy that works best for your personality. Just understand that weight loss or weight gain is a slow process, so a rapid change one way or the other is likely just water. Although a trick I’ve found that has helped a lot of clients is to celebrate every weight drop as body fat lost and think of odd weight jumps as just water. I know it’s logically inconsistent, but managing the emotional game makes the whole process easier.

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