Last week, I began listening to a Great Courses lecture series regarding body composition. The lecturer made a statement that I’ve heard a lot – that if you’re eating well and moving well, body composition will change, and that if body composition isn’t changing, then you’re doing something wrong. Oh my god I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to hear this stuff because it’s not nearly that easy. My frustration led to several days worth of math, research, statistics, and data comparison from the last year. I wanted to know what was so different about this spring, when I seemed to be doing everything the same but actually started losing weight. Math and data calm me, and I went through a rollercoaster of ah-ha moments followed by wait-never-mind moments before I finally reached a state of clarity.
I won’t bore everyone with the math. Let me just give you the basic things I looked at. I took the 64 days in a row that I tracked my calories last spring and started adding things up, using all four of the trackers pictured above (My Fitness Pal, Sparkpeople, Fitbit, and Lose It). Note that this was back when I had my Fitbit One, which was far more accurate calorie-wise than my later Fitbit. Then I took the 65 days in a row that I tracked my calories a year ago, to compare the two sets of very similar data. Here was the really frustrating thing: In spring 2018, Fitbit, Spark, and MFP* all predicted that I would lose 7.3-7.5 lbs. My loss in that time was 7.4 lbs. Spot on, right? (Notably, Lose It was way off at 11.1 lbs.) But in the fall of 2017, Fitbit, Spark, and MFP* all predicted I would lose 5-6 lbs, and I had no change in weight at all. Numerically, these two time periods were nearly identical. The average amount I ate and exercised daily were only different between the two periods by about 35 calories. Mathematically, this tells me that calories-in-vs-calories-out means alone nothing for my body**. Other factors must be involved.
Because I’m tenacious – and because the discrepancy irritated me to no end – I decided to look at every other factor that I could think of (and measure) to compare these two time periods. Something must have been different between them! Here’s what I came up with (feel free to skip to the summary at the end). Note that when I say “2017” and “2018” I’m talking about the specific tracking period and not the entire year.
In 2017, I was suffering extreme anxiety and agoraphobia with panic attacks until my doctor put me on an anti-depressant about 2/3rds of the way through the tracking period. I was on the same medicine the entire 2018 tracking period. The medicine itself seems to have no affect on weight, however the anxiety and panic might have. On the other hand, my weight didn’t drop after the anxiety lightened either, so I’m not sure how much of a factor this is.
Sleep is always an issue, yes? When I looked at this, I expected these two time periods to look the same, but they didn’t. In 2017, 28% of my nights were awful sleep and only 43% good. In 2018, bad nights were down to 14% and good up to 53%. My sleep medications were identical on both, and I took sleep aids every night with (obviously) varying effectiveness. So slightly better sleep may have been a factor. Fingers crossed that my current sleep Rx is effective!
Type of calories matter, as well as daily volume. My daily averages were almost identical between these two time periods, but there were some striking differences between the two. In 2017, I had five binges in those 65 days, whereas in 2018 I only had one. In 2017, I drank alcohol on 18 days, and on seven of those, had more than one glass. In 2018, I drank alcohol on four days, only one of which was more than a glass. Additionally, I averaged 2.9 servings of fruits/veggies in 2017, and 3.5 servings in 2018. So while my calorie intake was virtually identical between the two time periods, my general nutrition was far better in 2018. This could be a major factor.
It would be hard to say just how sedentary I was outside of exercise during either time period. However, if I was far more sedentary in 2017 vs 2018, that might account for the discrepancy in how the trackers correspond to weight. The difference would only need to be about 250 calories daily, which I could easily see as the difference between a day lying around reading or watching TV and a day running errands and doing chores. The only way I have to evaluate this, though, is average daily steps and how many days I exercised in those time periods. In steps, I averaged 9391 per day in 2017, and 10009 in 2018, which isn’t a huge difference. As for exercise, I worked out on 38 of 65 days (58%) in 2017 and on 49 of 64 days (75%) in 2018. That’s a really big difference. That’s another significant thing that could have contributed to the contrast between the two tracking periods.
I don’t generally do a lot of weight lifting and that sort of strength-training, but I do a lot of body-weight muscle-building during yoga. And there was a HUGE difference between 2017 and 2018 here: 13 vs 43 yoga workouts. This is significant for two reasons. First, strength training is essential for boosting metabolism. Second, I made nutritional adjustments to MFP/Fitbit* based on regular yoga practice. Without regular yoga, those adjustments would need to be further adjusted, and would change my predicted weight loss in 2017 to 3.8 lbs. It doesn’t zero out the calculation (which would make the prediction correct, since I had no weight change), but makes it a lot closer. Definitely a factor for at least one reason, possibly two.
Walking has always been a big factor in weight loss for me, so I looked at miles walked, days walked, and the contrast between miles walked inside (flat) vs outside (hills). There were some immediate obvious differences: 42 days walking in 2018 vs 31 days in 2017. 83.6 miles walked in 2018 vs 64.1 miles in 2017. Interestingly, both time periods had the same number of days and nearly identical mileage for outside/hill walking (20 days, 42-43 miles), but 2018 had far more indoor walks (22 vs 11 days, 41 vs 21 miles). These indoor walks don’t burn a lot of calories, but they keep me on my feet and give me a light exercise to do when I’m sick or the weather is bad. I thought they were negligible in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps not.
This one was interesting. I totaled up my fitness minutes, calories burned, and exercise days in each time period, then compared them. So that I don’t overburden this section with math, the results were as follows. My average workout length in 2018 was 5 minutes longer than in 2017, but burned 65 calories less. This means my exercise intensity was lower in 2018 (about 6 calories per minute) vs 2017 (about 8 calories per minute). Those two numbers may seem small, but when comparing different kinds of activities, that’s the difference between exercise you can do while talking and exercise that has you breathing hard. Over an hour’s worth of exercise – which is what I average in a day – that’s a HUGE difference in body strain. This might explain why, in 2017, I exercised on fewer days, binged more often, slept worse, and traded freggies for quicker/easier foods. Doing more moderate exercise in 2018*** meant that I could do a lot more of it – 11 extra days, 14 extra hours – not to mention fewer binges, better sleep, and more freggies. Surely all of that contributed to the success of 2018.
I see a lot of factors here that could either make huge differences, or a bunch of small differences that add up. It’s not as simple as plugging food and exercise into a tracker and hoping the numbers add up. Even if you’re diligent, they might not. For me, it appears that several things are just as important as keeping a calorie deficit:
- keeping my mental health level, just in case
- better sleep (kinda out of my control, but fingers crossed)
- cutting out alcohol as much as possible
- avoiding or at least minimizing binges
- eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
- staying active outside of exercise
- yoga yoga yoga and lots more yoga
- lots of walking, including indoors when necessary
- balancing higher and lower intensity exercises
- and (for now at least) continuing to record all the data I use to evaluate my weight loss journey, which will hopefully BE a weight loss journey again soon…
My hope is that if I can keep all these in mind and follow these guidelines, I’ll jumpstart my body like I did in the spring and perhaps make some real progress in the coming year.
*Initially, I thought my MFP estimates were too high by about 2 lbs. Then I realized that I never recorded the calories from the cream I put in my coffee. This was to counterbalance my yoga each day on Fitbit, since Fitbit doesn’t pick up those calories, and I was using my Fitbit to record deficits. However, I was adding the yoga to MFP, so my daily deficit was 50-100 calories too high. Once I adjusted for that, MFP agreed with Spark and Fitbit on predicted weight loss.
**I’ve known for years this is true to some degree. There are a lot of things that take place in your body that affect weight loss beyond calories. Compare: a month of 1800 calories per day of a normal diet (no weight change) and a month of 1800 calories on a Whole30 diet (loss of 12 lbs) – which is what I experienced in 2014. That’s something else working. Sadly, paleo/Whole30 is not a sustainable long-term way of eating for me because of my high-blood-iron disorder.
***More realistically, a mix between low-intensity (yoga, indoor walking) and high-intensity (hill walking, hiking) balanced out to a moderate workout in 2018, whereas I had a lot fewer low-intensity exercises in 2017.