Longest Move StreakI’m into the second half of my thirties now, and for the last decade or so, my weight had been slowly creeping up. When you’re a teenager, your body seems to be able to burn off enough calories to make up for a bad diet. But, as you get further into your twenties, something happens, and you start to put on weight instead of burning off all those bad-food calories. Eating is something I tend to be very habitual about, so while I made a conscious decision to eat better and exercise more, that never seemed to change anything. I would just continue to eat like I did before, almost as if I was on auto-pilot. I’d find myself eating a Mars bar at 3pm in the afternoon, not because I wanted one, or even because I’d chosen to have one, but because that’s what I’d always done at 3pm, and my body would just move towards the vending machine a that time without any conscious thought at all!

I’d been meaning to tackle my weight for years, but this year, after many false starts, I’m finally succeeding, and the difference with previous failed attempts is technology.

About 3 years ago (I think) I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted a fitness tracker to start measuring my actual activity. Just then, Apple announced Health Kit – a secure and private way to store health data on iPhones. This really appealed to me, so I started saving for a FitBit. Then, just as I had the money saved, FitBit let it be known that they would not be supporting Health Kit – they would make people use their own cloud service. Sod that!

By that point, the Apple Watch rumours had reached the kind of critical mass that convinced me they were accurate, and, it seemed a near guarantee that the device would be a fitness tracker. I decided to wait for Apple to play their card.

When the watch finally did come out, it took a while for it to get to Ireland. In fact, it took so long to get to Ireland that I got fed up waiting, and last August, with the help of a friend in the UK, I acquired a UK Apple Watch, and started to track my activity.

At first, I did’t have any real concept of what the numbers really meant. I just went with the flow, and dutifully tried to fill the circles. Apple cleverly start your daily targets low, so you don’t feel like the sloth you are! Soon I was making perfect week after perfect week, and very slowly, the watch started to crank up the targets. Having started at just 300kCal per day, I was able to make my goal with small changes like using the stairs instead of the lift. Then, as the target slowly crept up, I started to intentionally cycle home by a slightly longer router. Then by a definite detour. Then, I started to bring proper cycling gear to work so I could change into it for a 30 minute cycle home, then a 45 minute cycle, then an hour. Before I knew it, my daily target was over 600kCal, and I was reaching it, day after day after day!

As spring really set in and the evenings began to lengthen, I decided it was time to get serious about this exercise thing, and not allow myself to miss any days. Soon, the watch started telling me I was on a record-lenght perfect streak – 24 days, then I missed one. Then up to 28 days before missing one. Then, I got really serious about it, and I’m now on a continuing record streak of 105 perfect days and counting!

Because I was not consistently making my daily targets, the watch kept raising the bar. Soon, it was at 800kCal, then 900, then 1,000!

A few months into this ever increasing amount of exercise something struck me – yes, I was fitter, but no, I was not losing weight? Why? I was burning hundreds more calories each day, but my weight was staying the same. Could it be that I was increasing my food intake by the same amount I was increasing my exercise by?

It was time to do something I had been put off doing years ago – start counting calories. When I first tried to count calories a decade ago I came to the conclusion that it was voodoo. Was that a leisurely cycle or a light cycle? All the estimates of calories burned and eaten just seemed too fluffy and arbitrary to me. It didn’t feel rigorous, and that’s not a good mix when combined with the impressive human predilection for self delusion.

If I was going to count calories again, I was going to be much more rigorous about it this time! The watch was giving me good data on how much I was burning, so if I could find an app that would help me accurately track calorie intake, then the whole problem would become a simple accountancy exercise – keep the calories burned above the calories consumed, and all would be well. I just had to balance the books!

Ideally, the app should actually do all the maths for me, and show me what I had taken in on any given day, and what I had burned, and the difference between the two. After doing a lot of reading, I settled on My Fitness Pal. It has many endearing features, but the one that spoke to me most is the simple equation it shows at the very top of the screen:

goal - food + exercise = remaining

The other reason I fell in love with the app is that their UI makes tracking calories hassle free. The app is great at learning about you, and then putting the very thing you need right at your finger tips just when you need it. In fact, the more consistent a person you are, the better this app will work for you.

The app has a massive database of nutritional information, and, a barcode scanner, so, most of the time, you just scan the food you’re about to eat, and you’re done.

Some food is not in the DB, so you have to enter it manually, but you can save custom food, so after a week or two, you’ll soon have all the stuff you eat regularly entered into the app and available easily.

The app also allows you to enter recipes, and it will calculate the calories per serving for you. This takes a little effort, but again, is well worth doing because it soon starts paying off big-time.

The app is free, but comes with really annoying ads. You need to buy an annual subscription to get rid of them, and that’s not cheap – about €50!

So far in the story, tech has allowed me to accurately record the calories I consume, and the calories I burn, but there is more tech involved in this story.

Because of an old Badminton injury, it’s best for me to avoid exercise that involves impact. This is why I’ve settled on cycling as my main calorie burner. It also come with the added bonus that it doesn’t require any kind of membership, can be done at any time, and gets you out in the fresh air.

The problem is, in Ireland, that means you have to avoid rain.

I’ll get on to the technology that allows me to avoid most of the rain most of the time in a moment, but let’s be honest, I have gotten wet many times in the past few months, and am going to keep getting wet in the future. It’s Ireland, it rains!

The single most expensive technology I have invested in is proper cycling cloths. Not tight lycra that puts your bits on display to the world, but proper jerseys and jackets, proper gell under shorts, and then baggy mountain biking shorts over the top. As long as tops are not baggy and made of a material that does not get cold and heavy as you sweat you’ll be fine, but honestly, the most comfortable cycle jerseys I have are also the most expensive – you do get what you pay for. Definitely definitely definitely never skimp on the gell under shorts. What ever else you go for the bargain basement option on, don’t do that with the under shorts! I would also strongly recommend not skimping on the waterproof jacket either.

At the end of the day, the old cliché holds – there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong cloths. So, don’t wear the wrong cloths!

Having said all that, keeping dry is still more pleasant than getting wet, so I do my best to organise myself around the rain, and with the help of some great apps, I usually succeed.

I’ve found that there is no perfect weather app. Instead, I have found a whole load of apps that do specific things really well, and use them all as appropriate.

  • Weather Pro HD – there is simply nothing better for long-term planing, especially if you are a data nerd! The app is all about graphs – showing you the predicted value for just about everything for each and every hour of the day for the next two weeks (if you buy the pro subscription). The graphs are beautiful and they give you a really good sense of what the weather will really be like. I love that they graph rainfall in two ways – chance of there being rain as a percentage for each hour, and the expected rainfall for each hour on top of that. Showers show as a high probability, but low amounts, while persistent rain shows as high probability and high amounts. The other important metrics are minutes of sunshine per hour, and wind speed.
  • Rain Today – this app is great for showing live rainfall radar images, and projecting them forward for an hour. The map is quick to load, and the scrubber lets you really see how the rain is moving, and what you can expect it to do over the next hour or two. Unfortunately the hourly predictions are not that great – the app seems not to consider drizzle to be rain at all!
  • Dark Sky – there is simply no better app for predicting the rainfall over the next hour. In theory it has a live radar map too, but that feature is buggy as all heck, and that aspect of the UI stinks.
  • Meteo Earth – nothing beats this app for seeing animated wind flows over the the next few days. This allows you to plan your routes so that you always leave home into the wind, and have the wind in your back on the way home.

The last piece of the puzzle is keeping myself motivated. I hate cycling the same routes all the time, so to change things up, I keep a Google Map of targets to aim for – mountains to top, forests to explore, historical monuments to visit, cool routes to try out and so on. Because the wind direction dictates where I should aim for on any given day, I make a point of recording anything of interest on the map as soon as I find it, and then, when I see the day’s wind predictions, I pick a target, and off I go.

As I get fitter, my range is increasing, so cool new targets keep coming into range. I’m now starting to do some serious exploring of the Dublin mountains, and making it to the very top of 400m peaks on my trusty mountain bike.

From a technological point of view, there were a few lessons I had to learn.

Firstly, My Fitness Pal is very bad at doing what you ask in terms of step counting. I told it a million times to use the steps from my watch not my Phone, but as soon as the phone thinks I did more steps than the watch, My Fitness Pal Ignores my settings, and uses the Phone’s number. The problem is the phone is too dumb to tell the difference between walking and cycling, so it is utterly wrong. The only solution I found was to turn off the step counter in my iPhone. That way there is no wrong data for My Fitness Pal to suck in.

Secondly, it is well worth taking the time to enter your recipes into My Fitness Pal. It takes a little effort to do it the first time you cook a particular meal, but once it’s done, it’s done. After a few weeks, all the meals you cook often are in there, so the time you spend interacting with the app gets ever shorter.

Finally, never connect two trackers for the same thing to the same service. I track my cycles on my Apple Watch, but, while that can read my pulse, and hence give very accurate calorie counts, it doesn’t do any of the cool mapping stuff Map My Ride does, so I actually track my exercise with both. Health is not smart enough to spot obvious duplicate workouts, and hence, the calorie counts end up doubled. While My Fitness Pal is a little smarter than Health Kit, its still much too easy to end up with double credit for a single workout. My solution was simply to disconnect I Map My Ride from both Health Kit and My Fitness Pal, and keep that data totally separate. I can see cool maps and graphs of my elevation in the Track My Ride app, but that data does not get into Health. My watch does send all the workouts I do to Health, and My Fitness Pal uses Health as its only source of workout data.

It took me a little bit of effort to get everything configured perfectly, but it was worth it, because now it works great for me.

Three months of burning 500 kCal more than I eat every day, and I have lost about 18kg, and am just 6kg from my target weight. Technology really can be a force for good in your life 🙂