Screenshot of progress graph in My Fitness PalI few days ago I got an email from iTunes to let me know that my annual subscription to the pro version of My Fitness Pal had just renewed. That means it’s been a year since I got really serious about taking control of my health, so it seems like a good time to reflect on how things are going. Last July, a few months in, I blogged about how tech was helping me on my quest. This is partly a followup, and partly a more general reflection.

I won’t keep you in suspense – the TL;DR version is that with the help of tech, I’ve gone from being officially morbidly obese in January 2016 to being in the lower half of the healthy BMI range today. I had to squeeze into a 38″ waist, now, I have three fingers to spare on a 32″ waist. If you’re hoping I’ll give you a magic formula, think again, there is no shortcut – it really is as mundane as eating better and exercising more. I did the work, and I had to have the will-power, but I found tech extremely helpful in getting onto the right track in the first place, and then in staying there. The tech can’t do this for you, it can only help you do it for yourself.

The Philosophical Stuff

Before getting stuck into the tech, I want to share some more general thoughts about my weightloss experience.

Firstly, I want to echo something Allison Sheridan has said on the NosillaCast many times – you need to give your health routines priority in your life. You simply can’t squeeze getting healthy into the gaps, you have to make space in your schedule, and defend that space diligently!

Yes it takes a lot of effort to plan your days around a daily exercise routine, but if you’re serious about getting healthy, you have no choice! You might be the kind of person who can reliably do something three times a week, but I’ve discovered that I’m simply not that person. My routines are daily, so if I want to make a permanent change in my life, it has to take the form of an alteration to my daily routine. Simply put, tomorrow never comes.

I also want to echo Allison’s point that you absolutely must measure inputs as well as outcomes if you want to effect a change. You can’t change your weight by only measuring your weight, or, by only measuring your calories in and out – you need to quantify your efforts, and their results. Knowing you calorie balance over time is useless if you can’t see the effect that balance is having on your weight, and knowing how your weight is changing is useless unless you can see why.

IMO there’s another reason you absolutely have to track both calories consumed and calories burned – if you don’t, you can’t develop your awareness of how different foods are from each other, and just how much exercise it takes to burn off the calories that are crammed into even a single bar of chocolate, or handful of peanuts. What I’ve learned is that both food and exercise vary wildly in their calorie content, and calorie burn rate.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned by measuring is that there’s no correlation between how many calories there are in a meal, and how filling it is. In the past, I would have often had a pre-packed sandwich and a small bag of crisps (potato chips for any Americans reading) for lunch, and inevitably found myself hungry an hour later, and standing in front of a vending machine looking for a bar of chocolate. Now, my typical lunch consists of a salad or a big bowl of soup with some whole-grain crackers or bread. The soup and crackers leaves me feeling sated for much longer, and hence, much less likely to snack. So what effect does that have on calorie intake?

Well, I now know that the pre-packed chicken and stuffing sandwiches I like are about 270kcal per pack, and the club sandwich I like is about 560kcal. Meanwhile, regardless of brand, a small bag of crisps is about 240kcal, and so is an Irish-sized chocolate bar. So, that means that before I understood the calorie density of different foods, lunch often consisted of between about 700kcal and 900kcal.

So, what about the soup and crackers option? An entire tin of Heinz Minestrone soup is 126kcal, and two whole-grain Swedish toasts comes to another 100kcal. Because the soup and crackers are so much more satisfying, the urge to snack is much lower, and if I do grab an afternoon snack, it’s usually fruit now, perhaps an apple for 70kcal, a banana for 100kcal, or even two Apricots for less than 40kcal. That gives a more filling and more satisfying lunch for just a little over 300kcal – less than just the club sandwich, let alone the crisps and the chocolate!

Or, to put it another way, the healthy lunch contains just a third of the calories, and yet it leaves me feeling more satisfied, and much less likely to crave junk food by mid afternoon. It’s also cheaper! It’s win-win-win.

The other thing I’ve discovered by starting to measure things is that how natural something is has very little bearing on how many calories it contains. Which has fewer calories, a bowl of Swiss muesli or a bar of chocolate? Probably the chocolate! Which has fewer calories, a handful of peanuts or a chocolate bar? Again, probably the chocolate! Also, just because something is advertised as low fat, or diet, doesn’t actually mean it’s less calorie-dense than its regular counterpart. Often times when the fat gets taken out, it gets replaced with sugar, or vica-versa.

BTW – I’m not suggesting you should avoid nuts and eat chocolate instead, nuts are much more nutritious, it’s just that you need to be aware of their calorie density, and just how small a healthy portion size is!

Speaking of portion sizes, one of the best investments I’ve made are among the simplest and the cheapest – nice stainless steel measuring cups and spoons. In the western world we seem to have lost all concept of what a normal portion size is. It’s one thing to read that you should be having a cup of rice, or using a tablespoon of dressing on a salad, but do you actually know how much that is? Or rather, how little? It turns out I really didn’t! Once I started to actually measure out my portions so I could accurately track my calorie intake, I soon discovered how out of control portion sizes have become in our modern western culture! Seriously, £10 on Amazon will get you a few sets of various sizes of really nice stainless steel measures. I bought a set for measuring cups and fractions of cups, and another for measuring tablespoons, teaspoons, and fractions of each, and they’ve transformed understanding of, and relationship with, food.

Looking back at my daily food logs in My Fitness Pal shows an interesting pattern. At first I tried to avoid big-picture changes by substituting what I already ate for so-called diet versions of the same things. The result was that I was often hungry, and a lot of my food tasted like crap! Over time I slowly began to discover which foods are both filling and low in calories, and which are very high in calories but leave me hungry an hour later. As a result, my diet began to shift. More fruit, more soups, more whole grains, and more food prepared at home from whole ingredients. The key word in that last sentence was more, not only, more. Conversely, I’m eating a lot less processed food, a lot less white flour, a lot less fatty food, and a lot less chocolate, but again, the key word is less, not no.

I still eat everything I used to eat, but treats are now truly treats, and I’ve discovered a whole range of new foods I was ignorant of before. A year ago, I thought there were three fruits – apples, oranges, and bananas! All the rest was this weird exotic stuff I literally looked past in the supermarket. Now I find myself needing a bigger fruit bowl, and an unbelievable range or fruits regularly grace it’s bamboo surface – just in the last seven days there were the three usual suspects, but also kiwi fruits, peaches, nectarines, regular plums, red plums, apricots, black cherries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.

It’s a similar story when it comes to vegetables, fish, and meat. A year ago a courgette was something exotic for special occasions, and I had no idea what to do with an aubergine or a sweet potato! For much of my life there were two fish – cod, and salmon – and three meats – chicken, pork, and beef. On the menu for this Sunday are roast sweet potatoes with red onions and garlic, grilled aubergine with rosemary, roasted butternut squash with honey and balsamic vinegar, and pan-fried tuna steaks. A year ago I’d never even have considered cooking a single one of those dishes, now, that’s a perfectly normal Sunday dinner in the Busschots-Kearns house!

Simply put, eating more healthily has not dented my enjoyment of food, it’s increased it, and I honestly don’t think I’d have been able to make those changes without the awareness that comes from measurement. The facts showed me what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong, and they motivated me to alter the balance between the foods I’ve always eaten, and to discover whole new foods I’d never even considered eating before. I always laugh when people assume I must always be hungry since I’m eating so many fewer calories than I used to – the opposite really is true – my unhealthy calorie dense diet left me feeling a lot hungrier a lot more often!

The Tech

So – how did the tech I was relying on last summer hold up? How much of it am I still relying on? What has fallen by the wayside? And what additional tech have I added into the mix?

Much to my surprise, when I re-read my post from last summer, I found that there’s nothing I was using last summer that I’m not still using today. That really surprises me – I’m not an easy person to please, so clearly all the apps and hardware I blogged about las summer have proven robust, reliable, and useful.

Big-picture-wise I’m still tracking calories burned with an Apple Watch, calories consumed with MyFitness Pal, and I’m still relying on the same suite of weather apps to help me get arrange my daily exercise around the Irish weather.

I’ve also added two more hardware devices to my repertoire, both for the purpose of taking body measurements, and both from Withings – their Bluetooth Blood-pressure Monitor, and their Body Composition WiFi Scale.

My Fitness Pal

Big-picture-wise, this app hasn’t really changed over the last year, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been change. There has, it’s just been incremental, steady, but incremental. Each change has been small, but together they make a big difference – I’m finding it quicker and easier than ever to log my food, and that makes me very happy.

Another factor is that the longer you use the app, the better it gets to know you, and the more often it suggests exactly the food you’re looking for at exactly the right time. Also, the more effort you put into adding details for the few foods not already in their crowd-sourced database, and creating custom recipes and meals, the better your experience with the app will be. It really is the kind of app that rewards you for the effort you put into it.

My approach to using the app is a little unorthodox, but it’s worked well for me. The app lets you define five named meals, but only uses four by default – Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks. I’ve enabled the optional fifth, and named it Banked. While I was losing weight as opposed to working to maintain it at a healthy level, I tried to end each day with a hundred or more calories to spare. Now that I’m aiming to maintain a healthy weight, I’m continuing to avoid exceeding my calorie budget, but, if I have a hundred or two left over at the end of the day, I’ll use them to ‘bank’ a snack or some food for another day. I record it as banked, stick a little sticker on it, and then I’m free to eat it any time I want. I usually have a small cache of ‘free’ snacks in the house, which come in very handy when the Irish weather disrupts my exercise plans. I also use this bank to plan ahead – if I know I’ll be having takeout at the end of the week, I’ll bank a few hundred calories during the week so I have them to spare when it’s time to order that Chinese or that pizza.

I should also mention that it took me a little tinkering to get my daily calorie goal properly configured in the app. The app doesn’t let you set your allowance directly, instead, it asks you some questions, and then calculates it for you. Most of the questions are both easy and to answer and completely quantitive – what gender are you, how tall are you, how much do you weight, what’s your target weight, how quickly do you want to lose weight, and so on. But, one question in particular is distinctly different – it’s extremely subjecting, and I found it very difficult to answer – how active am I? A little bit active? Very active? How am I supposed to know what they mean by those words?

The approach that worked for me was to selected the lowest activity level, granted the app access to my workout data from Health, and make sure to track all my activities as workouts on my Apple Watch. And I do mean all my activities – my short 10 minute cycles to and from work, a short stroll to the shops for milk, the weekly clean (of the house), the laundry, mowing the lawn, doing DIY, I track the lot! Basically, I tell the app to assume I’m bone idle, then measure all the ways that assumption breaks down. I know the watch is not tracking my calories perfectly, especially not when used in ‘other’ mode, but it’s a heck of a lot more accurate than my taking a wild guess at whether I’m somewhat active or very active!

I do have one major quibble with My Fitness Pal though. In theory, the app gives you credit for your step. X amount of steps equals Y extra calories in your daily budget. That makes a lot of sense. However, if you do any workouts at all, your step calories are subtracted from your workout calories, so your can actually go out for a cycle, burn 100 calories, and find that your balance has not gone up at all! This makes no sense to me – burning more calories on my bike did not un-do my steps! It made me so cranky I just turned off the step counting completely – since I cycle every day, all the feature was doing was confusing things and irritating me!

Apple Watch

Last summer I was still on my first Apple Watch, what’s now generally referred to as a Series Zero watch. Over the winter I upgraded to a Series 2, the latest model. I opted for the 42mm sport model again, but this time I went with a Nike band rather than a Sport band from Apple. My reasons for upgrading were very simple – the Series 2 is officially waterproof, and it has built-in GPS so it can track workouts completely independent of an iPhone. The Series Zero was widely believed to be effectively waterproof, but it was not officially waterproof, so I always got nervous when I got rained on, and that happens quite often in Ireland! Now, I don’t need to worry when I get rained on. It still sucks, but I don’t have to worry 🙂

The independence from the phone has also proved very useful. With the series zero the watch lost all ability to track pace when ever the bluetooth connection between the watch and the phone was disrupted. It didn’t happen often, but every now and then I’d lose chunks of my workout because of bluetooth interference – for a few minutes, sometimes as many as 5 or 10, the watch would record my speed as zero, and give me no credit, even though I was flying along at 20km/h or more!

I’m also absolutely in love with the Nike straps – those holes are not merely cool looking, the extra ventilation they provide makes a real difference in terms of comfort, particularly while exercising.

Map My Ride

I am still using Map My Ride to track my cycling, but to be honest, I’ve fallen out of love with the app. I’m giving very serious consideration to switching to Strava. Like My Fitness Pal, big-picture-wise the app hasn’t changed much, and, the app has been constantly updated throughout the year. But, unlike with My Fitness Pal, the changes to Map My Ride have made the features I use most often more awkward to access. Nothing catastrophic mind, just an extra tap here and an extra tap there. At worst it’s death by paper cuts, but it’s not really death – I don’t hate the app, and I still use it – it’s just that I’ve just become apathetic about it.

Weather Apps

I still consider weather apps to be a vital part of my daily health routine. My daily active calorie goal is 1,000kcal, and as I type this, I’m on day 225 of a perfect streak (though I did lower my daily target to 500kcal for a week when I got ill a few months ago). In Ireland, the only way you can do that is by planning ahead. When the weather plays ball, my ideal routine goes something like this:

  1. Cycle into work via a slight detour and pick up a hundred or so calories so I can have a biscuit or two with my morning coffee
  2. Take a 40 minute walk over lunch
  3. Cycle home without detour
  4. Straight after work I have a light snack (usually an Apple and a banana), change into my cycle gear, and do between an hour and two hours on the bike (about 40-50km most days)

But, I often don’t get my way, and have to organise myself around the weather. That happens on two scales – short term, and long term. When the weather is showery it’s often simply a case of taking my lunch a little early or late. To judge that, I need accurate and current rainfall data and short-term predictions. Other times, it’s much bigger picture – if there’s an actual weather front due to move through, I may need to go to bed an hour or two early so I can get up an hour or two early to get my big cycle in before work, or, I may need to agree with my boss that I’ll be making use of some flexi-time I’ve built up and arrange to come in late or leave early, or take an extra long lunch. To do that, I need an accurate multi-day forecast. Finally – there’s nothing worse than turning for home on a bike and then discovering you have 30km to do into a strong head wind. In Ireland, the winds often change direction and speed significantly during the course of a 2 hour cycle, so you don’t just need to plan your route based on what the wind is doing at the moment you set off, you also need to consider which direction it’s veering towards over the next few hours.

No one app meets all those needs, so, just like last summer, I rely on a suite of four weather apps – Weather Pro HD (iPad only, fantastic for long-term planning), Dark Sky (iPhone and iPad, good for medium-term planning), Rain Today (iPhone & iPad, a superb near-live rainfall radar app for very short-term planning), and Meteo Earth (Mac, iPad & iPhone, an amazing wind visualisation app). These are the same four apps I was using a year ago, and I’m still just as happy with them today as I was then.

The Withings Body Composition Wifi Scale

In order to effect your weight, you need to measure calories in and calories out, but in order to track your progress, you obviously need to measure your weight. However, it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that. In terms of raw weight I’ve been at a pretty steady weight for half a year now, but, that doesn’t mean my body composition has not continued to change. Why? Because at any given weight you could have many different ratios of fat to muscle. In fact, if exercising more is part of your process for losing weight, it’s inevitable that you’re going to start to build muscle as you lose fat. If you only measure total weight there’s a real chance you could find yourself thinking you’re on the wrong path when you’re actually continuing to get healthier. If you lose fat but build muscle, your overall weight may actually increase.

As my fitness rose, and my waist shrank, I began to worry about the short-comings of only knowing my total weight, and not knowing my body composition. Just as I was having those thoughts, Black Friday rolled around, and Withings offered a nice discount on their Body Composition Wifi Scale, so I grabbed one. Since then I’ve seen my fat mass drop and my muscle mass rise, but my overall weight has remained quite steady. Another great advantage of a body composition scale is that it shows you your water mass, which is something that varies a lot, and quickly, and accounts for a lot of the variation you get between consecutive weight measurements. Basically, that noise you always see in a graph of people’s total weight is largely down to short-term variations in water mass. If you track your composition, then you don’t have to wonder whether or not it’s just a variation in water mass, or whether you’ve put on more fat, you’ll know exactly what’s changed, and whether or not you need to make a minor course correction. It gives me great peace of mind to know which increases in weight are an early sign of a problem trend, and which I can safely ignore.

Initially, I absolutely hated the Withings app, use of which is compulsory with this scale. While the Withings app will write all your data to the Health app so it can be easily accessed by other apps (with your explicit permission), you must use the app to get the data from the scales into your phone.

Thankfully the app has changed dramatically over the past half year, and those changes have all been for the better. It’s still not perfect by any means, but it’s become much more reliable, and much easier to use. My last remaining major quibble is that you can’t quickly switch the units on the body composition graph between KG to %, your only option is to navigate to the settings screen and change the option there, then navigate back to the graph. Basically, the app assumes you have one preference, and that no one would want to see both numbers on a regular basis. IMO that assumption is utterly wrong-headed, and I’ve passed that feedback on to the company 🙂

Withings Bloodpressure Monitor

A major driver for my push to get fit was warnings from my doctor about my blood pressure. It wasn’t catastrophically high, but it was consistently that little bit too high for a person of my age. It needed to be dealt with before it became a serious concern.

To that end, I bought myself a a bluetooth blood pressure monitor from Withings. It uses the same app as the Body scale, and simply put, it works great. Despite being a bluetooth device, it triggers the app reliably, and the industrial design is simply gorgeous. I also love that the action is quite gentle – yes, it works by squeezing your arm and measuring how hard your blood pushes back, but unlike some devices I’ve used over the years, it doesn’t feel like it’s assaulting you, or that you’ll end up with a massive bruise afterwards!

Final Thoughts

I know everyone is different, so you’ll need to discover what works for you, but I honestly believe it all boils down to the same two things for everyone:

  • You have to measure stuff because otherwise you can’t take control of anything!
  • Instantaneous dramatic changes won’t work – you’ll last a few days, or maybe a week, but you’ll soon fall off the band wagon. (Can anyone say New Year’s Resolutions?) Instead, you have to make continuous small changes to your daily routine to relentlessly slew it in the right direction – be the tortoise, not the hare!