My Torrid Affair with Data

I love data.

There. I said it.

It’s taken me years to acknowledge this relationship. And it’s a difficult relationship. There are those out there who don’t approve of a relationship with data. They say people and data shouldn’t mix. They say you should run by feel. Eat ’til you’re full. Judge your shape by the fit of your clothes.

But that’s just not good enough for me.

I want data. Pure unadulterated data. I want to see those data points. I want to see those means in their uncovered glory. I want to see those graphs lying there in front of me.

I need data because without data I have a habit of failing.

Let’s look at the most sadistic thing I do first. I weigh myself daily. At the end of the day.

I once told someone I weighed myself every day and they kind of flinched. Then I said I did it at the end of the day, and they thought I sprouted a second head. The reason I do it is the same reason other people won’t. It’s punishment if you have a bad day.

Every single day, that scale is weighting (get it?) for me. I can’t go off the rails with my food because I know I can ingest a lot of food, enough that it will make a measurable difference. Just today I ate a pizza for lunch. Not pizza. A pizza. As in a pizza that should serve multiple people. I didn’t need that, but I did it anyway.

I also know when I don’t log daily, my weight can creep up on my without me realizing it. I gained 15 pounds in 6 weeks once without even realizing it. I had stopped weighing myself. To go back to the feeling thing, I felt the same, but I clearly wasn’t. I didn’t put on 15 pounds of muscle in six weeks.

And on the plus side, I lose weight better that way. I was able to drop 15 pounds over the span of about 2-3 months in part because I was meticulously weighing myself.

That gets us to the second thing I do. I count calories. Usually.

Unfortunately, this is the easiest to slack off on because it takes the most work (though it’s probably the most beneficial). I use MyFitnessPal to track my meals when I’m behaving.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. I can save meals. I can search restaurant items. And it factors in activity level, which is linked to my Fitbit.

What’s great is that it tracks nutrients. It’s a lot harder to ignore sodium when you more than double your daily allotment. It’s also great about letting me know I don’t get as much fiber as I think I do.

Again, it’s not perfect. It’s prone to user error. This is where I do a second sadistic thing. I overestimate the calories I eat when I’m not sure. I always figured it was better to be wrong and have a happy surprise in weight loss than to be wrong and have the opposite. It’s not fun, but it works. When I actually log meals.

That’s the other big issue. I’m a slacker. I haven’t logged a meal in weeks. Partly it’s because I’ve been cooking new things. This is going to sound stupid, but sometimes I’m too tired from cooking to log meals. I just want to eat my food and be done with it.

I can’t go without the tracker, though. The problem is I don’t know what I’m eating. I can’t go by feel. I shoot for about 2,000 calories a day. When I think I’m eating carefully, I naturally hit about 2,500. When I’m eating to satiation, I clear 3,000, easily. I ate 2,500 calories in one sitting without even realizing it (and I know I’ve eaten more before in a single meal). I like to eat crappy food, so if I don’t track, I think I’m splurging a little and I end up eating more food in a sitting than most people on the planet get in a day.

And the third thing I do is track my exercise and activity.

I do this a couple of different ways. First and foremost is the Fitbit (a.k.a., the slacker tracker). This has been a fantastic device when I haven’t been breaking them (and I’m learning other people don’t have the issues I have with breaking them, so there’s that).

The steps are the main concern. They’re a great overall indicator. It’s hard to pretend you were active when you only hit 5,000 steps.

The one I wasn’t expecting to have a big effect was the sleep tracker, but that might be the one that’s had the biggest impact. I could guess at my steps in a day, but I was never tracking sleep. Big mistake. When I’m dragging, I can usually see it on the sleep tracker. Tracking my sleep has been great for ensuring I stay a functioning human being.

And it integrates with MyFitnessPal. It’s not a perfect system. But it’s an indicator. I care less about the exact numbers than just having a gauge to see if I’ve been moving around much.

The other aspect of activity tracking is tracking my workouts. Once I started using MyFitnessPal, I was able to take guesses, so it was alright. Throwing the Fitbit in allowed me to see specific steps and flights of stairs (though it severely underestimates distance). But it was a consistent means of measuring.

But now I can actually track my runs through Zombies, Run! The GPS on that allows me to see my runs, including pace and elevation. I don’t integrate this information into MyFitnessPal, but it lets me see my runs over a long period of time. And it also shows that my mileage took a severe dip once I switched away from the 5K training app. Turns out I was better off with the small version of the app than the full version (or I just need to extend the time I’m out and about).

And I say all of this to say another thing: I need the data because I use the data. I don’t just collect data and do nothing with it.

I see what I’m eating and what’s eating up calories, so I make a tweak. I see that I’m sleeping 7 hours when I think I’m sleeping 8, so I adjust my bedtime. I see that my 5K times aren’t getting better (and are possibly getting worse), so I have the opportunity to extend my workouts based on long-term trends.

This is what data can do for you. You don’t have to be afraid to measure. You don’t have to get fanatical. You don’t have to measure every single time (and honestly, sometimes it’s nice to take a run unplugged). But you have to measure consistently. There are going to be fluctuations, and if you only measure sporadically, the fluctuations can make things look a lot better or worse than they really are.

I weigh myself every day because I’ve seen 5-pound swings between days. If I only weighed myself once a week, I could ruin my week (or get an invalid boost) based off of a rogue day. That same day when I’m weighing daily is an outlier, and I know it, but I also can see why it was an outlier. I can identify what I did or didn’t do and make corrections.

So don’t be afraid of data. You don’t have to obsess over it or write it love letters, but you also don’t have to give it the cold shoulder. You can experiment with data; it’s not just college students who do that.




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