Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Trouble With Fitness Trackers

by Kris Pitcher

I'll preface this blog by saying there are a lot of different ways to get to the same place. Finding a way that works for you is key. What sparks my thoughts on this subject is hearing frustration and confusion from competitors trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Fitness trackers have their place both within the general population, and maybe within the competitive population. But only with the right expectations about what it's going to do for you.

  • Provide motivation to move. Great
  • Track information about your sleep. Excellent.
  • Track your heart rate. Questionable as to accuracy.
  • Track your caloric intake and expenditure. Not in the ballpark.

Let's back up before we move on. Calories are units of energy. Everything we do requires energy. Whether we are sleeping, digesting, breathing, moving our bowels...or exercising. Every magical thing our body does requires energy.

We take in calories from the foods we eat. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Each has it's own "estimated" value. We expend calories...well, always. We expend calories in active and passive ways all the time.

How much energy, or calories, we need is very individual. Many factors play into the equation. What is our body composition, our hormone profile, our activity level, our "metabolism" - all factors which contribute to how many calories we need. But this isn't about that.

This is about using a tracker to rely on how much you've expended, so you can determine how much you need to take in. There are a couple of reasons why this doesn't work, particularly for the competitive athlete.

First, trackers are inaccurate. One study determined trackers overestimated expenditure in ambulatory activities by 16-40%, while underestimating passive daily activities by up to 34%. That's a pretty wide range.

Second, composition change isn't as linear as calories in < calories out = loss. So to rely on the tracker to determine this for you is chaos. What works better?

Math. Math works better. The greatest frustration comes from competitors trying to ensure they get all of their "macros" in by using the tracker. Truth be told, it's also not accurately tracking nutritional information.

For general population learning the trials and tribulations of making good choices, fitting in what they need, and finding accountability in the tracker, great! But that's all a bit loosey-goosey for someone in a physique sport.

Simplicity works. I'm a flexible-clean eater. What does that mean? I know exactly which nutrients I need in each meal, it's planned out. I can select from my list of each category of nutrients for variation. Simple.

There's never a day when I didn't get all my carbohydrates, protein, or fat in. It's in the plan, and I eat the plan. When does the plan change? The plan evolves when we need to elicit change. We have a number of variables we can choose from to make said change. Easy.

How many calories, EXACTLY, is my plan? I'm not entirely sure. It doesn't matter. The calories are an estimation of the energy. As I move from off season to prep, my plan will begin to evolve. We monitor my progress, and make changes as necessary. BIG PICTURE.

Now, when I started competing nine years ago...I tracked everything. Everything! I tracked my cardio, my lifting, my meals, my weight, my periods...all of it. I needed that connection to the process. I needed the minutia. And, I thought that data would be helpful in the future.

It's not. My body is different. I'm eating differently. My composition is different. It's an evolution. And it can't be tracked using algorithms that don't understand my composition, hormonal make up, or metabolism. It just can't.

My advice? Use your tracker to give you data about your sleep and your daily movement. Put it on as a reminder that you are an athlete. Wear it in solidarity with others around you who are trying to be more active. And stop being frustrated in it's inadequacies.

It's another tool you don't need to be successful in this sport. Stop tracking what you've done and start focusing on what you are doing. If you are counting on the tracker creating a daily plan after the fact...you're moving in the wrong direction.

Plan your day, then do it. Track that.