In this article, we answer the question ‘what should I track during my programme?’
If you are embarking on a new health and fitness goal, make sure you are ‘ticking all the boxes’. You are likely to have a complete change in lifestyle that may be difficult at first to stick to. Whether you decide to go it alone or hire professional guidance, you might need to track several areas of your daily life. Read on to learn what areas you should track, how to track them and why it is important.
Tracking and accountability
Regardless of your chosen fitness goal, you are likely to need a few traits to make you successful. What you don’t ‘need’ is the latest pair of trainers or the newest fitness equipment. What you will need is the desire to make the changes required and the discipline and drive to continue them. At first, this will be difficult and, in some cases, may need you to make a complete 180-degree change from your current lifestyle.
You may choose to hire the services of a personal trainer, or you may decide to go it alone. If you have some experience in nutrition and training, you may be able to get the ball rolling for yourself.
You are going to see some changes initially with most programmes you implement as they will create a new stimulus. So, you will be more motivated as it is fresh and new, which will lead to you following the plan 100%. However, as time goes on, you may start to miss your old lifestyle and not notice the changes happening as rapidly as before. How do you combat this? Well, this is where tracking lifestyle factors comes into play. By regularly monitoring and evaluating your lifestyle, you can identify any issues that might be holding you back from your goals.
Most Personal Trainers (PTs) will have you tracking some areas of your lifestyle. You may find this tedious at first, but it is all for a purpose. I will discuss some of the areas of lifestyle we track at Life Force Fitness but, first, I want to give you an analogy to help you understand personal training. . . .
The sat-nav analogy
A good PT or coach is like using a map. You give them your destination, and they will provide you with a basic ‘point a-b-c’ on how to travel that route. However, it’s a static route with no guidance or personalisation other than ‘you can go this way or go that way: follow this, and you will likely reach your end goal’.
A great PT or coach is like a Sat-nav. You provide them with your destination, and they will help calculate the best route for you, give you an ETA and, when needed, divert your efforts to reaching your destination when roadblocks or conditions change. They will talk you through the directions you need step by step to get you to your destination.
Clients sometimes mistake a PT as a Taxi: they give the destination and expect to be taken there. A PT cannot do that for you; they can only show you the way. Some clients feel that purely by hiring a PT, they are guaranteed results. Alas, this is not the case.
For a coach to be a Sat-nav, they are going to require some feedback and information from you to evaluate and alter your programme moving forward. We have discussed some of the areas we track in our service previously
Without this critical feedback, a PT cannot guide you correctly or give you the results you desire. The same is true if you decide to embark on your transformation alone. Without the data to analyse, you cannot explain or pinpoint any areas that are holding you back from achieving your goals. Now you know ‘why’ you should track, you may be wondering ‘what should I track during my programme?’. There are three key areas we regularly track with our clients. I will explain what each one is and why we do it.
Food tracking is an activity with imperfect adherence from new clients, who find it taxing and time-consuming. But if you were to ask me what one aspect of your lifestyle you should track, this would be it!
We have discussed several times before that most physique-based goals require a ‘calories in: calories out’ equation. You will need to be in either a calorie deficit or a calorie surplus, depending on your goal. If you do not track your food, how do you know if you are eating too much or too little? Food tracking will also need to be combined with your other two key areas that we will discuss shortly.
By regularly tracking and reviewing your calorie intake, you can see any issues that arise and fix them swiftly. If you coast through each day eating freely as you go along, it becomes a game of guesswork. When you rely on guesswork, you lose the ability to evaluate and fix your issues.
There have been multiple studies which look at the relationship between tracking food and weight loss goals and they all say the same: those who track their calorie intake tend to be more successful in achieving their weight loss goals. Not only that, but this study also shows that tracking calorie intake leads to better adherence and weight loss results in the long term.
How to track calories
Previously, you would have had to do the maths of your servings based on the information on the back of the packet. Nowadays, thanks to technology, there are multiple tracking apps available for you to use. There are plenty of free apps such as MyFitnessPal and Fitbit, as well as other options that come at a cost with more features.
Both MyFitnessPal and Fitbit allow you to set a calorie target for the day as well as view your macronutrient breakdown per meal. Simply type into the search bar what food you are consuming, then select the amount you used and what meal it was for. And hey presto, it’s recorded in your diary. Do this for every ingredient you eat as well as fluids to give you a complete daily record. At first, it might be wise to compare the packet information to the app information as occasionally there can be discrepancies.
Common food tracking errors
Here are some of the common food logging mistakes to keep an eye out for:
- Incorrect portion sizes. Make sure if you measure your food in grams, you log it in grams. If a product is packaged ‘per serving’, make sure you know, and log, how many servings you have.
- Neglecting ingredients. The calories used in cooking oils, dressings and sauces can quickly add up. Make sure to include them in your daily tracking.
- Incorrect food selection. Some foods are weighed either dry or cooked, such as rice or oats. Always weight dry quantities. That’s the only way you can be sure it will match the app. If you weight cooked, you can’t be sure how much of the weight is water, as that may depend on cooking time, which is unknown for the app.
- Single item sizes. Foods such as eggs, bananas and bread rolls all come in different sizes. By recording a small instead of a large option, you essentially omit calories from your intake.
If I were to consider food tracking as the number one tracking factor, activity must be the second. The two go hand in hand. If your goal is weight loss, you will require a calorie deficit. The best way to achieve this deficit is a combination of eating less and moving more. Equally, if you are trying to bulk up, make sure you consume more than you burn off. Ensure you track your activity alongside your food intake to see your ‘calories in: calories out’ total.
The biggest contribution to your daily calorie burn is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the energy you use just staying alive; before you even lift a finger. After that, your various activities top up your overall calorie expenditure. There are three areas of activity you can track to see your daily totals:
You may have a physical job where you burn a lot of calories. On the other hand, you might spend most of your day sitting down. We also include non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) into this category, which is any activity that is NOT exercise. NEAT includes activities such as house chores and walking around.
Different goals may require you performing various types of cardio in both intensity and duration. Keeping track of the calories burned will make a difference to your calorie total. From a performance point of view, it is beneficial to track how well your sessions are going. By doing this, you receive feedback that can help identify if you are overreaching and potentially risking overtraining. For example, if you usually burn 230 calories in 45 minutes on the treadmill, but that number begins to fall to 220, 200, this might suggest that your output has dropped. You will need to investigate why this is happening: it could be because you are getting fitter, but it could be a sign of overtraining.
You must record your resistance training for the same reasons as above. Monitoring your performance in the weights room is essential to track progression and monitor recovery. If you can keep adding reps on an exercise or more weight on the bar, this is a good thing. However, if you find that you are beginning to lose reps or the weight is feeling heavier than usual, you might not be recovering correctly. The lack of recovery could be down to a calorie deficit or overreaching in your training. It is at this point you will want to de-load your training and evaluate your programme.
Tracking changes in your body is going to be high on our list with any transformation programme. Whether you’re trying to shed fat or add muscle, make sure that is precisely what is happening to you. You may be surprised I have listed it third and not first. Well, if you are recording your calories consumed, calories burnt and performance in the gym, and they are completed as required by your plan, you can reasonably assume that you are on track to achieving your goals. However, if you focus purely on body composition without tracking the others as well, we are less likely to achieve them. I think of body composition as a confirmation that we are adhering to the other lifestyle tracking factors. By making the above point, I am not saying it is not important. It would be best if you were tracking all three.
Is weighing enough?
Some programmes may have you just recording your weight. But is this the best measure of success? The weight displayed on the scales has a multitude of factors which can affect it. Simple factors such as time of day, food consumed, fluids and stress levels can all factor into your weight. If you lose four pounds on the scales, you cannot say how much of that is fat, fluid or muscle. You would have the same issue if you were to gain four pounds. Because of this, bodyweight alone is not a sufficient measure for either a fat loss or muscle gain programme. So, if you are performing your own transformation programme, what should you measure for body composition?
For some, this may be an uncomfortable process, but taking progress photos is one of the best measuring methods you can use. Regardless of your goal, there will always be a pride factor to it. You may want to lose weight for your health or add muscle to increase your performance, but ultimately, we all want to look a little better in our birthday suits.
By taking photos at regular intervals, you can see the changes in your body. The changes you make in either fat loss or muscle gain will be minuscule daily changes, undetectable to you. It is why the best judges of progress are those individuals you only see once a month, as they only have the memory of your last image to compare to.
Try taking comparison photos once a month. Make sure it’s at the same time and day, for example, first thing every fourth Saturday. First thing in the morning, after visiting the bathroom is the best time to take your photos. Make sure to take the photos in the same place each time and if possible, wear the same clothing. Underwear is best as it is more revealing, but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, wear tight-fitting clothing.
You should take regular physique landmark measurements with a tape measure to track changes. To do this, you may need the assistance of someone else to take the measurements to make it an easier process. Make sure you take the same measurements in the same places each month.
There are several areas you can choose the measure; where you decide to measure is personal preference. Common areas measured are:
- Waist. This is usually where the belly button sits or just above the hip bone
- Hips. The widest part around your glutes
- Chest. Under the arms and around the centre of the chest muscle area
- Arms. Aim for mid-way point of the upper arm
- Legs. Aim for mid-thigh if possible. Or use a hand span distance from the knee as a way to consistently measure at the same point on the thigh.
You may have an old dress or pair of jeans you want to fit back in to. You may have been out and purchased a new piece of clothing intending to get into it or fill it out. By using clothing, it can give you a sense of progress and tell you if you are on the right track.
The best measurement you can take is a complete body composition measurement. By tracking your body fat and muscle mass numbers, you get a better understanding of your body composition. You may be losing weight on the scale, but if body fat stays the same and it is muscle mass you lose, this is a bad result. If you’re trying to bulk up, you want to make sure the weight you add is muscle and not fat. The scales will not give you that level of detail.
There are many different body composition machines available. I would be cautious using the at-home variations as they are less accurate than the bigger machines you find in gyms and PT studios. The machines work by sending an electrical current through your body and recording the resistance. Different tissues conduct the current differently. The at-home body composition scales that you stand on only send the signal through the lower half of your body. Scales like the ones we use at our studio include handles and pass currents at three different frequencies, which enables a full-body scan and a more accurate reading.
Like taking the photos, take the scan at the same time of day at a set regular, say monthly, interval. You are best to take the reading fasted to avoid extra interference of food weight or fluids.
Other benefits to lifestyle tracking
There are many reasons why we ask clients to track certain areas of lifestyle. We have mentioned above the main reasons: to ensure you are achieving the programme goal. However, there are secondary benefits for tracking.
Tracking as self-education
When you embark on a new health and fitness goal, it is likely to be a new way of life to you. Unless you have been into health and fitness for some time, by tracking you are going to learn a lot more about your body and the food you eat.
As you begin tracking your food, you will need to diligently measure out your servings and adjust your food choices to hit your daily calorie totals and your macronutrient needs. As you become accustomed to this, you will learn to eyeball measurements of foods and be reasonably accurate with your measures. You will learn what foods you need to limit and which foods you can consume at higher quantities. In other words, you’ll learn about healthy food choices and sensible portion sizes.
As you log your exercise, you will learn where your strengths and weaknesses are. When you get used to logging your training, you will also get used to pushing yourself in your sessions to hit the numbers you predict for yourself. In doing this, you will continue to achieve more significant results and also know when it is time to back off and recover.
If you hire a PT or coach, there is likely to be an end date to that relationship. A good coach should arm you with the knowledge you need for life after their services. If not, you will repeat a cycle of returning to your old lifestyle, declining in health and fitness, then needing assistance to return to your previous highs.
Tracking to build habits
Einstein’s definition of insanity is “performing the same task and expecting a different outcome”. Why is this quote relevant? Well, when you identify that you need to lose weight or build muscle, you are going to have to change what you currently do to achieve that. You can’t state that you want the change to happen and then continue with your usual routine.
To achieve your new goal, you are not only going to have to change your lifestyle, but also change your habits so that you keep up this new lifestyle. We have previously discussed good and bad habits in this article. As pointed out above, people who ‘yo-yo diet’ are prime examples where habit formation fails. When starting the new plan you will be motivated to make changes; you create that change until you achieve the desired goal, then you return to your previous life. Then you lose the goal you achieved, so you set out a new mission to achieve that goal. You may hear people claim that nothing works for them. In fact, they found multiple methods that did work; they just didn’t stick to them.
Tracking forces you to be conscious of your creation of new habits. At first, it can be challenging and frustrating to have to write down and work out all the foods you eat, activity you do, sleep you get etc. However, when you do it for several weeks, you will have created new habits in those tasks which will make them automatic and just part of your new day to day life.
When should you stop tracking?
When you choose to stop tracking certain elements is a matter of personal choice. It also depends on where you are in relation to your goal and your level of experience in the lifestyle you are trying to attain. If you’re new to diet and exercise, keep on top of your tracking for some time. If you are restarting after a small lay off, you may get away with just a few weeks as a reminder.
For example, I do not log my food because I have familiar and repeatable patterns of eating and I already know the calories and macronutrient breakdown. Although I do not log my food, I log every training session, and I take my body composition every other week to see where I am at. If I don’t like what I see from my logbook or body scan, I re-evaluate all areas to work out what is going wrong.
With modern technology, there are plenty of tracking apps available where you can measure a range of lifestyle areas. Most smartphones come with a ‘health suite’ now. You can track your daily steps, food, exercise, sleep and even stress levels on your phone. If you are not someone who regularly tracks your lifestyle, there is plenty of free technology that you could access to review where you currently are: you may be surprised by what you learn about yourself!
Achieving any lifestyle goal is going to require change, assessment and evaluation. If you don’t keep an eye on what you are doing, you cannot measure your output or success towards your goals. By tracking key lifestyle areas such as food, activity and body measurements, you are more likely to achieve your goals and create the lifelong habits required to maintain them. The old-school pen and paper method still works just as well as new technology, it just requires more effort and input.
Tracking as many areas as possible is not only a great way to improve your own knowledge, it will give you more accurate feedback and assistance in building your new habits. If you are using the services of a coach, try your best to track the areas of your lifestyle as requested. If you do this, your coach can improve the level of service they provide and better enable you to achieve your goal.