The further down the rabbit hole I have moved with life, education, performance and results for both clients and myself, I realise that data, analytics and the power of the mind create success. Whether it’s for looking good, increasing strength or being successful at a particular task, you need to have a measurable number and an assessment process that can help you determine if you’re moving in the desired direction.
Whenever I go to a social event, I often meet new people who don’t work in my industry. Once we get through the introductions and pleasantries, and once people find out what I do for work, they often tell me about their own personal health and fitness journey and how they can’t seem to figure out why they aren’t getting results. Often with a perplexed look on their faces and a serious gaze into my eyes wanting to know “the secret” to getting successful results, I often hear a common cry for help like, “Look I’m really healthy, I run 4 times a week and have a great diet but I can’t seem to get that last bit of fat away from my body. What should I do?” I invariably ask them back, a question like “What is the body fat percentage or goal you’re trying to achieve?” More often than not, they don’t actually know the number or the goal they are trying to achieve… it’s more of a general answer with nothing tangible or measureable. Like many other people, this sets them up for failure and can be a major reason why people tend not to stick with their health and fitness plans in the long term, because they aren’t seeing positive change. How will they distinguish the steps required to get positive change if they don’t know where they want to end up? No one steps out for a Sunday drive and ends up in a Formula One Grand Prix! It takes a detailed knowing of what the end goal is, to work backwards from there and devise a calculated plan for success!
I always tell people to write their goals down on a piece of paper and stick it in a prominent place they can see each day. The simple act of writing it down makes it real and has a positive impact on the subconscious brain. Also on the same piece of paper, listing reasons WHY they want these goals to come to fruition will help give them reasons to stick to the plan when other options (not conducive to the end goal) are presented. The more specific and detailed these goals are, with small milestones detailing what needs to be executed along the way, then the more likely they will be achieved.
This is where I’m a big fan of data and numbers for all fitness and health goals. It is imperative to get baseline assessments for diet, anthropometrics (body measurements e.g. height, weight, body fat% etc.) and performance measures (e.g. 1RM squat or VO2max) for predictions of future health outcomes and assessing possible deficiencies or excess in these areas. (3, 5) Many trainers/people don’t believe in tracking calories, as long as they are eating the right foods and the advised rough portions. This can be true and can work for many people up to a certain point… but there are two critical points where food tracking is imperative.
Critical points to track calories and macronutrients:
- Beginning any NEW dietary protocol or major diet change regardless if it is for athletic development, weight loss or weight gain
- Once your results have plateaued (and you would like further results)
I believe many people go wrong at this very point. Not tracking numbers can leave things to chance! It’s like getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and deciding not to turn the light on! You might hit the toilet sometimes, but you could also miss and make a mess. Sure, tracking and weighing foods can be a tedious task, but it can also be the difference between hitting the desired target… or not! I have found that the less specific directions I give to clients, leaves things open to interpretation and can create confusion. For example, I told one of my clients who had some fairly serious body composition goals for a certain date that she could snack on some desiccated coconut and sunflower seeds (healthy fats) whenever she felt cravings. Long story short, her interpretation of “snack” wasn’t specific enough! She must have had some CRAZY craving, because after three days she’d consumed a kilo’s worth of desiccated coconut and another kilo of sunflower seeds (that’s a lot of fat)! Needless to say the results weren’t favourable that week, however I did learn from that experience it’s a big mistake to give some clients free reign to determine their own portion sizes and not provide a specific measure.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t expect anyone to weigh all their food, all of the time. I use this method to teach beginners about portions and how to determine the macronutrient and calorie content of foods. Once they have understood this, then they can use their own judgment for success. Through my years of asking new clients what their diet is like and getting the common response, “Yeah, I have a really healthy diet” I’ve learned that their perception of “healthy” can be, and often is, vastly different to mine. Upon first consultation I always get people to track their diet for the first week, to give me a better understanding of where they might go wrong and what I can suggest to help.
Several studies have shown that the simple act of recording the foods eaten in a log or food diary will help people make better food choices. (1, 2) Your conscience will get the better of you if you have to write 1 litre of ice cream and a family size block of chocolate!
A free tool I use is MyFitnessPal for tracking foods/macros. It’s a great resource with an ever-expanding library of foods.
The same can be said for tracking data in either your cardio or strength training sessions. “Where attention goes, energy flows”. The simple act of recording results feeds into the subconscious mind and has powerful effects on pursuing better outcomes. (4, 6) I see people year after year coming into the gym and doing the same mindless running on the treadmill with no particular plan or purpose. Running on a treadmill without a clear subjective goal is the fastest way to nowhere (pun intended).
4 key actions and takeaways from this article:
- Set specific measurable goals.
- Track results.
- Track food intake (MyFitnessPal), if you’re new to a diet or hitting a plateau with results.
- Track training volume, intensity and exercises (Excel spread sheet or an old school paper log book)
Be a nerd; write it down and reap the benefits!
- Bergman E, Boyungs J, and Erickson M. Comparison of a food frequency questionnaire and a 3-day diet record. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 90: 1431-1433, 1990.
- Crawford PB, Obarzanek E, Morrison J, and Sabry Z. Comparative advantage of 3-day food records over 24-hour recall and 5-day food frequency validated by observation of 9-and 10-year-old girls. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94: 626-630, 1994.
- Gibson RS. Principles of nutritional assessment. Oxford university press, 2005.
- Kolovelonis A, Goudas M, and Dermitzaki I. The effect of different goals and self-recording on self-regulation of learning a motor skill in a physical education setting. Learning and Instruction 21: 355-364, 2011.
- Lee I-M, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN, and Katzmarzyk PT. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The Lancet 380: 219-229, 2012.
- Stajkovic AD, Locke EA, and Blair ES. A first examination of the relationships between primed subconscious goals, assigned conscious goals, and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology 91: 1172, 2006.