Friday, September 2, 2016

The Importance of External Measurements

People who give fitness or fat loss advice often tell their readers and clients not to pay too much attention to the scale when assessing their progress. This is good advice. Sometimes your exercise/diet program is building muscle, so even though your scale weight either doesn't change or perhaps even goes up, your body composition is improving dramatically.

Then again, sometimes your scale weight stays the same or goes up because your weight management program is failing, your cheat weekends are overwhelming your metabolism, and your exercise is not, in fact, burning 1,000 calories an hour.

The advice to not use the scale is usually followed up with one or two alternatives. One is to gauge your progress by the mirror. This might work for some people, but not for me, and I suspect, not for most. It's too easy to let your mind play tricks on you with the mirror. You're comparing an image, the way you look at the moment, with your memory of what you looked like weeks or months before, and trying to compare them. If you have actually gained some muscle it can be even harder to make a good comparison. Adding a couple of  pounds to your shoulders can really make it look like you lost a bunch from your waist, even if you, in fact, didn't.

I'm sure there are some people who are objective enough to judge themselves just on their appearance, but a better metric is something more objective: seeing how your clothes fit. If the waist of your pants is tighter, you've moving in the wrong direction, even if the chest and arms are also tighter.

Another popular claim people make is that some lifestyle change gives them "tons of energy." My question is always, "how do you know?" If you think some new habit is increasing your energy levels, make sure by tracking some metric. Maybe look at how many naps you need during the week, or how often you hit the snooze button, or how many workouts you skip (or don't skip) because you're just too tired. If those numbers change, you're onto something. If they don't, then you might just be fooling yourself.

I'm not bringing this topic up at random. I let myself slide quite a bit in body composition over the last year or so, eating out at restaurants two or three times a week instead of once, joining the kids for a special ice cream treat every week instead of every month, and generally not doing enough exercise to overcome my very sedentary job.

It took a trip to the doctor and a bodyfat analysis (plus some blood tests that came back saying "you should already be dead") to wake me up.

And, in retrospect, my clothes don't fit as well as they used to. I'd gotten into the habit of not wearing certain pants, and looking back I think it's because they're a bit tight. It was a gradual change, and items do phase in and out of my wardrobe regularly, but I was avoiding certain clothes probably in part because they made me think I was doing better weight-wise than I really am.

I suspect that the same kind of problem creeps in with many martial artists. I don't mean that they're having problems with weight management necessarily, but of gauging their progress in their skills. I suspect that many of us reach periods of stagnation with our movement quality, where we might go months or years learning new forms or techniques but not really getting better at how well we do the basics.

The solution?

There's no single answer, but I really think (and I've mentioned this before) that every martial arts school should have a video camera - not necessarily the highest quality - and some kind of setup where they standardize the position (the camera goes here, you stand there, that sort of thing). And every practitioner should videotape themselves doing a couple of kata - maybe always a very basic one, then one or two more advanced - perhaps every 6 months.

I've been saying this for years and haven't done it. Next year I'm going to definitely invest in a camera and start keeping a library of records of my movement.

You should too, and let me know how it goes.

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