xoFitnessing: How To Measure Progress Without Measuring Weight

I always keep score. Always.

Sep 26, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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This week's results.

So, I've been fitnessing for a little while now. And I'm starting to get questions. Any time a fat person starts being more active, folks make assumptions -- and now people are trying to casually lead up to the inevitable: "How much weight have you lost?"

Y'all, I have talked so much about bodies not being public property. But I don't want to get sidetracked talking about why this question is so very inappropriate in the first place. Can we just agree that, if absolutely nothing else in the entire world, that question is hella rude? I mean, manners, people.

I can, in my more generous moments, understand the question. Because American culture uses pounds lost to keep score. And why would you be doing any sort of physical activity as a fat person if it were not in pursuit of weight loss, right?

(Please imagine me rolling my eyes so hard as I type that last line, OK?)

But I like activity for a lot of different reasons and I am not fitnessing in some effort to get less fat. That seems to leave people at a loss. They don't know how to ask if I'm making any progress. They don't know that there are lots of other ways to measure progress -- and I always measure progress because I am fiercely competitive, no matter how much I try to chill, especially with myself. I always keep score. Always.

A bunch of people track measurements instead of weight. Tracking weight, bust, and hip measurements can be especially useful if you are putting on a lot of muscle and your weight is actually going up as you work out. That number of the scale freaks so many folks out, especially women, that gaining muscle weight even if they are otherwise succeeding with their "getting smaller" goal can be kind of traumatic. So, measurement. The real benefit: you always know your measurements when shopping online!

The problem I have with measurement in this context is that it is still explicitly tied to reducing one's size. Which is still all wound up in the goal of weight loss -- taking up less physical space. Reducing. Slimming. Which is why I don't do it -- well, I do take measurements but that's because of the aforementioned shopping. You never know when you're going to need to figure out if your bust and a dress at Modcloth were meant to be. 

There's probably no way to measure fitness progress that will work for every single individual. We've all got our traumas. But here are three ways I've found to keep score without the idea of being thinner becoming paramount.

1. Bloodwork

Man, this is like going straight for the kinky stuff, isn't it? NBD, just needles and blood. But tracking more objective measures of your health -- like blood sugar and blood pressure and the various cholesterol numbers -- can be super useful in demonstrating that all your fitnessing is having a positive effect. Regular physical activity can have a startling impact on your blood pressure (lowering it) and on your cholesterol (specifically, physical activity can lower your LDL).

There are strong genetic factors at work here -- some people just have high blood pressure no matter what. Fitnessing will still improve the strength of your heart even if it doesn't get you entirely into the optimum range. As for cholesterol, I've read a lot of different things and heard a lot of different things from doctors. But it mostly seems to boil down to regular activity helping your body to move LDL cholesterol from your blood to your liver and increasing the size of the protein particles that carry cholesterol in the first place. It's like a whole strange ecosystem in there. (Sidenote: Anyone else remember that late 80s movie Innerspace?)

Those things are objective measures of your health; if you're looking to be more healthy (whatever health looks like for you), then those things are way more reliable indicators than weight.

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This walking path is longer than the one I've been taking around the neighborhood with the dog.

2. Endurance

If you start out fitnessing and you can walk for a certain amount of time and then a month later you can walk for a longer amount of time, that is measurable progress. That's a respiratory system that is getting better at supporting activity. That's muscles, especially in your back, that are getting into the whole idea of sustained locomotion.

(Sidenote: Yeah, now that song is stuck in my head, too. And I can never keep Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue sorted in my head as to who did what 80s pop song so now I'm just confused.)

This doesn't just work for walking or running or whatever you do to propel your body forward in space. I think "endurance" mostly gets applied to cardiovascular situations, but I think it's an applicable concept in general -- if you can lift the same weight more times or lift a heavier thing than you could before, that's the same sort of measurable improvement. Maybe "capacity for activity" is a better descriptor than "endurance" for this one.

Whatever you call it, this is easy to measure if you track your fitnessing in any way. The Fitbit Flex keeps up with my Active Minutes and when that number is higher, I know that I am more active than I was before, that I am scoring.

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Fitnessing time is me time. Ugh, I can't believe I just wrote that.

3. Distance

Speaking of the Fitbit, I am basically fully invested in tracking steps right now. When I first started with the pedometer, a friend on Twitter who has one told me that it was the most value neutral way of tracking activity that she knew of. Man, she is not wrong. The number of steps you take doesn't give one hot shit about how much you weight or how much you can lift. All that matters is that you keep taking steps.

This is, obviously, an imperfect measurement -- not everyone takes steps. So I have been tracking distance as well.

The average stride means folks usually take about 2000 steps per mile. I take short little dog steps, so it takes me 2400 steps to win a mile of distance. I keep posting my Fitbit summary -- but as into the step count as I am, it's the distance that keeps driving me. I can get in 10,000 steps a day without doing 5 miles. And so reaching for the 5-mile goal has meant achieving measurable progress -- I can look back over my history and see myself working toward that improved distance.

If you can go further than you were before, that's progress.

Now, the thing about measuring progress is that progress is not an infinite upward curve. I don't just mean the plateau of ability that sometimes comes when people are working out and fall into a certain habit. I mean that it is literally not possible for us to improve forever. If nothing else, we all die anyway.

So as I measure progress, I try to keep that in mind; call it an awareness of mortality or a morbid fascination with how our culture seems obsessed with warding off death through the relentless pursuit of health. I measure my progress and keep my score, and recognize that the end of the game is the same for everyone. In the meantime, I have a life. So I can up my step count but eventually I will have to choose between the other things I do and the distance I can travel -- because fitnessing requires time and so does everything else we have to do during our day.

This is where balance comes in. And, ultimately, I think balance is also a great way of measuring progress. Are you happy? Do you feel good (whatever that means for you as an individual)? Do you do other things you enjoy? That's all important stuff right there.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to BETTER. But let's be clear about what that BETTER is, what it means. Let's not forget the rest of our lives. Because it's easy to keep score when we're fitnessing, but there's no way to win -- whatever winning looks like for you -- without balance.