Weighting In on the Weight Question

Weighting In on the Weight Question

Photo: Bigstock, Copyright Kurhan

Photo: Bigstock, Copyright Kurhan

I am somewhat of a quantified self (QS) nut. For many years I have taken my body weight and other measures almost every morning. Like most people who track body data with Fitbits, smart scales or other means, I accumulated a lot of measurements over time, but did almost nothing with the data collected. As I’ve mentioned in several of my articles, a huge part of the motivation to start Life-Sparring was to push myself harder on my quest to improve myself, and along the journey, provide some value to those who read my ramblings. That’s motivation enough to dig into the data and take a closer look at some of it.

If the chart of my body weight plotted over time was one of my investments, I would be fairly happy with its performance. Since January of 2008 the curve has had some up and down swings, but overall it shows a steady appreciation. At a height of 186 cm (6’1”) I “grew” from 78 kg in early 2009 to an all-time maximum of around 91 kg in late autumn of 2015. In the UFC that would have been a development from Welterweight via Middleweight to Light Heavyweight – hello Jon “Bones” Jones.

Body weight (in kg) over time, made with SportTracks3, Hackers Diet Plug-in by ernstbk

Body weight (in kg) over time, made with SportTracks3, Hackers Diet Plug-in by ernstbk

The utter uselessness of the BMI

If I only look at my Body Mass Index, the numbers do not look too bad. According to the BMI categorization, I could carry a full 87 kg around with me before being classified as overweight. However, the BMI has rightfully fallen out of fashion – it is just too much of a simplification to provide real value.

BMI over time, made with SportTracks3, Hackers Diet Plug-in by ernstbk

BMI over time, made with SportTracks3, Hackers Diet Plug-in by ernstbk

It’s about the composition, stupid

Photo: Bigstock, Copyright: comzeal

Photo: Bigstock, Copyright: comzeal

Truth to be told, at my current weight and body fat percentage, my upper body resembles the shape of an avocado. As I frame it, I do not have a body weight issue; it’s just that my body composition is not exactly a Mozart sonata. But seriously, from an aesthetic as well as a health perspective, it is not so much the actual weight that is important, but how the weight is distributed over the body and if it comes in form of bone, water, muscle or fat. I would be perfectly fine if I had 90 kg at a body fat percentage of 15 percent.

Picture: Omron

Picture: Omron

Besides my body weight I also measure my body fat and my muscle mass every morning, using an Omron Karada Scan body monitor (HBF-362, now replaced by BF511) I bought roughly six years ago. While I was contemplating a few times getting one of those sleek wireless syncing scales (Withing, Fitbit or Garmin), I stayed loyal to my Omron, trusting in good old Japanese engineering and the company’s experience in manufacturing medical devices. The Karada Scan also has an additional hand pod and therefore eight measure points, while almost all other body fat scales just measure through foot sensors. The scale has delivered pretty consistent results over time and the few times I got my body fat percentage measurements taken by doctors or at gyms, the results were in the ballpark of my own results.

My usual morning ritual is getting up, going to the bathroom, then using the body fat scale to weight myself and determine my body composition. I currently log the result in a Google sheet accessed through my mobile.

Scanning body fat straight out of bed in a fairly dehydrated state is likely to overstate the fat percentage slightly. However, for a measurement over the long term, consistency trumps accuracy.

My own experience with body fat measurements is that a single result has very limited informational value. Even maintaining the same morning ritual, my hydration can vary significantly from morning to morning, so that there are often differences of 1–2 percent in body fat from one day to another. Over time, however, the measurements reveal a good picture about your body.

My favorite metric: Total Fat Mass

If I had to choose a single metric to illustrate my weight struggles, my choice would not be weight, not BMI, but “Total Fat Mass (in kg)”. Calculated by multiplying the body fat percentage measured by my Omron with my body weight measured on the same day, the result says literally how much fat I carry with me. Visualizing this amount in the form of a butter mountain is pretty scary.

Charted over time, my overall fat mass illustrates my battle with body composition quite well:

During 2010/2011 my body weight went up, but my fat mass actually went down. During this time, I started working out more regularly. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of my measurement points from this period.

From early 2012 to end of 2013 we can see two years of massive fat buildup, even exceeding the pace of my body weight gain. In part, I have to blame my MBA for this unfortunate development. With the double burden of a part-time MBA and a management job, my workout regime definitely suffered. Add my (un-) healthy appetite, unfortunate genes (this will definitely be something I will look into when analyzing my 23andme gene sequencing) and entering the middle ages and you get a fat buildup tsunami.

The curve of my absolute fat mass, however, shows a glimpse of hope: a massive reduction of more than 5 kg of fat within four months, in the first four months of 2014.

During this time, I was taking a break from my job and Hong Kong, spending a semester as a full-time MBA student in upstate New York.

Total Fat Mass, chart made with plot.ly

Total Fat Mass, chart made with plot.ly

I used the time for a massive nutritional self-experiment, eating a pretty low-carb diet, preparing all three of my daily meals myself, and counting calories for every bite I ate. I am planning to cover the details of this experience and the conclusions in a separate post. Right now I will leave it at the simple statement that this experiment taught me that the macro nutritional profile of my nutrition seems to have a larger effect on my body composition than I would have expected, and that with a high level of discipline, I can actually influence my body composition significantly. 

Sadly, the U.S. episode was not the end of the story and despite trying to stay physically active with Muay Thai, running, and hiking, I started to blow up almost immediately after my return to Hong Kong. Being back in the workforce, eating either outside food for lunch or the carb-heavy meals my girlfriend prepared, my body fat skyrocketed to 23–24 kg, reaching a high point pretty much around the same time when I launched Life-Sparring. Within less than 18 months, I gained around 6 kg of pure fat!

In the last five months my weight and fat mass has stabilized, even retracted slightly back from the record highs of 2015. Getting back to the levels of spring 2014, however, will be a long, hard, uphill battle that will require my full willpower.

By mid of this year I hope to be down to 85 kg and around 20% body fat, a total fat mass of 17kg. My long-term goal is to reduce my total fat mass to less than 15 kg. It is unlikely that I will ever have a real six-pack and I am at peace with this. However, reaching a more balanced body composition would not only be easier on the eye, it also would benefit my health and my performance in Muay Thai and running.

With the additional motivation this blog provides, I am pretty sure I will get there! Expect more Life-Sparring rounds along the way.

What is your take on body weight and body composition? What hacks or tools do you use to achieve your targets? How do you measure weight or other metrics? What influences your weight the most?

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