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I've been working on improving my overall fitness for the past few months. My strategy has been to try and integrate a bit more physical activity into my lifestyle gradually, with the thinking being that if I introduce it this way I should be more able to keep it going and less at risk of burning myself out.

So far, the results have been positive, I feel better and seem to have a bit more strength / endurance then before. I'm not in too bad shape at the moment (based on BMI I am at ideal weight, but more of it is likely fat than should be, as I do have a bit of a potbelly). My goals are rather modest,

  • Lose the potbelly
  • Improve core muscle strength
  • Improve general stamina.

I'd like to get started on tracking progress, to see how I'm doing and to see if my current level of exercise will be sufficient. Currently just tracking weight and waist measurements.

But what other measurements (preferably easy to take) would be worth tracking?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted
  • Tracking your waist measurements will give you some of the most important information about your health gains as you get back in shape. Your goal is for your waist to measure about one half of your height. Central obesity is a big factor in many health problems so your waist measurement and waist ratios are a key measurement.

  • Tracking your body fat percentage will give you feedback as to whether or not your diet and exercise program is improving your body composition. Many people diet poorly resulting in loss of muscle rather than fat. The easiest way to track body fat % is with the Accumeasure skin caliper - cheap and easy. You just take one suprailiac measurement that you can do yourself. While taking just one measurement may not be the most accurate, it is highly reproducible with practice, meaning that you can become consistent and see the progression which is what you want to track. Alternatively, here are other options for measuring your body fat percentage such as the Bod Pod, circumference formula methods and Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis monitors (BIA) with the pros and cons.

  • Tracking your Heart Rate - Also, since you are looking to improve stamina you can monitor your heart rate to assure that you are exercising in your target zone.

  • Tracking your Diet - Keeping track of what you eat and drink for a week will give you an idea if you have any glaring daily bad habits that need to be modified, like sodas, junk, unconscious eating etc.

  • Tracking your core strength can be as easy as timing how long you can hold a plank or side plank position. Or you can track how much weight you can lift.

I think you are right to graduallly increase your physical activity and create a healthy lifestyle as these will be ongoing changes which are more successful than attempting quick fixes. Sounds like you are off to a good start. Good luck.

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I totally agree on diet. That's a great technique for taking control. But what will tracking heart rate or waist measurements do? It doesn't seem like actionable information. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 22 '11 at 21:49
    
@Dave, Adam asked how to track his progress to see if his current level of exercise is sufficient. If he is on the right track he will rather quickly notice that his waist measurement is decreasing. If not, he can make adjustments to his program. Many people who ease into exercise underestimate the intensity of "moderate" exercise. Hence, monitoring his exercise heart rate will make sure that he is optimizing his workouts. Also over time, he may notice that his resting heart rate slows down. –  BackInShapeBuddy Aug 22 '11 at 22:29

The challenge of measuring "fitness" is that is a vague concept. If you want to take specific measurements, you need specific goals. As an example of vague to specific:

  • I want to get in shape.
  • I want to lose weight.
  • I want to lose 20 lbs.
  • I want to lose 20 lbs. by my 25th high school reunion.
  • I want to lose 20 lbs and fit into 30" waist pants by my 25th high school reunion.

In the progression from vague to measurable, it becomes very clear what you would measure and what success and failure look like at different points.

So the first step is to define what it means to be fit for you. Weight is common, but, as you've noted, being an ideal weight while still having too much fat isn't great fun. Measuring body fat with either quality calipers or an electronic tool is more complicated, but can still be done quickly. You can quickly find age and gender appropriate body fat percentages to shoot for.

I also include strength and endurance in my fitness goals. For that I just look at my exercise log. I have four exercises with specific weight and rep goals that mark fit or unfit. When you try and set your goals, take a baseline of what you can do today and try to raise it by 20% in three months (six if you've been working out hard for awhile). Shooting for that will give you an idea of your potential.

Finally, I include hours of sleep per week in my assessment. Many of us don't exercise just for the fun of it, the goal is to be healthy. Getting proper rest is key to that and many people foresake proper sleep the same way they ignore the expanding waist line. Shoot for 56 hours per week (8 per night) and see how close you can get. It is actually very hard, but will go a long way towards helping what ever other goals you set.

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I suppose the main one is how I track the replacement of fat with muscle. Calipers seem like a good way to track that, provided I learn to use them properly. How do they compare with, say, measuring body dimensions? –  Adam Luchjenbroers Aug 22 '11 at 14:16
1  
Calipers are easy to use with practice, but you will need the help of a friend for some spots. Measuring tape, on the other hand, just tells you if the body part is growing or shrinking without any insight as to why. I put no value in them unless you're competing in body building. –  Christopher Bibbs Aug 22 '11 at 14:38
    
@Adam Now that I've thought about it more, you should edit the original question so that it is "How to track changes in body composition" since that's what you really want to know. –  Christopher Bibbs Aug 22 '11 at 18:10

It all comes down to your goals, but I'm a fan of moving the numbers away from the subjective world of yourself (pounds, waistband inches) and into the objective world of achievement.

  • Time - finishing a 5k, or running a mile in less than 8 minutes, or 6.
  • Weight - deadlifting your bodyweight, or squatting 150 or 300 pounds.
  • Mobility - touching your toes, or doing a side split.
  • Challenge - entering a competition, like a 5k or Olympic lifting or a judo tournament.

If you're really wild about health and science you could look into tracking your VO2 Max.

Update

In a comment, you mentioned that you're concerned with tracking body composition, and specifically, how well you're doing at replacing fat with muscle. That goes directly to strength measurements: your biceps might fluctuate as they go from fat to muscle, and your waist might be stubborn for weeks, but if you can lift 200 pounds when you used to only be able to lift 100 pounds, or if you can do three times as many chin-ups as before, you're stronger. Period. If your weight stays mostly the same during that same period, you're stronger in relation to your body weight.

I would start keeping a training journal with sets, reps, and weights. So, yesterday I did 3 sets of 5 squats with 160 pounds. Next week I'll do 3 sets of 5 at 165. If this trend continues I will be objectively and provably stronger, and my progress will be well-documented. See the accepted answer in this question.

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