The True Number Does Not Exist

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m too fat and puffy.  I don’t mind being a little pudge-pot as long as I can run up a flight
of stairs without getting winded, but that time has passed.
So it’s time to get in shape, and the problem is that all the metrics suck.
And let’s be honest: good metrics are a psychological tool.  It’s all very fine and well to say, “I’m gonna get healthy!” – but for those of us who actually dislike eating well and exercising and all the sweat that comes with it, having a single number we can look at every day and see its movement is critical.  We like to know that all of this pain we’re enduring is providing results, even if we can’t see them yet.
We need a number to go up or down.  That helps us keep going on the days all we’re going to get otherwise is pained muscles and a crabby stomach.
The standard goal is “Let’s lose some weight!”  But “losing weight” is a goal that’s all too susceptible to gaming.  There are all sorts of stupid ways to lose weight – throwing up all your food, starving yourself, rinsing out your colon – and they’re at odds with some of the healthy things you should be doing.  I, for example, routinely put on about five to ten pounds before I start losing again, because I gain muscle faster than I lose fat.
But man, is it depressing to see that number go up after a hard day on the treadmill.
For similar reasons, you don’t want “Clothing sizes” or anything else to be your metric.  It’s too easy to find a shortcut where you cut some size in a way that’s actually unhealthy.
On the other hand, the “pure health” goalpoints are unsatisfying for different reasons.  Part of what you want is to fit into your skinny jeans, so “I’ve run for twenty minutes straight” feels unsatisfying when you’re still Mr. Chunky-dunk.  I mean, I hate exercise in all its forms, so the fact that I can do it for longer doesn’t feel good to me.
So what should I use as “A single number that indicates that I am losing weight and gaining fitness in a healthy fashion”?  Is there a single number that one could chart?  If so, I don’t know it.
That’s the problem, I think, with America’s fat obsession.  Weight is easy to track, has highly visible results… and it’s easily fooled as a metric, so that focusing on it alone leads to other problems.  What we need is an easily-trackable measurement that tracks overall health with a dash of weight loss.  And I think if we could find one, we could start battling the idea that less weight == more health.


  1. Alpha
    Jan 20, 2012

    Maximal MET ( and VO2max ( are pretty common measurements for general fitness in exercise-related studies. Unfortunately, there’s probably no good way to measure them yourself at home. There’s also the usual panel of bloodwork stats to measure – cholesterol, glucose, etc., which is probably easier to obtain, but still requires a trip to the doctor.

  2. Nikki
    Jan 20, 2012

    This might seem an unusual recommendation, but it’s really been helping me in my health quest:
    They’ve got some genuinely knowledgeable people there, and heaps of success stories. Essentially, the majority stance there is that weightlifting is the best way to go. I’ve been doing the sean10mm stripped 5×5 routine for a while now and have been seeing good results from it: 6 exercises split into 2 different workouts of 3 exercises (Workout A and Workout B), alternated 3 times a week (ABA or BAB, depending on the week), at (typically) 5 sets of 5 repetitions per exercise. It can be done in under an hour. The “catch” is that you lift as heavy as your body lets you: if you’re NOT failing on your last set, it might be time to up the weight. (Which also trains you to realize that failure is okay! Even good!)
    Weight lifting is, for me anyway, a good metric, because even if your weight is stalling, you’re probably still getting stronger, and those numbers on your weights are going up. More muscle burns more calories, even when you’re at rest, so the weight loss will come whether you’re looking at the scale or not. There will be times when your lifts plateau just as your weight loss does, but beginners often see HUGE strength gains for a good month or two at least before things start to slow down, and by that point I’d doubled in strength. It’s a good feeling, and you end up wanting to continue with it just because you want to keep getting stronger/don’t want to lose the progress you’ve made.
    They also have some good info on nutrition. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but it turns out you can still eat some pretty tasty stuff, feel full, and lose weight. For me it’s been all about the baby steps: changing one little thing at a time. Start counting calories, even without changing anything in my diet. Then limit dessert to once a day rather than after both lunch and dinner. Then limit what kinds of desserts I’m eating or how much of it I’m eating. Then work on eating more meat/protein and less bread/carbs (but don’t cut it out entirely). Then sneak more fruits and veggies into my diet. Slowly, the good habits form.
    Anyway, some specific threads that might be inspiring:
    The Ultimate Transformations/Success Stories thread.
    Formerly 538-pound-and-depressed man now weighs 262 and is still working his way down. Was able to surprise his best friend (who he hadn’t seen in a couple of years) on New Year’s Eve with his transformation. His friend didn’t recognize him.
    Woman survives cancer, a horrible car accident, a crippling infection and is currently back in chemo . . . and keeps lifting. In fact, her passion for lifting was what made her recover from all this stuff as well as she did.
    Given the nature of the forum you might run into some fat shaming here and there, but for the most part the members are really supportive of each other’s goals and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, regardless of where they are in their journey. I also like that it’s not a huge testosterone-fest. There’s a healthy population of women there, many of whom are lifters, and girls are encouraged to lift as heavy as the boys rather than endlessly flailing around little pink 1-pound dumbbells and getting nowhere.
    I sound like a commercial. Check it out if it appeals to you, or find something else if it’s not for you. Being healthier, regardless of how you do it or how far you want to take it, is always a good goal to have. I also suffer from depression and I’ve found that being more active has helped keep my spirits up: partly from the endorphins released during strenuous exercise, and partly from the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing you just added another 5 pounds to your lifts, or that you’ve dropped another pant size, or lost another pound. Often, when one metric isn’t moving, another one is, and that’s been keeping me going.
    No matter what you do, I wish you luck!

  3. jenphalian
    Jan 20, 2012

    Looking at one number never worked for me. I play it more like a video game than setting goals against a specific number. Yeah, my weight is one of the numbers I watched, but I also measured my waist and thigh every week (Jason measures his chest, too.) That was to track progress. Most days I entered in piles of numbers (food eaten, calories burned, number of glasses of water) to my little app, for no reason at all other than that measuring things and watching little bars fill up to a goal point each day satisfies my little gaming brain. So my recommendation is to find some combination of tracking points, and chart it online somewhere.

  4. Ezra
    Jan 20, 2012

    If you could find a good metric, you could track it with Beeminder.

  5. Kellie Lynch
    Jan 20, 2012

    One thing I’ve always found incredibly cool to see–and I really wish I’d thought to do it myself–is weekly progress pictures. Stand in the same position, wearing the same clothes, and take a picture once a week, and it won’t be long before you can scroll through the pictures and see the changes taking place. It’s a good way to measure exactly what most people who go through all this diet and exercise crap really care about: how you look.

    • Paul
      Jan 22, 2012

      You need a “preview” option for those of us who don’t type raw HTML often. 🙂

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