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What Counts

Friday, May 11, 2012


This is my opinion, it is not an official word, and it is not to imply that my way or my understanding is any more correct or better than how other people do it. The question of what counts or what to track comes up often and can lead to various levels of discussion

I will use “XXXXX” for the item to be track, you can substitute the item to track. I may also use some specific example of things I have tracked or things I have been asked about tracking.

Some times the question framed as:

Where do I track XXXXX?

Why can’t I count Calories for doing XXXXX?

Which is correct for XXXXX, Spark, the machine at the Gym, my heart rate monitor?


As with many things the answer may vary depending on what is the reason for tracking these things or ask the question?

It may be to estimate the calories burned to balance calories in with calories out.

It may be to motivate you generally. (I like numbers, I like seeing them).

It may be to meet a specific challenge.

It may be to motivate others.

There are many other reasons someone might want to track various things here at sparks.

At some point during my running I got involved with a distance challenge. About 100 runners on a running site set personal distance goals for the year early in January. We then publically logged our goals. My goal for the year was 3000 km. So I tracked my runs I did, the purpose was to keep on track with a stated goal, it was not for calories burned, it was not for fitness minutes it was for distance run for this specific challenge.

Tracking my food intake was important when I started as I did not have a very accurate sense of how much food I needed to eat to sustain myself and / or lose weight. I needed to weigh and measure everything. This was part of a learning process.


So first off it is important to be clear as to what is the purpose behind tracking XXXXX. In my first example tracking miles run was quite simply to see if I could meet a specific goal. For some people setting this goal would be part of a bigger goal motivating one’s self to do XXXXX, in my first example, to running. Fact is, I mostly like to run, so it does not require much to get me out the door. Therefore, for me this was not about motivation.

In my second example, the tracking of points (at first) and then calories was because I was not very well informed and needed to follow a structure proposed to me by “Experts” and this process only required I record the number of calories in everything I ate.

When I added in exercise, Weight Watchers allowed me to eat extra if I burned extra. In fact, this is one of the things I do not like about the WW system. I had a sense of a reward and punishment model. Again, I do not say this is what WW was doing; it is just how I responded to it.

Sparks has a model that is a little different. The Sparks model has one start out by determining how active s/he is generally. This is intended to include, work, home, school, relationships etc. then add to this reasonablely trackable calories for exercise that you expect to be doing weekly. It then gives you a calorie range to eat and has you track that you are more or less in the planned range for exercise calories burned.

One question that often comes up is why can I not count Strength Training for Calories burned. The response is that there are two many variables that make it very difficult to get an accurate tracking of the calories burned when doing strength training. This is also the reason that some things that may or may not be cardio fall into do not count, or count at your own risk categories. Things like Yard work or House work often fall in these categories. Like Strength training, it is not that these do not exercise you, or do not burn calories; it is just that it is very difficult to come up with any kind of reasonable estimate for the calories burned. The relationship between calories burned and activities have been studied extensively for some things and not so much for other things. Metabolic equivalent of task (MET) have been done for many activities and these can give you a sense of how diverse activities may compare when thinking of the energy required to complete a given task for a given period of time. MET values of activities range from 0.9 (sleeping) to 18 (running at 17.5 km/h or a 5:31 mile pace).

This suggests that one issue when tracking calories burned by activities for the purpose of Calories in and Calories out we must have a reasonablely consistent estimate of the calories burned. This is why strength training is not included. It is also why many suggest not using yard work, house hold cleaning, etc. The estimate of calories for these activities is questionable.

Some people suggest using a heart rate monitor to estimate the calories burned and manually inputting the information. Unfortunately, most of the algorithms for doing calorie estimates from heart rate are based on things like running, biking and elliptical machine. The math becomes somewhat meaningless when applying it to other types of activities. It is a little like using the cooking time for something when cooking it in a conventional oven verse a microwave oven. If my instructions say cook the item for six minutes on high, you need to know if we are talking about cooking it in a microwave or conventional oven.

Obviously it is important to have an accurate estimate if you are trying to tinker with you Calories in and Calories out based on these activities with the goal of managing your weight.

Another issue for some of these activities is that they may already be recorded in you profile under the activity level you have selected. I sit at a desk all day. If I say I have a fairly active lifestyle (because I run 10km regularly), and then I track the calories from my runs, I am counting those twice and that is not good.
We may also track things like minute of activities or sets and reps in Strength training. These are often more to stay accountable, or to motivate ourselves. It is important to keep in mind that some of these are useful for comparison of what I do from time to time but not so useful for comparing me to someone else. I had a friend who did 240 mins of walking a day. He was talking about it and asked me if I knew how long I spent. I said that I spent about 90 mins. He gloated a little only 90 minutes. My 90 mins typically accounted for 10 – 15 km his 240 typically involved considerablely less than 10 km. This does not imply one is better, only that they are not comparable.

When I mow the lawn it take less than an hour. When Gramie mows the lawn it take about 2 hours. Hopefully it is clear that 30 mins of mowing the lawn is not the same doing it in Gramie style and doing it in Popie style.

I recently setup a goal on the Tai Chi site of practicing your form once a day. Some people will do a short form and complete it in a few minutes; some people will do a long form and complete it in 30-60 minutes. Some styles are completely slow; some are a mix of slow and fast movements. The purpose of this goal is just to get members to practice their form once a day. It does not try to compare what one members is doing to what another member is doing. The possible number of forms and variations there in is just too great.

Another aspect of tracking is: What is the consequence of various classes of errors?

If you are tracking calories burned to offset calories eaten, then the consequence of over estimate on the exercise side is weight gain. If you are tracking the min you spend doing XXXXX as a way of motivating yourself to keep at it, to do it regularly, then the consequence of an over estimate, is perhaps, less important.

There is no magic right or wrong answer to the question(s) about what to track and how to track it. The real answer should be tied to what is your purpose for tracking it. During the running challenge not above, some runner only recorded their running distances, not their warm up and cool down, others recorded both. There was not stated rule within the challenge and by and large it was a personal challenge so each was okay to do it his/her way.

So for all these many words, my answer may not be very helpful to some. I say, “Figure out what you want to accomplish by tracking XXXXX, and then figure out how tracking XXXXX can best help you meet that goal.”

If your tracking XXXXX helps you progress towards your goal, then the tracking is worth while, if it does not help you progress than maybe you need to re-assess the tracking.
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  Member Comments About This Blog Post:

BOGUSANNIE 5/11/2012 2:55PM

    true dat!!

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NATPLUMMER 5/11/2012 1:49PM

    Great blog, Popie!! :-)

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