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New Feature: Calorie Ranges Based on Fitness Tracking

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I've been in maintenance for a year and a half now. My motivation has been up, down, and in between. My ability to exercise has ranged from fantastic, running up to 10 miles, to minimal, sidelined by injury. Yet I've managed to maintain my weight in a narrow range for over a year.

There is no single answer on how to maintain weight. The way I do it is, I use the SparkPeople nutrition tracker and I eat to my target ranges of calories, carbs, fat, and protein. I have to adjust the ranges over time as my caloric needs fluctuate, and I have to override the minimum on the protein range; but it works for me.

I believe there are people who can just eat mindfully, aware of what their bodies require. I'm not one of them. Left to myself, I could over- or under-eat, with a bias toward over-eating from not scaling the consumption down when activity decreases. SparkPeople has given me a solution for this in the form of calorie goals and a tracker for monitoring what I eat.

This morning I happened to read a Daily Spark Blog titled "New Feature: Calorie Ranges Based on Fitness Tracking." I don't always look at the Daily Spark Blogs, because many of them seem to be targeted at readers of women's magazines; but I'm glad I looked at this one. Today SparkPeople rolls out a new way of integrating the fitness tracker with the nutrition tracker. Existing members like me can stay on the old system if we like; but if we switch, we can't switch back. Edited to add link to Spark Blog:

I'm very, very glad I had that piece of information before looking at the new nutrition tracker. Even before I read the advice to create a new account to test it, I had decided to do that. So today I didn't make it to the gym after work. I came home to play with the new nutrition tracker instead.

Got a test account set up. Told it my birth date, gender, and weight. It spit out a woefully inadequate calorie range. Okay, I can tell the new system that I'm sedentary, lightly active, or active. By description, I guessed lightly active; calorie range is still low. So I told it I'm active. That spit out a calorie range (before exercise) 490 calories lower than the reduced range I'm maintaining on while rehabbing an injured foot.

The theory is, the range is the base range plus the calories you burn while exercising. So I put in today's walk. That gave me another 203 calories, but didn't change the ranges for carbs, fat, or protein. WTF? If I exercise enough (think, bike rides that the fitness tracker thinks are worth 1200 calories), I might be unable to eat minimum calories while remaining below top of macronutrient ranges. Either that, or be forced to eat more fat and less carbs than I want.

So let's track some food. I had forgotten what a nuisance it was when I first started out and had to set everything up. You start with no favorites, and have to search for all the foods. Fortunately, I use a lot of foods from the SparkPeople database these days, so I managed to get breakfast entered even if it wasn't as fast as using favorites. It still looks like the old nutrition tracker; only the goals have changed. And the goals will change every time I enter anything into the fitness tracker that carries a calories burned number. The more I exercise, the more I have to eat to meet goals. A fine theory, *IF* the calories burned numbers are accurate and comparable to the calories eaten numbers in magnitude. I don't believe that either of those conditions holds for me.

Sanity check: Go back to my primary SP account, and look at weekly calories burned per the fitness tracker. They vary. Here's a week with 4400 calories. Oh, it has cycling. I think the fitness tracker overestimates calories burned from cycling. Look back at weeks from before the foot injury. Most weeks, the fitness tracker has me burning 2200 to 2600 calories. Say it's 2800 per week (it's lower) or an average of 400 per day. That would come out to a calorie range 100 calories lower than my current reduced range. And some of those weeks, I was eating 300 or 400 more calories per day than I do now because I was running.

We're talking about the canned SP numbers producing a calorie deficit of 400 to 500 calories per day for me, while aiming at maintenance.

None of this is shocking. The old system produced too few calories for me. I got around that by lying to the fitness tracker. I'd tell it how many calories I planned to burn, and pick the number to get the calorie range on the nutrition tracker right. This results in my calories planned to burn being significantly higher than what the fitness tracker actually records. I can deal with that; I just ignore the calories burned from the fitness tracker. I ignore them so well, I had no idea what it had for my weekly calorie burn until I went back and looked for this exercise.

So, how do I adjust the new system so I can keep maintaining more or less the same way I do now? I hate the idea of a daily calorie allowance that could be 1000 calories higher on a day with a 3 hour bike ride than on the next day with a 45 minute walk. I can override the calorie number, just like I can on the current system; but overriding the calorie range doesn't change the macronutrient ranges. And every time I enter an exercise that the fitness tracker thinks burns calories, that range goes up for the day.

High tech idea: Using an electronic tracker such as a FitBit or BodyMediaFit is supposed to be more accurate for calories burned. Nice idea, but I don't think you can wear them swimming. And I don't trust the accuracy, sight unseen. And how do I cope with the inevitable lost FitBit? I can work around a lost pedometer with estimates, but that doesn't mess with what I'm allowed to eat. And even if the FitBit turns out to be accurate, I'd still have to change my lifestyle to eat more on high activity days and less on low activity days. That's, um, unattractive and scary when eating to a range that is adjusted infrequently has *worked* for over a year. No, the high tech calorie burn tracker might work well for some people, but it's not for me.

Best idea: I could kludge around the new system by manually entering ranges for calories, carbs, fat, and protein. (Current practice is to indirectly do the calorie range, which automatically changes the macronutrient ranges. I then adjust the minimum protein, which spits out too low for my needs.) To prevent the variable calorie targets, I need to never enter an exercise that generates calorie burn into the fitness tracker.

At first, I thought this meant I could no longer use the fitness tracker as the motivational tool it is for me now. Then I realized there's another option. Instead of using the SP activities such as "Walking 4 mph (15 mintues per mile)" I can just create my own custom exercise of "Walking 15 minutes per mile" and not assign any calories to it! Then I can still use the fitness tracker as a motivational tool to get my exercise, and there will be no calories burned to mess up my nutrition tracker range.

Okay, I can breathe easier. If SparkPeople ever makes the new system mandatory for existing users, I can work around it. It will be more labor, but that's better than eating mindlessly and gaining 5 pounds per year for several years in a row. (Been there, done that, got the larger tee shirts which have since been donated to charity.)

Needless to say, I will be remaining on the old nutrition and fitness tracker system as long as I'm allowed to remain there. I have a couple of kind of downer reflections arising from this exercise.

First, I can no longer in good conscience recommend SparkPeople as a good site for tracking what you eat. The workarounds are too much for someone who isn't ready to say they know better than the stupid computer does or who isn't as comfortable with workarounds as I am.

Second, I have looked at a future where SparkPeople might not meet my needs for weight maintenance. That's scary. Right now, I'm dependent on tracking everything I eat and eating to target ranges. It works. But if the tool that lets me eat to the range gets messed up, I will need to find a different tool, find a workaround, or find a different method of maintaining.

For now all is well. I'll be hanging around SP for the community, the stupid motivational tricks, and most of all the nutrition tracking.

Yeah, I know. I don't blog about food all that much. From my blog history, you might think that managing exercise is the most important part of SP for me. But it's not. Managing nutrition is easily the most important part of SP. I don't blog about it much because it usually goes pretty routinely for me. I eat to target ranges, I adjust the ranges as needed, and the weight doesn't move up or down very much. So most of my blogs are about exercise, motivation, and stuff I struggle with.

Today my struggle is a panic attack that the really, really important tools will be messed up. They are, for new members. For now, I'm allowed to continue to use the existing tools that have been working well for me. And if I'm forced into the new, messed-up version of the important tools, I have an idea of what my workarounds will be.

I've lived through the panic attack. Out the other side, life is good.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    tried it as well and found it inaccurate
    1764 days ago
    I use sparkpeople for calories, fitbit for exercise, and put the two together on my own spreadsheet. I set my own calorie range using the nutritional goals, and I like to check my macro pie chart sometimes.
    1797 days ago
    The new tool is exciting, yet I believe it needs modifications to be truly useful. Good, insightful blog. Thank you.
    1797 days ago
    I'm so glad I read this! And hopefully many others will read it and this information will result in adjustments in the new trackers!!

    1797 days ago
    Thanks for the review but I'm more confused now you really made some great points that I didn't think about and I went for the change before I read your post .
    1797 days ago
  • DAISY443
    I was already unhappy about the fitness tracker obligatory change, so really glad I read your wonderful review of this new "improved" change before I switched. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    1801 days ago
    I am glad I read this, first, too! (thanks Paulobry for posting a link on the fitbit team page) I am losing weight, but some days SP tells me I need to change something, usually eat more. I am not a "regular" exerciser yet, so I don't want to change anything yet. (working on it, but not there yet) So, when I first heard about this change, it sounded good. But, the more I hear, the less I want to try it. Plus, I don't usually get on the computer until later in the day, sometimes after dinner. By then, most of the things I would track are complete, so I don't think I'd follow any changes anyway. It sounds like it would just confuse things for me.
    1802 days ago
    I think I'll stay where I am the most comfortable for now. Thanks for the review.
    1802 days ago
  • NWFL59
    Thanks for the review. emoticon
    1802 days ago
    I followed DOGLADY13 over here and I'm glad that I did. I had no idea about this new feature, and would have jumped in with both feet if I hadn't seen your clear and well-prepared review. Thank you for providing all of us with some great feedback!!
    1802 days ago
    Thanks so much! I scrolled down through the comments on the article about the change until I saw yours, because I knew that you'd have a sensible reaction to it. Having tracked and analyzed my own data ever since I've been a Spark member, I know what works to keep me in maintenance. And believing in the Fitness Tracker's calories burned calculations is NOT part of that equation! Certainly, linking the two trackers to adjust my calorie goals every day isn't something that I want. I maintain a fairly constant fitness routine every day, so I know the calories that I need to consume to lose or to maintain. I count on the Fitness Tracker only to keep track of what I do each day, not to count the calories burned.

    So, I've clicked "Like" on this blog and hope that many others do as well, so that the message gets through to the powers that be.
    1802 days ago
    I posted a link to this on my FB user team's thread. Nice review.
    1802 days ago
  • DALID414
    Wow! Thanks for doing the dirty work on this one. I've only been maintaing this year and the thought of this change gave me a panic attack too! Glad to know it was a normal reaction.

    1803 days ago
    I really wish I had read your blog before I clicked switch now, because, it sounded simpler before I read your side of it, and I sure do not need more calories if I have a big exercise day,
    1803 days ago
    Thank you for writing such a thorough review. I would have grown really frustrated very fast given what you have described. I clicked the "I liked this blog" button in hopes that if enough of us do that, SP will see it and pay attention. I will check out the article and read the comments section, too.

    1803 days ago
    OK, the hard part is getting there, but right now? I ignore the Spark ranges, beyond what I know my base is, and about what my max is. I still track my calories using this tracker, and my macronutrients, but I have my own range in my brain and don't worry if I'm a little under or over what Spark says my range is.

    So, I'm not worried about ME... but you make some excellent points about the new Spark-er, who may not have a) reached goal, or b) figured out their own maintenance range and want to use Spark to guide them!

    Hopefully, feedback will help them "fix" the issues.

    Oh, and by the way? There is a fitbit wrist band that you CAN wear swimming! KALIGIRL has one, and I am so jealous!
    1803 days ago
    my head is spinning emoticon
    1803 days ago
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