How I Shifted from Just Counting Calories to Supercharging My Fitness Workouts
This is part of a weight loss and fitness improvement series that I’m writing to share how I went from 222 pounds and unable to bike more than 20 minutes on a Peloton to 153 pounds and running 8–12 miles / day in just 18 months.
I’m no superhero and I’m not going to give you some unrealistic story that is unachievable. I have been on an 18-month, consistent, focused, data-driven approach to improving everything about myself from food to workouts to sleep (Oura Ring) to water intake (Hidrate). I will publish a lot more about the gear I used and what works and what doesn’t but today is about how I started to supercharge my workouts.
So far I have written about the psychology of food and separately about the food services I use and today I am going to talk about how I gamified my sports routines to increase consistent performance every month.
I’m not a world-class athlete and I never will be (nor want to be). But I can run a 10k in sub 8-minute miles which for 52 years old and a busy, full-time job isn’t too shabby either. I can sneak out after a day of meetings and put in 10 miles and still be back at my computer 1:45 later and typing away or Zooming (with a hat and still sweaty :)).
From Food to Movement
I quantified my food intake initially through Noom and later MyFitnessPal where I keep a food journal. It’s super easy to track everything and at the end of the day it tells you not total calories but also breakdown by fat, carbs and protein (plus sodium, etc). I track my weight every morning first thing when I wake up on a Withings Body+ scale.
Armed with food & weight data and goals I turned to increasing my exercise alongside reducing my calories. Noom had a rule that you could “eat 50% of all calories burned” so that if I burned 700 calories in a day I could eat an extra 350 calories so I became extra motivated to burn those 700 calories! When I started I didn’t feel I had the time for monster workouts (and in reality I wasn’t ready for it) but I found that I could use my Apple Watch to track my walks and after that everything became a walk. I became less interested in taking the subway in NY when I could walk 3 miles to my meeting just by leaving a little bit earlier and taking calls along the way.
I stopped planning breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings and instead did walk-and-talks. I wanted to see how many miles per day I could walk just doing the things I normally did every day. Calls were done on my AirPods and with my phone in my pocket. I became as obsessive about my daily walking targets as my food logging had become. I would meet people for hour-long hikes and not hour-long lunches.
I would plan a day around which calls I could take while I was walking and which meetings could be mobile. One day when my car was in the shop I asked my colleague Stuart for a ride home but I asked him to drop me a mile away from my house so I could walk the last mile. I became a bit obsessive about hitting my daily targets. It was only 15 minutes extra but I was happy to have the extra mileage before dinner time so I had more calories available to eat if I wanted them.
It became a lifestyle, a habit. Not overnight. I made small changes and locked in those habits. Then I would always look for other things I could add. It was all about the numbers, the daily goals, the weigh-in every morning, keeping to my calories targets and not breaking my “streak.” It was a game. I was gamifying myself.
I used the Apple Watch to show how many days in a row I had hit my walking targets and my calorie targets and I didn’t want to break streak. I even found myself standing up in meetings so that I could “close all three circles.”
I knew that I was giving over to a game, to numbers, to silly mind games of streaks but I decided to embrace it. I convinced myself that if I broke streak I might then not get back on the horse. It’s like the kids with their obsession with Snapchat streaks.
Then I found my next set of metrics to take me to the next level. After just four months I had hit my first big target getting my weight from 222 to 200 and now this number that seemed impossible when I began was now in sight. 1–8–5.
I had never been able to hit it before as 195–200 always seemed to be my yo-yo point where I’d revert back to bad habits and give up whatever fad diet got to me to 200. Not this time. I was ready for the next level.
The “Real Effort”
Next up in my bigger push was Peloton. I started riding again and found it exhausting. I started on my advanced beginner Ally Love rides for 20 minutes. I was hooked on the positivity. At a time where the world was a constant Trump dumpster fire of negative news I found Ally’s positivity so up lifting.
So I set a rule. I decided I would ride Peloton with Ally in the mornings BEFORE I would check my phone so that I would start the day with positivity and not angst. I made it a rule with myself, “No phone until after Ally.” Then it became “No phone until after Ally, a shower and a coffee.” The longer I stayed off my phone the more peaceful my brain was in the mornings. I wasn’t going to change the bad news, but I could delay myself from feeling mentally exhausted by it all.
This is when the power of psychology really shone through. Having somebody telling you that “you can do it” and encouraging you to be your best self is truly infectious.
“Hit it! Quit it! And say you did it!” she would shout with a big smile on her face. I started saying it to my wife every morning. It was a metaphor for “this isn’t so hard” and “I feel self righteous when I’m done!”
20 minutes became 30 minutes became 45 minutes. And there was so much data! I could improve my cadence and my tension and control outputs to see how much total output I could do in a given time. I could compare myself to other riders or to my previous time. (Peloton published how many people ride each ride and you see where you rank). I didn’t need to “win” I just needed to come in around the place in the pack that I expected to for my fitness level (For me my goal was always top 20% on the bike, top 5% on runs).
It pushed me harder, it became my own little competition with imaginary people I was riding against and with myself.
I became happier every day. More results a better mindset and of course better and better results on the scale.
The a very important insight hit me. Whenever I wanted to “get into shape” I would work out with mind of a 20-year-old but the body of a 40-something (now 52) year old. I had a few great workouts but invariably injured myself every time.
My Peloton instructor Matt Wilpers said there were three things for all athletes to focus on:
- Frequency > Duration
- Duration > Intensity**
- Only then should you focus on level of effort / intensity.
His advice was this. Most of us try to come back from being out of shape and do really hard workouts. And of course we injure ourselves and then stop working out and put on weight again. He said it was OK not to focus on intensity.
** (Note that there is a sound place for HIT workouts “high-intensity training” to be mixed into other kinds of workouts but I’m simplifying for those trying to improve overall endurance and fitness)
If you’re doing 2 days / week can you make it 4? If you’re doing 4 could you make it 5? Only when you hit 5–6 days should you focus on getting 20 minutes to 30 minutes to 45 minutes.
Frequency of work outs matters way more than duration of workouts which matters way more than the intensity of workouts. Most people get this backwards.
So I made it a rule I had to get in at least 5 Peloton’s / week. I had to do one every week (I’m on 65 weeks in a row as we speak and I even force myself to do digital ones when I travel so that I don’t “break streak.”
I would rotate between biking and running so I didn’t use the same muscles every single day. Soon I was doing 7 days / week — some easy, some harder. Soon 45 minutes became 60 became 75 became 90. Now I can ride 2–3 hours no problem.
I started noticing that on certain rides other people had much higher “output” (intensity) than I did. So I started texting friends and asking how they did it and getting advice. My cadence improved, my resistance improved, my output improved, my muscle tone improved.
Towards the end of this period my fitness level had increased to a point where I could start jogging outside again and I did something I hadn’t done since I was 35. I started running in the mornings when I traveled and I invited colleagues to jog with me. Because I had to wake up early I stopped drinking as much alcohol at night. Except when I visited Lindel in Austin. But that’s a different story. And as punishment I still got my ass out and ran Lady Bird Lake on 4 hours sleep.
If my meetings were too early in the morning I would schedule one hour between our last meeting and dinner and instead of checking my phone or sending needless Tweets I would get in a 40 minute run and then 20 minute shower. I started making my as many of workouts social as I could.
I felt amazing.
Then I made a mistake which caused me to plateau for 60 days and start to wonder whether I had hit some intractable floor. I had stopped using Noom. I figured with the workout machine I had become I didn’t need to track what I ate any more. I figured that my fitness would now carry me forward to the new me. I was between 185–190 pounds and I figured this must be the 50+ floor. Nobody returns to one’s college weight.
“I’m 51 now so I’m not supposed to be less than 190 pounds.”
Except that a simple Google search told me that the right weight was for a man who was 5'10" (ok, ok, 5'9", well, it depends who’s asking) and it said 144–176. Shit. How was I in such good shape and I was still 10–15 pounds above the ideal weight for my height???
My big insight was this:
When our workouts increase we give ourselves “license” to eat more because we feel we’re earned that. The calories you eat often exceed the calories you burned. You can’t outrun the fork!
I came up with a plan. And everything changed
My Life Goal
I went back to foundational stuff. I realized by then that just running or biking or walking but not paying attention to what I ate was an excuse for me not to be disciplined about food because, well, I love food. I noticed that after a run Stuart would eat a bowl of fruit at Pret-a-Manger while I would order oatmeal, a small sandwich, a cafe latte AND fruit even though we went on the same run together. If I ran in the morning I was using it as an excuse for why I was allowed to order dessert at the restaurant after dinner.
No more. I was ready for the next level. And frankly Covid had just started and I thought, “I guess I have to set an unrealistic goal like hitting 175.” I hadn’t done that since my 20s. I never dreamed of hitting 160 (let alone 153).
I decided to get back to watching the “calories in” and switched from Noom to MyFitnessPal (MFP). Noom was great for getting me into the right state of understanding why I made bad food choices but now I really just wanted the best, most efficient way of tracking what I ate.
MFP has a huge database of foods so typing in what I was eating was super simple. And it has a bar code scanner, which saves a ton of time.
I set up weekly goals and a date by which I was going to hit 175 (“yeah, right!”). I pushed myself to eat dinner earlier — usually before 7pm, stop drinking alcohol and stop eating after I was done with dinner. I created a rule of my two “cheats” after dinner. I could eat up to 3 popsicles (30 calories each) and/or one bag of microwave popcorn (100 calorie pack) and I ate them right after dinner so I’d stop eating early. I started chewing Trident sugarless gum after this small snack as a “rule” that I was not able to eat anything else after I had the gum. It became another gamification. I told myself if I broke the rule even once then the rule didn’t mean anything and it would lose its power. So I never let myself break the rule. It was like Matt Wilpers telling me, “you didn’t turn up here for 45 minutes just to blow your diet in the final 15 minutes!” I had to yell it into my own ear.
By the time I was 185 I had become less fearful about telling people I was trying to be more fit because by then it was kind of obvious. I had already lost 35+ pounds and it showed. So I started talking to my little brother, Matt, about weight and my goals. We agreed to be accountability partners. I would take a screen grab of my daily goals in MyFitnessPal and send them to my brother.
I would send him the log that showed “daily calorie goal, total calories consumed, total calories burned” and I’d send him a little note like “I drew the line today — no cheats!” or “I kind of imploded and ate too much licorice so I forced myself to ride an extra 30 minutes this afternoon.” It felt really nice to have somebody else to be accountable to even thought truthfully it was really just accountability to myself and I was hacking it to create an external pressure to be my better self.
I got comfortable telling my brother my weight so every week I’d send my weekly log and I became hugely motivated to have somebody to send a graph to that showed my weight down by 2.2 pounds! It became addictive. Sort of like the Dopamine rush you get when you share a great photo on Instagram and all your friends “like” it.
3. NEW FITNESS CHALLENGES
By now daily walks and rings in Apple were no longer good enough. I needed harder goals, I needed more ambitious workouts, I wanted to rip through more calories so I could hit my weight targets. I was mentally and physically tough. I was ready to compete. But how?
I discovered a feature on Peloton that had a monthly leaderboard. You could enter challenge where you would automatically log your miles and days ridden (or run) against any of your friends who joined the challenge. I decided in May 2020 to join the riding challenge so I gave up running for the month and decided to put myself on a 31-day biking challenge. Me against any punk who thought they could beat me on the bike!
I’m sure none of them were really even paying attention but I created imaginary competitors in my mind. Sincerely. My number one opponent was Andrew Peterson. Why? Because he’s such a damn good rider. Every ride of his he’d ride further and harder in each 30 minutes of a ride than I possibly could. But I had a plan to “beat” him. I would just ride longer. I’d set my alarm and wake up early before work to get a 90-minute ride in and I knew he rode in the afternoons. My plan was to wear him down. To make him log in every day and think “crap, he put in another 30 miles!” By the time he was riding I would sneak back right before dinner and I’d get an extra 20–30 minutes in so that I could get another 8–10 miles.”
Yes. I am weird. Yes, I KNOW he wasn’t really paying attention at all and didn’t even know I was riding. But I knew that the game I played worked on ME. I needed a competitor to beat and I didn’t want to lose this imaginary competition in May and I set a goal of winning for the month and losing wasn’t an option. I have to admit that some people did notice. I started getting texts from some friends saying “damn, you’re putting on a ton of miles on the Peloton this month!” (which only fueled me more because I thought “see, people are watching the race!”).
My wife thought I was totally mashugana and I mean it. I would tell her about my plan to wake up early and make Andrew wince when he saw how many miles he was going to have to ride to beat me for that day. My plan was to demoralize him before he had to ride so he wouldn’t even dare try to go further. No, I never told Andrew any of this until perhaps now.
On May 31st the competition ended. I won. Not by a lot, maybe 20 or so miles but I was ready to ride from 9pm to midnight that night if I had to in order to stay ahead.
I was so proud of what I had achieved on the bike that month. My legs and lungs moved to a whole new fitness level. I was so pleased that I went out and bought myself a new road bike and promised myself that as the weather was getting better I’d get out and ride more outdoors.
I didn’t do a screen grab on that exact end of month but in the middle of May you can see what this obsessive activity and game I played (with myself) did to both my workout regime (727.7 miles between April 23 — May 22 or 24.2 miles / day.) And that excludes all of the running and lifting I was doing.
This obviously isn’t Olympic-level biking but as you can see it did burn an additional 31,000 calories during this month or more than 1,000 / day and because I was holding myself accountable in MyFitnessPal and not just “eating anything I wanted because I was working out so hard.” I was gamifying both calories in and calories out. Here are the results during that period as measured on MFP and sent to my brother in the middle of June, 2020.
I couldn’t believe it. 190 had become 185 and then 180. When I started my obsessive Peloton burst I was already below 175 and six weeks later I had approached 160. 10% of my body weight in 2 months without any crazy diet. I was ready for my next big challenge and set of tools.
That’s when I discovered Strava. And everything changed again. Strava has become my Mecca. It was next-level community. It was next level data and statistics. It was next-level leaderboards and challenges and progress. Strava got me outdoors again and social again (with masks or Buffs) and made me connected to the physical worlds again.
But I’ll save that for the next post. This has already gotten long enough.
I just want to leave you with one final thought …
The hardest exercise decision is 1 vs. 0. Starting vs. not. Once you start, doing the work is never as hard as you imagine. As I type this it’s 4pm and I promised myself I’d get in a run before dark. So I’m about to head out (and thus not check for typos, sorry). I did the same thing yesterday late afternoon.
Ok. I did it. I’m back. Took my 18 minutes but got my butt out the door and on some hills.
I never feel like starting. But because I don’t want to break streak I always do. I start out by telling myself I don’t need to go far or hard, I just need to go. Once out it’s always easier to go a little further or a little harder than my pre-exercise brain wants to sign up to. Frequency matters! And Strava is the tool that helps me gamify my frequency. I’ll explain why in the next post. But for now, here’s my Strava trophies for today, I only pushed myself for PRs a couple of segments.
Oh, and now I can really enjoy my dinner tonight !!! Below is my current tally on MyFitnessPal with calories remaining. Yes, I really do this every day.
Upcoming posts will cover:
- How I Learned to Sleep (Oura Ring)
- Continuous Glucose Monitoring (Levels)
- The Best Gear I’ve Discovered (Fitness trackers, headphones, shoes, socks, water solutions, anti-chaffing, bikes)
- Music solutions
- What I’m working on next (weight training, Tonal, pushups, etc)
How I Moved from Counting Calories to Supercharging My Workouts and Massively Improve My Fitness… was originally published in Both Sides of the Table on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.