My smartphone has become an ally in my weight loss program


american cancer societyGroundhog Day was on Saturday this year, and unlike the furry little beast, what I have to say each year around this time is just as good today as him looking for his shadow on Saturday.

What is all this about, you are probably asking yourself?

It is about an annual update that I started a couple of years ago on my blog to remind myself and those who are interested that losing weight and staying healthy is a tough slog and a major commitment which too often is not successful. Like many of you out there I am not immune to all the problems surrounding diet and trying to get weight under control. Try, try, try again and again, and hopefully one day we can all get it “right.” That’s why I dubbed this the Groundhog Day Diet, after the Bill Murray movie of a similar name where he strikes out to relive the same day again and again until he gets it “right.”

And, let’s face it: I am not alone in this dilemma. Many of us are in the same boat: we keep trying, but nothing seems to work. There are temptations and messages all around us that are leading us to eat ourselves into oblivion. We as a nation are becoming larger and larger, and now there are concerns that overweight and obesity-if left unchecked, and on their current trajectory-will result in reversal of the gains we have made in extending and improving life. But maybe–just maybe–with the new technologies offered by apps and smartphones we will be able to actually take control of our lives and our eating habits and make some real progress through more awareness and information in real time at the moment we are making our choices about our diets.

So how was my year? In a nutshell, not good. But I have an excuse! 2012 was not my best year, health wise. Pain in my joints led to the discovery that I had no cartilage in my knees and one hip which led to surgery which led to complications which led me to a year where it was at times (for the first six months) very painful to walk and exercise and at times impossible to walk (the next four months) and then a slow, steady rehabilitation (the last 2 months).

But I am recovered, and I am committed to doing better. Yes, I lost a fair amount of muscle mass and replaced it with fat however I didn’t gain as much weight as I would have expected. So although it didn’t look too bad on the scale, it looked pretty awful on me.

That’s the past, and the good news is this year the pain has reduced considerably, I am able to walk, and I don’t have a lot of excuses left in that good old bag of tricks that we all carry around to explain why we can’t do what many of us need to do: get our diets and our bodies under control to improve our health and reduce our risk of lots of bad diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke.

I am glad to say that this year I have discovered a new wrinkle which I actually find very helpful in keeping me on track, at least so far.  We have come into the electronic age and the era of social media. Put those two things together, and presto! We have new tools that I think (is” hope” a better word?) will keep me engaged in the process of trying to do what I need to do. (I should add, parenthetically that these new fake knees and hip have provided me an added incentive: I am a big guy, and every pound of weight I lose puts substantially less pressure on those joints and hopefully will help them last through my lifetime. Each pound of weight puts about three or four pounds of stress on your knees. Over a day or a lifetime, that translates into a lot of impact.)

So why do I need new tools to help me slim down?

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For me, that meant recording my diet periodically on a website for over 10 years. And the result was typically weight loss for the first two or perhaps three months of the year, then a gradual increase in the pounds over the rest of the year as my commitment faded. An analysis a couple of years ago showed me that the valleys and the peaks of my weight over the year were becoming higher every year. It wasn’t working, and frankly I became easily discouraged.

Then I realized I know a lot of the things I needed to do to get better: Watch my calories, maintain my activities, eat a better diet, and shift more to plant based foods than meat and potatoes. Make substitutions that made sense, etc. etc. There were some other tips that I never really incorporated into my program: I was a “daily weigher,” meaning I tried to find a scale every day to see what I weighed. I would rejoice when there was a loss, I became upset when there was a daily gain. And then there were the weeks in a row when nothing happened. I was frustrated. So, the other hint to myself was to pick a day of the week to record my weight, stick with it and concentrate on being “good” the rest of the week while avoiding the slings and arrows of the daily weigh-in ritual.

And what about that advice you hear so often about not overloading any one meal, and eating more often during the day? My goal: have a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon to even out the calories and perhaps tamp down the urge to eat more at mealtime.

As to exercise, I try to do some time on the elliptical as many days of the week as I can. The advice on the exercise front is to try to walk more during the day. Sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day without any real breaks is not only not good for weight loss, it’s also not good for your health or your longevity. The commitment I have made in that regard is to take a 10 minute walk during the morning and afternoon, and 20 minutes at lunch. (I also need those walks for my rehabilitation).

So as I revamped my approach to my health, I found some very helpful and interesting tools: first and foremost, my smartphone has become my most important ally in my weight loss program. I don’t think I could make the progress I am making without it. Then, I read a recent report on weight plans in a well-known consumer magazine and found a highly rated online calorie tracker that is easy to use, has a robust data base and works well on my smartphone. I have entered data religiously, not made any conscious errors (no cheating on amounts!) and actually used it to get on-the-spot information which helps me make make much better choices for meals in real-time, even when eating at a restaurant (which I have to do frequently because of my travel schedule).

The other tool that has made a big difference for me is a little gizmo I wear on my belt loop which tracks my daily activity, the intensity of that activity, and my sleep patterns then automatically uploads that information to my smartphone which in turns transfers the data to my diet program which then makes adjustments to my calorie count for the day.  At the end of the day, I get a report of my “net calories” which accounts for what I have eaten minus my exercise for the day. It also gives me a prediction of what my weight will be in five weeks based on my day’s net calorie consumption.

Another app that has proven interesting is one that a colleague suggested to me recently, which maps my walk and provides regular updates on time, distance and pace-along with providing a map on my phone of the route I have taken.

All together, I now have more information at my fingertips than I could have ever imagined in the past. I have incredible amounts of data at my disposal, even down to the dietary composition of what I eat for a day or a week. I know the net calories I consume every day (net calories being calories consumed minus calories expended through daily living and exercise) as well as the quality of my sleep and the proportion of my day that I spend sitting, walking and exercising. I know how much sodium I consume (important for me since I have hypertension), how many grams of fat and cholesterol I eat, and many other elements of my dietary consumption.

Truth be told, at times I feel like one of those lab rats you read about in your college psychology class where they monitored how the rat responded to various feeding schedules and/or types of food. I am wired for success. And much of it is seamless, which makes it easy to use and interpret.

I can laugh about all of this technology, but it only works if it works for me and keeps me focused. So far, so good. And I find all of the information not only fascinating but helpful in guiding me to better choices and better behaviors. I feel as though I am in much better control of my body, which for me is a good thing.

Put all of this together with a better diet, calories distributed through the day, regular walking during the day, and concentrating on my diet instead of the scale, and the results have been gratifying. And for you scientists out there, the “net calories” consumed compared to estimates of my body’s daily calorie demands results in a reasonably good correlation with the pounds lost-at least so far. In short, the effort has proven worthwhile. But it is still early, and similar thoughts/predictions in the past have been met shortly thereafter with frustration, disappointment, and resumption of old habits.

Will this time be any better? Will I finally get it right? Who knows? Who cares? Well, I for one care. Hopefully my family cares. And maybe when you read this you will care enough to say, “If he can do it, so can I!” After all, even Bill Murray eventually got it right. And if he got it right, maybe the rest of us can as well.

As the movie tells the story, you really don’t have to live Groundhog Day forever. Maybe this will be the year of success. After all, if you don’t try you can never succeed.

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld is deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society. He blogs at Dr. Len’s Cancer Blog.

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