Measure the right thing

It’s very easy to begin something with the best of intentions and say things like, “Every little helps.” or “It can’t do any harm.” without knowing if your efforts are having any effect whatsoever. Everyone is different and wants different things from fitness (we’ll cover the types of fitness in detail later) but one thing is constant throughout your new journey. If you don’t measure the right thing, you cannot know if you’re making progress or not.

Just as important as measuring the right thing, is measuring consistently. Just as important as measuring consistently is recording and interpreting the results correctly. These go hand in hand – you cannot interpret the results if you’re not recording them historically. You should never just rely on what the measurement is today.

Let’s take an example: weight. Weight is such an easy thing to measure that you can do it everyday. You begin a workout routine and see weight drop off: 2 pounds within the first three days, then another 1 pound before the week’s end… but horror, a pound back on by Day 8!

Let’s go back to the beginning. What are you measuring? Your weight. Why are you measuring your weight? Because you want to lose fat. So far, so good. That is one of many potential fitness goals, and weight is a solid indicator of progress in this regard. It isn’t the only one though. Consider also body fat percentage because part of your diet and exercise routine could be to increase muscle – it is possible to lose fat, and build muscle simultaneously. Lesson one then: consider the measurements carefully. Make sure they tie in with your fitness goals. Don’t stop at just one measurement.

Taking measurements is empirical science. If you use differently calibrated instruments e.g. the scales at home, and the scales at the gym, you may get significantly different results. Are you weighing yourself at the same time of day? You should be. Don’t weigh yourself before a meal one day and after a meal another. Taking measurements will allow you to track progress and ascertain whether your efforts are working or not. Science is about changing only one thing: in this case that’s you, as you change over time. Lesson two: other than yourself, make sure everything else about the measurement is exactly the same.

Some measurements vary wildly over time and need to be smoothed over a longer time period to understand the true meaning. There are two strategies for this:

  1. Increase the gap between measurements
  2. Measure frequently, but interpret over a longer period

The second strategy is preferable but takes more discipline. Differences in weight should be interpreted over at least one week, preferably two. Other measurements, say, the number of a specific exercise you’re able to complete during a workout are much more immediate. Say you’re beginning a new workout routine and doing the same exercise during every session, allowing one rest day, you can gauge progress in two or three day cycles. So lesson three: record every measurement and learn how to interpret the change over an appropriate time period.

Measurements are key to reaching your milestones. If you’re not measuring, you’ll never know if you’re ever going to reach them. Measuring the right thing gives you the confidence to say, “I’m going in the right direction, everything is ok.” or the evidence to say, “Something is not working. A change needs to take place.” It may not be obvious what that something is at first, but having the data allow you to ask questions, and change direction while the momentum to continue and succeed is still with you.