About a year ago I wrote about how cycling to work every day from Riverdale helped me lose about 12 lbs and achieve much better overall fitness. Back then and over the ensuing summer, I averaged over 100 miles per week cycling. With a minimum round-trip length of 22 miles (and occasionally taking longer routes of over 20 miles one-way) plus frequent weekend riding, I was burning calories and shedding pounds with ease. No matter what I ate, it seemed, I was still burning far more than I was consuming. But at the end of that summer, when we moved to the City, …
my average daily bike ride shrunk from 25 miles to just 9 miles. Then the winter came. Even though, judging by the number of other people on bikes I saw, I am probably hardier (or more foolhardy) than about 95% of bike commuters out there, and despite obtaining winter tires with metal studs, there were still about 3 weeks total that I simply could not ride my bike. The roads were either too slick or the bike paths completely blocked with ice and snow.
As cycling had become my predominant form of exercise, I slowly started to regain the lost pounds. Then, with my eating habits still fixed at a level more appropriate for someone cycling dozens of miles daily, I gained even more weight. By the end of a particularly harsh and cold February, I found I was tipping the scales at just over 215 lbs.
The signs that the time had come for a major shift in both diet and exercise were all over the place. Fat Cyclist was starting a weight loss contest. The weather was finally getting warm enough consistently enough to at least consider going out for a long ride on Sunday. Passover was coming soon, and that inevitably means lots of eating and much difficulty adhering to any sort of diet. A bit further out, in early June, a family beach vacation in Florida loomed, and I’d rather not be so embarrassed of my weight that I refuse to take off my shirt (which has happened in the past).
I started off my quest with some research. So, Fat Cyclist was holding a weight-loss contest “with beeminder”? I’d heard of this site touting “data nerd goal tracking” before, but never had occasion to look into it. The site’s primary selling point is that they will charge you money if you don’t progress enough towards your goal (derail, in their lingo). But I’m not really the type to be motivated by the prospect of losing my money if I don’t meet my goals (particularly as the site relies on honest reporting). Fortunately, they also offer up to 7 “freebees.”
What I really love about Beeminder is its ethos. The site offers great data visualizations paired with a really easy UI for entering your data. Furthermore, they can even display some simple data analysis over your data, such as a moving average and a forward-looking “rose-colored” progress line. Finally, their blog includes helpful weight loss tips from a data nerd perspective.
The most interesting tips were taken from an online book titled The Hacker’s Diet. In the Signal and Noise chapter, the book recommends applying various moving averages to make the weight loss trend (or lack thereof) more apparent. Now, it just so happens I know a thing or two about moving averages, so I immediately plugged my data into Excel and drew a chart with an exponential moving average (shown in red) as well as a lagless moving average (green) that takes the recent trend and extrapolates to see where the moving average is headed.
So now I can tell instantly upon inputting my data whether my latest data point is in line with the current trend, above, or below. I can also tell how much the current point is pushing my trend line up or down. Push it up too far and it’s likely I’ve slacked off in my weight loss plan. I love the early warning my chart gives me, as well as a sense of whether I am truly off track or whether what I’m seeing is probably just noise. If anyone reading this feels this spreadsheet might be helpful to them, too, please comment and I’d be glad to e-mail you a copy.
Of course, the other side of weighing daily is having an accurate scale. When I first started out, believe it or not, all I had was a cheap analog scale that gave readings that were difficult to read. Beeminder also happens to integrate seamlessly with a few wi-fi enabled scales that will magically send your data through your router on to beeminder’s servers. So I bought a rather pricey wi-fi scale from Withings and started using it daily.
At first I was rather pleased to be able to avoid having to remember my previous weight, and I got into the habit of postponing any analysis of the most recent data until I was at a computer with my full history in front of me. Of course, if you happen to weigh yourself mid-day or in the evening as well, then that gets sent out as well. And if you happened to be “on track” on Beeminder early in the day, but then you decide to weigh yourself in the evening and (as is often the case) you weigh much more, you could cause yourself to derail due to a technicality.
In the end, the trouble of the Withings scale turned out not to be worth it, so I replaced it with a much cheaper, simpler, and (remarkably) more accurate digital scale from EatSmart.
That’s about all I have time for writing now. Next time I’ll discuss what I actually changed about my habits to start losing weight.
 March turned out to be very cold, too. I stubbornly tried to go out for a long ride on a Sunday when temperatures reached about 40 F, but the Greenway was completely covered in black ice and rather unrideable. But at least at the time I thought it was getting warmer.