Mystery Solved? It's the Exercise, Stupid!

It is no secret that the path to health is a good diet and moderate exercise.  What “good” means and what “moderate” means is left up to someone else to sort out.  Mostly I think that is because a one size fits all model is not applicable.  Over the past two years I went from having my weight and body fat really dialed in well to everything going to shit.  There were ups and downs in my exercise levels.  There were ups and downs on my diets.  There were some unavoidable life events too.  Is there something that I could learn from all of this data that would give me some definitive indication of what is going wrong?

I already had a narrative in my head.  I knew that there was a combination of the three aforementioned factors and I had data over this period to help track this.  I have everything I’ve eaten over that span of time logged in the computer.  I have all of the exercises I’ve done, plus the estimated calorie estimates for them, logged elsewhere.  In late 2012 I also got a Withings scale that measures body fat and weight and sends it up to the internet.  While i was never impressed with the absolute body fat percentage it calculates (it’s always low by a couple of percentage points) it is helpful for showing trends.  I decided to use the relatively high resolution scale data and overlay various major events on it to see if there were any trends.  But again, I had some narratives going into it that I thought I would prove true.

The first narrative was that maybe I “broke” my body with the marathon training.  I don’t mean that I have bad joints or anything, but it was over the last couple of years that I started training for running distances.  It’s also during that time that I started to lose the ability to track my weight changes to calorie consumption.  The formulas just never line up correctly even though they had for years before.  Could it be me hitting an age wall?  Perhaps, but that’s built into the formulas that build up calorie expenditure.  Could it be that I screwed up my metabolism or some other system by doing too much running training for my body?  That’s what I settled on as one possibility.

Another narrative I had was that a lot of the change was due to a very stressful life event that occurred with respect to my family.  This led to me going weeks with less than 3 hours of sleep a night, eating lots of shit food as an emotional crutch and overall just letting things go.  That was bookended by the Virgin Diet and Paleo Diet experiment which I thought helped mitigate those things.  I know I picked up a ton of weight during that period of time but I wasn’t sure how much was just inflammation versus actual fat gain.

Once I put together the chart overlayed with the epochs the answer to all of this became more clear:

The first measurement on the scale was on September 23, 2012 and the last November 26, 2014.  I scoured through my training logs, this blog and journals to come up with things I thought were relevant and notable.  I have some races on there.  I also have when training began or ended. Usually training periods also coincided with periods of eating better.  Often the period after training tapers off my eating doesn’t necessarily get too much difference in calorie intake, but there may be changes to the quality of food (more junk food and so on).

My peak body fat composition was in my training up to my first half marathon, in October 2012.  I had trained up that entire year starting from couch potato status.  The previous year I just started watching what I was eating but not exercising too much.  Through that process I dropped a lot of body fat.  The year of training culminated in my first race, a good body composition and a desire to continue improving my running and fitness levels.  That thinking ended in November of that year as the holidays hit.  It was a good several months (end of March 2013) that I really started getting my training dialed in.  Over the period of time from December, January, February and March I continued to eat more than I had during my training and the quality of the food wasn’t the greatest.  A full twelve percent of my calories those months came from beer, wine, bread and cake. The weight and fat trends over that period is a testament to it.

I next went into a long period of training for my first marathon.  My diet wasn’t horrible but wasn’t great.  I was certainly eating a lot more during that ramp up. I had always stated that I lost muscle and gained fat through the experience.  I thought I had.  I knew I gained weight at any rate.  That turned out not to be the case when I look at the long term trend. I did gain weight but I also lost fat at the same time.  I never achieved the levels of my half marathon training, but it was always a flat if not downward trend.  This was now the end of 2013 and I figured training for my second marathon combined with the diet experiment would make things pop.  That’s not the path I actually walked however.

Yes, I started the Virgin Diet in preparation for the full diet experiment as soon as the clock struck 1/1/2014.  The Virgin Diet had two phases: a totally clean phase followed by a testing phase where you try the various foods you eliminated for one week at a time.  My weight plummeted during that period of time and then stabilized during the testing phase.  My body fat however didn’t really change all that much. While I would like to say I had incorporated exercise at that point, I did not. In fact I had stayed quite sedentary for all of the first quarter of the year. The month of March was just eating normal with the Paleo phase being eyed for April.  Again, no real exercise was going on.  By the numbers I should have picked up 2 pounds, and I instead I picked up three.

The next couple of months are when things really went off the rails.  My weight skyrocketed by eight pounds but that didn’t really show up in my body fat changing.  It should have, but for some reason it didn’t.  Again, there is no exercise going on there just eating like shit.  In the beginning of June I started to get serious about my training again.  That also is when my diet was completely dialed into the Paleo experiment.  As is clear the fat and weight were melting off at that time.  I wasn’t consciously restricting calories over that period but it was clearly a good combination.  That soon ended as I became demoralized and disillusioned with both my marathon training and the diet experiment.  I tried rebooting that for a few weeks but eventually gave up.

The remainder of the year is spotty training at best and not so great eating either.  I do a pretty god job with most breakfasts and lunches.  Snacks are spotty.  Dinners aren’t bad but not great.  However evening snacking really is my downfall.  It’s only a couple of hundred calories each day, but overtime that adds up.  Worst is that the lack of exercise is causing all of that to also include a shift in composition.

So what is it?  Diet?  Exercise? Stress?  It’s clear that diet is a contributor but the places where things dramatically change are all centered around exercise.  You can’t out exercise your mouth, but you can’t let exercise fall by the wayside either.  The periods after long intervals of fitness have some momentum in them, which maybe led me to a false sense of complacency.  As my body approaches middle age however those muscles are going to naturally start atrophying anyway.  My overly sedentary lifestyle exacerbates that.  What I then have is the new equilibrium my body is trying to create in a sedentary, unexercised state.  That is not one that equates to a good body composition.  Therefore getting the exercise really improved and making some slight improvements in the diet are what is called for.  It has always been easier for me to concentrate on my diet instead of exercise.  It’s clear now that it’s just not going to cut it anymore.