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Archive for June, 2012

Setting Weight Loss and Fitness Goals

Goal planning is a critical aspect of losing weight and getting or staying fit. Without goals, you’re like a boat caught on the waves without a sail. Sometimes it’s okay to be adrift without any specific goal in mind, but usually if you’re trying to lose weight, you already have a desired outcome. What you may not have is a plan to get there.

Weight loss planning is a lot like driving from one place to another. You know your starting location, and your destination, and you need to plot a course to get there. Turn left here, turn right there, take the highway for four miles, take the exit, turn right, etc. Losing weight is a lot like that, wherein you have long term goals that you reach by setting and achieving shorter and shorter term goals.

By working backwards from your long-term goals to the current moment in time (your starting place) you can actually decide to get there, rather than just aimlessly hoping that you get to your goals.

img-finish-line

Most people start out a weight loss or fitness plan with a big overarching goal, like “I want to lose 40 pounds,” or “I’m going to work out every day.” These are great goals, but without planning the intermediate steps to achieve them you’re unlikely to make as much progress as you could with a good plan.

I tend to break my goals up into smaller, more achievable chunks that vary mostly by timeframe:

  1. Immediate
  2. Daily
  3. Short-Term
  4. Mid-Term
  5. Long-Term

Immediate Goals

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
– attributed to Lao-Tzu (604 BC – 531 BC)

Immediate goals are the easiest to keep because they’re the result of choices that you’re making right now. Exercising, eating right, goal planning, and logging your progress are all things you can just do. You want to go exercise? Go exercise. Your goal is to eat right for this meal? What’s stopping you? Being healthy is just one immediate good choice after another. Like walking from here to there – you put one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you’ve arrived at your destination.

You don’t really think of something you’re doing now as a “goal,” but rather a choice. Sure. But those choices are going to be informed by, and support, goals that come to fruition in the future.

Daily Goals

Daily goals are a little more concrete and measurable. Exercise and calorie goals are daily goals. Your immediate goals will depend on your daily goals, and the results of how well you succeed at your daily goals depend on your immediate goals.

Your daily goals are things that you plan to do every day, or every n days (every other day, three times a week, etc.). You want to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes per day every week day, and then take the weekend’s off? Those are still daily goals.

There are a few goals that I keep track of every day:

  • Calorie Intake – 1800–2000 calories/day, currently.
  • Water Intake – My goal is to drink at least eight 8oz glasses of water per day, if not more.
  • Exercise – 2 miles on the treadmill in the morning, every weekday.
  • Steps – I break this out from exercise as it’s a slightly different goal, but because I wear a Fitbit I can measure every step I take. My current step goal is 10,000 steps/day, minimum.
  • Floors Climbed – Also counted by the Fitbit. My current goal is at least 20 floors/day.
  • Writing – I get up two hours earlier than I need to get ready for work so I can write a little every day. You’re reading the results of this writing right now. I tend to keep a dozen or so drafts on various topics going at any given time, and then when one starts to gain critical mass I’ll decide on a publication date and plan to work on that particular article every day until then. Since I usually publish on Monday mornings I’ll spend my morning work and reflection time on Monday editing the article I’m about to publish.

Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals are my weekly or monthly goals. They may be simple like “lose 1–2 pounds per week” or “maintain my current weight while on vacation next week.”

While immediate goals are immediately achievable (because they’re the result of choices), and daily goals are easy enough to achieve, short-term goals are trickier because they should be the result of your daily goals.

Think about the short-term goals as an extension of your daily goals. I use the phrase “short-term” rather than “weekly” or “monthly” – but let’s say that short-term goals encompass both of those.

One of my standing, repeating short-term goals is to lose 1–2 pounds per week. That’s reasonable, right? It won’t happen, however, unless I follow through on my daily and immediate goals.

Mid-Term Goals: A Bundle of Short-Term Goals

I don’t know if a “mid-term” goal is quarterly, bi-annual, or even yearly. It depends on how far out your long-term goals are. These will tend to be set by working backwards from your long-term goals, and will probably roll-up some short-term goals together. For example, if my short-term goal is to lose 1–2 pounds this week, and my monthly goal is to lose 5–10 pounds per month, then maybe a good mid-term goal would include a few weeks or months together.

For example, my current mid-term goal is to weigh under 275 pounds by the end of the summer (Labor Day). I actually set this goal a month ago, based on my projections from my current average rate of weight loss.

I’m keeping this as my next weight loss goal until I hit it, at which case I’ll probably keep to the same timeline but update the weight I want to lose by then. I just did this with another mid-term goal that I’ve already achieved. My company is having an event at the end of June and two months ago I set a goal to be under 290 by then. The only problem? I weighed under 290 by the beginning of June. So I could either check that one off and move to the next goal, or keep that date but now try to weigh even less by then. So that’s what I did. New goal: 280. Will I make it? I have about five pounds to go and one week to do it, so probably not.

Would it have been better to set the goal to 285 and hit it rather than just missing my new goal of 280? I don’t see how. You’re going to try to punch your goal weight in the face and you’re not trying to hit a spot on its face – you’re trying to hit a spot that’s six inches behind its face. You’re going to try to swing through your goal, not just make it. Punch through your goals.

How about a baseball metaphor? If you hit the ball and start running towards first base, you don’t have to reach the base exactly and stop – you can just keep running as fast as you can and run right over that base to be “safe.”

Charge at your goals like you’re William Wallace leading his blue-skinned Scotsmen into battle against the English[1].

Setting Long-Term Goals

One word of caution I’ll offer about setting long-term goals is to not focus on numbers as much as condition. In other words, while one of my long-term goals is to weigh under 200 pounds, my stronger long term goal is to maintain 23–25% body fat, to continue to eat healthily, and be more active. The problem with many people’s long-term goals, and the reason I think that a lot of people gain weight back after dieting is that they stop doing what it was they did to lose the weight once they’ve crossed the finish line.

The finish line never really comes. The race never ends. You just keep on going. That’s not as dismal as it sounds, and achieving goals feels great. Just don’t expect to ever be “done.” You may, however, eventually be done with setting mid-term and long-term goals. The other short term goals will just become your habits and you’ll go on to be a fitter, healthier you. I think I’ll happily trade the thrill of victory for the steady and ongoing success of being fit and not needing to lose weight anymore.

How to Set Weight Loss Goals

  • Write Them Down – Goals that you don’t record somewhere aren’t goals; they’re dreams. This isn’t a wishlist – these are things you are going to make happen. Write your goals down somewhere, whether that’s in a special weight loss goal journal, your calendar, or in a piece of software made to record weight loss goals.
  • Be Specific – You don’t just want to “lose weight” – you want to lose a certain amount of weight. You don’t want to “eat right” – you want to eat certain things, or stay within a specific calorie range.
  • Set A Timeframe – Goals are a statement of your expected condition at a certain time. Without setting a timeframe you don’t have a goal.
  • Make Them Measurable – If you can’t measure it, you can’t know when you’ve achieved it. Success means defining something that has a clear means of measuring your achievement.
  • Measure Them – Of course you’ve been getting constant feedback about your weight loss, so measuring your progress toward your goals is just a further extrapolation out from those stats you’re already keeping.
  • Be Positive – You can’t really plan to not do something. Or rather, whatever you plan to do, you’re planning to not do everything else. Rather than a negative goal like “Don’t eat poorly,” plan a goal that sets a positive tone “Eat a salad for lunch today.” You’d be amazed how more easily achievable positive goals are than negative goals.
  • Goals Are Actions – Sure, you can set a long term goal to lose 100 pounds, but most of your supporting goals will be action-oriented. Things you do. Walk everyday for 30 minutes. Limit your daily intake to 2,000 calories. Ride your bike to work at least 2–3x per week. Go to the gym after work every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Setting goals based on numbers on a scale are okay as long as you also set intermediate goals based on actions that will help you get there. You’re not going to lose the weight magically no matter how much you want to.
  • Start Small – You don’t need to set all of your goals in stone when you’re first starting out. Set a few small and easily achievable goals first. You never get off the couch and want to walk for an hour a day? That’s great. Start with walking five minutes per day, and then if that seems too easy, do more. You can always do more later. Don’t discourage yourself by biting off more than you can chew (excuse the pun) from the get-go.
  • Don’t Choke After Success – You set a goal to walk 15 minutes a day, and now that you’ve done your 15 you still feel like walking? Don’t stop just because it exceeds your goal. Your goals should be minimum effort or otherwise achievable without desperate measures. They’re easily achievable because you started small and built upon that solid foundation over time.
  • Be Realistic – You want to lose 50 pounds … before your sister’s wedding next month? Far be it for me to be a naysayer, but that’s probably not going to happen. You need to set your timelines forward from a measurable and realistic present. For instance, if you are losing 1–2 pounds per week, then you can kinda sorta predict how long it’ll take you to lose any number of pounds[2].
  • Treat Yo’ Self[3] – Establish a reward for achieving a goal that’s something to look forward to, and preferably has something to do with the goal. Have your eye on a new Fitbit? Set a goal to walk every day for a month, and reward yourself with a new tool to help you better track your progress. Your reward for doing the Right Thing should reinforce that right thing, or at least other right things. Don’t reward good performance with food, especially the unhealthy food that you’ve been avoiding to achieve this goal. Don’t make the reward something that slides you back past the goal line again.
  • Readjust. Realign. Resume. – You’re probably not going to achieve every single goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. When you drive you probably don’t even think about the thousands of tiny course corrections that you make constantly just to keep your car in the correct lane. You adjust your speed to ensure that you don’t run into the person in front of you. If you turn the wheel, or use your brakes, are you a failure at driving? No. Your fitness goals are a lot like that. You will need to make adjustments. It’s just part of the process. Nothing to get hung about.

When To Start

You thought about your goals, you have pencil in hand and paper in front of you, and now you’re ready to start, right?

Your starting timeframe is easy. How’s now? Is now good for you? Oh, you want to start later? No you don’t. You already have momentum just thinking about it. You don’t need to finish what you already have in your pantry. The starving children in Africa will still be starving regardless of whether or not you throw away that half-package of uneaten Ding-Dongs[4].

Don’t wait until next Monday. I know the beginning of the week seems a good time to start, but really anytime is a good time to start. You were going to start after your last birthday, or after the holidays, or after the new year started, or after some other special occasion, but didn’t because you were waiting for that nice round “start date.” There will always be a new special occasion. In fact, there are so many of them I don’t even know why we call them special.

Start now. There will never be a better time.

Example Time

So I set a goal in early May to weigh under 275 by the end of the summer. I weighed just under 300 pounds then, so I gave myself about four months to lose about 25 pounds. That’s doable… isn’t it?

Let’s work forward. If I lose one pound per week, over the 16 weeks until early September I’ll only be 16 pounds lighter. If I lose 2 pounds per week, then it’s easy to lose only 25 pounds.

So how have I been doing over the past few weeks, and is this level of activity and calorie budget enough to get me there?

Looking at my weigh-ins, it looks like I’ve been losing an average of 1.5 pounds per week, so projecting outwards in 16 weeks I should lose around 24 pounds, which is pretty close to my goal of 25.

I’ll call that one close enough.

Time to Reflect, Review, and Tweak

You should take a few moments each day to reflect on how you’ve done, where you faltered, and what you can do better tomorrow. I actually find it easier and am more consistent in it when I do my Clean Livin’ planning in the morning after I first get up, rather than just before bed. When I’m tired the last thing I want to do is beat myself up about bad choices just before I go to sleep.

In the morning you can start over, reflect on yesterday and plan better for today. Plus, if you weigh yourself in the morning then you can get feedback for how you did and plan to make better choices today. What’s done is done, but you can always do better if you know you didn’t do the right thing. Sometimes I’m going to eat a cheeseburger. I probably won’t regret it or beat myself up about it unless it’s becoming a regular habit. Then I’ll need to adjust.

How To Recover When You Miss A Goal

Goals are definitely more fun when you charge triumphantly across the finish line, fists in the air, head tilted back. Victory is yours. It’s fleeting, but for now, you get to enjoy that rush.

Falling flat on your face a few steps before the goal is a different feeling entirely. You set a goal, you set smaller goals to work towards that larger goal, but still you failed. Clearly, this is the end of the world.

You’re upset about the result you didn’t get because of the work you didn’t do. Let’s think about how we can fix that.

First of all, you should’ve seen this coming because if you were reassessing your immediate, short-term, and mid-term goals you could project that you’d be missing your goal if you remain on the same trajectory.

By how far did you miss the mark? It may not be that big of a problem if you set a weight goal for a certain date and you hit it a week later instead. You should revise your goals after that accordingly, but it’s probably not a problem. We’ll ignore for a moment the problems with setting goals for how much you weigh at any given time, as your weight will fluctuate day to day and weight goals, like the one I set for myself to lose a certain amount of weight by the end of the Summer, for instance, is more of a general target than something I’ll be depressed about if I miss it. I also try to set as realistic goals as possible, based on current data from my weigh-ins. I’ve been losing a consistent 1.5 pounds per week for the past eight weeks. Setting goals in the future, provided I continue with the behavior that got me to where I currently am, isn’t so much a goal plan as it is a projection.

If you miss your goals by a wide-margin there are two likely reasons:

  1. You stopped doing what you needed to in order to reach your goal, or
  2. You’re bad at math.

If you set a mid-term goal to run 20 out of every 30 days for the next three months and only ended up running 10 times in 90 days, then of course you’re going to miss your goal. Did you re-evaluate that goal after you missed most of your runs in the first 30 days? Was that much running an unrealistic goal for you to begin with?

It’s hard to say because when you’re starting out with setting weight loss goals everything seems unrealistic, and the work you haven’t done yet is easier in your mind than it is when you need to put rubber to the road and actually do the things you’ve planned to do.

So start small, with something you know you can do every day, like keep a log of what you eat, weigh-in, or walk for fifteen minutes a day, and build from there.

You may not notice the benefits of your new activities immediately, but over time they’ll compound. Every little bit helps.


  1. FREEDOM!  ↩

  2. Okay, nerd time. So weight loss tends to be logarithmic, where you’ll lose more at the start and it becomes harder to lose more weight the nearer you get to your “ideal weight.” There are a whole bunch of reasons for that, and you can solve some of the weight loss slowdown by re-adjusting your calorie budget based on your new percentage of muscle mass, body fat, and the ratio of your fat to lean mass. But it’s hard. You also tend to lose a lot of fluid you’ve been holding onto early in the weight loss game, and water weighs a little more than fat does (a pound of water is about two cups by volume – a pound of fat is about 2.13).  ↩

  3.  ↩

  4. When you throw away your junk food, rather than eating it or bringing it to work for others, don’t think of it as wasting something, think of it as reducing the amount of crap in the world by a little bit. You threw away the sugary cereal and potato chips? You’ve just made the world a little bit of a better place.  ↩

Four Years of Clean Livin’

As I contemplate my Clean Livin’ quadrennial I’m reminded of the last time I celebrated my healthier lifestyle anniversary two years ago.

In the interim I got busy with life, stopped writing here, continued to remain active, but otherwise stagnated for almost two years. When I started trending upwards again I decided to redouble my efforts, get back to basics, and work the program that I know is effective… when you actually do it.

Some things I do every dang day:

  • Walk on the treadmill (okay, I do this almost every day).
  • Ride my bike to work during the week (most days, about 8 months out of the year).
  • Weigh-in and record my weight.
  • Log everything I eat or drink that isn’t water.
  • Assess my caloric intake at the end of the day.

Stat Me Up

Anniversaries are good for celebration, but also a good time to reflect on pass successes and stumbling blocks. Since life is a continuum and every day is a new Start Date you can’t fail, just not succeed as fast. As long as you’re alive, you can be a bit healthier than you were yesterday.

Here are some numbers to consider on the fourth anniversary of when I made the decision to improve my body, get healthy, and help others do the same:

  • Weighed-in just over 1,200 times (which means I missed about 250 days due to travel, or missing a day or two here and there).
  • Since I got my Fitbit in February, 2010, I’ve walked over 3,500 miles.
  • Starting weight: over 451 lbs (since that was the max of the scale that couldn’t weigh me when I started – but considering that I was measurable less than a week after I started, I couldn’t have weighed that much more than 451).
  • This morning’s weigh-in: 287.2 lbs. That means I’ve lost 163.8 pounds, or a 36.32% decrease from my former body weight. That’s about the weight of a full keg of beer[1]. Have you ever tried to lift a full keg? They’re heavy. Now imagine wrapping yourself with that much weight and carrying it around every day.
  • My current goal weight is around 200 pounds. I’ll re-adjust when I get closer. If my calculations are correct, when this body drops 88 pounds you’re going to see some serious shit.
  • At an average of –1 lbs / week, I should hit my goal by the beginning of 2014, which is a bit later than I’d originally planned, but of course if I can lose more faster I will.

It’s still a little shocking to me to see pictures of how I looked four years ago. I wish I thought of taking progress photos, or at least a “before” picture, when I started down this road, but here’s a photo of me from Thursday, 19 June 2008, three days into Clean Livin’. I’m in yellow, sitting on the steps at Daley Plaza by the fountain with some of my co-workers at the time (I wish I had a better quality image, but I think this was taken with someone’s old cell phone):

img-daley-plaza-2008

And to contrast and compare, here’s a full-body photo of me from our trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum last week (wearing, now that I see the picture, a shirt that’s too big for me):

img-clean-livin-fourth-anniversary

  1. A standard U.S. “half-barrel” keg. Perhaps you’ve seen one at parties or in movies about college keggers.  ↩

Keeping Healthy On Vacation

There comes a time when one’s livin’, no matter how clean the intent, is tested. A time when temptation is greater, every as-yet untasted morsel appears more succulent, routine is recklessly abandoned, and measuring progress becomes a chore too unpleasant to contemplate. For me, that time is while I’m on vacation.

It stands to reason. When you’re away from home or work you have less control over your environment, are probably not cooking for yourself, and the joys of discovering new foods or enjoying halcyon reminiscences too delicious to pass up.

Even the word “vacation” conjures images of freedom, excitement, and enticing new experiences. It’s a time you want to play instead of work, relax instead of be active, and let the tautness of routine slacken as the lassitudes of recreation multiply.

Or, if you’re me, you run yourself ragged walking around your vacation spot for ten hours straight without taking any downtime to relax, eating junk food from carts on the street as you go.

I’ve been making good progress managing my weight loss over the past few months, so the prospect of a vacation both excited and worried me. The wife and I visited New York City over an extended Memorial Day five-day weekend. New York is one of my favorite places to visit, and a big part of that is the food. Whenever we go to New York there are a bunch of things that we plan to eat that you just can’t get in Chicago, or at least it’s different enough that we enjoy the New York version:

  • Pizza – No one does pizza like New York City, especially at the few and far between coal oven establishments. You can debate which style of pizza is best but when you imagine pizza in your mind, you’re probably thinking of New York Style Pizza.
  • Bagels – There are a few places in Chicago to get passable bagels, but great bagels are so common in New York that it’s rare if they aren’t good. Also, you can’t really get bialys, the bagel’s weird denser cousin, anywhere else.
  • East Coast Chinese Food – Americanized Chinese food is available throughout the country, with various regional differences. New York Chinese food offers a nostalgia for the Chinese food of my youth in Philly.
  • Street Food – In Chicago it’s illegal to cook food in a truck and serve it (there are food trucks, but they have to prepare their food elsewhere and then sell the food from the truck, and there are so many restrictions that you can’t count on a truck having a permanent outpost, so they roam from place to place and post their current and upcoming locations on Twitter. Lame. In New York you can eat any kind of food you want, cooked in a cart or truck on the street. The same cart was there yesterday, and the same cart will be there tomorrow. There are some NYC staples like “chicken over rice” that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere, and common stuff like falafel, kebabs, tacos, etc.
  • img-grays Papaya Drinks and Grilled Hot Dogs – I don’t know why this combination is only prevalent in New York, but Gray’s Papaya and Papaya King (and half a dozen lesser imitators) serve a combo of grilled natural casing hot dogs and a papaya drink that’s just out of this world, and a very cheap meal. Gray’s Papaya has a “recession special” that offers two hot dogs and a papaya drink for under $5.
  • Dirty Water Hot Dogs – Sure, Chicago may be the hot dog and sausage capital of the country, but there’s nothing like getting a dirty water hot dog (usually made by Sabrett) on the street, topped with mustard and sauerkraut.
  • img-shake-shack Shake Shack – The West Coast has In-N-Out, other cities have Fatburger, Five Guys, Steak & Shake, M Burger, and other local burger joints, but there’s just something about Shake Shack’s burgers that really draw the crowds. We waited about 50 minutes from the time we entered the line until we were actually eating a burger. I’m still on the fence about whether or not it was worth it, but it is a tasty burger. Shake Shack just expanded into Philadelphia, so I expect they’ll continue to open new locations.
  • Knish – Ah, the potato knish. I’m sure you can get them elsewhere, but the fresh round baked, not fried, knish from Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery on Houston are just not available anywhere else in the country.
  • img-katz Deli – Your city has delis too? Not really. You haven’t had a good deli sandwich until you’ve gotten some house-cured corned beef or pastrami from a reputable institution, like Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side[1]. Other cities have delis, and most supermarkets have a “deli counter” where they’ll sell you some sliced cold cuts, but none really do it like New York, and those that do call themselves “New York Style” delis.

I didn’t mean for this post to turn into a list of unhealthy but delicious things that are available in New York City, but there you go. I’m sure I forgot some New York City street food staples too.

When you’re trying to lose weight, though, walking around New York is like navigating a minefield. There are delicious and cheap foods everywhere and you have to walk by one of those carts every twenty paces. I think I did pretty well, considering.

How To Mitigate The Damage While Still Enjoying Your Vacation

  • Walk Around – Walking around a new place can be a lot more interesting than walking around the same streets over and over again at home. While walking alone won’t make up for an extra two thousand calories, it helps mitigate the damage caused by eating poorly.
  • Share the (Caloric) Load – If you’re traveling with a friend or partner you can reduce your caloric intake by sharing the foods that are higher in calories. Some things are easier to share than others, of course, and convincing someone else to go halfsies may take some doing.
  • If You Can’t Share, Spread It Out – A single hot dog and bun is like 300 calories (and not much more if your toppings are comprised only of low-calorie items such as mustard and sauerkraut or onions), so if you eat one and then have a slice of 300–400 calorie pizza a couple of hours later, you’re spreading it out over time, and hopefully walking off some of those calories in-between.
  • Don’t Spend More Than You Make – Just like when you’re home, you should set a budget and stick to it. I set my caloric budget while on vacation to the amount of calories it would take for me to maintain my weight. I figured if I could break even throughout the course of my vacation, I’d call that a “win.” It’s harder, however, to have an accurate calorie estimate of foods you don’t prepare yourself, so while away I tend to try to over-estimate everything as a worst-case scenario. Pizza isn’t going to be consistent between pizzerias, or even between slices from the same pizzeria. Do the best you can.
  • Choose Your Battles – Since you’re still operating under a budget (albeit a looser budget, most likely) you should be smart about how to spend those calories. When you consider the opportunity cost that eating one thing precludes eating something else (in terms of space in your stomach let alone calorie budget) be sure that you’re choosing to eat something that’s highly caloric that you’ll truly enjoy. Save up throughout the day for that one meal for which you’ve made reservations. Pass on the soft serve from the truck and walk the mile to the artisan ice cream shop you saw on TV. You don’t have to deprive yourself, just make sure that if you’re going to pound down the calories that you’ll actually be enjoying the experience.

Easier Said Than Done

So how’d I do?

On the morning of the day we left I weighed in at 290.8 lbs. The morning after we got back I weighed in at 298.0 lbs. Oops. Since I was counting my calories while away I knew that there was no way I ate an extra 25,000 calories over the course of a week over what I burned, so something else had to be accounting for the extra weight.

It took me five days to get rid of my vacation weight (and another couple of days to be sure I kept it off and I didn’t just dip below it due to water balance changes):

Day Weight (lbs) Delta (lbs)
23 May
(leaving for vacation)
290.8
31 May
(return from vacation)
298.0 +7.2
1 June 297.0 +6.2
2 June 294.4 +3.6
3 June 294.8 +4.0
4 June 292.6 +1.8
5 June
(back to pre-vacation weight)
290.6 –0.2
6 June 289.6 –1.2
7 June 289.4 –1.4
8 June 288.8 –2.0

Totally worth it.


  1. It’s the deli where Sally faked an orgasm (“I’ll have what she’s having.”) from the film When Harry Met Sally.  ↩

Bike Commuting

This week marks Chicago’s annual Bike to Work Week, or as it’s been renamed, the Bike Commuter Challenge[1]. It’s a great way to introduce new riders to the joys of bike commuting.

mucha

For the past three years I’ve been commuting to work on my bike (at least in the Spring, Summer, and Fall – I’m not hardcore enough for Winter yet). It’s not only a great way to sneak a little exercise into my day; it’s a lot of fun too. Of course, living in Chicago has its harrowing aspects, but short bouts of pure terror when you’re nearly killed by an oncoming vehicle are good for your heart rate, right?

I’m fortunate to live in a fairly bike-friendly city, and my experience with commuting to work under my own power will probably not work for you if you’re living in the ’burbs or having to drive on a highway to get to work. For me it’s faster to bike to work than to drive, or walk to the train, take the train, and then walk to work from the nearest station. For others it may not be faster, but it’s certainly a much nicer way to get to work, and having activity built-into your day is a help for those who can’t seem to find the time to exercise.

If you’re used to listening to the radio during your morning commute, that doesn’t have to change because you’re riding a bike. I’d caution you against wearing headphones while riding, though, which just seems suicidal to me. It’s sometimes hard enough to hear traffic as it is.

Having said that, I usually listen to music or podcasts via the CyFi, a Bluetooth speaker on the way to and from work. I try to pause it while sitting in a group of other cyclists while waiting at a stoplight, but it’s aimed so that in theory you’d have to be riding the bike to hear it well. Sometimes other cyclists ask me about it. You could call it a conversation piece.

The CyFi great and it mounts on my handlebar stem, with a quick-release for taking it off whenever I park somewhere. There are many other models, some of which fit into a standard water bottle holder. I like the CyFi because the speaker is right where I most need to hear it, and it connects quickly to my iPhone which I can then leave safely in my bag while I’m riding. Highly recommended.[2]

Why Bike To Work?

  • It’s Fun! – Riding my bike is so much nicer than sitting in a car in traffic (even if you’re not driving it) or squeezing into a full commuter train during rush hour. When the weather is especially nice I’ll even sometimes leave earlier than I need and take a longer way to work.
  • It Saves You Money – Other than walking there’s no cheaper way to get to the office. The only fuel you need is what fuel you need to eat. Bike maintenance costs are a fraction of upkeep of a car, and there’s no recurring expense as with public transit passes.
  • It Saves You Time – You need to get to work, and you need to exercise. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Multitasking!
  • It’s Faster (Maybe) – This probably won’t be true for everyone, but in the city it’s often faster to ride my bike than to take public transit, or drive and try to find a place to park, etc.

Tips For Aspiring Bike Commuters

Here are some tips for commuting to work (and urban cycling in general):

  • Always wear a helmet. Always. In the insurance industry they have a term for people that ride without wearing a helmet: organ donors.
  • Dress for a few degrees less than the actual temperature outside. Once you start biking you’re sure to warm up.
  • Be visible. Wear clothing that stands out. When riding at night, be sure you have blinky lights (white in the front, red in the rear) to let drivers see you.
  • Don’t ride on the sidewalk. I know riding with traffic can be scary, but in most places it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk, and you’re more likely to run into a pedestrian than you are to get hit by a car.
  • Make sure your clothing is loose enough to not restrict your movement but not so loose that your pants get caught in the bike chain. I tend to pull my sock over my pant cuff in the Spring and Autumn, and just wear shorts in the summer while riding. I need to get a pair of those little bungee pant clips.
  • Bring a change of clothes. Even if your office doesn’t have a shower (mine doesn’t) you can usually do a quick change in the restroom. If you want to save yourself some trouble and have space for it at your desk, you can bring a few shirts and undershirts on Monday and not have to worry about hauling laundry with you except one direction each week (or day, since it’s easy to bring home a single shirt). I find that I mostly sweat in my upper body, but of course when it’s really horrible out in the summer I’ll sometimes bring an extra pair of shorts to change into at work.
  • While you’re changing your clothes you can take a whore’s bath with a no-rinse shower wipe to clean up a little. You’d be surprised how well they work, along with a spritz of deodorant body spray both before and after your ride.
  • If you can’t park your bike indoors be sure to use at least two different kinds of bike locks if you’re parking outside, preferably a u-lock and some kind of cable lock to go around your wheels (especially if you have quick-release wheels). Spend a little money here. Get a decent brand. If you get something crappy, and someone steals your bike, you’ll regret not spending the extra $50 to get something that’s rated better. You don’t need the best lock in the world, you just need the best lock at the bike rack. Let the bike thieves take an easier target instead of your ride.
  • If you’re new to bike commuting and are a little scared to ride your bike in the city streets, try biking only one way for a while, taking public transit the other, and then alternate. Another option is to pair-up with a co-worker who can sherpa you through tough intersections.
  • Caravanning with other cyclists in your office is fun! If you know people who ride along the same route, maybe meet up and ride in together. There’s safety in numbers, too.
  • Make sure you have a little something in your stomach before you take a ride. That way you won’t get fatigued while commuting.
  • Take your time. You can ride at your own pace. It’s not a race so don’t worry about people passing you while shouting “ON YOUR LEFT!” You don’t have to keep up with them.
  • Im the one wearing the Chrome bag with the red stripe. The safest route is not always the most direct route. For instance, I make use of one of Chicago’s rare protected bike lanes which takes me about half a mile out of my way. You can probably find a bike lane guide for your city. If not, Google Maps has a bike path tool, although it’s marked as experimental and often doesn’t suggest the best path, so be careful. If you can ask someone else at work about a safe route you should.
  • Take the flattest route possible. In Chicago, this means pretty much any route, but if your city has hills (I’m looking at you, San Francisco) you may want to route around them. There’s also no shame in walking your bike up a big hill, but it’s better to just not have to deal with it, especially on the way to work.
  • Beware the “door zone.” The door zone is the area where a parked car’s door may swing open into your path making for a very bad day. I’ve been commuting to work for three years now and I’m still terrified of being “doored” (as it’s known in the community). Running into any stationary object is not a fun time when on a bike, but hitting one that’ll flip you over onto your head is a sudden and serious injury waiting to happen. Every car door I see is an opportunity to get doored. All I can offer as a tip is to look for drivers in cars, be alert, and try to keep to the far side of the bike lane away from parked or parking cars.
  • Make some noise. Ring your bell, shout at the driver that’s about to run into you, just make sure that they hear you one way or another because there will come a time when your path is going to intersect with someone else’s. If you don’t shout prior to the impact, you’ll be shouting after it.
  • Obey traffic laws as if you were driving a car. Sure, sometimes I’ll zip through a stop sign if I can clearly see both ways crossing an intersection, but in general you should stop at red lights, signal to turn, and otherwise obey the same rules of the road as any other vehicle.
  • Don’t ride erratically. I have a theory that most bike/car accidents occur because one driver wasn’t paying attention, or the driver of the car can’t predict what the bike is going to do next. Cyclists that don’t obey the rules of the road and zip in and out of traffic makes the road less safe for everyone. I don’t want to be killed while on my bike, and you can help my wishes come true by not riding like a douchebag.

  1. Technically “Bike to Work Week” is still a thing, but ActiveTrans emphasizes the Bike Commuter Challenge, and barely mentions the phrase “Bike to Work Week” on their web site.  ↩

  2. The Cy-Fi Bluetooth speaker that I like and use seems to no longer be available (the company’s website is now showing a domain registrar’s parked domain page). I guess I’ll get something else when it breaks or dies. My one complaint about this particular model is that sometimes it’s not loud enough to hear a podcast or audiobook over traffic, which is usually okay, and better than the alternative.  ↩

Drink Water

Of all the things you can do to help you lose weight, consuming mass quantities of water is probably the most important. It doesn’t matter whether you drink sparkling or still, bottled or tap, mineral or filtered, as long as you’re getting copious amounts of good ol’ H2O, you’re on the rocket train to Hydrationtown.

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full

You never know what other benefits drinking water could provide. Maybe someone will want to trade the “good package” for a simple glass of water.

Our bodies are comprised of about 60% water, so it’s no wonder we need an intake of fluid in order to function properly. The average person can survive a week to ten days without food. Without water you wouldn’t survive more than 2–3 days, tops.

We’re not interested in mere survival and standard body functions, though. How does water help you lost weight?

Ways That Water Helps You Lose Weight

  • Tastes Great. More Filling – Water fills you up. If you drink a big glass of water before eating you’ll eat less because you’re full of water. It sounds stupid, but it’s effective. Water, which has no calories, displaces other things that contain calories.
  • Reduces Water Retention – This one’s counter-intuitive, but if you’re not properly hydrated your body will retain as much fluid as it can so all of your systems can function properly. Drinking more water actually makes you retain less water. Easing water retention by pumping plenty of water through your system means you won’t be weighing that excess water when you step on the scale. Reducing the amount of water you retain is the cheapest and easiest way to lose body weight.
  • Stops You From Confusing Hunger With Thirst – Your body can’t really tell the difference between being hungry and being thirsty. If you keep your stomach full of water for most of the day, you won’t feel as hungry as fast.
  • Gets Your Body Moving – Researchers have discovered that drinking a lot of water helps to increase sympathetic nervous system activity and constricts blood vessels, which prevents pooling of blood throughout your extremities.
  • Increases Your Metabolism – Drink water, burn more calories (slightly). Some will tell you that drinking really cold water will burn calories just warming it up, but really it’s not that hydration increases your metabolic rate as much as when you’re dehydrated your body slows it down in order to conserve water. By hydrating properly you’re making sure that your metabolism runs at a full clip as often as possible.
  • Lubricates Your Joints – Water helps your muscles contract and lubricates your joints (which is why athletes that don’t properly hydrate get muscle cramps). The last thing you need when you’re trying to add more exercise to your life is to have cramps from not drinking enough fluid.
  • Displaces Caloric Beverages – If you’re drinking as much water as possible, that means you’re probably replacing some caloric beverage with water, which in and of itself could save you a large number of calories depending on your drinking habits. Calories from alcoholic and sugary drinks (about 7 calories per gram of sugar or alcohol) add-up very quickly. Having said that, all non-alcoholic water-based beverages hydrate you, just none as much as pure water.
  • Helps Your Kidneys Take Out The Trash – I read quite a few articles (that I won’t link to) that said something to the effect of “drinking water helps flush impurities and toxins out of your body.” The problem with this mumbo-jumbo is that it’s sorta true, from a certain point of view. Your kidneys are like your body’s filtration system, and are responsible for producing urine and for depositing waste into it, so if you drink more water you’ll keep the crap from staying in your body and get it into your urine faster. If you’re interested in how your kidneys work, How Stuff Works has a pretty good explanation.

Urination: Your New Hobby

Let’s get this out of the way – if you drink a lot of water you’ll have to pee a lot. Think of this newfound activity as a hobby and use your bathroom breaks as a good excuse to get up and move around every hour or so.

Your urine should be mostly clear in color (except for the first pee of the day which may be cloudier). An easy test for how hydrated you are is to look at the color of your urine.

So having to pee a lot is annoying, especially when you’re out and about and have to rely on public restrooms. When at home or at work, though, at least drinking more fluids will get you moving a little between getting up to refill your water glass or getting up to go use the restroom.

How Much Water To Drink

The conventional amount suggested is eight 8oz glasses of water per day. The truth is that the amount of water you need varies per individual, amount of activity, how much you sweat, how hot it is outside, how much you exercise, your altitude, and all sorts of other things you can’t easily measure. Heck, you lose 1–2 liters per day, which is half of your daily water loss, just through breathing[1]. So we can’t really go strictly by volume.

The Mayo Clinic recommends drinking 2.2 to 3 liters per day, which is close to the minimum 1.9 liters (8 x 8oz) various health organizations suggest.

Another rule of thumb is to drink half your weight in pounds in ounces of water. So if you weigh 150 lbs., to drink at least 75oz of water per day (which is more than 8 glasses). That seems high to me, but again it really depends on the person. Maybe you need that much water. Maybe you don’t. So how much water should you drink?

You should drink as much water as you can. Drink so that you urinate frequently (once an hour or so is probably the right amount) and that your pee is clear instead of yellow (your first urination of the day may be darker). If you’re drinking a lot of water, peeing a lot, and your pee is clear, you’re probably getting enough water.

Food generally attributes about 20% of your fluid intake as well, as many foods contain water, so you’ll also get some hydration simply by eating, but not nearly as much as by drinking water.

How Much Is Too Much?

It is actually possible to drink too much water, although it’s really difficult to do so. When you drink too much water the electrolytes (salt and other minerals) in your blood gets diluted and your kidneys can’t process the water fast enough. You develop a condition known as “hyponatremia,” the most severe symptom of “water intoxication” caused by the overconsumption of water.

However, it’s not just the sheer amount of water that is a problem, but rather how fast you drink it. The kidneys of a healthy adult can process about 15 liters of water throughout the course of the day. If your kidneys process water linearly (and they don’t – they actually work harder while you sleep than while you’re awake) that means they can process about half a liter per hour, outside of what your stomach and the rest of your body holds. So you’re going to be hard-pressed to overdo your water intake unless you try to drink several liters at once.

As with anything, it’s better to regulate your intake and have a steady and constant amount of fluid going through you rather than trying to get it all in at one time.

For people with healthy kidneys the most common side-effect of drinking too much water is more frequent urination.

Diuretics

A diuretic, like coffee/caffeine or alcohol is considered to make you urinate more frequently and to dehydrate your body. That’s true, if you consume vast quantities of coffee or other caffeinated beverages. In practical use, though, you’ll get more hydration from the water in coffee than the diuretic effect of the caffeine can remove.

Alcohol is a different story, not because there isn’t water in a lot of alcoholic beverages (in beer and wine more than hard liquor), but because alcohol affects the kidneys and increases your rate of urination. For every 1g of alcohol drunk, urine excretion increases by 10ml[2] (for the duration that alcohol is in your bloodstream, which is a complicated matter that depends on numerous factors[3]).

Let’s put that into perspective. An “alcohol unit” is a standard measure for what constitutes a single alcoholic drink. In the U.S. one alcohol unit is about 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol (while a pint of water may weigh a pound, alcohol is a little lighter than water). A pint of beer is about 568ml. For our purposes we’ll say that our pint of beer is a standard lager containing about 5% alcohol by volume for a drink that’s around 200 calories. That means that there’s 22.4g of alcohol, which means that your urine excretion rises 224ml per hour.

Keep in mind that the diuretic effect of alcohol doesn’t just expel extra water from the alcoholic beverage you’ve consumed, but any water in your system. You can see why alcohol is said to dehydrate you.

Sparkling or Still?

You should drink water more than any other beverage, but carbon dioxide (CO2) contains zero calories, so if you like fizzy water, get a Sodastream or buy Seltzer.

Beware store-bought soda that isn’t flavored, though, as these are not all the same:

  • Seltzer – Just water with CO2 bubbles dissolved in it. 0 calories / cup.
  • Club Soda – Seltzer water with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) dissolved in it. Usually 0 calories, but often a lot of sodium is added as well. Some brands will use the terms seltzer and club soda interchangeably.
  • Tonic Water – Seltzer that has quinine added to it for flavor. It’ll protect you from malaria, and if you shine a blacklight on a bottle it’ll glow even though the concentration of quinine is very low. Actually, many cheap supermarket brands don’t even contain quinine anymore, instead opting for another chemical that has a similar flavor. Most tonic water also contains sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. For example, a 12 oz can of Canada Dry Tonic Water contains 140 calories, almost as much as a can of Coca-Cola (which has 160 calories per can).

Drink water or seltzer water. Drink the other two in limited quantities, and know that it’s not a health drink when you do. When in doubt, check the label or better yet, make your own seltzer.

Bottled or Tap?

Water Bottles

Either one will help you stay hydrated, but is bottled water worth the additional cost over plain ol’ municipal tap water?

Before we contrast and compare, consider that nearly half of all bottled water is actually sourced from local tap water.

There are some major disadvantages to drinking bottled versus tap water:

Cost

At an average cost of $3.79/gallon, bottled water is about 1,900 times more expensive than tap water, even when bought in bulk. Smaller single-serving bottles can be as much as five thousand times more expensive. At the airport or movie theater, twice that.

So the next time you buy a bottle of water, consider if its convenience makes it 5,000–10,000 times better than tap.

For what it’s worth, I buy bottles of water all the time when we’re out and about and prefer simple filtered tap water like Aquafina or Dasani (bottled by Pepsi Co. and Coca-Cola respectively). Sometimes it’s just not convenient to carry your own refillable water bottle. When I do buy bottled water, though, I know I’m being overcharged for it, and resent it. You’re on my list, Regal Cinemas.

Quality

Municipal water quality varies from location to location, whereas bottled water quality tends to differ only by brand.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) did an enormous study a few years ago to determine the quality of various brands of bottled water, and published a scorecard on a scale of A-F, as in school. A few brands received a grade of B or C, but the majority received Ds and Fs.

The study’s conclusion was that while for the most part bottled water quality was on-par with municipal tap water, it was rarely, if ever, better.

Bottled water is often just filtered tap water, but filtering removes many of the valuable minerals in the water. One essential mineral that is missing from most bottled water is fluoride, which is added to most municipal water sources to prevent tooth decay. Of course, most toothpaste also contains fluoride.

Safety

Bottled water is regulated by the FDA whereas tap water is regulated by the EPA. The FDA is also responsible for inspecting bottled water plants, although according to the FDA web site:

FDA monitors and inspects bottled water products and processing plants under its general food safety program, not a specific bottled water program. Because FDA’s experience over the years has shown that bottled water has a good safety record, bottled water plants generally are assigned low priority for inspection.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) performed a study in 1999 to determine the quality of more than a thousand bottles of 103 brands of bottled water and found:

While most of the tested waters were found to be of high quality, some brands were contaminated: about one-third of the waters tested contained levels of contamination – including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic – in at least one sample that exceeded allowable limits under either state or bottled water industry standards or guidelines.

The afore-linked-to EWG study on bottled water quality also lists several safety concerns:

Laboratory tests conducted for EWG at one of the country’s leading water quality laboratories found that 10 popular brands of bottled water, purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in 9 states and the District of Columbia, contained 38 chemical pollutants altogether, with an average of 8 contaminants in each brand. More than one-third of the chemicals found are not regulated in bottled water.

The types of chemical pollutants found were quite varied:

Altogether, the analyses conducted by the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory of these 10 brands of bottled water revealed a wide range of pollutants, including not only disinfection byproducts, but also common urban wastewater pollutants like caffeine and pharmaceuticals (Tylenol); heavy metals and minerals including arsenic and radioactive isotopes; fertilizer residue (nitrate and ammonia); and a broad range of other, tentatively identified industrial chemicals used as solvents, plasticizers, viscosity decreasing agents, and propellants.

Drink up!

Environmental Impact

There’s an environmental cost to getting water to people no matter whether it flows through pipes or is bottled and shipped on a truck, but consider the added environmental costs of bottled water over tap:

  • The bottles have to be manufactured.
  • The bottles are manufactured from petroleum (usually).
  • Many states don’t offer a return on five-cent deposit on water bottles like they do for beer and soda.
  • Because there’s no deposit, a lot of water bottles end up in landfills.
  • Even those bottles that do get recycled have costs associated with recycling the plastic.
  • Bottled water is often sold far from where it’s bottled, meaning that it has to be shipped on trucks, barges, etc. throughout the world. Consider also that water is heavy[4].
  • Local communities often get shafted by large water-bottling corporations who take their ground or spring water without repaying the community.

Considering that nearly half of the bottled water sold is tap water anyway… why not drink the stuff that’s better regulated, safer, and cheaper?


  1. The clock in the bedroom where I walk on the treadmill shows relative humidity, and after 20–30 minutes of walking on the treadmill the humidity in the room tends to rise by 3–5%, which I can only account for my breath making the air more humid.  ↩

  2. Cf. The diuretic action of alcohol in man  ↩

  3. Eating high-protein foods will slow the rate of alcohol absorption, but it won’t stop the alcohol from getting into your bloodstream. Also of note is that your blood alcohol level continues to rise even after you’ve stopped drinking.  ↩

  4. Not to be confused with heavy water.  ↩

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I'm just some guy who lost a lot of weight and studied up on nutrition, diet, and exercise in order to improve my personal fitness. The contents of this site in no way contains medical advice. You should visit your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet or activity. While I make every attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding current knowledge and scientific studies (please feel free to let me know when I'm wrong about something), and may from time to time post updates to correct inaccuracies in previous entries, the information on this site is provided "as-is" for entertainment purposes only. Don't do something stupid and then sue me. I'm just trying to help. Thanks.