Tracking your body’s metrics is popular in the fitness world, but it’s not useful for everyone.
The fitness industry is a world obsessed by numbers. Bodyweight, macros, step counts, kilograms… We’re regularly encouraged to monitor these things, whether by wearing a fitness tracker, downloading an app or keeping a journal.
I’ve never been totally against tracking as a general concept. There were times in my life where I’ve worn a smart watch to inform me of my daily movement and sleep. I’ve also gone through periods of counting macros, and while I don’t physically write down how much I squat or press in a certain session, I know in my head where I am at in terms of progressing or plateauing.
The one thing that I’ve never bothered tracking, however, is my body. The idea of standing on a body fat percentage machine has never really appealed – nor has finding out my hip-to-waist ratio. Even taking progress photos is something that has never quite sat right in my head.
It’s not that I think these numbers would bother me; I understand that the number on the scales refers to the force of gravity and therefore is pretty irrelevant to my goals. It’s just that I’d rather base my relationship with my body and my training on how I feel in myself, how happy I am with my lifestyle and how I’m progressing in the gym.
That’s a privileged place to be: to never have faced fatphobia and to be able to move from a place of personal gain rather than shame. It’s not to say I’ve never felt pressured to look or train a certain way, but that no one has put my worth down to what I weigh or the size of my body.
Why bother body tracking?
And yet, I often can’t help but feel pressured to know all of my stats. Due to my job, I’m frequently offered the chance to have my metrics taken and I even walk past scales every day in my budget gym. I’m promised that it offers an opportunity to collect useful data on how to meet your fitness goals; if you want to build muscle, tracking your muscle mass every few weeks will show, factually, whether or not you’re succeeding.
Knowing your numbers can also help some people to get out of their heads. Numbers are objective – if the scanner says that you’ve gained muscle mass, then you have – whether you feel stronger or not.
But body tracking really isn’t for everyone. “I think there’s a lot of noise around metrics because we’ve now got the science so easily accessible,” says health coach and qualified psychologist Dr Bernadette Dancy. “Just because we can use it doesn’t mean we should, though.”
The problem of knowing too much
Dr Dancy is cautious about the idea of tracking physical progress because she knows that it is rarely used purely as a form of data collection. “People who are interested in tracking their fitness tend to be high achieving, goal-orientated people with a fixed mindset and rigid thinking,” she says.
“That means they’ve either achieved something or they haven’t, and those absolute numbers need to be hit every single time in order to succeed. If you don’t hit that, then it can cause a lot of anxiety and you may lose faith in the process or confidence in yourself. Often you become obsessed with hitting those numbers.”
While that obsession can exist with external goals, such as not hitting your target time on a run or lifting what you wanted in the gym, “putting your value internally, on the numbers around your body, can have a terrifying impact on your mental health,” says Dr Dancy. “Before you do it, really consider if it is useful and if it’s going to feed into your output goal and add value to what you are trying to achieve.”
My own sense of achievement and pride in my training comes from sticking to a routine and lifting something that I didn’t think I could lift. Some days, that’s a 55kg back squat. Other days, if I’m feeling more tired and weak, I’ll leave feeling pretty happy that I managed 20kg less. I don’t want to lose that intuition by getting my head into numbers.
How to track progress
There may be some people out there who can track without placing an emotional attachment to the number, but if you aren’t sure that’s you, then there are ways to track your ability to build muscle, gain strength or improve cardiovascular fitness without taking metrics.
“Process tracking can be more reasonable than outcome tracking,” says Dr Dancy. She says that rather than testing at the start and then eight weeks later to see whether your plan has been working, it’s better to take data over time.
“Tracking your run times or monitoring your period symptoms every day will allow you to understand and use that information to change the process, which actually helps you tailor your plan to your goals.” For example, if you track your heart rate variables you’ll be able to work out which days you are feeling overworked and stressed, and may choose those to be rest days. This will allow your body to better recover, improving results, rather than just following the numbers on a plan.
Choose a credible tracker
Importantly, you need to choose tracking devices or apps that are scientifically validated or recommended by professionals you trust. You also need to accept that there are errors in tracking and they can’t tell you ‘true’ numbers – if a scanner says that you have a certain body fat percentage, that number probably isn’t entirely accurate. Similarly, two different GPS trackers will probably tell you different speed and mile stats. However, if you use the same machine every time, that direction in which the number moves should be true.
Use the same environment
If you do want to check your progress at the six, eight or 12-week programme, make sure your variables are the same. “The time of the day, your food consumption beforehand and where you are in your cycle should all be the same at the second check in, otherwise you’re not measuring like for like,” says Dr Dancy.
Stop blaming yourself
When looking at any stats, you need to remember that a lack of progress is not a reflection of you. “Move the attention away from you and think more about the process and protocol – perhaps the reason you haven’t been progressing is because your programme is flawed. Even if the reason you’re not improving is that you haven’t stuck to your plan, it doesn’t always mean you are the problem. It might mean that the process wasn’t flexible or right for you,” says Dr Dancy.
I’m perfectly happy with moving through the world without knowing these micro detail about myself, but the problem is that there’s pressure in the fitness industry to feel as though I should keep hold of these stats. Numbers might be impartial, but they still aren’t a reflection of your physical or mental health, what is going on in your life outside of the gym, who you are.
My numbers don’t show me about the things I care about: how long I can hold a handstand, when my period is due, that I’m really nailing my sleeping habit right now. I don’t want to make my body my progress board, so I don’t think I’ll be checking in on my muscle growth.
In Stylist’s new digital series Picture of Health, we investigate what health looks like for women today – from redefining mental health and fitness, to examining issues around race and disability inclusivity. For investigations, first-person essays and features check back here daily.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).