Why You’re Not Getting Results – How Hormones Mess Up Fitness Tracking and Your ‘AMR’

By on May 20, 2016

Very often, when looking for advice on diet and how to lose fat, you will find that opinion is largely divided into two camps. You have those people who say ‘a calorie is a calorie, just count your calories!’ and then you have people who think that it’s the type of calorie that matters and that you need to try and control things like blood sugar levels and thermogenesis to get the best results.

Both camps are kind of right, only they’re too stubborn to give an inch in either direction.

If you were to ask me what the best way to start trying to cut fat was and I didn’t know anything about you, then I would recommend restricting calories. I’d tell you not to bother counting them precisely though but rather to keep your breakfast and lunch fairly consistent and then roughly estimate the calories in your dinner. I’ve talked about all this before in some detail.

But even if you were to perfectly accurately track every single calorie that comes in and out of your body, you could still find it wasn’t enough. I want to illustrate here why sometimes, simply tracking calories doesn’t work and at the same time, point out some nuances in the way our hormones affect us. And the same goes for building  muscle…

Why You Can’t Calculate Your Calories

If you were to get advice from somewhere like reddit.com/r/fitness, then those guys would tell you to work out your AMR and then to calculate the calories coming in through your diet. AMR is ‘active metabolic rate’. That means the total number of calories you burn on average in any given day. If you make sure that your AMR is higher than your calories in, you create a ‘deficit’ and you lose weight. No arguments.

To get this number, first you calculate your BMR or your ‘basal metabolic rate’ which is the amount of calories you burn simply by being alive in order to blink and breathe etc. You can work that out here:

Men:

BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)

Women:

BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)

Then, in you just times this by:

  • 2
  • 375
  • 55
  • 725
  • Or 1.9

Choose the number based on how active you are. 1.2 is for a very sedentary office worker with no commute so to speak of. 1.9 meanwhile is for a super active athlete or a manual laborer who throws bricks around all day.

run

Now you have how many calories you burn in a day. If you eat less than that, your body will need to find energy from elsewhere and so it will burn fat in order to get that fuel and you’ll lose weight.

Except this doesn’t always work. And if you try this and you’re very good at sticking to it but still don’t see results; then there’s a good chance that whoever prescribed you with it will say you’re doing it wrong, or you’re lying and you’re sneaking in snacks. Not particularly helpful…

But I’ve genuinely seen this not work. And I can tell you why…

The problem isn’t with the idea of maintaining a calorie deficit and calculating an AMR – the problem is that there is no way you can possibly get an accurate AMR in many cases.

Firstly, the AMR is really undetailed and it’s very hard for someone to know whether they’re sedentary or lightly active. Walking into work makes a big difference if it’s a 20 minute journey either way and can have a huge impact on your calories burned. Many people who aren’t losing weight even though they should be could make a big difference by looking at other aspects of their life and their general activity levels.

But more to the point is that AMR doesn’t take into account individual differences… at all. It doesn’t take into account whether you have a fast or slow metabolism, whether you have a high or low insulin sensitivity, or how your thyroid hormones are. It won’t tell you anything about your testosterone or your muscle mass.

Again, some people will say this is just an excuse and that metabolism doesn’t make that much difference. But they’re wrong.

The Role of Your Hormones

Let’s say that you started taking a ton of anabolic steroids today (don’t). You could then keep your diet exactly the same as it is now and keep your activity levels exactly the same as they are now too. Thus your AMR wouldn’t change according to the calculation that a lot of people use.

But you would burn a ton more fat and build much more muscle because you would have a lot more testosterone and growth hormone coursing through your veins.

Likewise, many women find that when they go on the oral contraceptive pill, they suddenly gain a ton of weight. This also wouldn’t change their AMR according to the calculation.

Diabetes also wouldn’t show up on your AMR. And neither would hypothyroidism. I know people with hypothyroidism, it makes it incredibly difficult to lose weight and lowers your energy levels. Polycystic ovaries is another condition affecting women that prevents weight loss.

Now you might not be on steroids and you might not have polycystic ovaries. But the point is that you shouldn’t think of these things as binary conditions. Rather, think of everyone as being on some kind of spectrum. If you find it hard to lose weight, you might just produce a lot less T3 but not to the point where you would be diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

Nutrient deficiencies can also cause difficulties, as can medications and allergies!

Your lifestyle can also make a big difference and this is where we start to see the highly complex interplay of hormones, lifestyle and psychology. If you’re very stressed for example, then you will produce more cortisol. Cortisol in turn makes you crave food, it prevents T3 from being as effective at burning calories and it increases myostatin – a substance that actually causes muscles to break down.

For all these reasons, your AMR could actually be 20% lower than it should be and you’d have no way of knowing. Meanwhile, you’d be trying to count all your calories and getting very disheartened at the fact that it wasn’t working!

And even with that aside – your AMR doesn’t even take into account the difference between muscle weight and fat weight, which drastically alters your calorie burn!

The Problem With Fitness Tracking

I’m a big fan of fitness tracking and this is a very cool tool for getting a better understanding of your calories burned, your fitness and exercise you get in a standard day. I use the Microsoft Band 2 and I love it.

But I was comparing my Band 2 with my friends Fitbit Surge on a recent holiday and it became very apparent that both have a lot of limitations.

For starters, my Band 2 only takes a heartrate reading once every 10 minutes. That means that if I run to meet my wife at the train station in a minute (which I’m going to) my Band 2 won’t know. And that means that my calorie total is going to miss that little bit of cardio. To get a more regular reading on the Band 2 you need to ‘tell it’ to start listening by putting it in workout mode. But sometimes you’re not ‘working out’, you’re just climbing stairs or curling a shopping bag.

msband

The Fitbit Surge is a bit better for this – it takes more regular readings and increases its attention even more when you start doing something. My mate’s Fitbit managed to automatically detect a downhill bikeride and we were both well impressed.

But a heartrate monitor on either device works using a measure of ‘pulse oximetry’ meaning it’s looking for changes in the appearance of the blood which indicate the oxygenation. It can use this to determine the rate of the heart beat but unfortunately, exercise can mess this up because tensing muscles causes constriction in those blood vessels and changes the reading. The Microsoft Band 2 is better at accounting for this change as imposed by exercise and so is more accurate overall than the Fitbit Surge. So neither calorie total is particularly accurate.

Making matters worse is the inherent issue of using heartrate to calculate calories burned. Other than the pedometers, accelerometers and gyrometres etc., devices like these only have your heartrate to base your activity level on. So if you get really nervous and your heartrate goes up to 130, then your Band 2 or Fitbit Surge will think you’re burning the same number of calories as if you start curling a dumbbell in one hand really quickly.

Moreover, training using steady state cardio (running or cycling for long distances) actually causes the left ventricle to increase in size. This means that it can pump more blood around the body with less effort, meaning in turn that you can engage in more exercise without your heartrate getting as high.

And if you consider that your fitness tracker also can’t tell you anything about your hormone balance, your mood, or your insulin sensitivity… then again you have a number that’s useful but certainly not perfect.

What to do?

So with all that in mind… what should you do?

This is where some other approaches to diet come in and start recommending trying to manage your blood sugar levels by avoiding simple carbs. Or they tell you to use intermittent fasting to reset your insulin sensitivity, encourage ketosis (so we become better at burning fat for energy) and enhance the number and function of our mitochondria. Eating lots of fat can encourage the production of more testosterone.

The only problem is that these strategies can end up just making matters worse! Fasting increases cortisol and encourages the storage of visceral fat. We’ve already discussed that it also increases myostatin and blocks the effects of T3 in the cells. It’s also pretty impractical. And eating loads of fat means consuming more calories – fat contains 9 calories per gram versus the 4 calories per gram found in protein and carbs. This is despite fat being good in lots of other ways. And did you know that low carb diets actually decrease testosterone?

Then there are all those different supplements that claim to increase your metabolism based on various different studies and research. Do they work? Possibly. But none probably works so much as caffeine and no one ever got thin just by drinking lots of coffee…

DSC_0058

So what is the point I’m making here? Simple: it’s that you will never, ever be thin. So just give up. And the same goes for building muscle.

No hang on, that wasn’t it…

The point is in fact, threefold.

  1. Firstly – Stop being so black and white. There’s more to diet than just calories and there’s more to diet than just low carb. Don’t be judgemental of people who struggle to lose weight because it genuinely is harder for some people than others – I’m looking at you Reddit! You bunch of dicks…
  2. Secondly – Be sure to try lots of stuff. We’re all so different that you might benefit from eating a lower carb diet but it might also be the worst thing in the world. Experiment and find out for yourself. Don’t wed yourself to one idea.
  3. Thirdly – Doing lots of exercise and eating a very nutrient dense diet is important at any rate. Likewise, you need to make sure you’re being as active as you can be throughout the day rather than only during exercise. This is the best way to get all your systems working at their optimum level and from there you should find that reducing your total calories has the best chance of having some benefit.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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