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    How tech did (and didn't) help the Engadget staff lose weight

    Engadget editors competed against one another in a weight-loss challenge. Here's how it turned out.

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    Last September, I received some rather sobering news from my doctor. My glucose levels showed that I had prediabetes, putting me in danger of developing the real thing if I didn't alter my diet and my lifestyle. Seeing as I have a family history of the disease (both my father and grandfather had it), I knew things had to change. So I set out to reduce my intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates as well as establish an actual workout routine. But that wasn't quite enough; I needed something else to motivate me. A few conversations with coworkers later, the Engadget Fitness Challenge was born.

    Here's the idea: A group of Engadget editors would compete against one another to see who could lose the most body fat. Participants would put in $10 a head, and the winner would pocket the funds. Most of us used some form of technology -- be it a wearable, an app or something else -- to achieve our fitness goals. Sometimes tech was helpful, and sometimes it wasn't. Since January is all about New Year's resolutions and kicking things off anew, we thought we'd share some of our insights as to what tech worked -- and what didn't -- in our three-month-long weight-loss adventure.

    The setup

    I settled on the idea of tracking body fat loss because it seemed to be the fairest way to achieve weight loss that didn't involve going on a starvation diet. The duration would be from October through December, which, yes, meant we'd have to survive the holiday season. The challenge would also pit men against women, despite the fact that men tend to lose weight faster and more easily. But nobody said fitness was going to be easy, and I was prepared to meet those challenges head on.

    So I called for participants and created a Google Group and a Google spreadsheet where we could share our weight and body fat stats at the same time every week. Twenty editors signed up. Some were already on an existing fitness kick while others were looking for an excuse to get back in shape. We also created a private Slack channel where we could share tips and tricks on how to work out or, as it was ultimately used, to tease and taunt others with photos of delectable treats.

    Disclaimer

    There are a few caveats here. One, because our editors are spread across the globe, we used an honor system, trusting one another to enter our weekly data correctly. Besides, lying about your weight loss is only cheating yourself. Second, it's notoriously difficult to measure body fat accurately with online calculators and body fat scales (as we'll get into below). But since we're measuring overall loss, this was OK as long as we used the same method at the same time every week (at least we'd be consistent). Of course, this isn't a great solution either, but again, the overall goal here is to lose weight, not just win the challenge.

    The journey

    When the challenge ended on Jan. 1st, 2016, only nine people had stayed the course. The winner was former Engadget copy editor Philip Palermo with a 3.9 percent loss, but some others didn't fare badly either. I lost about 2.6 percent body fat, for example, while Associate Editor Steve Dent shed 3.5 percent (though he contributes some of that to being sick). There were those, however, who fell victim to the winter holidays and the usual gluttony that happens when trays of sugar cookies are nearby.

    But regardless of how we fared, each of us had our own methods to tackle the challenge. Fitness, it turns out, is a pretty personal journey. Along with telling my own tale, I've also taken the opportunity to interview several of my fellow participants to see how they attempted to lose weight. I've included my story and theirs below.

    Nicole Lee Billy Steele Kris Naudus Mat Smith Terrence O'Brien Dana Wollman Andrew Tarantola
    Body Fat Percentage Change -2.6 -1.5 -1.1 0 0 +0.1 +1.4
    Weight Loss Change (in lbs) -7 -8.4 -2 -11 0 +3 -5

    Nicole Lee, Senior Editor
    Lost 2.6 percent body fat
    Lost 7 pounds

    My initial approach to the challenge was pretty simple: I joined a gym and put my well-being in the hands of a personal trainer, who schooled me in the ways of strength training and lifting weights. I also wore both a Jawbone Up3 and a Withings Activité Pop to see if I could work in a daily step goal on top of the gym sessions.

    But as much as I liked the Jawbone and the Activité Pop, they didn't motivate me much to get to my daily step goal. After a long day at work, I mostly wanted to crash, not eke out a couple thousand more steps. Yet I did attempt to at least get a better night's sleep with the help of Jawbone's Up app. This was mostly because I was competing against my Jawbone teammate and Engadget co-worker Dan Cooper, who seemed to be getting a full eight hours of rest every night whereas I was lucky if I got six (I can be a bit of a workaholic).

    I also used a Withings Smart Body Analyzer scale to track my weight and body fat percentage. I actually found it to be fairly useful, as long as I made sure to weigh myself at the same time every week and after I had something to drink. The body fat measurement probably isn't accurate at all, but the steadily decreasing numbers at least offered an indication that I was doing something right.

    I paused my trainer workouts a couple of months into the challenge largely because, well, trainers are expensive. I then switched to a 15-minute high-intensity-interval-training routine that I did five days a week. I know this probably sounds crazy for a techie like myself, but I didn't use an app for any of this. I just printed my routine on a piece of paper and followed it. Under the advisement of my doctor, however, I did wear a Basis Peak to make sure that I reached my target heart rate during these workouts.

    Last but not least: my diet. I tried using MyFitnessPal and Jawbone's Up app to track my meals, but they soon proved worthless for me. Entering specific food portions and types every single time I had something to eat or drink was too much of a hassle, especially since I like to eat at local non-chain restaurants or cook food myself. I ended up just taking photos of my meals. But this all fell by the wayside once Thanksgiving and the holidays rolled around and pre-CES panic set in. Food is definitely my biggest vice.

    In the end, technology didn't help me all that much. My Withings scale was useful in letting me know if I was losing weight and the Basis Peak helped me reach that target heart rate, but that was about it. The rest came down to sheer willpower. The next time I do this, however, I want to see if I can track my diet a little better and if I can sneak in a few more hours of sleep. I might need a wearable and an app to monitor both properly.

    Kris Naudus, Senior Database Editor
    Lost 1.1 percent body fat
    Lost 2 pounds

    Ever since I bought a Fitbit Aria, I've been sort of obsessive about my weight. I've watched it go down when I was unemployed, up when I started working from home and way, way up when I started working at Engadget, giving truth to this "Engadget 15" that everyone around here keeps talking about. When my weight hit 168 with 38 percent body fat last February, I knew I was probably in trouble.

    My initial attempts at weight loss included a few small changes to my diet: mostly being more consistent about when I ate and eating on the earlier side (no late-night snacks). I also tried to walk more, which was hard, given it was a brisk February in New York. I invested in a DeskCycle to make up the difference. The DeskCycle is a neat concept: Pedal while you're working at your desk. The problem is, it's hard for me to pedal and write at the same time, especially given that the design of my desk makes it hard for me to fit the machine underneath and pedal comfortably. I ended up moving it to the living room and doing my own "Netflix and pedal" every night for a few weeks. I lost five pounds and 3 percent body fat that first month. My weight loss stalled after that, but my activity picked up a bit over the summer and I lost seven more pounds... but no body fat.


    So when talk began among the staff about a fitness challenge, I was game. I knew going in I was likely to lose: Most people were talking diets and serious exercise. Pshaw! I wasn't planning on changing my diet: I am a lazy, lazy person who hates exercise. But it was nice to have the encouragement. I made sure to get 10,000 steps every day as demanded by my lord and master Fitbit, and I started taking the stairs in my building too; I live on the sixth floor, so that's six-tenths of what Fitbit demands (and the rest was generally covered over the course of a typical workday).

    Around this time I also started physical therapy for my janky old-lady knees, which meant regular sessions on an exercise bike, elliptical and stepper. So despite my hatred of physical exertion, I ended up doing just that. And as the three months wore on, I started noticing a few changes. My pants were loose, and my shirts certainly fit a lot better. It seemed that through some good old-fashioned diet and exercise, I was in fact, losing weight.


    Not if you ask my Aria, though. My weight held steady around 155 for most of the challenge. Just before the holidays I almost hit my target of 150. For those of you who think weight is meaningless and it's all about body fat, keep in mind that number wasn't budging either. Even with my legs getting more muscular and my butt visibly shrinking (though I liked my big butt and I cannot lie), my Aria refused to believe it and kept reporting back the same body fat percentage of 35 percent. Sometimes it dips down to 34 percent, but it stubbornly refuses to go lower, even as I am careful to measure myself at the same time each day and stay hydrated so the count is as accurate as possible.

    Maybe my Aria is just mad at me for the time I accidentally dropped a bottle of nail polish on it and cracked its pristine surface. Or maybe it just never worked well at all.

    Terrence O'Brien, Managing Editor
    No change in body fat or weight

    There are a lot of reasons why I joined the challenge, but it was mostly to add an incentive to stay active, eat right and stay in shape. I have a tendency to get bored easily with just about everything. In my twenties I turned into a gym rat, changed my diet completely and got in good shape. Then I kinda got bored and lazy. I gained most of that weight back, went back to smoking, started drinking more, et cetera. For the last couple of years I've been trying to get back to being healthy.

    I didn't approach the challenge differently than I do my normal fitness routine, except that I started tracking my body fat more closely. However, I didn't get a smart scale to track body fat until halfway through the challenge. It was nice to not have to break out the tape measure and do math every week once I got it. But I will say, these digital smart scales appear to be kind of a buggy mess.

    Losing weight was definitely difficult. The holidays and CES planning and the massive redesign all made it hard to find time to run and hit the gym. I lost some weight and some body fat, but by the time I landed in Vegas, most of that good was undone.

    The problem is, while I went back to wearing a fitness tracker (Under Armour's new Band) and used UA's Record app to track workouts and meals and weight, I never felt like the technology did much to help. I like having a record of everything, but when it's 11:30 PM and my band warns me that I've only hit 20 percent of my step goal and I'm still looking at two-plus more hours of work, I don't feel motivated; I feel defeated. And while in theory I like Under Armour's approach -- a sort of modular system with several different apps and devices that can be combined for varying levels of complexity and detail -- in reality it's kinda messy and not always intuitive. By mid-December I had all but given up on the apps and the wearable.

    That said, I'm going to keep using the Under Armour scale, but I think I'm going to go back to just using Google Fit and RunKeeper and call it a day. I might have to go back to hard-core calorie counting too. I did it for about six months when I was trying to get in shape in my twenties. And I did it while training for my first half marathon last year. It's a time-consuming hassle, but it helps.

    Mat Smith, Senior Editor
    Lost 0 percent body fat
    Lost 11 pounds

    I was already focusing on my own training, but the idea of being able to discuss stuff with other editors (and share numbers to hold myself accountable) helped.

    What was my strategy? For starters: Fuck cardio. I find it super boring and I need my phone or Vita to last more than 20 minutes, because I distract myself like a child. For that reason, I stuck to things I was already using (apps like Fitocracy and MyFitnessPal and some specialized apps for the fitness program I was using). I particularly like Fitocracy because (gamified stuff aside) the forums are full of people trying things out and giving one another feedback. The way the app scores your workout made me work harder overall when I went to the gym. Even if my bench press reps didn't increase, maybe I did better on my squats? That kind of thing. I used my Apple Watch for a spell, but I kept forgetting to turn it off at the end of workouts. It also doesn't offer much in the way of specific metrics if you're using weights or bodyweight exercises.


    I also found it hard to measure body fat composition. My results from the machines seemed super random. I heard body calipers do a decent job but, ugh, the effort. I also use an app called Progress that lets me take body pics (front, side and back) that overlap one another to show differences. That said, I didn't see much change over the challenge, but coworkers and friends I hadn't seen in a while said I looked good. (Thanks!)

    My challenges were typical: It was the holiday season, so I was drinking more than normal. The apps, meanwhile, were at once helpful and hindering. I felt kinda down when I wasn't improving or reaching the same weights and reps week over week, and because I used the apps to record everything, it was right there for me to see. I also moved to a new apartment during the challenge and didn't have a gym for about two weeks. I can make up some more excuses, but those were the real ones.

    I'd love to do it over again. Next time, I'd like to try a wearable attuned to weight lifting, though nothing's come out yet that has tempted me. I don't care about pedometers either; my iPhone has me covered. Besides, I'd rather wear a proper watch. Looking ahead, I have a weight goal in mind that I'd like to hit before I buy myself a suit for my sister's wedding this year. Then I'll have to stay in shape to fit into it.

    Billy Steele, Associate Editor
    Lost 1.5 percent body fat
    Lost 8.4 pounds

    I was already in the middle of a fitness challenge of my own. Before my son was born last year, my wife and I were going to the gym or running five days a week. As you can imagine, we had a lot less free time in the months that followed. We rejoined the gym in April, and I've been going three days a week since. While this sounds like I may have had a head start on my colleagues, I actually found it to be a hindrance. See, I'd already lost 20 pounds before the Engadget Challenge started, and the second 20 is a lot harder to shed. However, being the competitive guy that I am, and since I already had a regular gym regime, I signed up.

    But first, some background. A couple months ago, I started following the workouts from the book Bigger, Leaner, Stronger. There are plans for three-, four- and five-day weeks, depending on how much time you can commit. The general premise is to get stronger while spending less time at the gym. You do that by lifting heavier weight for fewer reps, and it works. I had kind of plateaued until I started this regime, and I was able to tell a difference after just a couple weeks.

    That being said, the Kindle app was actually a key piece of my gym routine. You see, I'm not super into wearables, so the tech component of my routine was limited to apps and audio gear. I've tried the Nike FuelBand and a couple of Jawbone's gadgets, but I find that they don't last long enough to warrant the investment. I went through three FuelBands in the span of six months, and the device didn't offer much in terms of real activity tracking either. Who cares how much Nike Fuel you earn, right?

    Who cares how much Nike Fuel you earn, right?

    Nutrition is crucial to meet fitness goals, so I was pretty much tethered to MyFitnessPal. While the user-submitted macros can be inaccurate at times, the barcode scanner and verified foods make things a bit easier. The app provides a convenient way to log what I'm eating and plan ahead to make sure I'm not going over on protein or carbs. I honestly don't think I'd have much success if I had to track things manually or try to remember what I've eaten in a 24-hour period, especially since you have to eat so much of the right things to actually lose weight. Yes, it's true.

    Since I was primarily focused on weight training, I needed a way to log exercises and the weight I was using. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of options on Android, but I did stumble upon Jefit. The app is handy for logging workouts manually: I'm able to input exercises and weights so that I can look back the next week for a quick reference. Jefit also offers workout plans, so if you're looking for a jumping-off point, it's easy to get started.

    Music is also key for me. I'm a member at Gold's Gym, and the house music there is mostly a mix of what's popular on the radio. In other words, it's pretty awful. WiFi coverage is also spotty in most parts of the gym, except by the cardio equipment. That being said, here are my two essentials for workouts: offline playlists and wireless headphones. The first easily relieves the issue with connectivity while the second keeps you from getting tangled while doing shoulder presses. I used wired headphones for years, but when I nixed the tether, I felt like a new man. I've been using the SMS Audio On-Ear Wired Sport for several months, and they're great for the gym. They're plenty loud and offer respectable sound quality in a comfy sweatproof shell. I also like that in a gym full of Bluetooth devices, I rarely notice any interference or dropouts.

    For me, the most difficult part was getting into a routine; it was key for me to get up on Monday morning and go to the gym. If I didn't, I had even more trouble being motivated to go for the rest of the week. The weeks I kept to my three-day schedule were by far the best. I also found that it's hard to make progress if you don't keep to regular workouts. The times I was able to string three or four consistent weeks together were the ones where I saw the best results.

    Though I didn't rely on technology much, the apps I did employ helped tremendously. As I said, I don't think I could have tracked meals well without MyFitnessPal. As for Jefit, it certainly helped with the workout logging, but there's a lot going on there. Don't confuse me with bells and whistles; just be able to easily recognize common exercises and track my progress. I don't need all the other stuff.

    There's one thing that I am looking to change soon: sleep tracking. I know that one of the big things keeping me from progressing like I was in the beginning is sleep deprivation. Well, that and my love of tasty brews, but I digress. I used to wear the Jawbone Up24 way back when, but I had to give it up after experiencing some skin-irritation issues. It had a couple features that I really liked: sleep tracking and the vibrating alarm that helped me wake up slowly. I was able to get an idea of how well I had slept and for how long. I'm what you would call an active sleeper, meaning I tend to toss and turn during the night. Even though this threw the Up24 for a loop in terms of capturing my deep sleep, I could still get info on how long I slept. This is something I want to start doing again soon, and I'll probably look to the Fitbit Charge HR to do so. I know a few folks who've had success with it, including my wife.

    Going to the gym has become an important part of my weekly routine, so I'm not giving it up anytime soon, either. In addition to working at Engadget, I run a part-time freelance design business. The gym provides much-needed stress relief when I'm not sitting in front of a screen. It's something I look forward to, and if it happens to help me win a friendly wager with my coworkers, that's icing on the cake. Which I totally don't eat anymore, by the way.

    Andrew Tarantola, Associate Editor
    Gained 1.4 percent body fat
    Lost 5 pounds

    I joined the challenge because my lifestyle and drinking habits are not what you'd call "conducive" to proper weight management. Plus, I just turned 34, which, if the men in my family are an accurate barometer, means I hit middle age. I'm not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and I want my upcoming twilight years to be as active as possible. That means I have to start taking care of myself in earnest -- like, now.

    My plan was threefold: Exercise more, eat healthier and cut back on my alcohol intake. To address my exercise goals, I bought a Fitbit Charge HR and an Aria scale and installed the Sworkit app on my phone. I fixed up my bike and got serious about riding it to work regularly. I also installed the Fitbit app, not only to track my workout but also to log my meals and calorie intake.


    The exercise side went swimmingly. Once I established a routine, doing my morning calisthenics work with the Sworkit app was a breeze. Plus I find that working out in the privacy of my own home is far easier than schlepping an extra bag to the gym and dealing with the whole fitness-as-a-pickup-line subculture that I saw when I belonged to Equinox. Knowing and tracking my relative caloric balance for each day through the Fitbit app was also helpful -- though that was entirely dependent on me remembering to track every single thing that went into my mouth. Still, it did strongly inform my food choices and pushed me to cut back on carbs and fatty foods. (I wound up eating mostly lean meats, fruit and vegetables.)

    The Aria scale wasn't nearly as motivational. It kept wildly estimating both my weight and my body fat percentage. I saw six-pound swings over the course of 24 hours or I'd lose three pounds over 10 days and yet somehow add four points of body fat. It got to the point that I began using how well a specific set of clothes fit to gauge my progress rather than the scale's readout.

    My plan was, for lack of a better phrase, the best and most foolproof weight-loss scheme ever devised. And I totally would have won too, if it weren't for the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday triple-header. So much booze, so many cookies. Whaddya mean I put back all the weight I lost over three months in four weeks?!

    Will I do this again? Yes, absolutely. Because I'm effectively back at my starting weight, and that's some bullshit.

    Dana Wollman, Managing Editor
    Gained 0.1 percent body fat
    Gained 3 pounds

    My weight has swung up and down over the years, with the last time I lost being 2013. My weight slowly crept back up throughout 2014 and 2015, eventually surpassing my previous high. I was already thinking it was time for me to try again to make some lasting changes to my diet, and then the fitness challenge happened to pop up.

    The last time I lost a significant amount of weight it was through Weight Watchers. I wasn't willing to pay for it again -- much less use their shitty app -- but I did like the idea of using a calorie-counting app that would "reward" me with extra food if I exercised. I settled on MyFitnessPal, which works well on iOS and makes it easy to batch-add food as well as scan barcodes. I also used Fitbit's Aria scale, which I've had for years.

    As someone who's always training for a marathon or half marathon, I make good use of the Garmin Forerunner 220. For me, it's not a weight-loss gadget specifically, since I wear it on every run, with distance- and pace-tracking being the primary purpose. But because I have my Garmin Connect account synced to MyFitnessPal, my runs are automatically sent over to MFP, which then rewards me with extra calories for the day based on how much I ran. (I also log my daily walking time in MyFitnessPal, but unless I dust off the old Apple Watch, I just estimate how much time each day I spend walking and then log it in the app.)

    All told, this challenge... did not go well. I actually gained a little weight throughout the three months. I don't blame the technology. I just don't think a WiFi scale and calorie-tracking app were enough to help me overcome my usual vices: stress-eating, the holidays and bagels. I will say that as I continued to gain weight -- or at least failed to lose weight -- some of the technology elements helped me feel worse about myself. It's hard stepping on the scale every day and seeing your body fat percentage go up. I also found that when I wanted to cheat food-wise, I did; I just conveniently failed to log my bad food choices on those days. On some level, I felt as if by not logging the food, no one, not even my body, would know. But that's obviously not true.

    Next time I'll weigh myself less often. Maybe just once a week. Having some occasional quantitative feedback is helpful, but weighing myself every day, and immediately seeing the consequences of an indulgent night out, was perhaps too punishing. Also, the scale isn't always accurate! Things like body fat percentages can vary depending on the time of day and how dehydrated you are. I found some of the numbers so discouraging, and I don't even know how precise they all were.

    As a postscript, too, as the challenge was ending, I set a recurring Google Calendar reminder for 9:30 AM on weekday mornings. The alert says: "No bagels!" I did it initially as sort of a joke -- something I could laugh about on Twitter -- but here's the thing: It actually has worked. I'm a rules- and schedules-oriented person, so if my calendar says no bagels, then by gosh, I'm not going to have a bagel. I still have more work to do: I don't eat enough veggies, I order in dinner too much and there are days when it's just so easy to roll over and sleep in instead of going for a run before work. But making bagels a sometimes food is a good start. Who knew Google could help with that?

    Also since the challenge ended, I unfollowed all the skinny-woman "fit" Instagram accounts I was secretly following. They weren't motivating me; they were making me feel bad about the body I have.

    Last thing: I plan to wear my Apple Watch more consistently. My hope is that having a device track my steps so that I don't have to count the number of minutes I walked will take some of the tedium out of using an app like MyFitnessPal. I still have to be honest about logging bad food choices (and maybe not make them to begin with), but speeding up the activity-logging part might help me stick with it.

    So yes, I will do the challenge again, and I have already given myself a head start. I want to lose weight. Not because my doctor told me to or because I'm medically overweight. But because I feel more confident when I weigh slightly less. And hey, I have a closet full of cute clothes I'd like to be able to fit into again too.

    [Image credit: Getty Images/Ikon Images]

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