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Which Fitness Tracking App Is Best For Weightloss? A Noobs Guide… Through A Confusing Subject

A while back I asked fellow bloggers which fitness tracking app they used, and the calorie burn rate per mile on their respective workouts for this post. I would first like to offer my thanks to all who responded, I got exactly what I was looking for.

The idea for this post started percolating when I read this post from Iowatribob which showed his calorie burn for a 40+ mile ride… To me, it seemed shockingly low (25 calories per mile for 48 miles @ 18.4 mph). I use Endomondo on my iPhone and at that speed I’m at about 55 calories per mile, more than double Bob’s burn rate at the same speed.  Now, Bob and I are the same height (within 1″) but he weighs 10 pounds more than I do – so that got me to thinking, why the disparity?  Then, once you accept the disparity, could that be used to one’s advantage to lose weight?

This, believe it or not, is a difficult topic to wrap your head around (especially if you’re new at this) because there are so many different variables to sift through. First is weight, it takes fewer calories to move a person who weighs 170 pounds than a person who weighs 220 pounds down the road. Another is speed. On a road bike, there’s a difference of as many as 8-10 calories per mile between an average of 15 and 20 mph.  Not much for a ten-mile ride, but when you’re looking at 100 miles, there’s a pretty big difference.

I won’t even touch mountain biking; depending on a single track or riding on the road with the same bike you’re working much harder to go half as fast on a single track it is more of a full body workout.  I know for a fact, Endomondo figures a way to account for this, but I don’t know how the equations work.  Looking at two workouts, both from last year, I’ve got a dirt road ride at 16 mph in which they say I burned 50 kcal per mile and a single track run at 10 mph showing I burned 75 kcal per mile – and I’d be willing to bet you dollars to donuts, they’re both right, that single track ride was tough.  I got air several times, almost went down on two hairpins, was climbing log piles and the whole nine yards – I WORKED that bike.

Another factor is heart rate. If you train with a heart rate monitor you’re apt to get a different reading than if you go with the app alone.  The app is understood to be more accurate with the heart rate monitor but this doesn’t exactly get to the disparity between Bob’s and my calorie burn numbers – and I’ll get to that in a minute…

So, how to mash all of this together to lose weight effectively?  Iowatribob uses everything; a power meter, heart rate monitor and works everything through Garmin.  His typical high-end cycling workout (20 mph average), according to the comment he left, shows him at 40 kcal per mile (even if the one that caught my eye had him pegged at 25).  My typical 20 mph workout through Endo (no heart rate monitor or power meter) has me at around 55 kcal per mile.  Another friend who goes by fatguy2triguy gets about 46 kcal per mile but he’s averaging about 17.5 mph, also using Garmin.  Andygis33, who is a little lighter than me and also trains with a heart rate monitor is averaging between 20 and 35 kcal per mile (Garmin) but that’s at around 21-23 mph.  The Springfield Cyclist, Tracy Wilkins uses Garmin and gets 40-50 kcal per mile (no HR monitor) and typically rides at speeds around fatguy2triguy.  Joseph Lampen, who is considerably bigger than me (but every bit as fit) and uses Strava to track his mountain biking gets between 65 and 75 kcal/mile.  Laura, who also uses Garmin, provided interesting rates showing both with and without HR monitor – and this tightly wraps everything up into a nice bow later on…  Here’s part of her comment:

I recently picked up a Garmin with a heart rate monitor. Then I used it on my commute because weight-based tracking pegs each way around 700 calories (16mi). Discovered the way in to work is only 400 calories because it’s downhill … and closer to 800 on the way home because it’s uphill. Makes sense really. But the only data input that changed the outcome was my heart rate. So if you can connect your favorite app to an HR monitor you will have the most accurate data.”

In other words, her software without the heart rate monitor showed she burned 1,400 calories (700 out and 700 back).  Once she attached the HR monitor, even though she increased 100 calories on the way home, overall she dropped 200 calories to 1,200 total.  She dropped from 44 kcal/mile to 38 kcal/mile just by adding an HR monitor which increases the accuracy of the software’s equation – and this is where we fitties get into trouble with the apps…  Without the heart rate monitor, if Laura wanted to lose weight she’d think that she was potentially burning 200 more calories a day than might be in reality.  If she figured her BMR, then added those 1,400 calories, then subtracted 500 calories to create a deficit and stuck to eating whatever that number of calories turned out to be, she could be 200 calories off – or almost half a pound a week!

I’ve used Endomondo, Map My Ride and Slim Kicker and the burn rate follows that order with Endo being the highest though they were all pretty close, within 8 calories per mile.

The basic easy way to lose weight through exercise is to take you Basal Metabolic Rate, add Calories Burned during exercise (or take your BMR using the calculator that adds for fitness level and don’t add for calories burned) then subtract Calories Consumed.  You should come up with a 500 calorie deficit per day – 500 calories a day, multiplied by 7 days is a 3,500 calorie deficit, or roughly one pound.  The problem that we run into here is that if our calories burned part of the equation is too high (as most apps seem to be without the use of an HR monitor) then your deficit won’t be as great and your results will suffer.

This changes once you’re fit and at your ideal weight though (or so has been my experience).  First of all, I didn’t track anything for my first 9 years of running – I just ran and tried to eat well.  I dropped 24 pounds and called 170 pounds good until I started cycling.  The weight absolutely melted off at that point – mostly because I went from working out two or three times a week to five or six and didn’t eat any more than normal.  On top of that, I stopped drinking soda regularly which cut about 4,000 calories (+or-) a week from my diet.  In other words, I created a deficit and weight loss went into high gear.  Once I hit my ideal weight, I couldn’t stop losing weight.  I dropped from 171 pounds to 160 then down to 155, eventually bottoming out at 149 before taking drastic measures – I increased (almost doubled) my regular intake and increased fast food for some easy calories to battle the uncontrollable weight loss.  It worked and my weight leveled off at about 155 at the end of last season.

BUT I started tracking my diet and exercise around the same time for Slim Kicker [SK] (they asked me to review their app).  SK was a little lower kcal/mile than Endomondo so I adjusted the mileage I entered into SK to match Endomondo’s calorie burn and that kept everything quite level.  In other words, I did burn as many calories as Endomondo was saying I did without the heart rate monitor (around 55 kcal/mile).

Here are the magic numbers…  I was eating naturally 3,100 – 3,300 calories a day to maintain my 155 pounds (6’0″) – that’s it and I was averaging more than 20 miles a day (676 miles last September when I was tracking both with SK).  Now, on really long days (70 miles plus) I’d bump that up to 3,700-4,000 calories but I rarely ate like that and only went crazy otherwise once that year at Thanksgiving.    If I use this BMR Calculator (which takes fitness into account) I’m at 2,918 Calories per day (I used Very Active – “Extra Active” has me at 3,218 – I’m in between the two).  If you notice, I don’t add the day’s calories burned to the equation – I just have to eat what they kick out, give or take.  If I go with the “sedentary” option, then I get to add the calories burned through cycling or running to determine how much I eat.  The reason that I am going through this description is that I’ve seen people use the BMR Calculator, figuring activity and then add the day’s calorie burn on top of that…

If I were to choose the sedentary option and add the calories from my workouts to determine intake (because I already know that 3,100 calories works) I know that I would absolutely have to go with the higher counts given in Endomondo (without the HR monitor or power meter) in order to maintain my weight…  If I went by the lower numbers given by Garmin when an HR monitor is attached (25-35 kcal/mile) I’d waste away to skin and bones inside of a season.  On the other hand, if one were to want to lose weight, then the lower numbers would increase the daily deficit and the benefits would come fast and furious.

Now, I have a little theory on this but it’s important to clarify here that other than being very fit and exceptionally svelte, I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground outside of my experience when it comes to weight loss and exercise – nor do I really care to devote a bunch of time to learning all of the in’s and out’s because if there’s one thing I know about all of this it’s that it doesn’t matter because they’ll come out with something in a year or two that will turn everything they thought they knew on its head.  In other words, “they” think they’ve got a pretty good idea of how everything works but that is subject to change.  I know what works.  I’ve been living it now for two years and I don’t need to know any more than that – all I really have to do is pass on my experience, strength and hope that it may benefit someone else.  My theory (or possibly hypothesis if you prefer) is that once you get to a certain level of fitness you don’t necessarily have to replace everything that you burn right away, or even in the same day.  I went on several rides where I burned (according to Endomondo) in excess of 5,000 calories last year and other than downing Gatorade or PowerAde like it was going out of style, I didn’t change much other than, as I wrote earlier, adding another 1,000 calories the day of.

So, which tracking software is the best one to lose weight?  Whichever helps you to create the deficit that you will need to lose weight.  If I had to do it over again, knowing what I know now, I’d go with a Garmin and a heart rate monitor until I got to my desired weight – then I’d go to something like Endomondo, ditch the monitor, and ride (and run) happily ever after.

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