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Using your scales wrong? There is a better method.

Stepping on bathroom scales is the most popular method of tracking fat loss. But the usual measuring strategies may not be right for women, as some days they tend to hold more water than others due to monthly hormone fluctuations and exercise. This article explores a more reliable way to measure body mass to get a clearer picture of your progress.

In recent years, the bathroom scales have received more bad publicity than pop stars in teenage magazines. Few electronic devices are associated with as much anxiety, tears, hair loss and chocolate consumption, yet somehow you will find one stashed under the sink in almost every woman’s bathroom.

Scales are what they are, a measuring instrument. They measure the strength of your gravitational attraction to the surface of the planet in whichever mass units you set them up with. Since determining your mass (commonly known as weight) is the only thing they are capable of, it is a fair call that scales alone will not give you a clear picture of how your exercise, food and sleeping habits are working for you. But don’t toss them out of the window just yet! Scales can be an indispensable part of your arsenal, once you know how to use them to their best capabilities.

What is weight, really?

Weight loss is used interchangeably with fat loss. In reality, the scales are not capable of telling you if you are losing fat, only the changes in your total mass, which consists of:

  • Fat mass
  • Lean mass – the water, the bones, the muscles, the organs, the hair, the food inside your stomach and pretty much anything else.

Just like fat mass, lean mass is not constant. Amounts of water, in particular, can change drastically from day to day, causing a few panic attacks upon weigh-ins. Muscle mass usually takes more time to change significantly. Bone mass – even longer. There are many variables.

This is why it is better to reduce a margin of error by excluding the outliers.

A better method to track fat loss

There are many suggestions on how to track.

Stepping on the scales weekly or bi-weekly works great for people with a lot of fat to lose, provided there are no chronic conditions or prescriptions interfering with fat loss, they will see numbers dropping fast with a few very comfortable changes, and most, if not all of the mass lost, will be coming from fat.

If you don’t have that much fat to lose or are looking to gain some muscle, using the scales can become tricky. Often, whether you weigh yourself daily, weekly or bi-weekly, numbers just don’t make sense. This is the classic case of doing everything right, but not losing or gaining weight.

Let’s see how it works in real life.

Imagine a lady. We’ll call her Sarah. She’s 159 cm tall, overall healthy, but wants to stop depending on Spanx for public events. Sarah started eating till she is just barely full, began to fill half of her plate with veggies, now skips the desserts and has signed up with her local gym. Sarah has been measuring her weight daily:

Sunday – 58 kg
Monday – 59.1 kg
Tuesday – 58.4 kg
Wednesday – 57.7 kg
Thursday – 57.6 kg
Friday – 57.4 kg
Saturday – 57.6 kg
Sunday – 58.2 kg

Provided that Sarah took her very first measurement on Sunday and calculated the average of the eight days she recorded, the result will be 58 kg – exactly the same 58 kg she started with. Ugh.

If Sarah were weighing herself only on Sundays, she would end up with 58.2 kg – 200 g gained, despite her very solid effort. Well, that, perhaps, is a sign that she can safely go back to chocolate chip brownies.

Not so fast.

If you take a good look at the numbers, you will notice two days where Sarah gained some significant grams. The Monday, as well as the second Sunday.

So, what happened the day before Monday? On Sunday evening, the very first day of her new plan (Sarah is my hero, she chose not to wait for Monday to start), she had her very first gym session, which was a blast. But during her session, Sarah got caught by the exercise endorphins and slightly overestimated her capabilities. When she woke up Monday morning, she was sore everywhere. She employed a special ninja technique to roll off the bed, decided to opt out of high heels for today and penguin-walked to the scales in anticipation of good news.

After all the efforts, Sarah gained 1.1 kg. Damn it!

But there was nothing abnormal. Overextending herself and tearing lots of muscle fibres created some swelling – the body has kept more water around the affected tissues. As Sarah’s muscles recover, this extra water will be gone in a day or two. Post-exercise weight increases are very common in new exercisers, and will subdue when the body adapts to working out. And we see exactly that in the coming days. Until her weight starts creeping back on Saturday and another massive increase on Sunday.

Looking at the data, you may assume that Sarah chose to participate in a pizza fest over the weekend. But Sarah claims that she stuck solidly to her plan. So, what really happened?

Saturday happened to be the first day of periods. Besides feeling overall bad and holding more water during these days, many women tend to get bloated, somewhat constipated and don’t digest their food as efficiently. Hence, the increase.

If Sarah had hired a male trainer, she could have been too shy to tell about the special days. If the trainer calculated by average or used weekly weigh-ins as the tracking method, he or she could have concluded that Sarah is not losing fat and needs a reality check talk about her weekend overeating and lying.

However, if the trainer calculated the median of the eight entries Sarah provided, it would paint a very different picture: the median value equals to 57.5 kg.

The median of Sarah’s eight days suggests that Sarah has lost 500 g. Excellent result by all definitions.

So, there we have it.

Sundays only weigh-ins: gained 200 g.
Average of daily weigh-ins: no progress
Median of daily weigh-ins: lost 500 g.

Exactly the same data. Three completely different interpretations.

Why use the median?

If you recall Sarah’s data entries, there were two days with abnormally high fluctuations. Those are the outliers. If you calculate the mean (average) value of your weight entries, the outliers can skew the final value in whichever direction. When using the median, these outliers will not influence the final value to a great extent, and you will get a much clearer picture of what is happening with your weight. Chances are, it will save you a few nerve cells. It will also allow you to make better decisions as to whether your current plan is working for you or needs adjustments. Sarah’s plan, for example, was working great for her. She didn’t require any changes.

Interpreting data

I am a big fan of data. Unlike our emotions and concerns, data is cold and unbiased. Good data is essential for decision-making and can help prevent us from doing stupid things that can harm us. But data interpretation is not fail-proof. Sometimes, the numbers may seem iffy. This is where we need to pause, listen to our gut and think. Don’t dismiss your own feelings just because values don’t add up with your efforts. Think. Your feelings and intuition are just as important as cold hard numbers.

What could have happened? How do you know if your efforts pay off or don’t? Are there any other indicators that you are on the right path? Perhaps, you feel more energetic? Smile more? Or, maybe, you enjoy yourself for the first time in years?

Finally, are you sure you correctly interpreted the data you have?

Copyright © Walkyrie 2015-2019 | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

How to extract maximum value from fitness trackers despite inaccuracy

Once upon a time, a humble pedometer underwent a transformation. These days, wearable technology market offers gadgets of all shapes and sizes and keeps evolving at a rapid speed. Or so it seems. More fitness trackers than ever are collecting dust in their owners’ drawers, abandoned for broken promises of leaner, healthier body and never-ceasing motivation. But before condemning them useless, consider your demands are you simply asking the wrong questions?

When Polar has filed its patent for the first wireless, portable heart rate monitor in 1980, it was a significant breakthrough. But 1980 wasn’t the year heart rate training was born – trainers and sports researches relied on the manual way: a pen, a pencil, a stopwatch and a finger on the vein. Early mornings, before they rolled out of bed, athletes all over the world were counting their heartbeats while staring at the seconds hand of a plain wristwatch or an alarm clock, then logging their resting heart rate down. Fluctuations in numbers provided crucial data: resting heart rate is a key metric for recognising how much strain the body could take. Their coach would have a hawk’s eye on it – to manage optimal training load and prevent overtraining.

Technological advances make data collection a breather. No more pen and paper, no more forgetting to log your exact go-to-bed and wake up times. Technologically, we have never been at better times to improve our health, drive our performance and prevent injuries. Yet, there is a significant problem: a lack of education on what to do with the data collected.

In this article, you will learn how to use trackers to their maximum capabilities and how to select the ones that will serve you longest.

24/7 Fitness Trackers

There are many curious trinkets designed to make your life better. Fitness trackers are the Jack of all trades among wearable tech. They can provide plentiful stats on sleep, heart rate, activity levels and, sometimes, even recovery. A single tracker that suits your needs can cover all your data collection bases. However, there are a few things to consider:

Accuracy

No other topic has sparked more controversy than the accuracy of a given tracker. It doesn’t help that manufacturing companies keep throwing marketing claims that sound like a creative variation of “the most accurate tracker”. You may be already familiar with fire-blazing debates on how much error is acceptable. And some individuals are rock-solid that if the data is not accurate, it’s useless.

I don’t believe that inaccurate data is useless. The old-school tracking methods of paper, pen and a stopwatch all have a significant margin of error, especially during high-intensity exercise when the heart rate is high. They were used because they were accessible and because deciding based on this data was better than deciding based on nothing. Moreover, the same human tends to be more or less consistent with the way they measure. Similarly, the same device has its own tracking patterns – it is the dynamics that provide most insight, not the one-off numbers.

Let’s take a closer look at the factors that influence both the quality and consistency of the measurements:

Hardware

This refers to the quality of build and sensors. Medical and research-grade devices boast solid accuracy (but they too have a margin of error) in large due to the quality of parts and construction. And the cost reflects it – it would be prohibitive for the general folk (3000$ tracker, anyone?). The truth is, most trackers you can lay your eyes on have almost identical quality of build, very similar sensors (accelerometres coupled with an optical heart rate sensor), as well as excellent chances to be assembled on the same factory somewhere in Shenzhen. Whatever sweet, sweet marketing songs you may hear, there is no point worrying about hardware.

Software

Once the sensors collected the raw data, it’s the algorithms’ job to translate it into meaningful numbers you can see on the screen or the phone app. Unlike hardware, some companies do have better algorithms than others. However, since all of them are proprietary, patented and otherwise top-secret, it is somewhat difficult to establish whose ones are more accurate. When asked for advice, I suggest looking at trackers produced by companies who cater to athletic clientele rather than non-athletic consumers – Polar, Garmin and the likes. Unlike Fitbits and Apple watches, they have been in the game of sports technology innovation many decades before the competition and had substantial time and research to fine-tune their algorithms.

Position

This is the ultimate point of tracker’s accuracy, which can be identified by anyone. The further away from the centre of the body the tracker is worn, the less accurate it will be, no matter the hardware or algorithms. It’s physiology. No amount of innovation will ever overcome it. The smallest margin of error among portable devices belongs to those worn closest to the heart – yes, chest straps. Then follow the devices worn on the bicep strap. Then, the forearm. Then, the wrist, where the majority of trackers are worn nowadays. Then, finally, the ring-type trackers of all sorts. Just like how doctors suggest to people over a certain age to use an upper-arm-type blood pressure monitor instead of the wrist-type one due to accuracy concerns, the same principle applies for fitness trackers: the further away from the centre of the body, the more unintended movement it will be picking up and the wonkier the heart rate measurements will be.

Wristband trackers still do an acceptable job when you are not exercising. But if you are planning to use them to track your workouts, the best option is to pick the one that can either be paired with a chest strap or can be moved to the upper arm for better accuracy.

Purpose and goal setting

This where the proverbial rubber meets the road, as well as where the good majority are using their trackers wrong. The biggest mistake is treating the numbers displayed as absolute truth – they are not. And it’s OK.

Understanding the limitations of trackers and how you can still use this imperfect data will help you separate the essential from useless, stop wasting money in search for the perfect one and finally get the body, sleep and other things you’ve been promised.

Now, it’s time for a fundamental question:

“What outcome did I hire this techy guy to do for me?”

You paid for it, after all. I bet you had some reasonably detailed ideas about what exactly it should do for you. It may be one thing. It may be a few. This clarity will help you answer the second fundamental question:

“Is the outcome I hired this techy guy for actually happening?”

And, in case it is anything but a resounding “yes”, there is the final one:

“What needs to change?”

Why it is a terrible idea to use fitness trackers for calorie tracking

With the popularity of calorie counting, buying a fitness tracker to advise you on how many heat units you incinerate and compare those against your meticulous MyFitnessPal inventory may seem like a wise idea, except that the number you see on any given tracker is not the number you actually burn in real life.

It may be off by a whopping thousand. Yes, a thousand. Perhaps, more. There are way too many variables in the human body to measure calorie burn with acceptable accuracy without lab settings and a gas mask on your face. Still, there is a way to use the calorie estimation feature to help you with nutrition adjustments:

If you are hitting a consistent amount of calories on your tracker throughout your days (say, around 2000 every day), you will know that you have almost consistent daily activity output.

If you know you have a consistent daily activity output but seem to be getting heavier by scales, wider by tape and fluffier on photos, you can adjust the amount of food you eat and see what happens. If you are lighter by scales, narrower by tape and leaner on photos, you can, likewise, adjust the amount of food to suit your needs. By doing this, you eliminate a major variable (inconsistent activity levels) and reduce the potential problem-solving to the amount of food you eat and how well you sleep. And to do that you don’t even need to count any food calories, you can just eat a little bit more, a little bit less, or the same way, depending on your goals.

I need to move more

Trackers are excellent devices to help you increase your activity levels and even standardise them across your days. For this goal, two metrics can be use

  • Daily Steps
  • Daily Calories

Daily calories estimation is a suitable metric for those who train on a regular basis. Most weight training, naturally, doesn’t involve any steps. You can set yourself a daily calories target, and most devices will display a neat percentage of goal achieved throughout the day. You will likely find yourself standing up from your work desk, trying to sneak some extra activity, as a single gym session will get you puny 30% at best. Maybe, you will even volunteer to wash the dishes in an attempt to nail your very last few percents.

Daily steps is a solid activity metric for those who don’t purposefully exercise yet. Walking is a superb exercise by itself, and an excellent place to start. Just like with daily calories, you can set yourself a daily steps goal. Likewise, you are more likely to take a short walk during your lunch break. And when it gives you a digital pat on the back when you hit that 100 %, it feels incredible! You almost wish humans did that a little more often.

Some trackers will even buzz you when you sit longer than one hour, telling you to stand up and move. My Polar A360 (discontinued, they have A370 now) will go as far as giving me inactivity stamps if I ignore it and choose to remain implanted in my work chair. But I owe it to him, and I didn’t have back pain for a very long while.

I need to know my heart rate during exercise

The two most common ways to measure heart rate during exercise is by using a heart rate transmitter (chest strap) or pulse oximetry (optical sensor). Most of wristband fitness trackers have a built-in optical sensor, but it is unlikely the best option for your needs.

Chest straps, when good quality and properly used, provide nearly ECG-level accuracy. Optical sensors, despite claims by some companies, do not. This is where the question of what is the acceptable accuracy for beginners comes in. After all, recreational exercisers aren’t professional athletes, and less accuracy is fine, right?

Wrong.

It is the beginners and the recreational exercisers that need the best HR accuracy they can get their hands on. Why? The reason is simple: awareness. Most professional athletes and dedicated enthusiasts have developed their body awareness to an extent where they can “feel” their heart rate within 2-3 beats off the actual ECG accuracy. Professional athletes and long-term exercisers can easily tell when the number on their HR monitor is off or when the electrodes on the strap are not wet enough. They will undoubtedly feel it if their heart rate will start creeping up to risky levels, not to mention that their cardiovascular systems are so well-trained that very few things can spike their hearts to the danger zone anyway.

It is not the case for the average population, working seated jobs, driving cars and barely, if ever, training their hearts. They need a reliable heart rate reading to ensure the exercise is safe and to let their trainer adjust the workout intensity properly. With time and accumulated experience, they will also develop the skill to “feel” their heart rate.

Chest straps are not uncomfortable, and no choking deaths were reported, although, admittedly, I only used the ones by Polar. All straps I have are very soft on the skin and get softer with use. A chest strap has a pair of electrodes that need to be wet to conduct electrical impulses and slips comfortably underneath a bra band. You do not feel it during exercise.

Chest straps, despite better positioning, however, are not fail-proof. The hardware matters, the quality of electrodes matters. Also, with the recent swimming-friendly straps, the signal can be impaired due to lack of moisture – tap water just runs off the silicone electrodes. There is a solution: water-based conductive gel, also known as ECG gel. You can get it in sports stores and pharmacies. If you prefer to go old-school or forgot the conductive gel at home, saliva works too.

Optical sensors used in the bicep area can also be a fairly reliable choice. To use them, your device needs either the ability to pair with the external bicep strap or an option to move the device itself to the bicep or the forearm area.

Trackers with only wrist-based optical HR tracking available are not ideal as heart rate indication is often delayed and can be off by ten beats or more. If knowing your heart rate during exercise is the outcome you hired such tracker for, it will not deliver.

I need to sleep better

I haven’t yet met someone who, after a few nights of using a tracker, wouldn’t utter a variation of:

“Whoa! Never thought I sleep so little!”

The time opportunity you give yourself to sleep (which starts from the moment you pull over the blanket and ends with a shrieking alarm clock) does not equal to the time you actually sleep.

The well-known recommendation of about eight nightly hours of zzzz refers to the time you actually sleep. But most people don’t even spend that long in bed, and implications are dire.

If a tracker can trigger such a powerful insight, it has already done half the job. The second half is to make you act, and, ultimately, get the sleep quantity and quality you need. That is, establish a sleep routine that works for you.

Back in the days, the in bed and waking up times were logged manually. Modern trackers eliminate this need – they record this without you needing to press the button. Thanks to accelerometres, they sense how much you toss and turn, and based on that estimate the time you spend sleeping. They can also somewhat estimate the amount of deep sleep (restores body, dreamless) and REM sleep (restores mind, that’s when you dream).

In lab conditions, REM (stands for Rapid Eye Movement) and deep sleep amounts are measured by observing the activity of brainwaves. The numbers on your tracker, estimated from movement and, sometimes, resting heart rate are exactly what they are – estimations. But you can observe fluctuations and compare them to what you have done differently on a particular day. You may notice changes (or absence of thereof) based on:

  • Amount of stress during the day
  • Time when you go to sleep
  • Alcohol consumption (time of the day and amount)
  • Activity levels and types (time of the day and amount)
  • Caffeine-containing drinks consumption (time of the day and amount)
  • Exposure to sunlight and artificial light

All bodies are different. For some, three mugs of strong tea before bed won’t do a thing. For others, a few sips will spark off insomnia. Know thyself. The better you do, the better the decisions you will be making.

If a tracker can make you go to bed early and consistently wake up at the hour you want without feeling like you’ve been run over by a tractor, it’s doing its job.

I need to estimate my recovery

Recovery has always been a tricky thing to estimate. There are many factors to recovery, with sleep being a ginormous one, but trackers are learning to implement other factors.

Fluctuations in resting heart rate have been used to evaluate training capacity for generations. The old-school way to estimate recovery included a combination of the athlete’s sleep log, resting heart rate log, self-reported wake-up energy levels, as well close observations of how the body behaved during warm-up and cool-down.

Most trackers provide automated sleep logs. Some also provide the daily resting heart rate. However, technological advances give us another metric that was not available in old-school tracking: the heart rate variability (HRV).

The heart rate variability, in essence, is almost imperceptible time variance between your heart beats, a metric that indicates how resilient your nervous system is and how well is it capable of adaptation. The higher it is, the more strain (from exercise and daily challenges) it can take. Low HRV is often present in individuals with chronic conditions, overtrained athletes and beyond stressed hard workers. As with the previous metrics, we are looking for trends: if HRV is getting higher, notice what you are doing differently and do more of it. If it is going down, you may notice a correlation with some decisions that don’t serve recovery – late time to bed, new exercise regime or poor food choices (perhaps, that three-days outdated yoghurt wasn’t such a great idea after all).

Trackers measure HRV by means of either a chest strap or an optical sensor. The accuracy variables based on hardware, software and position apply here. HRV is a little tricky for optical sensors, but the recent generation seems to do the job.

One such tracker on the market that goes by the name WHOOP is designed for recovery purposes only. It calculates daily strain, daily recovery and sleep needs based on 24/7 recording of what you do and how much you sleep. The recovery scores are based on a combination of quality and amount of sleep, resting heart rate and HRV. It also makes you manually report how well you feel after sleep and whether you smoked, consumed alcohol, drank caffeine-containing beverages before sleep or shared your bed. A time-tested combination. Strain scores seem to be based on daily average heart rate and, perhaps, some other metrics. To improve the accuracy of intra-workout heart rate readings and strain score calculations, the device was designed with an option to be worn on the forearm or upper arm. In a way, it does the heavy lifting for you, so you don’t need to crunch the numbers.

My discontinued Polar A360 (current A370 works in the same way) is measuring recovery in a different manner. It requires you to lie still for 5 minutes with the chest strap on, while it measures your resting heart rate and HRV for the duration of five minutes. After that, it will tell you your level of cardiovascular “fitness”. This can be done on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to see if your training schedule is serving you or breaking you. Fairly user-friendly feedback, and, again, no need to crunch the numbers.

Just like with sleep, if the tracker can gather recovery data that breeds insights, it is half job done. The real outcome lies in what actions you take based on that data. If you’ve improved most rituals that influence your performance and are enjoying your training sessions more than ever, who cares if numbers are inaccurate?

Practical advice on selecting a tracker

By now you may have asked yourself the necessary questions and know exact answers as to what outcomes you are looking for. Maybe, you even googled a good bunch of trackers and wonder which one is right for you, as all of them tend to do different things.

Keep your eggs in one basket

It is always better to select a single device that will cover all your bases. You may be tempted to buy a few and switch between them, but this way you will likely end up wearing none at all after a few weeks. Consistency is critical in getting to where you want to be, and it equally applies to tracking methods. Consistent use creates a habit while monitoring on the same device means you will get better consistency in your data readings.

If you want to use your tracker for all the reasons mentioned in this article, you will need to ensure it can get all the jobs done. It must be lightweight and comfortable enough for you to wear it to sleep, what will likely not happen if your tracker is a heavy-duty multi-sport GPS wristwatch capable of sleep tracking. If you plan to track your heart rate during exercise sessions and log them in, it needs to be able to pair with a chest strap, a bicep strap or be able to migrate itself upwards. If you want to track recovery, it needs to have an option for that too. Perhaps, you may want to set up buzz notifications – as reminders if you know you don’t drink enough or if your goal is to wake up at 5 AM and you don’t want to wake up your significant other.

Battery life

It is the most important feature to consider. The less your tracker leaves your wrist, the more consistent data you will have, the fewer hours you will be losing to an unexpectedly dead battery and charging times, and the less you will forget to put it back on.

Consistent optical heart rate tracking eats a lot of battery, and you may need to charge daily. In most cases, this feature serves no purpose for your outcomes. You don’t need it to do what you need to do. Consider trackers with at least a week of battery life or those that can be charged with portable charging packs with no need to be taken off the wrist.

Waterproofing

While you probably will not be diving to 50m depths, there will be times when you will forget to take your tracker off when you go shower or jump into the pool. It is better to have at least some waterproofing. Most trackers already have that. There is no particular need to go for the largest available waterproofing score even if you plan to take your tracker to the pool and record your swim sessions. However, if you do that, make sure your tracker can be paired with a chest strap, as optical sensors don’t tend to work that well under water. Also, make sure that the transmitter on your chest strap can record data as Bluetooth connection between the tracker and the transmitter can be inconsistent underwater.

Considerations for sports and lifestyle

While we covered most things relevant to the choice of your trusted digital ally, small details do matter.

Do you have relatively easy access to the service centre? Even the best quality trackers need a battery replacement every few years. You don’t necessarily need to buy a new one once something breaks.

Can you buy extra bracelets? Those things get dirty, and you may want a spare for when you wash the other one. They can also rip and rub off at the edges. Consider silicone or military-grade nylon bracelets – they are less likely to give you a rash.

Do you need to track recovery and one of your sports is martial arts? Then, you can’t have anything on your wrist for safety reasons and may need to hide a heart rate transmitter under a sufficiently padded sports bra or have a contact sport-friendly padded upper arm sleeve compatible with your tracker or the optical heart rate sensor. Your tracker needs to be capable of collecting data under these adjustments.

There are many clever trackers available. The only thing they will never be able to do for you no matter how far the technology advances is to take action in your stead. Choose wisely.

Copyright © Walkyrie 2015-2019 | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

Caring For an Underactive Thyroid

The thyroid is a tiny, but mighty gland located inside your neck, right below the voice box. It acts as the engine of your body, governing every major metabolic function and regulating how cells perform their respective tasks. Every cell has receptors for its hormones. But if for any reason the thyroid starts struggling with its daily duties, your health can begin to roll downwards.

Considering the modern lifestyles, the thyroid is one of the most abused parts of our bodies.

Most days, cells that are nutrient-starved due to latest diet fads or no-idea-what-that-was meals, oxygen-starved due to 8+ hours of seated shifts progressing into seated home relaxation, are forced to work beyond their capabilities by endless cups of coffee that essentially make them forget they are tired.

The thyroid is well-aware and is working hard to dampen the crisis.

Most days, our thyroids have to keep up with massive temperature fluctuations to maintain the constant optimal internal temperature. We struggle through freezing winters with overheated buses, shops and offices just to transition to boiling hot summers with freezing air conditioning indoors. Some brave souls would not give up their daily runs even when the temperature is soaring, and sadly, believe it benefits their health.

Most days, stress levels are through the roof and require more thyroid hormone output to prepare the body to fight stronger or run faster. The body’s manual of stress response has no directions as to what to do when the stress lasts for days, weeks, and let alone years. It was never designed to sustain itself for longer than a few hours and was mostly meant to handle lions, wolves and other things that pose an immediate threat to life.

No wonder that under such conditions even the best of the best eventually start struggling.

How it works

The thyroid produces two hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).

The process starts at the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain which acts as a messenger between your nervous and hormonal systems and located close to the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), which sends a message to the pituitary about how much thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) it should send out to let the thyroid know how much of T4 and T3 it should produce to cover the body’s needs.

Once the T4 and T3 are produced, they attach to the carrier proteins, thyroid binding globulin (TBG), and travel through the bloodstream. When they arrive at their destination, thyroid hormones detach from the carrier proteins and start performing their intended metabolic work.

Symptoms

Due to the nature of its regulatory work, the thyroid is a very sensitive gland. It must work with extreme precision. Yet, this sensitivity to the surrounding environment also makes it vulnerable.

Since almost every system in your body depends on your thyroid doing its work correctly, when it can’t keep up with the necessary output requirements, anything can go awry. Symptoms vary by individual and can include:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • dry skin and brittle nails
  • hair loss
  • weight gain
  • difficulty to lose weight
  • cold hands and feet, cold intolerance
  • constipation
  • muscle cramps
  • difficulty remembering recent events
  • irritability
  • the blues and mood fluctuations for no significant reasons
  • irregular menstrual cycle
  • decreased libido
  • getting ill frequently

While having any of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate that your thyroid is underactive, it is always a good idea to ask your doctor to investigate where they are coming from.

Tests that may be prescribed

The general blood tests to assess thyroid function include TSH, free T4 (free thyroxine) and free T3 (free triiodothyronine).

TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is released by pituitary gland as a signal hormone that stimulates the release of other thyroid hormones by the thyroid gland. TSH’s main job is to ensure that the thyroid gland produces exactly the necessary amount. In case your body doesn’t receive enough thyroid hormones, the hypothalamus will pick up on the situation, and the pituitary gland will release more TSH to inform the thyroid to increase its output. Increased levels of TSH may suggest that the thyroid is struggling to keep up with the demands.

TSH reference ranges (if you are on thyroid replacement therapy, these may be different) are 0.4 – 4.0 mIU/L.

Since there is a higher risk of mental retardation in children whose mothers were hypothyroid during pregnancy, notify your doctor immediately if you discover that your TSH during pregnancy is 3.0 (or higher) mlU/L.

 

Free T4 (free thyroxine) is the form of the hormone thyroxine that is not bound to a carrier protein (thyroid binding globulin), and thus is the biologically active form of the hormone. Thyroxine makes up about 90% of the entire thyroid’s production line, yet the concentration of free T4 is only about 0.1% of the total T4. Thyroxine is mostly inactive but is converted into a much more active T3 (triiodothyronine) in needed amounts.

When thyroxine concentration increases, TSH levels decrease, but should it decrease, TSH levels will rise to stimulate production. Decreased levels of free T4, therefore, suggest that the thyroid is not able to produce sufficient amounts either due to lack of thyroid stimulating hormone (if levels are low) or due to inability to do so despite persistent demands put by high levels of TSH. It may also indicate an iodine deficiency.

Free T3 (free triiodothyronine) is the form of the hormone triiodothyronine that is, likewise, not bound to a carrier protein and is the biologically active form of triiodothyronine. T3 is more metabolically active and is mostly converted from T4. If your levels of free T3 are low, you are likely to experience multiple symptoms from the list above.

 

If these three tests come up with suspicious results, your doctor will likely order more blood tests and ultrasonography to assess the state of your thyroid. Some of these blood tests may include:

TPO and TBG (thyroglobulin) antibodies — their elevated levels generally suggest an autoimmune condition.

Iodine and Selenium — both are required for proper thyroid function. Iodine is the primary building block for the synthesis of T4 and T3. Selenium plays a crucial role in the conversion of T4 into T3. While reasonable amounts of selenium are not that difficult to obtain even from a somewhat decent diet, unless you don’t consume fish, seaweed and iodised salt on a regular basis and don’t live close to the sea or ocean, there is a good chance you are not getting enough iodine. Iodine deficiency alone can cause decreased production of thyroid hormones, but it is very important to do the testing and verify the proper dosage with your doctor before reaching out to supplements — iodine and selenium levels above necessary can be toxic and can damage your thyroid.

Prolactin — if levels of thyroid hormones are low, your doctor may want to rule out a prolactinoma – a benign tumour in the pituitary gland that produces too much prolactin. In most cases, it’s a “just in case” measure, and you shouldn’t worry if the test was ordered.

Calcitonin — calcitonin is a hormone produced by the parafollicular cells (C-cells) of the thyroid gland and is involved in the regulation of calcium and phosphate in the blood. If you are known to have a growing thyroid nodule, this test may also be prescribed as a precaution. There is a rare type of cancer called medullary thyroid cancer that arises from C-cells in the thyroid. Patients with this type of cancer have elevated levels of calcitonin in their bloodstream. If the levels are elevated, it suggests a further need for investigation, usually requiring a biopsy.

 

If based on the gathered data, you were diagnosed as hypothyroid (having a depressed thyroid function), depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor will decide whether you need a hormone replacement therapy, or it can be managed by improving your lifestyle (usually, in cases of subclinical hypothyroidism, where levels of T4 and T3 are optimal, with TSH being only slightly elevated).

If you were prescribed hormone replacement therapy, it is extremely important to follow your doctor’s directions precisely. You will need to take your pills precisely at the same time, never forget them and never skip your follow-up appointments and testing even if everything seems fine. Your dosage needs require regular monitoring and adjustment and will be changing depending on your life situations. Failing to do so may lead to very gruesome consequences.

The role of lifestyle

Whether you were prescribed thyroid replacement therapy or lifestyle modifications only, chances are that even a few improvements in this department will make you feel much better.

Many people assume that swallowing a thyroxine pill will magically erase all symptoms and decrease the body fat. If only it were this easy… Usually, changes are subtle and come gradually, and still, require you to improve working conditions for your beaten up and very necessary engine.

Here are a few areas that you may want to address:

Avoid temperature extremes

The weather, heating systems and air conditioning expose us to massive temperature fluctuations that constantly require our internal temperature regulating functions to react. In a matter of moments, we shiver to preserve the body heat, only to be drenched in sweat just a few minutes after… and back to shivering again.

Although it may not seem so, temperature control is one of the crucial functions in the body, and it is not shy to utilise resources to maintain its constant values. After all, life itself depends on it.

Helping your body with this task will also ease things up for your thyroid.

While, in most cases, it’s impossible to control the ambient temperature indoors of public places, you can experiment a little with the way you dress.

— What clothes at what temperature make you entirely comfortable?
— If you need to migrate from one climate setting to another, how can you layer your clothes so you can easily add or remove them fast, so you remain entirely comfortable?
— At what temperature and with what clothes are you comfortable when you are at home?
— Are there any body parts that freeze easily even if temperature seems otherwise comfortable? Your feet, maybe?

Don’t be shy to tell others that you would prefer not to sit directly under the air conditioner and if they can either switch it off or reseat you (if you are in a restaurant, for example). It will harm you more than it will make them uncomfortable.

Explore stress

“You should just stress less!”

I’m sure you’ve heard it. We all heard it, more times than we wish we would. It is as banal as it is useless. I invite you to try something different.

Take your favourite pen, a nice piece of paper and write down everything you can think of that stresses you – both physically and mentally.

— Does the mountain of dishes in the sink drive you nuts?
— Are you worried about your financials?
— Do you spend most of your day sitting and your body could use some extra oxygen?
— Is your apartment so cluttered that you have nightmares of people opening the door and seeing… this?
— Does your boss shout at everything he sees so loud that even office plans wilt?
— Does someone close to you struggle and you don’t seem to be able to do anything to help?
— Did someone or something force you to go against your values?

Have a good look at the list. Now circle anything that can be eliminated under a week if you concentrate on it. Choose one thing that is the fastest to eliminate and tackle it without further delay.

Now you have one item less to stress about. You’ve successfully decreased your stress, even if a little bit. Trust me, it matters. And now you can think about how you will eliminate the next stress-provoker.

This method puts you in a problem-solving mode. When you approach stressful conditions with the belief that you have the means to tackle them, you change the way your body responds to them and thus eliminate the biochemical harm.

Improve sleep

Modern culture makes it a virtue to be overworked and sleep-deprived. Especially in the big cities, an increased amount of social activities are shifting to later and later in the evening, and getting to sleep early now seems like an impossible task. But even if we do, our heads are often so full of information to be processed that we can’t fall asleep even if we try to.

Sleeping well is a challenge. It is also a factor that can make or break us.

As impossible as it may seem, going to bed early and getting sufficient amount of zzzzz most nights will nevertheless significantly improve your energy levels and will also strengthen your immune system — a pretty good deal, especially if it seems like you already catch every germ around.

While there are a lot of ways to improving your sleep hygiene and it’s beyond this article to discuss them in detail, I will share one easy way to fall asleep that you can try without much hustle or financial investments.

About one hour before your sleep time, switch off all the artificial light. You may use a candle or other dim relaxing light as you do all the usual things to prepare for sleep. Low light exposure will naturally and gradually relax the buzzing brain and let your body prepare for the shut-down.

It will likely take a few days into this routine to get your first night of proper deep sleep, so don’t be lured by the “it’s not working” rationalisation to quit. Once you adjust, it feels like a SPA.

Stay hydrated

There are many great benefits to staying sufficiently hydrated, but it’s especially important for people whose thyroids are struggling.

Among other unpleasant side effects, having an underactive thyroid puts you at a higher risk of developing gallstones. When you are dehydrated, your bile becomes thicker and its flow can become more difficult than usual. Problems usually appear when the gallbladder doesn’t empty its bile on a regular basis, and drinking an adequate amount of liquids per day will help your whole digestion process run a little bit smoother.

If you often forget to drink when you are too concentrated on the work you are doing, find that your mouth is dry, your lips are chapped and you are not going to the loo as often as you should, there is a way to keep yourself reminded: take two bottles (or any other vessels that are suitable to drink from) of approximately 1 litre capacity each, and write AM on the first, and PM on the second. For insulated water bottles, you can stick a piece of masking tape on each and write on the tape instead. The goal is to finish the bottles’ contents in the appropriated time slots.

You may notice that you happen to be awake for fewer hours in the AM than in the PM and wonder why the litres are not distributed equally. One reason is that you need more water in your first waking hour to rehydrate after sleep. Another reason is that if you drink most of your water in the evening, you may find yourself needing to pee multiple times a night. Besides, it’s pretty hard to get decent sleep if you need to wake up all the time.

Avoid drastic changes in eating habits or exercise

When we don’t feel well, it’s understandable when patience is not something we are willing to exercise. When reading this post, you may have already developed the internal resolve to fix every single thing that you consider wrong with your lifestyle. Drastic overhauls rarely last, but even if you manage to pull it off, it may actually be counterproductive.

Any change creates stress on the body. Unlike being “stressed out”, the stress in this context is not good or bad, it is synonymous with “adaptation”. When it comes portion-sized, it is a very healthy thing for the body to have and stimulates it to work better. But if you try to stuff more adaptation than your thyroid can chew (and, if issues are already present, it can chew way less than it could when it was healthy), then you can expect your symptoms getting worse.

Confusing information on the internet is also not helping. You can find claims about miracle thyroid cures and nearly instant stubborn fat blasting by way of diets, supplements and exercise plans, but I strongly advise against any drastic measures.

Don’t exclude entire nutrient groups — for the reasons mentioned above, drastically decreasing or completely obliterating carbohydrates, fat, sugar, go high-protein, carb-cycling or attempting any other massive change that your body is not used to will create conditions your thyroid might not be able to deal with. It would be better to brainstorm how you can improve your current diet by including the things you know should appear on your plate more than they currently do.

Don’t drastically decrease calories — you may want to get rid of unwelcome fat as soon as you can, but it’s there for a reason. Since your body can’t generate as much heat to maintain internal body temperature, it added some thermal isolation tissue. And it is going to hold onto it for dear life if it feels like your internal systems are in danger. Trying to restrict calories at this point will likely result in loss of lean mass, rather than fat, and may damage your thyroid function even further, as one of the primary responses to starvation is the reduction of thyroid hormone secretion.

Don’t hop right back to your old exercise plans — in general, we tend to either underestimate or overestimate our own abilities. There is no shame in that: when it comes to ourselves, we are biased. If you don’t already work long-term with a trainer, who knows how your body will react to a particular exercise better than you do yourself, err on the side of caution and take it very slowly. Slow and steady wins the race here, and your thyroid will thank you for the efforts.

Although the temptation to go all in may be very real and it may feel like your body is against you, this is not the case. Your body is made of about 37.2 trillion cells, and every single one of them cares about nothing, but your wellbeing. They work without holidays, weekends, in less than favourable and often disastrous conditions. It’s time to give them back some love and care.

Improve the quality of your diet

One way to make your cells happy is to provide them with good food. Just as you like your food to be delicious, your cells like it nutritious, and the two concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Snap some photos of your meals and have an honest look: is anything missing?

Is there about a palm-sized amount of protein-rich bites with every meal?
— Is there about a tablespoon of cold-pressed oil, nuts or other fatty goodness with every meal?
— Are the carbohydrate proportions of whole grains to treats look adequate, or do they lean towards treats?
— Does it look like you have five or more recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables?
— Do those servings of fruits and vegetables look like actual fruits and vegetables or do they come from cardboard boxes and plastic tubs?

 

 

Grab a pen and paper. After identifying some potential improvements and jotting them down, circle one or two things that you will be most looking forward to improving.

Do you love apples and ratatouille, but kind of forgot about them lately?

Once you made a habit of enjoying the ratatouille, you can proceed to the next item on the list.

You don’t need an overhaul. Little improvements do matter and go a long way.

Engage in recovery exercise

Another way to make life easier for your cells is to supply them with sufficient oxygen, and there is no better way to increase oxygen supply and delivery than engaging in a regular exercise routine.

Exercise promotes both blood and lymph circulation. The first is responsible for timely delivery of oxygen, nutrients, hormones and elimination of waste products, while the latter is essential for removal of bacteria, abnormal cells and other matter that you don’t want in your body. Sedentary lifestyles are associated with poor circulation of both, and some movement should be incorporated even during the days when it feels like it’s beyond your capabilities.

Consistency is essential.

Think about something you can do daily, even if you are busy, tired, or the weather is not welcoming. It can be as simple as a walk or dancing to your favourite music.

You may have noticed that this section suggests “recovery exercise”. Recovery exercise, in this context, means that all the exercise you should be engaging in if you are hypothyroid must be designed with a purpose of supporting your body, instead of straining it. Sitting down all day is just as straining as trying to force your body to burn off body fat with intensive circuit training.

While every single person is different and you may need to experiment to find a sweet spot with exercise, general recommendations would be:

  • Get as much low-intensity movement in your day as you can (walking, light housework, dog walking, badminton with friends).
  • Shoot for about 5 medium-intensity workout sessions a week, where you break into a sweat but don’t get drenched.
  • Following an exercise session, you should feel better and happier than you did before the session (and have no problem walking on your own).
  • Next morning after an exercise session, it shouldn’t hurt anywhere.

Avoid high-intensity exercise

Nowadays, everyone is rooting for High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

It is intense, it produces adaptation faster, it strengthens muscles and hearts, it burns more calories per minute than most other types of exercise. But if you are either overstressed or hypothyroid, with very few exceptions, it is not for you.

HIIT is effective, but it also demands a lot. It requires your systems to temporary function near their limits to adapt and rise above them. Working at your limits, even temporary, when your thyroid is underactive is not a great idea. HIIT will stimulate the rise of TSH due to increased needs for thyroid hormones, but it is an unnecessary burden on the already overworked gland.

Not to mention, when you perform HIIT, the intensity significantly increases your internal body temperature, thus requiring prompt and efficient cooling. As a result, you are drenched in sweat, and soon after the session is over, you are freezing under the gym’s air conditioner.

Conclusion

If there were only one thing to take away from this article, it would be that you need to take care of yourself. It is not selfish, has way too many benefits to number and will make you enjoy yourself a little more.

While changing your current habits is far from easy, I did my best to arm you with some simple techniques you can implement without delay. Small improvements done consistently will always outperform lifestyle overhauls. Sadly, there are no solutions that would fit all cases and situations, but there always is a solution that will meet your specific needs. You just need to find the one that works specifically for you. Which one of them will you pick to implement today?

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