Using data to improve your performance

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Why track?

If you want to make a significant change then you need to know where you’re currently at, where you want to get to and be able to monitor your progress along the way. Setting a baseline and measuring incremental improvements will help to motivate you and move you forward. There are a wide range of biomarkers to track and it may at first seem overwhelming. Thankfully, the quantified-self movement has exploded over the past few years with the introduction of wearables. Fitness and health trackers give us the ability to measure critical biomarkers at home and some can track multiple biometrics.

Tracking your biomarkers is going to give you further insight into how you are feeling, how you’re performing and what your energy levels are like. Given your mitochondria are responsible for most of your energy production then tracking metrics that directly relate to your energy levels is essential.

Core metrics – activity and sleep

Tracking your sleep and activity are the two most essential and popular metrics for you to track. If you track nothing else, make sure you monitor your activity and sleep.

Activity tracking

Activity tracking is one of the most popular metrics to track and has been driven by the infamous need to take 10,000 steps per day. I remember when I was young, arriving home from school one day and my mother had a pedometer to track her steps as part of an office competition.

Fortunately, many of the activity trackers on the market now do a lot more than just track your steps. When selecting a device to monitor your activity, make sure it’s waterproof and it records all activity including idle time and intensity.

Sleep is the cornerstone of your performance and having good quality and duration of sleep is critically important to your performance today and on subsequent days. Tracking your sleep is, without a doubt, the most important metric to follow because it will change your behaviour and increase your performance.

Sleep Devices

There are many sleep devices on the market, and many of them make bold claims but aren’t backed up by scientific research and are inaccurate. When selecting a sleep tracking device, look for one that:

  • Has been independently verified
  • Measures not only your quantity of sleep (length) but more importantly the quality of your sleep including your deep sleep, light sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and when you’re awake
  • Measures your Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Some sleep devices will also enable you to track your body temperature which will allow you to get insight into if your body is fighting infection or viruses, or, for the ladies, it will show if you’re ovulating. One summer, I picked up a nasty insect bite, which became big, red and itchy and that night I had a terrible night’s sleep. When I woke up the next morning my sleep device told me that my body temperature was one degree above average, so I knew that my body was fighting an infection.

Physical biometrics Weight

I weigh myself every day to monitor my inflammation and I’ve done it for many years. If my weight has increased in the past twenty-four hours, then it’s usually associated with inflammation because I’ve eaten or drunk something I shouldn’t have. I also find that my weight can spike from one day to the next if I haven’t moved enough in the previous day.

Waist-height ratio

This is a straightforward measurement to take, measure your waist (one inch above your belly button) and height in centimetres and divide your waist by your height.

  1. > 0.5 – signifies a higher risk of diabetes1 and heart disease2
  2. < 0.5 – is considered healthy

Body fat percentage

It’s challenging to measure your actual body fat, and most of the methods give you an estimate. The most popular ways to track body fat are:

  • Calipers – the pinch test and for a small amount of money they are surprisingly accurate
  • Weighing scales – these are flawed and inaccurate,  so I don’t recommend them
  • Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan – is an expensive option but the most accurate

The following table provides guidelines on percentage of body fat for women and men:

Blood pressure

High blood pressure is referred to as the ‘silent killer’ because you can feel fine and then suddenly you could have a heart attack or stroke. Sorry to be so morbid but it’s something that’s worth keeping a close eye on, even if you don’t have a history of high blood pressure. Blood pressure monitors are inexpensive, and you can use them at home and synchronise them to your smartphone. When you measure your blood pressure, you have two readings and the following table provides the ranges associated with blood pressure:

Tracking Stress

Many online tests, quizzes and surveys claim to be able to predict your stress levels, but they are inaccurate and take time to complete. The most accurate measure of stress that I’ve found is to measure your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Tracking your HRV is a critical biomarker that indicates your overall health. Look for a device that is convenient; many HRV trackers require you to wear a chest strap with the tracker located close to your heart. These are fine if you are looking to track your HRV over a more extended period but are inconvenient if you want a one-off reading. Blood biomarkers Getting an understanding of your blood markers will not only save you thousands on supplements but will also focus your attention on improving your overall energy levels. Some doctors do not provide you with these tests unless you’re showing specific symptoms, so you may need to purchase these tests privately. It’s best to work with a Functional Medical Practitioner to help you analyse your results, and don’t worry if any of them are showing in the abnormal range. What is normal for you isn’t normal for somebody else.

Basic blood markers

The following blood markers are the basic ones that you should be looking to test:

  • Complete blood count – including the number of white and red blood cells.
  • Vitamin D – 50% of my clients have low vitamin D levels, and vitamin D is essential for your energy levels, immune system, metabolism, bone strength and muscle strength.
  • Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is vital for your DNA synthesis, production of blood cells and proper functioning of your nervous system. An Active B12 test is best.
  • Liver and kidney function – your kidneys and liver detoxify your body of harmful pollutants from your everyday environment. Poor liver and kidney health can lead to chronic disease, unwanted weight gain and loss of energy.
  • Haemoglobin A1c (HbA1C) is a marker of your average blood sugar level over the last three months and is an indicator if you are pre-diabetic.
  • High sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) is a marker of how much inflammation you have in your body.
  • Blood lipids – this will include high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides.  The following ratios are good indicators of heart disease:

o   Triglyceride / HDL ratio: It is also a good indicator for predicting your lipoprotein particle size (two or lower is good, and anything over four needs to be addressed)

o   Total cholesterol / HDL ratio – a ratio above five is considered high risk.

Advanced blood markers

The following blood markers are more specialised and are extremely useful:

  • Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) – needs to be balanced to promote healthy cells. However, high IGF-1 and cancer could promote cancerous growth
  • Advanced cholesterol – Many blood tests will provide you with your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels. This isn’t enough information; you want to look for a test that provides you with more detail around the LDL proteins, particle numbers and sizes
  • Homocysteine – is linked with cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Ferritin – is a measure of your iron levels.
  • Magnesium – is of critical importance in the body and is responsible for many bodily functions. Most people are deficient in magnesium because it’s increasingly difficult to get it from food.
  • Omega-6 content of the mitochondrial membranes – healthy mitochondria need the right proportions of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The ideal ratio is 4:1. Too much omega-6 can make the mitochondria prone to oxidative stress

Hormone panel

Your body uses hormones for a variety of critical bodily functions, and they are a great indicator of how healthy you are.

Hormones are used to build tissue, babies, and help you to lead a robust life. They will decrease and change over time, but you shouldn’t just accept low hormone levels. There is usually an underlying cause and adjusting your hormone levels could make a big difference to your energy and performance.

Hormone Test

The best hormone tests are those where you can take urine samples multiple times per day with information on your metabolites, which is the underlying pathology behind each hormone. Gut microbiome testing Microbiome testing is proving to be one of the most exciting developments.

All disease begins in the gut. Hippocrates

This quote from Hippocrates has stood the test of time and originated around 2,000 years ago. It’s a strong statement to make and one that has a lot of merit and credibility as a result of recent scientific discoveries. It’s not 100% accurate because there are genetic diseases, but scientists are now looking into an imbalanced gut microbiome as the source of many chronic diseases.

Gut Microbiome

All over your body, around your skin and from your mouth down to your colon, you have a collection of microbes, referred to as the microbiome. Apart from your skin, your gut contains the highest concentration of microbes on your body, referred to as the gut microbiome, and it is a complex mix of bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea.

When you eat, you’re not just eating for energy for yourself, but you’re also eating for the trillions of microbes in your gut, which are responsible for producing vitamins and hormones.

Your gut microbiome plays a critical role in communicating with your immune system to tell it which of the microbes are pathogens, so they are kept out of your body. Your gut microbiome is also responsible for producing many of the nutrients that your mitochondria need to perform optimally.

Many diseases start in the gut, so looking after your gut microbiome is essential. These tests are not exactly glamorous because you need to provide a stool sample, but hey, it’s only your poo.

DNA testing

DNA testing is popular because it enables you to track your ancestry and discover what you may be pre-disposed to. For example, you may discover how likely you are to go bald, how well you process caffeine and risk factors associated with chronic disease.

There are two essential elements to consider:

  1. Taking your DNA – the key thing here is to ensure that the service you use enables you to export your DNA for loading into other services
  2. Analysing your DNA – look for a trusted site that has a solid privacy policy and is clear on how accurate their results are

There is an important point to understand when it comes to DNA testing. If you find genetic information that points towards a concerning condition, it does not mean that that condition is going to occur. It’s how your genes express themselves through epigenetics that matters most, and your environment dictates this. Therefore, focus on your symptoms and use your DNA results to help you understand the root cause but please don’t run off and start trying to treat something that may not exist.

This blog post is based on content from my book Limitless. You can pick up a copy on paperback and Kindle here:

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About Nick

Nick Powell is the founder of Stronger Self and he works with entrepreneurs and senior leaders to enable them to take their personal and professional performance to the next level.

Nick’s approach uses cutting edge tools and techniques from the worlds of biohacking, productivity, anti-aging and neuroscience; harnessing the exciting intersection between biology and technology.

Nick has developed his Peak Performance Coaching Programmes to enable his clients to deliver extraordinary results across all aspects of their personal and professional lives.

He runs his Coaching sessions face to face in London & Surrey and across the World via Zoom.

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