Food and Exercise Journaling: 5 Practical Tips

Yet another study, this one from the folks at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says you should keep a food journal if you want to lose weight.

Is there a similar study that says keeping tabs on your exercise efforts leads to better fitness?  Probably!  I was too lazy to try to dig up research on it. However, my opinion, based on observations of self, friends, clients, bloggers etc.: Those who schedule and track their activities are much more consistent and successful than those who form a vague notion that they should get off their asses a bit more often.

So why doesn't everyone use a journal, or a clever app, to plan and track dietary and activity details on a daily basis?

Because it's a huge pain in the ass, that's why!

As it happens, I'm not counting calories or journaling about food at the moment, content to just follow my own bizarre dietary religion.  And my exercise data is being kept the lazy way: I'm wearing a fancy heart rate monitor when I exercise and letting it do the data collection.  All my tracking motivation has been hijacked by my brain re-wiring project, for which I've started a journal, and there is no way in hell I'm going to keep tabs on more than one major endeavor at at time.

(And yes, this means there will probably also be a post about the joys and annoyances of attempting to journal about sappy personal growth stuff over at Cranky Enlightenment before too long. And gosh how exciting that must sound!)

But anyway, here are 5 tips for tracking your eating/exercise efforts:

1.  Choose a system to matach YOUR goals and preferences.

There are lots of tracking methods, whether you like to keep it simple...

Or not so much.

What, you don't track your results in 3 dimensions?

There are all kinds of gadgets you can wear to help estimate calorie burn, from simple pedometers to fancy pants high-tech biomedical tracking devices.  (Over the last year I've reviewed the Polar RCX3 and the  BodyMedia Fit armband if you're curious).

More affordably, there are also online calorie counting and fitness apps, and I've heard great things from my coaching clients about them.  Particular suggestions? Er, I haven't tried any myself! But LifeHacker has a good rundown of the 5 best fitness tracking services, and Caitlin at Healthy Tipping Point compiled some of the best fitness apps. HuffPo has a best nutrition/weightloss/fitness app list and a quick google will net you many more alternatives.

Some people like to track numbers... carbs or calories sugars or fiber or kryptonite levels; others may choose to eat and exercise intuitively and instead track how they feel, both mentally and physically.   And through personal experience, I've discovered excessive tracking can turn you into a bit of a nutbucket!  So if you have OCD or eating disorder issues, you may want to track behaviors and feelings more than cold hard (and potentially discouraging) raw data.

2.  Ease in and Take Baseline Info

Your first week, or at least the first day or two, should just be about getting in the habit of tracking, rather than immediately launching into a shiny new diet or program.    While it can suck to face up up to what's "typical" for you, it will suck more if you start off your tracking with a couple days of heroic effort and then have nowhere to go but downhill.  If your initial numbers are pathetic, that's awesome!  It will give you lots positive reinforcement when you start to improve.

The second reason to build up the habit first is that it's WAY harder to collect info at the beginning, especially for food tracking.  Even if you've got a handy source of calorie, carb, or other info for various foods, you still need to figure out what portion sizes your eating. (Unless you're relying a lot on processed foods that has that info on the label... in which case, honey--we need to talk.)  Weighing and measuring is a HUGE pain!  But once you get an idea in mind of your most typical meals, it gets easier.  Then you can start to work on cutting down.

Likewise, if you're taking a more intuitive approach and journaling about your actions and emotions, triggers for overconsumption or inactivity,  successes, ideas, observations, etc, this takes a little time to get used to.  Don't overload yourself with high expectations about how tracking will magically clean up dysfunctional habits. It may make no difference at all for a while, but no worries! If you're staying on track with your journal, you're golden.  Some sort of positive progress, insight, or new perspective will likely come of it before long.

3.  Consider it An Experiment, Not a Life Sentence

Tracking or journaling doesn't work for everyone, and even many of those of us who find it helpful do so only as a transition from naughty behavior to new improved habits.  If you give it a shot and it just drives you crazy, then stop.  Think about other ways of encouraging progress and accountability, like a class or group or forum.  Or hell, start a blog!

4.  Make it As Fun as Possible

Combine your planning/tracking/journaling activity with something pleasant... your morning coffee, a sunny spot in the garden, some nice music,  whatever.  Add graphics or affirmations or motivational images!

 Note: not all motivational images are equally effective.

Or hey, how about setting some targets complete with rewards? Or go all interactive and investigate the sort of apps that encourage sharing, and even (ulp) competitions. 

5.   Feel Proud of Honesty, Consistency, and Effort Even When Numbers Are Being Mean

Veterans of this blog are probably tired of my pummeling the same long-deceased member of the equine family.  But the reason the poor dead horse keeps showing up for beatings is that so many people get caught up in numbers in a counterproductive way!

I hate to hear about people who start off making great progress and then hit a plateau and give up with discouragement when the numbers don't come out right. Sometimes the universe just likes to f--ck with you and you may gain weight or lose strength even when you're working hard.

So If the numbers are in your favor, then great, celebrate.  And sure, go ahead and use the numbers as data for trouble-shooting.  "Hmm, I consume 500 calories a day more for at least a week after every Costco run we make, what's up with that?" Or, "gosh, if I do a maximum workout 23 days in a row, by day 24 I can't lift a pencil without collapsing. Wonder if I need to add some rest days?"

But don't quit when the numbers are bad!  If you're still recording them, then you're on track, regardless of whether they're good or bad.  The only thing you can truly control is your effort, and if that stays consistent good things will eventually happen.

Do you guys keep food diaries or otherwise track your eating or exercise activities?

Photos: Cat and Dog Diary pictures: I Can Has Cheezburger Complicated graph: yagtom Exercise motivation card:

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