July 16, 2012

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: someecards.com

51 comments:

  1. Great ideas, Crabby.
    I've kept mental track of exercising from time to time. I am way too lazy to keep any sort of written record.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mental tracking can work too! I just happen to have a brain that won't store information for more than a few seconds before some new shiny thing comes along and... wait, what was I saying?

      Delete
    2. I'm pretty lazy: I tried some food tracking when I first started trying to lose weight to make my joints happy, and I kept it up for a while, since there were neat online sites that would sort of tell me the calories and nutrients without the boredom of looking it up, but after a few months and about ten pounds I quit that. Too slow, too time consuming, too inaccurate (since I do all my own cooking.)

      However, I've been tracking exercise for at least twenty-five years by making marks at the top of the day on my weekly (paper) calendar. X for exercise, with a superscript number for the minutes (since I walk in minutes, not miles) Y for yoga, Z (for zen) for the rare occasions when I meditate, and lately I've added W for weights. A quick glance at my two-page week will show whether I'm getting enough exercise in.

      Little marks on paper are very powerful. In college I decided I should try to drink the eight glasses of water that everyone was supposed to need back in the seventies, so I put a sheet of paper on the refrigerator and made a hashmark every time I drank a glass. In about six months I was so in the habit of drinking a full glass of water every time I was thirsty that I now drink about a gallon a day.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

      Delete
    3. Love the XYZ's! So simple yet seems a great way to stay on track.

      Delete
  2. I am on myfitnesspal and I track everything, good, bad and the entire bag of chips I will consume during Aunt Flo. I've been logging for 160 days EVERY DAY and it has probably been the single most effective thing for me to stay on track of my eating and exercising.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, that's amazing, 160 days of total honest tracking? Congrats!!!! That's an accomplishment in itself, and it's great to hear it's working so well for you. Awesome.

      Delete
  3. Hard to believe there are no programs out there that keep track of those.

    I've never counted calories consumed either, since I spend all my time burning them, lol!

    Our fitness center has cards for members to keep track of their workout data. Never used those either.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You, Dr. J, clearly don't need these sorts of tools, which is awesome. Some of us though seem to need the kick in the pants that tracking provides!

      Delete
    2. I definitely agree with tracking if what we are doing is not working! All the studies and my personal observations support this!

      Delete
  4. Is it a great idea? Yes. But like so many great ideas, when it comes down to doing it, that's the road block, and i'm still trying to find ways that work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good luck figuring out something that works for you. Which may be saying the heck with the whole tracking thing if you're too busy!

      Delete
  5. Timely post for me as I decided over the weekend that I needed to get back on the tracking bandwagon. As a runner, I've kept a running journal for years and I write my other types of exercise in there too. But for food tracking I am hot and cold. I do really well for a while then I just get sick of it and stop. This last stop has resulted in me gaining a few pounds so it's a necessary evil once again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hate that moment when I realize that winging it isn't working anymore and the notebook comes back out. My sympathies! Hope the tracking is working well.

      Delete
  6. Hi Crabby, I track my calories on FitnessPal... it's a little more difficult now that I homemake most of my stuff... and I love blogging because it not only helps me eat more consciously but it also helps me not beat myself up so much in the end... because actually looking back at what I ate on my blog vs. remembering back on what I ate actually helps me not beat myself up so much looking at all of the good choices around the one bad choice of the day and keeps me motivated instead of beating myself up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. FitnessPal seems to have a lot of fans, glad it works for you! And great that blogging helps too, especially around the beating up part. Oddly enough, self-flagellation isn't all that effective for motivation!

      Delete
  7. I've found that tracking really does help me make progress - provided I actually keep doing it. Grrrr! Am starting anew today as I was voted Carb Queen over the weekend. Getting breakfast tracked is easy - no distractions yet. The rest of the day tends to shoot off into 1,000 different directions. Must pay closer attention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It feels fun to wear the Carb Queen crown at the time, doesn't it? But afterwards it feels much better to get back into peasant clothing and return to the fields to do a little toiling and eat veggies and be all scrappy and less indulged. Kind of a cycle for many of us!

      Delete
  8. My blog is the closest I get to a tracking journal. I find seeing what I have done in the past kives me a kick in the butt when I fall off the wagon or get lazy. Like now. Ahem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, excellent idea to look back into the misty blogpast for kick-in-the-ass motivation!

      Delete
  9. I tracked my food on myfitnesspal.com when I was losing, and I really think it helped, because even when I had a "bad" day, once I entered the food and saw that it wasn't as bad as I'd made it out to be in my mind, I didn't throw myself under the dieting bus.

    I don't track my food anymore, but it wouldn't hurt if I did. I do track my workouts, though.

    P.S. Did you change your blog while I was on vacation? Or have I just lost (some more of) my mind? Any case, it looks so clean! Maybe you just dusted? I like the sidebar!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did change the blog! Was going to switch to wordpress but it got too complicated for this tiny crab brain, and I discovered I suck at delegating to smarter humans. So, a little tweaking.

      Will make sure you're on the blog widget too! Trying to limit to friendly folks who stop by here often but am starting from scratch so it will take a while.

      Delete
  10. I think keeping a food and calorie diary is a great tool, and really useful for weight loss and maintenance. In fact for me it was essential for weight loss. It made me more accountable - for some reason I was far less likely to scoff chocs if I had to write it down, even if no-one else saw it. It also makes it easier to keep track of things during the day. Even a food plan written down in advance for the day is helpful.

    However now I'm maintaining, I don't want to keep a food diary for ever. Its a pain to do (whether manual or using websites), and I want to be able to eat food "normally" without the hassle of tracking it, and without the weight going back on. I've been most successful without a food diary when incorporating some low carb principles into my diet. Its still a work in progress though.

    The only other measurement I take regularly is my weight.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love it when I can NOT track. Currently I'm not, but I tend to keep it in the back of my mind if my clothes start getting tight.

      Good luck with the low carb/not tracking!

      Delete
  11. A long, long time ago (okay - somewhere around 1995) I decided that I needed to keep track of how often I exercised, as a reality check and motivational tool. So I started putting stickers on my calendar; it worked so I continued for quite a few years. Then I started using fitday.com to track calories & exercise (around 2001), and I did that for quite a long time too. But these days I find I have a hard time sticking to any sort of tracking, other than writing down my workouts. I like tracking my workouts, because it leaves me with a sense of accomplishment...I think tracking food is less fun which is probably why I have a hard time sticking with it. I do agree that it can be useful though, and I imagine I will keep trying. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm with you... tracking workouts so much more fun than food! And stickers! Love the sticker idea, were i organized enough to have an actual calendar on the wall.

      Delete
  12. Dear Crabby -

    I LOVE your suggestion of making any sort of tracking "pleasant" v. a chore! Who knew it could something I might WANT to do??? And - being the resident OCD respondent to your posts, I promise to also do my best to not track so much data and focus more on feelings (but, first, I need to actually be able to identify them, don't I? oy... if it's not one thing, it's another...)

    The best thing for food tracking I recently discovered - for me - is that I really don't have to so much anymore if I stick to eating the right stuff (veggies, fruite, whole foods, stay away from processed stuff and not too heavy on the grains). I didn't invent this - I stole it from a book I read recently. "They" are right. And - yeah - we kinda all do know what we need to do (or not). It's the "doing" (or not) part where the results happen (or not).

    So, seriously: I've lost weight without trying and I've lost the mental weight of the detailed carb/fat/protein/fiber/calories tracking.
    Generally, I do tally up what I think my calorie intake has been. And I do have a training plan. But, that's it... Snap! Done :)

    Now - please excuse me while I re-fold the towels, iron my t-shirts and use that lint roller on the chair one more time because I noticed a stray bit o' fluff. No wonder I don't have time to track this other stuff!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, sticking to the right foods is such a powerful way to get around obsessive weighing, counting and measuring. Awesome that you've got the self-discipline to stay on track, plus somehow manage to keep those towels folded and t-shirts ironed!

      Delete
  13. I've kept a food journal On and Off since 2007.

    On = weight loss or maintenance.

    Off = I gain weight, even if I eat "clean".

    The debate is over for me; I'll count calories for the rest of my life.

    ~Rick

    P.S. - I've lost 50 lbs. and kept it off...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great that you found it works well for you and WOW, 50 lbs, that's awesome!!!!

      Delete
  14. That last paragraph needs to be cross-stitched and hung on a wall, I think, Cranky. True stuff!

    I am a Weight Watchers devotee, so that's where I do all my tracking. Sometimes I use their electronic tools, sometimes I'm paper based. But keeping track of my food intake and my exercises helps me get things done. It helps me be aware, helps me understand my progress (or lack thereof).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Weight Watchers, from what I hear, is an excellent way to get accountability and support--so glad it works well for you!

      Delete
  15. Lol cute pictures. I love the dog one, it looks like he's smiling!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am such a sucker for lolcats etc, glad you don't find it annoying!

      Delete
  16. Right now I use MyFitnessPal which I love! It tracks calories and has a gigantic database so it makes it really easy to find the foods you are looking for. I especially love the barcode scanner, it is great for the packaged foods. It is also pretty good for tracking calories burned for cardio workouts. I also use Nike + but that is only for my running regimen. Oh and FitClick.com is great too. I haven't downloaded their app though as it is a cost and I'm not convinced it would be better than MyFitnessPal which is free.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love to hear what apps are good, thanks!

      Delete
  17. I LOVE THIS POST! You are so funny while making a point! AND I happen to be chatting about a similar subject tomorrow - great minds think alike or is it crazy minds think alike! ;-)

    I don't journal anymore BUT I sure know what is going in my bod & what I am expending in exercise. If the scale goes up & not down OR the clothes fit too tight for to long - I TAKE ACTION. AT this age, & you get this, have to be oh so careful. I did when I was young but way way way more now!

    People don't want to know the truth - my post tomorrow - hidden agendas & being uncomfortable! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh I am an expert at being uncomfortable (working on that though) so I will have to check out the post!

      Delete
  18. Yeah, kind of. I copy down the numbers from my heart monitor every 3 months and look at them. I feel productive doing this, but not sure if it really means anything at all. I got a monitor for my husband too, b/c he was always asking how long we ran, blah blah. Well damn, now I see that he burns twice the calories that I do: it isn't fair!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Doesn't the Dude Differential suck? When they put their efforts into diet/exercise it seems like they have the wind at their backs while we're running straight into it!

      Delete
  19. I know all the things I am supposed to do, eat, exercise & track. I just don't have the willpower, although, I am giving it a good try this time. I will check out the links you gave and see if I like any of the journals. For those that say they cook their own stuff, food.com gives nutritional breakdowns, if you type your recipe in and you don't have to share it if you don't want to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the food.com recommendation, didn't know about that!

      Delete
  20. While I will agree that journaling is a HUGE pain in the rear, and that I exclude it more often than not, I think it's a good thing especially for beginners or those that have never kept track of their routines. The truth of how we live is often a big surprise once we see it in writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No sh*t! Totally with you on the surprise aspect. Tracking can uncover some really amusing exercise exaggerations and pork-out minimizations. Data as opposed to wishful thinking is kinda sobering sometimes!

      Delete
  21. Tracking any of this would make me crazy(er). Not gonna happen. I know when I'm doing well and when I'm screwing up. That's not always reflected in results but I still know it. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, you're a realist then! Good for you. I have a tendency to take a "creative" view of reality when it offers the illusion I'm being virtuous rather than self-indulgent.

      Delete
  22. I used to track calories on myfitnesspal.com. I had the handy-dandy app that scanned barcodes, & I used measuring cups every single time I ate. I lost about 15 pounds in 4 months. Then got sick of it and quit. I've been maintaining pretty well for maybe 6 months?

    I definitely agree with #3. Journaling isn't a life sentence. I saw people on myfitpal who had tried not tracking and they said they couldn't handle it. They had come back and were planning on tracking every single calorie for the rest of their lives! That's just insane! Journaling, whatever form you choose, should be a tool to help you learn healthy habits, not something you're forever dependent on. (In my opinion…)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's great that you can maintain fine without the app. Because ack, tracking for life??? I have too many other things on my to do list, so I'm with you... for me it's a temporary thing.

      Delete
  23. ok LATE to this BUT BUT BUT I love how you say consider it an appointment not a life sentence. SO SIMPLE. SO TRUE.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Tracking your diet is definitely helpful. I feel like you become more conscious of what you're eating if you're tracking it. I found some great diet plans on the site moteevate.com. They have actionplans with trackers that let you record everything and see your progress. Here's a simple actionplan for keeping track of what you eat daily - http://moteevate.com/actionplan/944/health-fitness/dieting/keep-track-of-my-daily-diet. There's so many more!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)