What is a habit? If you look up the word “habit” on dictionary.com, it comes up with this definition: an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary (for example- the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.) The most important part of that sentence is the word “acquired.” Habits aren’t behaviors that we are born with. They are behaviors that we practiced so much over time that they became a natural, involuntary part of our life. So… how do you change the habits that you don’t like in your life? Well, by practicing the habit that you actually do want.
Take a minute and brainstorm some of your most obvious habits (don’t pre-judge the habit, just write it down). Do you brush your teeth first thing in the morning when you walk into the bathroom? Do you always do your laundry on Tuesdays?
Got your list? Okay, great! Now it’s time to practice recognizing your health habits. Oh, baby! Here is where it all starts!
You’re reading this article because you want to improve your eating habits, your exercise habits, your sleep habits… it could be any health habit at all. In order to see what your habits are, you need a record (a snippet, if you will) over a period of time that represents your normal life. If you know that you’re going to have an abnormal week (Vacation week?) then it is not a great week to start this record. Choose a week where your schedule is representative of your regular life. Then complete a weekly log where you monitor everything WITHOUT CHANGING ANYTHING. You’re not starting a new diet or workout plan this week. You are just writing down what you eat or how you move without adjusting it.
Writing down what you’re eating or how you are moving will make you more aware of your health behavior patterns affect your health, well-being, and weight. You will be able to spot the things that you are doing well and the things that you need to work on. Research shows that people who track behaviors are more effective in changing them and they are less likely to manipulate the data to make it look pretty or to match what they believe. Keeping food records is the best predictor of successful weight loss and people who keep exercise logs are more likely to stick to their program. It also suggests that when you have the ability to identify discrepancies (how you want to be eating vs how you actually are eating) you are more likely to use self-control to adjust your behavior. (Harkin et al., Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. 2016) Awareness is the first step in permanently changing your behaviors.
Now the question is, “How do I track this?” There are a few different options and you might love one or hate another. It will take some experimenting to see what works for you.
- Paper-and-Pen Premade Log: This is personally my favorite way to food log or exercise log, especially at the beginning when you are looking for any helpful patterns that you could adjust. There’s no pressure to find exactly the right food brand or calorie count because it’s pulling from a database. It’s just you writing down what you ate and how you moved. There are a ton of templates online or you could even buy tear-off sheets. I bought this one at Marshall’s for $3-ish. It’s cute and I love seeing written progress throughout the week.
- Logging Apps: If you aren’t new to the dieting world, then you’ve definitely come across apps like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt. Both are really great options but I personally think LoseIt is a little more user friendly.
- Notebook Pages: There is no rule that you have to log in a certain way. Got an empty notebook? Just write the day, what you ate and ta-da. Food journal!
Before you run out and start logging, there are a couple of rules and just one suggestion as you start looking for and understanding your habits.
- Record everything, forget nothing: Every single bite, lick, and nibble of food should go on your log. If you eat chips, count how many chips you eat. If you licked the cookie batter spoon, write it down. And I know it’s easy to forget but don’t forget to count your drinks too! “If you bite it, write it!”
- Record immediately after the fact: Do not wait until the end of the day to think about what you ate or how much you ate. I promise you will forget something, underestimate how much you ate or overestimate how much you exercisesd. When you are finished eating, immediately write it down somewhere (the only downside of a pen and paper journal is that it’s not always with you). You can always record a note on your phone right away with the specifics.
- Record the specifics: I’m talking about the amount, the calories, etc. If you have to ballpark, that’s fine of course but being specific will help you in the long run.
Now here is the one suggestion I’ll make in advance: There is no room for judgment at this point in your journey. Log whatever you ate, even if you know it was an unhealthy choice. Do not hold yourself to a perfect standard- try to remember that the whole point of this week is to see and understand where you are right now. You need to physically see the areas where you want to improve (for example, I know that I struggle THE most with snacks because I can see it on the food log). Push yourself to log it even if you are unhappy with the choice- log it anyway! There is no need for perfection, do your best because with practice this will continually get easier.
Commit to yourself right now that you are going to track all of your food for the next week (or two weeks or whatever works for YOU), and that’s it. There’s no need to change any of your habits right now. Just record what’s happening. In part 2 of “How to actually change your health habits”, we are going to talk about what to do with the record, how to evaluate it, and how to move forward with the awareness.
P.S. Below are two different options of logs to download if you don’t want to buy one, use an app, or make your own! The first one is a simple document that I created for the website and the second is a document from ACE Fitness.