To Self-Monitor or Not to Self-Monitor

What is self-monitoring?            

Self-monitoring includes observing and recording behaviors such as calorie intake, physical activity, and sleep.  If you have ever used apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit, or Lose It!, or mobile sites like Army H.E.A.L.T.H. or Weight Watchers, then you have self-monitored. Thanks to advancements in technology, mobile apps and wearable devices make it easier than ever to record and understand our daily activities. Once we have a better understanding of our habits, we are then able to make better decisions regarding aspects of our health, such as weight loss.  

When thinking of self-monitoring, it is important to understand that it is often a two-step process. The first step is simply observing and recording your habits. This can be something as simple as wearing a wrist band that automatically tracks the amount of steps you take and the amount of sleep you get each night, or it can be something more laborious such as recording all the foods you eat into a food diary.

The second step in self-monitoring consists of viewing and understanding your data. For example, let’s say that you recorded all your foods into a diet tracker for four weeks. The act of solely recording your foods will increase your awareness and you will start to notice exactly how much and what types of foods you are realistically eating. However, if you want to get the most out of self-monitoring, you will want to examine your data more closely. Do most of your calories consist of carbs, protein, or fat? Do you find that you are often eating healthy during the week, but less so on the weekends? These are the types of questions that self-monitoring can help you answer. The more you know and understand about your habits, the more likely you will be able to overcome barriers that may be interfering with your health and weight management goals.

Can self-monitoring help me lose weight? Science says yes.

Self-monitoring does a couple of things: it brings to light habits that you may not be fully aware of (e.g. mindless eating), it provides accountability, and it sheds light on undesirable habits (e.g. not exercising on weekends). Have you ever sat down in front of the TV with a bag of chips and the next thing you know the bag’s empty? Most of us have. That’s called mindless eating (eating without being present in the moment and paying attention to your body’s cues). Chances are that once you start logging your foods, you will automatically think twice before sitting down with the whole bag. By the same token, if you are trying to lose weight and you see that whole bag of chips on your food log, chances are you will hold yourself accountable and make a plan to prevent this from happening again (e.g. measure 1 cup of chips to eat).

Research shows that self-monitoring can also increase awareness of unwanted behaviors and the circumstances that surround the behavior. For example, while tracking your daily steps, you notice that you’re meeting your step goal during the week, but not on the weekends. You also notice that you eat waffles every Saturday and Sunday for breakfast, but not during the week.  You start to realize that after eating waffles, you feel sluggish and that prevents you from exercising on the weekends. Equipped with this information, you can think of healthier options to add to your weekend breakfast. You can also think of ways to incorporate more activity into your weekend.  Taking a family hike, walking to the store instead of driving, and signing up for a family 5k are just a few ideas.

How can I make self-monitoring work for me?

Anyone can wear an activity tracker, log foods, and look at their data. However, those who are ready to make lifestyle changes will likely have the most promising results. Self-monitoring is not a magical “fix-all” solution to weight management, but it is a good awareness building tool for those who are ready for change.  Whether using programs that require you to input your information, such as daily diet and physical activity logs, or using a device that helps you automatically track your habits (wearable activity trackers), self-monitoring tools are more user-friendly and affordable than ever. 

Many apps and mobile tracking websites, like MyFitnessPal and Army H.E.A.L.T.H. are free. These types of programs require the user to manually input their information (e.g. dietary intake).  For those who want to track their activities more effortlessly, there are some free fitness tracking apps, like RunKeeper, which use the GPS in your smart phone to help you easily log walks and runs. Many apps are also incorporating bar code scanners to make logging foods easier. Other tracking programs that gather data from a wearable device (e.g. Fitbit, Basis, Garmin, Jawbone, Misfit), are not free, but they are becoming more affordable.

One, not as prominent, but equally as important (in our opinion), feature that more and more wearable tracking devices are starting to include, is the ability to track sleep.  Research has shown a strong relationship between the amount of sleep you get each night and your weight. Therefore, part of reaching and maintaining a healthy weight should include examining and improving your sleep habits. Self-monitoring devices can help provide some insight into this area of your lifestyle.

Note*:  As you may have started to recognize, most of the benefits of self-monitoring come from raising personal awareness of habits you may not be mindful of, and helping you change these habits. It is important to note that although many wearable fitness and sleep tracking devices on the market today have been scrutinized for lacking accuracy, self-monitoring has been shown to be a motivational tool that can help people reach their health and fitness goals.  This is because regardless of accuracy, the simple action of tracking daily habits can help evoke behavioral change. 

Self-monitoring is a great tool that can help you reach your weight, fitness, and sleep goals. Research has demonstrated a consistent relationship between self-monitoring and success in losing weight and weight maintenance. Between free apps and affordable fitness trackers, tracking your habits is easier than ever. Why not get started today?

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