“What gets measured, gets managed.”
- Peter Drucker, management consultant and author.
It’s hard to find something that quote doesn’t apply to.
If you want to improve on something, you need to track your progress, and the behaviors that cause progress. Researchers call this “self-monitoring” — the process of tracking and analyzing your thoughts and actions to become more aware of how they impact your goals.1,2
A goal that about 30-60% of people share is weight loss.3-7 If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that you’re probably one of them. You’re in the right place.
If you want to manage your weight, you need to measure your weight. You also need to measure the two things that control your weight — your eating and exercise habits.
Self monitoring isn’t magic. You still have to create and maintain a caloric deficit to lose weight. However, self tracking makes this easier.
Here are 9 reasons why tracking your eating and exercise habits will help you lose weight.
1. You’ll Eat Less
When people record what, when, and/or how much they eat, and/or their weight — they usually eat less, and lose weight as the result.1,2,8-18
The simple act of recording your food intake, body weight, or exercise levels is more important than how precise you are or what method you use.1,2,8-10,16,19-22
The dieters who lose the most weight in the short- and long-term also tend to be the most diligent about self tracking.1,2,8,10-12,14-16,18,22-32
2. You’ll Exercise More
When people record their exercise habits, they exercise more.8,14,28,33-42 They also tend to enjoy exercise more.8
Often, people will exercise more if they’re given something as simple as a pedometer.36-42
Sometimes researchers don’t even give the people a step counting goal — they just give them the pedometer and tell them to start walking. The fact that they know their behaviors are being tracked is enough to make them take more steps.
This doesn’t always make them lose weight, but most of these studies didn’t control their food intake or give them dieting instructions.8 If you also eat less, the additional exercise will help you lose weight.43-45
Small changes in your physical activity levels like standing and walking, even at a slow pace, can make a big difference in your weight loss efforts.46-50 Self tracking is a simple way to move more with almost no effort.
Many of these studies also used counselor feedback and dietary advice, so it wasn’t just the self tracking that caused weight loss. However, most researchers believe that self tracking is a major reason for their success.2,51
3. You’ll Get Immediate Gratification
One of the reasons dieters often fail is because they don’t see immediate results. Obese people also tend to be more likely to pursue immediate rewards rather than waiting for larger, delayed ones.
Weight loss usually doesn’t start until a week or two after you’ve created a caloric deficit. It often takes far longer than that for you to see large changes in your appearance.
Changes in water weight can often mask weight loss and make it look like you’ve gained weight. If you track your diet and exercise levels to ensure that you’re still in a caloric deficit, you can relax knowing that the weight loss is coming.
Tracking your food and exercise habits gives you immediate feedback on your progress. If you track your calories and how long or how hard you exercise, you’ll know immediately how your choices will contribute to, or detract from, your weight loss goals.
4. Your Weight Loss Goals Become Easier to Achieve
Lets say you need to lose 50 pounds in a year. You will have to eat approximately 175,000 calories less in 12 months.52
As a dieter, that may look like an extreme, almost impossible goal. However, self tracking helps you make this goal far more manageable.
Using the example above, you could set a smaller goal of eating at least 500 calories less per day, or exercising enough to create a 500 calorie deficit each day.
Reaching these “bite-size” objective goals will allow you to go to bed every night knowing you’ll wake up the next morning one step closer to your dream weight. You won’t feel overwhelmed with your larger goal, but you’ll still be on the path to achieving it.
5. Your Diet Becomes a Game
Recording your eating and exercise habits makes dieting into a kind of sport.
Like most sports, it’s not always easy or fun, but it’s rewarding and well worth the effort. When you start tracking your calorie intake and how much you exercise, it becomes a competition with yourself. Each day you try to do better than the last, or to maintain your progress.
If you set a calorie goal for each day, you have to be strategic about how much you eat throughout the day. You can also use different exercise tactics to defeat your opponent (your caloric deficit).
Setting goals, which is another aspect of most sports, can also increase your chances of losing weight.2,53-55 Having objective numbers to chase on a daily basis can make dieting almost like a game.
Warning: Like other sports, you have to know when to stop. Eating disorders = bad.
6. You Can be More Flexible About What, When, and How Much You Eat
Tracking your food intake and exercise levels allows you to budget your time, calories, and food choices with greater flexibility, which can help you lose weight.
Studies have shown that flexible dieters — those who are able to make small adjustments to their eating habits when necessary, are more successful than those who attempt to stick to stringent rules.56-58
Let’s say you decide that you’ll lose weight by:
- Not eating anything after six pm.
- Never eating foods with more than 5 grams of sugar.
- Eating no more than 500 calories per meal.
Those are fine goals, and they may work, but they may also increase your risk of failure.
What if your friends want to throw you a birthday party after six pm?
What if you have a late night date?
What if the only menu option has 10 grams of sugar?
What if you want to have a meal with more than 500 calories once in a while?
What if you’re sick of trying to follow unrealistic rules?
Self tracking solves these problems. Instead of avoiding all foods that have more than 5 grams of sugar, you could set a daily or weekly target of calories from sugar. If you knew you were going to eat at a restaurant that only offered high sugar options, you could eat less sugar at other meals or at other times during the week.
Likewise, if you track your calorie intake, you could eat less at other meals throughout the day and pool your calories for a larger meal. Self tracking gives you near complete control over your food choices and eating schedule.
7. You Can Avoid the “Oh S#%t” Effect
“I just ate a box of Oreos. Oh s#%t, my diet’s blown. Looks like I’m off the wagon…”
People who can’t lose weight or maintain weight loss often have this mindset.24,30,32,59-61 62,63 If you track your calorie intake and exercise levels, you can put a situation like this into perspective.
You ate about 1,440 calories extra from that box of Oreos. That would slow your progress by about three days. It’s not worth ditching your diet over that.
If you were determined to make up for your cookie catastrophe, you could eat 100 calories less per day for the next two weeks, or exercise the equivalent amount.
Instead of despairing over small deviations from your diet, self tracking allows you to see exactly how much (or little) your choices will affect your goals.
8. You Can Enjoy Your Favorite Foods Without Feeling Guilty
Let’s say you purposely eat a whole box of Oreos… and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.
If you track your calorie intake and exercise levels, you can enjoy this kind of treat and know that you’ll still lose weight. You can adjust your exercise levels and eat less at other meals and throughout the week to make sure you’re still in a caloric deficit.
Self tracking also lets you put the term “moderation” into objective numbers. You probably wouldn’t call a pile of Oreos and ice cream a “moderate” treat. However, if you track your calorie intake over time, you can see what percentage this feast made up of your diet.
Your total meal was about 2,400 calories. If you eat 2,500 calories per day, that would be about 14% of your weekly calories.
Most studies indicate that you have to consume more than about 20-25% of your calories from added sugars,64,65 which means your mega-meal was still within what would be considered “moderation.” Cool right?
Tracking your food intake gives you the ability to indulge in your favorite treats, knowing that you’ll still lose weight (if you’re in a caloric deficit), and that you aren’t consuming too much junk.
9. You Can Avoid Weight Loss Plateaus
If you track your weight on a regular basis, you can see how far you are from achieving your goal and how fast you’re progressing.
Weighing yourself is a great first step, but you should also record your weight. This allows you to make adjustments to your diet and exercise plan to keep the fat falling off.
If you see you’re falling behind, you can exercise more and eat less.
If you’ve lost more weight than you predicted, you’ll be even more motivated to continue.
Track Your Eating and Exercise Habits = Lose More Weight (And Keep it Off)
If you want to lose weight, you need to become more aware of how your behaviors affect your goal.
When people track their food intake and exercise levels, they usually eat less, exercise more, and lose weight.
Self tracking gives you immediate feedback on how your choices accelerate or hinder your progress. You can break your larger goals into smaller, more manageable daily targets. This can make dieting almost like a strategy game. It also lets you be more flexible about your eating and exercise habits.
Self tracking also lets you put minor mistakes into perspective, and take action to correct those mistakes. You also can eat junk while still losing weight, as long as you know you’re in a caloric deficit.
You don’t have to be obsessive or super precise about your self tracking. The act of recording your behaviors will generally help you eat less and exercise more, which will make you lose weight.
In later articles, you’ll learn exactly what and how you should be tracking your diet and exercise habits for best results.
If you aren’t already, click here to have these articles delivered straight to your email inbox when published.
Disclosures: We are building an application that makes it easier to track your meals and workouts. The app is designed with the latest scientific evidence in mind, yet this does present a financial incentive for us to promote self tracking.
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