- The best thing you can do to keep yourself on track with your diet and exercise is to track your work.
- This can be done via pen and paper, via a dedicated app or document on your phone, or via the assistance of a personal coach.
- Our memories are terribly imprecise in the long term, and we lie to ourselves all the time. Tracking makes our efforts external and measurable, and protects us from our faulty memory.
- You don't need to be the best in the world - you just need to get started. With practice and time, tracking will come more naturally to you.
One of the biggest things holding a lot of people back from reaching their fitness goals is consistency. This can apply in a lot of areas, and most commonly, the issue is that people just don’t consistently go into the gym. They’re constantly finding excuses and doing other stuff instead.
But one huge problem, even for people who DO go to the gym, is consistency in your programming.
Hell, I know this one personally: for maybe the first four years that I trained, I never tracked or wrote down anything I did. I just sort of went into the gym, threw on a weight that looked good, and did whatever I could. I was annoyed to see completely inconsistent results - one time, I got super dedicated about going to the gym for a couple months and was shocked to realize that I was actually weaker than when I had started.
In this case, the single best thing you can do is track.
Most people are pretty aware of the concept of tracking when it comes to diet. Tracking diet is super useful because people are pretty inconsistent when it comes to actually remembering what, or how much, they ate. If you write it down while it’s happening, you can be much more honest with yourself because you've externalized that information - made it real and concrete, and not subject to your poor memory later.
Trying to go off of memory is always a mistake. Can you remember what you ate this morning? Yesterday? The day before? The further away your memory gets, the more rapidly it falls out of your brain. And why shouldn’t it? You’ve got all kinds of important stuff to keep in there, like what’s going on at school, or in your job, or who’s kissing who in your favorite soap opera, or which main character got killed off on Game of Thrones this week. Why would you bother to remember exactly what you ate for breakfast last week?
If you track, you take all (or most, if you’re not too honest) of the guesswork out of the equation.
When someone says "I don't know why I'm not achieving my diet goals", then nine times out of ten they're not actually tracking, or not actually changing their diet as much as they think they are. The easiest thing to do, even if they don't want to track forever, is to convince them to track in a detailed fashion for just one week. This tends to give you enough of data that you can go "hmm, I really do see where I'm going wrong".
Some people are super data driven, and love to see those numbers. These kinds of people will take to tracking super easily, while others might struggle to find the point of these numbers and have a rough time getting used to it. If you're not as data driven, you can avoid getting deep into the numbers and just focus on being mindful of the kinds of foods you're eating, if not necessarily the exact amounts.
Diet isn’t the only thing that tracking helps with.
If you’re going to the gym and not tracking your workouts, you’re just like I was once - you don’t know what you’re doing, so you don’t know what to shoot for as an improvement next week or next workout. If you were able to do three sets of ten reps of an exercise last week, you should be aiming for three sets of eleven or twelve reps this week - you can’t do that if you can’t remember what weight you did or how many reps you did it for. Since progress requires consistent increases in volume over time, this is very difficult to do without tracking.
Most people start tracking thanks to following pre-made exercise programs. You plug your numbers into that program, and since it takes care of everything for you, you start progressing a bit. Often, more detailed tracking is required to really see what’s going on - that way you can check back on previous workouts at any time, see where stuff started to go right or wrong, and modify your current workout as needed. A lot of that data might go unused - but the stuff that does get used will be crucial.
When it comes to tracking, there’s two main options: physical and digital tracking. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.
Physical tracking is old school. You write down your workouts, sets, reps, and weights in a notebook, and keep a second one for your diet. This has the benefit of being very tactile - you can get a very good feel for it, and it feels good to write everything down by hand.
But on the other hand, this introduces some possibilities for error. If you don’t keep the notebook on hand, for example, you may find yourself in a situation where you can’t track or check your previous data. Carrying around pens and notebooks may be annoying, or you may not have your data on hand when you need it. You can't search through your notebook easily, so it can be hard to flip through a bunch of pages to find the last time you did a bicep curl.
Digital tracking is new school. You write down your workouts, sets, reps, and weights in a digital format, usually a document or spreadsheet of some kind, and keep another one for your diet. This is cool because typically you can do it from your phone, and since your phone will always be in your pocket, you’ll never be far from tracking.
Digital tracking adds the useful function of searching, manipulating, and sharing your data. You can easily use a search function to find the last time you ate cottage cheese, for example, or what weight you last squatted at.
Some online digital tracking methods aside from simple documents also exist - including workout tracking apps and sites like Fitocracy.
Unfortunately, I don’t tend to recommend these. The main problem is that they may make it hard to recover your data if you ever choose to move elsewhere - and this can be a huge issue if the app or company goes out of business and can’t readily give you your data anymore. I’ve seen plenty of forums of people pissed off when their tracking method of choice goes down and they can’t get years worth of data backed up. Better to rely on handmade files on your own device - this way, you won’t have to worry about loss of data unless your device gets nuked. Likewise, cloud services like Google Drive make it easy to store your data and access it across multiple devices while also insulating you against personal device failure.
No matter what, you’ll need to track somehow - that’s a given.
Tracking is ultimately a mindfulness technique just as much as it’s a data collection technique - it forces you to think about your own actions and remember what you’ve done. It forces you to stop what you’re doing and reflect on what you’ve been doing so that you can improve in the future. It’s no wonder that numerous people recommend keeping a diary as a psychological improvement technique.
Many people improve their diet and exercise just by using very bare bones tracking - and you don't need to get highly detailed in your tracking methods if you don't want to. As always, it's better to start with what you CAN do, and improve from there. Get in the habit, and the rest will follow.
With consistency, practice, and a bit of tracking and reflection, everything gets easier and easier.
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