Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Why You Should Track Your Physical Activity

A fitness tracking device can make you more aware of your physical activity patterns and how much you are — or aren’t — exercising.

Woman's arm with a health monitoring device hung on her wrist.

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We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017). See all of Dr. Creel’s columns here

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

You’re busy, but are you physically active? This may be a tough question. Perhaps you have a sedentary, yet high-paced job that leaves you feeling drained at the end of the day. This tired feeling can fool us into thinking we’re more physically active than we really are. If you exercise regularly, you probably have a good idea of how much time you spend being active, but how does all of that add up when you consider what you do the other 15 hours of the day when you’re awake? A fitness tracking device can help answer these questions. Wearables include wrist worn devices, pedometers that can be attached to a belt, bra or shoe, and activity trackers built into your smartphone.

Of course you can be active without using devices, and having one doesn’t guarantee you’ll be more dynamic. But paying attention to the numbers does make you more aware of physical activity patterns. Just as a food journal helps you become more mindful of eating, a wearable fitness device such as those made by Fitbit, Jawbone, Misfit, Garmin (and three other companies that have likely emerged since I started writing this sentence) can provide feedback on your physical activity and help you set objective goals.

I was leading a weight management class on the topic of physical activity. We compared the pros and cons of exercise, and I asked the group why people (and especially overweight folks) often avoid exercise. Karen, who had been quiet and seemingly uninterested in the topic up to that point, chimed in.

“It’s torture.”

I had turned to write some of the responses on the whiteboard, and I wasn’t sure if I heard her correctly. “What was that, Karen?”

“It’s torture,” she said without a smile.

She actually seemed sort of angry. It was as if people had been telling her to exercise for years but they just didn’t understand how terrible it felt for her. Karen was a generally pleasant 40-something lady, about 150 pounds overweight.

“Exercise is exhausting, boring, and it hurts my knees,” she said.

As she freely expressed her disdain for exercise, I noticed a bright pink fitness device on her wrist.

“Karen, I notice you have a Fitbit,” I said. “Do you like wearing it?”

“I love my Fitbit. It tells me how many steps I’ve accumulated, and I try to reach at least 5,000 per day. I know you’re supposed to get 10,000 steps per day, but I really can’t do that yet. Reaching 5,000 is really an improvement for me. I started taking the stairs down at work, and I look for ways to walk around more at home in the evenings. Sometimes if I’m getting close to my step goal, I’ll walk my little dog for five or ten minutes in the evening. This thing even tells me how much I move in my sleep.”

After hearing her say exercise was torture, I didn’t expect her to sing the praises of a wearable fitness device. After a bit more interaction, it became clear that Karen viewed “exercise” as long bouts of intense physical activity at a gym. This didn’t appeal to her. On the other hand, she enjoyed accumulating physical activity throughout the day with feedback from her Fitbit. Would it be wonderful if Karen had a change of heart and began a structured exercise program? Sure. But tracking her fitness made her more aware of physical activity, and she was setting progressive goals in the right direction.

If you aren’t into gadgets or don’t want to shell out the money for one, simple fitness tracking techniques can be helpful. Setting a goal to exercise 20 minutes during 20 out of 30 days a month can easily be tracked on a calendar. Each “X” is one step closer to your goal. Other people have set distance goals, planning to walk the equivalent of 500 miles in a year. Every day they mark down their mileage, knowing that ten miles per week keeps them on target. Some of our patients have even placed thumbtacks on a map to show how far they’ve gone toward their planned destination.

Going with the flow” of society’s eating and exercise habits probably won’t lead to long-term weight loss. Instead, we must be intentional about changing our habits. One of the first steps in this process is to pay closer attention to eating and physical activity. When we track our weight, diet, and movement, we heighten our awareness so that progress is clear. This self-monitoring forces us to decide between the short-term pleasures of food and inactivity, and the long-term benefits of restraint and self-discipline.

Come back each week for more healthy weight loss advice from Dr. David Creel.


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