I’ve always been one for lists and logs, planners and calendars.
I make daily to-do lists and have dozens of sticky notes open on my desktop full of little catalogs of my interests.
Over the years I’ve also tried to keep a health log — a combination of a food, exercise and habit diaries — but I always seemed to lose interest after a few days. Recently I challenged myself to sustain such a health log for two months to find out why my mental health wasn’t improving and to understand the psychological blocks that always seemed to inhibit me.
I began by stamping a sticker that simply read, “Health Log,” on a blank notebook, and made my best effort to carry it around with me. I logged what I ate and drank for the entire day, how much I exercised and the times I woke up and went to sleep. Then at the bottom of the page I recorded any fluctuations in my mood or mental state.
My logging wasn’t perfect — I often forgot to bring it along or fill it out — which would result in me scrambling to remember what I’d done the previous day. However, I also tried to remember not to be too hard on myself.
As a perfectionist I tend to fall into a pattern of all or nothing thinking: either I should fill out the log perfectly or not keep one at all. Realizing that this thought pattern was part of why I’d set the log aside in the past, I decided to reframe my expectations. Recognizing that such highly detailed and diligent work was probably unrealistic, if I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten on a certain afternoon because I’d filled it out late, I’d just skip that afternoon and move on to what I remembered.
I decided to focus on habit patterns. If I felt depressed or anxious at the end of the day, I looked for what I had eaten, how long I exercised and what time I’d woken up. Did any correlation (such as drinking black tea and getting a headache) repeat itself over several days or even weeks?
It’s difficult to look at a pattern of your shortcoming and poor practices.
Ten days into this endeavor, I realized why I had so often abandoned it: looking at the records served a hard blow to my ego. It’s difficult to look at a pattern of your shortcoming and poor practices.
For instance, in just those first ten days I noticed I was eating way too much sugar. I’d already been abstaining from dairy and gluten and tried to limit my alcohol and caffeine consumption for health reasons. The amount of sugar I would consume in say, an afternoon, didn’t seem astronomical to me. When I looked at my meals for the week as a whole, however, my sugar intake became concerning.
My sugar consumption almost always correlated with foul moods and high anxiety. Likewise I noticed that if I didn’t make it to the gym or the rink (I’m a figure skater) for a few days in a row, I was more likely to be more depressed. For my mental health to improve, I’d have to change my habits.
With the exception of the occasional bit of natural honey and maple syrup (and a few of my dad’s gluten and dairy-free Christmas cookies), I gave up sugar. Slowly but surely, my anxiety and depression seemed to shrink. Stressful days might still cause a spike of hopelessness or dejection, but I began to bounce back quickly from these previously crippling states. I was able to talk down my anxiety by assessing my thought patterns, something that had previously felt impossible. I tried to not to skip more than one day of exercising, noting the massive improvement it had on my mood.
Even so, while I know I’ve made significant changes, I haven’t been completely consistent. Maintaining a health log for two months taught me not only to be brave enough to admit to myself when habits and poor choices become detrimental to my health, but also to acknowledge that slipping up is OK, so long as I persevere in making the change happen. Self-compassion, I’ve found, is necessary for serious change.
Keeping a health log, or any type of log, of course need not be limited to diet and exercise. In fact, in the coming months I hope to log my schedule to gage how much time I really spend working and socializing versus how much time I end up wasting, distracted by the internet or my own worries and concerns.
The same easy method could be applied for tracking other habits like waste output or daily expenditures. With a little self-love, making the necessary changes to become your best self is possible.
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