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Why People Who Track Their Behavior Are Much More Likely to Lose Weight

Strategies and goals

notepadMy current reading is Dr. Daniel S. Kirschenbaum‘s 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Kirschenbaum teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, is the director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago, has  done a good deal of original research in weight loss, and has consulted for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Weight Watchers–so we could be excused for assuming he has a pretty good idea what he’s talking about. I’ll review the book itself in a near-future post, but for now I want to make use of a point that, he demonstrates, is powerfully supported by research: among people who are trying to get fit, those who track their progress are a lot more successful than people who don’t.

How Strong Is the Connection?
In fact, the connection between keeping track of what behavior and actually making progress (in terms of losing weight, which isn’t a perfect measure, but has some value) was very strong. People who were very consistent about tracking their diet, exercise, and weight tended to consistently lose weight; people who were a little inconsistent tended to have just a little weight loss or to maintain their weight; and people who weren’t consistent didn’t tend to have any success at all.

Even a person who is normally very consistent will tend to stop losing weight when they stop tracking, according to the studies Kirschenbaum cites (including his own research). For instance people who were very careful about tracking their progress over the holiday season were much more likely to maintain or lose weight than people who didn’t track their progress. Just to repeat that for emphasis: these people were losing weight over Thanksgiving and the December holidays, no mean feat.

Tracking as Feedback
The value of tracking may not be that surprising when we consider the importance of feedback in self-motivation: after all, if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, how can I change it effectively to point myself in the right direction? And we human beings tend to fudge things a bit in our favor. If I eat well for most of the day but have a piece of peanut butter pie with lunch, and if I don’t track calories, I may think I did pretty well–while in reality, that one piece of pie is (for me) about 40% of my daily calorie limit, which means it’s a good bet I completely missed my target. My vague impression that I did well, aided by a desire to forget the piece of pie, reinforces the idea that I’m doing well and my frustration when the scale has a different opinion.

How Long and How Often?
Kirschenbaum feels that successful weight controllers (his term) need to track their progress–especially what they eat, whether in terms of calories, exchanges, planned meals, or any other accurate measure–at least 75% of the time. That may be so, but other research also implies that doing something 75% of the time is not enough to make it an ingrained habit. That suggests that tracking as close as possible to 100% of the time is much more effective, since beyond the benefits of tracking itself, you begin to acquire a good habit that can eventually almost automate that behavior for you.

Though it might seem as though tracking everything you eat would be tedious and time-consuming, according to Kirschenbaum “It takes less than 2 minutes to do a whole day of both writing down fat grams, calories of everything eaten, and exercise; less than 1 minute for most people.” I’ve done this myself for some time, and I have to say that Kirschenbaum’s time estimate seems just about right, although it’s easier for me now that I know the numbers on a lot of foods by heart. Back while I was still learning, it probably took me longer–maybe 4 or even 5 minutes a day.

So time to do the tracking isn’t really a barrier: the real barrier (and I’ll talk more about this Friday) is not wanting to immortalize our own bad choices.

Following Up
Interested in what the research has to say? Take a look at The Impact of Regular Self-weighing on Weight Management: A Systematic Literature Review.

As useful as tracking is for weight loss, it can be just as strong a tool in other kinds of self-motivation. In Friday’s article I’ll talk about ways to make use of tracking to get and stay motivated toward almost any kind of goal.

Photo by Eric Mallinson

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