A Celeb Wellness Expert's Secret To Sticking With Health Goals
Food intolerance is sneaky, and symptoms often don't show up for a few days. Even when people do their best to remove particularly triggering foods, sometimes the tiniest bit of gluten or soy can sneak in and derail their success. However, I've found a simple way to help people identify these foods so that they can finally meet their health goals: tracking.
When you track what you eat, you can connect the dots between, say, the hidden dairy in your salad dressing and the headache that hits you later that night. People who don't track often can't make those connections. Later, when you challenge these reactive foods, tracking helps figure out which ones may serve your diet and which ones don't.
The same principle applies to staying mindful of other health practices—as research shows setting a goal alone1 doesn't work. Saying, "I'm not going to eat gluten or other highly reactive foods" is ineffective. Tracking is the key to staying motivated and reaching your health goals. Tracking your goals2 also helps reveal your progress, creates clear milestones, and shows you how well you're sticking to your plans.
I like to focus on five specific areas to set sustainable, successful health goals, without leaving you feeling restricted or deprived. Tracking is the key to monitoring, improving, and mastering them. If you're just starting out on your health journey, please don't try all five at once! Start with one and make it into a habit before moving on to the next:
Goal No. 1: Track your food.
When I work one-on-one with clients, I require them to keep a food journal because it begets amazing results. If you've tracked every bite in your food journal, you'll be much more likely to identify the culprit if one certain food is hijacking your success. You'll also gather important intel about which foods cause you problems.
I want you to write down what you eat but also pay attention to when you ate it and how you felt afterward. That way, if gluten, for example, slipped into your plan and you start experiencing brain fog or fatigue a day or two later, you can connect the dots. Likewise, you can identify the sneaky sugars that found their way into your breakfast and the energy crash that followed.
Timing is critical, particularly when it comes to intermittent fasting. When you track factors such as your eating hours along with how you feel, you then have helpful data to determine what works for you…and what doesn't.
As you track, pay particular attention to cravings, hunger, energy, mood, and GI issues. Water intake is important to track, as well, because most of us aren't hydrating enough.
Goal No. 2: Track your sleep.
When it comes to meeting your health goals, sleep should be high on that list. Unfortunately, it's not a priority for many people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC3) over one-third of American adults are not getting at least seven hours of their recommended nightly sleep.
Whether you want to support your gut, improve your energy and focus, or succeed in any other goal, I recommend eight to nine hours of deep, restorative sleep every single night.
"High-quality sleep fortifies your immune system, balances your hormones, boosts your metabolism, increases your physical energy, and improves the function of your brain," says Shawn Stevenson in Sleep Smarter. "Unless you give your body the right amount of sleep, you will never, I repeat never, have the body and life you want to have."
Tracking ensures that you get that quality sleep every night, or at least are aware of the areas that you may be lacking. Most smartphone apps can track your average sleep length. If you want to really focus on those numbers, check out the ŌURA ring, which helps you track your sleep and other physical functions so you can learn how to schedule your bedtime and other activities in your daily life to optimize your health.
Goal No. 3: Track your stress.
Even before the pandemic, studies were emerging that the general population is more stressed out than ever before. The last two years only continued to dial that up. Although you can't eliminate stress, you can find ways to manage it. And tracking can help.
When it comes to measuring stress, I'm a fan of tracking specific factors like heart rate variability (HRV). This number reveals how your body can adapt to stress levels, which can subsequently affect mental and physical conditions like depression and diabetes. People who have a high HRV can usually better manage stress.
Stress affects everyone differently. A situation that one person can sail through might seriously frazzle your personal nervous system. Likewise, everyone has different ways of managing their stress. Unsurprisingly, many of these methods are trackable. You might meditate for 20 minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon. Or you might take restorative yoga classes twice a week. If those options are too time-consuming, try setting a timer for five minutes and practicing mindfulness a few times each day to give yourself some relief.
Ultimately, how you manage stress depends on what actually works for you. And by tracking your results, you'll find the best ways to minimize stress in order to reach your health goals.
Goal No. 4: Track your exercise.
Adding more movement into every day is critical for meeting your health goals. That can include parking your car farther from the grocery store or even taking the stairs, but each of these little actions will eventually add up to bigger changes.
If you've measured your steps with a pedometer, you know how effective tracking can be in terms of exercise. You probably felt inspired to hit your goal, even considering working toward bigger ones. One review actually found that healthy adults who use a tracking device often see increases in physical activity4.
Other ways to track your fitness:
Tracking the amount of weight you can lift.
As you continue to exercise, you will gradually increase the weight you're lifting, and tracking is the easiest way to measure those gains. You can use pen and paper or one of the many apps available to monitor your progress.
Tracking your exercise intensity.
Monitoring how quickly your heart rate returns to normal after exercise is another great benchmark for your health. The more intense your workout, the longer it will take for your heart rate to return to its resting state.
A tracker will be able to measure heart rate, or you can do it manually by checking your pulse on your wrist, counting for 15 seconds, and multiplying that number by four. Do this again one minute later to see how much your heart rate has declined in that time.
Paying attention to your level of comfort during your workout is also useful in measuring the intensity of your movement. This can be done when you're trying out a Peloton® class or even simply doing a HIIT workout at home.
Goal No. 5: Track your connections.
Cultivating your purpose is one of the most important steps toward achieving a fulfilling, happy life. Many of us search for community on social media, and there's nothing wrong with occasionally scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, but that's not really what defines community.
Meaningful connection means spending time with friends and loved ones—even your pets. We've especially learned the value of in-real-life connections throughout the last two years as social distancing and quarantine forced many of us to isolate or feel isolated.
Connecting with others has many benefits, even within supporting your health goals. According to researchers, social connection and feeling connected5 "can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugar, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health."
It's for these reasons and more that you may want to foster connections with others, even in creating a support system that helps you reach your health goals. With this, tracking is a great way to ensure that you meet these goals. Apps like Fabriq can encourage you to spend more time with people who really matter, and you can track your connections as well as set reminders to reach out and stay in touch.
Final thoughts: What you measure you can improve.
Over time, tracking can be the key to setting small, sustainable health goals that lead to big changes over time. I encourage you to track everything you want to improve, and consider hiring a health coach who can help you reach and sustain your goals if you need the extra accountability and support. Before long, you'll look back at these measurements and marvel at how much you've accomplished, all by breaking things down into small, sustainable goals and tracking those goals.
JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN, is a celebrity nutrition and fitness expert who helps clients lose weight fast by breaking free from food intolerance. A certified nutrition specialist, board certified Holistic Nutritionist, and Certified Exercise Physiologist, she is the author of the New York Times best-sellers The Virgin Diet: Drop 7 Foods, Lose 7 Pounds, Just 7 Days and The Virgin Diet Cookbook: 150 Easy and Delicious Recipes to Lose Weight and Feel Better Fast.