Health and Wellbeing Exercises

Self-monitoring: Identifying challenges and successes in creating and maintaining healthy behaviors

After my second son was born 9 months ago, I had some very definite health and fitness goals for myself. Of course, I wanted to lose the baby weight, but I also wanted to become stronger and build muscle, and most importantly, I wanted to redefine my relationship with food. I gained a lot of weight during both of my pregnancies. I’m talking about 50+ pounds each time. I started between 140-145 both times and my top weight in both pregnancies was 201. Yes I know, women are meant to gain weight in pregnancy. It’s virtually unavoidable and it would, in fact, be unhealthy to gain no weight at all. However, it’s recommended that a woman of average weight (I’m 5’10 so 140-145 is a healthy average weight for me) should gain between 25 and 35 pounds during her pregnancy. That means I more than doubled the low end estimates during each of my pregnancies. It wasn’t that I was inactive or unfit in general. In fact, I practiced yoga and walked regularly during my first pregnancy and I was teaching yoga and lifting weights during my second. It was the food choices I made. I listened when everyone said “Eat what you want now while you have an excuse!” I listened and I took it to heart, because that’s exactly what I did. To be clear, I’m certainly blaming no one but myself. Although I do find it odd that we focus on telling pregnant women to eat so much when the recommended calorie intake doesn’t even increase until the second trimester and by the third it’s still only 450 more calories a day. Check out more info on pregnancy weight and nutrition here if you’re currently pregnant or planning to become pregnant so that you can experience the healthiest pregnancy possible for your body and your baby! 

Back on topic, before pregnancy I never really had a sweet tooth. I loved chocolate but could really take or leave desserts, cookies, and candies. I had no problem going without them or turning them down when they were offered. However, during both pregnancies I ate dessert every night. Sometimes twice a day. And I don’t mean a small treat. I mean genuinely decadent things like a brownie with ice cream and crumbled Oreos on top. It wasn’t just dessert either. I let myself eat all the savory things I craved as well and while I’ve always cooked most meals at home I also indulged in eating out quite a bit during pregnancy. Even fast food junk like sausage McMuffins from McDonald’s that I wouldn’t normally touch were fair game when I was pregnant. That’s where the weight came from, it wasn’t just ordinary pregnancy weight gain, it was the pounds I packed on with these extremely unhealthy eating behaviors. The problem was, after my second baby, I realized I was having trouble stopping. I still felt compelled to eat the unhealthy foods even though I didn’t necessarily want to eat them. That’s the thing about high fat, high sugar, high sodium diets like many Americans consume thanks to the vast array of readily available and inexpensive food sources that we find in fast food joints, restaurants, and even the aisles of our grocery stores, it’s literally addictive. These kinds of foods light up the pleasure receptors in the brain in a way that’s similar to drugs like cocaine and heroine. And, like these highly addictive drugs, over time and with repeated exposure, more and more of the “drug”, in this case the unhealthy foods, is needed to achieve the same effect. Read more about the well known laboratory study here.

Since I had gained more weight than was recommended and I was experiencing difficulties changing my eating behaviors back to healthier ones after pregnancy, I knew I needed to take some steps to ensure my success. I came back to the gym and began teaching and practicing again when my baby boy was 6 weeks old, I decided to do a Whole 30, and I began using a food tracking app. The yoga and exercise were actually the easy parts of the decision for me. I had missed my classes and the community at the Y and even though I was, and am, totally enamored with my sweet new baby and my older son, I already knew that as a mother you have to take care of yourself in order to take care of your family. The decision to do the Whole 30 was an easy one to make because Whole 30 is a lifestyle plan that helps you do exactly what I knew I needed to do, strip your diet down to the basics of lean proteins and fresh fruits and veggies while cutting out any added sugar and processed foods entirely. It’s intense and not for everyone, but for me it was exactly in line with my goal of reorienting my relationship to food while finding out which foods were causing problems in my body. Each of these two decisions, returning to the gym as soon as possible and undertaking a Whole 30 could, and likely will at some point, be their very own posts. For now, we’ll keep it short and sweet and just say, both were helpful in getting me back to where I am today; feeling fit, healthy, and happy.
The third decision, and the one I’ll focus on for this post, is my use of a self-monitoring app. I chose the My Fitness Pal app and I found it to be useful, intuitive, and overall very helpful. It allowed me to track calories, macronutrients, water, and exercise to give me an overall picture of how I was progressing toward my fitness goals. And that’s the heart of the matter here, using a method of tracking to self-monitor your day-to-day food intake and exercise is an excellent way to increase your odds of success in reaching and maintaining your health and fitness goals. Whether it’s through a fitness app like My Fitness Pal, or one of these five recommended by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), or a pen and paper daily food journal, self-monitoring helps us in many ways.

First, self-monitoring increases our mindfulness about our choices. Choosing foods carefully instead of eating without thinking will increase the odds that we select a healthy food and drink an appropriate amount of water throughout the day. Second, when we feel accountable for our choices, as we do when we are recording them, we’re more likely to make better ones. Simple as that. Just the element of accountability will likely influence us to choose healthier meals, stick to our exercise plans more often, and consume more water. Finally, keeping a record gives us a way to check in. When we look back over our food choices, physical activity, and water intake we can see where we succeeded and where we struggled. Then, we give ourselves credit where credit is due by celebrating our successes and deal with our difficulties by acknowledging those struggles and turning them into opportunities for success. Did you have a hard time sticking to your food choices because you went out to eat? Next time plan ahead by checking out the restaurant’s menu before hand to find the healthiest options available. When you order your food ask for half of it to be boxed before it’s brought to you or split the meal with someone. Did you skip an exercise class because you stayed up watching TV the night before? Set a sleep hygiene alarm to alert you 15 min before bedtime and turn off all your electronics at that time so that you can unwind, prepare to rest, and increase your odds of a good night’s sleep. Are you consistently missing your water goal? Revisit your goal for water intake to make sure it’s appropriate for your body and perhaps set a reminder in your phone to drink water at set times of the day until the habit is solidified.
It’s evident that self-monitoring is a useful way to increase our success at establishing and maintaining healthier behaviors. So give it a shot! No time like the present, right? Start using one of the fitness tracking apps or simply begin a pen and paper journal to record your food and water intake as well as your physics activity. Try to do this with consistency for one week and then review it to see if you can find patterns in your successes and struggles and then use this information to help yourself recommit to the pursuit of your health and fitness goals. Leave me a comment to let me know if you found this information helpful and to give feedback during and after your self-monitoring exploration!

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