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How to Get a Handle on Healthy Habits: Tips from Research

“Ultimately, people do not decide their future. They decide their habits, and their habits decide their future.” So says John C. Maxwell in The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential, a book I’m on my third time through as an audio book to accompany me on walks.

Ah, you say, but where do those habits come from? Do health-promoting habits seem hard to establish and easy to lose, while it’s amazingly easy to fall back into unhealthy habits?

Here, in Part 1 of a series, Rebecca Krukowski, PhD, provides perspective on how “self-monitoring” can play a role in creating healthy habits. Dr. Krukowski is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, where she conducts research on behavior-change interventions for weight loss.


Following the video, read on for practical take-home tips on different options for using self-monitoring to help you create habits to lose weight or achieve other health goals – or to avoid the all-too-easy path back to unhealthy habits in the months ahead.


“Self-monitoring” may sound like a hard-line, scientific task. It can be. Outside of a research study, for your real life efforts at creating a healthy lifestyle, think of it simply as tracking.

Keeping track of the choices you make or the goals you seek can be the “secret sauce” providing an extra oomph to help you over the hurdles to healthier habits.

Know What You Seek

Knowing what kind of help you’re seeking may help you decide what choices for self-monitoring can best meet your needs.

Self-monitoring – keeping track of what you do or the results you get – can be a powerful tool for:

♦ Awareness – In the rush of daily life, eating and lifestyle choices we make can go completely unnoticed. Keeping track of what you eat can draw attention to how often you snack and what tends to prompt it, whether your portion sizes and second portion habits are what you think, how much time you actually spend watching TV or surfing the net, whether eating out really is your downfall, or how much sleep you get. Depending on what you want to learn, you might track what you eat and drink, the calories or sodium content of those choices (to see if the problem areas are what you think they are), or what situations tend to make healthy choices easier or harder.

♦ Balancing – Tracking what you eat and drink, as well as how the calories, sodium or fiber in your choices add up, can help you identify trades and swaps that make sense in your life. If you feel you have no time to walk or get the sleep you need, tracking time spent on something else may help you identify options to create time for what you want to do.

♦ Problem-solving — Rather than using the information you collect to bury yourself in self-criticism, use it to identify specific barriers or situations for which you want to try alternative solutions. For example, is your mid-afternoon snack that’s adding so many extra calories stemming from hunger (you need new ideas for a more sustaining lunch), stress (you need alternate ways to respond), or lack of healthful options (you need ideas for snacks you can bring with you or keep on hand)? Switch your focus to finding solutions to the problems you uncover.

♦ Accountability – We can tell ourselves “I don’t eat that much” or “I take a walk when I can”, but seeing the choices we’ve made or their outcome spelled out can provide a needed reality check. Perhaps becoming accountable to yourself is the change you need; perhaps sharing the information you track with a supportive family member, friend or health professional will add motivation or provide the honest feedback you need.

♦ Reinforcement – Do you remember every extra bite or unhealthy choice you’ve made and overlook the progress you make? That’s a mindset that can turn against you, digging you into a view of yourself as unable to create and keep a healthy lifestyle. Keeping track of small successes, each one too small on its own to bring the results you seek, can encourage more small steps that add up to make a difference.

What to Monitor

As Dr. Krukowski discussed in our video interview, you might choose to track your behavior choices or the outcomes of those choices and progress toward the goal you seek.


  • Food records: what you eat and drink all day and in what portions, what choices you make at specific times of day or situations, or the quality of those choices (calories, saturated fat or vegetable servings, for example).
  • Physical activity records: step counts from a pedometer or other activity tracker, minutes spent walking each day, time spent in a particular form of inactivity, or how many times you made the choice to take the stairs.
  • Sleep records: total hours slept, or how well you met a goal of going to bed or getting up by a particular time.


  • Weight
  • Waist size
  • Percent body fat and lean mass
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar

How to Monitor

In the Resources section below, you’ll find links to a variety of options for how to use tracking to help you establish healthy habits. Whether you prefer paper charts you post on your refrigerator or near your bathroom mirror, or electronic forms using your computer or cell phone, what’s “best” is what works for you. Experiment with different options until you find what helps you most.

Sometimes the simple act of keeping track of behavior choices makes an amazing difference in helping you change. Going a step further in an upcoming Smart Bytes®, we’ll look at how the way you use self-monitoring can change the benefits you experience.

Bottom Line:

Creating healthy habits and maintaining them as a lifestyle takes more than motivation and knowledge. Focus on small achievable steps you can take daily. They will add up. Moreover, research shows that for many people, adding some form of tracking can help take this challenge “from daunting to doable”.

Come back for more with Dr. Krukowski about what research suggests on the question of how often to weigh yourself, and how to choose among different options for tracking your habits or progress toward goals.

Meanwhile, if you find this info helpful, please share it on Facebook, Twitter (I’m @KarenCollinsRD ) or by emailing to a friend or colleague.

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Helpful Resources

Here are a few examples of options for tracking eating, activity, sleep or weight through websites or apps. Including these specific examples is not an endorsement of them, and none have paid or requested to be listed. Of the many options available, this is simply a sampling of some that registered dietitian nutritionists have reviewed positively and that I’ve found helpful for clients, friends or myself.

SuperTracker by USDA, related to the website on healthy eating. Super Tracker provides options to track food choices, activity or weight. You can access SuperTracker from the Internet at a computer or through a smart phone. Some apps have been developed by private companies based on MyPlate, but these are somewhat different than the SuperTracker itself.

Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker by MyFitness Pal – track food and activity, check progress and see how you meet nutrient needs. Available from your computer at and as an app with smart phones and tablets.

Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker (or Calorie Counter & Weight Loss on Apple) by SparkPeople – track food, aerobic and strength training exercise, and weight changes. Online from your computer at — or as an app, one option allows you to enter food by scanning food barcodes with your smart phone.

Lose it! by FitNow, Inc. – The free version, tracking calories and weight, and offering ability to connect with fitness trackers and apps, is all many people need. Access from your computer at or through apps, which provide a barcode scanner option. Premium paid subscription lets you track carbohydrates, protein, fat, sodium and fiber, as well as waist and other body measurements.

Calorie Counter at the CalorieLab website, allows you to check calories and more extensive nutrition information for offerings at restaurants nationwide, as well as a range of foods you have at home. This can be useful not only to track results of what you have eaten, but also to help you decide in advance before you make choices.

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