I haven't posted for a while. Recently, I completed my service at U.C. Riverside and became a University of California Emeritus Professor; I am now focusing on speaking and consulting, and moved my home and business to the San Francisco Bay area. Changing my environment and routines offered me all the ingredients I needed to develop "a habit of not doing" (see April 2015), and I let my blog fall completely out of my daily equation; my discipline for diet and exercise took a hit as well. But I'm back, with hopes for a fresh start in a New Year.
I've been thinking more about behavior change these days, trying to figure out how we can all do things we want to do --indeed, intend to do -- but never seem to get around to: drinking enough water, taking yoga classes, meditating, eating mindfully, exercising regularly. I have finally decided that I might benefit from a "smart phone app" which I can use to keep track of all that I eat and its nutritional count, and everything I do for exercise, including specific exercises. Since the basis of cognitive behavior modification (CBT: a very powerful behavior change modality, see December 2014) includes a component of detailed self-monitoring, I decided to try it.
Many of us have New Year's resolutions; the most common are to lose weight and get in shape. Weight loss requires a change in eating behavior; getting into shape requires the initiation and maintenance of movement patterns. Our daily lives are composed of a series of behavioral patterns, each of which can become a habit (for good or bad) if it is cued, then occurs, and then is reinforced-- over and over again.
I have always been very skeptical of smart phone fitness apps, and related methods for detailed self-monitoring (aka, keeping track of everything I do). In the past, I have used charts with check marks for medication reminders or for physical therapy exercises, but the detail available with electronic methods seemed excessive. Further, I was convinced that if I wanted to change, all I had to do was make the decision --and do it. Compulsively entering into some list every morsel of food and every action taken seemed like an unnecessary distraction. But curiously, I have come to see great value in keeping track of what I am doing whether I use a notebook, a smart phone app, or a list on the refrigerator. As research shows, monitoring our behavior can help to change it simply through the process of self-awareness. The form or level of detail doesn't matter, just as long as the recording is consistent.
I recently joined the millions who rely on a smart phone app to track their health behaviors. The app I chose is a simple one, and it appears on my smart phone's home screen, so I can't ignore it. When I want to eat crunchy corn chips, and I am committed to being honest with my app, I count out a serving for myself and record the number of calories--feeling both virtuous (for controlling myself) and slightly deprived (because I used to love unconsciously eating chips right out of the bag). After some time, I am told, paying attention to what I am eating (i.e., mindful eating) will become a habit; after three weeks, it has just started to become one.
The same is true for exercise. I do some exercise every day partly because I need to enter something in my app. I might not feel much like jogging or swimming laps, but I feel a sense of accomplishment entering my exercise intensity and minutes into the app. On some days, my app entry is the reinforcement, and it feels better than the exercise itself. On days when I don't feel like exercising, a 'habit of not doing' could start--but it doesn't because my app holds me accountable.
Do fitness apps work? Can they help people who want to change their behavior actually change it? The answer to the latter question is yes! This is because people who want to change have already solved one of the greatest challenges to health behavior management --motivation. Without motivation, there is no app in the world that can get us going. But something beyond motivation is needed and that is where they can help. Fitness apps and all forms of self-monitoring can offer information to us, such as the calorie and fat content of our food choices. They can serve as reminders of what we should be doing. They can help us to be more mindful of our behavior and more accountable for it. They give us an outlet for our desire and motivation to change, and offer us strategies to do so. Some of them even offer explicit reinforcements for good choices; mine congratulated me for choosing almonds for a snack. I liked that.
I used to think apps like this were unnecessary at best, and annoying at worst. But as diet and exercise have become more of a challenge and the apps have gotten better, I am at the sweet spot where the technology I need is the technology I have--right there in my smart phone.