If you’re new around here, let me introduce something important about me… I’m a data geek. I love tracking all kinds of different metrics for my health. I have spreadsheets galore, full of everything from daily exercise logs to food intake to sleep quality to heart rate variability (in addition to things like business goals, social media time, number of time I spend with family, books I’ve read, you name it!). I’m constantly trying to improve things!
While this spurs me personally to stick to my health habits, I understand that so much tracking can be maddening for most people. So, today, I’ll review the top metrics to track for your health, share why you might want to track them, and teach you how to track them if you choose to do so.
Why track any health metrics at all?
First, why track any health metrics at all? Simply put, “where attention goes, energy flows” (that’s a Tony Robbins quote), or “what gets measured gets managed” (there’s a Peter Drucker one!). When we idly say, “I’d really like to sleep better,” or “I should work on my stress levels” (italics because I despise the word should when it comes to our health!), we don’t often take the necessary steps to fix it. But when there’s something that we’d like to fix, and we have numbers staring us in the face regularly, telling us whether or not we’re fixing it, improvement is more likely. We can get spurred on by positive reinforcement and realize more quickly what things are taking us further away from our goals.
Should I dive in and track everything?
Absolutely not. Again, this can get overwhelming for people quickly, and if you’re tracking a lot of things, it’s hard to isolate which changes are causing which things. I recommend choosing one pain point … something that doesn’t feel optimal to you right now. Commit to tracking that for a month and see how you do. When you want to add on something else, go for it!
What metrics should I track for my health?
Again, it depends on what doesn’t feel optimal to you right now. Here are my top recommendations:
- If you have energy slumps, track sleep quality.I’ve been tracking hours of sleep for a while, but sometimes the hours spent in bed didn’t seem to match how I felt. It wasn’t until I started tracking sleep quality that I realized why!A simple version of why this is important involves the sleep stages: light sleep (when your body starts relaxing), REM sleep (important for solidifying memories and boosting creativity) and deep sleep (critical for muscle recovery and repair, immunity, and blood sugar control).When we’re not optimizing our sleep quality, we often get less REM sleep and deep sleep than we need. For me, stress, prolonged exposure to blue light without blue light blocking glasses before bed, and drinking alcohol inhibit my deep sleep quality, and this is the main metric I now track.
You can see more tips to improve sleep naturally here. To track my sleep, I like my Fitbit Charge3, and particularly my Oura ring, but many devices have their own sleep tracking capabilities. If you can see sleep stages, you’re set! Focus on the REM and deep sleep, or the overall “sleep score” (which will take both of these into account).
- If you feel physically or emotionally stressed, track heart rate variability. A few years ago, I had never even heard of heart rate variability, and now it’s one of the first metrics I look at every single day. Heart rate variability is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. Naturally, we think this should be low – our hearts should beat systematically, like a metronome. But this is wrong! Actually, when there is bigger difference in time between heart beats, your body is more recovered. When you’re in a parasympathetic (or “rest and digest” or less stressed) mode more regularly, your body doesn’t feel as tense and has greater variability between beats. If you’re stressed, wired and in sympathetic (or “fight or flight”) mode more regularly, your body feels rigid and tries to protect itself with very uniform beats.You need a device to measure this one. Again, I love my Oura ring, but many people love their Whoop, Garmin, Polar, or other HRV measuring devices.
- If you know you’re spending too much time at the computer, track steps. Even though I’ve tried an Apple watch, I just can’t part from my beloved Fitbit Charge 3, because I love its simplicity and accurate measurement of steps and workouts. Some people who always carry their phones rely on the phone’s software to measure steps, which is also great. And of course, there are numerous other ways to track steps – from simple pedometers to fancier devices. I exercise every day, and don’t need external motivation to do that, but exercising and then sitting in front of the computer for 12+ hours is not optimal, and I’d be likely to do this if I didn’t have my Fitbit reminding me to get moving!
- If you want to improve body composition, track body fat percentage or waist circumference. I’m not the biggest fan of putting all the attention on the scale (see this post to determine whether weighing yourself is the right decision for you at all, but if you want to make body composition improvements, I fully support you! Waist circumference is a measure of visceral fat, which is a helpful predictor of risk for obesity-related disease, including things like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. To measure your waist circumference, simply measure your waist, just above your hips, right after you breathe out, with a snug but not tight tape measure that is horizonal and parallel to the floor. For women, a waist circumference under 35 is recommended; for men, under 40.To track body fat percentage, it depends on how technical you want to be. The ultimate measure of body fat percentage must be done in a dunk tank, which is cost preventative for most. Most cities, though, have access to a DEXA scan, which gives a helpful printout of where your fat is stored on your body (I use this one in Dallas). And for a less-accurate but less-intrusive and less-expensive option, a body fat scale (like this one) can be used at home. Note that body fat is different than BMI, which is a metric I do not like for these reasons. Also note that neither waist circumference nor body fat percentage will change meaningfully day to day (and if you do notice changes, they are likely just immaterial fluctuations), so I recommend measuring these no more than once per week.
- If you want to improve digestion, track bowel movements. Wait … what?!? Yep, I said it. Track your bowel movements! How many, when, what the consistency was like, and even how they felt. I know … totally gross. But the number of clients I’ve heard say things like “wow, I didn’t even know I was constipated!” or “I had no idea dairy caused me diarrhea until I started tracking!” is a If your digestion is off, do yourself a favor and track your BMs. Bonus points if you write down what you ate, too, to notice any correlations.
- If you want to feel more centered, track social media time. I know, this isn’t quite a health metric, but it might as well be. We’re in one type of virus pandemic, but we’re also in an epidemic of social media overuse, and often times, the endless scrolling can reduce our productivity, energy, and feelings of self-worth. On an iPhone, go to Settings à screen time à see all activity, and you can identify time spent on social networking by day or by week. That number often scares my clients (and myself, to be honest!) into shutting down their phones and enjoying their surroundings every once in a while!
- If you want to improve your long-term health, track servings of vegetables. I’m a broken record on veggies, so I won’t bore you more than is necessary. But I will say that very often, when a client says they “eat veggies all the time” or “eat really healthily,” then I ask them to track their servings of vegetables daily, the number comes out to 2 … or 1 … or even zero! I recommend striving for at least 5 fist-sized servings (1 serving is technically 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked) per day, but pushing for 8-10 servings for optimal health. When you can, choose less-starchy, more nutrient-dense, brightly colored veggies (like broccoli, dark leafy greens, asparagus, brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and cauliflower), but don’t overthink it. Just get them in!
- If you want to feel better overall, track ounces of water consumed. Again, even those who feel as if they’re drinking all day often don’t get enough. For a month, track your water intake to see where you stand. I recommend drinking the number of ounces that is equal to half your body weight in pounds (so, if you weigh 200 pounds, drink 100 ounces). If you exercise or spend a lot of time in the heat, add more!
- If you know you’ve been relying a bit too much on your evening cocktails, track glasses of alcohol. Sometimes, just keeping track of and writing down a number is enough to help you reduce it. If you want more tips to stop drinking regularly, check out this post!
- If you want to prevent diabetes or other health complications, track A1C. For this one, you’ll need a doctor or health professional requisition, or an at-home service like Everlywell. At a basic level, A1C is a measure of your blood sugar stability over the past 3 months. It’s highly correlated to several chronic conditions, and it’s a great one to see how your body is dealing with the food you’re giving it!
Now it’s your turn … Do you track any metrics for your health? If not, which one would you like to start tracking?