By Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD
Changing your habits is hard work. Anyone who’s tried to stop biting their nails, have better posture or avoid procrastinating would probably agree. When it comes to changing health habits, there’s an added obstacle: the measure of success is often weight loss.
When someone makes losing weight their primary health goal, it can lead to unhealthy habits, like going on juice “cleanses” or severely restricting their diet in other ways (which will probably backfire later). Even if you’re adopting healthier habits like eating nutritious meals and exercising regularly, you may not see the number on the scale change. Losing weight is complicated and often even more challenging than “just” changing how you exercise and what you eat. Plus, regaining weight is, unfortunately, usually a part of losing weight. When how much you weigh is how you’re measuring “success,” regaining weight can signal to someone that the changes they’ve made are a waste of time—even though this is just not true! This can be deeply discouraging.
Weight’s relationship to health can be complicated. Healthy can look really different for different people, depending on their genetics, bone structure, muscle mass and more. If you’re gaining muscle, you may stay the same weight or even gain weight—and still be healthier than you used to be. Some people have naturally high metabolisms and may be a healthy weight while not having particularly healthy habits. For them, losing weight may not be a reasonable or healthy goal.
Adopting healthier habits isn’t about how you look, it’s about taking care of your body and your mind. The long-term benefits of healthy habits include reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and more. But since you can’t see those right away, they’re hard to use to track progress. If you’re trying to be a healthier you and have been frustrated with that number on the scale, here are 7 other changes you can use to keep track of your progress—and remind yourself that the effort is definitely worth it.
1. Your energy levels
Unhealthy eating habits may be dragging you down without you realizing it. Simple carbohydrates (like sugar) give your body a quick burst of energy, but lead to an energy crash later. Meals full of unhealthy fats can also make you feel sluggish after eating. When you begin substituting these foods out for healthier alternatives (like whole grains, lots of vegetables and lean proteins), many people find that they feel more energetic and alert.
Physical activity—even just a brisk, 10-minute walk!—also gives you an energy boost.
2. Your ability to concentrate and learn
As I discussed more here, your brain needs energy and certain nutrients to keep working at full capacity. When you don’t give it what it needs, it can be harder to concentrate on what you’re doing and to learn and store new information. This means that when you eat healthier, you may find it easier to pay attention in class and do your school work.
3. Your mood
Moving your body releases feel-good chemicals in your brain called endorphins. This can make you feel happier and less stressed. Nutritious diets full of complex carbohydrates (instead of simple ones) can also help stabilize your mood.
4. How far you can run and more
Use how much you can exercise (or how you feel after) as a sign of progress. Depending on what kind of exercise you’re doing, keep track of how fast you can run a mile, how many push-ups you can do, or how long you can hold a plank. You can also keep track of how you feel after exercising. Maybe you used to feel totally out of breath, but now know you could keep going.
5. The quality of your sleep
Exercise and healthy eating can make it much easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Notice changes in how long it takes you to fall asleep at night, how many times (if any) you wake up in the middle of the night, and how rested and energetic you feel in the morning.
6. How your clothes fit
As more muscle mass develops, you may find that your clothes fit differently. Many people lose inches around their waist before seeing any change on a scale!
7. Getting sick less often
Did you know these healthy habits help your immune system, which keeps you from getting sick? You may notice that your winter cold goes away faster, or you’re feeling under the weather a lot less frequently than normal.
I may be emphasizing healthy eating habits and physical activity in this article, but health is about so much more. It’s also about your emotional health, relationships, sleep, substance use and so much more. If you’re struggling with changing unhealthy habits, talk to your health care provider. They can give you some guidance and help you come up with a plan to keep you on track. In the meantime, adopting these 10 practices for healthy living is a good place to start.
If you’re 10-22 years old and live near NYC, you can make a free, confidential, judgment-free appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Depending on your questions and concerns, you can meet with a doctor, nutritionist, therapist and/or health educator to help you come up with a plan for becoming the healthiest version of yourself. You can also join Teen Fit, our free teen fitness program that includes a variety of fitness, wellness and nutrition classes. See the current Teen Fit schedule here.
Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD is a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center who is fellowship trained in adolescent medicine. In addition to general adolescent care, Dr. Gordon sees obese adolescents who are interested in comprehensive medical and reproductive health care through a structured, multidisciplinary approach to weight loss.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.