Five reasons why writing a diary is good for your health

In a world of gadgets, wearable technology and tracking apps, we may be forgiven for believing that monitoring fitness and health is a 21st -century phenomenon. For some, the success of a healthy lifestyle has as much to do with choosing which hi-tech platform to use to monitor it as it does the physical commitment to behaviours, habits and routines.

We all live busy lives and our fitness bands and smartphones relieve us of the onerous task of keeping tabs on our gym regime, diet, mood and health symptoms. However, sometimes the simplest method of data collection – ie putting pen to paper – can be the most effective.

The commitment is made and is there for easy reference – away from the gym, running track or kitchen table. Writing down goals, documenting actions and recording successes is taking time out from the event itself. In reflective mode, it can be more rewarding and offers concrete evidence of intention, development and achievement.

An online blog may be considered the 21st-century equivalent – but not all of us wish to share our health commitments (and, sometimes, failures) online. The mechanics of writing can help formulate thoughts and generate our own much considered feedback and reflection.

A recent survey1 revealed that adults in the UK are turning their backs on writing in a diary, with less than 20% still writing regularly. For a few of us, however, it remains a routine such as cleaning teeth – we can’t go to bed without writing in it. But these figures certainly illustrate the art of diary writing is dying out in Britain.

Whilst, smartphones and tablets offer platforms to write notes and diary entries, a traditional diary format can be a successful route to a healthier you – especially if it helps make those goals seem more attainable. There are many benefits to keeping a journal – here, we list a few that might just get you scribbling your way to a fitter, healthier New Year.

1. Mental health/wellbeing

There have been numerous surveys and reports about the mental health benefits of writing on paper and keeping a diary. Writing is widely considered a cathartic exercise, especially when committing those thoughts, problems and emotions to paper. It can help manage anxietyreduce stress and help people cope with depression. Writing a diary also improves your mood and poor sleeping patterns by prioritising problems, fears and concerns. Writing down a to-do list and other thoughts that keep you awake will ensure a better night’s rest. Interestingly, the age group least likely to keep a diary – those aged 45-54 – are the ones who could benefit the most, experiencing the highest levels of stress, with money and work being the biggest causes. From a mental health perspective, a diary also provides an opportunity for positive self-talk, reflection and identifying any negative thoughts and behaviours.

2. Dental health/sugars frequency

Our dental health is increasingly considered an indicator of other health issues and problems. Our mouths are the windows on the world inside our bodies and, as the scientific evidence linking the two develops, your dental team can often be the first to notice any changes and can alert other health professionals – if needs be – to problems before they are allowed to develop undetected.

Melonie Prebble is a dental hygienist and therapist and often encourages her patients to keep a diary of the foods they eat.

She says: ‘A food diary helps us offer tailored advice with halitosis (bad breath), for example, and is also the perfect resource to help guide parents to better health with dietary advice. I can immediately identify habits and suggest changes such as a reduction in frequency and/or amount of consumption of sugars. I can also see if patients are eating sugars at high-risk times of the day, such as within one hour of bedtime, when the caries protective effects of saliva are reduced.

‘By writing down everything you – or your child – eat or drink and the time during the day when consumed, it helps us help patients to manage their dental health. Patients can then adjust habits and return with the diet diary to their next appointment to tally the changes with results.’

Here is a diary example2 taken from the government’s own guide, Delivering better oral health, an evidence-based toolkit used by dental teams to help improve their patient's oral and general health. It to show how the diary should be filled in:

Additionally, a diary may unearth the day-to-day stress triggers that are causing tooth erosion and/or wear in cases of bruxism (tooth clenching) – a problem that can be addressed by the dentist with an occlusal splint that can offer relief from the disorder.

3. Weight management

Being aware of what you eat is a crucial part of the weight-loss process – and a food diary is an important tool to help you be mindful of your food. Research from 2008 suggested that keeping a food diary was the key to losing extra weight. The study, published in theAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed that he most powerful predictor of their weight loss was how many days per week they kept their food diary. Technology may have moved on leaps and bounds since then, but the principle remains the same. Be honest and don’t skip those days when you over-indulge. By tracking what you eat as you eat it – and writing it down (even if it’s on scraps of paper) – you can ensure accountability, with those guilty pleasures remaining your secret only. Include body measurements and add photos if needs be. Writing down everything you eat and drink can seem time-consuming and confronting – but it is effective!

4. Fitness regime

A study4 by Northwestern University researchers recently found you should consider taking a more active role when it comes to tracking your activity. The lead author, David E. Conroy, PhD, suggests: ‘The process of thinking about when you were active during the day and the opportunities you missed for being active is an important part of behaviour change. The sensors [in tracking apps] enable you to skip that important step.’ Put simply, using technology to track your activity is helpful, but self-monitoring is an important part of the process. Just like self-reporting food intake and its nutritional value is key to losing weight, so too is self-reporting your activity. To stay fit and focused, support your daily diet and fitness regime with a journal that tracks your progress. A diary will show you where you may have to change things and motivate you to stay on track. Activity trackers and apps might help you move more, but the tip is to avoid relying on them too heavily.

5. Symptom tracking

Keeping a regular written record of any health challenges can help track the day-to-day symptoms so that you recognise triggers and learn ways to control them. A written journal is easily shared with health professionals who can then note patterns, analyse cause and effect and discuss appropriate treatments with you. Sometimes, it can be as simple as tweaking your diet or sleeping habits, for example. A ‘pain’ journal empowers you in the management of your health and helps you understand it. A diary will also serve as an excellent prompt regarding any questions for the nurse or GP. Note what you wish to discuss and take those notes with you on the day, ticking each point off during your appointment. Interestingly, a recent study in the States3, conducted by a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, reported that penning thoughts of gratitude improves heart health. For those keeping a journal, their blood inflammation levels decreased and their heart rhythms also improved.

Long-term benefits of expressive writing 5

· Health outcomes

· Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor

· Fewer days in hospital

· Improved mood/affect

· Feeling of greater psychological wellbeing

· Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations

· Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms

· Social and behavioural outcomes

· Reduced absenteeism from work

· Quicker re-employment after job loss

· Improved working memory

· Improved sporting performance

· Higher students’ grade point average

· Altered social and linguistic behaviour.

References

1. http://www.penheaven.co.uk/blog/diary-survey-results/

2. Public Health England oral health toolkit: http://ow.ly/WZsXu 

3. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/04/grateful-heart.aspx

4. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150113090318.htm

5. http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/5/338.full#ref-42