As hard as it can be to make time for exercise, failing to do so isn't a time-saver. Sure, it might seem so for a day or two, but you will feel the result of not exercising in the small reductions in your energy, ability to focus and cope, and the reductions in your quality of sleep. These efficiency and time-sapping losses rapidly exceed the minutes or hours you thought you could save by missing out on a walk or a jog or by skipping an exercise class or that workout with a video.
Rather than thinking of physical activity as virtuous or doing it because you have to, be active for all the real-time benefits that you cannot get from a pill or from a bottle. Research shows that making physical activity part of your daily routine will pay off with a lifetime of benefits. It may be easiest for you to walk to work or walk with a friend or the dog. Tracking physical activity motivates many people to be more active. You may track your activity with a pencil and paper, an app on a smart phone or online tool, or using an electronic tracker that tallies your steps, level of activity, and how many flights of stairs you've scaled. For me, seeing my effort over weeks and months made it clear that if I wanted to do more, I needed to increase my steps on weekdays. Seeing the data not only made the opportunities for improvement clear, it also let me start measuring my progress.
Tracking your physical activity also allows you to see your investment and the payoffs. Some of my friends now regularly post how many miles they've walked each month online. Others set a goal for the entire year and track their progress. Making it a long game keeps them active so that they stay on track. Research shows the social support that comes from declaring to others what you are doing to improve your health can pay off as well.
The evidence on nutrition is remarkably similar. One of the simplest and most effective ways to eat well is to write down everything you eat. As with exercise, you can use pencil and paper, an app, or an online tool, but the simple act of being conscious of what you eat has people make healthier food choices and stay aware of the amount they have consumed in the form of snacks.
Being more aware of your choices and actions supports you in making choices that are consistent with your goals and priorities rather than relying on momentary impulses and hoping they get you where you want or at least don't throw you far off course.
Like saving money for retirement, investing in your health is easier and more effective if you start now, make it a part of your regular routine, and don't ask each day or month whether you will start or keep making it a priority. No matter where you are with respect to your goals, today is a good day to start and making it routine will yield benefits over time.
Chloe E. Bird is a senior sociologist at the RAND Corporation, where she studies women's health and health care as well as social determinants of health. She is a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and editor-in-chief of the journal Women's Health Issues.
This commentary originally appeared on Sister to Sister on July 17, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.