How a workout log can help your health

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most creative people that ever lived. His talents ranged from science to art, and all sorts of things in between. With someone that prolific, we often wonder what their secret is, and how they’re able to be so creative.

Today, we actually can glimpse into how Da Vinci was able to have so many creative ideas all the time.

His notebooks and sketches have been completely digitized. They’re online for anyone to see- and boy what notes they are. He doodled about anything that came into his mind. He did the constantly throughout his life. And that freed him up to explore new things, knowing that he could always check his notes.

Da Vinci instinctly understood this statement

“The brain is for having ideas, not for remembering them.”

Meanwhile, I’m always struggling to remember things. I feel like my mind is stretched this. I tell myself I’ll remember something, and then an hour later it’s gone. I’m trying to practice recording my thoughts more, so that my mind is less cluttered.

Because as Da Vinci shows, by taking down good notes, you free your mind to have creative ideas. On top of that, you have all this raw material with which you can make connections and see how things fit together.

This is the key idea. By consistently making notes, you allow yourself to see connections and unlock ideas down the line.

Become an Active Creator, instead of a Passive Consumer

What Da Vinci did in art and science, can also work in health and fitness.

By consistently taking notes, and logging your observations about your workouts, you set yourself up for insights on your health. When you detail your session, you’ll construct a record where you can revisit ideas, find some patterns, and learn about yourself.

Another way to think about it is that it turns you from a passive consumer of fitness into someone who can actively create and take control of your health Instead of mindlessly following a fitness program, you can gain some insight into your own quirks and habits, and slowly take control over your fitness.

Let’s say you download an online workout program. You start doing it everyday. After a while you fall out of the habit. (This happens to everyone, with all programs)

You might then say to yourself. “Ugh, another program that I wasn’t able to do. I suck.” Or “That didn’t work. I’ll try another one instead.” And then you look for a new program, and you repeat that cycle.

On the other hand, if you can take a few simple notes- for example asking the question: “How do you feel after the workout?” That may give you some insight into your behavior.

You might notice, “Oh, every time I worked out was in the morning.” or “Oh I noticed Saturdays and Sundays I never work out.” That kind of info is immensely useful when you’re figuring out what works and doesn’t work for you. Patterns become more apparent if you have a system for logging.

Be Consistent and Be Deliberate

There is no one best way for doing a log, though I think that a good log has these two features:

  • You need to be able to do it consistently

  • You need to make meaningful observations.

Let’s start with consistency.

This one is pretty clear. If you want to see any trends or patterns, you’re going to need information over some time. You can’t make a pattern out of one or two dots. You need regular information here.

I’d say 80% of logging is just about being regular. It is both the simplest and hardest thing about doing a log.

Meaningful observation takes a bit more thought.

It’s tricky because it is subjective. You could be measuring anything you want here. A guiding question is “What do I care to measure?” You can’t measure everything. That would be too overwhelming. But different people have different goals and care about different things. This is the “meaningful” part of the term “meaningful observation.” If you ask yourself what matters to you, you can figure out what you’d like to observe.

Don't Overthink. Just Start

If you’re not sure where to get started, I suggest not overthinking it and just trying something.

Here’s the template for the workout log for the rings workout that I’m doing right now.

Some key things in the log for me:

  • It’s easy to keep track off and to fill up (so it’s easy to be consistent)

  • My goal is to reduce my back pain

  • And to feel like I’m getting stronger (the last two are my meaningful observations)

So it has a column for what I did on this day

  • Then I note quantitative things like sets and reps. (If you’re a runner this could be distance)

  • Then I identify how hard the workout felt to me

  • This is my meaningful observation of “Am I getting stronger?”

  • Then I note how my pain feels

  • This is my meaningful observation of “Am I reducing my back pain?”

I also set in up in two week cycles, so that at the end of that period, I can do a summary of the notes.

It doesn’t have to be perfect right now. I’ve had a lot of false starts when I try to record too much, then the logging stops and I feel overwhelmed. Experience tells me to keep it as simple as I can.

Logging's Benefits are Self-contained

Even if you never look back on your logs, you’ll still get to experience some benefit to this practice. By including a subjective and qualitative element, you’re encouraged to check in with how you feel, and to be more mindful in the moment while you’re working out.

It’s like journaling. Scientists and psychologists always talk about the benefits of keeping a journal. And one of the key benefits lies in the act of journaling itself, not even in reviewing and looking back. Journaling itself is enough to experience the benefits that it offers.

Bonus Step: Seeing patterns and taking charge

Should I ever decide to look back on my logs, now I have something to work with. If I articulate some clear goals for the year, looking at my logs can help me see how I’m doing in that regard. I did this recently when I tried using a word cloud to get any insights into my old workout logs. I wanted to see if there was any pattern or theme that came up again and again.

I love this step because no matter how my workout goes, I’m learning something.

I become resilient then against success and failure. When things go well, I can enjoy it without being anxious about preserving it. And when things aren’t working out, I can take notes, and trust that eventually I will find some patterns that can help I learn from it.

Failure then does not become a bad thing. But it helps me make sense of my own body. I learn about what I like, and I learn about what I respond well to. My health becomes something I am in touch with. And that gives me the freedom to design my fitness life.