Keeping up with healthy habits is not an easy task; for many, it's a lifelong process—and sometimes a lifelong struggle—to stay on track. If you have a chronic health condition like COPD, it can feel downright overwhelming to shoulder the pressure of having to live a healthy lifestyle while also managing your disease.
If you don't have a solid plan and an organizational structure to guide you, it's nearly impossible to handle all those moving pieces on your own. That's why every person with COPD needs some kind of self-management system, and keeping a personal health diary is one of the easiest ways to establish such a system.
A health diary is simply a written or digital system for collecting, tracking, and analyzing all kinds of useful information about your health. Depending on how you use it, it can be a powerful tool for building new, healthier habits and staying on top of your COPD treatment routine.
In this post, we're going to show you how to create your own health diary from scratch, using an assortment of simple tools and health tracking techniques. We'll also show you plenty of ways you can utilize your health diary for practical purposes, such as motivating yourself to stick to an exercise schedule or remembering to take all of your medications on time.
The goal of this guide is to explain everything you need to get a functional health diary started, including how to collect useful data for your journal using a variety of different health measuring tools and data recording methods. We'll even walk you through the process of designing your own health tracking charts, spreadsheets, graphs, and other approaches to organizing and analyzing the information you collect.
What is Health Tracking, and Why Should You Do It?
Health tracking is a general term that refers to recording information about your body or actions you take regarding your health over a period of time. The system you use to record this data can take many forms, but is often referred to as a personal health diary or health journal.
You can make a health diary out of just about any medium that can store information: a blank notebook, a series of digital documents, a spreadsheet, a mobile app, and more. There's no single “right way” to do it, and there's a wide range of health-tracking methods you can choose from (many of which we'll teach you how to use throughout this guide).
You can use your personal health journal to track and store just about any information you want to, and it can be as brief, detailed, creative, or minimalistic as you'd like. The specific techniques and organizational methods your use are less important than finding a system that works for you and that suits the subject matter in your journal.
You can adapt a health journal to just about any disease or purpose, and different people keep them for all sorts of different personal and functional reasons. Doctors often recommend health diaries as self-management tools for patients with chronic health problems, especially those that are difficult to manage, like COPD.
In research and healthcare settings, health diaries are sometimes referred to as “clinical diaries,” “patient diaries,” or “self-management diaries.” These are used by doctors, researchers, and other healthcare professionals, too, to collect specific health data on their patients and closely monitor their conditions.
What's the Point of Tracking Your Health?
At its core, health tracking is all about collecting data that helps you (and/or your doctor) learn more about your health. This data can include objective health readings, like your weight, or subjective analyses like how energetic you feel throughout the day.
These records can give you and your doctor a clearer picture of what you're tracking than you could get from memory alone. In fact, some degree of health tracking is all but required for people who need to keep a close eye on a chronic disease like COPD.
Another key part of tracking your health is finding ways to actually use the data you collect to improve your health in some way. Most of the time, this involves looking for patterns and trends in the data and using what you've learned to adjust your habits and plan for the future.
For example, you could use a food diary to keep better track of your diet so you can look back over it later to find areas you can improve. Or, you could use a medication tracker to record when you take your COPD medications so that you can look at those records later to know when you should take your next dose.
Recording your choices in your journal is also a form of accountability that can push you to make the kinds of choices that you'd feel proud to write down. In this way, a health journal can be a powerful motivational tool if you're trying to change your habits or improve your health in a specific way.
Why Should People with COPD Keep a Health Diary?
Anybody can benefit from tracking their health, but it's especially useful for people who need to manage chronic health problems like COPD. A health diary can help you with just about any aspect of COPD management, including monitoring COPD symptoms, keeping your treatment schedules straight, and making healthy changes like exercising more, quitting smoking, and reaching a healthy BMI.
If you have COPD, your ability to succeed in all of these areas can have a huge impact on your quality of life and the course of your disease. This makes it all the more important to have a dedicated health tracking system to help you manage your well-being.
Here are a few of the major benefits that keeping a health journal can have for people with COPD.
It eases the burden of managing your health
|Image from the Noun Project|
Just like using planners and lists can help you manage your work routine, tracking your health and your COPD treatments in a journal makes it easier to manage your COPD. It can also help ease some of the mental burden of COPD management, especially if you tend to have a lot of worry or anxiety about your health.
Having a place to write things down and easily reference them later frees up time and mental energy that you'd otherwise be using to keep track of it all in your head. It also makes it easier to detect problems that might cause you worry, such as signs of exacerbation and worsening disease.
A health diary lets you know what's going on with your body so you can spend less time stressing about what might be happening. All of this can help you feel more secure and more in control of your health; this is especially important during uncertain times like the current COVID-19 pandemic, which is particularly scary for people with COPD and other conditions that make them vulnerable to serious disease.
It can help you set and track your health goals
Keeping a health journal doesn't just help you learn about your health; it can also be a powerful tool for improving your health and reaching your COPD treatment goals. In fact, health and habit trackers are an integral part of effective goal-setting, and they can make all the difference when you're trying to make a healthy lifestyle change.
Your health journal not only helps you asses you where you are at now, but also where you're going and how things change over time. It provides a practical framework to help you organize your objectives, visualize your progress, and make sure you're on the right track to reach your goals.
Because of this, health tracking is a particularly valuable tool for people with COPD, who often need to make major health and lifestyle changes because of their disease. For some people, this means completely overhauling their current routine, something that's incredibly difficult to do without a well-structured plan.
That's where your health journal comes in; when you're making a major habit adjustment, you need a place to write down your goals, record your progress, and keep track of all the steps you need to take along the way. While this might sound like an obvious strategy, it takes a lot of planning and work to get it right, and a reliable health tracking system can be your key for success.
It can help your doctor monitor your treatment
Unless you have a miraculous memory, it's impossible to remember all the little details about your health, habits, symptoms and other important things your doctor might need to know. Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially when it comes to details, which isn't ideal when your doctor needs correct information to properly treat you and your COPD.
However, you won't need to rely on memory if you have a health journal to record that information (e.g. your daily COPD symptoms) as you go. Then, you'll have accurate records that you can reference or bring to your doctor so he'll have more precise and nuanced information with which to evaluate your health.
It can help you recognize the signs of lung infections and COPD exacerbations
Keeping a close eye on your symptoms is the best way to catch COPD exacerbations, which often start with a slight uptick in respiratory symptoms. Unfortunately, this change is often subtle; many people don't notice it at first and, as a result, miss the opportunity for early treatment.
This is why many doctors encourage COPD patients to keep a written log of their symptoms and how they fluctuate over time. This makes it much easier to track subtle changes in your symptoms that can help you identify—and more accurately pinpoint the start of—a COPD exacerbation.
How to Use a Health Diary if You Have COPD
One of the great things about a personal health diary is that it can be essentially whatever you want it to be. It could be a simple log book, a planner, a habit-tracking chart, all of these things together, or anything in between.
It all depends on which health attributes you (or your doctor) are interested in tracking, and what you plan to do with the data you store. However broad or narrow your focus, you can tailor your personal journal to fit just about any particular need.
For example, your diary could help you manage healthy habits and work toward healthy goals, like eating healthier, exercising more, and taking your medications on time. You could also use a health diary to track and monitor certain aspects of your health, such as your weight, your physical activity, or your energy level from day to day.
You might also have specific health concerns that you want to monitor, such as your oxygen levels, blood pressure, or intake of specific nutrients. It's also a great way to keep track of your COPD symptoms and watch for patterns and triggers that could help you learn how to better manage your disease.
In the next sections, we're going to show you how you can use a health diary for a wide range of practical purposes, with a special emphasis on your diary can help you monitor and improve your COPD. We'll also introduce you to a variety of different tools and methodologies that can help you gather all kinds of useful data to record in your journal.
What To Record in Your COPD Health Diary
Information About Your Diet
An integral part of a healthy diet is keeping track of what you eat, and sometimes memory just isn't good enough to do the job. It's easy to underestimate unhealthy food choices or guess your calories wrong, which is why recording what you eat in a diary is one of the best ways to get an accurate picture of your dietary health.
This is especially important if you're trying to make changes to your diet, whether you're trying to lose weight, make healthier choices, correct a nutrient imbalance, or limit certain foods. These are changes that many people with COPD have to make after their diagnosis, since weight and diet can have a significant impact on your ability to breathe.
Because of this, doctors often prescribe special diets (e.g. low-salt or low-carbohydrate diets) and set target weight goals for COPD patients as part of their treatment. Unfortunately, people with COPD often have an extra hard time maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and often need extra help to succeed.
A health diary can provide that extra support by helping you track your food choices and manage a diet plan. This helps you understand your eating habits better, which is the first step to finding ways to improve it. It also forces you to think about your dietary choices more often, which helps you stay accountable to yourself and mindful about what you eat.
You can also use your health diary to schedule your diet and coordinate your meal routine. It can help you with everything from making shopping lists and meal planning to food prep and ingredient management.
Used right, your health diary can help you develop dietary discipline and establish long-term habits that can not only help you reach your diet goals, but also maintain those healthy habits once you get there. Over time, this can make a huge difference in your overall health and your quality of life with COPD.
Here are some different ways you could use your health journal to track and manage your diet:
- Keep a simple food diary: Keep a log of the types and approximate amounts of all the foods and beverages you eat and drink throughout the day.
- Track your micro/macro-nutrient intake: This requires a more detailed log of what you eat and drink that includes nutritional information and precise portion sizes. Luckily, free food tracking applications can do most of the work for you (e.g. nutrient calculations, daily/weekly totals, trend analysis, etc.) as long as the information you enter is accurate and complete.
- Make a weekly meal schedule: Plan your diet ahead of time by working up a meal schedule for the coming days or weeks, either on your own or with the help of a doctor or dietitian. It could be as simple as a list of meal options to choose from or a detailed chart specifying exactly what you plan to eat for every meal each day.
- Track specific nutrients over time: Determine which nutrients you want to keep track of (e.g. things you're trying to limit, like saturated fat or salt) and keep a running total of how much of that nutrient is in the foods you eat throughout the day. Then, you can map the totals you're interested in (e.g. from each meal, each day, each week, etc.) onto a simple chart or graph to get a better picture of how your intake of that nutrient varies over time.
|This is an example of what a digital food diary entry might look like (using the MyFitnessPal diet tracking app) from healthytodd.|
Information About Your Medication
People with COPD often take several medications and have complicated treatment schedules that require a great deal of discipline every day. This is a major source of stress for many COPD patients, and often results in occasional missed doses and other treatment mistakes.
Unfortunately, poor medication management can have serious and lasting health consequences for people with COPD, including worsened breathing problems and more frequent COPD exacerbations. That's why, if you have COPD, it's absolutely vital to have a system in place to help you keep track of your medications and take them correctly every day.
This is a perfect job for your health diary, which can be an invaluable tool for scheduling, remembering, and managing complex treatment plans. Whether you use a pen and paper or a mobile medicine tracking application, keeping a medication diary can reduce treatment errors and help you keep your schedule straight.
In fact, research shows that patients who keep medication diaries, even very simple ones, are more likely to take their medication correctly. Studies also show that health diaries can be valuable tools for patient-doctor coordination; it can help your doctor learn more about how you're using your medications (e.g. how often you need to use your rescue inhaler), how well you're adhering to prescribed treatments (e.g. how often you miss doses), and what—if any—changes need to be made to your treatment plan.
A medication diary can also relieve a great deal of stress associated with having to keep track of all your treatment details in your head. It gives you a reliable place to offload it all—your treatment schedules, coordinating difficulties, and any other details you stress about—so you don't need to worry or keep it in the back of your mind all the time.
Here are some ideas for how you can use your health diary to track and manage your medications:
- Make a minimalistic medication tracker: Make a simple list or chart of all of your doses of medication for the day or week, and mark them with the corresponding date at time after you take each dose. This helps you keep track of which medications you have and haven't taken already so you're less likely to skip or double up on doses. (We'll give you more detailed step-by-step instructions for how to make a medication tracker later on in this guide).
- Keep an oxygen therapy log: Keep a running total of the number of hours you use supplemental oxygen in your journal every day. You can also record more detailed information, like the time when you start and stop using oxygen, to get a fuller picture of how you utilize oxygen throughout the day.
- Make a basic medication log: Write each of your medications across the top of a page or chart, and mark down the the date and time you take each dose under the name of the corresponding medication. This can be particularly helpful for tracking your usage of as-needed medications (like rescue inhalers) that require spacing doses a certain length of time apart.
To learn more tips and techniques for managing your COPD medications, check out our guide on the topic here.
Your Physical Symptoms
As most COPD patients know, keeping close track of your symptoms is a key part of monitoring and managing COPD effectively. In fact, many doctors recommend using a logging system to record what symptoms you have and how severe they are every day.
Keeping a symptom log in your health diary can help you get to know your baseline COPD symptoms better and learn more about how—and possibly why—your symptoms change over time. This information is useful for several different reasons, including for gauging the pace of COPD progression (as indicated by worsening symptoms) and for evaluating how your symptoms respond to different treatments and medications.
Tracking your symptoms can also help you identify COPD exacerbations and monitor their course over time. Your records can also yield additional insight into the length, cause, and the nature of your COPD exacerbations, information that could help you and your doctor determine the best course of treatment.
Here are some ideas for how to use your health journal to track your COPD Symptoms:
- Keep a minimalistic daily symptom diary: At the end of every day, write down the date and some basic information about the symptoms you've experienced that day: e.g. describe them in a couple of sentences, rate them using descriptors like mild, moderate or severe, or jot down a couple bullet points.
- Make a daily symptom tracking chart: Decide on a scale to use for rating the overall severity of your COPD symptoms (e.g. via a numerical scale from 1-5, or a color-coded marking) and record your daily ratings in in a pre-made chart or graph.
- Track your symptoms individually: Make a list of all the symptoms you tend to experience regularly, and (separately) rate the severity of each one every day. Alternatively, you could simply mark a “yes” or “no” for each symptom or only list the the symptoms you experienced that particular day.
- Record your symptoms during everyday activities: Rate your symptoms and/or write down some notes about how you feel after everyday activities like cleaning, taking a walk, cooking a meal, etc. This can help you better understand the impact your COPD symptoms have on your life and identify ways to reduce or eliminate the burden caused by the most difficult tasks.
Instead of making your own, you can use a variety of pre-made symptom tracking templates available online, like this minimalistic tracker or this printable weekly symptom tracker (PDF link) from alnursing.org.
Your Exercise and Physical Activity
Getting plenty of exercise is an important part of COPD treatment, but it's one of lifestyle changes that people with COPD tend to struggle with the most. And that's not just because COPD symptoms make doing physical activities difficult, but also because building new exercise habits is hard thing for anyone to do—especially in older adulthood, which is when most people get diagnosed with COPD.
Unfortunately, the stakes are much higher for COPD patients, who have to maintain an active lifestyle to live a good quality of life. Getting regular exercise can make the difference between staying physically independent as your COPD progresses, and not having the endurance to do even light household tasks on your own.
Because of this, any tool that can help you stay active is worth using, and anything is better than giving up. You're much likely to succeed if you have a system—like a health journal—to guide you and help you overcome the additional physical challenges caused by COPD.
For example, you could use your journal plan out your exercise goals, your strategy for reaching them. You can also log your physical activities in your journal so you can track your progress and improvement, which can help you stay accountable and motivated to keep working toward your goals.
Here are a few ideas for how you can use your health journal to track your exercise habits:
- Keep an exercise log: Every day, take some time to write down any exercise or physical activities you've done throughout the day.
- Make a basic exercise planner: Make a chart or calendar in your health journal to keep track of when you need to work out as well as what type of workout you plan to do.
- Create an exercise habit tracker: Make a simple chart or graph to track information about your activity, such as the types of physical activities you do, your dedicated work-outs, or the number of minutes/hours of exercise you do throughout the week.
Your Mood and General Mental Well-being
|Image from U3115339|
Using your health journal to track your mental well-being is a great way to get more in tune with your emotions, including how you're coping mentally with COPD. It's also a great way to keep tabs on mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, which tends to affect people with COPD more often than people without the disease.
There's a wide range of mental health journaling methods to choose from, ranging from simple diary entries to complex mood and emotion-tracking spreadsheets. The simpler and briefer techniques make it easy to find trends and patterns quickly, while the more open-ended methods allow you to explore and express your thoughts in a deeper way.
A simple daily mood tracker, for example, can help you find patterns and possibly even identify triggers that affect your emotional well-being. You could also use your diary to keep tabs on specific feelings and psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, anger, or feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Of course, there's always the traditional personal diary format where you simply write down your thoughts however feels best to you at the time. Any technique will do as long as you have an idea of what kinds of personal struggles or mental traits you'd like to monitor or explore.
To help you get started, here are some ideas of things you could write in your mental health journal:
- Record brief daily reflections: Take some time at the end of each day to make some notes about the thoughts, feelings, and/or moods you've experienced throughout the day.
- Track your emotional triggers and sensitivities: Make a section in your health diary to jot down any situations and circumstances that you notice affecting your moods or emotions in positive or negative ways.
- Track your daily mood: Rate your general mood every day using a simple numerical or color-coded scale to reveal larger patterns and trends in your mood and emotional well-being over time.
- Create a color-coded mood and/or feelings chart: Make a chart (or even a creative design or motif) to fill in with color-coded markings that represent your mental states over a period of time.
Your General Physical Well-being
Another way you can use your health diary is to record general facts about your health, such as your daily energy level or how physically well you feel each day. These kinds of journal entries are super quick and simple, but they give you the opportunity to identify broader trends that you otherwise might not notice or pay much attention to.
This is particularly useful for people who tend to experience health fluctuations due to chronic diseases like COPD. Understanding those fluctuations better can help you make adjustments to account for them and help you identify ways you can improve your overall well-being.
For example, you could use your health diary to track your energy level throughout the week or even at different points throughout the day. Then, you could use that data to schedule tiring activities (like exercise or cleaning the house) during times when you tend to have the most energy.
It can also help you pinpoint sources of burnout, and figure out how to spread out energy-sapping tasks so you don't feel exhausted all day. This can help you get more things done—and feel better doing it—in spite of the physical limitations caused by your COPD.
Here are some ideas for how you can use your health journal to track your physical well-being:
- Keep a daytime energy log: Rate your overall energy level at several points throughout the day (e.g. every couple of hours or morning, noon, and evening) so that, after some time, you can figure out the best times to schedule productive activities and rest.
- Make a physical exertion tracker: Whenever you do a physically-demanding activity, write down some basic information about it (e.g. what the activity was, how long you spend doing it, how exhausting it was) in your journal. This can give you a better idea of how you spend your energy and let you know when you're over-taxing yourself.
Your Treatment and Healthy Lifestyle Goals
One of the most powerful ways you can use a health diary is to track your progress toward a goal, however big, small, simple, or complex that goal might be. It's not just a place to store your goals and objectives, but also a means to track and visualize your step-wise progress toward your goals.
There's no limit to how many categories you can track or what you can record; you can keep it limited to a few key topics or use it to work through any health challenges or changes that come your way.
All of the examples we've offered so far in this guide really only scratch the surface of what a health diary can do—or rather, what you can do with a health diary if you put the time and effort in. Since it's your personal health diary, you can use it whatever way feels most logical, natural, or useful to you.
Here are a few examples of specific health goals and information you might want to track in your health diary:
- Your progress quitting smoking
- Your doctor's appointments and/or hospital stays
- How you use your COPD action plan
- Self-care activities
- Tracking your journaling habits (e.g. to help you use your health journal every day)
Collecting Data for Your Health Diary
The main purpose of a health journal is to organize and analyze your health information, but what information you use—and how you collect it—is up to you. Still, it's important to take the time to figure out what kind of data you want to record and how you want to collect it.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data
Health diaries can use both qualitative data (e.g. estimates, ratings, and notes) and quantitative data (e.g. precise numbers and medical device readings). Both types can be useful, though they each have unique benefits and drawbacks that make them better for some purposes and worse for others.
Qualitative data is dependent on your personal observations and impressions, and can be represented in a variety of different ways. Quantitative data, however, is best when it's precise and consistent, which is why it usually comes from specialized measurement tools.
What types you use in your diary mainly depends on what kinds of things you're interested in learning and analyzing about your health. Of course, you don't have to choose just one or the other; in fact, a blend of both qualitative and quantitative data is often the best way to get a well-rounded picture of your health.
Tools and Devices to Help You Monitor Your Health
So far, we've discussed a variety of different ways you can record qualitative data (e.g. descriptions of your COPD symptoms) in your diary to track a range of different health attributes. In these next sections, we're going to briefly discuss some simple home health measurement devices that you can use to collect quantitative data for your health diary.
|Image from Thinkpaul|
A finger pulse oximeter is a cheap and simple-to-use tool for measuring the amount of oxygen in your blood. This measurement is formally known as your blood oxygen saturation (or Sp02%), which is largely determined by how much oxygen your lungs absorb.
If your baseline blood oxygen levels are already low, they are more likely to change in response to outside factors that affect your lungs' ability to function. These factors include COPD triggers like air pollutants and exercise (which can cause your Sp02% to decrease), as well as COPD treatments like rescue inhalers and supplemental oxygen (which can cause your Sp02% to increase).
Taking your blood oxygen readings regularly can help you identify your COPD triggers and better understand how your oxygen levels fluctuate throughout the day. If you use supplemental oxygen, your blood oxygen readings can also help you determine the best times to use it, and even help your doctor evaluate how well the therapy is working.
The great thing about pulse oximeters is that they are extremely affordable and exceedingly simple to use at home. To learn more about pulse oximeters, including how they work and how to interpret your Sp02% readings, check out our guide on pulse oximeters here.
Blood pressure cuff
Home blood pressure cuffs let you check your blood pressure—a critical indicator of your heart-lung health—any time you want between doctor's visits. They're cheap and easy to get, and they can help you get a better idea of your baseline blood pressure and how it changes over time.
Tracking your blood pressure on a regular basis can also help you monitor heart conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, which are particularly common in people with COPD. It could, for example, help you and your doctor analyze how your blood pressure is affected by medication and lifestyle changes (e.g. changes in your diet or exercise habits).
Body weight scale
Maintaining a healthy weight is a vital part of maintaining your health in general, and it plays a major role in chronic diseases like COPD. Being underweight or overweight can affect your breathing ability and exacerbate other COPD symptoms (such as chest pain and fatigue).
However, getting to a healthy weight—and staying there—can be a long and difficult journey, and you'll need to know your weight at many points along the way. To keep track of your progress effectively, you'll need a scale that you can weigh yourself with frequently (e.g. at home or at the gym).
A fever is sometimes the first indication that you might be sick or have a COPD exacerbation. That's why your temperature is one of the first things they measure at the doctor's office and other places like COVID-19 screening checkpoints.
Because of this, it's a good idea to take your temperature periodically, especially during the flu season and other times when your risk of getting sick is higher than usual. Tracking your temperature readings when you're not sick can also help you identify your normal temperature range, which can make it easier to differentiate an actual fever from your normal temperature fluctuations.
Fitness bands and smartwatches can tell you all kinds of data about your exercise and activity, including your daily step count, the amount of time you spent being sedentary, and more. Many fitness bands are extremely affordable—you can find basic, off-brand models for under $30—and you only need the most basic features to start collecting useful data for your journal.
Image from Johntex
An incentive spirometer is a simply tool designed to help you learn to take deeper, steadier breaths. They're often used to help patients improve their lung strength and capacity during recovery from respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and COPD exacerbations.
Incentive spirometers measure the volume of the air you breathe in, as well as the speed of your breath. If you use your incentive spirometer regularly, you can track your results and note changes or improvements in your lung function over time.
|To learn more about incentive spirometers, including how you can use one to treat your COPD, check our guide on this topic here.|
Some Final Tips
As you begin collecting data for your health journal, here are some additional tips you should keep in mind:
- It's best to record your data as soon as possible, when it's still fresh in your mind. For example, if you're keeping a food or medication diary, write down what you at as soon as possible after you eat it.
- Always remember to take your health diary with you when you need it, otherwise you'll end up forgetting things and falling behind. If you're tracking lots of things and need to keep your journal with you a lot of the time, make sure you design your journal with portability in mind (this is one advantage of keeping a digital diary on your mobile phone).
- Keep your health diary in a practical place: ideally close to where you'll use it the most. For example, if you're primarily using your diary to track your food or medication, keep your journal where you eat or where you take your medications.
Crafting Your Health Diary: Journaling Methods & Organizing Techniques
There are many different media you can use to track your health, from regular notebooks and word processor pages to digital spreadsheets and specialized mobile applications. Each method has its own pros and cons, which is why it's important to choose a system that works well for your specific needs.
To avoid frustration and inefficiency, the format you use for your health diary needs to fit what you're trying to track. For example, spreadsheets are a great way to record short, concrete measurements (e.g. dates and times for medicine doses), but they're not as useful for organizing longer notes (e.g. a description of how you felt today).
You should also choose a tracking method that you know you can use consistently, which is why it's important to choose a style that meshes with your and personality and the rhythm of your life. For example, if you know you'll only have a couple minutes per day to write in your journal, you should pick a shorter notation template rather than something complex or long form.
Your format should also be clear and consistent so that the information you enter is easy to read and understand. Depending on what you plan to do with your diary, you might need to put more or less emphasis on making sure you present your data in a way that's simple to analyze and compare.
Your journal doesn't have to be pretty or perfect, but it does need to organize your entries in a way that's useful and makes sense to you. What's most important, however, is to find a method that you can stick with, and it might take some trial and error to figure out what method that is.
In the next sections, we're going to discuss several of the most common tools and techniques used in health journaling and tracking. As you read through these different methods, take some time consider what you'd like your health diary to be.
Tracking Your Health on Paper
There are two main types of paper journals: blank notebooks and books with pre-printed templates (e.g. dated boxes for daily entries and calendars for long-term planning). However, you don't have to use anything fancy or even anything pre-bound; loose leaves of paper can work as long as you can keep them together and find them when you need them.
In general, blank paper journals offer more creative freedom, while pre-printed journal templates offer more structure. Both types tend to be more open-ended than digital journaling and word-processing programs, which often only have a handful of limited (and often clunky) tools for formatting and design.
This is great if you have a specific format in mind, or if you like to draw, color, or doodle directly on the page. However, designing pages and tracking charts from scratch can be very time consuming, and some find it daunting to face down a book full of completely empty pages.
The best way to get started on with a paper health journal is not to overthink it, but to just start putting things down on the page. You might want to mock up some charts or templates first, but you don't want to spend too much time in the planning stages; you can always test and tweak different strategies as you go, and you'll never know what really works until you actually give it a try.
If you're still not sure where to start, you can find all kinds of different examples, templates, and how-to's online. You might also want to check out the bullet journal method, a popular catch-all journaling technique that is particularly well suited to health and habit tracking (and has a large online community with tons of helpful resources and ideas).
Creating a Digital Health Journal
Digital health journals can take many forms: word processing documents, digital spreadsheets, and even specialized journaling software. These can make great alternatives to physical journals, depending on your preferences and needs.
For example, some people find it much quicker and more convenient to type in a digital document compared to writing things down by hand. Digital programs can also help you save time data organizing tools that let you easily—and nearly instantly—create neat tables and graphs.
Digital journals also give you the ability to edit, copy-paste, and re-organize information at will. This makes it easier to correct mistakes, experiment with different organizational methods, and make room to expand and add to your health tracking entries.
However, most digital document programs (like Microsoft Word) don't offer much in the way of design features, and what features they do offer can feel stiff and awkward to use. However, a lack of design flexibility isn't a critical problem in most cases; you can make a perfectly functional digital journal with plain text on a word processor page.
Tracking Your Health with Spreadsheets
Spreadsheets are basically multi-column lists of information stored in a grid-like format. They're particularly useful for comparing lots of small pieces of data side-by-side, especially numbers and dates.
For example, spreadsheets are great for recording lots of simple measurements over a long period of time, or for making long-term, multi-item check-off lists. If you use a digital spreadsheet (e.g Microsoft Excel), you can automatically organize and analyze your data using a variety of built-in tools like list-sorting, number averaging, and custom charts and graphs.
For example, you could use a digital spreadsheet to make a simple chart to record your daily symptom ratings. Then, you can easily scan, sort, highlight, and graph the data in that spreadsheet to help you track trends and changes in your symptoms over time.
You can also use spreadsheets to keep track of health-related tasks and activities you do regularly, such as exercise, oxygen therapy, and other COPD treatments. For example, you could make a chart to quickly check off your daily COPD medications or record the time you take each dose.
Here are some more ideas of health-related goals and information you can track with a spreadsheet:
- Periodic health measurements (daily, weekly, or monthly): e.g. body weight, body temperature, step count, oxygen saturation readings, incentive spirometer readings, etc.
- Medical treatments: e.g. how many hours per day you use oxygen, the date and time that you take your medications, how many times you use your rescue inhaler per week, etc.
- Simple words, colors, or numerical ratings to represent your symptoms, mood, dietary choices, etc.: e.g. rate your mood from 1-5 or use a color scale (e.g. green-yellow-red) to indicate how severe your COPD symptoms were that day
How to Make a Simple Medication-Tracking Spreadsheet
If you've never worked with spreadsheets before or would like some help getting started, here are some instructions for how to make a basic spreadsheet to help you keep track of your medication doses:
- First, list each one of your daily medications in the cells down the far left column of the spreadsheet.
- If you have medications that you take more than one dose of each day, list each dose separately in its own row (e.g. Albuterol Dose 1, Albuterol Dose 2, etc.)
- Next, list each date for the next week (or longer) across the top; you could make a new spreadsheet for every week, or include several weeks, months, or more in the same spreadsheet.
- Whenever you take a dose of your medication, check off the appropriate space in the column for that day (or write down the time when you took the dose).
- If some of your medications are not daily (e.g. you only take them on certain days of the week), you can mark the spaces corresponding to the dates that you don't take the medication by graying them out, scribbling them out, or otherwise marking them as “invalid.”
- You can also mark these off-days in advance to help you remember not to take the medication that day.
Though some people find spreadsheets intimidating, you don't need any kind of special skills or experience to make a simple one on your own. You don't even need a computer program if you have a pen and some graph paper handy, or if you have a notebook, a ruler, and little bit of patience to draw one up on your own.
However, if you happen to have a knack for designing spreadsheets, you can make much more complex and versatile charts than the one in the example above.
Tracking Your Health via Mobile Applications
One of the greatest benefits of using a mobile application is having a pre-designed framework to enter in and process your information. Though exact features vary by app, most have a variety of practical features to help you review and process your data, including auto-calculators, trend analyzers, and visual graphs.
This allows you to do more with less effort, and analyze your data in ways that would be too difficult or time consuming to do by hand. Mobile applications also offer the convenience of taking your diary with you on the go and using mobile features like reminder notifications.
Mobile applications can be useful tools on their own or as a supplement to other tracking methods (e.g. a physical planner or digital spreadsheet). However, using too many different applications or tracking tools can get overwhelming fast; don't be afraid to experiment, but be prepared to pare down your routine as needed to keep your health-tracking system streamlined and hassle free.
There are all kinds of health tracking programs and applications, both free and paid. Some are general-purpose while others are tailored to certain health topics and even specific diseases like COPD.
The COPD Pocket Consultant Guide, for example, has a variety of practical health tracking features including a COPD action plan calculator and exercise tracking tool. Some health products—like fitness watches—come with their own data-tracking apps, though these product-centered applications tend to more limited than most.
Here are some examples of different types of health tracking apps and how you can use them:
- Mood and mental health-tracking apps: Apps like Moodily chart information you enter about your mood and other aspects of your mental health over time. Some apps focus on certain mental disorders or problems (like depression) and offer a variety of additional features for mental health support.
- Exercise and activity-tracking apps: You can use applications like Map My Fitness to record your physical activity and track your progress toward your exercise goals.
- Food tracking apps: Calorie counters and food diary apps let you quickly enter in foods you eat and automatically add up your calories and nutrients throughout the day. Many apps, like MyFitnessPal, have both food tracking and exercise tracking features.
- Air quality tracking apps: Applications like EPA AIRNow keep you informed about pollution levels in your area so you can plan safer times for outdoor workouts and other outdoor activities.
- COPD-specific apps: There are only a few apps in this category, including the COPD Support app, a social network and support community for people with COPD, and the COPD Pocket Consultant Guide, an educational guide and interactive COPD management tool from the COPD Foundation.
- Breath control applications: Breath control applications guide you through breathing exercises and other breath-control techniques that can help you better manage anxiety and shortness of breath.
Using a Medicine Tracker or Digital Alert System
There are dozens of different apps for managing medications, each with their own unique features and digital tools. They range from simple applications that help you set medication reminders to sophisticated medication tracking and scheduling capabilities.
General-purpose trackers are great for coordinating multiple medications and complex treatment plans, as many people with COPD and other chronic diseases have to do. You can also find narrowly-targeted apps that are made to be used by people who have specific health conditions or take specific medications.
For example, the Assist Me app is made specifically for inhaler users and includes tools for scheduling inhaler doses as well as practicing proper inhaler technique. A few medication brands even have their own proprietary dose-tracking apps with handy tools like next-dose alarms and medication refill reminders.
Some inhaler brands are also experimenting with built-in digital dose-counters (like Aptar's e-Dose counter) that can interface with a proprietary mobile app to create accurate medication records in real time. These “digital dose inhalers” have the advantage of being able to record more information—like the date and time of each dose—and to provide you with charts and statistical analyses of how you use your medication.
Health and symptom tracking has always been an integral part of COPD management, and it's only become more important in the age of COVID-19. In a time when we're all being asked to monitor our symptoms for our own safety and the safety of those around us, keeping a health diary makes more sense than ever for people with COPD.
Even if you're worried it'll be a chore, keeping a health journal doesn't have to be difficult or take up too much time. In fact, you might even find that you have even more time to do the things in life you enjoy with your journal helping you manage your lifestyle and streamline your health routines.