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Psychology of Successful Weight Loss

When it comes to diet and exercise, the healthy path is clear. We know what comprises the Healthy Way of Eating. We understand the key components of a well-rounded fitness program, and we know the resources that can help us adapt its appropriate progression over time. All this said, our health journeys revolve largely around our mental experience. What external messages and internal self-talk can support us along the way? What psychological strategies can we employ to boost our success?  What habits and practices can spur progress and help us stay on track with our goals? Check out these 5 research findings and the take home messages we can apply to our own weight loss journeys.

Research Finding #1:

Study participants who were asked to complete a series of challenging cognitive tasks didn’t exercise as hard in the follow up physical activity compared to a control group.

Take Home Message: It’s important to note that both cognitive and emotional challenges can deplete our willpower reserve. Think through your day (e.g. getting children ready in the morning, demands at work, commuting after work, helping your teenager with homework), and reflect on your fluctuating energy supply. Maybe early morning is best for you before the day’s demands begin. For others, a midday surge feels most potent, or an evening “second wind” offers the most consistent and relaxed time for exercise. Think beyond the scope of workout schedules, however, and choose times when you have the energy and discipline to put together healthy meals and snacks for the day. Again, you may find it a comforting night-before routine or prefer to spend a quiet morning time preparing lunch and putting together that night’s dinner salad. Finally, when the unexpected challenge comes your way and throws a wrench into your energy schedule, have a list of brief but enjoyable ways to reboot. Researchers for the study suggest we have the ability to refill our energy and willpower reserves with relaxing and fun positive choices.

Research Finding #2:

Study participants were more thoughtful about their food intake when they kept a food diary.

Take Home Message: Bad habits thrive on vagueness. The beauty of a food diary is its clarity. In the beginning, it can be the tool that gets us honest about how we eat. As we settle into our new routines, it’s often unnecessary and for some of us even demotivating to continue to track every morsel. That said, it’s a great practice to revisit every once in a while, especially as we hone our healthy diets further or if we hit a fat loss plateau. Consider it a way to boost your beginning efforts or to get back to basics when you need to hit the “refresh” button on your weight loss commitment.

Research Finding #3:

Study participants who maintained their “autonomous” motivation (i.e. desire to lose weight for personal reasons rather than to assuage guilt or bow to others’ pressure) were more likely to experience continuing success in the longer term.

Take Home Message: It’s important to note that all the participants had autonomous/personal motivation to lose weight in the beginning weeks of the program. We generally all begin a weight loss journey with internal motives and ample inspiration! Over time, however, many of us fall away from these motives as the less successful participants did. We pay more attention to keeping up the routine we’ve established (e.g. workout schedule, food plan) than the reasons we’re changing our behavior. It’s imperative we keep our original motivations front and center. Maybe it means creating a weight loss photo board with pictures of our children at the center. Maybe it’s keeping a “mindset” diary of our weight loss journey with inspirational quotes, goals met and future “visions” of what we want to do with our reclaimed health and vitality.

Research Finding #4:

Research examining the impact of team designs on weight loss found that teammates had a significant impact on one another’s outcome, and that the higher participants rated their teammates’ influence, the more successful they were at losing weight.

Take Home Message: Some healthy competition and/or group support can be incredibly motivating. Create a team-based challenge at work or with another social network. Participate in programs like T.E.A.M. Weight Loss and competitions like the 90-Day Challenge. Finally, link up with others to support their journeys while finding inspiration for your own.

Research Finding #5:

A study comparing female participants who received information regarding nutrition and stress with those who participated in a weekly group that discussed body image, emotional eating and personal weight loss difficulties found that covering the emotional issues led to much higher rates of success. The women in the weekly meeting group lost on average 7% of their initial body weight over the course of a year compared to 2% in the women who received health information.

Take Home Message: Being mindful about our senses of body image as well as addressing our emotional behaviors with food can be a critical component of a successful weight loss journey. Receiving support for that exploration can enhance our overall experience and outcome. Working with a weight loss coach or participating in supportive groups can add a deeper level to your health and weight loss program. For many of us, transforming our bodies necessitates changing our inner dialogue and self-concept.

Do these findings ring true for you? Share your thoughts and feedback on the mental and emotional journey toward weight loss success.

Written by Jennifer Wannen, Content Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.



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