January came and per usual – my first resolution was LOSE WEIGHT. But this year not only is the number on the scale higher than last year (thank you COVID) my motivation is the lowest it has ever been (again-thank you COVID)! I went back to work full-time this year, so not only am I sitting for 8 hours a day, I have that much less time to workout. I rarely see others, and there are few events to go to so I am far less inspired to work on slimming down to get back into some of my smaller clothes.
My husband, who is much more dedicated than me, gave up alcohol for January, is on a keto diet, and is exercising most days. He challenged me to compete with him-one pound of every 2 pounds he loses and the winner gets a prize. My response: Meh. (I already know he is going to win.) My repeated self-sabotage of my weight loss goals is sure evidence that motivation is an issue for me. But if I am the problem, then I must be the solution, right? All of this introspection got me curious about why it is so hard to stick to weight loss resolutions. I flipped on my computer and decided to do a bit of research on the topic, in hopes I might learn something to solidify my resolve. I’m not a nutritionist or weight counselor, but I share here a bit of what I learned:
THE EFFECT OF STRESS
There is no doubt that as we enter our third year of COVID the cycling alarm signals we have been receiving has elevated our stress. As creatures of habit the routines we have around eating and drinking create a feeling of calm – personally I like to have a glass of wine when I make dinner at night to “transition” into the evening. During periods of stress and anxiety we lose a bit of our conscious control and are drawn to higher calorie and sugar-enriched foods because they comfort us. And all of the stress in our bodies increases cortisol, which can actually lead to weight gain. Improving mental health is a critical factor in achieving weight loss goals.
EXTRINSIC VS INTRINSIC MOTIVATION
This is an important concept to understanding motivation for any kind of goal. Extrinsic motivation is what usually motivates us to think about losing weight – for instance, if your doctor tells you you need to lose weight, or maybe you don’t like how you look in a photo. It is something that is done with the goal of getting a reward or to avoid punishment and can be a good kickstart to achieving a goal. But intrinsic motivation is the key to sticking with a behavior you are trying to change. It is the internal sense of accomplishment from the behavior itself. The workout “high” or the satisfaction of abstaining from that beer can be its own reward. Researchers indicate getting to deeper intrinsic reasons that are connected to your values may help sustain your motivation in the long run. A quick exercise: List out 3 lifestyle changes you want to make, list the extrinsic reasons for each, then try to turn your extrinsic reasons into intrinsic ones. Example:
Lifestyle change: Exercise more
Extrinsic: To fit into a dress that is too small
Intrinsic: To feel confident in my body
Building intrinsic motivation requires doing things that you enjoy, so dance don’t jog. The goal is to get to a “flow”state where you are so focused you lose track of time.
Setting your intention is frequently mentioned as the most important step in losing weight. However, in addition to the big goal, for instance ”I want to lose 20 pounds” it is vital to create process goals that are short term, specific, and achievable: “This week I will only eat fruits and vegetables between lunch and dinner.” Goals like this are more about what you are doing rather than the end goal, which may feel unattainable. Goals should also be a combination of activities related to lifestyle, as exercising on its own is unlikely to cause significant weight loss. But how many goals is appropriate? I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer on this, but one study found that frequently setting the goals and changing them for variety helps to keep motivation up and has a better chance of weight loss. Sharing your goals publicly, whether with your family or with friends, has a positive impact on your ability to succeed.
No matter what your goals are, they must be realistic, or they will cause frustration and are less likely to be successful. A study at a weight loss center indicated that participants who had the largest weight-loss goals were the most likely to give up. I am never going to be a size 2, so I am not going to set that goal! It’s also key to be realistic about your diet. Saying you are never going to have ice cream may be too restrictive and actually cause you to overindulge. It is okay to have foods you love in moderation, to what I say bring on the chips and salsa!
Tracking what you eat and measuring your weight regularly are very effective strategies in behavioral psychology for weight loss. They can help you to build awareness, see patterns, and hold yourself accountable. There are many tools out there: Weight Watchers, Noon, Lose It, for example, that enable you to track food, exercise, and weight. Weighing yourself every few days to once a week is recommended instead of every day, as our weight changes from day to day. Tracking requires discipline, and self discipline I can attest is a muscle that needs strengthening, but every time you use it you strengthen it for future weak moments.
CALL IN YOUR FRIENDS
“Good company on a journey makes the way seem shorter.” Izaak Walton
Taken quite literally, walking 3 miles may seem like 1 mile when walking with a friend! Finding others with similar goals has been found to increase the likelihood of sticking with them – it keeps you engaged and makes it more fun! Additionally, having a scheduled workout with someone else, whether it’s a class you have signed up for or an agreement to exercise every Tuesday morning, provides a structure to your week and most importantly — accountability. It is more difficult to worm your way out of exercise when someone is counting on you to show up. If you have chosen to try a diet along with a friend, you can share recipes as well as your struggles, and provide encouragement to each other when your commitment is lagging.
So while I haven’t completely figured out my weight loss “why,” I know that motivation really requires a change of heart. I have begun to use the strategies above to boost my motivation, and now that I have stated my intentions publicly, hopefully my chance of success. If not, there’s always next year!
By Kristin Shopp, Resident since 2014