“I want to lose weight.” is probably the single most used response when I ask people what they want to achieve at the gym. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a difficult task for the lay person (though there are obviously some medical exceptions); focusing on eating healthy and unprocessed foods, cutting down on the snacking, reducing your alcohol intake, managing your stress, and of course partaking in regular exercise should do the trick. But for something that sounds so easy, why is it so hard and in some cases near on impossible for people to achieve?
Many years of experience have taught me that people can struggle with the various psychological factors involved in losing weight. These include habit breaking and forming, understanding motivation and behaviour change cycles, and not having the mental strength or belief required to succeed.
Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation for achieving a goal, like weight loss, comes from an inner desire or love for something, whereas extrinsic motivation comes in the form of a reward for achieving a goal. When people are intrinsically motivated they are more likely to stick to a task or hit their target. With regards to losing weight, for some it’s very difficult to find that internal desire as they dislike changing the way they eat, or don’t enjoy exercise. This is not to say that having a reward doesn’t work, but the more material the goal, the less likely it is to keep you engaged for long term change.
… Professor Ben Fletcher, author of ‘Flex: Do Something Different’ suggests that using willpower to break habits just soaks up energy resources and, just like a muscle, it will become tired if overworked.
So, how do you overcome this lack of real motivation? I always give my clients who are looking to lose weight (and keep it off) a simple task to write down all the reasons they’d like to lose weight and change their lifestyle. It’s important to focus on why it would improve their own life, rather than doing it for others (e.g. seeking external approval). Another top tip involves documenting all the emotions involved – i.e. how losing the weight will make your life better and what negativity is felt by living a life that makes you unhappy. A task like this can help uncover that hidden intrinsic motivation that is needed to spark you into action.
Plan to Win
Determining the ‘right’ time to start a weight management plan is essential for success. By this I don’t mean that you should only start when your social calendar allows it! Identifying when you are (or will be) mentally capable of committing fully to your goals will give you far greater chances of achieving the success you crave.
In their book ‘Changing for good’, Prochaska and colleagues1 talk about how we all go through behavioural change cycles. The five key stages they identified are directly relevant for weight loss:
- Stage 1 – Pre-contemplation: At this stage people are in denial over their need for change; they may embark on diet plans under duress of others and will rarely achieve success.
- Stage 2 – Contemplation: This is the stage when a person acknowledges that they have a problem and like to talk about it, read about it and think about it. In fact, they like to do anything except act on it.
- Stage 3 – Preparation: Preparing for action! This can involve seeking out a personal trainer, getting a gym membership, looking at suitable food plans, preparing meals, or anything that helps to mentally prepare. A key part of this stage is going public with your intentions to help push you into action.
- Stage 4 – Action: This stage is busy and time consuming. New foods and exercise plans will dominate your thoughts and actions whilst you embed a new routine into your life and battle against urges to fall back into bad habits. At this stage you need to surround yourself with friends and family who are supportive of your goals, to silence the negative influences.
- Stage 5 – Maintenance: Remember, change never ends with action. Once you begin to make gains and see some results, there is a chance that support from your peer group may dwindle. You need to stay strong and focused at this point, as an extensive period of maintenance is required to fully embed the new habits into your life for the long term. This period may take years – it certainly isn’t an overnight success story.
Do you recognise where you are in the cycle of your own weight loss journey? A top tip I use with my own clients to help them reach stage 4, is to list all the positives and negatives involved in losing weight. If your list of positives outweighs your negatives, then you are ready to take action.
There is no getting round it, breaking bad habits is hard. If it wasn’t then people like me wouldn’t spend so much time coaching clients or writing articles about how to help, so please do not beat yourself up about it if you have fallen off the wagon at any stage.
Eating behaviour is particularly tricky to alter as it is so deeply engrained into your life. Since day one on this planet you will have been seeking out energy resources to survive, so from the very first time you cried to communicate your hunger, to reaching for the box of chocolates when you are feeling down, food is tied up with a multitude of actions, emotions, and situations – so it’s unrealistic to think you can just give something up easily and solely rely on willpower. In fact, Professor Ben Fletcher, author of ‘Flex: Do Something Different’2 suggests that using willpower to break habits just soaks up energy resources and, just like a muscle, it will become tired if overworked. He believes that a more effective approach is to try creating new habits and new brain connections. Start small and try adding something new into your routine each week.
Bandura’s research found that a person’s beliefs about themselves are a greater predictor of future success than anything they have achieved in the past. Based on these theories, it makes sense to improve your general self-efficacy to help you achieve your weight loss goals.
Pete Cohen, in his book “Habit Busting”3 discusses how changing your beliefs about yourself can help you achieve more success when it comes to breaking habits. He states that it’s important that you have self-efficacy beliefs that support your goal. ‘Self-efficacy’ is a term first coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, and describes the belief that you can achieve a particular task and have the capabilities and resources to do so. Bandura’s research4 found that a person’s beliefs about themselves are a greater predictor of future success than anything they have achieved in the past. Based on these theories, it makes sense to improve your general self-efficacy to help you achieve your weight loss goals.
To do this, Cohen suggests a really effective and simple task of noting down any examples where you have achieved success, or done something you were proud of or have excelled at. The point of this is to highlight successes to yourself, no matter how big or small, thereby proving to you that you are fully capable of achieving what you want in this life and reminding you how nice it feels to be successful. Even completely unrelated success stories will help improve your belief system.
As you can see, it can take a bit more than being told to eat less and move more to make positive, healthy and long term changes to your bodyweight. I hope this article has given you an insight into how the mind plays a huge role in reaching your goals and if you’re struggling with your weight and want to make real progress, then please, try some of the recommended tasks rather than giving up!
- Prochaska, J.O, Norcross, J.C & Diclemente, C.C. (1998). Changing for Good. (2nd) United States: Harper Collins.
- Fletcher, B., & Pine, K. (2012). Flex: Do something different. University of Hertfordshire Press.
- Cohen, P & Cummins, S. (2002). Habit Busting. Great Britain: Thorsons.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control. United States: Worth Publishers.