How to Achieve Sustainable Weight Loss

Weight loss. Every magazine and fitness expert will tell you they have the answers. The reality is, the majority of individuals will fail at achieving sustainable weight reduction, despite education being more accessible than ever. Instead of getting down in the dumps, it’s time for us to shift the script. I was recently inspired by an article that stated,

Dieting is often synonymous with suffering, so consider the reverse: 95 percent of diets fail people.

While the specific number of “95 percent” is in question, the perspective shift is spot on. More often than not, the individual is not the problem. You were just never given a chance to succeed in the first place. It is possible to be a statistical outlier if you choose to make weight loss… not about weight loss.

Hear me out.

As a Kinesiologist, the most common request I hear is, “I just want to lose weight”. Although this seems like a positive goal, there are multiple things wrong with this statement. Weight loss can be a huge factor in improving health outcomes, but sustainable results don’t come easily. When constructing new fitness goals, we often believe in ourselves far too much — our unbreakable will power, our sky-high motivation… you get the point. The reality is, most weight loss goals fail. If we account for this going in, we have a fighting chance at making real change.

Before you construct your next fitness goal, avoid these three mistakes. No, it won’t guarantee that you lose weight, but it’s a step in the right direction. Wanting to lose weight isn’t the problem, it’s how we’re going about framing it that needs some rewiring.

Let me be a voice of realism and optimism, you can absolutely crush this. You just need to win the battle before you start it. It all begins by setting the right goal.

Three Mistakes You Should Avoid With Weight Loss Goals

Please note that this is only a list on goal setting strategies, and not on the physiological process of weight loss itself. This area is extremely complex, so I’m not suggesting that these strategies alone will result in success. This is a long game, requiring many behavior change adjustments over time.

1) It’s only about weight loss.

Clients will bring up ‘weight loss’ without a deeper rationale for why they’re seeking it. Is it for better health? To look leaner? Because you just had a heart attack? If you want to sustain goals, looking deeper within is essential. The more you can nail down your ‘why’, the easier it is to achieve intrinsic motivation. Seeing the number on the scale go down won’t motivate you forever. It may be an initial driver, but sustainable weight loss should be accompanied by deeper, more intrinsic motivators.

Why can’t I just work to lose 50 lbs and call it a day?

Weight loss is incredibly difficult. The body will do everything to fight back. This phenomenon is called the set point theory. At a certain weight, there will be preset baseline hardwired into the DNA. When we attempt to lose a few pounds, the body will release compensatory measures through hormones to combat weight loss. For example, it will decrease energy expenditure and increase hunger (through hormones like ghrelin) to keep body mass static.

“Essentially, our bodies become our enemy, undermining our efforts at every turn.” — Marschall S. Runge, M.D.

This is why seeking generalized (non-specific) ‘quick fixes’ to weight loss is so dangerous. If you take your foot off the pedal, your body will make you pay. To add insult to injury, one’s psyche takes a hit as well. Many weight loss clients who experience relapse report feelings of anxiety, depression, and shame. This creates more barriers to health interventions down the road.

Weight loss should never be a battle against the self. That’s why we must tweak our goal into something that fulfills intrinsic motivation. It’s subtle, but try to make the motivator behind your weight loss something not about weight loss. Notice the difference in the two statements below.

I want to lose weight to get under 200lbs. or… I want to lose weight to improve my health markers and continue playing with my grandkids for years to come.

This will achieve intrinsic motivation because the work to achieve weight loss is more satisfying for you, as other important facets of life are also being improved. Lesson number one: weight loss is about more than just weight loss.

2) It’s not a SMART goal.

SMART goals are… (S)pecific (M)easurable (A)ttainable (R)elevant (T)ime-based

An easy way to fine-tune a vague goal is to check each one of these boxes. To keep accountable to a new habit, there needs to be as little in questions as possible. By making a goal SMART, you can know exactly what, when, and why you’re doing it. ‘Weight loss’ could mean one hundred different things. Make it personal and realistic for you by doing the preliminary work to make it SMART.

Here is an example:

Specific: I will achieve 10lbs of weight loss by October 1st, 2020 to improve my running economy and beat my son in the local 10km race.

Measurable: 10lbs of weight loss, measured on a scale first thing in the morning with no clothes on.

Attainable: This is achievable because it is a subtle change over an ample period of time.

Relevant: This goal will assist me in my new running habit, along with the physical nature of my job.

Time-based: The goal will be achieved by October 1st, 2020.

Beyond this, we should be striving for systems and not just goals. Yes, goals are great for temporary changes, but they’re rarely sustainable. Trying to maintain a habit without a system is like building a house on a crumbling foundation. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines why systems beat goals time after time.

1. Winners and losers have the same goals. (Do goals really set you apart?) 2. Goals are at odds with long term progress. (You’ve achieved it, now what?) 3. Goals restrict your happiness. (Does happiness have to be conditional?)

Goals can certainly be useful, but they’re not everything. What people often overlook during weight loss is the necessity of proper systems to achieve these goals and turn them into lasting habits. Consider how you can be structuring your habits into systems that make health and wellness more natural in your everyday. Anticipate how you’re going to keep the pounds off before you reach your weight loss goal.

3) The Environment Gets Overlooked

I've mentioned the fundamental attribution error in past posts. This is our tendency to under-emphasize situational (environmental) explanations for an individual’s behavior, while over-emphasizing personality-based explanations for the behavior.

You may think that you’re motivated to lose weight, but if you’re doing a program that doesn’t suit you, you won’t succeed to the level that you could. Please take the time to think about the ‘who, what, and where’ of your weight loss goal. Find things that you love to do, do them where you love to be, and complete them with the people that you love.

To achieve a goal, reduce the requirement to be motivated at every turn. Stop giving yourself a way out through making decisions ahead of time.

Here are a few examples of how you can tweak the environment to your advantage:

  • Set out your workout clothes the night before to reduce any barriers for that early morning run.

  • Seek a workout buddy that will actually hold you accountable.

  • Construct a grocery list before going to the store.

  • Switch gyms to that facility en-route to work.

  • Do you hate exercising alone? Find a running group!

In Closing,

Striving for general ‘weight loss’ is a terrible fitness goal. It’s too vague and often leads to shame and defeat. The reality is, weight loss is extremely complex, and we need a comprehensive plan to find success. Wanting to lose weight is simply not going to cut it most of the time. Finding your ‘why’, constructing a SMART goal, and analyzing the environment won’t guarantee success either, but they’re all steps in the right direction.

You've got this!

You don’t have to obsess over numbers on a scale to lose weight. Real, sustainable change comes when we realize that it runs deeper than that.