Weight loss is more than just calories in and calories out — other factors such as quality of sleep, stress levels and a positive mindset can influence the number on the scale. The latter is important because approaching weight loss with a rock-solid mental game not only sets you up for success to lose weight, but it’ll also help you keep it off long-term.
Here, psychologists share their top advice for using your mindset to help yourself stay on track:
“Put simply, it’s really hard to change a body you don’t like,” says Dr. Heidi J. Dalzell, a clinical psychologist. “It may seem counterintuitive, but weight loss is easiest to achieve when you’ve befriended your body, rather than criticizing it.” This looks different for each person, but practicing affirmations, investing in self-care, and cutting down on negative self-talk are all examples of ways you can get on the same side as your body instead of fighting it.
Believe it or not, this mindset shift makes it easier to do the harder things weight loss requires, Dalzell says, like taking the time to prepare healthy meals, sticking with workouts, and passing on foods you tend to overeat.
“When you notice unhelpful thoughts about your weight, shape or self-worth, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of asking yourself three key questions,” says Christina Pierpaoli Parker, a clinical psychology resident at the University of Alabama Birmingham and a health and behavioral medicine researcher.
- Does this thought work for me or against me?
- Does this sound like something accurate, compassionate or helpful?
- Would I say this same thing to a friend, loved one or anyone else I love and respect?
“Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are related,” explains Parker. “What we think influences what we feel, which informs what we do (or don’t).” When you learn to identify and challenge unhelpful, negative thoughts about your weight and shape, you can interrupt the cycle that keeps you stuck in your old patterns — and that’ll make it a whole lot easier to develop new, healthier ones.
“Defining success in weight, health and fitness has so often been determined by outcomes or results, like the number on the scale or the size pants you wear,” points out Robyn Pashby, a clinical psychologist. We often base our goals on what other people have achieved — a friend lost 15 pounds and they look great, so you want to do the same — or past versions of ourselves — you weighed 150 pounds a few years ago, and you want to get back there.
“But when people shift their mindset to recognize that success is in the doing, not the achieving, then they are able to value successes differently,” says Pashby. It can help to think of success like following a direction, as you would with a compass, instead of arriving at a destination, as you would on a map,” she explains. “As long as you are heading toward a direction you value, you are doing OK.”
“The best way to achieve weight loss is to focus on behavior change rather than focusing on what the scale says,” explains Paul Greene, a clinical psychologist at Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. “Successful, sustained weight loss involves changing habits, and changing them permanently.” That way, you don’t risk re-gaining the weight you lost when you return to pre-weight loss habits. “For this reason, I recommend dietary and exercise changes that feel sustainable over the long-term,” says Greene. “For example, running 5 miles a day will certainly help in the short-term, but it might not be sustainable indefinitely.” Instead, you might focus on running 5 miles three times a week, and walking for an hour on the days you don’t run.
The words you use to describe your weight-loss journey matter, even within your own head. “When you change the story you tell yourself about something, you change how you feel and what you do about it,” explains Parker.
For example, for some people, the word “exercise” might bring up images of a stale, sweaty gym filled with people treadmilling furiously, says Parker. If this conjures a negative feeling, you could try calling it movement instead. “Movement seems like a much more palatable, less discouraging way of discussing it,” he notes. Another example: You might try swapping a word like “dieting” with “eating until I’m almost full.”
No weight-loss journey is linear. But people often feel tempted to give up when they have an “off” day or see the number on the scale rise. “When people are caught in this mindset, they set themselves up to have to be perfect, or to fail,” Pashby says. “But if people embrace the idea setbacks are a normal and expected part of the change process, they tend to bounce back more quickly and pick up right where they left off.”
For instance, people usually brush their teeth several times a day. But if they miss a brushing, they don’t give up on dental health altogether. “Because we are able to recognize that dental care is a series of small actions, taken repeatedly over time, we tend not to judge our own self-worth based on whether or not we brushed our teeth that one day,” explains Pashby. Similarly, if you can learn to see weight-loss behaviors as a series of small actions, performed over time, it becomes easier to keep going, even when you slip up.
“Success in school, work, sports and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by our mindset about our talents and abilities,” says Alan Chu, an assistant professor and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
It can be helpful to focus on having a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. “A growth mindset frames abilities and situations as changeable with hard work, and a fixed mindset frames abilities as inborn and not changeable,” says Chu. A growth mindset allows you to see challenges as opportunities. To try it, Chu recommends adding the word “yet” to any challenge you’re currently dealing with.
- I haven’t reached my ideal weight … yet.
- I’m not making it to the gym three times a week … yet.
- I haven’t figured out an eating plan that works for me … yet.
These types of statements signal to your brain that even though things aren’t exactly how you want them to be right now, you can get where you want to go with time and effort.
Another reason people struggle with weight loss is we commonly expect perfection of ourselves: following a diet to the letter, never missing a workout and so on. Inevitably, we burn out on being perfect and end up back where we started. “Eating well and focusing on your health and weight doesn’t have to mean restricting and never allowing yourself to indulge,” says Candice Seti, certified personal trainer and clinical psychologist. Instead of trying to eat perfectly, Seti recommends asking yourself, “How can I make this a little healthier?”
“You can decide to have a side salad with your burger instead of fries, or to have veggies on your pizza instead of pepperoni,” she notes. By consistently making better choices rather than perfect ones, staying on track becomes easier and more sustainable.
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