The early days of a weight-loss journey are often the best. Your motivation’s sky-high, you’ve got a foolproof nutrition and exercise plan, and you’re seeing regular weigh-ins show your hard work is paying off. But as time goes on, it’s normal for that supercharged enthusiasm to wane as setbacks like weight-loss plateaus, cravings and emotional eating arise.
“People often find weight loss requires doing things they don’t fully enjoy such as cutting out desserts, eating only bland foods, weighing and measuring portions, and engaging in high-intensity exercises that we dread,” says Alida Iacobellis, RD. It’s natural: When you don’t enjoy doing something, you don’t feel motivated to continue doing it.
If you’ve hit a wall with your weight-loss plan, know that your problem is not a lack of willpower — you just need to make healthy habits more enjoyable and boost your motivation to stick with them for the long-haul. “We all have three psychological needs that must be satisfied in order to feel motivated: autonomy (a sense of control), competence (a sense of effectiveness) and relatedness (a sense of connection),” says Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.
To get back your weight-loss motivation, experts share their best tips:
TWEAK YOUR WEIGHT-LOSS TIMELINE
It’s easy to feel low on motivation when you don’t see results, especially since we’re entrenched in a diet culture that often sells lose-weight-quick schemes. But the reality is, sustainable weight loss takes time, and there’s no healthy way to speed up the clock. Focus on what you can control: your expectations. Opt for a more realistic weight-loss timeline. Aim to lose a maximum of 1–2 pounds per week, while reminding yourself your weight will naturally vary from week to week. Remember: Even an “insignificant” amount of weight loss is still progress, says Carrie Kirkland, RD.
REROUTE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Thoughts like “I’m not losing weight fast enough!” or “I don’t have enough time to work out today!” zap motivation because they’re zoomed in on what you can’t control, says Chu. Here, a simple mindfulness practice can help give you a motivation boost. Pay attention to your thoughts and label negative thoughts centered on what you can’t control and then shift to what you can control. (“I can’t control how fast I lose weight or how busy my day has become, but I can keep eating whole foods instead of processed ones, stick to my daily calorie goal and reschedule my workout for tomorrow.”)
“With healthy eating, we so often get stuck feeling and believing that unless we follow the plan 100%, we’ve failed and might as well give up,” says Iacobellis. However, research suggests this all-or-nothing mindset may actually lower your chances of losing weight. To increase your motivation, be compassionate with yourself and channel the understanding way you’d respond to a friend or loved one when you don’t make the best choice. Ask yourself what led to this decision, strategize about what you can do differently in the future and commit to making a better choice next time. For example, overindulged on pizza at lunch? Instead of giving up, plan to fill half your plate with salad next time and prepare a healthy meal for that night’s dinner. You’ll be glad you did.
SET AND TRACK SMART GOALS
Vague, lofty goals like “Lose 20 pounds!” might seem exciting at first, but ultimately, they’re not motivating because you can’t see or track your progress. What to do: Break your big-picture goal into smaller SMART goals based on the lifestyle changes that will ultimately get you there, suggests Kirkland.
SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timebound. So, if you want to “drink less soda” to cut down on empty liquid calories, try: “I will decrease my soda consumption from 24 ounces per day to 12 ounces by ordering a medium instead of a large at the drive-thru at least three days a week for the next month.” Log your progress in an app like MyFitnessPal. Then, once your goal is met, take it a step further or add a new one.
DISPLAY HELPFUL REMINDERS
To motivate yourself to stick with SMART goals, create a visual reminder in a place where it will be most impactful, suggests Kirkland. For instance, if you’re trying to swap late-night ice cream for more nutrient-dense snacks, write your goal on a sticky note and put it on your freezer door. To encourage yourself to increase your step count at work, hang a colorful sign by your desk.
CELEBRATE NON-SCALE VICTORIES
When it’s taking longer than you’d wish for the number on the scale to change, taking pride in other accomplishments can help reignite your weight-loss motivation. Every time you hit a SMART goal or notice a non-scale victory, take a moment to acknowledge your progress and treat yourself to a non-food reward, whether that’s new clothes or workout gear, a magazine subscription, a phone call with a friend or some “me” time to relax, says Kirkland.
MAKE MEAL PREP EASIER
It’s no surprise a study in Public Health Nutrition finds not having enough time for healthy eating can be a real barrier to keeping your weight-loss motivation up. The fix: Simplify meal prep. Stock up on pre-cut fruits and veggies for snacks and frozen vegetables for quick and easy sides, suggests Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD. If you can afford it, consider a delivery service for groceries and meals, and instead of cooking every single night, prepare protein in batches.
REVISIT RESTAURANT MENUS
Keeping your motivation up requires making sustainable changes, not being perfect 24/7. You don’t have to eat all home-cooked meals, says Young. Another way to reboot your weight-loss motivation: Create a go-to list of healthier fast-food and fast-casual options you can include to change things up and prevent feeling deprived. If you’re dining out, try these healthy eating restaurant hacks.
REVAMP YOUR VEGGIES
Vegetables are key for any successful weight-loss plan — they’re nutritious and low in calories yet filling thanks to their fiber content. If you’ve resigned yourself to a plain salad or steamed veggies with few seasonings, though, it’s easy to feel unmotivated to fill half your plate with them, says Iacobellis. Instead, find recipes that enhance the flavor and texture of your favorite vegetables. Simple changes like roasting, grilling and adding aromatics like garlic can make your meals more satisfying. You can also try making easy DIY sauces to improve the flavor and add extra nutrients.
FILL UP ON PROTEIN
If hunger is getting in the way of your weight-loss motivation, try including a source of protein in every meal and snack to stave off cravings and keep you full, says Iacobellis. A few to include on your next grocery list: hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, nuts, chicken, fish, lean beef, shrimp, beans, quinoa, tofu and lentils.
Excessively restrictive eating plans set you up for failure, draining your energy and motivation. Ask yourself: “Can I eat like this for the next 12 months or the rest of my life?” If the answer’s no, it’s time to dial down the intensity, says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD. For example, if you have nagging hunger pangs, increase your daily calorie intake, track macros to make sure your meals are balanced and filling or even alternate between weight-loss and weight-maintenance periods.
REMIX YOUR EXERCISE ROUTINE
Many of us self-sabotage our weight-loss efforts by choosing ways to move more that we don’t look forward to or can’t realistically stick with long-term. “Exercises that are too difficult make us feel bad and lead to quitting, so find an exercise routine that is challenging but not too challenging. You should feel empowered as you move forward,” says Chu. Make a list of “yes!” workouts you know work for your preferences and lifestyle. Then, figure out how and when you can fit them into your schedule.
BUILD UP YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM
Research shows surrounding yourself with people who support your weight-loss efforts without judgment, criticism or unsolicited advice can help increase your motivation to stick it out. While trying to lose weight in a bubble may make you feel like you’re suffering alone, finding accountability buddies can help combat this, says Chu. There are numerous ways to do this, even during COVID-19: Join an online weight-loss community like MyFitnessPal, ask a friend or family member to be your workout partner or join a virtual workout class.
CLEAN UP YOUR FEED
Another common drain on motivation is comparing yourself to others on social media, which can make you feel as if you’re suffering alone in your weight-loss journey, says Chu. If scrolling through a slew of weight-loss transformation shots and super-fit influencers gets you down, take some time to unfollow these accounts and follow people who document the highs and lows of your shared experience. “Registered dietitians and certified personal trainers are also worth seeking out for healthy recipes and exercises you can add to your own routine,” says Kirkland.
CREATE AN EVENING SELF-CARE ROUTINE
Two big knocks on weight-loss motivation are a lack of sleep and stress, says Young. When you’re low on sleep and overwhelmed with life, it’s not only hard to keep your motivation up — it’s also physically more difficult to lose weight due to out-of-whack hormones that drive up hunger and cravings. Your recovery strategy: Make time for a self-care routine to wind down at the end of the day, ideally an hour or so before a set bedtime that ensures you get 7–8 hours of sleep. Try reading, gentle stretching or a hot bath.
READ MORE > 17 FREE WAYS TO PRACTICE SELF-CARE
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Finally, if you’re feeling unmotivated, don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor, registered dietitian or therapist. Working with a pro can help you identify what may be holding you back in your weight-loss journey, from mental hang-ups to physical health conditions. They’ll also help you design a personalized plan, provide guidance as you move forward and help keep you accountable.
Make progress every day while you work on mini nutrition and fitness goals, like learning to track macros or walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.