Set the Right Goals
Setting the right goals is an important first step. Most people trying to lose weight focus just on weight loss. However, you’ll be more successful if you focus on dietary and exercise changes that lead to long-term weight change. Successful weight managers select no more than two or three goals at a time.
Effective goals are (1) specific, (2) attainable, and (3) forgiving. “Exercise more” is a commendable ideal, but it’s not specific. “Walk five miles every day” is specific and measurable, but is it attainable if you’re just starting out? “Walk 30 minutes every day” is more attainable, but what happens if you’re held up at work or there’s a thunderstorm? “Walk 30 minutes, five days each week” is specific, attainable, and forgiving. In short, a great goal!
Nothing Succeeds Like Success
Select a series of short-term goals that get you closer and closer to the ultimate goal (for example, consider reducing fat intake from 40 percent of calories to 35 percent and later to 30 percent). Nothing succeeds like success. This strategy employs two important behavioral principles: (1) consecutive goals that move you ahead in small steps are the best way to reach a distant point, and (2) consecutive rewards keep the overall effort invigorated.
Reward Success (But Not with Food)
You’re more likely to keep working toward your goal if you are rewarded—especially when goals are difficult to reach. An effective reward is something that is desirable, timely, and contingent on meeting your goal. Your rewards may be tangible (e.g., a movie or music CD or a payment toward buying a more costly item) or intangible (e.g., an afternoon off from studying or just an hour of quiet time away from the daily demands of school). As you meet small goals, give yourself numerous small rewards; don’t wait to meet your ultimate goal for a single reward. The long, difficult effort might lead you to give up.
Balance Your (Food) Checkbook
Keeping track of your behavior—observing and recording calorie intake, servings of fruits and vegetables, exercise frequency and duration, or any other wellness behavior—can help alter that behavior. Self-monitoring usually changes a behavior in the desired direction and can produce “real-time” records for you and your health care provider. For example, you can track your exercise progress. A ¬record of increasing exercise encourages you to keep up the good work. If the record shows little or no progress, you know that a change of strategy is needed. Some people find that specific self-monitoring forms make it easier, while others prefer to use their own recording system.
Although you don’t need to step on the scale every day, monitoring your weight regularly (once a week) can help you maintain your lower weight. Use a graph rather than a list or calendar notations so that you have a picture of cumulative progress. Changes in your body’s water content, rather than fat content, are responsible for most of the up-and-down fluctuations from day to day. A long-term downward trend reflects fat losses.
Avoid a Chain Reaction
Identify the social or environmental cues that seem to encourage undesirable eating, and then change those cues. For example, you may learn from reflection or self-monitoring that you’re more likely to overeat while watching television, when treats are on display at the campus café, or when you’re around a certain friend. You might then try to break the association between eating and the cue (don’t eat while watching television), avoid or eliminate the cue (avoid sitting near the display counter), or change the circumstances surrounding the cue (plan to meet with your friend in nonfood settings). In general, visible and accessible food items often are cues for unplanned eating.
Get the (Fullness) Message
Changing the way you go about eating can make it easier to eat less without feeling deprived. It takes 15 or more minutes for your brain to get the message you’ve been fed. Slowing the rate of eating can allow satiation (fullness) signals to begin by the end of the meal. Eating lots of vegetables also can make you feel fuller. Another trick is to use smaller plates so that moderate portions do not appear meager. Changing your eating schedule, or setting one, can be helpful, especially if you tend to skip or delay meals and overeat later.
The Backsliding Phenomenon
You’ve just signed a contract with yourself to avoid high-fat desserts for one month when you’re presented with an array of your favorite “to die for” desserts. You say to yourself, “just this once” and satisfy your craving. Most of us have experienced the “backsliding phenomenon” in which we have lost our resolve and slipped back into a former bad habit. When it happens, be prepared for it and move on with your resolve. You’re most apt to backslide when you’re tempted by something unexpected and your self-control is threatened. You can remove high-fat snacks from your home, but not from other places you eat. Imagine tempting situations in your mind’s eye and practice coping with them successfully. If you do slip, don’t waste time with self-blame. Learn from the experience and get back on track.
Source: Adapted from National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Guide to Behavior Change. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/behavior.htm. Accessed 6/18/09.