It’s the New Year, you’ve resolved to make improvements in your life. Perhaps you want to lose weight. Maybe you want to exercise more, or eat healthier foods. If so, you are in good company. Weight loss remains in the top five most popular New Year’s resolutions, and often tops the list. However, only 8% of people who make these resolutions will actually see success 1. And of the select few who are able to successfully shed the unwanted weight, less than 20% of will keep the weight off into the next year 2. Year after year tens of thousands of individuals make a commitment to exercise more and make healthier food choices, and year after year they fail.
Why we fail so often at weight loss
Why do these resolutions fail so often, and why does weight loss in particular seem to be so difficult? The answer: a fundamental flaw in how we view weight loss. Many people view weight loss as a short-term, oftentimes miserable experience where you must cut out all of the foods you enjoy, exercise endlessly for hours, and give up anything that brings enjoyment and pleasure. Holding this view about weight loss will lead to one of two outcomes: 1) your self-prescribed program is so miserable you quit all together, or 2) you successfully lose the weight, but revert right back to old eating patterns and sedentary lifestyle, hoping to live the rest of your life happily ever after with your new body (remember those statistics from earlier?).
Viewing weight-loss as a short-term process to a life of fitness and happiness will lead to failure. It will also cause you to look for shortcuts (can you say, “raspberry ketones”?) to make this process as quick as possible, in order to limit the potential perceived misery. Often these “quick-fixes” are marketing ploys to get you to spend your money. Who wouldn’t pay good money to lose all the weight they want without exercising, while eating whatever they want, in as little as 6 weeks?
Here’s the truth: Losing weight does NOT have to be miserable, but it also won’t happen through shortcuts. As the saying goes, “You didn’t put the weight on overnight, so it won’t come off overnight.”
Aside from fad diets and other dieting products, here’s the biggest mistake weight-loss hopefuls make when starting a New Year’s resolution (or any weight-loss attempt for that matter): They jump straight to changing their behaviors, without any consideration for their internal beliefs and attitudes. What does this mean? When we start a weight-loss program, we jump straight to changing our eating and exercise behaviors. We eliminate certain foods, we try to eat more vegetables, we exercise more, and try to be generally more active among many other things. However, our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are not mutually exclusive. They are all dependent on one another, and need to be aligned in order for the behavior to be carried out.
Below is a representation of the relationship between our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior.
Our beliefs are our PERCEIVED capability to act, and lay the foundation for behavior 3. Before we ever can carry out the behavior in question, we have to first believe that we are capable of completing it. For example, before you ever commit to running your first 5k, you have to believe that you are physically capable of running. If you have extreme knee pain when running, you might not believe you are capable of completing a 5k, and you would therefore not attempt a running program. In order to successfully carry out any weight-loss behaviors (making healthier food choices, exercising more, etc.), we have to believe that we are capable of doing these things.
Once we believe we are capable of carrying out the behavior, we then have to have a reason for doing it. Our attitudes, or motivations, are our intentions to act 4. If you don’t have a reason to carry out the behavior, you simply won’t. As an example, I am capable of playing a game of chess. I am familiar with the rules and basic strategies that allow me to engage in the activity. However, I am not motivated to play chess. My success at chess does not affect me, and I have very little interest in it. Even though I am capable of playing chess, my lack of motivation (not having any intention) to play means that I simply don’t play chess. If I don’t have a reason to lose weight (I’m comfortable with how I feel, I don’t think I need to lose weight, etc.), then I won’t engage in weight-loss behaviors.
It is important to note that your intentions to act have to outweigh your intentions NOT to act. My reasons for going to the gym have to be stronger than my reasons to stay home. Identifying exactly what motivates you is an important step in this process.
I also want to make a quick note about motivation. Many people think that their weight-loss efforts will come easily as soon as they find the right “motivation.” This idea that motivation is your savior, and will carry you to success, will ultimately lead to failure. The problem with this view is that it assumes motivation is stable (figure 1). If you find the right motivation, it will stay with you forever and will carry you to success–leading you away from temptation and driving you to the gym for early morning workouts.
However, motivation isn’t stable and instead varies in intensity over time (figure 2) 5.
Every single person who begins a New Year’s resolution on January 1st is motivated. Yet, many people give up once they find their motivation lacking. It is important to recognize that your motivation will be strong some days, and weak others. This is a natural part of motivation, as it is affected by external (change in context, people, etc.) and internal (change in wants, needs, goals, etc.) factors 6.
Knowing what motivates you is important for success, but also being able to progress without it is just as important. This is where habit creation becomes important. By creating new (fitness-related) habits, you can carry out the desired behavior even when your motivation isn’t peaking.
Once you believe you are capable of completing the desired behavior, and once you have a reason or intention for doing it, only then will you stand a chance of actually engaging in the desired behavior. If you jump right to changing your behavior without addressing your beliefs and attitudes, you are setting yourself up for failure. Additionally, if your beliefs or attitudes don’t match the behavior, again you will fail at engaging in the behavior. If you want to eat healthier in order to lose weight, but you don’t believe you can give up your favorite junk foods, then your beliefs will affect your attitudes (your motivation to give up junk food) and you will continue to eat junk food.
Once your beliefs, attitudes, and behavior all agree you will be able to begin the process of performing new behaviors. The question then becomes, how to create habits to turn those behaviors into a permanent part of your daily routine (to be discussed in later blog posts). An important thing to remember is that being healthy and active is not an activity, it is a LIFESTYLE. You cannot engage in short-term behaviors and expect long-term success. While being healthy and active does not have to consume your life, it does have to become a permanent part of it.