Weight loss is one of the most common New Year’s Resolutions. According to Nielson 2015,1 weight loss and the more general “stay fit and healthy” account for 69% of the New Year’s resolutions. You’re pumped and motivated, and probably think, “I don’t need a motivation article now!” We’re going to tell you why you’re right–motivation isn’t what you need to succeed this year.
We know you’re motivated now, but it’s important to look at the common reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail…and they often do. According to a study2 tracking over 3000 people and their resolutions, an astounding 88% failed to achieve their goal, despite 52% of people being confident that they would succeed. It’s a wonder why gyms don’t turn into a fast-food chain from April to December.
You don’t need motivation; you need good habits
Most resolutions fail because people treat resolutions like a sprint when it’s a marathon that you need to prepare for. If you plan to run a marathon coming out of the gates like a sprinter, it’s not going to go well. At the beginning of the year, motivation is typically very high, but it’s a big mistake to extrapolate this energy level to you 11 months down the line or even three weeks down the line. After all, you don’t see marathon runners coming out of the gates like Usain Bolt, assuming that they’ll have just as much energy at the 40,000th meter of the marathon. To follow through with a resolution, you need a plan to develop good habits, not a burst of motivation, and herein lies the truth about why fad diets fail year after year–weight loss isn’t about motivation or some “secret sauce recipe” at all.
What’s the difference between motivation and habits? Motivation can help you finish the last rep or fight through the last 50 meters, but it won’t get you to the gym day after day. Motivation can even help you go through an absurd fad diet for a few days and quickly shed 5 or even 10 pounds. The problem is that this type of win is illusory, first for physiological reasons–your body adapts by lowering your metabolism because it thinks you’re starving–but more importantly, because your body is hungry, tired, and stressed, you are draining your motivation away with every struggle. Eventually, your motivation runs out, and your eating habits return to normal, and you regain the extra pounds. Called the rebound effect, sometimes you end up gaining weight because the gorging to release the tension is typically on the empty calorie foods that you were trying to avoid in the first place. The failure here is that your habits remained the same, but you were using a burst of motivation to fight your habits–temporarily.
Motivation isn’t an attribute that some people have more of than others. In truth, it’s more like a muscle that helps you fight adversity (temporarily). If you do push-ups or chin-ups, everyone has a point at which you can do no more without resting, and a similar thing can be said about motivation. Habits inform lifestyle and are the go-to behavior that you are comfortable with. If you fight your habits (say, eating fast food and watching TV), it’s going to stress you, and motivation can only fight this in the short-term. Eventually, your motivation tires just as muscles tire under strain. You need to fundamentally change your habits to make lasting changes. Plans that require constant and consistently high levels of motivation are doomed to fail at the outset. The plan that works is based on developing habits that are healthy over time. Everything you do towards your goal should work under the framework of developing good habits. Below are some practices to-do lists to develop your plan:
1. 1-2 pounds a week; no more
THE BIOLOGY: We’re the descendants of people who efficiently stored energy in the form of fat. The natural six-pack people? They mostly died of starvation tens of thousands of years before the common era in one of those millions of famines that our ancestors went through. Your body doesn’t know that it’s 2016, where calories can be had by simply going to the grocery store or the McDonalds across the street, so your body will fight you fiercely if you starve it; this is by design.
PERSPECTIVE: A lot of people balk at how slow a pound a week sounds. It’s not slow; it’s realistic and healthy. Very few overweight or obese people suddenly gained 100 pounds over weeks; the vast majority of people gain weight over the years, and more often, decades. Why would you think that it only takes weeks to lose it? Losing a pound a week is fast; that’s a loss of 52 pounds in a year. It’s also not trivial; it takes approximately the equivalent of 3500 calories in deficit to lose a pound of weight, or a deficit of 500 calories a day. Know that you have a sustainable healthy goal.
2. Weigh yourself in the morning every…week
THE BIOLOGY: Your body weight fluctuates 2 to 5 pounds in a day, mostly based on hydration levels. You’re trying to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week. If you weigh yourself every day, you’re looking mostly at fluctuation and variance, not an accomplishment.
PERSPECTIVE: Writing down goals is one of the most effective ways to realize it. This is also true with a goal like weight loss, but unlike many quantifiable goals, body weight fluctuates a lot in the very short-term, and you need to keep this in mind. It’s important not to dwell on the number too much, or it could become a source of motivation loss. Most people weigh close to a pound less in the morning, so jumping on the scale isn’t always motivating if you are trying to lose a pound a week. Be patient, weigh yourself at the same time, and don’t mind the temporary setbacks. Almost anyone can lose 10 pounds of water in a day through sheer willpower (definitely do NOT try this), but that’s not your goal.
3. Get that gym membership
THE BIOLOGY: Do you need a gym membership to get fit? Certainly not. If money is tight, there are great routines that require no equipment and almost no space.3 In the age of the Internet, the information is all out there so if you have a goal, you don’t need a professional trainer or a gym membership. Do I think that you should get a gym membership? Definitely.
PERSPECTIVE: What does a gym offer? At a basic level, you’re paying for space, equipment, and depending on the gym, access to trainers, classes, and other amenities like spas, saunas, and showers. For many people though, the camaraderie and being around other people who prioritize exercise and health is an under-appreciated benefit. It’s hard not to be influenced by the habits and choices of people around you, and the gym is where you find people who recharge their energy at the gym. Going to the gym builds a self-reinforcing ritual which makes exercise less of a chore and one step closer to being the person that is recharged by exercise rather than drained.
One pro-tip: Choose a gym that is near your house or work. Getting to the gym is far harder than the workout that you do at the gym–you need help getting there. You want to ensure that the gym works with your schedule. It doesn’t need to be open 24 hours, but it needs to be open when you want to go in. Remember that you’re trying to develop and reinforce good habits.
4. Lift weights ladies! No, you won’t look like a bodybuilder
THE BIOLOGY: Muscle building (of the magnitude bodybuilders aspire to) requires a caloric surplus, and particularly massive amounts of protein–so much that most people cannot take in so much through natural foods (hence the protein shakes). Women have an extra challenge “bulking up” due to the lower levels of testosterone their body produces.
PERSPECTIVE: A lot of women shy away from weight training afraid that they would look bulky. If it were that easy to get a bodybuilder’s physique, don’t you think that most young men would look like Arnold? Nope, you won’t look like a body-builder (if you DO want to bulk up, it’ll take a whole other level of training and nutritional changes) but you will look more toned, healthy, and your skin will look tighter and younger.4 It will also raise your base metabolic rate, meaning that you will burn more calories simply by just being there.
5. Food is not your enemy
BIOLOGY: Food is your fuel and your friend. Never start with a plan that leaves you feeling starved or unsatisfied, and never feel guilty about eating. Eat plenty of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. A healthy dose of lean meat, and a smaller amount of bread (preferably brown or multi-grain), rice, or other carbohydrates, are all good and right. Don’t skip meals.
PERSPECTIVE: If you view food as your enemy, you’ve already lost the battle. Any plan that starves you or constantly leaves you hungry is doomed to fail because you are fighting against biology. Fighting hunger can be done for a short time, but motivation can’t ward off hunger. Once you drain your motivation away from fighting hunger, you’re going to go back to your old habits and rebound on unhealthy food. Worse, you’ll feel like you failed, which again is a powerful de-motivator. A very motivated person can lose 10 or 15 pounds in a week (mostly water) but it serves no purpose because that weight loss has no chance of sticking, not to mention that it’s incredibly unhealthy. You need a diet plan that leaves you satiated and happy to be able to continue.
6. Throw in a cheat day, and don’t beat yourself up when you have a setback
THE BIOLOGY: Your body adapts to the caloric deficit by producing leptin,5 a hormone that makes you hungry. Introducing a change in fat levels can reset hormone levels to normal.
PERSPECTIVE: Leptin has been shown in mice studies to control hunger levels. While we’re not mice, our biological makeup has similar protection mechanisms to prevent starvation. A cheat day can help your body readjust so that it doesn’t think it’s on a “diet” which it fights fiercely by making you hungrier. Cheat days also help you keep motivated. Eating lean chicken and veggies day after day can be daunting.
Finally, setbacks will happen. Family obligations, other social and work obligations, stress, and any number of unavoidable interferences will happen. These “inadvertent cheat days” are a part of life. Don’t beat yourself up and feel guilty over every transgression. Guilt is a terrible motivator, and it’s an emotional response to a short-term setback. Once you realize that the big picture is about changing habits and working towards a sustainable goal, small setbacks won’t affect you negatively. Enjoy the occasional transgression, love yourself, and hit the gym the next day.
3 7 minute scientific workout: Only a chair and a bit of space required. Recommended if you just don’t have time.