Week 1: Take Baby Steps
Ever start a diet or workout routine with the enthusiasm of a late-night infomercial host only to have your motivation disappear in no time flat like a canceled sitcom? You're not alone. Research shows that a quarter of weight-loss plans fall by the wayside within two weeks. On the other hand, stick it out for a month and your odds of success skyrocket. "Doing something for 30 days ingrains and strengthens the brain's neural pathways, so you're likely to keep that behavior going on autopilot," says Lawrence Perlmuter, PhD, a professor of psychology at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago. Use our four-week bail-proof guide to survive the first crucial month of a healthy-lifestyle makeover without losing your thin-spiration.
Like a Marine drill sergeant with a class of new recruits, you're at your motivational peak. But trying to do too much too soon can sabotage even the best-laid weight-loss plans. "Make small, steady progress toward your ultimate goal during the first week — no drastic changes," recommends psychologist John Norcross, PhD, coauthor of Changing for Good.
Stick-with-It Strategies for Week 1
Aim to make one tweak a day: Add a new fruit to breakfast, skip your before-dinner cocktail, take a walk after lunch, do whatever you can to nudge your weight down. Once you adjust to these new habits, it will be easier to add more ambitious exercise and diet changes as the month goes on, Norcross says.
Don't waste your willpower.
A recent study published in Psychology & Health suggests that people have a finite amount of self-control, and that it can run dry, just like a bank account. To keep from depleting your source of inner strength during this first week, avoid situations that present temptations. Plan to have dinner at home instead of at restaurants; don't walk by the doughnut shop on your way to work. And squeeze in a workout first thing in the morning, before your motivation runs out.
Vary your vocab.
Saying you "should" do something, like exercise, immediately implies that you feel the activity is a burden, says Michael Sachs, PhD, an exercise psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Instead, replace should with want in your vocabulary. "By telling yourself that you want to work out today, you'll get into the right mind-set to go to the gym," Sachs says.
Do the write thing.
You've heard that jotting down your weight-loss goals makes them more likely to stick. "The very act reinforces them in your mind," Perlmuter says.
Week 2: K.O. Cravings
Congrats! Seven days down and you're still with the program. Next challenge: Squelching the urge to splurge. "Cravings worsen during the second week of a diet," says Elisa Zied, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson and the author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. It's partly physical — your body isn't used to running on fewer calories — and partly psychological. Suddenly, treats become more desirable simply because they're off-limits.
Stick-with-It Strategies for Week 2
Downsize your sweet tooth.
Adjust your palate by reducing sweets to only 10 percent of your caloric intake. So if you eat 1,600 calories a day, allow yourself a 160-calorie indulgence (about six Hershey's Kisses or a half cup of Dreyer's Grand Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream). "Giving up too much makes you feel deprived," Zied says. "By gradually cutting back on sweets, you'll eventually stop craving them.
Get fitter with Twitter.
Tempted to make a beeline for the candy machine? Tweet an S.O.S., suggests Connie Diekman, RD, director of university nutrition at Washington University in Saint Louis. You might write, "Candy bar craving! Need ideas for healthy alternatives." You'll be bombarded with supportive, encouraging words.
Work it out.
Pining for a peanut butter cup? Take a hike. "Exercise eases stress and distracts you from thinking about food," says Heather Chambliss, PhD, a professor at the University of Memphis specializing in health behavior and exercise motivation. In a recent study in the journal Appetite, a 15-minute stroll reduced cravings in chocoholics, perhaps because exercise boosts levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain. Another study found that working out may release satiety hormones that keep your appetite in check for a full 24 hours.
Picture a new you.
Find an old snapshot of yourself that you love and post it on your fridge as a reminder of your goal for when the munchies hit. Keeping images of a trimmer you top of mind may help you think like a thin person, making it easier to choose healthy foods and toss out negative thoughts that could sabotage your diet, Perlmuter says.
Week 3: Find Support
Make the world your ally.
In Norcross's research on dieters trying to keep New Year's resolutions, those who took their promises public fared best. No need to wait until your next dinner party; spill the beans ASAP by starting a blog. The pressure will keep you on track: "If you cheat on your diet or stop exercising, you let down your readers as well as yourself," Norcross points out.
Find fit friends.
Enlist a pal to be your regular gym buddy so that you have someone to keep you accountable and share your struggles with. If you can't find a willing recruit, no worries; just ask a friend to check in with you every few days to see how your workouts and eating are going, Chambliss suggests. Making friends at the gym can help too. Strike up a conversation with the biker next to you, scan the bulletin board for workout buddies, or sign up for a group fitness class.
Walk or run with people who are faster than you or position yourself next to speed demons in Spinning class so you'll push yourself to keep up. This also works outside the gym. "In the mall parking lot, try to beat other people to a store's entrance," Chambliss suggests, "or race up the stairs to see if you can arrive before someone who is taking the elevator." Even these mini triumphs will keep your motivation high.
Tech yourself out.
Set the alarm on your cell for when it's time to head to the gym (some phones have a "remind me" feature that will send you a text message). Clock your meals too: Eat breakfast within 45 minutes of getting up, then program the alarm to go off every three hours to remind you to have a small meal or snack, Diekman says. Eating frequently helps steady your blood sugar levels, keeping energy up and appetite down.
Week 4: Solidify Changes
Stick-with-It Strategies for Week 4
List all the changes you've made in the previous three weeks and star the ones that have been easiest to maintain. Is bypassing booze something you can keep up forever? What about working out every day? Modify any changes that are proving difficult (hit the gym four times a week, not seven!) and keep only the ones you can live with permanently, Zied suggests.
Create an exercise alter ego.
"Calling yourself a runner, swimmer, or cyclist can make it easier to stick with the activity because it's now part of your identity," Chambliss says. You'll be less likely to blow off exercise sessions, as fitness is no longer simply a means to a weight-loss end; it is the end. Reinforce your new, athletic persona by surrounding yourself with like-minded people. Start a biking group (try meetup.com) or join a running club (go to rrca.org to find one near you).
Plan for real life.
Let's face it, sometimes you're going to pig out on kung pao chicken or skip your date with the stairclimber. Slip-ups are inevitable; it's how you respond that matters. "Feeling strong enough to get back on the wagon right away is empowering," Zied says. Don't beat yourself up over those egg rolls; go through your takeout menus and highlight five healthy options. Set up a plan B for no-gym days, even if it's as simple as running around the block or doing lunges and squats in your living room.
Believe in yourself.
Borrow a page from a kids' book and chant, "I think I can!" when your willpower reserves run low. Sounds cheesy, but it can make the difference between powering to the top of the hill on your a.m. run and wimping out. Newbie exercisers who strongly believed in their ability to succeed were most likely to still be exercising one year later, according to research from Miriam Hospital in Providence. So leave your no-can-do attitude in the dust and hit the road to a better body for life.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2010