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Mind over matter: Why losing weight isn't just about working out

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What if I told you losing weight and getting fit is less about what you do and more about how you think?

That’s an interesting statement. We’re led to believe losing weight and getting fit is all about doing: what to eat or not to eat, what to do for cardio, what to do for weightlifting, what to do for stretching, and on and on – do, do, do! We’re so busy doing but we don’t stop to think, and that is where we doom ourselves to fail before we even begin. 

After a 20+ year career in fitness coaching, literally watching thousands of people both fail and succeed in their effort to make a lasting change in their health, fitness and weight, I’ve concluded one very important thing – start with the mind, not the body. This conclusion comes for working with and observing people who have been incredibly successful, as well as people who have failed many times.

The common thread between ALL the successful clients? They set themselves up for success by cultivating the right mindset and environment in which they could be successful first, and then they went about the business of doing -- what to eat, how to exercise, etc. The common denominator among people who failed? They rushed into doing, blindly, without thinking first. They failed to foster the foundational mindset and environment to help them persevere through tough times, which always occur when making a major lifestyle change. 

In this article, I’ll share my top three mindset skills and environmental tools used by those successful clients. Look at these as your “hacks” to achieving and sustaining a healthy lifestyle. A couple things to keep in mind as you read: first, the more of these you implement, the better, however even one or two makes a big difference. Second, using these mindset skills do require a little time, effort and energy – particularly up front. In fact, they may even slow down the process in the first month.

Don’t be discouraged in the least by a slightly slower start. Nearly every colossal failure I’ve worked with starts out like they’re shot out of cannon, only to fizzle within four to eight weeks. Ask yourself: Would you rather have six successful weeks working toward better fitness and body composition, or would you rather have it last the rest of your life? In the past, you, like so many people I’ve worked with, may have chosen the “cannon” approach. If you’re ready to change the narrative, if you’re ready to stop losing and gaining the same 20 pounds, if you’re ready to take control of your fitness, health and life – then read on.

Tip #1: Make Yourself a Priority by Prioritizing Self-Care

This is difficult, particularly in a society that values self-sacrifice: “take care of others.” Others such as your co-workers, your boss and your family give us all a healthy case of “caretaker-itis.” Our society places great value on this, and while taking care of others is incredibly admirable, if elevated to an extreme it can be detrimental to your health.

Examine your life and look for areas where taking care of others is getting in the way of you taking care of yourself. Is working through lunch getting in the way of eating healthy? Is running the kids around all over the place preventing you from exercising? Where in your life are you taking care of others at the expense of yourself? Once you identify these areas, come up with creative ways to ensure you can do what is necessary to take care of yourself while still ensuring others receive the care they need. Often this starts with a simple conversation with the people you’re caring for over yourself. Most of the time these conversations generate compromises that allow you to better prioritize yourself.

Tip #2: Develop an Accountability Network

The more people you have around you to hold you accountable to your goals, the more likely you are to remain compliant. As a fitness coach, I work with clients two-to-four hours a week. During that time they are highly compliant – it’s the other 165 or so hours of the week that get them in trouble. The more people in your life that can help remind you of your commitment to achieve your health and fitness goals, the greater the likelihood you’ll achieve them. 

With that said, try to find a minimum of one person at home, usually your significant other, and one person at work with whom you work closely to be your accountability partners. Once you’ve identified who these people are you need to do two important things. 

First, determine what you’ll ask of them. The accountability you need is specific to you, so your ask must be specific. Some of you might need your spouse to remind you to go for a walk after work. Others might need their spouse to not bring high-fat foods into the house. Whatever you need, be specific when you ask your partner to hold you accountable. This gives them guidance and direction and actually makes it easier for them to hold you accountable. The statement to them should be something like: “I’d like to ask you to be my accountability partner in an effort to lead a healthy lifestyle. Specifically, I’d like to ask you to…”

Second, commit to a specific day and time to ask this person. I often find asking others for help can be difficult. We don’t want to burden other people, even our loved ones. We might be scared of their reaction. Whatever the case may be, people put off asking far too long. Committing to a specific day and time ensures you will ask.  

Finally, please don’t build up this person’s reaction to your ask too much in your own head. I also found people conjure up all kinds of thoughts of all the negative possibilities of this conversation. I’ve never once seen this conversation go poorly. Ultimately you’re asking someone who loves and cares about you – they’ll be more than happy to help!

Tip #3: Learn From Mistakes Through a Growth Mindset

No matter how much you prioritize yourself and no matter how many accountability partners you have, you will slip up. You’ll miss a workout, have a little too much to eat and not act all that healthy for periods of time on your way to making lasting change. Sometimes this lasts for a day, sometimes a week and sometimes a lot longer. I’ve never once seen anyone march in a straight line toward their fitness goal. It’s anything but. Life just gets in the way, no matter how good your intentions or how high your motivation. 

If we know mistakes and slip ups are a part of the process, instead of fighting them, running from them or being mad at them, why don’t we learn from them? This is what we call a growth mindset -- the work of Carol Dweck, a noted education researcher. A growth mindset views mistakes as an opportunity to learn, not confirmation of one’s inability to achieve a goal. 

Having a growth mindset requires a few important things. First, it requires self-acceptance and self-compassion. Indeed, it requires you to not beat yourself up over mistakes and missteps. Next, it requires a healthy curiosity. Asking WHY things did not turn out as planned: Why did you miss your workout? Why did you have six slices of pizza? Why did you work through lunch instead of taking a walk? Lastly, it requires critical thinking. After you’ve asked why, then critically think about how you can avoid that misstep in the future.

Normally, in this last step it helps to write down No. 1, what the misstep was; No. 2, why it occurred; and No. 3, how you can avoid it in the future. If you can build a workbook of all your missteps, what you’ve learned from them and how to avoid them in the future, you’ll progressively build your guidebook to a healthy lifestyle.

Take-Home Message

Nothing I recommended above is hard, but it’s also not easy. It takes pumping the brakes when you are at your most motivated to change and laying a foundation first. It requires being mindfully attentive to how you’re thinking before you start doing. If you are willing to put this work in up front, not only will you achieve the level of health and fitness you want, you’ll sustain it for the rest of your life.

Michael E. Stack is an exercise physiologist and CEO of Applied Fitness Solutions. AFS provides personalized nutrition and exercise coaching to clients in Ann ArborPlymouth, and Rochester Hills

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