It can be tempting to start making sweeping changes the minute you have that aha moment that it’s time to lose weight, right? After all, the sooner you start eating better and exercising, the faster you’ll see results. Except, that might not be the case.
For most big life changes (renovating your house! Changing jobs!), doing some prep work before diving into action sets the stage for success. And that’s true for weight loss too. Getting into the right frame of mind and focusing on a handful of actionable steps—instead of trying to do all the things at once—can go a long way towards helping you get the results you want.
That’s where this guide comes in. Rather than dashing off at top speed, you’ll spend a week at the weight loss starting line just getting ready. With the help of experts, we’ve put together a set of simple steps designed to clarify your goals, identify and manage possible derailers, and encourage intentionality around changes to your eating and exercise habits.
It all starts with setting expectations that are sustainable and support your wellbeing. Healthy, lasting weight loss occurs at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But it’s far from the only marker that you’re moving in the right direction.
Working towards progress-based outcomes, like eating a serving of fruit or veggies at each meal or doing something active every day, can be valuable too—sometimes even more than focusing on numbers. “If you’re doing all of the things that are healthy, you will lose weight and go in the right direction. But it can be hard to put a goal weight on that,” explains Susan Albers, Psy.D. (doctor of psychology). mindful eating expert and author of Hanger Management.
Now that you’ve decided what you want to lose (and gain!), it’s time to get started. Let’s do this!
Day 1: Find your why
Most of us can eat better or work out regularly for a few weeks in the name of looser jeans. But to keep up those healthy behaviors that’ll support weight loss for the long haul, you’ll need to do a little soul searching.
Identifying positive reasons for wanting to get leaner before starting a weight loss program may increase the chances for success, suggests a 2018 study published in Health Psychology Open. But mainly focusing on losing weight to look better actually can actually up the odds for gaining weight, the study found. “When we choose motivations based on outcomes we want to avoid, like feeling our clothes getting too tight, our motivation decreases as we achieve our goal,” says Georgie Fear, R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.
Finding positive motivators is key for maintaining long-term change. “You’re drawn towards them, so you don’t lose sight of them as you make progress,” Fear explains. Rather than thinking first about changing your appearance (think: a flatter belly or a smaller size) home in on how losing weight can help you achieve what really matters to you—like having more energy or lowering your heart disease risk. One prompt that can help: “Ask yourself, if weight loss were to happen, in what three ways would I hope it would change my life?” Albers says.
Day 2: Do a kitchen inventory and stock up on healthy staples
Eating more of your meals at home these days? Us too. That means it is more important than ever to have a pantry, fridge, and freezer filled with fare that will support your healthy eating goals.
Start by getting rid of foods that are highly processed—think snacks high in refined carbohydrates or foods with lots of unpronounceable ingredients, recommends Wendy Bazilian, doctor of public health (Dr.Ph.), R.D.N., author of The Superfoods Rx Diet. “We eat what we can reach. These are easy to eat mindlessly and hard to put down, and they can have a direct negative impact on weight,” she says. (That doesn’t mean all treats have to be banned from the kitchen. But if you choose to keep something on hand, store it out of sight. That way you can enjoy it at planned times and aren’t faced with having to decide yes or no every time you open the cabinet or freezer, Bazilian says.)
With the less healthy stuff gone, it’s time to gather ingredients that make it easy to eat well anytime. Fresh fruits and veggies, low-fat milk or yogurt, eggs, and fresh lean proteins are always go-tos. But for your initial shop, make an extra effort to stock up on pantry and freezer staples that can form the base of a meal even when you haven’t had time to go to the market. Think whole grains or pasta, canned beans, canned tomatoes, frozen chicken breasts or salmon filets, and frozen fruit or veggies, Bazilian recommends.
Day 3: Begin to track your triggers
Ever felt the urge to plow through a pint of ice cream or a family-sized bag of chips after a hard day? Of course—we all have. “Seventy-five percent of our eating is driven by our emotions instead of by hunger,” explains Albers. “If we can get a handle on what we’re eating when we’re feeling emotional or stressed, it can make a huge difference.”
Start by taking three days to pinpoint what’s driving your desire to eat—emotions or physical hunger—at every meal or snack. “Often emotional eating is very anchored to certain things, like a phone call from an ex or driving to work in traffic every morning. If it happens consistently over that period, you can often get identify some clear emotional triggers,” Albers says.
Once you’re aware of your triggers, you can work on soothing those stressful emotions with things other than food like calling a friend, taking a walk, or journaling. Another idea? Try smiling, suggests Albers. As silly as it might sound, simply making a happy face prompts the release of mood-boosting chemicals that can make you feel a little more cheery, concluded a 2019 Psychological Bulletin analysis.
Day 4: Audit your activity and make a movement plan
How much movement do you get over the average day or week? If you’re not regularly getting at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, as recommended by the CDC, come up with a concrete plan for how you’ll reach that goal (or work towards it over time).
That might mean scheduling sessions on the calendar and treating them like appointments, having a workout buddy who’ll hold you accountable, or deciding on a time when you’ll be active each day (like taking a walk first thing in the morning). Regular exercise is more likely to become a habit if you put the tools and practices in place to make it a priority, Bazilian says.
You’ll be more likely to stick with your exercise goals, too, when you do an activity you love. If jogging or using the weight machines at the gym doesn’t sound fun to you, find something that does. Consistency is key for reaping the biggest benefits from exercise, experts say. And people who enjoy their workouts are more likely to stick with an exercise plan long-term, found a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Day 5: Give your favorite foods a tune-up
Trying to revamp your diet in one fell swoop might seem admirable. But it’s a recipe for getting overwhelmed fast—and chances are, it isn’t even necessary. Instead, start with the familiar meals and snacks you already love and identify one or two adjustments that can make them better for you. “Very often weight loss is about making tweaks. It’s empowering and motivating to see it this way instead of as an overhaul, and to know that small steps really do work,” says Bazilian.
If you make spaghetti Bolognese or lasagna, for instance, trade the white noodles for whole wheat and swap out half of the meat for sauteed mushrooms, she suggests. Love a loaded omelet for breakfast or brunch? Try making it with two eggs instead of three, replace half the cheese with sauteed spinach, and have a single slice of whole-grain toast plus a slice of fruit on the side instead of two pieces of white toast.
Once you get the hang of adjusting a few of your go-tos, you’ll naturally start to look at more of your meals through that how-can-I-healthify? lens. And over time, those changes will add up to a more wholesome—but equally satisfying—way of eating, Bazilian says.
Day 6: Get serious about sleep
Too few Zzzz’s can thwart a rock-solid weight loss plan. “Studies have shown that inadequate sleep can actually make you more hungry. It can also make us crave salty, carbohydrate-rich foods, which can result in weight gain,” says Thomas Bradley Raper, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. And if you’ve ever tried to summon the energy to exercise when you’re totally zonked…well, you know it’s often a lost cause.
If you’re not regularly getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep most nights, figure out what’s stopping you and find ways to make shuteye a priority, like instituting a one-TV-show-then-bedtime rule. Just don’t feel tired at bedtime? Regular exercise should help. “It can promote better sleep and is a good treatment for insomnia,” Raper says. That’s even true if you like to work out in the afternoon or in the early evening.
Day 7: Ditch black and white thinking
The occasional day of not eating according to plan or skipping a workout won’t wreck your progress in the long run. (Remember that!) But seeing small missteps as massive failures just might. “With a black or white mindset in place, small deviations from the ‘perfect’ plan, like eating an extra snack, take a day from ideal to ruined. And once we feel as though we’ve ruined the day, there’s nothing left to lose, so excess eating typically continues,” Fear explains.
People who successfully lose weight and keep it off not only accept that slip-ups will happen—they have a plan in place to help them manage mishaps in a positive way, found a 2020 study published in Obesity. Instead of striving for perfection, build opportunities for planned as well as spontaneous treats into your day or week, recommend Fear and Bazilian. When you’ve already given yourself permission to enjoy that bakery cookie or slice of pizza when the mood strikes, there’s no guilt afterward.
Also? Resist the trap of thinking that you’re being “good” by skipping your treats altogether or not bothering with rest days from exercise. “Don’t go for streaks of particular behaviors, like days running or evenings without a binge. That way one occasion where you slip doesn’t feel devastating because you don’t have to frame it as starting back as zero,” says Fear. “In reality, all the previous days you worked on making good decisions still count.”
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