Are you a slave to the scale?|
When you desperately want to lose weight, it's easy to get hyper-focused on that number at your feet, giving it the power to dictate your mood and motivation. When the number goes down, you're happy, encouraged, victorious. But when it goes up or gets stuck, you're sad, discouraged, defeated.
Most experts agree that it's unhealthy and destructive to obsess over weight. Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, nutrition therapist and owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, points out that weight is not an accurate barometer of health. "We are incorrectly taught that being overweight or obese means you are unhealthy, but there are dozens of research studies showing that it's your behaviors that predict your health, not your weight," she notes. "People of all different body sizes have similar health improvements when they change their behaviors, regardless of whether or not their weight changes."
By focusing solely on the scale, notes Howard Jacobson, PhD, co-founder of WellStart Health, you're actually focusing on avoiding being overweight rather than gaining health. "When we try to avoid something, we naturally slow down and ease up the farther we get from it," he explains. "That's why we can be extremely motivated to say ‘no' to donuts and ice cream and pepperoni pizza at the start of our diet, but when we only have a few more pounds to lose, we tend to give in to cravings because, hey, we're basically there, so what's the big deal?"'
Instead, Dr. Jacobson says it's more effective to focus on health as something to move toward. "The closer we get to the thing we want, the more energy and motivation we feel," he says. He compares it to what happens at the finish line of a marathon, as runners who have been dragging for the past six miles suddenly find a burst of speed when the end of the course comes into sight.
Instead of running from the pounds, try running toward a healthier version of yourself with these smart wellness strategies.
Move for your mood.
A sedentary lifestyle can leave you feeling tense, stressed and down in the dumps, warns LJ Kunkel, ACSM-certified personal trainer and creator of Fit Body Beats. "Exercising is a powerful way to break a bad mood," she says. "In fact, healthcare providers often prescribe physical activity as part of mood disorder treatment."
And a little goes a long way—an American Journal of Psychiatry study showed that those who exercised just one hour per week reported a significantly lower risk of depression. "Your workout is worth far more than the calories it burns," Kunkel notes.
And beyond making you happier, Dr. Jacobson points out that physical movement releases all sorts of chemicals that benefit the brain and the body. "When we move, we combat stress, clear our heads and improve our moods, and circulate blood and other fluids more effectively," he explains.
And while you're at it, focus on making that movement joyful and intuitive, rather than a grueling punishment. "Shift your focus on how it feels to move your body rather than just burning calories," Rumsey suggests. "Pay attention to how different forms of movement (dancing, walking, jumping around) make your body feel, and focus on the ones that are fun and joyful to you. Some days that might mean going for a run or a bike ride; others, it may mean taking a relaxing yoga class or a short walk outside."
Celebrate setting a personal record in the physical activities that you enjoy.
Registered dietitian Summer Yule runs as a hobby, so she is always aiming to beat her best speed or duration. Your non-scale victory might be lifting heavier weights, completing a challenging hike or just walking around the block if you're new to exercise. The key is to seize the feeling of accomplishment that comes with pushing to a new level of a favorite activity, no matter how small that push might be.
Create a pre-sleep routine that allows you to rest fully at night and wake up refreshed.
The human body wasn't built with screens, electricity, or even indoor spaces in mind, notes Dr. Jacobson. To improve your health, he recommends creating a pre-sleep routine that taps into the body's natural circadian rhythm and helps you wind down from the day. Keep your bedroom cool, and eliminate as many lights and screens as possible. Wear ear plugs to reduce stressful ambient noise and/or a sleep mask to block out ambient light.
"Sleep is the great healer and restorer," says Dr. Jacobson. "If you aren't getting enough shut-eye (the recommended seven to nine hours per night), you're damaging your health in insidious ways. Plus, you'll be too tired to move vigorously and too stressed to say 'no' to junk food. Take the hours before sleep seriously, so you can get a restful night."
Connect with nature.
Whether it's going on a hike with friends, walking the dog or just sitting on the porch soaking in the sunrise or sunset, time in the great outdoors carries big benefits, both physically and mentally, notes Kunkel.
"Just 20 minutes of nature therapy a day is proven to boost energy and make you feel more alive,'" she notes. "Plus, feeling that fresh air and sunshine makes you more naturally inclined to get your body moving once you're out there."
Celebrate trying new, healthier foods.
Attention, picky eaters! If you have historically been resistant to expanding your palate horizons, set a goal to try a new, healthy food once a day, once a week or whatever frequency is realistic for you.
"When you are grocery shopping, pick up one (or a few) fruits and vegetables that are new to you," Yule suggests. "Try preparing these foods in different ways, to find the methods that best suit your taste buds."
You might not love all of the foods you try, but over time you'll accumulate a core group of choices that support healthier eating habits—and that you actually enjoy. Plus, you'll develop a greater sense of culinary curiosity and adventure.
Make time to manage stress and decompress.
Sure, a massage or spa day would be great, but carving out just a few minutes each day for simple self-care can have life-changing benefits, says Rumsey. That might mean going to bed 30 minutes early to get more sleep, doing some deep breathing a few times per day, curling up on the couch with your favorite book or brewing a pot of nourishing tea—whatever recharges, relaxes and rejuvenates you.
"When you truly care for yourself in all realms—not just the physical, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually—you'll feel happier and more fulfilled," Rumsey says.
By allowing yourself this time for self-care, you will also more effectively manage stress. Unchecked chronic stress can trigger a host of negative health outcomes, including inflammation, preferential storage of fat and compromised immune and digestive function, warns Dr. Jacobson. "Improve your health by becoming a stress ninja, and you might also find the weight falling off ‘by accident.'"
Join a community of people who care about their health.
Generally speaking, Dr. Jacobson says, most of us are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Those who feel "stuck" in an unhealthy lifestyle are likely surrounded by people with the same bad habits.
"Humans are herd animals, and we've evolved to depend heavily on the approval and support of other humans to stay alive," Dr. Jacobson explains. "So it's natural that we would be reluctant to challenge our social norms by improving our health habits, even if doing so would reduce our risk of disease, disability and premature death."
To break the cycle, find a social group and community—online or offline—where healthy living is valued. You don't have to drop your existing social circles; just add new ones. This might mean joining a local walking group, trying a yoga class or joining an online group for digital support.
If you smoke, stop.
Yule warns that smoking is a risk factor for various chronic diseases, including heart disease and lung cancer. She recommends giving yourself the gift of joining a smoking cessation program. Cutting back or quitting smoking is a significant step toward embracing a healthier lifestyle. Although it's not directly related to the number on the scale, living a smoke-free life will likely naturally lead to other healthy habits in all areas of life.
If you're going to dwell on a number, Kunkel said it should be counting the cups of water you drink each day. Ideally, she says to aim for at least 64 ounces a day.
"Water is the most basic ingredient every part of our body needs, yet many of us are unknowingly dehydrated and then wonder why we feel drained and lethargic all the time," she notes. "Cutting out soda and juice beverages in favor of pure water can increase energy levels, boost brain function, improve digestion and even reduce hunger."
Practice curiosity when you slip up.
The occasional slip-up is an inevitable part of the process—it's how you respond that makes all the difference. Next time you make a mistake or give in to your desires when you're tired, hungry or stressed, resist the temptation to take that as proof that you don't have what it takes to succeed. Instead, Dr. Jacobson suggests treating your slip-ups as a sign of growth and a source of knowledge.
"Explore them like a scientist, rather than a vengeful prosecutor," he says. "Figure out what happened—what you thought, felt and did in that moment—and make a plan to try something different the next time."
As Dr. Johnson puts it, we're all just one curious thought from being back on path. "Curiosity and planning allow us to grow and change, rather than rebounding into old habits and unwanted outcomes."
Above all, says Kelly Turner, Director of Education for YogaSix, the key is to think about all of the things that factor into your overall health and wellbeing beyond just the food you eat or the type of workout you enjoy. "What are the other things you put into your body and mind? The music, the media (social and news networks), the relationships—all of those things have an effect on your state of being," she points out.
If there is such a thing as a "secret" to weight loss, it's to stop letting the number on the scale control your mood, your feelings and your life, says Kunkel. "Instead, focus on other wholesome objectives like having more energy, reducing stress, increasing strength and endurance, lengthening your lifespan and feeling grateful and happy in your own body while respecting it with healthy lifestyle choices."