Whether you’re at the very beginning of your weight-loss journey or revisiting your game plan after hitting a plateau, a realistic and sustainable strategy is a must for your first 30 days and beyond.
To successfully lose weight and keep it off, it’s important to adopt a nutritious diet and create a calorie deficit (slightly less calories in than out through day-to-day living and exercise), add in regular movement, effectively deal with stress, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, surround yourself with a supportive community and keep your motivation up in the face of inevitable challenges and setbacks.
The good news is you don’t have to completely overhaul your lifestyle to lose weight — a simple back-to-basics plan is the way to go. That’s why we broke it down for you, week by week, for the first 30 days (or whenever you need a healthy reset).
Dedicate your first week to preparing your mind, environment and routine to support healthy living.
“It’s common for motivation to wax and wane during weight-loss efforts, so it is imperative that you establish a clear ‘why’ in terms of the reason you are engaging in the weight-loss effort in the first place,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina.
This increases your sense of autonomy or self-control and helps you shift your perspective from “I have to” eat healthier and exercise to “I want to” create new habits to get me closer to the life I desire, thus empowering you to make positive changes, adds Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Freewrite or make a list of your “whys,” from having the energy to keep up with your children or partner to feeling more comfortable in your body.
- Create a vision board or collage of your “why.”
- Write yourself a letter from your future self (after having achieved your weight-loss goals) to your current self, describing all the ways your life has improved as a result of your efforts.
- Put up notes around your home like on your bathroom mirror or fridge with mantras, photos or reminders of your “why.”
Setting goals and tracking progress is important for any weight-loss plan, but for realistic goals you can actually hit, you need to figure out your baseline first. “Understanding your starting point will make it easier to pinpoint where to make meaningful changes that will get you the results you’re looking for,” confirms Christel Oerum, a certified personal trainer and owner of Diabetes Strong and Diabetic Foodie.
“This is also the beginning of mindful eating, a lifelong practice that can take a lifetime to fully develop but can help you eat less and enjoy what you’re eating more as well as improve your relationship with food,” adds Audra Wilson, RD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a board-certified specialist in obesity and weight management at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Use an app like MyFitnessPal and log everything you eat and drink for the whole week without judgment.
- As you go, note your emotions about food and brainstorm other coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, worry or boredom, such as calling a friend or doing deep breathing exercises, suggests Wilson.
- Track your movement, step count and workouts with the MyFitnessPal app as well.
Proper sleep, stress management and hydration are essential for your overall health and weight-loss efforts. If they’re not covered, it’s that much harder to lose weight when you have to battle increased cravings for comfort foods from off-kilter hunger hormones due to sleep deprivation and stress or feel hungry and low on energy because you’re not drinking enough water.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time to ensure you’re getting 7–9 hours of quality sleep each night.
- Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary that’s cool, dark and comfortable.
- Incorporate a simple morning and evening routine to reduce stress with meditation, gentle stretching or other self-care activities.
- Keep a water bottle or large glass of water on hand to drink when you first wake up.
Now that you’ve built a springboard, make a nutrition and movement plan and swap perfectionism for self-compassion.
Focusing on progress boosts your drive and self-confidence while only paying attention to the outcome (the number on the scale) can hurt motivation when you don’t get the results you want, says Chu. That’s why progress-based SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound are your secret weapon for weight loss.
With the information you collected during week 1, take a look at your baseline calorie and macronutrient intake and step count. Then, set a calorie goal for slow-and-steady weight loss and a step count goal that makes sense for you and your lifestyle. Use the MyFitnessPal app to chart your progress so you can notice trends and make healthier choices.
EXAMPLES OF SMART GOALS:
- Walk an average of 1,000 more steps per day for one week with a midday walk during my lunch break.
- Eat within 100–200 calories of my calorie goal each day for one week by reducing portion sizes for snacks and dinner.
To avoid feeling deprived during your weight-loss journey, shift your focus from “giving up” high-calorie processed foods and sugary drinks to “adding in” tasty lower-calorie whole foods to your eating plan, suggests Rickel.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Challenge yourself to try one new fruit or vegetable this week as a culinary adventure with new recipes and cuisines.
- Add more vegetables to your lunch and dinner by mixing them into soups, sauces, salads and more. “Any way you slice them, veggies are full of nutrients and will help you cut calories while still feeling satisfied at mealtime,” notes Wilson.
- Find satisfying swaps for some high-calorie indulgences such as banana berry “nice” cream instead of traditional ice cream or sparkling water for half of your week’s soda intake. If there’s no great substitute for an indulgence, enjoy a smaller portion size or adjust your intake elsewhere to stick with your overall calorie goal.
“For someone who has not practiced healthy habits before, it can be hard and exhausting to maintain them,” says Chu. Worse yet, if you see yourself as “lazy” for eating “bad foods,” this can zap motivation and trigger even worse habits (Think: “I already ate poorly. I might as well eat more junk food.”)
This is where treating yourself like you would a close friend — or adopting a mindset of self-compassion — can help keep your motivation up and protect you from negative thought spirals. Throughout this week, make it a point to notice when you’re being hard on yourself and practice self-compassion instead of toxic perfectionism.
HERE’S HOW TO DO IT IN THE MOMENT:
- Be mindful and acknowledge your feelings (“I’m feeling really anxious and upset right now.”)
- Remind yourself that this is a common, human experience (“Everyone feels like this sometimes.”)
- Be kind to yourself (“I’m going to be compassionate with myself.”)
Reflect on your first round of SMART goals, set new ones, and recruit friends and family to help you stick it out long-term.
Goal-tracking takes time, so block out 10–20 minutes each week—such as on a Sunday evening or Monday morning—to review your progress and set new goals. Rather than getting down on yourself if you haven’t met goals, use this intel to set SMARTER goals (with evaluation and revision), suggests Chu.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Evaluate your progress. Did you hit your goals or fall short? How and why?
- Revise your goals to make them easier if you couldn’t reach them or a notch harder if you were successful.
Whether you met your calorie goal, increased your step count, or just managed to track both for the entire week, that’s progress worth celebrating. To boost your motivation, find ways to acknowledge meaningful wins each week regardless of whether you shed pounds, says Rickel.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Put colorful stickers or check marks on your chart or calendar to mark days or weeks when you’ve reached a goal or hit a personal record.
- Reward yourself with a non-food prize such as new workout gear or a fun weekend activity.
If you had a challenging week, remember to practice self-compassion. Major lifestyle changes take time and research shows speaking to yourself in a positive manner helps you reach your goals faster.
A regular workout routine not only helps tip the calorie balance in your favor to make maintaining weight loss easier, but it also boosts mood levels and decreases stress. To be consistent, you shouldn’t dread your workout — instead, it should be something you genuinely love and look forward to doing. “Choose a workout that suits your routine and lifestyle, and recruit family or friends to join in,” says Chu.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Pick a type of exercise that’s the optimal balance of challenging yet approachable, such as lifting weights once a week with a goal to eventually lift 2–3 times a week or brisk walks to gradually build up to walking or running a 5K.
- Find someone in your life who values fitness and healthy living as much as you do and agree to regular check-ins if you can’t work out together.
- On days when you don’t feel like working out, try lowering the difficulty or setting a goal just to start the workout (like giving yourself permission to stop after 15 minutes). “Once you do, you’re likely to feel good and exercise longer than initially expected,” notes Chu.
For the last week of month one, take a look at how far you’ve come and add structure to make healthy lifestyle changes more sustainable.
By now, you should have a good idea of how to set, track and celebrate SMART goals. Like the week before, take some time to assess your progress and setbacks. Then set new, SMARTER goals to tackle this week.
Keep in mind that “every 2–4 weeks, it’s also a good idea to revisit your calorie goal and make adjustments as necessary to combat weight-loss plateaus,” notes Oerum.
When it comes to healthy eating, planning ahead can help you save calories and money by reducing impromptu drive-thru trips and delivery orders. Beginning this week, designate a day for meal planning.
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- Follow this basic template for the week’s grocery shopping: 4–5 lean protein sources (such as beans and legumes, tofu, fish, chicken, eggs and turkey), 2–3 complex carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta), and 4+ vegetables (mixed greens, kale, broccoli and cauliflower, asparagus, carrots), suggests Wyosnick.
- Buy pre-cut, washed and frozen produce, so it’s ready to go and easy to use.
- Use the plate method for healthy portion sizes at each meal (fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, a quarter with protein and a quarter with complex carbs).
Losing weight is challenging, and the first month of your weight-loss plan is just the beginning of a lifelong health journey. If you’re struggling to see results, stick with a routine or battling body image issues, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. Depending on your needs, a healthcare provider, registered dietitian, psychologist or certified personal trainer could help you address underlying health issues and establish the perfect plan for you.
Originally published March 2016, updated with additional information