With shelter-at-home orders during the novel coronavirus pandemic, it might seem like now’s the perfect time to finally buckle down and lose weight. However, given the plethora of stressors to deal with (like risk of infection, job insecurity, social distancing and loneliness), shedding pounds can be a major challenge.
“Cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, is coursing through most of our veins, which can make fat loss very difficult,” confirms Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. “Additionally, when we are feeling scared and helpless, it’s fairly common to reach for food to help numb the discomfort, pass the time or soothe anxiety.” This is where making time for self-care — or focusing on your own health, well-being and personal needs — is an essential part of the weight-loss equation.
There are so many unknowns right now, but focusing on the future and all of the “what ifs” ahead only causes more anxiety, says Candice Seti, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. To de-stress and dial down your cortisol levels, start your day with a mindful moment.
Mindfulness, or observing your thoughts and feelings without getting sucked into them, is a powerful skill to sharpen when you’re trying to stick with a weight-loss plan, especially when the going gets rough, says Chad Brandt, PhD, a behavior therapist at the McLean OCD Institute in Houston, Texas. Before you pick up your phone or turn on the TV, take 10 minutes to sit quietly, allowing your thoughts and feelings to arise and pass or learn how to practice mindfulness with a guided meditation on an app like Headspace.
To ward off the urge to stress-eat, use your five senses to identify things that help you calm down throughout your day without adding extra calories, suggests Kerri Nevin, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and Mayo Clinic-certified wellness coach. For example, you might diffuse your favorite essential oil before you start your work day, spend your lunch break in your backyard listening to birds singing or play your favorite music for a mini-dance party as you declutter and organize your home.
When you’re stuck at home, it’s easy to get sucked into the 24/7 news cycle or endless scroll on social media — the perfect combo for more stress-eating, grazing and weight gain. The fix: Reduce stress by exploring a new pastime you’ve never had time for or maybe try a workout class online that you were too intimidated to take in person, suggests Rickel. Engaging in feel-good activities like an online yoga class, virtual guitar lessons or app-based workout sessions may help provide a healthy outlet and potentially keep you away from all-day snacking, too.
Our brains and bodies thrive on routines — they help us keep our moods in check and tell us when to sleep, move and eat, and our hormonal levels shift accordingly, says Seti. Without the built-in routine of your typical commute and workday, it’s easy to end up grazing all day with no real plan or structure. To better support your well-being and weight-loss goals, create a schedule for your meals and snacks, she suggests. With simple meal-planning strategies, you can prepare filling and nutritious meals, quit night-eating and focus on enjoying food more mindfully, too.
When it comes to self-care for weight loss, “almost all movement-based activities can have the double-whammy effect of burning calories while also helping you de-stress by expending pent-up energy,” says Dr. Seti. But this doesn’t have to mean a hardcore workout every day. Incorporate movement breaks into your life by pairing them with an activity that’s already part of your daily routine. For instance, get an energy boost and some stress-relief with a morning walk around your neighborhood or backyard, squeeze in a 7-minute HIIT workout before lunch to release some work-related angst or decompress with a brief yoga session after dinner.
“It’s well-established that sleep deprivation hinders weight loss by increasing cortisol production and leading to snacking to try to maintain energy,” says Rickel. That’s why self-care also translates to maintaining a consistent bed and wake-up time. Set a nightly limit on screen-time (no Netflix after 9 p.m., for example) and create a relaxing bedtime routine (like brushing your teeth, taking a hot bath with scented candles and enjoying a good book before bed). Getting enough sleep can help you wake up refreshed, keep your metabolism humming and ward off anxiety and depression — all of which help support your weight-loss efforts.
In the midst of such difficult times, it can be hard to turn your focus to the good things in life, but expressing gratitude could help boost your mood and motivate you to put in more effort to make positive changes in your life, according to research in Emotion Review. To work your gratitude muscle, keep a journal to reflect on the things in your life that are going well, suggests Rickel. For example, you could write about how energized you felt after a workout (or how you showed up and completed a workout even though you weren’t feeling up for it at first), the delicious healthy dinner you prepared or an uplifting phone call you recently had with a friend.
Self-compassion (or treating yourself the way you would treat a friend or family member) is one of the most important elements in a weight-loss plan, says Brandt. It’s easy to fall into self-criticism (and in turn, veer off track or give up) when you make mistakes or feel frustrated with your weight-loss journey. However, being compassionate with yourself can help boost your motivation and keep you on track, he explains. To practice self-compassion, work on reframing negative self-talk. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m going to mess this up again!” or “I can’t do this!” shift your tone to be more accepting with thoughts like, “This is tough, and I can do tough things” or “It’s OK to feel defeated sometimes but I’ll keep showing up,” he suggests.
“Trying to lose weight in the middle of a pandemic can be a tall order, so it’s OK if you don’t turn all of this extra time at home into a hardcore weight-loss bootcamp,” says Rickel. Consider this your chance to make self-care a non-negotiable part of your life — weaving it into your routine can help give your mental health and weight-loss efforts a boost. If you stick with it, these healthy habits can last long after stay-at-home orders are lifted.
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