When you’re trying to lose weight, it isn’t enough to simply have the expectation you’ll be motivated to eat less and exercise more. You need a plan that can help you stay focused when you’re faced with stress or other obstacles that may derail your efforts, even if you have the best intentions.
A behavior action plan may help you identify thoughts and triggers which could knock you off course. The plan should encompass actions you can take to modify your behavior and stay focused on healthy habits, so you can continue to lose weight. For best results, personalize the plan to account for your habits and preferences.
“Using what we know from behavior therapy, we can identify and try to account for what events, situations, and people can enhance or distract from our exercise and nutrition plan,” says Manny Castro, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. “This practice of accounting for potential setbacks can give us a sense of control over our behavior and contribute to our commitment to our ongoing lifestyle change.”
Here’s how to create a behavior action plan for weight loss:
Reflect on your life’s unique circumstances, which influence how and when you eat and exercise (or what makes you bail on your diet or workout plans). Incorporate strategies to help you stay focused.
“A plan is important, but it needs to start with identifying what unhealthy behaviors are holding them back and then identifying the root cause of those behaviors,” says Janine Stichter, PhD, a behaviorist and educator in Columbia, Missouri. “There is an underlying reason why we perpetuate the unhealthy behaviors we have: Because they serve as a root cause of either escape or attention … For example, most of us know we should not be snacking on high-calorie foods after dinner. This can serve as an escape from a stressful day.”
Simply having a goal to lose 10 pounds won’t budge the scale unless you implement an actionable plan.
“A goal and a plan are two very different things,” says Natalie Sullivan, a NASM-certified personal trainer based in Las Vegas. “A goal is intangible. It is something that we hope will simply ‘be’ when we wake up one morning. A plan is tangible. It is a series of concrete behaviors that, when followed, can lead to a measurable outcome.”
Incorporate behavior changes into your plan, like drinking a certain amount of water at set times throughout the day or increasing your heart rate with moderate-intensity exercise for half an hour daily.
“A series of behavior changes,” Sullivan says, “can be tracked and confirmed, whereas a goal of ‘eating more healthily’ is a subjective and vague idea.”
Don’t assume a best-selling diet book or a friend’s routine will get you results.
“A personalized action plan, rather than a cookie-cutter approach, will help,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist. “Take note of all that you are currently doing, and start identifying areas for improvement [or] adjustment…It’s helpful to identify real-life situations that can be roadblocks. [Then], create a list of steps to work on when life happens so that you are slowly back on track.”
Create strategies that will help you stay focused even if you have temporary slip-ups instead of figuring out how to punish yourself for falling off the wagon.
“Consequences are not going to be beneficial,” says Helen Ryan, a California-based certified personal trainer and weight-loss coach. “Consequences are negative, and often people who are trying to lose weight are already stuck in negative thought processes. Focusing on something positive — maybe on rewards for small accomplishments — would be a better step to include in the action plan.”
Map out in writing potential scenarios which may sideline your nutrition or exercise habits. For each example, come up with specific plans to help you stay on target.
“Having concrete solutions to issues you know you’ll face reduces the chance of split-second decision-making that will throw you off track,” Ryan says. “An example would be to write down, ‘If I don’t get enough sleep and I want a sugary snack to keep me awake, then I will take a nap or go for a walk instead.’”
If you know that you could benefit from reminders to stay motivated with your weight-loss goals on busy days or whenever you’re feeling stressed, add some to your daily routine.
“If it is hard for you to muster the motivation to go for a walk or run, place your athletic wear by your bedside or front door,” Castro says. “If it is hard for you to avoid your favorite treats, have a mental script at the ready of how you will respond: ‘This goal is important to me and I am committed to my action plan.’ Repeat these strategies until you can hold yourself appropriately accountable and feel comfortable practicing assertiveness. With discipline and consistency, you can create new habits for yourself that stick.”
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