You know you want to lose weight. You probably have a general idea of how you’re going to do it: work out more, watch what you eat, cut back on sugar, that sort of thing. But no matter how motivated you are, if you don’t have a clear plan, you probably aren’t going to reach your weight-loss goals.
Weight loss takes more than just healthy eating and exercise — it also takes mental stamina and a whole lot of decision-making. (Chips or carrots? Cardio or strength? Beer or tea? Work out or Netflix?) Those decisions can wear down your willpower and make you more likely to cave the next time a craving strikes. And all those little decisions you make throughout the day add up to determine whether you lose weight successfully — or whether the scale stays put.
But when you have a game plan for losing weight — not just a few vague resolutions — you’ll know exactly what you need to do each day to help you get closer to your end goal. And you won’t have to rely on willpower to help you make healthy choices when you’re hangry. Until your healthy lifestyle becomes second nature, a weight-loss plan is like a cheat sheet to keep you on track.
“It’s much easier to eat healthy when you plan for it,” says Kaleigh McMordie, M.C.N., R.D.N., L.D., and nutrition blogger at livelytable.com. “Going to the grocery store, prepping ahead of time, and knowing that you have nutritious food to eat makes it much easier to stick to a plan when it comes to weight loss.”
First things first, you need to figure out exactly what you want to achieve — and what you can achieve, because “10 pounds in 10 days” isn’t going to happen. So how can you set a realistic goal? Andy De Santis, R.D., M.P.H., a dietitian in Toronto, recommends this formula:
- Set an initial goal weight that’s five to 10 percent less than your current weight. So if you weigh 200 pounds, aim to get down to 180 to 190 pounds.
- Aim to lose one-half to two pounds per week. If you’re trying to lose 10 pounds, that means you should expect it to take at least five weeks.
- Don’t try to outpace that weekly goal. “Anything above that range and you’ve probably made a dietary change that is potentially drastic, restrictive, and unsustainable,” De Santis says.
Keep in mind your “big goal” doesn’t have to be a number. As you burn fat and build muscle, the number on the scale may not always reflect the results you see in the mirror. Your weight is only one way to measure your health, so consider setting a non-scale goal like losing three inches off your waist or being able to bench your body weight. “Losing weight is valuable, but becoming healthier is even more important,” De Santis says.
For your plan to be effective, it has to be more than a motivational mantra or a vow to “eat clean.” You need an official, written-down-somewhere plan you can refer back to when you’re tempted to skip your run on a rainy day, or eat a bag of microwaved popcorn for dinner, or whatever weight-loss obstacle you happen to encounter on a zero-motivation day.
Writing down your plan, and tracking your progress as you go, can help you overcome those obstacles and reach your weight-loss goals. One study found that keeping a food diary can double your weight loss. Another study found that 70 percent of participants who wrote down their goals achieved them, compared to 35 percent of those who didn’t.
Here are a few resources that can help you create a weight-loss plan:
- Start a bullet journal. Bullet journals can be a free-form mix of doodles, quotes, to-do lists, and random thoughts to keep you focused on your weight-loss goals. If food diaries and journals sound like homework to you, the flexibility of a bullet journal might be more your speed.
- Download a weight-loss app. Research shows that tech can improve the effectiveness of a weight-loss program. You can find apps with calorie counters, workout trackers, in-app coaching, 5K training programs, meal planning schedules, and just about anything else you need a little help with.
- Join a challenge group. Challenge groups often revolve around a workout program or clean-eating plan, which means less guesswork for you. And besides, nothing will keep you accountable like finding a weight-loss community and competing with — er, encouraging — each other.
Ignore the whole reach-for-the-moon cliché — setting goals that are too lofty can actually be counterproductive.
“Trying to make too many changes at once can be overwhelming and not sustainable,” McMordie says. “You’ll likely crash and burn and give up everything you tried to change. I would advise taking things slowly and making one change at a time. Once you’ve been able to stick to one change, add another, and let them build.”
For example, she says, if you want to run a half marathon, set a short-term goal of running three times a week, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Once you’ve nailed down that habit, you can set a goal of training for a 5K, or try to run 50 total miles in a month — whatever keeps you motivated. These “SMART” goals feel more doable, so you’re more likely to actually do them. Basically, SMART goals are small, actionable steps that help you progress toward a big, lofty goal. The SMART acronym stands for:
- Specific. Know exactly what you want to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it. In other words, instead of focusing on a vague goal like “get in shape,” aspire to drop 12 pounds, lower your body fat by five percent, and finish your first 5K within three months. Speaking of numbers…
- Measurable. If there’s a number involved in your goal — your weight, body mass index, the number of days you work out in a week, how many servings of veggies you eat each day — it’ll be easier to gauge whether you’re on track. And that number needs to be…
- Attainable. Break your big goal into smaller steps you know you can achieve. For example, instead of vowing to lose 30 pounds — which is a daunting number — aim to lose the recommended one to two pounds a week. It’s something you know you can accomplish, and you can evaluate your progress on a weekly basis.
- Relevant or Realistic. Make sure your goal works for you. After all, every body is different. Your doctor can help you estimate your ideal weight or suggest a healthy target for you.
- Time-based. Give yourself deadlines so you’re not tempted to slack off or lose interest.
“SMART goals set very clear parameters and leave no room for discrepancy as to whether or not they have been achieved,” De Santis says. “They encourage commitment and accountability, which can help propel people toward their goals.”
The last thing you want is to put energy into creating a plan only to find out it doesn’t really work for you. So how can you avoid setting yourself up for failure? Make sure you’ve created a plan that’s structured and sustainable — one that you know you can not only follow, but also stick to.
“If you feel overwhelmed, and sticking with that plan long-term seems impossible, you may need to reevaluate,” McMordie says.
Of course, you might also be making a roadblock out of a speed bump. Occasional setbacks are normal, and don’t necessarily mean that your plan isn’t working. Keep progress in perspective, and your eye on the prize. If you set SMART goals, you’ll have a clear idea of what you need to do, and it won’t be long before you’re hitting those milestones again.