12 weight-loss motivation tips backed by science
While everyone’s weight-loss journey is different, almost everyone can agree that finding the motivation to drop the pounds—and then keep ‘em off—can be challenging.
Even if you kick things off bursting with optimism, circumstances beyond your control can make it tough to stay the course: “Motivation is not something within people. It has to do with what’s around them,” says Sherry Pagoto, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and president of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. “Oftentimes people have a current that’s working against them—there may be triggers at home that make it hard to do what they need to do to lose weight—and it takes so much effort to figure out how to overcome that current.”
To make things worse, the way you approach weight loss can drain your weight-loss motivation. For instance, setting unrealistic goals can throw you off track and even detract from your determination and drive.
To fuel your success, use these 12 science-backed tips to stay inspired, excited, and oh-so-motivated while you lose weight.
1. Establish why you want to lose weight.
A snide comment from your mom or a friend’s plea to join her on a new diet? Not reasons to adopt a slim-down regimen. Instead, it’s important to determine why you want to lose weight. When a person’s weight-goals come from within, they may be more likely to see long-lasting change, according to one review article in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Maybe you’d like to reverse a prediabetes diagnosis or feel more comfortable in your clothes. Whatever your goal, hold it close. “When we do things that matter to us or that we genuinely want to do, we're more likely to keep them up,” says Allison Grupski, PhD, director of behavior change at WW. “We don’t like being told what to do. We want to make our own decisions and be in the driver’s seat.”
2. Set realistic weight-loss goals.
Biggest Loser-style transformations are not the norm—and definitely not something to emulate. Healthy weight-loss programs involve reasonable, attainable goals. Wondering what to aim for? “Losing weight at a rate of one to two pounds per week is realistic and generally sustainable,” Grupski says.
Start with a scaled-back goal, say, to lose 10 pounds. “Meeting these small goals helps increase confidence, which can keep the momentum up,” Grupski says. Once you hit the 10-pounds-lost mark, you can always set your sights on a new number—or non-scale achievement—and keep working toward your larger weight-loss goals.
3. Think of weight loss as a journey, not a destination.
Weight loss is about much more than hitting your goal weight. In fact, focusing solely on the number on the scale can be demotivating in the long run. Once you reach that weight-loss target, you may not feel incentivized to keep up your new healthy lifestyle habits, according to the aforementioned International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity review.
Instead, think of weight loss as part of a broader wellness journey. To get there, you’ll want to find healthy foods you love eating and workouts you enjoy versus ones that you think you “should” do. This can encourage you to stick with good-for-you habits long after you hit your goal weight.
4. Choose a sustainable approach.
Fad diets that promise a quick-fix may not result in permanent weight-loss. And gaining back all of the pounds you just lost—plus some—is a surefire way to kill your weight-loss motivation. Instead, look for a sustainable weight-loss program. The diet that’s best for you is the one that you’re most likely to stick with, shows one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In other words, if you’re a bread-lover, going keto or swearing off carbs likely isn’t your best match. Instead, find an approach that lets you enjoy the occasional slice of baguette or breadsticks.
5. Set goals aside from weight loss.
Weight-loss journeys rarely follow a straight trajectory: Chances are, you’ll experience losses, gains, and plateaus. To stay motivated throughout the ups and downs, set goals that aren’t related to weight. This will give you another way to measure your progress—and celebrate your success. For example, you could aim to lower your blood pressure or to get more sleep.
Another great goal: Take up a new physical activity. Whether you choose to dance or walk, seeing your box step progress or feeling more at ease can keep you moving forward. “Growth is a human need. You want to feel like you’re improving in your life,” says Michelle Segar, PhD, director of the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. You’ll also reap the health benefits of regular movement, something that doesn’t stop when your weight-loss slows down. One study of more than 3,400 participants found that exercise has a positive effect on health (a reduced risk of heart disease) even in the absence of weight loss.
But—and this is important—for long-term success, aim to find an activity that makes you want to get out there and move. Research shows that people are more likely to stick with exercise if they are motivated by an immediate internal reward—the enjoyment that comes from walking outside on a beautiful day or dancing around the living room with your partner—rather than external rewards (i.e., to lose weight or simply check “work out” off your to-do list), Segar says.
6. Join a community of like-minded people.
Social support is key for fueling your weight-loss motivation. People who start a weight-loss program with friends are more likely to complete the program and more likely to maintain their weight loss compared to those who go it alone, shows research in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Thankfully, these days social support is plentiful. There are a number of websites, social media pages, and in-person meetups dedicated to connecting people who share the goal of losing weight. Not only will these communities provide cheerleading and encouragement, but they can also be a great resource. “When people connect about weight loss, they can give each other ideas and help problem solve,” Pagoto says. “Use them to help get over whatever is holding you back.” For example, if you need ideas for filling snacks or a cooking tip for lightening up your favorite meal, just ask! Chances are, someone has a brilliant idea.
7. Keep a food diary.
Putting pen to paper—or logging meals and snacks digitally—can help improve your chance of keeping the weight off, says a study in the journal Obesity: Researchers found that obese women who consistently and frequently tracked their food intake were more likely to have long-term success managing their weight.
Find a food-tracking method that works for you. Some people prefer to track what they eat after every meal or snack while others choose to write down what they’ll eat for each meal at the start of the day so they have a plan to follow from breakfast until dinner. And there’s no need to stick to words. Get creative! If you’d prefer to illustrate your meals in a journal or take food photos and post them on Instagram, go for it!
8. Reward yourself.
A little balloons and confetti never hurt anyone, so break it all out and celebrate the milestones you’re proud of by rewarding yourself. Finished your first 5K? Reward time! Lost the first 10 pounds? Reward! Get off your cholesterol meds? Cash in!
“It’s best to focus on rewards that are consistent with your goals,” Grupski says. “So if you are working on eating healthier to feel better, reward yourself with a month's subscription to a meal delivery service, not ice cream.” Keep in mind that rewards don’t need to cost you a penny. Even just checking off your daily workout on a calendar can be hugely rewarding, Grupski says. “It's satisfying to see a bunch of check marks in a row!”
9. Practice self-compassion.
Treating yourself with kindness and acceptance instead of judgement and criticism can go a long way when it comes to staying motivated on your weight-loss journey. That’s because self-compassion encourages you to be kind to yourself during challenging times, Grupski says. Say you eat something unplanned or notice the number on the scale goes up. Someone who practices self-compassion may be able to accept what happened and get right back on track.
Struggling to be kind to yourself? Try this: Imagine that a close friend feels bad about themself or is struggling in some other way. What would you say to them? Now treat yourself like a friend and repeat those words to yourself.
10. Prepare for setbacks.
Small weight gains are bound to happen, but they don’t have to kill your weight-loss motivation. It’s all about how you respond to these setbacks. Let’s say your weight goes up. You could become discouraged, lose confidence in yourself, and give up entirely. But research shows that if you have an action plan at the ready, you can pick right back up, Grupski says. You could, for example, plan three healthy meals for the week ahead.
11. Rework your environment.
“Motivation isn’t really a personal characteristic,” Pagoto says, insisting that you shouldn’t blame yourself for a lack of motivation. “It’s not about your personal inner strength. It’s often about your environment.” In other words, the open box of cookies on your kitchen counter could be the culprit.
To get over weight-loss motivation blockades, zero in on environmental changes you can make. You could, for example, stow your kitchen counter cookies out of sight, or place a small fruit bowl on your desk so you have something nutritious to eat at arm’s reach during the workday.
12. Learn to love your body.
As your weight-loss journey progresses, make a point to appreciate your body. “It can help to focus on activities that make us feel capable and strong, and to think about what we truly appreciate about our bodies,” Grupski says. For example, even if you don’t love how your arms look in the mirror, you can focus on the fact that they allow you to scoop your kids up into big bear hugs. To help prevent weight-loss motivation levels from dipping, get into the habit of noting what your body is capable of on a regular basis—perhaps each morning as you brush your teeth or while you stretch at the end of your workouts. It’s one more motivating reminder that this journey is about so much more than your weight.
Rachel Morris is an executive editor at WW. She was previously on staff at Dr. Oz The Good Life, Woman’s Day, and Parents magazines and has written for publications including O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and Martha Stewart Living. Her favorite ZeroPoint snack: Mango!