Stop Trying So Hard
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The key to staying motivated is similar to fuel in a car—you don't need the motivation tank to be full to drive, you just need to prevent it from running empty, says Joshua C. Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and author of Living SMART: 5 Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever. "I tell people not to waste precious time and energy on staying highly motivated because motivation has a natural rhythm. Most people see a drop in motivation as a signal of failure, but it's not," he says.
If you notice that your motivation is waning, give yourself a break from your diet or exercise plan for one to three days, Klapow says. "The problem with motivation is that the more people try to ‘catch' it, the more elusive it becomes; by allowing it to run its natural course and at the same time having a set of habit-changing skills (such as a meal plan for the week), you'll stay on track and your motivation levels will run their natural course."
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Need an instant dose of inspiration? Take this quick, healthy-habit quiz. (We've used diet as an example, but you can plug in any behavior that you're trying to maintain). "Answering these questions often helps to boost motivation just enough to remind you of why you started the diet in the first place," Klapow says.
If I stop my diet, how will I look in six months or one year from now?
If I stop my diet, how will I feel in six months or one year from now?
If I stop my diet, what will my health be like?
If I stop my diet, how will my family and friends be affected?
Clean Out Your Closet
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If you're struggling to stick with your weight-loss intention, practice integrity in other areas of your life, suggests Andre Farnell, a certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of Better Body Expert. Clean out your closet (finally), pay off your debts, make good on your promises to friends, family, or co-workers. Practice sticking with promises or commitments you've made in other areas of your life in order to strengthen your own subconscious belief that you are able to uphold the promise of losing weight that you've made to yourself, Farnell says.
Steer Clear of Super-Skinny Models
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Pinning and posting pictures of super thin models may seem like a good way to stay inspired, but according to a new study, it's more likely to hurt your progress. Researchers in the Netherlands divided women who wanted to lose weight into two groups: the first group was given a food journal with photos of thin models on the cover and interior pages, and the second group was given a journal with a neutral logo image on the front. While the neutral group lost weight, those given the journals sprinkled with supermodel images gained weight.
The scientists say that the images of models discouraged the women by creating unrealistic self-standards. Staring at photos of much-thinner women while logging food intake may have made them feel like they'd never be able to achieve that look, so they stopped trying. Instead of comparing yourself to unrealistic fashion models, stay inspired by posting images of you at your healthiest weight. Or, check out these real women's before and after weight loss photos.
Focus on a Feeling
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Too often we get frustrated by focusing on a specific number on the scale, or even a task we must do to reach our goal (like working out), which is a pretty quick way to zap your motivation, says Simon Rego, Ph.D., director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Concentrate on your mood after you've eaten a healthy meal or how you feel after a great workout—motivation doesn't always have to come before an activity, Rego says. "If you focus on how you feel each time you exercise, you'll get all the benefits of burning calories, plus the reinforcement of remembering how good it felt to do it, which should increase your motivation to do more."
Build Your "Business Plan"
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Any successful venture requires a plan that describes its mission and specifics on how to achieve it--without one, you have no idea where you're starting, where you're going, or how you'll get there, says Jenn Walters, a certified personal trainer and co-founder of Fit Bottomed Girls. Treat your goal as a business objective; If you were trying to accomplish something for a client, you probably wouldn't start out without a strategy. Once you've determined exactly what you want to achieve and your deadline, work backwards to create a monthly plan of action with realistic and specific goals (such as nixing that bedtime snack) and free of ineffective strategies like extreme cleanses or fasting.
Plant a Carrot Halfway
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Rewarding yourself for reaching your goals is a great idea, but some undertakings can take months or even years to achieve, so you risk knocking the wind out of your sails before you even get close. Instead of waiting until you've reached the big finish line to reward yourself, plan something really amazing once you've reached your halfway point (like a trip to that spa in the Bahamas), suggests Dr. Susan Bartell, a psychologist and motivational speaker. You'll be less likely to throw in the towel when things get tough around that midpoint marker.
Act "As If"
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Don't wait "until you lose the weight" to take that vacation, visit that old friend, or try that dance class; live out your goals now, and enjoy them along the way, says Stephanie Merchant, a certified health and lifestyle coach. Imagine you are already at your goal weight. How do you feel? What would you eat? What would you drink? How would your day look? What are you putting off doing until you reach that goal? Schedule it now and shift your mindset from "punishment mode" to a rewarding and empowering one to stay motivated, she says.
Hang Your Motivation By the Mirror
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Whether it's your favorite pair of skinnies or a teeny bikini, putting a special piece of your wardrobe on display is a great daily motivator. Pick something you'll look forward to wearing and hang it close to your mirror. "I visualize myself wearing it and think about how good I will feel," says Marie-Pier Ouellet, a student in Montreal, Canada. Since it's an item you already own, it's much less likely to be an unrealistic goal (when compared to say, that photo of Gisele Bundchen in a bikini) and will help spike your motivation to keep hitting the gym.
Give Yourself Some Tough Love
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Yes, picturing yourself wearing that bikini can be motivating, but for some people, imagining what might happen to you if you don't lose the weight can be even more inspiring. "I ask my clients what their lives will be like in five, 10, or even 20 years from now if they stay on the same path that they are currently on," says Matthew Richter-Sand, an Air Force veteran, personal trainer, and founder of NX Fit. "I make them imagine how badly they will feel and how much they've missed out on in life—it's absolutely critical that they're honest with themselves at this point. It's too easy to sugarcoat things and pretend like it's okay. It's not okay!"
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When it comes to losing weight, a little competition goes a long way. According to a recent study published in the journal Obesity, social influence of team-based weight loss competitions can help you lose up to 20 percent more weight than you would if you did it alone. Even more interesting is that team captains shed more weight than team members, likely due to their position and involvement in the group competition, the researchers say. So recruit a group of friends or coworkers and lead your team to victory!
Why Do You Exercise, Really?
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If you're really going to stay motivated, the first thing you need to do is determine what actually motivates you, says Anne Dranitsaris, Ph.D., author of Who Are You Meant to Be? For example, if you are inspired by your family, focus on how exercising will help you remain in your kids lives well into your old age, she says. Take it one step further by getting your family involved—play tag with the kids, hit the gym with your husband, cook healthy meals for the coming week together on weekends. "In order to change your patterns of behavior, you first have to recognize your patterns and why they exist. If you can redirect that motivation into a new action, your goal will automatically seem more compelling and achievable."
Ditch the Daily Weigh-In
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The scale can be a helpful tool for measuring your progress, but many people get in the habit of weighing themselves too often. "While some research shows that people manage (maintain) their weight better by weighing in daily, the same can't be said for losing weight," says Nicole Nichols, editor and fitness expert for SparkPeople.com. "Daily weigh-ins (or multiple weigh-ins per day) will only sap your motivation with a roller coaster of emotions and can cause you to freak out by temporary up-ticks in the scale (that have nothing to do with body mass or body fat)," she says. Instead, Nichols recommends stepping on the scale once a week—or even every two weeks—to better track your progress.
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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and these days it's easier than ever to build a personal motivation gallery! Try tracking your progress by creating a weight loss diary via Instagram (or another similar photo app). Daily photos (we recommend posing right after a great workout or during a healthy meal) can document the changes in your body that you may not otherwise notice—and that the scale won't always show. (Plus, you'll definitely have a wide variety of before and after pictures to choose from when you're ready to display your final results!)
Silence Your Inner Critic
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We have a bad habit of using self-criticism as a motivational tool, especially when it comes to weight loss, but not only does it not motivate, it could actually sabotage your efforts, says Vanessa Scotto, a life coach specializing in behavioral changes. "When we kick into self-critical mode, we are actually engaging the portion of our brain that's linked into our fight-flight survival reflex," she says. This increases our cortisol secretion (the "stress hormone") which in turn causes cravings for fatty and sweet foods.
Next time you find yourself in critique mode, place your hand on your heart. Just holding it there and taking a few deep breaths can help change your physiological state, silence the negativity, and allow you to look in the mirror and have a fresh experience, she says.
Surround Yourself with Health
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Stage your home to reflect the new (lighter) you, suggests Tara Zimliki, a personal trainer and bootcamp instructor. Stock and organize the fridge with healthy, prepped foods in clear containers, present fruit in beautiful bowls on counter tops, get a shoe rack to display your sneakers right by the front door, keep the dirty laundry off exercise equipment, etc. Adjusting your environment to reflect your intentions can make it that much easier to stay on track, she says.
Turn to Your Smartphone
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With more weight-loss apps available than ever, instant motivation is just a tap away. Whether you can't muster the motivation to cook dinner (try a healthy eating app like BigOven to find recipes based on what's already in your pantry), need a little support (download Fitocracy to team up with a buddy), or you're just looking for a new way to get moving (try Zombies, Run!), there's a great app to help keep your motivation (and you) mobile.
List Your Reasons for Losing
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Looking (and feeling) better on the beach is a perfectly valid reason for wanting to slim down, but it might not be enough to keep you inspired for the long haul. "Come up with a running list of all the things that are better about your life when you're at a lighter weight," Nichols says. Your list might include things like being healthier, having more stamina, improving your confidence, shopping for fun fashions, keeping up with or setting a good example for your kids, or knocking something off your bucket list like hiking the Grand Canyon, which is much easier when you're fit and at a healthy weight. Once you've written out your detailed list, keep it handy and read it often, especially when you're feeling particularly drained, to remind yourself why it's worth staying on track, she says.
Recruit Gift Givers
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Rewarding yourself with gifts along the way is great in theory but tough in practice—your schedule is already jam-packed! Make it more fun and realistic by getting your friends involved. "One of the best ideas I ever heard was from a SparkPeople.com member," Nichols says. "She gave several of her friends $20 each to buy her a surprise gift, wrap it and everything. Then for each 10 pounds she lost (you could determine the interval yourself), she would open one of the gifts purchased by her friends for a really fun and surprising reward along her journey."
Set Goals Beyond the Scale
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Even if you do everything right, there will be times when the scale won't budge or the weight just doesn't seem to come off as quickly as it should. Don't let that discourage you! Measure your progress in other ways, Nichols says. "Set goals for fitness—running farther, sticking to your routine each day or week—and celebrate each of these mini accomplishments," she says. "Or set goals for your diet such as staying in your calorie range as many days as possible, packing your lunch for work each day, or drinking 64 ounces of water a day, and celebrate reaching these goals." Celebrating these new milestones is a great way to stay motivated and inspired to stick with your program, even on days (or weeks) when the scale doesn't seem to reflect your progress.
Confront Your Fears
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It may not be a lack of motivation, but rather your fears or beliefs that are truly holding you back. For instance, if you've been trying to lose weight by exercising regularly but repeatedly find yourself avoiding the gym or going for a run outdoors, ask yourself the real reason why, Dranitsaris says. Do you really not want to exercise? Or you are embarrassed to show your body? To help overcome your fear, make a list of alternatives that can help you keep moving such as doing a workout DVD at home or sweating with a friend in a place you feel comfortable, like a women-only gym.
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If you find yourself feeling really uninspired or particularly down on your body, try shifting your focus to self-appreciation, Scotto suggests. Instead of beating yourself up for not losing a pound this week, be grateful for how your body moves and all the things it does for you (it got you through a week's worth of workouts, right?). Shift your focus from how you look to how you function—cultivating gratitude for your senses, your limbs, your ability to dance, walk, and run, she says.