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How to Achieve Your Weight-Loss Goals Without Grading Yourself

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In this information heyday, you've got all the tools you need to keep your weight-loss goals on track: a device counting your steps, a running app logging every .1 of a mile, and calorie counters that calculate your daily intake. You may think that closely tracking your weight-loss efforts is the key to success. But obsessing over these numbers—refreshing your step counter after each short walk, tracking every calorie that goes into your mouth, or stepping on the scale multiple times a day—can take a toll. "A lot of people get frustrated with this grading," says Pat Barone, a weight-loss coach and founder of Catalyst Coaching. "I mean do we really need an A, B, or C grade in our lives? Of course not."

Using those numbers to guide you toward healthy choices is one thing, but tracking becomes unhealthy when you give those numbers too much importance. "It kind of gives the impression that you are that number or that your worthiness is attached to that number, and none of that is true," says Barone. After all, viewing your daily decisions as simply good or bad doesn't account for all the gray areas that come with living a well-balanced life (e.g., eating a holiday cookie doesn't mean you're a failure).

Feeling guilt or shame when you don't make an A+ choice can negatively affect your mental health, says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author of The Power of Different. What's more, you might unintentionally derail your healthy intentions if you become stressed or anxious about falling short. "Unfortunately, pumping up stress levels raises cortisol, which actually makes it a lot harder to lose weight," says Saltz. When you're stressed, your body enters fight-or-flight mode and tries to hold onto every calorie and fat cell it can in order to survive. Which means those unwanted pounds aren't going anywhere.

Before you ditch all the counting and measuring for good, know that some people can make the calorie-counting thing work without letting it take over their lives. It's about knowing yourself and adjusting a weight-loss plan if it's stressing you out. "There are people who latch onto and become quite embroiled with micromanagement, and if that's you then it probably would be better for you to not take an exacting approach," as with monitoring every bite or step you take, says Saltz.

The point isn't to stop monitoring your progress entirely, but rather changing up how and when you assess your progress. All the numbers are just baseline information, says Barone. So if you've been all about trackers in the past, you already know how active you need to be to reach 10,000 steps a day or what 1,500 calories looks like. Use that knowledge as a rough gauge for what you need to do to meet your goals, then adopt these four other healthier "progress report" habits instead.

If you're a slave to the scale...

Weigh in less frequently, anywhere between once a week to once every three months depending on what keeps you from going overboard. That way, you'll steer clear of obsessing over superficial changes, says Barone. Your weight can fluctuate from day to day based on things like your last meal, where you are in your menstrual cycle, and when you last worked out. Extending the time between weigh-ins gives you a clearer picture of your progress. "People become afraid they need the number to be honest with themselves," Saltz says. Instead, pay attention to the way you feel rather than basing those feelings off of the number on the scale.

If you count every calorie...

Consider portion size instead. For example, aim to eat a portion of protein about the size of your palm at each meal rather than figuring out if a piece of chicken fits into your day's calorie allotment. You can accomplish the same thing without needing to track something exactly, says Saltz. (Discover these other ways to lose weight without even trying.)

If you obsess over the number of calories burned during a workout...

Simplify your approach and just try to do something active every day. That doesn't mean it needs to be a tough 90-minute cycle class. It could be as easy as committing to walking at least 30 minutes a day. Make it a goal to simply get moving, and you may even be motivated to keep going.

If your brain is fried from all the tracking in general...

Focus on healthy habits. "Forget the numbers—for me, changing habits is way more effective in the long run," says Barone. If you have an unhealthy snack every afternoon, swap it out for something more nutritious. Or if Sundays are normally spent brunching, squeeze a workout in or bike to the restaurant. "Change some of those habits that are really causing some damage and you'll get much further," she says. Once it's a habit, there's no more guessing involved. (Tech trackers do have their advantages. Here are five cool ways to use your fitness tracker that you probably haven't heard of.)

And if you're used to rating your day's success...

Rather than grading your food and exercise choices, gently check in with yourself before going to bed, suggests Barone. Don't use that time to judge every detail of the day but as a general assessment of how you feel. "Did you eat too much today? Do you feel heavy?" she says. "Then, adjust that for tomorrow." Give yourself a break, and we'll bet you'll sleep a lot more easily. (After all, sleep is the most important factor of weight loss.)

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