We’re not going to lie: Losing weight isn’t easy, and it isn’t always fun (so long, office cupcakes). But that doesn’t mean you should just toss your scale and give up before you’ve even begun. “The most important thing is to set goals that are achievable,” says Heather Mangieri, RD, CSSD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That means instead of gunning for a big, scary “goal weight” that seems so far in the future you can barely imagine it, set tinier targets instead. “Thinking about your final goal can be so overwhelming you go on shut-down,” Mangieri says. “It’s all about setting small goals, and figuring out what you want to do to get there.”
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So stop picturing what you’re going to look like a year from now (you’ll get there eventually!) — and start imagining how much better you’ll feel when you forego that side of fries for veggies instead. Here’s how to do it.
5 Ways to Set Smarter Weight Loss Goals
1. Think short-term.
It may seem counterintuitive, but don’t get bogged down by the fact that you have 10, 20, 50 or even 100 pounds to lose. “When I’m working with a client, it’s about figuring out where you want to be next week, not in two years,” Mangieri says.
If you’ve got a long road ahead, create a mini goal of losing five to 10 percent of your body weight first, says Lisa Cimperman, RD, LD, and clinical dietician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. “Setting short-term milestones and building on them helps keep you focused on your progress, not how far you still have to go,” she adds.
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It’s also helpful to think about not just what you want to lose, but what you want to gain — whether that’s more energy, better self-confidence or a longer life, Cimperman says. “Often, these goals are far more motivating than the number on the scale.”
2. Figure out your diet strategy.
Time to come up with a game plan for your eats. “Usually, for weight loss, there is some kind of dietary change that needs to happen,” Mangieri says. In other words, hopping on the treadmill won’t compensate for a diet full of processed foods.
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The good news: You don’t need to give up carbs for good, commit to a vegan lifestyle, or swear off alcohol for months to lose weight. “I think the biggest mistake [people make] is thinking that they have to make a drastic change in their eating,” Mangieri says. “You might see a difference on the scale [by doing that], but it will be short-lived if you don’t make lifestyle changes and adopt them as part of your new life.”
“The journey is more important than the actual reaching of the goal.”
Instead, Mangieri likes people to make small tweaks to address the weak spots in their diet (like drinking soda, or eating too much sugar). “Some clients… I’m giving very short goals like stop drinking juice or sugar-sweetened beverages, or replace them with water,” Mangieri says. “Other clients, if they’ve have already made a lot of changes, we might look at portion sizes. It really depends on where they are what their current eating habits.”
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3. Work on your fitness.
While exercise alone won’t get you to your goal weight, setting fitness goals along the way might help keep you motivated, Cimperman says. “Maybe you want to train for a 5K, or run a 10 minute mile, or improve your strength,” she says. “These things are measurable and typically involve a deadline for completion.”
Plus, they’ll help you feel more committed to leading a healthy lifestyle. “The journey is more important than the actual reaching of the goal, because it’s is the piece that teaches you the behaviors and new habits you need to maintain the goal,” Mangieri says. “We do know through research and studies that activity is a critical part of maintaining weight loss.”
4. Don’t expect to lose 10 pounds a week.
While TV shows may depict people shedding crazy amounts of weight in a week, that’s not actually reality for most folks. “We’re looking at one to two pounds a week, depending on how much weight somebody has to lose,” Mangieri says, and it could be even less than that. (Half a pound still counts!)
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If you’re losing at a more drastic rate, it might feel good for a while, but you could eventually end up plateauing — or gaining it all back, Mangieri says. “[That] can set in feelings of failure and depression,” she says. “Once that mood change happens you start to see other behaviors kick in that are not helping them reach their goal.”
5. Track your successes.
Don’t forget to take time to revel in all the hard work you’re doing — and how it’s paying off. “Use a notebook and pen or any of the many apps to track your food intake and activity,” Cimperman says. “Studies show that people who do this are more likely to stick with their plan,”
Plus, plotting your weight loss over several months, can help remind you how well you’re doing — even on an off week. “It helps people see even though I might not have lost a pound this week, or even gained a pound, overall my pattern of weight loss is looking pretty good.”
Feeling motivated? Check out these six weight loss success stories to give you that final push you need to get started.