Achieving a Healthy Mindset for Maintenance Full Article

Achieving a Healthy Mindset for Maintenance

Dr Paula Watson

Liverpool John Moores University

Paula delivering her talk to our Accrington Be Strong group on Wed 26th June 2019


Dr Paula Watson

When Rick asked me to prepare something for the Be Strong group on the “importance of mindset in achieving your aspirations”, I was initially a little uncomfortable about this.  And when I took some time to reflect, I realised why.  Be Strongers (i.e. you!) have achieved so much in terms of lifestyle change and weight loss, I always feel quite humbled when I visit the group. I really felt there wasn’t anything I could tell you about mindset that you didn’t already know (as you don’t lose multiple stones in weight or go from couch to marathon without having the right mindset!).

But then I thought about mindset itself.   Often we’re told it’s about “positive mental attitude”, to “stop worrying and just do it” or to “replace negative thoughts with positive”.  But if things are getting on top of you, you’re lacking motivation or struggling to resist temptation, how easy is it to simply “snap out of it” and be positive?  The reality is it can be incredibly difficult.

So I asked Be Strongers what the situations are when you find it challenging to stay motivated.  I received several responses, thank you, and I drew on these responses to inform the talk I gave at the Accrington Be Strong group on 26th June.  As not everyone was able to attend the talk (and as I probably waffled and missed some of the points I meant to make!) I have prepared this article to summarise three key points that will help you achieve a healthy mindset for long-term weight management.

Each of the three points starts with some questions for you to reflect on personally.  I would encourage you to take some time to do this and to be honest with yourself.   Self-awareness is an important step in moving forward, and if you are currently “in a rut” or lacking motivation, reflecting on these questions might help you identify some of the areas you could change.   If it helps – you could even write down your feelings, or perhaps meet with a friend to go through this article together.

About Me

I’m a registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council, and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society.   Since 2012, I’ve worked at Liverpool John Moores University as a Lecturer in Exercise and Health Psychology, where I supervise the MSc and doctorate students you may have met on their Be Strong placements (Laura, Joe, Chiara).  My current research is focussed on understanding how we can help people become and stay physically active for life, so I do a lot of work with GP exercise referral schemes and training health professionals to support behaviour change.  Before that (from 2005 to 2013), I developed and led a health behaviour change programme called GOALS!, which was for families with children who were overweight and covered nutrition, physical activity and psychology.

On a personal level, I love being active!  I actually wasn’t sporty at school – in fact I was the worst at sport in many aspects of my school life.  I had to wear a “red cap” in swimming because I was the only one who couldn’t swim a length (secondary school) and I distinctly remember coming last in a cross-country race in primary school.  My eye-hand coordination isn’t great so 10-pin bowling is a no-go and summer get togethers with rounders, cricket etc. are my ultimate dread!

BUT…I have always enjoyed moving and been encouraged to be active by my family.   Running and cycling (leisurely) have been constants through my life plus I spent many years playing women’s football (my eye-foot coordination is slightly better than my hands!) and my new-found passion is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  I went for a 10k run this morning and I can honestly say running makes me smile!  I love the “feeling” of movement and I feel very lucky to be able to experience this.

I recognise running will not be the answer for everyone, but whatever you struggle with, or whatever you want to change, I hope the following points will help you achieve a healthy mindset that supports lifelong weight maintenance (and might even help you experience the same “buzz” from exercise I get!).   And if you’re in a good place now, reflect on these points and use them to reinforce what you’re doing and motivate you to keep going.

Thank you for reading!

Point 1:  It’s a way of life not a short-term fix

Questions to reflect on (honestly):

  1. Do you view your current diet and physical activity as temporary or permanent in your life?
  2. If you are currently “losing”, how do you feel things are going to be different when you reach your target weight? (i.e. your diet, your physical activity, your mindset)
  3. If you are currently “maintaining”, how do you feel things have changed since before you met your target weight? (i.e. your diet, your physical activity, your mindset)

At Be Strong, you may view your journey in two separate “zones”: the “losing” zone and the “maintenance” zone.  You may have been in the losing zone for some time, you may have lost some weight but feel you still have some way to go before reaching your target weight (even if just a few pounds).   You may even “like” the idea of staying in the losing zone, as you know how to manage that, it’s what you’re used to, and you feel like you have a clear goal to work towards.

But the dangers of this mindset are:

  1. a) your focus is always on changing how things are rather than enjoying your current way of life; and
  2. b) it can be challenging to cope psychologically when you do reach the “maintenance” zone – you relax, old habits creep in and re-gain becomes more likely.

A more healthy way to view your lifestyle change is that everything you do now needs to be something you can, and plan to, keep up forever.   Whether it is counting calories, planning your weekly physical activity, or cutting down on a certain food.   So if you are introducing a daily walk now, ask yourself – can I do this forever?   And if the answer is no, change your question – how could I introduce walking into my life in a way that is sustainable?   You will have far more chances of success if you make fewer, small changes that become permanent in your life, than if you change everything for a year, then go back to your old habits.

So if you currently view your lifestyle as temporary, try and reflect on this idea and work on shifting your mindset to a more permanent focus.   Focus on enjoying what you are doing now and making it sustainable.  This might require patience, it might require doing things a bit less “drastically”, but it will pay off in the end.

For long-term success, healthy eating and physical activity need to become a way of life, not a journey to an end pointDr Paula Watson

Point 2:  Physical activity is your friend

Questions to reflect on (honestly):

  1. Do you enjoy being physically active?
  2. Do you feel you have a healthy relationship with physical activity?
  3. What role do you see physical activity playing in your lifestyle change/weight loss journey?

What is physical activity?

In this section, you will see I am purposely referring to “physical activity” (any bodily movement that increases your energy expenditure) rather than “exercise”.   Exercise isn’t for everyone, and there are many other ways you can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity to benefit your health.   Here are just a few:

Exercise – repetitive, structured activities that you do purposely to improve fitness (e.g. Be Strong sessions!)

Sport – exercise that is competitive (e.g. netball, football – or walking versions of these)

Active transport – walking or cycling (e.g. for commuting or leisure)

Occupational activity – active jobs or careers (e.g. postal worker, builder)

Lifestyle activity – being active around the house and in daily life (e.g. hoovering, taking the stairs instead of the lift)

Why is physical activity important?

The benefits of physical activity go far beyond weight management.    In fact, research shows that physical fitness is actually more important than weight for your long-term health.   Somebody who is overweight and physically active will have a higher life expectancy and less risk of disease than someone who is a healthy weight but is physically inactive.      

If you are regularly physically active you will have a reduced risk of:

  • Heart attack and strokes
  • Diabetes (type 2)
  • Cancer
  • Falls
  • Dementia
  • Joint and back pain

Physical activity can also help with your weight management by improving your sleep, and helping you regulate your diet.  For example, on the evenings I train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I eat a lot less than when I’m just sitting around the house working or watching TV.   So a good workout can be seen as a double whammy for weight loss – you’re burning calories through the activity itself, but you’re also distracting yourself from snacking therefore reducing your calorie intake.

But above all physical activity makes you feel good!  There is extensive evidence to show physical activity promotes positive mental wellbeing and reduces the risk of depression.

So if you’re struggling to meet your target weight, but you know you are physically fit – take in this good news and remember it!!  It may be time to give yourself a pat on the back for all the activity you are doing, and stop worrying about what the scales say.

How much should you do?

The Department of Health (2011) recommend that for health benefits, you need to aim to be active daily, and do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity over the week.  This equates to 30 minutes on 5 days of the week and can be broken down into smaller bouts (e.g. 3 X 10 minutes).   Moderate intensity is activities such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming.

An alternative way you can meet these recommendations is by doing at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week (so the Be Strong session would count as 30 minutes of this!).

The guidelines also recommend that you do strength training on at least two days of the week (this doesn’t need to involve going to the gym, it can simply be carrying heavy bags from the supermarket!), and reduce the amount of time you spend sitting.

It is important to remember these recommendations are a “guide” only and are based on minimal levels for health benefits.   So with respect to weight management, there are several important points:

  1. If you are trying to lose weight, you may need to do more than 150 minutes of physical activity per week to achieve this.
  2. BUT you will gain health benefits through doing 150 minutes of physical activity even without any weight loss
  3. Remember that you will gain muscle with physical activity, and as muscle weighs more than fat the scales won’t be a true reflection of how your body is changing. Your clothes are a much better indicator – so focus on how your body looks and feels, rather than what the scales say.
  4. The 150 minutes per week is a minimal level, so if you do more than this you may gain additional health benefits

If you would like to know more about physical activity and why it is important, you can read the full government guidelines here.

Or if you’d like a quicker, easier read, this info-graphic summarises the key points.

And if you’re doing far less than 150 minutes at the moment, don’t panic!  Read the section below about how to develop a healthy relationship with physical activity.

A healthy relationship with physical activity will enhance your changes of long-term successDr Paula Watson

So…how do you develop a healthy relationship with physical activity?

How much physical activity you aim for will depend on your starting point.    If you are currently doing very little, it may not be realistic to start doing 150 minutes a week straight away.   Instead, try and build it up gradually over time.

A healthy relationship with physical activity is one in which:

  • You enjoy the activity you do
  • You are in a regular routine that you are confident you can maintain
  • There is some flexibility in your routine (as you recognise it is sometimes necessary to shift things around)
  • You don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, or have to take a break due to other commitments (as sometimes these things happen, and you are confident you will get back on track)
  • Physical activity is important to you and you view it as a constant in your life

You can use the above checklist to consider your current relationship with physical activity, and identify areas that might need to change.

If you currently don’t tick any of these, and this aspiration seems a million miles from where you are now, don’t worry – it takes time to develop this kind of relationship with physical activity.  Instead see this as an aspiration, and something to check back with on your journey, or to keep yourself on track if you are slipping into unhealthy tendencies (e.g. being too “all or nothing”, beating yourself up, or finding you’re not enjoying physical activity).

Below are a few tips that will help you develop a healthy relationship with physical activity, or might help you out of a motivation “lull”:

  • Find what makes you “buzz”! There are many different ways of being physically active, and if you are going to keep it up forever it is important to find something you enjoy. You may not enjoy classes, and would rather fit your activity into your lifestyle, through walking, taking the stairs and doing household activities.  Or you may like to add in a more vigorous activity such as Be Strong, running, swimming, exercise classes, a martial art, yoga or dancing.  You may even like to re-try a sport or activity you left many years ago – nowadays there are many classes in adult dance and gymnastics, and slower versions of sports such as walking netball or walking football.   But the important point is everything counts!  It may take you some time to find what is right for you, but I truly believe everyone can find some kind of active pastime that makes them “buzz”!
  • Remember vigorous physical activity can be challenging. But this challenge often adds to the buzz! (because it shows you how much your body can achieve)  Whilst moderate physical activity always makes you feel good, research shows that if you are exercising so hard that you are sweating and cannot speak the exercise stops feeling enjoyable at that point (I’m sure you know what I mean!).    But then when you stop and slow down again, the “feel good factor” returns and you feel joyous at what you have achieved!   So remembering this is a natural part of vigorous activity can help you keep going.  Even if it feels tough at the time – you’re going to feel great afterwards!
  • Focus on being the best you can be, rather than comparing yourself with others. It is human to want to compare yourself with others, and judge how you are doing on based on these comparisons.  But sometimes this can be demoralising, as it doesn’t take into account everything that makes you different from the next person (e.g. your starting point, your weight, personal barriers to exercise).   Research shows that if you focus on self-improvement (i.e. being the best you can be!) rather than comparing yourself to others, you will feel more motivated to keep going with physical activity, and will maintain a healthier wellbeing.
  • Set yourself physical activity challenges to help with motivation. One of the basic human needs is the need to feel like you are “good” at something in your life.  As with anything else, if you are feeling like you’re not making any progress with your physical activity, you might begin to lose motivation.  A great way to push yourself is to set yourself a challenge (e.g. one of the Be Strong monthly challenges) or to enter an event, such as a 5k race or a sprint triathlon (this is a short triathlon).   So if you haven’t yet done Couch 2 5K, perhaps now is the time to consider it!
  • Make physical activity a social activity. And where better to do this than with the Be Strong group? Whether you’re an online member or attend one of the groups, try and find a buddy to be active with you, or if that doesn’t work, try sharing your active stories in the Be Strong facebook group – that sense of connection with others will boost your motivation.
  • Mix it up or take a break. If you’re doing the same thing week in, week out, it is natural that you might get a bit tired from time to time.    A great way to keep yourself motivated is to add variety into your routine, or if you’ve been doing a lot of one activity, take a planned break or try something else out for a week – you’ll be surprised how much you enjoy it when you go back to it!
  • Try and establish a regular routine so that physical activity becomes a “habit”. A habit is something that you do naturally without thinking about.  So if you can make physical activity a habit, it will be a lot easier to maintain in the long run.  The way you develop a habit is by repeating it regularly, within the same environment, over a period of time (examples might include walking for 10 minutes before breakfast every day, or going to Be Strong every Monday).  Research shows the period of time for a behaviour to become habitual can vary from about 3 weeks to about 9 months, depending on the individual and the type of behaviour you’re trying to change.  So when you’re starting out it is important to persevere, over time your routine will become a habit and it will be much easier to stick with in the long-run.
  • Plan! You have probably heard the saying “Fail to plan, and plan to fail!”. Well it is equally true with physical activity.   You can have great intentions, but if you don’t plan for when you are going to be physically active, you are unlikely to do it.  The more specific your plan is the better.  I find a useful strategy is to write what I am going to do and when on my calendar at the start of each week, I then tick this off as I achieve it (or cross it off if I don’t do it!).  It is important you learn not to beat yourself up if you need to cross a session off though, this will happen from time to time and it is absolutely fine.  Just cross it off and either revise your plans for the rest of the week or continue where you left off.
  • Get out there and do it! The irony with physical activity, is that the more you do the more you feel like doing (and unfortunately vice-versa).    Energy breeds energy!   So the most challenging part if you’re lacking motivation can be getting off that couch in the first place.   When you feel like this – try reminding yourself why physical activity is personally important to you, remind yourself how great you will feel afterwards, and get out there and do it!  I find if I have a session written on my planner (see previous bullet point) I just see that as part of my day, so there’s no question about whether or not I will do it – I just get on with it.   If however I let indecision start to creep in (“maybe I won’t go because I’m tired, or because I’ve got work to do etc.”) that’s when I become vulnerable!
  • Finally, remember the more physical activity you do, the easier it gets. If at the moment you are doing couch 2 5k and every running section feels like a nightmare, keep going and one day you will – I promise you – be able to run at that pace whilst smiling and talking to your friends.  But the only way you can achieve this is by actually doing it!

“The only workout you regret is the one you didn’t do”

Point 3:  Take the pressure off!  

Questions to reflect on (honestly):

  1. What does your current weight target mean to you? Why that number in particular?
  2. Do you feel motivated by your weight target, or is it starting to get you down?
  3. Have you ever considered how it would feel to forget about your weight target, and focus instead on the process of changing your diet and physical activity?

Be Strong is a lifestyle transformation programme.   The focus is on changing your physical activity and dietary behaviours – and if you do this (and weight loss is your target), you will lose weight.

But sometimes the weight targets can take over.   I have seen multiple Facebook posts from Be Strongers who have achieved remarkable weight losses (2,3,5,10+ stones!) yet are stressing over those last few pounds to get to their target weight.  If this is you, read on…

For long-term success, you need to enjoy the process – focus on the “now” and take the pressure offDr Paula Watson

Research shows that too much pressure (without enjoyment) is bad for motivation.   If you constantly feel pressured (either from others or yourself), you end up taking short-cuts, you do things because you feel you “have to”, and this can have a negative effect on your mental wellbeing.     Something eventually has to give, and when this happens you fall off the wagon (and re-gain becomes more likely).

If this is resonating with how you feel now, the four tips below might help you take the pressure off and re-gain your enjoyment of healthy eating and physical activity.  After all (as discussed in point 1), this is a lifelong process.

  • Be flexible about your weight target and acknowledge that “the number” you first came up with might not be the best weight for you. If you are struggling to shift those last few pounds, it could be that you are striving for something that is beyond what your body will achieve on a comfortable healthy lifestyle.  So sometimes you have to listen to your body.   Keep in mind that the BMI ranges set by the NHS are based on population data – they don’t take into account the amount of muscle you have, and they don’t take into account individual variation in body shape and size.  If you find you sit comfortably at 10 stone 7lb, are happy and healthy and are able to maintain this weight, why keep on fighting to try and get to 10 stone (when this will likely be a battle for you to maintain)?   It is also important to remember that you will naturally fluctuate within a few pounds (depending on time of day, water retention etc.) – so really it makes little practical sense to fixate on one specific number.
  • Try not to be overly restrictive with your diet. Research shows that the more you restrict something the more you want it.  So over-restriction is more likely to lead to binge episodes.  Where possible, try and buy into the “everything in moderation” philosophy.  Where you have “no” foods (and I get this, I too have to not bring certain things into the house to stop me eating them!), try and replace them with something that will meet that craving but won’t tip your calories over.   For example, I have a sweet tooth and always want to finish a meal with some kind of a “dessert”.  So I choose something with natural sugars that also gives me some nutrition (e.g. fruit or a Naked bar).  I find this satisfies me and I’m more able to go without those foods I’m trying to eat less off.
  • Make sure your goals are meaningful to you. Not everyone is motivated by having a weight target – and that’s ok.    Perhaps you set a weight target just because everyone else was, or because you thought you had to in order to attend Be Strong (you don’t by the way!).   If this target isn’t personal to you, or isn’t something you really care about, this will have a negative effect on your motivation.  If you are feeling this way, perhaps have a chat with Rick or Rachel who will support you to come up with a more meaningful goal for you (e.g. this could relate to mindset, to physical activity or to diet).
  • Accept that this will take time and there will be ups and downs. Finally, it is important to remember the amount of time it took to gain any excess weight (this didn’t happen overnight!), and think about the amount of time it might take for this weight to come off.  You will have good days and bad days.   But if you accept this is a lifelong process (see point 1), rather than something that needs to be sorted in a few months, you will find it easier not to beat yourself up when things aren’t going well.  After all, what is two days out of a lifetime?

And this isn’t to say weight targets aren’t important, particularly in the early stages of your journey, but sometimes it can be helpful to worry less about the numbers and focus more on how you feel.   And you’ll be surprised – taking that pressure off may even mean you reach that elusive target!

Leave a Reply