Have you set a weight loss goal? Are you having trouble setting one? Be very careful about the weight loss goal you select because that goal can impact your success and how you feel about your progress. Before starting a weight loss program, women in one study were asked for their dream weight loss outcome, happy weight, acceptable weight, and disappointing weight (Foster et al 1997). The average “dream” weight loss was 84 lbs, the average “happy” weight was 68 lbs, the average “acceptable” weight loss was 55 lbs, and the average “disappointing” weight loss was 37 lbs. The vast majority of people ended up losing 37 lbs or less, which means most ended up disappointed. It is astonishing that a 37 lb weight loss would be considered a disappointment for anyone. Imagine how these women would have felt if their goal was 20 lbs? Be sure your goals set you up for success, not disappointment. Here are 6 tips to setting a goal that will maximize not only your success, but your sense of accomplishment.
1. If HEALTH Is Your Purpose. If improving health is your purpose for losing weight, you will experience health benefits with as little as a 7% weight loss, according to the Diabetes Prevention Program which is a large study that found that losing 7% of weight through healthy diet and exercise significantly reduces risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes (DPP, 2002). During your weight loss journey, pay attention to health indicators such as cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, depression, and pain. Once these factors get under control, it may not be necessary to continue losing weight. Let objective measures of improved health guide your goal.
2. If LOOKS Are Your Purpose. Ok, so let’s be honest, we all want to look better. And we all have the idea that being thinner will make us look better (shout out to Hollywood for drilling that into our psyche!). Unfortunately, much more weight usually needs to be lost to impact your physical appearance relative to the amount needed to improve your health. A few things to consider. First, you will not likely achieve the body you once had many years ago, simply based on age and metabolic changes. Second, many people who have lost 100+ pounds still view themselves as unattractive and overweight. Your view of yourself may be even more difficult to change than your weight. If you look at old pictures of yourself and think you looked great, but recall that at the time you thought you were “fat” or “ugly,” you are likely to feel the same way if you return to that weight. Self-acceptance is an inside job. It won’t be achieved by moving the scale. Love who you are now and then at least you know for sure you will later.
2. Slave to the BMI chart, eh? Do not get fixated on the BMI chart. Many people look at the BMI chart and set their weight loss goal to be in the “normal” BMI range. Below is a graph of the relationship between BMI and mortality. Notice the U-shaped curve. The lowest mortality rates are for people between 20-27 BMI (overweight BMI is 25.1-29.9). Risk doesn’t seem to climb until about 30 BMI (obese is 30+). If you are in the overweight range and have no risk factors of type 2 diabetes or heart disease, there is no health reason to continue losing weight (See Orpana et al 2010). This means there is no sense in fighting to get into the below 25 zone (normal BMI). If you are obese, I would suggest shooting for the overweight range (25.1-29). If at that point you are still strongly compelled to keep losing weight and you feel like you can do it, go ahead, but it won’t buy you a ton of health benefit.
3. Waist Management is Your New Business. Instead of BMI, focus on waist circumference. If you are a woman, your waist circumference should be less than 35 inches and if a man, less than 40 inches. Waist circumference is a strong predictor of mortality across ALL categories of BMI (Jacobs et al 2010). It is also strongly associated with type 2 diabetes. See this link for specific instructions on how to measure your waist circumference. Start measuring your waist circumference and make your goal to get it below the cut-offs. That goal will do more for your health than exclusively focusing on BMI.
4. Be Short-Sighted. Even though you may have an ultimate goal in mind, it is hard to know what it will take to get there, how long it will take, and whether it is even realistic. The key to goal setting is to always have a goal for the week and the month. Don’t think beyond these time frames. Each week decide what you would like to accomplish for the next week and each month decide on what you plan to accomplish for the upcoming month. This gives you the flexibility to modulate your goals according to life. For example, if April is your busiest month of the year, then maybe downshift your goal into weight maintenance for that month. if you have a ton of time off in June, maybe you would like to set a bigger goal for that month because you will have time to really ramp up your exercise. By only focusing on one long-term goal (e.g., 50 lbs this year), you lose the opportunity to make such adjustments by forcing yourself to be locked into the same pace all the time.
5. Be Flexible. Give yourself permission to change your goals as time goes by. It is very possible you will get to a certain weight and then feel like you aren’t up for the extra effort to get to the next level. Let that be ok. Don’t see it as selling out or failing. The further you go the more information you will have about what you really want. Give yourself no-punishment permission to change your goals as you go.
6. Don’t Weight To Be Happy – Much of my research has focused on people who have weight issues and depression. One thing I hear a lot of people say is that they will not be happy until they lose the weight. The bind they then put themselves in is by making happiness dependent on a certain weight there is no possibility of being happy in the meantime. And who knows if they will even be happy once they have lost a certain amount of weight? This is not a guarantee. Connecting happiness to a weight loss goal is essentially exiling yourself to unhappiness. No matter how much you might feel that your weight plays into your mood, realize that many things in life play into our moods. Just because you feel down about one area of your life doesn’t mean that improvements in other areas won’t be helpful. Working on your weight may help, but think of other ways you can increase your fulfillment in life too. Life is short, finding happiness is something that just can’t wait…
“The goal you set must be challenging. At the same time, it should be realistic and attainable, not impossible to reach. It should be challenging enough to make you stretch, but not so far that you break.” Rick Hansen
Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group (2002). Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or metformin. New England Journal of Medicine, 346(6), 393-403.
Foster, G. et al (1997). What is a reasonable weight loss? Patients’ expectations and evaluations of obesity treatment outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(1), 79-85.
Jacobs, EJ et al (2010). Waist circumference and all-cause mortality in a large US cohort. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(15), 1293-1301.
Orpana, HM et al (2010). BMI and mortality: Results of a national longitudinal study of Canadian adults. Obesity, 18(1), 214-218.