Staying in shape is mostly about program compliance: it’s not about having the best fitness program, but about having one that’s good enough, and making sure you actually stick to it.
Fortunately, tens of thousands of studies have been done on how to build healthy habits, stick to a diet, and stay motivated to exercise. In this article, we’re going to share some scientifically-validated strategies for sticking to a diet or exercise program, along with examples of how I help my own clients put them into practice.
How to Learn Restraint If You’ve Picked Up a Bad Habit
There’s a common saying that willpower is like a muscle: it gets stronger when you use it. The truth is more complex. There’s mixed evidence for how much people can really improve their self-control.
A meta-analysis confirmed what successful dieters already know: you can effectively train yourself to avoid starting bad habits—like eating junk food—in the first place, but it’s much harder to try and stop doing them once you’ve started.
Don’t Resist Temptation — Avoid It
Saying “no” to a tempting bad habit might seem like a simple matter of self-control. But it turns out that people with high self-control may not necessarily be better at resisting temptation. They might just experience it less often in the first place.
A series of three studies in Germany found that individuals who scored high in the personality trait of self-control actually performed worse at tasks which tested their willpower via several different methods. The researchers concluded that people with high trait self-control engage in less frequent impulse inhibition in their daily routines. In other words, they’re not better at resisting temptation, but they experience temptation less often.
Avoiding temptation usually requires changing your environment or your daily routine. Everyone can benefit from simple practices, like not keeping junk food in their home. But you may need to take a deeper look at where you experience temptation.
Treat Willpower as an Unlimited Resource
Until recently, the leading theory about willpower or self-control was something called “ego depletion”. Ego depletion portrays willpower as something like the stamina bar in a video game. It goes down when you use it, and you replenish it by resting (or consuming food and beverages).
According to Roy Baumeister, the man behind the theory, “A program of laboratory studies suggests that self-control depends on a limited resource, akin to energy or strength. Acts of self-control and, more generally, of choice and volition deplete this resource, thereby impairing the self’s ability to function. These effects appear after seemingly minor exertions because the self tries to conserve its remaining resources after any depletion. Rest and positive affect help restore the self’s resources.”
Leverage Your Motivation
A recent series of studies by several teams of Canadian researchers suggests that your ability to say “no” to temptations also depends on where your motivation comes from.
They found that people who are motivated by the feeling that they “have to” reach a goal engage in more effortful self-control, while people who “want to” reach their goal experience fewer goal-disrupting temptations and thus don’t need to exert as much self-control.
“Have to” goals are typically those that are set externally — for example, a doctor tells you that you should lose weight, or a spouse wants you to quit smoking. A “want to” goal is one that you feel internally motivated to accomplish — you want to get fit so you can fulfill your dream of climbing Everest, or you do your workout because you love how it makes you feel.
Use Cognitive Dissonance to Build Intrinsic Motivation
You’ve probably heard of cognitive dissonance, but if not, here’s the quick summary: people try to keep all of their beliefs and actions consistent with each other. We become uncomfortable when our beliefs and our actions are inconsistent with each other. We tend to try to lower our stress by bringing them into alignment.
Research has largely upheld the view that extrinsic motivators—like financial rewards—are less motivating in the long run. Intrinsic motivators—valuing an activity for its own sake, rather than for any external rewards—are better for staying motivated in the long term.
One meta-analysis of motivational studies (not all of them health-related) found that tangible incentives can even sometimes reduce intrinsic motivation slightly, while verbal praise tends to increase it.
Praise feels good but has no tangible value. It can also reinforce the recipient’s emerging self-image as a person with a new habit. In other words, praising someone for taking care of their health causes them to see themselves as a healthy person, so they take care of their health more in the future: it motivates them into the actions that are more in alignment with their new belief in themselves as “a healthy person”.
Stress plays a major role in unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, and sleep disruption. Two recent studies demonstrated the effectiveness of stress management training in obese Greek and African American women. The Greek study noted that subjects who received stress management training engaged in more restrained eating. The American study found that stress management training decreased levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.
A review of 14 studies on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for weight loss found that mindfulness meditation was effective at combating emotional eating and binge eating. It found mixed evidence for weight loss benefits in subjects who don’t have emotional eating problems.