One of my coaching clients, let's call her Nadine, once asked me what I thought of using positive affirmations to lose weight. Will repeating "I am losing weight every day" to herself and posting "I love to eat healthy" on her fridge help her drop a jeans size?
Being a health coach with a background in positive psychology, I get that question often. My answer? Yes, but mostly no.
Contrary to popular belief, positive psychology isn't all about thinking positively. Rather, it's about researching ways to help people thrive. If affirmations boost your confidence that you can implement changes, then by all means go ahead. However, they won't by themselves lead you to success if you're a cookie monster. You still have to change your habits.
That being said, thinking differently can indeed help you act differently and create real change. Here are my four top thinking tips for anyone trying to lose weight.
1. Know you can. Is there a mindset for getting in shape? You bet! Carol Dweck and colleagues at Stanford University found that if you believe that changing your health habits is a function of putting in some effort and using an appropriate strategy, then you will progress. If, on the other hand, you believe that your habits are too long-standing for you to change them and you prefer to spare yourself the effort, then you're stuck where you are. The beauty of this "Mindset Theory" is that understanding it is half the battle. Next time you catch yourself in self-defeating thoughts, swap your "I can't survive the afternoon without my double whipped cream latté" for something more empowering like "I don't need empty calories to boost my mood and energy -- I can do that all on my own if I choose to."
2. Relax! Enduring stress produces the perfect biochemical concoction for your body to want more food in general, and more high-sugar, high-fat food in particular. Worse, to ensure that you can survive the entire stressful episode -- no matter what's ahead -- your body starts building energy reserves. In other words, it stockpiles as many of those extra calories as possible. Avoid this double-whammy by allowing yourself regular intervals of mini-relaxation. Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School says that a daily 10-minute meditation is sufficient to activate the relaxation response and enjoy its benefits. Additional 60- to 90-second mini-sessions will give you added benefits. There are various types of meditations you could choose from, but the simplest is to close your eyes, and focus your attention on the movement of your deep belly breaths. Try to slow them down, and visualize yourself filling up with positive energy.
3. Eat for nutrition first, pleasure second. Not the other way around. With our daily exposure to publicity for juicy burgers, crispy snacks and melting chocolate, it's easy to forget that we should eat primarily to give our bodies the nutrients it needs. Time to bring things back into perspective. Start by identifying all the functions food serves in your life. Do you eat for distraction when you are bored? Do you treat yourself with food for a job well done? Do you reach for ice cream when you're sad? Once you know why you eat other than hunger, find new activities for any functions that aren't related to nutrition. Go for a walk when you need distraction, get a massage to celebrate your victories and call up a friend when you need a pick-me-up.
4. See exercise as a privilege -- not a chore. Imagine being paralyzed for a minute. No, no -- don't read on before you've done it. Close your eyes for 12 seconds and imagine you can't move your body as you please. Picture yourself depending on others to get you up in the morning, feed you, bathe you. We take it for granted, but having the ability to move is a pleasure and a privilege. See if thinking this way can propel you to move more.
So can you think yourself thin? Sure you can. But you'll need more than positive affirmations to get yourself into action.
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