Think self-care and healthy weight loss are two separate, unrelated things? Think again. It turns out, self-care — focusing on your personal needs and your mental (and physical) wellbeing — goes hand in hand with successfully shedding pounds.
The Connection Between Self-Care and Weight Loss
"While what you eat and how much you move are necessary factors for a successful weight-loss journey, they are not sufficient," clinical psychologist Gary Foster, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and chief scientific officer at WW (formerly Weight Watchers), tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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"Contrary to mainstream belief, your mindset — defined as how you think about your personal journey and yourself — is actually the foundation for developing healthy behaviors that become healthy habits in the long term," Foster says.
So, if your mindset is muddled by damaging and destructive ideas about yourself, shedding pounds will prove particularly difficult.
"The most frequent off-ramps to a weight-loss and wellness journey occur when unrealistic, irrational and often negative thoughts lead to disappointment and, ultimately, abandoning your goals," Foster says. "For a journey to be successful, the process should feel positive, not punitive."
In other words, instead of listening to the voice in your head that's tough and overly critical, practice self-compassion.
To do that, Foster says you must see yourself as someone who's worth caring for rather than a person who's deficient in some way. This means treating yourself with kindness, especially when you stumble.
"It is not about if you have a setback, but when you have a setback and how you respond to it," Foster says. "To effectively manage and recover from setbacks, think about what you can learn versus asking 'why' it happened, which usually leads to self-critical thoughts that are inaccurate and not actionable (ex: I have no willpower)."
Embarking on the road to self-compassion is the key to making long-term changes. Below, Foster shares science-driven self-care strategies that can help you create the headspace to lose weight and keep it off.
Self-Care Tactics That Support Weight Loss
1. Get Sufficient Shut-Eye
When it comes to self-care and maintaining mental health, there's nothing more important than catching quality zzzs.
While chronic sleep loss contributes to a pattern of negative thinking and emotional vulnerability, sufficient slumber encourages both mental and emotional resilience, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Scientists believe this happens in part because sleep disruption — which affects your body's production of neurotransmitters and stress hormones — takes a toll on the brain.
Consequently, that can take a toll on your quality of life. Among other things, sleep disturbances can negatively affect your work productivity and your relationships, Fosters says.
And, if your sleep loss is prolonged, you might even experience long-term health issues. In fact, sleep deprivation "puts you at higher risk for a long list of chronic diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and obesity," Foster says.
Since sleep influences so many areas of your wellbeing, it's not surprising that it also plays a critical role in weight loss. When you don't get a good night's sleep, it can affect your mood and decision-making skills, which in turn can make it harder for you to think clearly, make healthier choices and ultimately achieve your weight and wellness goals, Foster says.
Making matters worse, a sleepless night can "alter the hormones that regulate your hunger and appetite and may cause you to eat more snacks and sugary foods than you typically do," he adds.
It's true. After a night of tossing and turning, your brain becomes especially responsive to the smell of food, and you're more likely to crave the kinds that are rich in calories and fat, per an October 2019 study published in eLife.
Try it: To get a satisfying snooze — 7 to 9 hours a night — Foster recommends creating a regular bedtime routine such as reading, disconnecting from your phone, journaling or doing a brief end-of-day meditation. "The more regular your routine, the better," he says.
Also, if you can fit it in during the day, taking a half-hour catnap may help counteract a crappy night's sleep and slash stress, according to a March 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
2. Prioritize Physical Activity
At first glance, exercise appears to fall strictly under strategies to shed unwanted weight. After all, "physical activity is the single best predictor of weight-loss maintenance and, for those looking to lose pounds, moving more can help you lose 20 percent more weight when coupled with healthier eating habits," Foster says.
But while working out can whittle down your waistline — and reduce your risk of everything from cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure to type 2 diabetes and poor bone health — it can also serve as a solid approach to self-care, as it improves your mood and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, per the Mayo Clinic.
That's largely due to the feel-good endorphins your body releases during physical activity. But also, achieving even small exercise goals can boost your self-confidence and self-image. Not to mention that working out can offer an excellent escape from daily worries.
And "research shows that healthy eating patterns and regular physical activity can help you improve the quality of your sleep," which, as we know, is a major help in the mental health and weight-loss departments.
Try it: Between the mental and physical benefits, exercise is the ultimate twofer. To reap the greatest health outcomes, adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (think: walking, biking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity (running, HIIT) aerobic physical activity per week and incorporate strength training on two or more days a week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
The key? Find an exercise you truly enjoy, and you'll be more likely to stick with it.
3. Work in Mini Movement Breaks
Even if you don't have the time to invest in a full-on sweat session, you can still gain great value — mentally and physically — from short bursts of movement.
"Moving more does not have to be a lengthy commitment," Foster says. "It's proven that activity — even moving for a few minutes a day — can have numerous health and wellness benefits, from aiding you on your weight-loss and wellness journey to giving you more energy and confidence."
Case in point: An April 2016 study published in PLOS One found that a 10-minute workout that includes at least one minute of high-intensity exercise exhibited comparable benefits to a longer endurance routine performed at a moderate level of intensity.
"Conversely, the evidence is clear that being sedentary for extended periods of time has negative physical and mental health consequences, even for people who regularly exercise," Foster adds.
Try it: Schedule in quick physical activities throughout the day by setting actionable goals. "The more realistic and specific the goal you set, the more likely you are to achieve it," says Foster, who encourages you to "think about the what, when and where."
For instance, saying, "I'll walk more this week" won't be as effective as a specific plan like, "I'll walk for 10 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday starting at 5:30 p.m. in the park."
Bonus if you can take your activity outdoors. "Even if it's a walk around the block, focusing on what you see, hear and smell can reduce feelings of stress," Foster says.
Indeed, a June 2019 study published in Scientific Reports found that spending at least two hours a week in nature is linked to good health and positive wellbeing.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Another way to adopt a more helpful mindset for weight loss is to practice mindfulness and focus on your breathing.
As a tool in your self-care kit, mindfulness "helps to quiet your mind and cultivate non-judgmental awareness," Foster says.
Remember, to achieve long-term wellness and weight-loss goals, you need to create a noncritical, compassionate headspace. And a mindfulness practice can encourage that.
What's more, mindfulness can help you cope with stress. A March 2018 study in Mindfulness showed that people who completed 10 brief sessions of mindfulness meditation reported feeling less irritable and stressed.
This stress-reducing effect is another reason why this self-care strategy can enhance your weight-loss efforts. That's because cortisol, aka the stress hormone, has been linked to weight gain and stubborn belly fat, per the Cleveland Clinic.
So, essentially, finding better ways to deal with stress will help you mitigate these hormonal changes and slash the number on the scale, too.
Try it: Foster recommends starting small by putting two or three minutes aside each day for a mindfulness practice and then building that over time.
During your mindfulness exercises, try to observe rather than judge, he says, adding that the process might take some getting used to. In fact, you should expect your mind to wander. Simply note this mental straying, and once you realize it, bring your focus back to your breath.
And if you struggle to sit still, moving meditation-like practices such as yoga and tai chi, which also involve breathwork, are known to relieve stress and anxiety while simultaneously improving physical strength and flexibility.
Mindfulness can also incorporate a gratitude practice. "A great way to start and end your day is by writing down three good things you're grateful for," says Foster. This grounds you in the moment and contributes to feelings of happiness, thus creating the right mentality for your successful wellness and weight-loss journeys.
5. Connect With Others
Sometimes self-care simply involves being social. It's important to "make time for connection and reaching out to the people you're closest to, even if that's via phone or video chat," Foster says.
As humans, we're social creatures who crave connection whether it's to share a laugh or a few tears. The latter may be particularly pertinent to your overall health.
"Research shows that receiving support from others can help you shift how you think about stressful events," Foster says.
Since the way we handle stress has a major affect on our mental health and weight-loss goals, finding positive approaches to stress management is the ultimate aim.
Plus, buddying up with others can encourage you to stick with healthy behaviors like working out. As a matter of fact, women are more likely to exercise regularly when they're held accountable to someone else like a workout partner, per a March 2014 study published in BMC Women's Health.
Similarly, people with sufficient social support are more likely to maintain a workout schedule, according to a September 2014 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
And exercising with a fun friend makes working out feel like less of a chore. Indeed, those who sweat with others find it way more enjoyable, according to a 2013 study from the University of Southern California's Department of Preventive Medicine.
Try it: Again, actionable goals are key. Set aside a day and a time to call a family member to chat or pen in a specific date on the calendar for a buddy workout.
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- Harvard Health Publishing: “Why Your Sleep and Wake Cycles Affect Your Mood"
- eLife: “Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms.”
- Health.gov: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Summary.”
- PLOS ONE: “Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment.”
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.”
- Mindfulness: “Improvements in Stress, Affect, and Irritability Following Brief Use of a Mindfulness-based Smartphone App: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Can Long-Term Stress Make You Gain Weight? Study Finds a Link.”
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: “Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction.”
- Live Science: “Dread the Gym? Exercise with Friends Puts People in a Better Mood.”
- BMC Women's Health: “Factors influencing adherence to regular exercise in middle-aged women: a qualitative study to inform clinical practice.”
- Journal of Physical Activity and Health: “Predicting adherence of adults to a 12-month exercise intervention.”