What you pile on your plate is paramount when it comes to shedding pounds. For sustainable, healthy, long-term weight loss, you need to nosh on healthy, nutrient-dense foods and create a calorie deficit.
But there are also other lifestyle factors — regardless of your food choices — that come into play, which can either help or hinder your weight-loss goals.
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We spoke to Todd Zehrer, an ACE-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in Chicago, to get the skinny on five common weight-loss mistakes that have nothing to do with your daily menu.
Mistake 1: Not Getting Enough Sleep
Tossing and turning? Insufficient slumber may be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts.
Just a handful of sleepless nights can affect the way your body stores fat after a meal, according to a September 2019 Journal of Lipid Research study. The bad news: When you're sleep-deprived, your body tends to hoard fat.
Consequently, people who log fewer than five hours of zzzs a night are nearly a third likelier to put on pounds than those who snooze for seven hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Poor sleep quality can also up your body's production of the stress hormone cortisol. And when your cortisol levels are high, you're more likely to reach for sugary and fatty foods, per Harvard Health Publishing.
On the other hand, "a well-rested body will provide you more energy to crush your workouts, and a well-rested mind is one that can make decisions that better support your goals (think: no late-night bingeing)," Zehrer says.
The fix: If you have a hard time falling asleep, try a sleep meditation, Zehrer says.
People with chronic sleep disturbances who practiced meditation reported better sleep quality and experienced less depression, anxiety, stress and fatigue (plus a reduction in inflammatory markers), according to an April 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study.
New to meditation? There's an abundance of accessible stress-busting meditation apps you can download to help you drift off to dreamland.
Mistake 2: Not Having Support
Weight loss can be a long, lonely road rife with twists and turns if you do it without help. The plateaus (and peaks) on the journey are more manageable when you have support, encouragement and accountability from others.
Case in point: A September 2014 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that people with sufficient social support were less likely to skip the gym.
The fix: "When you have a goal or are trying to make a change to your lifestyle, tell your support system," says Zehrer, who acknowledges that sharing may not be easy.
"Losing weight or wanting to change our bodies makes many of us feel very vulnerable and can be uncomfortable to talk about," he says.
That's why it's important to "outline for the people close to you how they can support you — maybe this means finding somebody to meal prep with or a gym buddy," Zehrer says.
Workout partners can provide plenty of support — and a little friendly competition too. A November 2012 paper from Kansas State University found that people are motivated to exercise more vigorously — as much as 200 percent harder — when they have a gym buddy, especially if that person is in better physical shape.
And if you use a fitness tracker, share your stats and achievements with others for extra motivation. Comparing your results can spark your competitive spirit too. Indeed, integrating a competitive gaming component substantially increased physical activity for exercisers with a wearable device in a September 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study.
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Mistake 3: Focusing on Cardio
While cardio blasts calories and is a boon for heart health, resistance training is an important factor in the equation for long-term weight loss.
"When we strength train, we burn calories while we build muscle, and that's the secret sauce," Zehrer says. That's because muscle boosts your resting metabolism. So, the more muscle you have, the more calories you torch around the clock.
Plus, if you stick to the same cardio sessions every day, you might find yourself lacking motivation and planted in a plateau. By adding some strength training to your weekly routine, you can further your weight-loss goals and overall fitness level while lowering your odds of overuse injuries, according to the American Council on Exercise.
The fix: Don't ditch your cardio completely. Running, biking and Zumba classes can help you lose weight and keep your ticker in tip-top shape. Just add two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities to your weekly workout schedule, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Even better, try combining cardio and weight training to really rev up your heart rate and fat loss (think: walking lunges, box jumps and air squats).
Mistake 4: Not Managing Stress
Stress and unhealthy eating habits tend to go hand in hand. "When we're stressed, we tend to look for what's easiest or most accessible, which aren't often the best options for those with a weight-loss goal," Zehrer says.
And the science backs him up. Chronic stress — and consistently high cortisol levels — can ramp up your hunger and disrupt your body's metabolism, per a November 2015 study in Sleep Science.
To make matters worse, research has also discovered a link between elevated cortisol levels and the presence (and persistence of) stubborn belly fat, according to The American Institute of Stress.
The fix: Exercise is an essential stress-buster, Zehrer says. "Allowing yourself to focus on something other than your stress for a while will enable you to look at your situation or workload with a clearer mind."
Even small stints of movement can benefit your brain, which can become frazzled with stress. As a matter of fact, just two minutes of exercise may improve cognitive function, according to an August 2020 Translational Sports Medicine study.
Looking for a more low-key activity? Practicing meditation and deep breathing may also help you manage stress, Zehrer says.
5. Fixating on the Scale
Stepping on the scale every day? This might do you more harm than good when it comes to weight loss.
"The scale is a great tool to assess long-term progress, but when we use it as a barometer of success or failure every time we step on it, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment," Zehrer says. And that can lead to feeling discouraged and giving up on your goals.
Don't let the number deter you. "The scale doesn't take into account what time it is, when you last ate, how much salt or carbs you recently consumed, if you lifted heavy yesterday, if you are going to use the toilet soon and so on," Zehrer explains. "The numbers are going to change — even throughout the day — so stay the course."
The fix: Measure your progress in other ways. Are your clothes fitting better? Do you feel stronger? Sleeping better? These are all signs that you're on the right — and healthy — path.
And be patient and consistent. Weight loss doesn't happen overnight and may not occur on your desired timeline, but if you stick to healthy eating and regular exercise, the pounds will come off, Zehrer says.
- Journal of Lipid Research: "Four Nights of Sleep Restriction Suppress the Postprandial Lipemic Response and Decrease Satiety"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: “Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances.”
- National Sleep Foundation: “The surprising connection between hours clocked sleeping and what the scale says.”
- Journal of Physical Activity and Health: “Predicting adherence of adults to a 12-month exercise intervention”
- Kansas State University: “Motivational losing: Being the weak link in team activities may lead to longer, more intense workouts”
- JAMA Internal Medicine: “Effectiveness of Behaviorally Designed Gamification Interventions With Social Incentives for Increasing Physical Activity Among Overweight and Obese Adults Across the United States: The STEP UP Randomized Clinical Trial.”
- American Council on Exercise: “What is cross training and why is it important?”
- “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition.”
- The American Institute of Stress.
- Sleep Science: “Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions.”
- Translational Sports Medicine: “Effects of a single exercise workout on memory and learning functions in young adults—A systematic review.”