“How to keep weight off after losing it” was the focus of a recent Burn the Fat blog. In the article I shared a list of the most common behaviors of people who take weight off and are successful at maintaining that weight loss. The data came from a study of “weight control registries” all around the world. This included research by the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) in the United States.

weight loss maintenance - is it mostly mental?

This organization has been freely sharing information about how to keep weight off and get out of that frustrating endless cycle of yo-yo dieting. And they should know. The participants in the NWCR consist exclusively of people who have burned the fat, and kept it off, and for a long period of time. “Maintainers” not “losers.” Being the biggest loser  is meaningless if you can’t keep off what you lost.

After I posted that article about the secrets of weight maintenance, a reader messaged me and made a great point. Noticing that the strategies were almost entirely physical – namely, diet and exercise – he said:

“Tom, I think maintenance is mostly mental. I mean, following your diet plan and training plan depends on your mindset and motivation doesn’t it?”

I replied and told him I agreed that the mindset stuff is really important. I also mentioned that the mental side of maintenance has been studied as much as the physical.

In the scientific journal, Obesity Reviews, researchers from the University of Surrey in the UK published an enlightening paper about weight loss and weight loss maintenance. They came up with an 18 point checklist that can help you predict how likely you are to take weight off and keep it off in the future.

More than half of the list was mindset and psychology stuff. We already covered the physical side of “How to keep weight off after losing it,”previously. So in this post we’ll look at the mental side of keeping it off.

What you’ll see below is an 10-point list of the mental factors that predict whether you will lose the weight and keep it off for good, based on science.

1. Maintainers use multiple strategies, including the mental

I’m not sure we can say something like, “It’s mostly mental.” But we can’t say it’s mostly physical either. They work together. The mental supports the physical. The physical supports the mental.

The research emphasizes that people who use multiple strategies are far more successful at getting weight off and keeping weight off than those who use only one strategy, such as just going on a diet. And this multi-pronged approach must include a mental component.

This falls right in line with our Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle philosophy. Our formula for success includes 5 elements:

1. Nutrition
2. Resistance training
3. Cardio training
4. Mental training
5. Support system

In the scientific research, proper diet and exercise always correlates with better weight loss and weight maintenance, especially a high amount of exercise. But as you can see, that’s only two of five behavior strategies.

Plus, we can break down each of these major categories into sub-strategies. For example, in mental training we have goal-setting, visualization, affirmations, meditation, values clarification, self-image modification, reading, cue-based planning, and a lot more.

The authors of the UK study wrote:

“The more dimensions or modules of behavior change that a person can fit in their lives, the greater the chance of success.”

This means that if you decide to tackle an excess fat problem with diet alone or cardio alone and so on, your chances of long-term weight maintenance are slim. On the other hand, following a program that incorporates every element of success can skyrocket your success. One of the few programs that covers all these bases is Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.

2. Maintainers maintain autonomy (freedom to choose)

Research in recent years has given us a great list of strategies that correlate with successful maintenance, and you can consider these best practices. However, the same research makes it clear that there are no absolutes that apply to everyone.

Every person has different needs and preferences. Programs must be customized for those differences. In the UK study, the authors explained:

“It may be more valuable to develop flexible weight loss programs that allow people to tailor them to fit their own lifestyle rather than trying to crowbar different types of people into discrete types of treatment.”

Flexible is the key word. A related key word is customized. People who work with coaches who customize programs to suit their personal needs, or people who make their own program and customize it for themselves are the people who succeed.

People who hire coaches with a single dogmatic philosophy, who follow the herd and do whatever program is trending, or who follow diets with rigid rules may see results in the short term, but they fail in the long run. A program must be customized to be sustainable.

And here’s another big benefit of customization: Psychologists in the field of self-determination theory have discovered that people who are forced or coerced into one way of doing things only have temporary external motivation. People who have the freedom to choose their own way (autonomy) develop intrinsic motivation, and that is part of what keeps them going for the long run.

3. Maintainers have an internal locus of control

A person with an internal locus of control believes that outcomes tend to be under their own control. A person with an external locus of control believes outcomes are outside their control and are controlled instead by environment, genes or chance.

Psychologists have confirmed that a high internal locus of control strongly predicts success. That includes success at losing weight in the first place and maintaining the weight loss over the long run

What we’re talking about is the way someone’s beliefs and attitudes about weight loss and maintaining weight loss will affect the outcome. beliefs about the cause of excess fat in the first place also affect the outcome.

According to the research, people who attribute (blame) their overweight or obesity to medical conditions, age, genetics, or anything else outside themselves are less successful at maintaining their weight loss. Why? They don’t believe they’re in control of their results. They have an external locus of control. If you don’t believe you have the power to change, how can you change? Will you even make a hard effort? Most people won’t. Why bother?

Getting older can make a lot of things in the fitness and weight control realm more difficult. But age alone is not a direct cause of poor weight loss or maintenance results. Genetics also play a role in whether someone becomes overweight or obese. However, excess fat is the result of genetics interacting with environment and behavior, not genetics alone. There are some medical conditions and even gene mutations that make weight loss harder (Prader-Willi, MC4R etc), but these are rare.

People successful at weight loss and weight maintenance understand this and they see themselves in control and not at the mercy of genetics. They realize they can change a lot, including their own behaviors, and to some extent, their environment. They accept what they can’t control, but take responsibility and work to change what they can control. They believe they can change.

4. Maintainers have effective coping strategies

People with good coping strategies have better weight loss and maintenance results. Specifically, coping strategies that depend on confronting the problem and resolving challenges are far more successful than those based on avoidance. Passivity or emotion-based coping (eating, drinking, sleeping more or wishing problems would go away), leads to failure and relapse.

Research shows that weight regainers tend to react to stressful or negative life events and negative emotions by eating. According to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, the most effective strategies for coping with stress include exercise, sports, music, time with family and friends, praying or attending a religious service, reading, massage, walking outside, meditating, doing yoga, and creative hobbies.

Research also shows that a dependable support network is one of the best coping strategies. When maintainers feel stressed, get depressed, or fall off track, instead of reaching for food, they reach to their network for help. A support community like Burn the Fat Inner Circle can be a lifesaver in times like these.

5. Maintainers seek out social support and nurture supportive relationships

Social support correlates strongly with better weight loss and better maintenance. Research by Christiakis and Fowler based on the Framingham study found that “obesity is contagious” and spreads through social networks. The good news is that health, fitness, and self-control are also contagious.

Human beings are hardwired to seek connection with others. Your results depend on connecting with the right type of people. It’s crucial to choose who you spend time with carefully. You pick up attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and habits from other people.

That’s why it is vital to put yourself in a community or group of positive people who are pursuing the same goals as you and working to resist the same temptations. When you surround yourself with people who are pursuing the same kind of goals, it activates your motivation to pursue and achieve the same types of goals yourself. Psychologists call it “goal contagion.”

But be careful. Social connection works against you if you connect with just anyone. I always remember motivational speaker Earl Nightingale saying that if you look at what the masses of people do, and you do the exact opposite, you’ll be on the right track. He famously said, and this is more true in the diet world than anywhere:

“The majority is always wrong.”

And here’s one more thing to consider: Self-determination theory says that autonomy leads to intrinsic motivation. So does social connection. It may seem paradoxical that getting support externally (from other people) boosts your internal motivation, but it’s true because social connection is a basic human need.

The four main pillars of fat loss success are nutrition, resistance training, cardio training, and mental training. But never forget that social support – the 5th element – is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle.

Choose who you associate with wisely and if your current social circle isn’t supportive, don’t wait, hoping for people to come to you, go out and find a supportive community like Burn the Fat Inner Circle and enlist others who support you. Once you find your tribe, stick with it.

6. Maintainers build self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the conviction that you can successfully execute the behavior needed to get the results you want. Differently stated, this is believing in yourself. It’s an “I can do this” attitude. It’s also believing in your program of choice and your ability to follow it.

Keep in mind that your ability to follow a program depends on how sustainable you find it. If you follow the latest fad just because it’s popular or heavily advertised, or if you hire a coach who gives you a generic plan that’s not customized, you won’t stick with it.

What’s worse is that if a program isn’t customized for you, then you may doubt your ability to follow it. You may doubt that it will work for you even if you could follow it. This lack of belief will sabotage you every time.

Furthermore, the fact that you weren’t given a hand in the choice of program and customization of the program undermines your intrinsic motivation. It’s hard enough to follow a rigid program, but it’s even harder if you’re not motivated from within.

7. Maintainers are self-motivated

Being self-motivated predicts losing weight and keeping the weight off. The problem is motivation wavers a lot for most people. A huge deterrent to sustained self-motivation is lapses or plateaus. Even a single week without results can be discouraging if you don’t have some kind of system for keeping up self-motivation. Another thing that undermines motivation is self-criticism if you get off track or fail to reach goals.

Successful maintainers accept that they’re only human and they will have lapses in motivation and short-term plateaus in results. They are kind to themselves, they avoid critical self-talk, and they bounce back quickly from setbacks.

Maintainers also keep up their motivation by staying connected to their support group even after the initial weight loss, and by following a program that they have chosen. Social connection and autonomy are two proven keys to self-motivation. Another is competence. Some people call it pursuing mastery. This is the feeling that you are effective, you are doing a good job and most importantly, that you’re getting better, learning, and growing.

How do you do this? First, instead of setting a weight goal purely to attain some societal ideal, or because someone else is pressuring you to do it, or to get a prize, or to win a weight loss contest, or to post photos on social media, you set a goal and pursue it because of the type of person it will make you become in reaching it.

Do it because in the process, you will feel more competent as a result. Do it for the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment you’ll have when you choose a worthy goal and meet it or tackle a tough challenge and overcome it. Do it because you’ll learn something and learning is something you value. Do it because you’ll achieve personal growth during the process, and personal growth is something you value.

8. Maintainers self-monitor (they track their results)

Self-monitoring behaviors, in the words of weight loss researchers, are the “cardinal behaviors of successful weight maintainers.”

The self-monitoring strategy seen the most in maintainers is tracking body weight. But it may also include tracking body composition, tracking macros, measuring food quantities, monitoring activity level (daily steps or minutes of exercise), and recording training performance.

Chronic relapsers consistently overestimate how many calories they burn, and underestimate how many they eat. Self-monitoring can help prevent the over and under-reporting problem. But more than increasing awareness, tracking key metrics increases performance and motivation. The more ways you measure with regular frequency, the stronger the benefit.

If you ask any coach, they’ll tell you, and most athletes will confirm it, that measuring results improves performance. What’s more, it improves performance without any other changes. That’s with no change in diet. No change in training system. No added supplements. No change in anything. Measure performance, and measure it often, and your motivation and performance improve.

9. Maintainers have a positive body image and high self-esteem

Studies show that people who give more attention to their shape and appearance are more successful at maintaining a lower body weight. One team or researchers called this a “healthy narcissism” about their physical condition. Another researcher said that pride in appearance is one of the four main factors that improve weight maintenance.

Some people are understandably concerned at what point healthy narcissism becomes unhealthy. Cognitive psychologists have answered it this way: When you evaluate your self-worth based on your body image (weight and shape) that’s when it gets problematic.

This is why it’s important to disassociate you as a person from your weight and body shape. As I wrote in my book, The Body Fat Solution, “body fat is not a person, it’s a temporary condition.”

10. Maintainers expect a positive outcome

Managing your expectations is important because on one hand, unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment and correlate to high dropout, but on the other hand, you can only rise as high as you set the bar.

Researchers say that the best results come from a combination of realistic and positive expectations. Some researchers have proposed that expecting positive results to the point of “unrealistic optimism” will produce superior results, though that remains controversial.

My advice: Be realistic, especially on goal achievement time frames (deadlines), and expect that it’s going to take hard work, but set big goals and always expect success!

– Tom Venuto,
Author, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Founder, Burn The Fat Inner Circle,
All-Natural, No-BS Body Transformation

tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details

Scientific References:
Paixao C, et al, Successful weight loss maintenance: A systematic review of weight control registries, Obesity Reviews, 21:5.

Subscribe to the Burn the Fat weekly newsletter and get my ebook, "The 20 Best Fat-Burning, Muscle-Building Recipes Of All Time" FREE!
Your email is safe with me!