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At the end of my junior year of high school, I was 220 pounds. Bottom line: I was fat and out of shape. I didn’t exercise regularly, and I ate whatever I wanted. Fast forward 6 months later, I fixed my diet, I had a regular exercise routine, and I had lost 60 pounds. 20 years later, I’m still in great shape. What happened? How did I do it? And more importantly, how can you lose weight and get in shape in a healthy, effective way?

I’m going to talk about 2 key components to losing weight and getting in shape. To be successful, you need both components to be on point. If you only have one or the other, you aren’t likely to succeed. As you read through each section, check in with yourself. Where do you need to focus your energy?

Part 1: Motivation

Motivation provides the energy for change. It’s your “why.” Why do you want to lose weight and get in shape? What do you want at the end of it all? What do you hope losing weight and getting in shape will do for you?

It’s critical to have a clear “why” when trying to lose weight and get in shape. The reality is that losing weight and getting in shape is difficult work. It’s hard to resist drinking soda and eating dessert. It’s tough to stop after one helping, or to order a salad when everyone else is ordering a hamburger. It’s difficult to get up before the sun comes out and drag your butt to the gym when all you want to do is stay in bed. Losing weight and getting in shape is hard work. If you don’t have a clear motivation, you won’t be able to do the difficult work day in and day out, especially when the going gets tough.

Mark Manson had an interesting thought about motivation that I really like. He said he doesn’t usually ask people what they want, because just “wanting something” isn’t enough. We want things all the time, but the fire in our belly isn’t always there. I might want a million dollars, for example, but am I willing to put in the 80-hour work weeks and give up my family time to get it? If I’m not willing to put in the work, I don’t really want it bad enough. So, Mark likes to ask a different question: What are you willing to suffer for? If you’re willing to suffer for it, your motivation is there. If you’re not willing to suffer for it, you probably don’t want it bad enough. The reality is that losing weight and getting in shape will require some suffering. Are you willing to suffer for it?

One exercise that can be helpful if you are struggling with motivation is to identify your values that are connected with losing weight and getting in shape. Maybe it’s health—you want to live a long, active life. Maybe it’s family—you want to be around to see your grandchildren grow up, and you want to be able to play with them rather than just sit in a chair connected to a tank of oxygen. Maybe it’s appearance—you want to look sexy and expand your pool of potential dating partners. Whatever your values are, get in touch with them and think about them often.

I can’t stress this first point enough. Motivation is key. It provides the energy that will fuel your effort to lose weight and get in shape. I still remember when my motivation clicked for me in high school. I worked up the courage to ask a girl to prom, and she rejected me. Something changed inside of me and the motivation was there. The fire was sparked. For the first time in my life, I was willing to suffer in order to lose weight and get in shape.

If you’re struggling with motivation, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it does mean that your attempts to lose weight and get in shape will likely fail. The reality is that it’s hard to do. There’s a reason why most people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. It’s easier to sit around and eat junk food all day. To counteract this natural tendency, you need a strong motivation.

Part 2: Method

The method provides the direction for change. If motivation is the “why,” method is the “how.” If you want to lose weight and get in shape, what exactly should you do? Before I get into the method I recommend, I want to give a caveat that I’m not a medical professional. I’m a psychologist, and I used to be a certified Crossfit Level 1 instructor. But I’m not a medical doctor. If you have health problems or limitations, it’s a good idea to check with your primary care physician before you start a nutrition or exercise program. With that caveat in mind, here are some basics for how to lose weight and get in shape. I will cover 2 main areas: eating/nutrition and exercise.

Eating and Nutrition

Eating and nutrition is a big problem for most people who are overweight and out of shape. Most of us just eat whatever we want, whenever we want to eat it. This is a recipe for disaster. To lose weight and get in shape, we have to change our eating and nutrition habits.

Amount of Food

The first thing to consider is the amount of food you eat. Most people eat way too much food. Most people aren’t in tune with their bodies, so they eat past the point where they are full. Because of this, they gain weight.

The key is to eat mindfully—only eat when you are hungry, and only eat a small amount of food. Then, wait until you are hungry again, and eat a small amount of food again. Rinse, wash, repeat. The problem is that it’s hard to develop mindful eating practices if you aren’t used to doing it. It’s not easy to break the habit of overeating.

Because mindful eating is hard to do, most people who are trying to lose weight and get in shape need some sort of external structure for how much food to eat, at least at first. What do I mean by an external structure? Some sort of program, like Weight Watchers or the Zone Diet that helps you count calories or portion sizes. The program tells you how much to eat, so you don’t overeat like you normally do. After following a program for a while, you may find that you naturally develop the habit to eat a moderate amount of food each day.

Types of Food 

In addition to the amount of food we eat, we need to consider the types of foods we eat. Most people eat a lot of sweets and processed foods. This is a bad idea. To lose weight and get in shape, we need to change what we eat. Here are some basic principles to follow:

  1. Natural foods. When in doubt, eat natural foods rather than processed foods. Things that are just there in nature (e.g., fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds) are better for you than things that have to be made in a factory (e.g., pop tarts, frozen dinners, cereal). A good rule of thumb is to stay on the perimeter of the grocery store—avoid the middle aisles.
  2. Fruits and vegetables. Your mom always told you to eat your fruits and vegetables, and this wisdom still holds true today. Load up on fruits and vegetables. When you go out to eat, ordering a salad is a great way to stay on track.
  3. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Smart people disagree about the right balance between carbohydrates, proteins (e.g., meat, eggs), and fats. So, there’s some flexibility here. I prefer a high-protein, low-carb diet—I’ve found that kind of diet works best for me. But it’s okay to experiment with this and find what works best for you.
  4. Empty calories. Cut out empty calories. If you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape, cut out all soda, alcohol, and fruit juice. Black coffee is okay, but don’t add any cream or sugar. Once you get to your goal weight, a little bit of alcohol here and there is okay, but don’t overdo it. If you’re over the age of 25 and want to be fit, your days of excessive drinking are over. Drink water instead.
  5. Dessert and junk food. Cut out dessert and junk food. My policy on dessert and junk food is similar to alcohol. If you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape, cut it out of your diet completely. Clean out your cupboards. Again, once you get to your goal weight, dessert once in a while is okay. But again, don’t overdo it. Think about dessert as something to get on a special occasion, not a daily basis.

Exercise

In addition to eating and nutrition, the other key component to losing weight and getting in shape is exercise. Here are some principles for designing an exercise plan that works for you:

  1. What kind of exercise should you do? The bottom line is that there isn’t one “right” kind of exercise to do. People lose weight and get in shape doing all sorts of activities: Crossfit, p90x, spin classes, running, lifting weights, yoga, and playing basketball, just to name a few. The important thing is to find something you like to do that meets the other principles on this list.
  2. How often should you exercise? If you’re just starting out, I would aim for three times per week. Give yourself one day off in between each exercise session to recover. If you’re wanting to up the ante and put yourself in the best position to lose weight and get in shape, I would aim for five times per week.
  3. How long should you exercise? Depending on the activity, 30-60 minutes is a reasonable goal per session.
  4. IntensityOne problem people encounter when starting an exercise program is that they don’t exercise at a high enough intensity. If you go for a relaxing walk around the block, that’s something, but it isn’t going to jump-start your weight loss program. You need to exercise at high intensity to see changes in your body. Sometimes it’s tough to manufacture this intensity on your own. That’s part of the reason why doing a program like Crossfit and p90x can be helpful. Someone else is telling you what to do and how hard to work, which ramps up the intensity. Another helpful option is to buy a heart rate monitor, and stay in your target heart rate range.
  5. Start smallWhen starting an exercise program, some people try to do too much too soon. This can lead to discouragement and quitting. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Instead, start small, with something you know you can accomplish. Once you achieve some success, work up from there.
  6. Stay consistentWhen it comes to exercise, consistency is king. It’s better to exercise twice per week and keep it up for a year, than to exercise every day for two weeks and then quit. Find something you can keep doing for the long haul. Make exercise something that is part of your daily routine… forever.

Discussion

Where are you at with losing weight and getting in shape? What do you think about the two-step process of motivation and method? If you are struggling with losing weight and getting in shape, where is the block? Do you struggle more with motivation or method? What is one thing you would like to incorporate as you move forward toward your goals?

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