Strengths Science & Weight Loss

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Weight loss setbacks can be extremely frustrating. Oftentimes, it is just when you feel like you’ve started to make progress that you get a little lax with your eating habits or exercise routine and start to slip up. First, maybe a soda creeps in while at a family event, then you start occasionally going back for second helpings. BAM! One snowballs into another. These slip ups seem small, irrelevant and inconsequential. But in reality, these are setbacks.

How can you maintain successful weight loss? That is the problem that experts in the field have not successfully solved. There are many “maintenance strategies” out there–medicinal, psychological, social–but the problem remains.

What Stops You from Losing Weight?

As someone who studies the internal qualities that are best in us, I’m eager to understand the role character strengths have in creating better health habits, maintaining weight loss, adjusting bad habits of lifestyle, and so forth. In an earlier post on weight management I highlighted the importance of tapping into inner resources to support weight management rather than solely focusing on external remedies. I shared three character strengths that tended to be low in those people wanting to lose weight in my psychology practice (perseverance, prudence, and self-regulation).

This field of character strengths and positive psychology is young. Researchers are still trying to understand vexing struggles such as weight control and improving physical health. Based on what we do know, here’s how your character strengths can help you with weight management.

The Character Strengths Behind Healthy Habits

Researcher Rene Proyer and his colleagues examined the connections between strengths and a variety of health habits. His team found a number of unique links that I have summarized here. Each of these are important for maintaining good, healthy behavior and can be argued as helpful in taking strides toward improved weight management and maintenance. The character strengths are listed starting with the most significant finding for that area (all are significant findings, unless noted).

Note that these are correlational research findings, which means there was an important relationship found between the given character strength with that particular area of health. We do not know if one causes the other. For example, future research could investigate whether the training of the strengths of curiosity or hope could actually cause greater cardiorespiratory fitness.

- Health/self-perception of health: Zest, hope, perseverance, humor, self-regulation.

- Active way of life: Zest, hope, humor, curiosity, bravery, creativity, love, social intelligence.

- Cardiorespiratory fitness: Self-regulation, zest, curiosity, hope, leadership, teamwork.

- Diet/healthy eating: Self-regulation (the only significant finding). Perseverance and bravery (#2 and #3, but non-significant).

- Compliance (adhering to medical regimen): Love, teamwork, kindness, social intelligence, honesty, prudence.

- Security orientation (driving carefully, avoiding violence, fixing assistive health devices): Appreciation of beauty, prudence, gratitude, forgiveness, fairness.

- Avoiding harmful substances: Self-regulation, prudence.

- Hygiene: Perseverance, honesty, prudence.

- Physical Strength: Self-regulation, zest, curiosity, leadership.

- Body Flexibility: No significant character strengths.

- Body Coordination: Self-regulation, hope and leadership.

How to Build Stronger Habits

Consider how these alignments between strengths and health areas offer you clues to start–and maintain–healthy habits.

  1. What is the health area you want to target?
  2. Choose one or more strengths listed in that area.
  3. Make a plan to use those strengths to improve the target area. If you want to improve your medication adherence, consider how the strengths of love or teamwork might help you. Maybe you place a photo of those you love by your medicine bottle so that your taking medicine is an indirect expression of love for those you care about most? Or, maybe you enlist a family member to check in with you each day as to whether or not you took your medicine (teamwork)?

Play to Your Strengths

Scientists have not yet studied the connection between using your top strengths (whatever they are) and how this impacts your health or specific lifestyle habits. But signature strengths have been connected with a number of positive benefits such as positive mood, work-as-a-calling, life satisfaction, vitality, goal-progress, self-esteem, and less depression. Thus, it is reasonable to believe your signature strengths are a worthwhile pathway to improving your health.

Strength Training for Your Health

  1. Write down your top five character strengths from this list.
  2. Write down the area of health you want to focus on.
  3. Consider one new way you can use each of these five strengths to improve the area.

For example, Dave used his signature strength of teamwork in order to become more active in his life. He asked his neighbor if he would be interested in being on a “team” with him. This would involve regular walks (or if it rained indoor exercise). It also involved joining a sports team together. As part of a team, Dave was more confident and he thrived. This teamwork naturally lifted his zest and perseverance strengths, which helped him overcome obstacles along the way.

References

Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2013). What good are character strengths beyond subjective well-being? The contribution of the good character on self-reported health-oriented behavior, physical fitness, and the subjective health status. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 222-232. DOI:10.1080/17439760.2013.777767

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