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Use Strengths and Mindfulness to Lose Weight and Keep It Off

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Is weight loss and/or better weight management one of your goals for the new year? If so, it's important to consider all of the ingredients for successful weight loss and create a plan for how you can make progress on your goal in spite of inevitable roadblocks that will arise.

There are plenty of "quick fixes" for weight loss. Just about any weight loss program, diet, or trick will work. Yes, it’s true. But this is temporary. The vast majority of individuals gain their weight back – and often they become heavier than their original weight.

The Biggest Challenge: Weight Loss Maintenance

By far, the biggest challenge in losing weight is maintenance. Keeping weight off is quite simply the elephant in the room. Not enough programs and experts talk about this.

Most of the weight management approaches out there rely on external strategies – diet pills, medication (e.g., Meridia), surgery, counseling, food supplements, various exercise equipment, health clubs memberships, diet planning and having a support network. Each of these has their advantages and will most likely be successful in the short-run, if done properly. But take note that each of these involves looking outside of yourself to external resources or expert advice.

How Strengths Can Help

Far less of weight management focuses on what is actually needed in order to sustain weight loss – one’s inner resources. People forget to consider their inner capacities – those qualities that are strongest within them – their core VIA character strengths.

Character strengths are the ingredients of success. They are what can make the other treatments work. You can’t get to your doctor appointments without self-regulation and prudence. You cannot exercise without perseverance and zest. Becoming more mindful of these naturally-occurring strengths can help you stick with the changes you wish to make.

In the end, it is unlikely a person will succeed in maintaining weight loss without perseverance – the strength involved with overcoming obstacles and hindrances. Such setbacks are inevitable when it comes to trying to regularly eat nutritious foods, avoid unhealthy foods and increase exercise. Likewise, without the strengths of prudence and self-regulation – careful planning and management of impulses – success is unlikely to occur.

Creating A Virtuous, Not Vicious Circle

A number of years ago I created a weight management program and was on staff at another. We taught all the latest science-based strategies for managing weight, which, just like weight loss fads, worked. We also helped clients tap into their internal resources. This seemed to be the arena clients were least familiar with and least adept at using.

I found that my weight management clients tended to have perseverance, self-regulation, and prudence right at the bottom of their strengths profile. These three strengths can work together synergistically as a group to make all the difference.

For example, an increase in the desire to plan meals and exercise (prudence) can lead to careful, detailed self-monitoring with a food log (self-regulation), which can the lead to an increase in confidence to push over the lethargy and negative thinking to go exercise (perseverance). One might call this process – where one strength boosts another strength which then boosts another – the virtuous circle.

On the other hand, the vicious circle is always nearby, lurking. These particular strengths can work against a person and elicit triggers, obstacles, and negative behaviors. For example, when an individual has not set forth a plan for managing emotions (prudence) and faces a stressor that makes them feel angry or sad, their lack of a plan can lead them to act in an unskillful way (lack of self-regulation).

They might binge-eat, run to the cupboard for something sweet, or struggle in resisting the “golden arches” they are driving by. Once they see they have deviated from healthy choices, their perseverance becomes vulnerable and they think “why should I go take that long walk? I’ve relapsed and all is already lost.”

These processes are subtle and can happen in an infinite number of ways. Each person’s triggers, strength manifestations, and virtuous/vicious circles are unique, therefore deepening a mindfulness of your strengths is essential.

Use Mindfulness to Move Forward

  1. Pay particular attention to these three aforementioned strengths and their influence on one another. How might you consciously employ more prudence, self-regulation, or perseverance in your diet or exercising?

  2. Another strength that is important to attend to is kindness, particularly kindness-turned-inward. Often, this is called self-compassion or self-kindness. Many people who struggle with weight management do not take a caring and gentle approach to themselves. This is very common and was true for virtually every client I saw. When you make a mistake or “slip” from your diet or exercise plan, treat yourself with compassion. Act as if you’ve just found a bird with a broken wing lying at your doorstep or a child who has just suffered through a natural disaster.

  3. Third, and perhaps most important, you should always consider your signature strengths. These are natural energy reserves that can help you push through an obstacle (use of zest), see the bigger picture of what’s most important in life (use of perspective), consider new options or ideas (use of curiosity, creativity, or love of learning), or directly boost one of your lower strengths.

Building and maintaining a new lifestyle is a challenge, however, if you ignore your internal resources, you might as well be trying to roll a massive stone up a steep hill.

Find More Guidance on Using Strengths To Reach Goals

Character strengths are powerful pathways to achieving your goals and creating your desired future. In our Start with Strengths course you will learn how leveraging your strengths everyday and applying them in new ways you can achieve more in every domain of your life. Get started today.