Motivations and Strategies of Long-term Weight Loss Success
A study examining the motivations of those who are successful at losing weight, and keeping it off, has many real-life insights that could help you achieve weight loss sucess.
One of the biggest studies of its kind1, using advances in machine learning technology, this study highlights real-world responses on weight loss motivations and successful weight loss maintenance strategies.
With an abundance of evidence available on the physiology of what works for weight loss, this study fills the gaps by delving into;
- psychological influences
Previous studies2,3,4 have characterized factors that contribute to long-term weight loss success, such as:
- Eating a lower calorie diet
- Engaging in increased physical activity
- Frequent self-monitoring
- Setting daily intake goals
- Limiting sitting time
- Keeping low-calorie foods available
- Cognitive restraint (effective levels of self-control around food intake)
You’ll notice all but one of these factors relate to the physical actions/behaviours needed to achieve and sustain weight loss over time.
But what about emotional factors?
How do your feelings, attitudes, and motivations help or hinder your weight loss journey?
Does having a particular stance or perspective lead to greater success?
What did the study of weight loss motivations include?
The study asked a cohort of over 6000 successful weight loss maintainers a series of open-ended questions. Designed to produce in-depth insight into the main factors affecting weight loss and maintenance.
The participants had all maintained at least 9.1kg (1½ stone) loss for a year or more.
Some of the questions asked were:
- What prompted you to start your weight loss attempt? Please describe
- What currently motivates you to manage your weight?
- What is one piece of advice you would give to help someone succeed at long-term weight loss?
- What is the single most important thing in your life that has changed as a result of weight loss?
Weight Loss Triggers and Motivation
When asked about what motivated them to begin their weight loss attempt (and remember, all were successful at losing and keeping it off), there were 5 main motivational triggers:
- Need for Change (26.1% of respondents)
- Appearance (25.2% of respondents)
- Social Prompts (18% of respondents)
- Mobility (16.4% of respondents)
- Medical (15.3% of respondents)
Although some of these are no doubt relatable for many of us, perhaps the prevalence of the different triggers is surprising.
The most common psychological trigger was Need for Change, which encompasses a range of motivations linked to feeling tired of being overweight and the physical and mental difficulties that entails on a daily basis…
‘"was tired of feeling sick and tired all the time… unable to enjoy life to the fullest."
"was tired of feeling fat and uncomfortable…. Embarrassed of myself"
"I hit bottom emotionally and knew I had to make a change."
Appearance was the second most common trigger for trying to lose weight, with keywords such as clothes, fit, look, and feel…
"I was uncomfortable in my body and unhappy with how I looked. I was disappointed in myself and hated how I looked in pictures…"
"Wanted to feel better about myself. I wasn’t happy with how I looked or felt. I wanted to be happy, look good, and not be or feel limited in what I wore or what I did."
Social prompts, or worries from Doctors, family, friends, and children featured as a strong motivator to lose weight for almost a fifth of respondents.
Mobility issues (which are closely linked to overall quality of life)5, and the desire to live without these issues, was another important contributor to finally losing weight successfully.
Comments around being able to walk up stairs without feeling out of breath, lack of energy, living with knee and back pain, and general flexibility were all mentioned frequently when describing why individuals wanted to lose weight.
Surprisingly, Medical reasons feature a little further down the list, with around 15% of participants highlighting triggers linked to medical motivations. Where medical triggers were mentioned, they tended to be about general health, with some specific references to Diabetes and Heart problems.
Strategies for Success
When asked what the one piece of advice that they would give to someone just starting out, two main themes emerged –
1. Perseverance: Never giving up, taking it day by day, re-setting after a difficult day or week:
"Simply put one foot in front of the other and start and never stop. Just keep going. Know that if you persevere, you will get there.
There will be peaks and valleys, plateau’s, gains, holidays, bad times but just get up and do what works 80 to 90% of the time and you will get there.
Do not stop. Never accept a small failure as a total defeat. If you truly want to accomplish and maintain weight loss, you can do it."
2. Tracking: tracking food as an essential lifestyle skill for loss and maintenance:
"You have to get up every day and make a choice to track… This is a lifestyle change, not a diet."
You can easily track calories in the foods you eat in wlr - try it free.
Maintaining weight loss is often an afterthought for those starting out on their journey, and also in fact, for those helping and advising people who are trying to lose weight.
However, it is an important part of accomplishing your goals and reaping the rewards long term.
So, what motivates those that have lost weight to maintain that loss over time? And how can these insights help those who are at the beginning (or somewhere in the middle) of their own weight loss attempt?
Health and Appearance factors featured for almost 60% of respondents; focusing on the will to feel good in your own skin and maintain health and vitality…
"How I feel physically and how I look physically. I love being able to do whatever activities I choose to and my boundless energy.
I feel physically beautiful again and I love buying clothes!
Looking at my before pictures keeps me humble, recalling my non-scale-victories keeps me motivated daily."
The theme of Looking Back was also significant; avoiding previous negative experiences, especially given the time and effort put into the initial weight loss, was a compelling ongoing motivation…
"Remembering how it felt all those years at a heavier weight."
"It’s harder being overweight than it is to work at a healthy lifestyle."
Flipping these around can help you to tap into your own reasons and motivations for losing weight...
- How will you feel and look when you get to your goal?
- How important is this end result to you?
- What are some of the difficulties you experience now due to your weight that would no longer be a part of your life, either physically or mentally?
- What’s it worth to you to no longer have these difficulties?
Writing some of these down and referring to them can really help on days where you feel like giving up, or at times when you’ve had a blip.
Visualising yourself at your goal is also an effective strategy to help you stay on track with your weight loss goals – imagine how you’ll feel and look… what will you be wearing?
Positive Results of Weight Loss and Maintenance
Those who responded to the study described how achieving their goal had transformed many aspects of their lives.
When asked what the most significant changes were that they had experienced as a result of weight loss, responses grouped into 5 main themes:
1. Confidence – improvements in self-confidence, self-esteem, and happiness
"My confidence in myself. I learned that when I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything."
2. Positive Affect – feeling comfortable in body and mind
"I cannot stress how much better I feel mentally and that affects every aspect of my life. I am talking about a feeling of power, or being alive, of mental well-being."
3. Fitness and Body Image – being more active, fitting into clothes and feeling good about physical appearance
"The single most important thing that has changed is how I feel physically.
I have more energy to play with my kids… things I could not do easily when I was overweight so I avoided them. I no longer avoid these activities. In fact, I enjoy them."
4. Reduced Pain – including both during exercise and in carrying out the general activities of day-to-day life
"… pain in my back and my knees… now that’s not even something that is much of a consideration anymore…"
5. Medical Status – feeling healthier, longevity, and improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes
"Personal health improvement. I’m no longer on high blood pressure medicine and do not have sleep apnea (CPAP machine no longer needed)."
These responses show what a dramatic change to quality of life losing weight can have – both physically and mentally. It also tells us why people strive to reach their weight loss goals.
This can help when it comes to getting your head around what your individual motivations are, which is a necessary step for successful weight loss.
How does this all help me?
From looking at the insights of this large-scale study, common factors and issues come to light. This can help you to really delve into your own motivations for weight loss and help you to prioritise what’s important to you.
Understanding these motivations, triggers and resulting impacts as they relate to you can help you to build a really solid foundation for your weight loss journey.
It also means you’ll have a record (even if it’s only in your head) of all your reasons, wants and needs to pull strength from if you have a difficult day, or week, along the way.
Think about the following:
- Why do you want to lose weight?
- What are the negative impacts of excess weight you experience?
- What would you like to be able to do when you get to your goal weight that you find difficult now?
- How will you feel when you’ve achieved your goal?
- How will you make sure you persevere throughout your journey?
Exploring the above questions as they relate to you personally, and perhaps even making a note of your thoughts to refer to, is a really effective way of making sure your motivations are front and centre, helping you to stay on track with your goals.
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1. Phelan et al. (2021) 'In Their Own Words: Topic Analysis of the Motivations and Strategies of over 6,000 Long-Term Weight Loss Maintainers', Obesity - A Researchers Journal
2. Thomas et al. (2014) 'Weight Loss Maintenance for 10 Years in the National Weight Control Registry', American Journal of Preventative Medicine
3. Roake et al. (2021) 'Sitting Time, Type, and Context Among Long-Term Weight Loss Maintainers', Obesity - A Researchers Journal
4. Pascual et al. (2019) 'Diet Quality and Macronutrient Intake Among Long-Term Weight Loss Maintainers', Nutrients
5. Forhan, M. & Gill, S. (2013) 'Obesity, Functional Mobility and Quality of Life', Endocrinology and Metabolism