Manage Your Weight with Strengths & Mindfulness

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

What are the ingredients for successful weight loss? What have you been missing or not considering?

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.

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Weight Loss

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, medications, surgery, counseling, food supplements, various exercise equipment, health club memberships, diet planning, and having a support network. Each of these has their advantages and will most likely lead to success 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.

Far fewer weight management approaches focus on what is actually needed in order to sustain weight loss: your inner resources.

People forget to consider their inner capacities–those qualities that are strongest within you, or your core VIA character strengths.

A Recipe for Weight Loss Success

Character strengths are the ingredients for success. They are what can make the other approaches work. You can’t get to your doctor appointments without self-regulation and prudence. You can’t 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 in 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 using the strengths of prudence and self-regulation to carefully plan and manage impulses, success is unlikely to occur.

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 area clients were least familiar with and least adept at using.

It’s a Virtuous (or Vicious) Circle

I found that my weight management clients tended to have perseverance, self-regulation, and prudence right at the bottom of their strengths profiles. 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 lead to increased confidence overcome lethargy and negative thinking and go exercise (perseverance). One strength boosts another strength that then boosts another. One might call this process the virtuous circle. On the other hand, the vicious circle is always nearby, lurking. These particular strengths can also 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 fast food restaurants they drive 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, which makes mindfulness of your strengths all the more essential. Here are some ways being mindful of your character strengths can help you reach your weight loss goals.

How to Stick with a Weight Loss Plan

  1. Pay particular attention to the three aforementioned strengths and their influence on one another. How might you consciously employ more prudence, self-regulation, or perseverance in your diet and exercise?
  2. Another strength that is important here 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 veer off 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 always a challenge. When it starts to feel like you’re trying to roll a massive stone up a steep hill, your internal resources can help you find the strength to keep going.