Last winter was tough. After a highly stressful, far too sedentary holiday season, I found myself carrying 15 extra pounds. I wanted to take it off, but I didn’t know how. In my twenties, I’d make small changes when I needed to drop weight, and it would come off. I’d start running again, or I’d cut down on sugary drinks. In my late thirties? Not so much.
I needed to get proactive, so I asked around. A friend suggested an app — specifically MyFitnessPal— to track my meals, nutrition and exercise. I’d been hesitant to try tracking in the past. I said it was because it seemed extreme, and I didn’t need extreme help, but that wasn’t really true. The real reason I didn’t want to track everything: I was afraid of what I’d see.
If I listed every bag of chips and every beer and every midnight snack, I wouldn’t be able to complain, ‘But I ran three times this week!’ or ‘Ugh, getting old is the worst.’ I’d have no choice but to be accountable, and frankly, that was going to be awful. But facts were facts: A month after Christmas, I’d been running and eating well and I hadn’t lost a pound. So I downloaded the app. Over the next six months, I worked off the weight one pound at a time.
That sentence makes it sound easy; I assure you it was not. It was, however, doable — especially after I started making progress, which happened in about 10 days. Most importantly, the experience taught me some valuable lessons about healthy weight loss and maintenance, and that’s what’s helped me keep the weight off nearly a year later.
Here are 5 key things I learned:
1. Take it one week at a time
To lose one pound, you have to burn 3,500 extra calories over the course of a week. That shocked me — 3,500 calories is a lot! But that’s exactly why experts recommend a one-pound-per-week goal for sustainable weight loss. Cutting any more than that will leave you frustrated, hungry and ready to throw in the towel.
For me, this where the app was key. Once I input my weight and goal, it showed me how many calories I had left per day and week to stay on track. Having a daily, visual representation of progress kept me motivated. I didn’t have to wait a whole week to see results when I stepped on the scale; Making and logging healthy choices became the satisfying action, not weighing myself.
2. Look at the week, not the day
In the past when I was trying to lose weight, I thought of myself as having “good days” and “bad days.” Tracking apps look at a whole week, and that’s crucial. Every day is not the same — some days it’s easy to plan meals and stay within your calorie “budget.” Other days you need to flex a little. Taking a weeklong approach allows you to “bank” extra calories some days and “spend” those calories on days when you have fewer options or just want to splurge.
3. Ditch the all-or-nothing, cheat-day attitude
Another thing a weeklong structure does is safeguard against self-sabotage. Before I started tracking, if my office ordered pizza for lunch, I’d think, ‘Well, today is shot. I guess I’ll eat whatever I want and start over tomorrow.” That would often knock me off course for the whole day, and that was a brutal way to do things.
Looking at the calorie count in the app helped me realize I could make small, better choices. For example, eating a slice of veggie pizza (205 calories) instead of meat lovers (410 calories) cut my calorie count in half. That’s a huge difference! I also don’t care about crust, so I ditched that in favor of a second (also crustless) piece. That shaved 100 more calories. After two slices, I was full. I’d indulged without breaking the bank.
On a related note: cheat days. Cheat days work for lots of people. I am not one of them. If you give me an inch, I will take a mile, and I was taking about 10 on my cheat day. If that set up works for you, great. But I’d recommend everyone track their cheat day once or twice and compare it to the week as a whole to see if everything truly evens out.
4. Treat yourself on days you exercise
One big problem with my all-or-nothing attitude is that it extended to exercise. I hate working out, so if I exercised, I used to consider that a “good day,” meaning I should eat well to maximize my progress. Conversely, if I didn’t work out, it was already a “bad day,” so I might as well hit up the Chinese buffet and try again tomorrow.
Looking back, that kind of thinking was nonsense. It only made the gulf wider between how many calories I was consuming and how many I was burning. But once I hooked my app up to my fitness tracker, my bank of calories would tick up after I worked out, and that was life-changing. It showed me how the 15-minute walk I took before dinner was making a difference, or how the 20-minute run I did in the morning meant I could have that extra helping of spaghetti. That kept me from going off the deep end on days I wasn’t perfect.
5. Make walking your secret weapon
Next to the new weeklong perspective, walking is the most important takeaway I got from the tracking process. In order to bump up my calorie limits, I started walking at lunch or after work. I wasn’t walking anywhere in particular, and I was only walking fast enough to get my heart rate up enough for my tracker to count it as exercise. It made an enormous difference. I was turning time I’d usually spend sitting in front of a screen (often eating!) into action, and I was shaving 100 or so calories in the process.
One key way I stuck to that: podcasts. I’d save my favorites and only listen to them while I was moving. More often than not, I’d find myself walking an extra 15 minutes just so I could keep listening. That taught me that exercise doesn’t have to be done in a gym and you don’t have to be covered in sweat for it to count. Small, measurable, sustainable changes matter.