Plan Your Day to Lose Weight

Making lifestyle changes doesn't come naturally. To change your eating and exercise habits, you've got to plan - to make it happen.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 01, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

You're running late, flying out the door. You might skip breakfast: the cereal box is empty, and the milk's gone sour. Forget taking lunch: there's peanut butter in the jar, but you are out of bread. Exercise before work? You've got to be kidding. It's a typical hectic morning, at the beginning of a typical jam-packed day. What happened to those resolutions to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight? It's easy for them to get lost in the daily shuffle.

In a perfect world, we could accomplish all this by the time our busy day starts:

  • Jump out of bed by 6:30 (or earlier).
  • Get a good chunk of exercise, 20 minutes or more.
  • Eat a satisfying but healthy breakfast: fresh fruit, high-fiber cereal, low-fat milk.
  • Brown-bag a wholesome lunch: more fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt, whole-wheat bread, homemade vegetable soup (maybe that you prepared last night).

It's true -- with a little planning, this could be your reality. Your morning rush would go more smoothly, and your weight loss efforts would stay on track. You bounce out of bed, knowing what your next move is - all day, all week, all year.

"If you leave exercise and healthy eating to chance, it's not going to happen," says Milton Stokes, RD, MPH, chief dietitian for St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City. "You're responsible for you. Use your personal digital assistant to set your day - gym time, dinner. Make these things pre-meditated - so it's not like a surprise, you've got an extra hour, should you go to the gym or watch TV. If you don't plan it, you won't do it."

Planning for Weight Loss

Planning helps you build new habits, says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, the Guthrie Chair in Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in Pittsburgh and author of The Volumetrics Weight Control Plan. "Without planning, you're always going to be struggling - trying to figure out how to eat what you should. You'll end up making yourself eat things you don't want to eat. Eating will always feel like work."

Indeed, planning involves discipline - and that is a key trait that is evident among the "successful losers" who belong to The National Weight Control Registry. They have maintained a 30-pound weight loss for at least a year - and many have lost much more, and kept it off for much longer.

"It is very difficult to lose weight and keep it off - and people who succeed must have discipline," says James O. Hill, PhD, the Registry's co-founder and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "People who are most successful plan their day to ensure that they stick to their eating plan and get regular physical activity. It takes effort to be successful in long-term weight management."

Goal No. 1: Plan Your Daily Food

First, take note of every bite of food you have during the day. Don't forget that run through the supermarket - all those tasty samples you couldn't pass up. "A food journal is the single best thing you can do," says Gary Foster, PhD, clinical director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "You become more conscious of what you're doing. It helps you monitor yourself, and make corrections in mid-course."

Dietitians call it a food journal. But really, it's research for your plan of action, he explains. You'll see where you need improvement. "Plans work better than platitudes," Foster tells WebMD. "Instead of 'I'll exercise more,' make it 'I'll walk tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.'"

Keep it simple. Journals don't have to be labor-intensive, he says. Focus on your high-risk time slots when you're most likely to get off course. Example: You know you eat junk at night, or that you snack after 3 p.m., or between lunch and dinner. Just keep notes during that time period. You'll quickly see problem habits: banana split vs. banana, the whole container of nuts vs. a handful.

Set specific goals. You can't just tell yourself to eat less junk food after 8 p.m. Be specific - 'I'm going to substitute popcorn for potato chips.' That way you know exactly what to do. There's no question.

Use weekends wisely. "When things are a little quieter on weekends, you can think about the upcoming week," says Stokes. "Decide what you're going to eat. Go to the market, so you're a little ahead of the game. You can even prepare food on the weekend and freeze it, then pull it out during the week."

Consider your options. Keep lists of healthy foods and meals you love, and plan accordingly, adds Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, nutrition manager at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center at Duke University Medical School. "I advise people to think of five different breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. Then you'll have some freedom - you can choose from your favorites. But your eating will be more structured. That's what's important."

Shop wisely. A well-stocked fridge and pantry can make it easier to grab a healthy snack or prepare delicious meals that are also good for you. Keep basics like these on hand: low-fat milk and yogurt, eggs, peanut butter, a variety of fresh fruits (include berries and grapes) and vegetables (include carrots and celery), soybeans, garlic, whole grain pasta/bread, fish, and high-fiber cereal.

Plan healthy treats. Low-fat cheese or yogurt, hummus with veggies, and fresh fruit are great choices. Keep them at home; take them to the office. That will help you eat the right foods when you're starving - especially in the late afternoon, during drive time -- and when you finally get home at night.

Do it yourself. These are great prepare-ahead healthy meals that will keep you feeling full and help you control your weight:

  • Make a dried-fruit-and-nut mix for emergency snacking. (Be wary of granola, since it typically has lots of sugar, says Stokes.) Pack small amounts in a little plastic bag - great for the car or office.
  • Cook a big pot of homemade vegetable soup, which can be frozen for several lunches or dinners.
  • Try smoothies - blend low-fat yogurt and fruit - for a grab-and-go meal.
  • Mix up big salads or a pasta primavera with lots of veggies and whole-wheat pasta. Prepare large quantities so you can have a moderate-sized helping for dinner and then have leftovers for lunch the next day.

Buy healthy frozen entrees. "These have really improved," says Rolls. "They have more whole grains in them now, and they seem to be getting tastier. If I'm traveling and can't get to the grocery store, I make sure I have frozen entrees on hand."

Don't limit yourself. It's OK to eat breakfast food for snacks, lunch, or dinner. "You can eat a hard-boiled egg or cereal any time, not just breakfast," Stokes advises.

Goal No. 2: Plan Your Exercise

First, talk to your doctor - especially if you are overweight or are at high risk for heart disease, advises Thompson. Your doctor may suggest that you ask a fitness trainer to develop a workout plan that best suits your needs.

Analyze your morning schedule. "You'll find there's a lot of free time there," says Gerald Endress, ACSM, fitness director at Duke Diet & Fitness Center at Duke University Medical Center. "People tell me it takes them two hours to get ready for work. It's not that they're prettying themselves up - they're basically just wasting time. But when they start exercising in the morning, they find they use their time better. One guy told me he got to work 20 minutes earlier on days he exercised. If you've got a structured period of activity, you know to keep things moving."

Set your program. Decide what works best for you, such as 8 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. "You don't let anything interfere with that," advises Thompson. "That's not to say once a month something comes up you can't exercise. That's OK. It's when you're making excuses three, four, five days in a row -- that's a problem. It's got to be the highest priority because it's your health."

Know your options. What kind of exercise - or physical activity - will get you out of bed in the morning? A yoga video, walking, a workout session at the YMCA? Figure out what will motivate you.

Tackle roadblocks. Is inertia a problem for you in the morning? "When the alarm clock sounds, it's easy to hit the snooze button," says Bryant. A workout buddy can provide motivation. "If you know someone is waiting for you, counting on you, you'll go. Once you go, you're happy you went. Once you get past that inertia, you're glad you did the workout."

Don't think of it as "early". It's a mindset issue, says Foster. Setting the alarm 30 minutes early should not be a negative in your day. Give it a positive spin. "Quit thinking of it as getting up early. Your day starts when the alarm goes off. That's how you should think of it."

Remind yourself. Put yellow sticky notes on the fridge or the computer - like "get off the bus four stops early - Mon., Wed., Fri."

Reward yourself. "Establish a goal for your workouts - daily, weekly, monthly goals," Bryant advises. "When you've done those workouts, accomplished those goals, pat yourself on the back." He suggests going out and buying a favorite DVD or CD, or even getting yourself that iPod you wanted! "Rewards help keep you motivated," says Foster.

"Planning helps you overcome the unpredictability of daily life," says Foster. "Having any plan, even if it's a bad or ineffective plan, increases your confidence in accomplishing the task at hand. Just the fact that you've thought it through means it will have some effect."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Milton Stokes, RD, MPH, spokesman, American Dietetic Association; chief dietitian, St. Barnabas Hospital, New York City. Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, Guthrie Chair in Nutrition, Pennsylvania State University, Pittsburgh. James O. Hill, PhD, co-founder, National Weight Control Registry; director, Center for Human Nutrition, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Gary Foster, PhD, clinical director, weight and eating disorders program, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, nutrition manager, Duke Diet & Fitness Center, Duke University Medical School. Gerald Endress, ACSM, fitness director, Duke Diet & Fitness Center, Duke University Medical Center. WebMD Feature: "Healthy Refrigerator." WebMD Feature: "5 Foods That Fight Hunger Pains."

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