Are You Setting Tough Enough Goals for Weight Loss?

Are You Setting Tough Enough Goals for Weight Loss?

With the new year underway, you’ll be well and truly ready to make some big differences to your physique.

You already know that when you start a weight loss journey that you have to set goals to keep you on track – and maybe you’ve already set them.

Setting personal targets is an important behavioural practice. It allows you to set up positive dietary habits as well as coping mechanisms that help you achieve your overall goal.

For many years though you’ve been told to set achievable targets that boost your confidence and limit failure – what is referred to in public health policies as ‘realistic’ target setting.

But is this restrictive approach the best way? Possibly not – according to one new study anyway.

These findings might change the way we think about weight loss. And with new year being a key time to lose weight healthily, this is a must read if you want to be successful in hitting your weight loss target.

Goal Setting Basics

Go to any weight loss club, visit any online support group, or read any book on weight loss tactics and they’ll all mention one key component of success – goal setting.

Changing behaviour to promote body composition is an important, underlying part of weight loss. It’s a key part of the process [1]. With regards to improving body composition, various health initiatives, behavioural specialists and Government policies suggest that a weight loss goal of 5-10% of total body weight over a 12-week period is both achievable and realistic.

Further to that, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have suggested that as little as 3% weight loss is desirable [2].

There has always been an emphasis on setting targets that would be well within your grasp. You’ll find that traditional weight loss goal setting sets the bar so low that failing to achieve it is quite rare. And of course, achieving goals boosts confidence, builds self-esteem and allows you to better manage your expectations.

The fear from these policies and initiatives is that if you did fail you might reduce effort or even stopping their diet altogether. And that’s not good of course.

However, many people still remain unhappy with their level of weight loss. It has even been claimed by some researchers that setting realistic targets is one of the seven myths about current obesity treatment and that there is insufficient evidence to support the practice in the first place [3].

So is this setting the bar too low? Does this have a knock on effect for overall weight loss? Read on to find out why shooting for the sky with your targets might be the way forward.

Tougher Goal Setting Helps You Lose More Weight

Setting higher level targets can help you to work harder for your goals, providing a holistic and self-directed approach to weight loss [4]. This is said to fuel an increase in direction and purpose.

And recent research has thrown this approach into the limelight once again by suggesting that more challenging weight loss goals might be the key to long-term success. 

Published in the Journal of Human Nutrition & Dietetics [5], this interesting study goes against the more ‘realistic’ weight loss advice in favor of a more challenging approach. And it works too, as those involved in the study lost twice as much weight.

Taking part over a 12-month period, researchers at Nottingham University recruited the data of over 35,000 weight loss group members – 24,000 of whom were obese according to their BMI. They wanted to see if any of the following influenced their total weight loss:

  • Whether a goal was set or not
  • Whether shorter, more regular goals helped
  • The size of the goal

Weight loss was tracked over the year and the results analyzed after the program was completed. Those that didn’t set any goals were less successful overall, whilst those who set modest weight loss targets lost 10% of their body weight. Where the study got interesting though was that those who set more ambitious targets lost on average 19% of their body weight – almost double the amount. 

This approach was far removed from the typical ‘safe’ approach to weight loss and is a refreshing way of improving body composition.

This isn’t a one off study either. De Vet et al found similar results with their study of 447 overweight and obese volunteers [6]. In their study, the researchers explored whether the amount of weight loss individuals strive for was associated with more positive psychological and behavioral outcomes.

Many of the volunteers set goals that were classed as too high according to NICE guidelines. However, rather than being an obstacle it predicted greater effort by the group and led to a 13.6% weight loss. This was much higher than the recommended 10%, however wasn’t classed as excessive or unsafe.

So How do You Implement More Challenging Goals?

By implementing a more challenging approach to weight loss, you may in fact improve your success. By removing limits to the amount of fat or weight you lose could lead to you excelling and achieving your goals much quicker.

The key though is it has to be safe. Aiming to shoot too high and wanting to lose too much, too soon could be problematic. You need to take a proper look at what your perfect and healthy weight would be and go from there. It’s all about what you consider to be ideal for you – but at the same time still within healthy boundaries.

This approach might not work for everyone – particularly if you become overly obsessed with weight loss numbers or become too disappointed with not achieving goals. But if you like to challenge yourself and relish a more demanding approach to weight loss, then a shoot for the stars approach might be for you.

  1. Koenigberg, MR et al. Facilitating treatment adherence with lifestyle changes in diabetesAm Fam Physician. 2004; 69: 309316
  2. NICE: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence PH53 Obesity: managing overweight and obesity in adults –lifestyle weight management services. 2014; London: NICE
  3. Casazza, K et al. Myths, presumptions and facts about obesityN Engl J Med. 2013; 368: 446454
  4. Houser-Marko L, et al. Eyes on the prize or nose to the grindstone? The effects of level of goal evaluation on mood and motivationPer Soc Psychol Rev. 2008; 34: 15561569.
  5. Avery, A et al. Setting targets leads to greater long-term weight losses and ‘unrealistic’ targets increase the effect in a large community-based commercial weight management group. J Human Nutr Diet. 2016; 29(6): 687–696
  6. De Vet, E et al. Ain’t no mountain high enough? Setting high weight loss goals predict effort and short-term weight loss. J Health Psychol. 2013; 18(5): 638-47