You know how weight loss works: Eat less and move more. But if it were truly that simple, two-thirds of American adults wouldn't be overweight or obese right now, with corresponding health woes ranging from diabetes to heart disease to some forms of cancer.
"The reasons we carry excess weight depend on our culture, our habits, our genes, and our psyches," says John Bagnulo, nutritionist at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. "Only by examining both the physical and psychological reasons can you find what works for you."
We spoke with several weight-loss experts to identify the most common reasons people struggle with their weight. Identify your biggest obstacle (or obstacles) on the following slides, and use the suggested strategies to start your summer off right.
Each Sunday night, strategize ways to build exercise into your week: Research shows that setting aside time to brainstorm specific ways to get moving can help you stay on track. If you're just beginning a routine, plan to exercise for 30 minutes, four days a week -- a few walks on your lunch hour, a fitness DVD one morning, and a hike Sunday afternoon, for example.
"Gradually build up to four 60-minute workouts per week," says Michaels. She recommends a combo of cardio (such as swimming, biking, walking, stair climbing) and strength training that uses your own body weight (such as lunges, squats, push-ups) so you don't need to invest in equipment or a gym membership.
Try listening to music. When exercisers listen to up-tempo songs, their endurance can improve by up to 15 percent. What's more, tunes can also boost mood and positive feelings about exercise.
Exercise with others. "Lasting lifestyle changes usually require support," says Sasha Loring, a psychotherapist and at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. To boost your chances of success, enroll in group fitness classes, or exercise with someone who has similar goals.
Don't mistake your afternoon cookie habit as a mere lapse in willpower. "Physiological addiction to comfort foods is very real," says Bagnulo. The key factor involves serotonin, the neurotransmitter that plays a big role in mood.
"Foods with large amounts of refined flour and sugar trigger artificially elevated levels of serotonin," he explains. "We become dependent on these foods to feel okay."
As you eat, pause every few bites to take a deep breath and ask yourself how the food makes you feel.
"We've become so mental about food -- how many fat grams does it have? -- that we're disconnected from what we're eating," Bagnulo says. "Checking in with how a piece of fruit makes you feel versus a cookie gives you answers about which foods improve your well-being and which detract from it."
According to a 2008 study, eating quickly and until you're full triples your chances of being overweight. Sharing meals with friends or family is one of the best ways to slow down. You'll chew more slowly, feel fuller, and be less likely to stuff yourself.
To get more mindful about food, eat meals in an environment that promotes calm. Move away from the computer; turn off the TV. "Eating in a relaxed environment allows you to hear your body's cues more clearly," Bagnulo says, which makes you more likely to stop before you reach an uncomfortable fullness.
Metabolism slows down about 5 percent every decade, starting in our mid-30s. But don't resign yourself to the extra pounds.
"For most of us, lifestyle and environmental factors are more important than age or genetics for controlling weight," says Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center.
Now's the time to trim empty calories from your diet: A 2009 study at Brigham Young University found that middle-aged women who weren't conscious of eating less as they aged were more likely to gain weight over a three-year period.
"I counsel my patients to think of it not as curbing intake, but as choosing worthy foods with intention," says Beth Reardon, integrative nutritionist at Duke Integrative Medicine. That means less refined flour, sugar, and snacks and more vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Strength training is critical for keeping metabolism humming as you age. Muscle burns more calories than fat does, explains Reardon, and without intervention, women start losing muscle as early as their mid-30s.
To boost your muscle mass, Michaels recommends strength training four times a week. It helps you burn more calories, even at rest.
Green tea contains antioxidants known as polyphenols that have mild metabolism-boosting properties, Reardon says. "Staying hydrated with a combination of green tea and water may counteract some of the metabolic slowdown that occurs with age."
Drink three to five cups of green tea a day for its calorie-burning potential, suggests Reardon, and at least 48 ounces of water to support the body's metabolic processes.
Portions have substantially increased over recent decades -- by some estimates, as much as 200 percent -- in both restaurants and at home. While it's fine to eat your fill of nonstarchy veggies, much of what we overindulge in (simple carbs, fats, meat) affects our weight and health.
Bagnulo suggests making sure half your meal is vegetable-based, a quarter is made up of healthy protein, and the final quarter consists of a whole grain or starch.
For desserts, try a smaller bowl. At an ice cream social thrown at Cornell University, those given a large bowl served themselves 31 percent more ice cream than those given a small one. Use a bowl that fits inside your two cupped hands and sip water before deciding if you want an additional helping.
People who sleep less than eight hours a night typically have higher body mass than those who sleep a full eight hours, and babies who sleep less than 12 hours a day are more likely to be overweight by age 3. Although this don't prove that lack of sleep causes weight gain, an undeniable correlation exists between sleeping less and weighing more.
To sleep more -- at least seven hours -- avoid exercise, alcohol, and caffeine later in the day, take a bath before bed, and go to bed early.
Michaels uses a pyramid to help the time-strapped make goal-setting as effective as possible. Draw a pyramid on a piece of paper, and at the top, write down your ultimate goal in as much detail as possible -- total number of pounds to lose, yes, but also what the number will empower you to do (run a race, embark on a job search). For the next row, break that larger goal into monthly goals. From there, you can set weekly and daily goals.
"A mini meditation can provide the clarity of mind you need to make better food and exercise choices," says Loring. Sit in a way that supports an upright posture. Bring your awareness to the act of breathing for 20 breaths. When your mind wanders, which is normal, gently bring it back to simply breathing.
Although you eat well and exercise regularly, the spare weight you're carrying around won't budge. Michaels refers to the proverbial "last 5 pounds" as vanity weight: They don't affect your health, but they affect how you look. Whether your extra weight stems from having a baby (one study shows that moms tend to gain 5 pounds more than their childless peers) or simply becoming more sedentary, here's how to whittle it away.
In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, Reardon suggests adding a variety of whole grains to your regular rotation, including quinoa, amaranth, barley, millet, and spelt.
"They offer a wide array of powerful antioxidants, as well as fiber, which helps stabilize your blood sugar so your cravings for comfort food go down," she says.
Michaels says that the biggest obstacle to changing your habits is an all-or-nothing attitude. "It's a foregone conclusion that dietary lapses will happen. The trick is to see them as lessons and not as a confirmation that you're a failure." If you know you tend to eat too much cake at an office birthday party, for example, bring in a healthier snack of your own next time.