I’m writing this post to celebrate my client Caitlin today for losing 30 pounds!

I especially want to highlight her for two reasons:

(1) She did not use MyFitnessPal to track calories or macros. We tried it at one point, but we stopped after about a week because it wasn’t a good fit for her.

(2) She used home workouts – only dumbbells, bands, sliders, and a pull-up bar!

I think that stories like Caitlin’s are incredibly important because in today’s fitness and weight loss industry, we’re made to feel that we cannot be successful unless we buy into certain things, like:

  • Tracking every macro down to the gram
  • Following specific diets
  • Going to the gym for 60+ minutes a day

But the reality is that, in order to be successful, we must integrate our healthy habits into a normal, comfortable lifestyle (keeping in mind that our comfort zone does get bigger the more we gently push it). We have to do the things that really work for us, and discard the things that don’t. We have to shape strategies to be realistic and long-term.

And that’s what Caitlin did, with great success!

After years of trying random workout programs and diets, this is the first time I’ve had sustained success. Rachel will meet you where you are, help you set reasonable plans, build on what works and quickly move on from what doesn’t. Through my own hard work and commitment, and guidance and support from Rachel, I feel mentally and physically stronger, healthier, and more balanced. I have built good habits that will have a lasting effect.”

Caitlin

Let’s take a look at five “dos and don’ts” that contributed to sustainable change, which you can apply for yourself…

Do: Make Edits to Your Current Diet
Don’t: “Start a New Diet”

I always start off my clients with food journaling, because it gives me a bird’s eye view of how they eat day-to-day. Once I have a grasp of what and when they eat (and what their hunger patterns are), we work on shifting foods and habits in a better direction. But we make small changes, honoring their current preferences and style of eating.

Caitlin is vegetarian, so I gave her lots of coaching on how to use dairy and plant-based protein to get leaner and improve eating habits. We also maintained her preferred eating schedule, but made sure that snacks were inserted strategically to prevent extreme hunger after work.

Here’s another example: Caitlin’s family enjoyed ordering in pizza. But they started experimenting with buying frozen pizza crusts at the grocery store and topping the pizza themselves. Small shifts like this often improve food quality dramatically without affecting enjoyment.

Most people can continue their current preferred way of eating and still lose weight – they don’t need to jump on a diet. All it takes is small changes – more nutritious food, more proactive planning, and some swaps to improve quality.

Do: Increase Activity
Don’t: Exercise for Hours a Day

Did you know that one of the best things you can do for your weight is to be more active, not necessarily to exercise more?

With clients, I create a base exercise schedule, and then I encourage them additionally to be as active as possible with low-intensity movement, like walking. Caitlin has a demanding profession and a busy home life (she’s the president of a hospital and also has two kids), and she didn’t have more time for more exercise, or even for taking long, leisurely daily walks. So we made sure to cleverly leverage the time she did have available. She got a treadmill desk for her office, and often gets in an extra two miles a day of walking while working. She also started taking longer walks on weekends using the “stroller nap” (moms, you get it).

Intense, vigorous exercise is necessary for building muscle and getting fitter, but overdoing it can result in burning out. If you try to “out-exercise” your food with more and more challenging workouts, the end result is usually fatigue and high food cravings. Adding in more activity, however, doesn’t create this physical stress. Leveraging more activity was a huge part of Caitlin’s sustainable success.

Do: Pay Attention to the Right Numbers
Don’t: Feel the Pressure to Count and Measure Every Single Thing

Tracking isn’t the best fit for everyone. I use it as a tool with some of my clients, but the reality is that tracking is a complex food behavior – it requires that someone observe and accurately quantify all the food that they eat with a high level of awareness and objectivity. Tracking is extremely prone to error, and can be unreliable. It also favors people who eat very repetitively, eat simply, measure their food in most situations, eat mostly packaged foods, and hardly ever dine out.

I’m not anti-tracking, but I can say for certain that it works really well for some people, and for other people it’s just not worth the time or the effort.

The only thing you need to do to lose weight is be in a calorie deficit, and you don’t have to track in order to achieve that. You can sort of figure it out as you go – trying certain strategies, and observing the results that you get week-to-week.

With Caitlin, like I said at the beginning, we tried tracking for about a week, and it wasn’t a good fit. So we immediately dropped it. Instead, I worked on these strategies with Caitlin, as I do with many of my clients:

  • Following a regular eating schedule
  • Eating more protein (more than 100 grams a day is appropriate for most women trying to lose weight)
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables (especially vegetables)
  • Reading labels for calories, to keep meals and snacks “right-sized”
  • Being aware of portion sizes, especially when dining out
  • Making more healthy swaps, like whipping up a homemade healthy “Chinese takeout” dinner at home on the weekend, instead of ordering in
  • Reducing stress/craving snacking

In the end, these are the habits that really matter. Even for someone who uses tracking effectively, the goal is to develop habits like the ones I just listed. If tracking bogs you down and ultimately distracts you from how you’re eating, it’s pointless. You can make effective changes and lose weight without tracking.

Do: Pick Workout Times that Actually Work
Don’t: Pick Workout Times that You Wish Would Work

Caitlin chose a later time of day to exercise that worked for her – in the evening after her kids went to bed. She honored the fact that she is not a morning person and that her workday also starts early. The first time she can “turn off” her brain and exercise is late in the evening, once the pressures of the day are over. Sometimes she works out in the morning, but typically it is nighttime that works for her.

This is counter to the advice that I often give clients, which is to exercise as soon as possible to get it off your plate for the day. But you have to do what works for you!

Here are some clues that your exercise time works for you…

  • You do your workouts at least 80% of the time

That’s it.

There is no other litmus test.

If you think a workout time will work well for you but you’re not actually doing it, that time is not working for you.

Keep in mind that if you are not exercising consistently, you need to pick a time and then exercise at that time consistently, even if you feel like you’re forcing it or going through the motions, in order to get used to exercising at that time. Habits don’t appear overnight. But once you get used to it, it becomes far easier. Here are some other tips for sticking with exercise, if you’re trying to kickstart a habit.

Do: Focus on Self-care When Times Get Tough
Don’t: Fall into Black-and-White Thinking

Caitlin had several big challenges in the midst of her weight loss journey, one of which was that her wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

If you have an all-or-nothing mindset about your healthy habits, your exercise routines and nutritious eating strategies fall apart during times of stress.

But if you internalize an attitude of self-care, your healthy routines sustain you through periods of stress, helping to make life more manageable.

It’s a small shift, but it’s incredibly powerful.

During the most intense, emotional period of her wife’s treatment, Caitlin narrowed her focus to her self-care routines, and her weight loss temporarily took a backseat. But once they were through the worst of the storm, she was able to resume her weight loss efforts, which had been supported by her self-care habits.

It’s not always a good time to focus aggressively on weight loss. If we’re balanced in life, we have to flexible and responsive to what is being asked of us. There may be periods where we can’t be exclusively focused on objective, metric goals. But there are usually small things that we can do that reduce stress, improve our well-being, and boost mental health.

Going for a run doesn’t just burn calories – it clears your head, lifts your mood, and gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Eating nutritiously gives you energy and balances your blood sugar. Menu planning reduces stress and frees up bandwidth.

To avoid black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, choose lifestyle strategies that you feel confident that you could maintain even if life went sideways. It really helps to think through the typical things that don’t go according to plan on an average day or average week, and then make “Plan E” your actual approach, instead of crafting a beautiful “Plan A” that’s probably not going to happen.

Using this approach, Caitlin lost:

33 pounds of fat (and gained 5 pounds of muscle)
… and she lost 4 inches from her waist…
… and SEVEN inches from her hips!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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