Dumb Things We Do When We're Trying to Lose Weight

It's just how we are

If we could take all the things we know about weight loss, exercise and diet and smush it down into  four words, it would come out like this:  Eat less, move more, a phrase we've heard so many times, it's become kind of meaningless. Yes, we know it's a matter of calories in vs. calories out but, if you've ever stepped on a scale after working really hard only to see absolutely no change, you know that it's about much more than controlling calories.

Part of it is that it's just hard to lose weight.  We have to get everything perfect - calories in, calories out, stress management, sleep management - to get results, all while working against a body that wants to store extra fat just in case there's a famine around the corner.

We sometimes make it worse with some of the dumb things we do when we're trying to lose weight.  Most notably, trying to force our bodies into a certain shape or by unwittingly lying to ourselves about how much we're really eating and exercising.

If you're struggling to lose weight, you may just be sabotaging yourself.  Learn more about the dumb things we do when we're trying to lose weight and how to stop doing them.

Trying to spot reduce your belly, hips, thighs, etc.

Woman doing situps
Blend Images - JGI/Jamie Grill/Brand X Pictures

It makes complete sense, doesn't it? When you do a crunch, you feel it in your belly...therefore, you should lose weight from your belly. Or you do a leg lift and you feel it in your outer thigh so you should lose the fat around your thighs, right?

Unfortunately, the body doesn't work that way. The body works as a whole system, so when you work one part of it, you're actually drawing energy from the entire thing. It's like central air conditioning in a house - Closing a door isn't going to cool just one room...the entire house gets the same treatment.

It may not seem like a big deal to believe the exercises you're doing will get you those six-pack abs or that firm butt, but the constant failure to achieve your goals can be a real drag on your motivation.

Why you should stop

  • It wastes time - When you do a bunch of small exercises for one body part, you're wasting precious time and energy you could use doing exercises that burn more calories.  That's what you want if you're trying to lose body fat, no matter where you're trying to lose it.  Instead of lying on the floor for a leg left, try a whole body exercise that works multiple muscle groups - A squat with an overhead press and a leg lift, for example, will not only work the outer thigh, it will work the entire lower body and the upper body as well. The more muscle groups you work at the same time, the more calories you burn. More compound exercises.
  • It makes you feel bad - Isn't it frustrating to do all this work for one body part, only to realize it isn't working?  When you lose weight, there's no guarantee you'll lose it where you want to.  If you're making progress - Whether it's losing inches, feeling better or getting stronger - that's the gauge to use for success because it may be awhile before your body gets around to losing fat in those stubborn, hard-to-lose areas like the abs and thighs.
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Using bad form with exercises

Paige Waehner

We're all guilty of using bad form from time to time, mostly because the human body has a finely honed instinct: To take the simplest, least painful path from A to Z. If that means swinging the weights during a biceps curl to make it easier or dropping your head during a pushup to avoid pain, your body will try it.

The problem is, bad form not only puts you at risk for injury, it's a sure way to waste time. Every time you use bad form, you take the focus away from what you're working and using other muscles that probably have no business being involved. Like a small child, you constantly have to monitor your body to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to.

How to stop

  • Learn the basics about each exercise - I can't tell you how many times I ask a client, "Where do you feel that?" and they either have no idea or they think they're working muscles that shouldn't even be involved in the exercise. Many of them having been lifting for years and sometimes have no idea what muscles they're supposed to be working. Rather than going through your workout on autopilot, focus on each exercise and learn what muscles you're working and how to do it properly. You can go through my step-by-step exercises for pictures and details of a variety of exercises, visit a pro site like ACE Fitness and go through their extensive Exercise Library or hire a trainer and get one on one instruction.
  • Watch yourself in the mirror - No, the mirror isn't there so you can stare at all your jiggly parts (although it's really hard not to do that, isn't it?). When it comes to strength training, the mirror is your friend. Use it to watch how your body moves through each exercise. You'll find that seeing your body do an exercise is completely different than just feeling your body do it. 
  • Watch out for the Big Five - The exercises I see with the worst form are usually the same ones:
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Forgetting you're not 20 anymore

Pricegrabber/Spike Mafford

When I was 20, I could workout for hours..and that was after staying up all night studying. Okay, I was mostly drinking, but think how much energy you need to work, go to class and exercise with a hangover? These days, an all night bender followed by a two hour workout would put me in a hospital, yet there's this little voice that occasionally peeps out from the back of my mind and says, "Remember how fit you were back then?"

I also remember that I wasn't the brightest bulb at that age. I may have been in shape, but I didn't always do what was best for my body and what we all have to remember, as hard as it is, is that our 20-year-old workouts have no place in a 40-or-50-something-year-old body. That fact usually doesn't stops us from trying and the results include, but aren't limited to:  Injury, incredible soreness, the strong desire to quit and, possibly, a visit to your friendly neighborhood orthopedic hip, knee or back surgeon.

It's hard enough getting older, why make it worse by doing workouts your body just doesn't like anymore?

How to stop

  • Let go of the past - We can't go back and, believe me, I've tried. We all get older, it's just a fact. Doing it gracefully means accepting exactly where your body is right now, not where it used to be.
  • Get to know your current body - We're so focused on losing weight and getting our old body back, we haven't spent much time getting to know the new one. Before jamming your body into a workout program that might not fit, take stock of where you are: Any injuries that need a doctor's attention, aches and pains that need to be addressed or any weaknesses you've noticed lately. Assess where you are - Your general strength, endurance and flexibility - and build your program around that. If you're not sure where to start, this is the perfect time to work with a personal trainer.
  • Find your new limits - So many of my clients live in the past, dreaming about what they used to be able to do and comparing that to what they can do now. It's a battle to stay in the present for all of us, but that's exactly what you have to do if you want to change your body. Forget about how many pushups you used to do...how many can you do now? Can you do more the next time? Forget about the 8 miles you used to run and focus on the walking you're doing now. How fast and far can you go? Is it further than last week? If so, you're already pushing past your limits.
  • Celebrate what you can do - I used to be able to run for hours. Now, I can't run at all because of back problems and that really sucks. But what sucks more is all the negative thinking that kind of attitude generates. My workouts are much more enjoyable when I focus on all the activities I can still do...and there are a lot of them. What about you?

Lying about how much you're eating

Getty Images/Don Farrall

I regularly lie to myself about my eating. It's not because I'm a bad person, it's just that I don't like to think about the bad things I do - Like eating a Hershey's Kiss every time I walk through the kitchen, or drinking an extra glass of wine when I know I shouldn't. In truth, it's not necessarily bad to do those things...but it is contraindicated if my goal is to lose weight. If I'm content with the decision and feel good about it, there's no reason to feel guilty about it or lie about it.

The trouble is, this is the kind of behavior we all engage in when it comes to losing weight. My clients regularly declare their diets are very healthy and they just have no idea why they gained 10 pounds in the past month. That is, until we start looking into the details of their food diaries and find out that it was probably the fact they were drinking three glasses of wine every night rather than just the one they were writing down. Being honest is hard, but being overweight is often harder.

If you want to lose weight and you're not making progress, your eating habits could be the culprit.

How to stop

  • Write it down - The only way to truly know what you're eating is to write it down.  Yes, it's a pain at first, but when you realize how important it is to see and acknowledge what you're eating, it gets a little easier.
  • Be honest - Writing it down only works if you're honest about everything you're eating and drinking.  Many of my clients skip a few details in their food journals out of guilt and shame.  They don't realize that the only way to change bad habits is to know what they are in the first place.
  • Educate yourself - When my client  says she had grilled salmon, red potatoes and green beans, that sounds like a healthy meal.  But what if she had a piece of salmon the size of her head?  Or a giant gob of sour cream and butter on her potatoes? It's easy to lie to ourselves when we don't delve into the details, but that's exactly the information we need if we really want to lose weight.  Learn:
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Lying about your workouts

Getty Images/Medioimages/Photodisc/

Exercise is such a subjective thing, isn't it?  For example, my client *Dave once mentioned that he works 'really hard' at his stationary bike workouts every day.  When I asked how hard, he said he was getting up to 125 beats per minute. 

That was instant information that his idea of hard was nowhere close to mine.  And it wasn't that he was lying, really.  The problem was, some trainer had given him a target heart rate calculation a million years ago, telling him not to go above 125 beats per minute.  Dave never thought about the fact that the workout felt really easy or that he wasn't even breaking a sweat.  It never occurred to him that he could change things, work harder.

And that's something that happens to all of us. It's easy to get confused about how hard we should work and it's even easier to get confused about how many calories we're actually burning.  We have activity calculators, of course, but they're not always accurate and the calorie counts on cardio machines are almost always overestimated.  It's easy to believe you've burned 500 calories in 30 minutes, when you're really only burned around 300.  Stupid lying machines.

How to stop

  • Determine how much exercise you really need to lose weight:  For the record, most of us need 200-300 minutes of exercise each week to lose weight.  That translates to about 30-60 minutes every day of the week, depending on your body type, body composition, fitness level and so on.  I hate to say it, but many of us will need even more exercise to counteract all the sitting we do the rest of the day.
  • Decide if you can really do that much exercise:  We regularly lie to ourselves about how much we'll exercise each week, but we forget important things.  Like the fact that we have jobs and spouses and kids and that we get tired and overwhelmed and that we don't want to miss our favorite TV shows.

    We forget that we need time to get used to all the changes required when starting a workout program.  Everything changes when you start exercising - Your schedule, your priorities, not to mention your body your mind and body.  Look at the reality of your life - Your energy levels, schedule, obligations and so on - and figure out how much time you can really exercise.
  • Set your goal:  Once you're honest about how much you can exercise, match your goal to that amount.  That means you may have to put weight loss to the side and, perhaps, focus on goals that require a little less exercise like getting healthy or preventing more weight gain.  There's nothing wrong with backing off and doing what you're capable of right now.  You can always add more exercise when you're ready for it.
  • Educate yourself:  Do you know what a complete program looks like?  Or how to know how hard you're working?  Do you know about cardio and strength training and how much you need to lose weight?  If not, spend some time answering these questions, either here, elsewhere on the Internet or by working with a personal trainer.  Feeling confident about what you're doing is an important part of showing up every day.
  • Programs to get you started:
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