What does a habits-based approach to physique change look like?

CW: Talk of fat loss and weight loss

The most recent episode of Stronger by Science was all about evidence-based practices to create goals and to establish new, healthy habits. I thought it might be worthwhile and interesting to provide my own examples of these, not from a place of expertise but from a place of humble self-assessment. In some ways, I think I must have fairly high levels of self-efficacy. I seem to be able to change my habits and to tackle challenges with a fair amount of personal resilience and long-term success. However, there are plenty of challenges that I’ve found difficult to address in lasting ways, where I keep spinning my wheels.

In general, on this blog I’m hesitant to talk too much about fat loss and weight, even for myself, because I’m aware that the predominance of that conversation does harm. Folks who have been told their whole lives that they’re not good enough with the body they have bear the brunt of that harm. Women and people of color, people who have trauma, and those who have lived in poverty, all are disproportionately harmed by diet culture, and it’s important to me to avoid contributing to those harms. AND I believe that the only way we meaningfully combat diet culture is by providing counter-narratives. We need to give people something to work towards and build up, not simply something to break down. So, in the spirit of providing a meaningful alternative, in this post I’m going to do something I rarely do: I’m going to talk in specifics about my weight loss and physique goals.

Starting with the big picture, what is the big, overarching identity or values behind my current desire for change? My identities include: bodybuilder; strong, capable, queer woman, willing to push boundaries and to go my own way if it means living a more authentic, true-to-myself life. I am also an educator, activist, and someone with who lives with physical and mental health challenges and disabilities and who works to both honor those boundaries and to not let them hold me back any more than necessary.

Reflection: Coming up with a concrete identity is really hard! It’s so circumstantial. If you were to ask me outside of this blog who I am, I’d say I’m a teacher and only eventually get around to my lifting. But when it comes to my goals, who I want to become, it’s not about my job, it’s about how I balance my work with the rest of my life. It’s about what I want to achieve when I’m following my passions.

Intermediate goals:
(A) Achieve a leaner, more muscular look that I can healthfully sustain. This is really two goals–there’s a muscle-building goal and a body fat goal.
(B) Find a healthy balance between the above goals, work, and mental health. I’d love to be less exhausted and more inspired more often.

Reflection: I’m actually finding this part to be the hardest part to come up with. My brain wants to skip down to the next step–the “what am I actually going to do?” step, but I can see these are useful in defining some intermediate measures of success. It’s worth making clear that my appearance connects to my identities, not just as a bodybuilder, but as a strong, capable, queer woman who wants to present themself authentically.

Subordinate, process-based goals:
A1. Reducing calories to reduce body fat: I am working on reigning in emotional eating right now. Winter is the hardest time of year in terms of managing my PTSD symptoms. I have seasonally-triggered trauma that increases my need for self-soothing. As I am able to do so, I would like to start reducing how often I reach for food when I’m feeling the need for comfort.

Process Goal 1: When I feel an urge to eat when it isn’t a planned mealtime, I will pause and walk myself through my emotional eating flow chart.

Image Description: Emotional Eating Flowchart, beginning with asking myself if I’m hungry when I have an urge to eat and then working my way through to determining what I need–to eat something, to self-soothe, to feel my feelings, or to wait until my next meal.

Process Goal 2: I expect there to be other hurdles to keeping a consistently lower caloric consumption, so this is a place-holder goal–to pay attention to those other ways I eat more than initially planned to be prepared to make adjustments when I notice them.

Other processes I already use to support myself with emotional eating, and to manage my calorie consumption in general, include:

  • Planning my meals mostly in advance and doing meal prep
  • Eating balanced meals with a serving of protein, fat, starchy carbs, and 1-2 cups of fruits and veggies at most meals(1)
  • Paying attention to when I’m hungry and when I’m full. Usually not eating until I’m hungry and stopping when I’m satisfied. For fat loss, I am aiming to be hungry at least 30 minutes, or up to 1 hour before the next mealtime(1)
  • Brushing my teeth and flossing directly after dinner to signal I’m done eating for the day (I have found that I have to be legitimately hungry to feel like it’s worth messing my clean teeth up again)
  • Monotasking and eating mindfully when I’m choosing to eat dessert
  • Maintaining regular physical activity(1)
  • Going to bed early enough to get at least 8 hours of sleep each night(1)
  • Regularly seeing my therapist
  • Regularly scheduling time to connect with friends

A2. Increasing muscle mass: For now, while I’m working on maintaining more of a caloric deficit, the goal needs to be more about maintaining the muscle mass I already have. Once my weight has stabilized, I will switch to a building phase. For now, thought my process goal is:

Process Goal 3: Lift 4 days a week consistently, at least 30 minutes each time, preferably 45 minutes most times.

Process Goal 4: Explore other ways to increase physical activity. I’m not loving my weekly runs right now, so I’m going to reach out to some gyms and see if there’s a self-defense class or some other skill that I can work on developing, separate from lifting weights.

Other process goals I already do that help me to maintain my muscle mass include:

  • Programming my lifts in advance so that I make sure to hit each major movement pattern each week at least once, preferably twice
  • Balancing pushing hard and listening to my body so that I can keep doing the work (doing something when doing everything is too much)
  • Setting my alarm early enough in the morning to fit in a workout before work most days
  • Scheduling my workouts in advance for the week so I can be sure to fit them all in
  • Going to bed early enough to get at least 8 hours of sleep
  • Eating balanced meals with sufficient protein to build and maintain muscle

B: Finding balance
Process Goal 5: Take time at the start of each week to schedule in downtime. Other processes I already do to help reach this goal include:

  • Setting time limits on my devices so I don’t mindlessly lose time playing Candy Crush or flicking through Facebook
  • Setting boundaries with my other commitments. I’ve been especially mindful to ask folks to help me and to delegate more often these days
  • Monotasking when I’m actively trying to relax
  • Journaling before bed each night
  • Making sure to go to bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep
  • Attending regular therapy sessions
  • Regularly scheduling time to connect with friends

Reflection: Well, I knew as I was writing it that process goal 4 isn’t specific enough. I have already reached out to one gym, and I’m waiting to hear back from them. Like the placeholder goal 2, this one is going to need refinement. I also fear that goal number 5 will be difficult to focus on, as my general tendency is to do more not less. My identity as an activist butts up against my identity as a person with health challenges that are deserving of respect and management.

I’m also concerned that this is too many goals to work towards at the same time. My memory is that there is research that says most of us can only work on 1 or 2 changes at a time. So, I think it’s probably best for me to focus on just a couple of these to start with, and I can add in the others as it’s feeling doable and achievable.

Looking over my goals list, I think these meet a lot of the evidence-based criteria that Trex discusses. There’s equifinality and multifinality, they are approach-oriented and encourage a mindset towards flexible restraint, and they are mastery goals.

It is intentional that I never listed a particular calorie target or weight loss goal. I know that this is nearly unheard of in weight loss/fat loss discussions–perhaps you’re asking how can I have a fat loss goal without a target weight or body size? Where’s that pair of “goal jeans,” as one popular podcast ad makes reference? Well, the truth is, I truly don’t have one. I have some idea of where my body size tends to land when my habits are fairly consistent and healthy. I suspect I know about what weight range I will end up at. But, the goal for me isn’t a specific weight or body fat percentage–I want a lean, muscular physique that I can healthfully maintain. So, I will continue to troubleshoot behaviors, reaching with each change to be a bit healthier and more consistent, and when my weight stabilizes, that is my healthiest weight. There will be a point of diminishing returns, or perhaps the next level of personal change will be unsustainable for me or simply more of an interruption to my life than I’m willing to do. And I see it as part of the process to be honest with myself about reaching that point and accepting whatever outcome results. And then I move on to building more muscle and strength!

Well, this has turned into quite the lengthy post. If you’ve stuck with me this far, I hope I’ve given you some examples of process-based goals you can consider for your own physique goals, if you have them. If you have questions, feedback, or want to share your own intentions, I’d love to hear from you!

(1) If you’re at the beginning of this journey, these four processes are identified by many experts as the “big rocks,” the most impactful habit changes for fat loss. Each one could be an intermediate goal that could be broken down into smaller, subordinate goals to work towards mastery. For what it’s worth, it took me most of a year to get pretty consistent with my hunger and satiety, and I still sometimes check in with myself, do a sort of habit-audit to make sure I’m being as consistent as I think I am. It is probably one of the most impactful habits to put into place, but I have also found it to be “slippery”, requiring regular maintenance to stay successful.

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