I hear the TV fitness guru shouting, “Fire those abs!” and “5,4,3,2,1…what time is it? Booty time!” and I think perhaps I should be exercising with my husband rather than parking myself in front of my laptop. Ironically, I’m working on this very article.

For Americans, the struggle against weight gain has increased steadily for the last 40 years. A number of cultural, social and industrial changes collided to whip up this perfect storm of fat. The after math is an explosion of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. The Grim Reaper no longer brandishes a scythe. Instead he offers a tray of super sized processed foods and sugary beverages.

Get Committed

Commitment is the answer. Not the kind that comes with a straitjacket (although that might be a great way to jump start weight loss!) The reality is that fat doesn’t just fall from the sky like rain. Weight gain is usually the result of many conscious and unconscious choices, such as choosing a cinnamon roll over oatmeal for breakfast or mindlessly gobbling a whole box of Junior Mints (guilty!) while watching a movie.

“Life is made of little choices…” My husband likes to say this, and as much as I roll my eyes at him, it’s true. Stemming the weight gain tide requires a conscious and serious commitment to yourself. Enveloping yourself in an umbrella of healthy thinking will help you make better decisions, from skipping the afternoon vending machine visit to turning off the TV and going for a walk.

To that end, there are some small changes you can make in your thinking, routine and diet that can be the key to opening the door to long term weight loss.

1. Change your thinking

Self talk can be your greatest ally or worst enemy. Identify the things you’re telling yourself that cause you to feel discouraged. Don’t beat yourself up when you overeat. Accept that you acted in a self defeating way, then establish better methods to meet your goal. Review what you’d like to do — for example, “Feel good in a bathing suit.” — and work toward that goal. After you’ve thrown out your irrational thinking, it’s important to identify what motivates you. Psychologist and marathon runner Michael Gilewski has found the brain can achieve a state of habitual behavior through small successes, turning a once extraordinary effort into mere routine. “Even when someone climbs Mount Everest, it’s usually not his first time climbing,” he points out. Perhaps motivation may simply be the product of positive reinforcement and repeated success.

In addition to positive self messaging, Peter Catina, a professor of exercise physiology at Pennsylvania State University, says to “think like a thermostat.” He says everyone must have both physical and mental discipline to make changes and reach the next level.

“Self-regulation is key; you can make it simple by being your own monitor. You have to think like a thermostat — be able to detect a discrepancy between the environment and your internal standard,” says Catina. “It’s the difference between your current state and where your mind and body would like to be. You can then adjust — raise your standards to meet your expectations — through strategy and action.” Although some of us are born with high self regulatory skills, all of us can learn them. Awareness is the first step: noting how many calories you’ve consumed, how effective your exercise is, how frequently and intensely you’ve exercised.

2. Write it down

Most successful weight loss and weight maintenance programs have a food journal component. By writing down what you eat, you’re forced to acknowledge what and how much you’re consuming. Do you really want to have to own up to a whole pint of ice cream? It makes you think twice about eating something when you know you have to record it. Even if you’re not ready to commit to keeping a food diary for the rest of your life, at least try it for a week or so. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to change your eating habits — how can you know what you need to change if you’re not truly aware of what you’re doing now?

Just jot down the foods you eat, how much you eat, and, whenever possible, why you’re eating (such as boredom, hunger, meeting friends). If you keep it truthfully, your food diary will give you clear answers to questions you’ve probably been asking yourself for years. Once you do so for a few days, you’ll find that using a food diary makes you more likely to commit to the lifestyle changes that you need to make in order to lose weight and keep it off.

There are a number of free services and downloads online to help you get started. Or if you have a smart phone, you can download an app you can use to record food and beverages, calculate calories and even make smart choices at restaurants.

3. Say goodbye to soda and hello to water

Soda isn’t just bad for your overall health, it also affects what you see in the mirror. Research shows those who drank one or more soft drinks a day had a 31 percent greater risk of becoming obese. Dieters who replace sugary drinks with water lose an extra five pounds a year, and those who drink two more cups of water a day increase weight loss by two pounds a year, suggested a study presented in 2006 at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society. “Drinking water can help you lose weight, partially because you are replacing some calories, and there may be additional reasons related to the total volume of water that we don’t understand,” says lead researcher Jodi Stookey of Children’s Hospital and Oakland Research Institute in California. When you are trying to lose weight, it’s easy to change the beverages you drink, says Barry Popkin, nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “It doesn’t matter if you drink bottled water or tap water: Just drink more water. It’s a powerful way to cut weight,” he urges. Adults haven’t changed their water intake over the past decade, but they are drinking about 20 more ounces a day of caloric beverages. “This is the major cause of our overall caloric increase during this period, and it’s clearly linked with the increase of obesity,” he notes. An abstract by Dr. Brenda Davy, associate professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise at Virginia Tech, showed that people who drank two glasses of water 20 to 30 minutes before every meal lost weight more quickly initially and lost significantly more weight than those who didn’t.

In another study by Davy and her group, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, she found that people who drank water before meals ate an average of 75 fewer calories at that meal. This may not seem like much, but if you ate 75 fewer calories at lunch and dinner for the next year, you could lose about 14 pounds! In addition, being even 1 percent dehydrated can cause a significant drop in metabolism, which can also interfere with weight loss.

Finally, it is very difficult for the body to differentiate hunger from thirst. If you don’t drink enough water throughout the day, you may mistake thirst for hunger and eat more than you really need, which can also impair weight loss. So staying well hydrated is important, particularly if you’re trying to lose weight. And don’t forget to eat lots of water based foods like soups, vegetables and low fat dairy, which are equally important for weight loss, as they lower the calorie density of meals. That can help you reduce calories without reducing portions.

4. Exercise, exercise, exercise

It is an inescapable fact of our modern life that we must exercise on a regular basis to control weight. Evolution has collided with our sedentary world, making our fat hoarding genes a less desirable trait than they were when we were nomadic tribes hunting for food for days on end. Weight loss is all about calories in and calories out. Losing weight and keeping it off is all about acquiring healthy habits, the most important being eating healthfully and working your body each day. “Making anything a habit — from exercise to eating right — is a matter of having enough ‘want power,’” says Palma Posillico, who is vice president of training and development for Weight Watchers International. “Life gets in the way, so unless you do something proactively, it’s very easy to make excuses.”
She says one strategy for acquiring a new habit is to imagine the benefits of that habit. In the case of exercise, picture yourself in great shape. This will help inspire you.

Here are some other tricks to make exercise a habit:

Find a buddy — With three young children in the house, it’s hard to get away for a run or workout at the gym. My husband and I have been doing workout videos. When I don’t work out with him, he says it’s hard for him to stay motivated. Tip: Try to choose a buddy who is in about the same shape as you. Make it achievable — Signing up for a marathon right away may not be the way to go if you haven’t been exercising regularly. It’s great to set a goal, but start slowly and set your sights on achievable goals each day, such as going for a 20 minute walk or doing a 30 minute workout video or even chasing the kids in the yard after dinner. The video program I do encourages you to “just push play.” Now that I can definitely do!

Choose exercise you like — Running might be a great way to burn calories, but if you hate it, there’s no way you’re going to stick with it. Choose some kind of physical activity that you enjoy and that works with your lifestyle and schedule. If you try something consistently for three weeks and it’s not working for you, give yourself permission to try something new — but whatever you do, keep that commitment to yourself to do some kind of intense physical activity each day.

You can do it!

Try making just four small changes in your thinking, routine, diet and exercise — with a little bit of patience and ‘want power,’ you’ll achieve your weight loss goals.