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How Self-Regulation Can Improve Your Weight Loss
Introduction to Self-Regulation
Self-regulation in broad terms describes the different processes by which people pursue and achieve goals . It also expands to include the management of behaviour, thoughts, feelings, attention and environment in relation to the desired goal . Therefore, self-regulation is a process that looks to align an individuals behaviours / actions with their aspired goals  In the context of weight loss, self-regulation refers to the various behaviours involved in achieving the weight loss goal.
A fundamental aspect of self-regulation models is focused on bridging the behaviour-intention gap. That is, bridging the space between intending to perform the required behaviours necessary to achieve one’s goal (i.e. exercise, diet) and actually performing these behaviours. In other words, self-regulation assumes that people generally possess sufficient knowledge to perform required behaviours, and is instead focused on how that knowledge is transferred into action . Also, self-regulation models are focused on understanding why individuals who know exactly what they must do to lose weight, still do not do so .
If knowledge of the best behavioural actions to lose weight is alone insufficient for weight loss success, attention should be appropriately shifted to the psychological factors that lead people to lose weight and keep this weight off. Although self-regulation models may vary in their specific mechanisms, most models explain self-regulation as a process that involves: goal setting, self-monitoring, evaluation of progress, and forming coping plans to make behavioural adjustments . This article will examine the research relating to self-regulation in weight loss and the describe the key self-regulatory skills in the context of weight loss and successful eating behaviour.
Impact of Self-regulation on Weight Loss
Research shows the potential for self-regulatory skills to enhance the likelihood of successful weight loss and maintenance [1, 10, 11, 14]. Multiple studies demonstrate that self-regulatory skills training (e.g. self-monitoring, coping strategies), may counteract the many factors influencing weight loss, weight maintenance, and dietary lapse occurrence [1, 10, 11, 14].
Anessi and colleagues (2016) found that subjects achieved a significantly greater amount of weight loss over 6- and 24-months when exercise support was combined with self-regulation training . In their study, women with obesity were randomised to ether a experimental group who received exercise guidance and self-regulatory skills training or a comparison group who received a printed weight management manual . Self-regulatory skills training included long and short-term goal setting, progress monitoring, cognitive restructuring, stimulus control, dissociation from discomfort, behavioural contracting, controlling behavioural prompts and triggers, and release prevention . Over the study period, the treatment group experienced mean weight loss of 5.7kg over 6-months, which was largely maintained over the entire study period (Figure 1) . This was compared to a mean weight loss of 2kg in the comparison group by 6-months, which regressed to 1.2Kg by the end of the study (Figure 1) .
Another study published in the Journal of Behaviour Medicine (2014) showed that self-regulation training resulted in significant weight loss over an 8-week intervention period . In this study, individuals randomised to a self-regulation training group were taught to apply six self-regulatory skills that included delayed gratification, thought-control, self-monitoring, goal setting, mindfulness, and coping . Subjects randomised to an advice group were given dietary and physical activity advice for weight loss . After 8-weeks, mean weight loss in the self-regulation group was 2.3kg, which was maintained over a 12-week follow-up, compared with a mean weight loss of 1.4kg in the advice group (Figure 2) .
Self-regulatory skills training that included goal setting, self-monitoring, and planning have also been shown to be more effective for weight loss compared with general health and weight loss recommendations . Over 6-months, individuals that were encouraged to self-monitor their weekly weight and post their diet and exercise online via Facebook achieved greater weight loss (5.54kg) compared with recommendations for weight loss and general health alone (0.65kg) . In this study, changes in self-monitoring and self-regulation scores were significantly associated with weight loss over the study period .
Key Features of Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is a complex process that encompasses the operation of a number of different mechanisms. Multiple self-regulatory factors have been identified in the literature as being associated with weight loss success. These include: goal setting, self-monitoring, delayed gratification, and coping strategies.
Goal Setting in Self-Regulation
Self-regulation starts with the adoption of a goal, which are “mental representations of desired outcomes to which people are committed .” Goals are said to have an impact on performing behaviours through four mechanisms: Goals 1) direct attention and efforts towards activities that align with the desired goal, 2) excite and energise the goal-setter to increase his or her effort, 3) enhance persistence, and 4) facilitate the creation of goal-attainment strategies .
Goal setting involves determining which objectives one wishes to pursue and the criteria for determining successful attainment . While goal setting relates to the desired end state, goal striving entails planning and executing actions that lead to goal attainment as well as protecting those goals from being disrupted . Goals have multiple characteristics that include the motivational orientation (approach or avoidance), difficulty level (easy or challenging), proximity (short- or long-term), and the level of specificity (concrete versus abstract) . Research shows that goals should not be overly ambitions, yet there is evidence showing that even unrealistic goals may inspire the goal pursuit .
Importantly, goal striving relies on clarity in knowing what one needs to do to achieve his or her goal (planning) and when one should act to attain his or her goal (execution) . SMART goals, which call for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely may help provide this clarity in goal striving . Also, implementation intentions have been show to be useful for dictating when and where the behaviour will occur. For example, “I will got to the gym at 7.30am on Tuesday and Thursday to exercise for 35 minutes. ’”
Self-Monitoring in Self-Regulation
Self-monitoring is a key behaviour in self-regulation that involves purposeful attention to one’s behaviour and documenting or recording details of that behaviour . For example, recording a workout or keeping and food diary. “Self-monitoring precedes self-evaluation of progress made towards one’s goal and self-reinforcement for the progress made .” Behaviour change requires that adequate attention be placed on an individual’s actions as well as the conditions under which these actions occur and their acute and long-term effects . Self-monitoring is said to not only heighten awareness of one’s actions, but increase one’s accountability and responsibility of these actions . Given this, successful self-regulation is greatly determined by the truthfulness, consistency, and timelines of self-monitoring in relation to the performed, targeted behaviour .
In a systematic review by Burke and colleagues (2011) that evaluated the impact of self-monitoring strategies for weight loss, all 22 studies included in the review supported the association between self-mentoring and weight loss . Specifically, the authors found that self-monitoring that was more frequent and consistent were associated with greater weight loss . Methods for self-monitoring utilised in the reviewed studies ranged from written food diaries and photos of meals, to technological applications that logged in food, weight, and/or exercise . Additional research by Butryn and colleagues (2007) supported the use of self-monitoring for weight loss, finding that more frequent weighing led to significantly greater weight loss and a lower body mass index .
Delayed Gratification in Self-Regulation
Delayed gratification refers to the ability to resist an immediate gain or pleasure for a greater, later reward. The way people think about their behaviours can change dramatically over time . For example, when thinking about one’s distant future physique, dieting may bring about thoughts of looking better, feeling more confident, and receiving compliments. However, when the future moves to present-time and one needs to restrict calories and wants to indulge in high calorie dense food, dieting then brings about feelings of reluctance, disinterest, and inconvenience. This change in how an individual thinks and understand events over time is referred to as a change in construal .
Research suggests that changing one’s construal of immediate health behaviours to a more distanced, delayed perspective promotes stronger goal-directed behaviour . A study by Hindle and Carpenter (2011) that explored the experiences and perceptions of women who have maintained weight loss showed that the studied women had changed their approach from previous to adopt a more distanced perspective that viewed weight loss as a long-term venture . The women in this study reported that they now viewed their weight loss journey as “way of life…not just a diet” .
It is said that construal of immediate behaviour highlight the concrete, unique features of that event (i.e. the taste of cake, smell of french fries), whereas distant thinking places more attention on the abstract, goal-relevant feature (i.e. how eating too much cake or french fries leads to weight gain) . Simply adopting delayed gratification appears to change the way one thinks about their immediate behaviours in helping to relate and align one’s immediate behaviours to their longer-term goal .
Coping Strategies in Self-Regulation
Coping strategies help individuals identify barriers to goal-attainment and plan ways to overcome these barriers . Therefore, for each barrier to weight loss there is a specific action plan. Research demonstrates that coping plans are associated with both successful weight loss and preventing weight regain . Results form a study by Carels and colleagues (2004) showed that coping responses were one of the primary factors that distinguished resisting temptation from lapse occurrence . In their study, subjects that used coping plans (e.g. self encouragement about the benefit of dieting), experienced fewer dietary lapses compared with individuals who did not apply coping strategies .
Another study by Grilo and colleagues showed that subjects who performed at least one coping response (e.g. thinking about the benefits of dieting, performing an alternative behaviour), improved their weight loss success . In their study, when subjects reported using either cognitive (non-observable mental activity) or behavioural (visible activity) coping strategies, they reported overcoming temptations to overeat during mealtime situations, under emotional upsets (e.g. anger, anxiety, depression), and when eating alone . Conversely, every subject that did not utilise coping strategies experienced a lapse in weight . Successful weight maintainers, which describes individuals who have lost at least 10% of their initial weight and kept it off for at least one year, are found to employ active coping skills that help them better deal with stressful situations and challenging life events that may jeopardise their weight maintenance.
Dohm and colleagues (2001) published a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that examined the contribution of coping strategies to successful weight maintenance . Subjects that were classified as weight maintainers differed significantly from weight regainers in their use of coping strategies . Weight maintainers dealt with dietary lapses with varying coping skills such as watching food intake more carefully, increasing exercise, or thinking about dietary lapses as small mistakes . The authors indicated that their results suggest “that the way dieters cope with inevitable dietary lapses may be the best predictor of weight loss maintenance. ”
Self-regulation, which refers to the many processes involved in goal-directed behaviour, is shown to be highly relevant aligning one’s behaviours to their goals. Within self-regulation, a number of skills have been associated with successful weight loss and eating behaviour. Goal setting is a self-regulatory skill easily incorporated into weight loss pursuits. Goal setting involves determining the desired objective (e.g. weight loss) and the specific criteria for determining success. Goal striving (e.g. planning and performing behaviours) relies on knowing exactly what behaviours to perform and when. Self-regulation theories also emphasise self-monitoring in the process of goal attainment. Self-monitoring is viewed as central to process of changing habits and of evaluating progress made towards one’s goal and successful self-regulation is largely determined by self-monitoring . Furthermore, the skill of forgoing immediate pleasure or gain (e.g. eating cake) for long-term reward (e.g. weight loss) is viewed as an important self-regulatory skill exhibited by successful weight maintainers. Delaying one’s gratification for longer-term benefit can help enhance dietary self-control and positively alter the mindset of the dieter. Finally, weight maintainers are consistency shown to apply coping strategies to overcome inevitable dietary lapses. Acquiring effective cognitive and behavioural coping skills that combat weight loss barriers such as time restraints, lack of motivation, and inconsistency are likely essential to overcoming events that may disrupt goal attainment. The application of the above mentioned skills, and potentially additional self-regulatory factors like mindfulness and thought control, may help provide individuals with the tools to successfully cope with the multitude of challenges in weight loss and help reduce lapse occurrence.
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