These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting some new diet plan, app or gadget that promises to help you get in the best shape of your life with minimal effort.
But as much as we’d all love to pop a few pills or strap on a toning belt instead of eating less and exercising more, the fact of the matter is that getting and staying fit is hard work. Fortunately, though there are ways to make sure your efforts pay off in the long run.
Over the years researchers have uncovered a number of nifty tricks to help you get closer to your fitness goals without counting calories or following complicated exercise routines. So, if getting fit is one of your resolutions this year, here are ten more effective ways to make it happen.
- Set bigger goals
When it comes to weight loss we’re often advised to set small “realistic” goals, with the reasoning that we may become discouraged and give up if we fail to reach them within the timeframe we set for ourselves.
However, a study carried out by researchers in the Netherlands found that people who set higher weight loss goals actually put more effort into reaching them and lost more weight within a two-month period than those who had set lower weight loss goals.
Of course, no one size fits all when it comes to weight loss and what works for one person may not be the best option for you. But if you’ve always set ‘doable’ fitness goals for yourself and just aren’t seeing the dramatic results you’d like, it might be time to set your sights higher.
- Slow it down
Research shows that it can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you feel full after eating. This is because the brain needs to receive signals from stretch receptors in the stomach, which are activated when it fills with food, and also from digestive hormones in the gastrointestinal tract.
This whole process takes some time, so if you shovel down an entire meal in under ten minutes you’re far more likely to overeat than if you take your time to savor the food and chew each mouthful slowly.
If you’ve finished your meal and still feel hungry, make a point of waiting a few minutes before going for a second helping, as your brain may simply need more time to register that you’ve eaten enough.
- Use smaller plates
How much we eat actually has very little to do with how hungry we are, as evidenced by a Cornell study that used ‘bottomless bowls’ to determine whether visual cues influence how much we eat.
Half of the participants were served in bowls that were secretly refilled as they ate through a tube under the table, while the other half ate their soup from regular bowls. Those eating from the self-refilling bowls ended up eating 73% more soup, but surprisingly, they did not feel any fuller or believe they had eaten more than the participants who had used regular bowls.
The researchers explain that the amount of food on a plate or in a bowl provides us with a visual cue that influences how much we consume.
When you have a larger plate, you’ll not only load on more food, but also feel the need to keep eating until you’ve cleared your plate. So using smaller plates and bowls can help you cut down on the amount of calories you consume without even missing them.
- Change what you see
Since visual cues are so powerful, what you see around you will have a big impact on the choices you make. If you have a jar of candy sitting on your desk, the temptation to snack on it will be far greater than if it was shut away in a cupboard. Similarly, if you have fruits and vegetables in plain sight, you’ll be more likely to snack on them instead of junk food.
A Today News experiment led by Cornell researcher Brian Wansink showed that the order in which food is served also influences your food choices.
Two groups of people were invited to enjoy a free buffet, and although the food was the same for both groups, it was arranged in a different order. When the fruit and salad had been laid out at the beginning of the buffet rather than at the end, people served themselves more of the healthy food.
So even if you don’t cut certain foods completely from your diet, starting your meals with a healthier item like a salad or piece of fruit will help you make better choices overall.
- Work harder and less frequently
If you find it hard to set aside time to exercise every day, you may be pleased to learn that brief periods of strenuous exercise just twice a week can be very effective too.
Researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario developed a high intensity interval training program that required participants to exercise at about 90% of their heart for one minute followed by one minute of easy recovery. This process was repeated 10 times, bringing the total exercise time to 20 minutes.
After several weeks of following this program for two days each week, the volunteers showed significant improvements in their health and fitness. So if you’re willing to work harder when you do have time to exercise, you may not need to devote as much time to it as you think.
- Implement immediate consequences
Although there are long term consequences for unhealthy eating or a lack of exercise, we tend to pay more attention to actions that have immediate consequences. Skipping your work out or having a hot dog for lunch won’t have any immediate repercussions, so it’s easier to ignore the fact that you’re breaking your resolve to eat better or exercise more.
With this in mind, implementing some sort of penalty for bad behavior will make you more likely to stick to your commitments. A Stanford study shows that commitment contracts can help people stick to their commitments in situations where there are upfront costs, but the benefits are delayed.
For instance, a contract that requires you to pay X amount of money to a friend if you skip your scheduled work out will make it more costly to do so and will increase your likelihood of sticking with the fitness program you’ve chosen.
The researchers also note that longer contracts (of more than 8 weeks) tend to be more effective, because it takes some time to get past the initial experience of displeasure and recognize the longer term benefits.
- Reward yourself
In the same way that we’re more likely to pay attention to the short term consequences of our actions, we’re also more likely to feel motivated to do something if the payoff is immediate. Obviously, one work out or day of ‘clean eating’ isn’t going to pay off immediately, but you can find other ways to reward yourself for good behavior.
According to research from the University of California, Santa Barbara, incentives are very effective in encouraging the development of good habits, and in one study, people who were paid to go to the gym doubled their attendance rate.
While it might be hard to find someone who will pay you to work out or eat right, you can “pay” yourself in other ways. For example, after a good work out session you could allow yourself some downtime to watch an episode of your favorite TV series or get a massage.
After a while, your brain will begin to recognize the workout itself as the reward and you won’t even need these little incentives. But while you’re still forming good habits, rewarding yourself can help you stay on track.
Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges. She covers career development, workplace productivity and self-improvement. You can connect with her on Twitter and Google+, or find her latest articles here.