This post originally appeared in Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

People want to lose weight really fast (myself included). We fantasize about having a flat stomach, a leaner body, in just weeks. Two weeks would be ideal.

Search for “weight loss” in Amazon and you’ll find books that will show you how to “lose weight fast” or in a certain number of weeks, like 8 weeks, 4 weeks, even 2 weeks.

Of course, that’s bunk.

Let’s take a closer look at what it would take to lose weight in 4 weeks:

  • About 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese, and have more than 20 lbs. to lose. If you’re trying to lose 20 lbs. in 4 weeks, that’s 5 lbs. a week. But for most people, it’s much better to lose 1-2 lbs. per week than 3-5 lbs.
  • A big drop in weight (like 10 lbs. in the first two weeks) often happens if you drastically change your diet. Most of this is water weight — only a few of those 10 lbs. will be actual fat. This water weight is deceiving, because 1) it’s unsustainable, because after the first couple weeks you won’t lose much water weight and your rate of weight loss will drop to a more sustainable 1-2 lbs. per week, which will be disappointing if you hoped to keep losing weight that fast, and 2) the water weight comes back on really quickly if you change your diet back later.
  • What you’re really doing is going on a short-term drastic diet (and probably some intense exercise) but in your mind, you’re only doing it for 4 weeks, and you think you just need to get through this short-term suffering in order to achieve the weight loss. This is wrong. You’ll lose weight, then go back to your old habits, and then gain the weight back and more.

So losing a lot of weight in 4 weeks is possible, but it’s more sustainable to lose it slowly, and to build long-term habits, and much of the weight you lose is water weight that will come right back on when you return to old habits.
And so, losing weight fast is a bad idea.
What’s a better way? Changing your actual eating and exercise habits, which is much harder than most people realize. Let’s take a look at me as a case study.

Leo’s 7-Year Weight Loss Story

Calling it my “weight loss story” is deceiving, because this story really isn’t about weight. It’s about changing old habits.
I started off about 60 lbs. heavier than I am now, and I had years of bad eating and exercise habits. I ate lots of meat, junk food, sweets, fast food, party food, and drank soda, beer, fatty coffee drinks and more. And I almost never did active stuff. But that’s just the start of my health habits, as it turns out.
Here’s what happened:

  1. I started by quitting smoking. This taught me a lot about habits, and got the ball rolling down the road to becoming healthier.
  2. I started running to relieve stress. If you relieve stress by smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthy food, you’ll need to find a healthier stress coping habit. Running became that habit for me, though now I have others: meditation, socializing in a healthy way, drinking tea, and various thinking habits.
  3. I could barely run, and so I started small and progressed gradually.
  4. I learned that quitting smoking and running made me feel healthy and great, but eating junk food made me feel worse. So I started trying to eat healthier food, which meant learning to eat vegetables. I didn’t like it much at first, but I learned to like veggies, and now I love them. This taught me that by gradually introducing healthy foods, I could train my tastebuds and learn to like things I didn’t like at first. I’ve now done this with dozens of foods.
  5. I became vegetarian. This cut out a ton of unhealthy fatty meats that I was eating, and I ate more vegetables instead. I missed the meats at first, but soon learned that I didn’t need them anymore. I started losing a good amount of weight at this point — maybe 30 lbs. in my first year.
  6. I ran a marathon. This took a year of building up my mileage. I was still overweight at this point, but definitely lighter.
  7. I started eating fewer sweets. This is a weak point for me, as I love sweets and still indulge now and then. It’s been a long road of learning why I eat sweets, and eating other things instead (fruits, especially berries, and a little dark chocolate are my favorites — also some raisins or dried cranberries).
  8. I learned to eat healthier snacks. Fruits and nuts, veggies and hummus, salads.
  9. I started to learn other ways to be active, like riding bikes, swimming, playing sports, lifting weights. One at a time.
  10. I learned that doing activities with others, like my wife, kids, sister, friends, was more fun and motivating. I learned about using challenges to keep myself motivated and to make active-ness more fun.
  11. I developed social coping skills so I could be a vegetarian in the midst of meat eaters and unhealthy friends/relatives.
  12. I learned to watch myself eating when I was eating socially. This is still something I’m working on, as it’s not a habit you face every day.
  13. I learned to eat healthier at restaurants.
  14. In the 2nd year of fitness, I did a couple of short triathlons (I was just a beginner really). In my 3rd year I did a couple more marathons.
  15. I became vegan, gradually. I’ve only been 100% vegan for about 5 months now, but was 95% vegan for a couple years.
  16. I learned to eat fewer processed grains, fewer convenience foods, less sugar.
  17. Last year I finally dropped sugar from my coffee.
  18. I started building a little muscle, slowly, in the last few years, through weights.
  19. I backtracked a bunch of times, overeating during travel or social occasions, gaining fat. Then I’d set a little challenge for myself and lose fat again.

This is just the broad strokes overview, actually. Learning what habits I’d developed over the years was the big part, and then slowly changing them one by one, has been the main process. Again, I’ve backtracked a number of times, but watching myself do that has been a learning process, and learning to get back on track with healthy habits even after I slipped up has been a great skill to learn.
It hasn’t been a linear progression. I’ve gone up and down, learned a lot along the way, and am still changing my habits. Today I am happy with my body, and fairly lean for my age. I don’t look like an underwear model, but I don’t feel like I need to, and am really happy with my healthy habits. This is where I should be, and if I keep an eye on my habits, I’m likely to stay this way for years.

So You Want to Form Lean Habits

Give up the idea of quick weight loss, and focus on building sustainable habits. Yes, it will take longer, but it will also last longer. Yes, it will take some work, but it’s fun, and you learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Start with a really easy habit. Just a small step, like drinking more water or eating a fruit a day or going for a short walk (or walk/run if that’s too easy) or doing a few pushups. You’ll learn about forming habits as you do so.
  • Stick with easy habits for awhile, and if you’re successful at them, then you can gradually progress. You’ll be amazed at how much you can progress — I couldn’t exercise for 10 minutes when I started, but in 2011 I completed the GoRuck Challenge, which was 13 hours of hard exercise.
  • Watch yourself as you eat. Why are you eating? What need are you fulfilling? Can you find a healthier replacement habit?
  • Change your tastebuds. Most people think things like, “I can’t give up meat” or “I hate vegetables” or “I could never give up ____” (cheese, sweets, chocolate, pizza, etc.). I’m not asking you to give it up, but if you really want to learn the habits of being lean, change your tastebuds to healthier things. Eat a vegetable every day — before long, you’ll like it. Try brown rice instead of white, or whole grains instead of white flour, or fruits instead of sweets, or tempeh instead of meat, or quinoa or kale or dark chocolate or chard. They’re all delicious, if you give them a chance.
  • Make activity a social thing. Do something fun with other people. Join a running club. Walk with your spouse. Get your coworkers to join a challenge. Be accountable to each other.
  • Sign up for a race or other fitness challenge.
  • Learn to socialize without eating unhealthy things.
  • Learn healthy strategies for when you go to a social gathering or restaurant or travel.
  • When you fail, forgive yourself, and learn. Get better. Keep doing it.
  • Be proud of little progress. Enjoy the journey. I mean every single step — don’t keep your eye on the end goal, but on where you are, and how amazing it is.

That should get you started. If you do those things for a few years, you’ll know what else you need to do by then.
Good luck, my friends. This journey might be longer than a sprint, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. If you set yourself down this path, you are one of the courageous, the joyous, the lucky.

SEE ALSO: Seven Little Known Tips for Getting in Shape

Featured photo credit: Bodybuilding. Strong man and a woman posing on a black background via Shutterstock

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