Behavioral Activation When Trying to Lose Weight

The benefits of behavioral activation in depressive disorders are known. However, how could it benefit processes that involve adopting new and healthy habits?
Behavioral Activation When Trying to Lose Weight

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Most people use behavioral activation in certain mood disorders such as depression. However, this type of strategy aimed at increasing the repertoire of behaviors may have more benefits. For example, in the field of psychonutrition, behavioral activation can be a valuable tool to achieve weight loss.

Both psychologists and nutritionists play an equally important role in guiding patients to improve their BMI (body mass index). It’s very true that acquiring new habits requires constant effort. Nevertheless, behavioral activation can serve as a support tool.

Behavioral activation: what is it exactly?

Behavioral activation uses the individual’s context and experience to study the functions of their behavior in the present moment. When it comes to adopting healthy habits for a new lifestyle, such as, for example, a weight loss process, it can help the individual to incorporate new ways of proceeding to their behavioral repertoire.

Now, the basic structure of a behavioral activation program is based on, as the name suggests, mere activation. Think about it for a second: not all behaviors are motivating. We all know this. However, doing them may be necessary to achieve long-term results.

In other words, resorting to behaviors that help a person adopt necessary habits isn’t easy and doesn’t usually motivate. Actually, the motivation tends to come later, once the individual conducts the behavior a few times.

In short, behavioral activation makes a person work from the outside in. The motivation comes in once the process is being carried out. This technique looks to break down activities. This way, it increases the person’s odds of setting certain behaviors.

How to implement behavioral activation in a weight loss process

Firstly, self-registration is vital, since this can help the professional learn about the person’s lifestyle. In turn, it’s essential to collect other key data to initiate behavioral activation.

The presence of a nutritionist (or nutrition technician) is greatly relevant since the process of initiating healthy habits and maintaining a healthy weight must also be relegated to the professional responsible for nutrition knowledge.

Also, evaluating the person’s abilities is also of special interest. The reason for this is that it helps shape the first steps that bring them closer to their goals. Once the individual’s competencies and abilities are clear, it’s all good to go.

To do this, it’s important to set small steps that can bring them closer to their goals, little by little. This way, changes are introduced slowly but steadily. This keeps the person from being bored or feeling frustrated with the process.

A man at the nutritionist.

Benefits of behavioral activation in weight loss processes

Dividing the activities the individual will carry out allows them to obtain positive reinforcement more often. It’s also worth mentioning that this process can be long and overwhelming. For that reason, dividing each challenge is important since it gives a more organized feeling to the process. As a result, it can help the person fulfill their goals in an easier way. It also helps them add these new habits to their daily lives.

Among the benefits of behavioral activation, we can highlight the following:

  • For one, it gives the person a sense of competence (they feel as if they can do anything they set their mind to).
  • Additionally, it increases the person’s motivation once they achieve their goal.
  • Also, it helps the person develop new skills that they perhaps didn’t think they could ever get.
  • Finally, it works the individual’s thoughts and emotions. No matter how negative they may get, it helps the individual stay focused on their goal.

Activities you can increase or teach in a weight loss program

We know that it’s common for a person to set unrealistic goals when deciding to undergo a weight loss program or maintain a healthy weight. For example, when a person who doesn’t usually exercise decides to run 10 miles the day they begin training, they’ll only end up disappointed. They’re basically setting themselves up for failure.

Moreover, setting unrealistic goals can create a feeling of discomfort and frustration. The person may think that they aren’t qualified when, in reality, the problem lies in the plan they came up with.

A woman feeling frustrated while working out.

Performing desired behaviors in a short time vs. realistic goals

Behavioral activation helps acquire healthy habits. With this, the person who wants to change must make small modifications to their routine (without their goals exceeding their capacity). We can see this in the following examples:

  • A person who’s embarrassed to go to the gym because they don’t know what exercise routine to do. They believe they only know exercises to do for 20 minutes. At the same time, those 20 minutes seem insufficient to achieve their goal. With behavioral activation, they could start exercising during those 20 minutes, gradually expanding them with new exercises. It’s about doing, getting going, and looking for intrinsic motivation.
  • Someone who decides to change their eating habits but doesn’t have enough cooking skills. Behavioral activation could start with the organization of the shopping cart, avoiding a certain percentage of ultra-processed foods.
  • A person who’s interested in exercising outdoors but is afraid that others may laugh at them for being clumsy. In this case, behavioral activation could start with short walks.

If the person carried out the intended behavior directly (going to the gym for an hour, not eating ultra-processed foods and cooking, going for a run…), without intermediate behaviors and activation, they’ll most likely give up the first day. Without a doubt, this shows the importance of going little by little.

In short, behavioral activation not only helps to carry out certain activities that weren’t done previously but also establishes the behaviors that are desired in the long term.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Herrero, G. & Andrades, C.(2019). Psiconutrición. Editorial Arcopress (3 edición) (2019).
  • Martel,C.R., Dimidjan,S. & Herman – Dum, R. Activación conductual para la depresión: una guía clínica. Desclée de Brower (2013)

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.