Introduction

If you're ever worried you might not make weight or pass your fitness test, this guide's got you.

What makes this weight-loss guide different from other tools? It encourages you to look at how different aspects of your life contribute to your weight and overall health in ways you might not expect.

For example, eating an apple instead of a piece of cake might seem like an obvious choice when you want to lose weight. But consider other factors beyond diet: What kinds of social settings are you in? Are you feeling more stressed or anxious than usual? Are you getting enough sleep?

How it works

This guide contains 5 challenges. Start with Challenge 1 so you can set up a few things as a baseline. Then feel free to skip around and take on challenges as you like. You might want to improve just one or 2 areas rather than all 5. Or you might prioritize one challenge over another.

There’s no specific timeline to complete the challenges, but 3 months is a good place to start. You’ll be prompted to set your goals and timelines as you go.

You’ll also want to use the “Check-in” section. It’s between Challenges 3 and 4 but meant to be used at whatever points you want. That way you can assess how you’re feeling and make adjustments as needed.

Bottom line

Healthy, sustainable weight loss isn’t just about diet and exercise or quick fixes. Find out how you can optimize various factors that affect your health, so you can reach peak performance.

Use the links below to visit the Challenges (and the Check-in page) and get on your way to a healthy weight.

CHALLENGE 1: Assess your habits

Your first challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to assess your current health habits as they relate to sleep, stress, exercise, and diet. The rest of the challenges can be completed in any order, but it’s important to start with this one. You’ll be able to use this workbook more effectively—and ultimately achieve your weight-loss goals—if you first identify your strengths and areas for improvement and then set a solid goal.

The first part of Challenge 1 is to record your habits for a week. Use the habits tracking sheet in the Tasks section below to record 4 things every day for one week:

  • How many hours of sleep did you get last night? (Shoot for 7–8 hours.)
  • How much exercise or physical activity did you get today? (Aim for 30+ minutes of moderate exercise.)
  • How many fruits and vegetables did you eat today? (Aim for 4–5 servings each day.)
  • How would you describe your mood today?

At the end of the week, assess how you did. Compare your results to the recommendations on the tracking sheet. Where did you fall short? What areas can you improve on? In some cases there isn’t necessarily a right answer, such as how you felt on a given day.


The goal isn’t to be perfect with every habit every day but to be mindful of your health habits and make small adjustments where you can.


Once you’ve reviewed your habits, set up SMART goals to look for areas of improvement so you’re more likely to achieve your weight-loss goals.

            Specific

            Measurable

            Achievable or Actionable

            Relevant

            Time sensitive

Rather than just saying “I want to lose weight,” SMART goals help you map out how you’ll get there. A good SMART goal might sound like, “I will lose 15 pounds in the next 12 weeks by starting to implement healthier choices, because I need to pass my PT test.”

You’ll set other SMART goals along the way to help you achieve your primary weight-loss goal, but this is a good start. Use the SMART-goal worksheet below to help you set up your initial weight-loss goal before you get started on the other challenges. This will establish a starting point for any changes—large or small—you want to make to improve your health.

TASKS to achieve Challenge 1:

Additional resources: Challenge 1

Find more resources to help you assess your current health habits.
Calculate calories from foods: Calorie Control Council
Estimate calorie needs: NIH body weight planner
Estimate calorie needs: USDA: DRI calculator
Estimate calorie needs: USDA: My plate plan
Food-diary apps to keep you on track
Track eating: 3-day food record

CHALLENGE 2: Create a one-week meal plan

Do you really have time to make healthy meals in your busy life of job and military duties, family obligations, social activities, and trying to sleep 8 hours and exercise regularly? Yes, you do! When you invest some time each week into planning, shopping for, and preparing your meals, you’re investing in your health, performance, and readiness.

Consider the benefits of cooking at home:

  • It leads to a higher-quality diet, which typically leads to better health and weight.
  • It costs less than eating out or ordering takeout.
  • You can control the ingredients and portions—especially important if you’re focusing on weight loss.
  • It’s a great way to connect with friends and family.
  • It can be really fun!

If you share a kitchen with family, friends, or roommates, have them join you in your meal-planning efforts. They can help you decide what to cook, choose new ingredients or recipes to try (quinoa or eggplant), or share the cooking or clean-up duties. 

Keep in mind that even if you don’t plan to cook most of your meals at home, creating a meal plan for the week is a great way to help you achieve your weight goals. If “taco Tuesday” is a meal you like to stop for on your way home from work, you can look for ways to eat lighter for the rest of the day to balance out the extra chips and salsa (and possibly a beer or margarita)! You might also decide to make favorite takeout meals at home so you can have more control over the ingredients and portions.

Remember, most people tend to default to the quickest and easiest option. So, make sure balanced, high-nutrient meals are your default. Planning ahead can decrease stress—and create leftovers for the next day.

TASKS to achieve Challenge 2:

Additional resources: Challenge 2

Find more resources on how to plan meals and make healthy choices.
5 reasons to toss your take-out menus
Help your partner lose weight
Help your family lose weight
Quick and easy meal and snack ideas
Raise healthy eaters: Age-specific tips
Taking dietary supplements? Eat real food instead
Weight loss supplements: What you should know

CHALLENGE 3: Get enough exercise

Now that you’ve tracked your habits in Challenge 1, it’s time to get moving! For this challenge, aim to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, or a combination. Start with writing out your exercise-related smart goals.

Then, you’ll want to read about what counts as physical activity—if you’re not getting your heart rate up enough, it won’t count towards your activity minutes. See our article on physical activity to learn more.

Finally, build your workout plan. Making progress every day and week is hard if you have no real plan. You want to make exercise a habit, and learn about habit-building strategies to make working out part of your routine so you stick with it. Remember to log your workout using the cardio and workout planner worksheets. You can’t progress if you don’t remember what you did last week.

TASKS to achieve Challenge 3:

Additional resources: Challenge 3

Find more resources on how you can make sure you’re getting enough exercise and fueling properly.
Benefits of group exercise
Creatine: Just the facts
Find your fitness battle buddy
Pre-workouts: What to look out for
How to fuel your post-workout recovery

CHECK-IN

Sticking to a new routine can be challenging. To avoid feeling overwhelmed as you’re building on the challenges in this workbook, review your goals and progress using the following questions:

  • Feeling stressed? Check out Challenge 5 to learn more about stress-management tools. Stress plays a major role in weight management. Getting it under control can help you reach your goals faster.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or frustrated? If you’re not seeing the results you were hoping for or you’re having trouble achieving your goals, review the SMART goals worksheet you filled out from Challenge 1. Are your goals still realistic? Do they still fit into your daily life? Feel free to adjust your goals along the way to fit into your life and make them more achievable.
  • Need extra support? There’s no need to go this alone. Find a battle buddy who has similar goals, or share your goals with loved ones; they can help keep you accountable. Social support plays an important part in helping you achieve your goals. Whether it’s sharing on social media or finding a group to work out with, find what works for you to stay on track.
  • Feeling bored? If you haven’t already, add another challenge to your routine! If you feel you’re doing all the right things, try modifying one of the challenges to fit your lifestyle. For example, add another day of exercise, schedule 30 minutes a day of mindful meditation, or just focus on keeping up with all these tasks on a long-term basis.

Weight loss and weight management are ongoing processes. There might be times when it seems like everything is going well, and other times when you need to refocus on a particular challenge, such as getting enough sleep or planning meals during a busy week. That’s okay! The important thing is to be mindful of where you are in the process and not let yourself slip back into old habits. Check back here as often as you need to assess your progress and how you’re feeling.

CHALLENGE 4: Get 7–8 hours of sleep each night

Regular exercise and healthy eating are habits you probably already know are important to achieve your weight-loss goals. But did you know getting sleep is also very important?

When you get less than 6–8 hours of sleep, your efforts to “eat healthy” and exercise can make your body less effective at burning fat and building muscle. Also, sleep deprivation makes you feel hungrier, less full after a meal, more likely to give in to eating the treats you’re trying to avoid, and less likely to maintain your workout routine. Sleep is critical to your health, well-being, and weight loss!

When you’re getting ready to work out, the idea of sleeping might seem easy (or even a fantasy). In reality getting 8 hours a night can be harder than it seems. Many active-duty Warfighters report getting only 6 or less hours of sleep a night. This challenge will help you monitor your sleep to determine if you’re getting enough sleep—and if not, what you can do to improve. To begin, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Are you productive, healthy, and happy on 7 hours of sleep? Or does it take you more hours of quality sleep to get you into high gear?
  • Are you having sleep problems?
  • Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day?
  • Do you feel sleepy when driving?

Next, learn about more ways sleep can impact your performance and get tips to help you sleep better. Take a deeper dive by learning about 10 sleep habits to help you lose weight, how foods can help or harm sleep, and the impact of exercise on sleep and weight loss. 

After building your sleep knowledge, begin tracking your sleep using the sleep diary. This will help you notice sleep-related habits that might help or get in the way of getting restful sleep. Try to apply the strategies learned to get 7–8 hours of restful sleep each night. 

TASKS to achieve Challenge 4:

Additional resources: Challenge 4

Find more resources on how to optimize your sleep.
Bed partners, sleep habits, and the path to sweet dreams
Caffeine for performance
Caffeine facts
How can naps improve my performance?
Make sleep-bank "deposits"
Shifts happen: Managing your sleep with irregular work schedules

CHALLENGE 5: Manage your stress

Stress and weight loss have a complicated relationship. At times, high stress can lead to unhealthy, often-temporary weight loss from skipping meals or being overly active. But the weight usually returns. Chronic, uncontrollable stress can undermine your efforts to eat healthy, exercise, sleep, and develop healthy habits. And struggles during your weight-loss efforts can create additional stress.

When you’re stressed you might find yourself more likely to eat junk food, or “stress eat” when you’re not hungry. Stress can also slow your metabolism and make it harder to burn fat, particularly belly fat. Unhealthy stress can also lower your self-regulation, making it harder to exercise and maintain healthy habits. Sleep and stress are often connected in a vicious cycle: stress causes sleep loss, making you feel more vulnerable to stress, which leads to even more sleep loss. Luckily, you can use stress to your advantage and develop skills to help lower stress when it’s unnecessary.

The first part of this challenge is to help you see how stress can be good for you! While most people believe stress is seriously harmful to their health, it turns out your “stress mindset,” or how you think about stress, influences whether your reaction to stress impacts you positively or negatively. When you think about stress as your ally, rather than your enemy, you can train yourself to experience more of the positive effects of the stress response. Without some healthy stress, you wouldn’t stick to your exercise routine, meal plan, or even bother getting out of bed in the morning.

When you begin to see stress can be a good thing, it can actually help you to get healthier. For example, when your heart starts pumping harder from a stressor, your blood vessels relax, inflammation decreases, and the pumping mimics exercise, which can help boost cardiovascular health.

Although stress can be good, it’s also important that you know how to recognize when your stress levels are unhealthy. By developing the skills to activate your relaxation response, you can lower your stress levels and stay in control. Once you learn about different relaxation response skills, choose one to practice every day for at least a week. Like any skill, you will get better with practice, so it’s important to practice these skills even when they aren’t needed “to calm you down” in the same way you wouldn’t want to only practice your marksmanship skills during a firefight. 

Finally, learn how reduce your stress while eating—and avoid overeating while distracted—by practicing mindful eating.

TASKS to achieve Challenge 5:

Additional resources: Challenge 5

Find more resources to help you successfully manage your stress.
Combat and Operational Stress Control (COSC)
How physical fitness can help with stress
How to choose what you want most
Influence your stress and relaxation response systems
Just the facts: Life stress overview
Mindfulness in military environments
Stress facts and assessment