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The Positive Power of "No"

How to say "no" without feeling deprived.

Key points

  • Deciding to lose weight and exercise more can seem like signing up for the drudgery of deprivation.
  • Making small changes can be an effective way to effect long-term change, but the changes cannot be random or arbitrary.
  • Building sustained motivation needs to give the individual a sense of accomplishment and autonomy all along the way. 
Tadamichi / iStock
Source: Tadamichi / iStock

Often when people set out to lose weight and exercise more, they get ready to hunker down and say “no” to their favorite foods, to their favorite TV shows (to make time for exercise), or to how they like to reward themselves after a trying time.

The trouble is, there is nothing positive here. Nothing to keep people motivated to do these things for the long run. Also, unfortunately, it is the long run that matters. That is when there can be visible change and internal shifts toward greater feelings of well-being. That is when the rewards start rolling in.

So, the question is, how can we turn saying “no” into something positive? Can you do that without feeling deprived? Because, make no mistake, if your goal is to lose weight and exercise more, you are going to have to say “no” to plenty of things you do now so that those behaviors can be replaced by other ones that are more in line with weight loss and exercise goals.

First Comes Awareness

When we start out with goals of losing weight and exercising more, we have to come to grips with how we have set up our food and exercise habits in the past. What is it that we value about how we do those things?

We have set up food and exercise to fit in with how we like to roll. To be fair, often the set-up comes in response to current life circumstances, in which case how we like to roll is also necessarily a response to what life has handed us. How we live our lives also relates to choices we have made in the past.

Awareness comes when we understand that our behaviors create certain outcomes for us when it comes to our health. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of deaths from chronic diseases are the direct result of lifestyle choices.

Our behaviors create outcomes for us. It is important to recognize that if we want a different outcome for ourselves, we need to change some of our behaviors.

Let’s Consider Awareness of Habits Around Food

In many ways, our identities are tied up with how we eat. Perhaps we are the ones who like to provide an anchor for the rest of the family. As in, “Thanksgiving is always at our house,” and “We have to have marshmallows and butter on the sweet potato casserole, or the family would rebel!” Or, “We are really busy. It just feels great to order a pizza on Friday nights.”

These are issues that involve family and individual expectations. Some traditions may have started years or even decades ago.

Most likely, these traditions or expectations have many reasons why they exist, but in many ways, they are also arbitrary. In other words, you can set things up differently and the world will not fall apart. Realizing this is a big part of learning to say “no.”

Let’s Consider Awareness of Habits Around Exercise

Exercise can be a great motivator. It feels good, and it helps us show up for others in a better way. It is a great way to take care of ourselves, but some of us have difficulty setting aside the time it takes to do that. After all, there are plenty of other things vying for our attention.

Here is where “no” comes in. You have to say “no” to some things you habitually do so that you can say “yes” to a new habit of moving more. This means saying “no” to some things you currently do that take up your time.

For example, it can mean saying “no” to something you do for yourself like watching TV to relax. It can mean figuring out a way to streamline chores and grocery shopping to give you more time to exercise. Or it can even mean forgoing some chores you deem necessary or doing them less often.

Could you put off a phone call with a friend until after you have exercised? Could you tell your spouse, partner, or friend that you are going to spend more time exercising, meaning that your usual routine will be replaced by a new one?

Turn “No” Into Something Positive

Given all this, how is it possible to move forward to a new set of eating and exercise behaviors without feeling deprived?

The answer lies in the nature of motivation.

Motivation is the fuel for change. But often we have been misinformed about how that works. It may seem that motivation is something that helps us white-knuckle our way through a new diet or exercise program. However, research tells us that does not lead to long-term change. Motivation like that soon dies.

The truth is that kind of motivation is based on a desire for success. Something in the future that we want for ourselves. When that future looks like deprivation, a person can easily begin to wonder if it is really worth it.

When a diet or exercise program is imposed, the changes are (1) not chosen by the person and (2) not often seen as a healthy trend, but rather a set of either-or choices, where the person is either on the program or is not.

Instead, we want to encourage the kind of motivation that is replenished by success. How? By breaking the behaviors down into small bits. And, not just any small bits. Making small changes has been shown to be an effective way to effect long-term change, but the changes cannot be random or arbitrary.

There needs to be guidance about which changes to make that will keep an individual on track to achieving goals that are part of the big picture. The small changes need to have four features:

  1. To foster autonomy, the small bits need to be chosen by the person desiring the change, but within a certain framework.
  2. Then, the person needs to be able to focus on the change, and acquire any skills necessary to make each change (learning some basics about nutrition, for example).
  3. The person needs to expect to practice the change again and again, and be encouraged all along the way.
  4. It’s important to acknowledge progress and create awareness of how far the person has come as the change unfolds.

Building sustained motivation needs to give the individual a sense of accomplishment and autonomy all along the way. The long-term goal needs to be kept in mind, but each guided step can be celebrated.

The key is to make a connection with why certain choices have been made in the past, and then to develop new choices that are just as meaningful but that are in line with the new version of self that the person wants for themselves. That way, a “no” is really a “yes” to something else.


Segar, M. (2015). The Right Why: The Surprising Start to Cultivating Sustainable Behavior Change. Generations. 39.1:15-19.

Stok, F.M., de Vet, E., de Wit, J.B.F., Renner, B., de Ridder, D.T.D. (2015). Communicating eating-related rules. Suggestions are more effective than restrictions. Appetite. 86:45-53.

Hill, J.O. (2008). Can a small-changes approach help address the obesity epidemic? A report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89 (2):477-484.

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