It was a typical day in my counseling practice. Angie sat before me, her eyes brimming with tears. “I know what to do to lose weight! I just don’t do it! I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” At 250 pounds, Angie had been a yo-yo dieter for years. Angie isn’t alone with this problem, of course. We are all familiar with statistics showing that 95 percent of people who diet get no lasting results.
Let’s face it. Most adults don’t manage their weight very well. That’s why two thirds of adults in the U.S. and other Western nations are overweight or obese. There are many reasons why so many people are tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Experts point to stress, genetics, processed foods, and too much sedentary activity.
Nevertheless, solutions abound. There is no shortage of information on how to get a healthy, slim body. Information about healthy living is everywhere: in news papers, magazines, on television shows and documentaries, and of course, all over the Internet. We are constantly advised to eat nutritious, natural foods, avoid sugary foods and drinks, pursue moderate exercise, and get adequate sleep. This advice is plain old common sense.
So do most people find it impossible to follow this practical advice? Why is it that for so many people, weight management is a formidable endeavor, fraught with failure, frustration, and setbacks? Obviously, there is something missing in the equation. That something is self-discipline.
“But, I just totally lack self-discipline!” my overweight clients tell me. My theory is that overweight people don’t lack self-discipline. They just don’t apply self-discipline in weight management because they don’t know how. “Self-discipline” is an abstract concept that is hard to put into practice until you know exactly what it means in terms of attitudes and actions.
In fact, self-discipline can be summed up in terms of six challenges to meet if you want transform your body from fat and flabby to fit and healthy. Here are the six challenges of self-discipline you must master for weight management success.
1. Value behaviors that lead to good health and devalue behaviors that lead to poor health and weight gain.
Ariel was 40 pounds overweight, even though she exercised every day. She was otherwise in good health. She had a yearly physical checkup. She slept well and took vitamin supplements. She was happy in her work and her marriage. Obviously, her weight gain was due to her food intake. There was no other explanation. We both agreed that the problem was that she loved pizza and beer and consumed large quantities two or three times a week. The remainder of the time, she said, she ate sensibly.
Ariel insisted that, even though she wanted to reduce her weight, she was simply not going to modify her intake of pizza and beer. She found it incomprehensible that she would have to alter her behavior in any manner to get the results she wanted.
Yet she insisted that she needed to weigh less. When I asked her how she intended to do it, she said she couldn’t think of an answer. When I asked if she was willing to change her intake of pizza and beer, she said “No, I can’t do that. But I do want to lose weight.” After an hour of this circular conversation, I finally told her that she would have to decide which was more important to her happiness: eating pizza and drinking beer, or taking off those 40 pounds. I said if she chose the former, she had no reason to engage my services.
Ariel was unwilling to implement the obvious solution to her problem. To get her result, she would have to learn to devalue pizza and beer. She would have to find value in an alternative eating behavior that would lead to weight reduction.
To devalue unhealthy behavior and value healthy behavior is the first major challenge of habit modification. If you honestly want a healthier body size you have to stop glorifying unhealthy foods: stop regarding them as a source of comfort, pleasure, or reward. You have to stop ignoring or minimizing the health risks and discomforts of excess weight. You have to start valuing healthy foods and regular exercise. You have to start valuing a healthy body and its attendant advantages. You have to want a healthy, fit body more than you want to eat unhealthy foods. You have to tie having a healthy body to something meaningful to you: attractiveness, confidence, vitality, romance, or maybe even a way to get even with someone who made fun of you because of your weight.
2. Develop sufficient resiliency to the point that you no longer turn to unhealthy foods or drinks when feeling anxiety or discomfort.
Stress makes people gain weight. Stress activates addictive eating behaviors by lowering serotonin. With lower levels of serotonin, many people feel depressed or anxious. These feelings drive many people to seek comfort by over-eating the foods that stimulate the brain’s “reward” center. Comforting foods are typically made of sugars and starches (refined carbohydrates) that raise blood sugar levels and give a temporary boost to one’s mood. These foods generate excess glucose that gets stored in the fat cells, causing weight gain.
Stress also takes advantage of genetic vulnerabilities, influencing gene expression. If you have a genetic predisposition toward obesity and sugar addiction, too much stress will propel you toward the nearest ice cream shop.
Lastly, stress causes the body to pump out a hormone called cortisol. Over the course of several weeks or months, excess cortisol can cause a host health issues, including the buildup of body fat.
Resilience is determined by the amount of stress we encounter as well as the intensity of the stress we encounter, and the duration of stress. Eliminate unnecessary stressors when you can do so safely and sanely. For unavoidable stressors, you must find sensible ways to engage in active problem-solving. You can buffer the stress in your life and increase resilience with adequate rest, meditation, proper nutrition, moderate exercise, and supportive relationships. To develop your coping skills, you may need guidance from a coach or a therapist.
3. Structure your time to allow for exercise, meal planning and preparation, and adequate sleep.
Moderate exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep are the foundation of a healthy body and brain. Yet consistently finding sufficient time for these activities might seem a formidable challenge. To accomplish it, apply time management skills. You might need to delegate some activities, say no to some requests, reduce your obligations, and cut back on your commitments. Maybe you need to identify your priorities and eliminate activities that waste your time. Careful planning is in order.
To reach your target weight, you need to somehow find time for you. You might have to negotiate with friends and family members so that they respect the time you’ve set aside for high priority activities: no requests, expectations, or interruptions.
4. Set reasonable, realistic rules for yourself and follow them without equivocation.
Rules simplify our lives. They save us from the hassle of having to make the same decisions over and over. Thus, they conserve our self-control. To be effective, rules must be specific. For example, if you make a rule to “Eat less ice cream,” it’s too vague to be effective. How much is less? A better rule is: “I will have only six ounces of ice cream only on Saturday nights.”
When it comes to a risky behavior, such as eating sweets, you can decide for yourself: do you stop altogether, or do you modify your behavior so that you eat sweets sparingly? This brings us to the subject of moderation versus abstinence. It’s essential to decide for yourself which tactic will best serve your interests. In other words, is it easier for you have ice cream just once a week or not at all?
Some people would find it easier to stop eating ice cream altogether. The advantage of abstinence is that it’s easier to say no, once and for all, than to endlessly vacillate. It simply requires less mental effort.
Some people, however, would rebel at the thought of abstinence, finding it intolerable. For many people, prohibited foods actually seem more appealing and irresistible. If ice cream is “off limits,” it suddenly becomes more tantalizing and harder to resist. The problem with moderation, however, is that it can present a slippery slope to indulgence. One bowl of ice cream easily leads to two or three. Moderation requires more discipline than abstinence.
“Without equivocation” doesn’t mean that you have to follow the rules perfectly, without fail, because, sooner or later, you will break a rule. It just means that once you set a rule for yourself, it doesn’t help to complain, cheat, doubt, quibble, or otherwise question your own rule. If a rule doesn’t serve your needs, change it. If you aren’t willing to set rules at all, go back to Challenge #1, above, and decide where your values lie.
5. Develop the determination to regroup in the face of failure, modify your plan, and keep pressing toward the results you want.
Two axioms apply here. The first is: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If you make a plan to release excess weight and you keep failing, maybe the problem isn’t your tenacity or willpower. Maybe the plan itself is the problem. If your plan is too ambitious, failure is inevitable. If your plan is too easy, it might not bring sufficient results.
The second axiom is this: Failure is feedback. Failure doesn’t mean you’re a dolt, or you should give up, or you’ll never succeed. It means you achieved an outcome different from the one you intended. Failure leaves clues – information about how to modify your plan for better results. Failure points to areas for correction and improvement. Failure presents an opportunity to do things differently to get another result.
Every time you overindulge or override a rule to the extent that the numbers on the bathroom scale won’t budge, or you regain the weight you’ve reduced, it means you’ve failed to accomplish an outcome. In the language of recovery, it is a relapse. When it comes to sugar addiction, relapse is to be expected. To succeed, you must regroup, renew your commitment, modify your plan, and resume your efforts.
6. Practice new behaviors, repeating them until you perform them habitually and consistently.
By now it should be evident: If you want to reach your target weight, you must change certain behaviors and develop new habits. When it comes to behavioral change, you have four options: You can stop an existing behavior, start a new behavior, do less of a specific behavior, or do more of a specific behavior.
When it comes to making these behavioral changes, again, specificity will help. If the new or more frequent behavior is something such as exercise, or packing a healthy lunch, or getting to bed by 10 pm, when and how often will you do it? If the change involves stopping or doing less of a behavior, what is your rule? This question matters because you want know that you are achieving the outcome you choose. Lastly, whatever change you choose, you have to do it often enough and long enough to get results. If you aren’t getting the results you expect, go back to Challenge #5 above. Re-evaluate and modify your plan.
A final tip: Don’t let perfection get in the way of meeting these challenges. When it comes to getting the weight you want, persistence beats perfection any day of the week.