Mastery and accomplishment of the seemingly impossible comes from a focus on the process and not on the result.
Feeling Badly About Being Overweight Makes You Less Likely To Lose Weight
In stark contrast to the contrived optimism of today’s infomercials and marketing propaganda, on a personal level long term weight loss remains an elusive, if not near impossible task for most members of our society. Here in the United States over two thirds of all adults are overweight or obese but we live in an environment where weight loss products and services are a multi-billion dollar industry. Government funded initiatives for weight loss promotion through better eating and regular exercise also have considerable budgetary klout, so you would think that sustained weight loss should be a regular occurrence. We certainly invest enough money and time into the endeavor and yet all evidence suggests that it is a near futile undertaking. The National Institutes of Health and other studies report that 95-98% of people who lose weight will regain it within five years, with a mere 2-5% being successful in keeping their weight off. More troubling is the finding that 90% gain more weight than they initially lost- an abysmal failure rate to put it mildly. Temporary weight loss is achievable and people do it every day- but such results are often fleeting with the weight creeping back on even in spite of redoubled efforts to stop it. Weight loss today is truly an exercise in initial hope followed by misery and abject frustration. A cycle akin to the myth of Sisyphus, who was cursed to labor from dawn to dusk pushing a heavy boulder up a mercilessly steep hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom of the hill at days end. While some may find comfort in the existential idea that there is meaning in the effort- the fruitless nature of the task remains and in the case of weight loss, so does the lowered self esteem and the increased risks of metabolic-related disease. There are many reasons why people regain weight as it is a complex undertaking. Many are metabolic in nature and have been addressed here on the blog on numerous occasions. But what is not often addressed is the role of structure in weight regain, and how our inner frustration with how we look and external pressure from friends, family, the media and medical community can make failure almost inevitable. In this article we will take a look at this painful structural reality and explore some tried and true methods to break out of its chains.
Pressure Based Motivations To Lose Weight Don’t Work
Think of how you felt the last time you were disgusted or truly concerned about the way you look. It isn’t hard for most of us to find a recent episode, especially in a world where we are constantly bombarded by images and messages about the ravages of heart disease, diabetes and depression. Not to mention the social pressure to be thin, fit and in shape. Some pressure is well meaning in nature on spite of their methods. Public health and wellness campaigns frequently use gruesome images and shock value type messages with the intention of scaring us into action. The weight loss and fitness industries use similar tactics, albeit with less altruistic intentions. Weight loss commercials are filled with images of svelte, well-muscled bodies that are contrived to make you feel badly if you are one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t fit such a stellar physical description. While public health drives work on building fear, the fitness industry works towards a more insidious agenda. It’s a marketing strategy designed to make you take action after experiencing the misery of realizing how far away from a ‘dream body’ you really are. Friends, family and colleagues can add to the pressure as well by pointing out your need to lose weight, or from snide remarks about how you look. Regardless of whether the comments come as a genuine expression of concern or a purposefully hurtful statement, it can make you feel very uncomfortable. In response to these pressures- either of your own making or from others and your environment, you do what is natural by working out and trying to eat as best you can. You might try a new diet or fitness DVD, take some classes, join a gym or take up running and quite often lose a few pounds in the process. But as motivating as these pressures may appear on the surface, in the end it can lock you into a structure where regaining the weight is almost inevitable.
How Pressure To Lose Weight Can Backfire & Make You Gain Weight
When you feel uncomfortable it is human nature for to attempt to remove or lessen the intensity of this discomfort. If you are outside and it starts raining heavily, without thinking about it, you will automatically seek a spot where you can be as dry as possible- if not one where the rain isn’t directly in your face. It is natural for all of us to follow the path of least resistance- one where discomfort is minimized or removed completely. This inherent inclination to seek the path towards the least discomfort is one that maps out almost all the everyday decisions of our lives whether we are aware of it or not. When I learned tracking skills I was taught that it is easy to tell the most likely path of travel in by looking closely at the geography in front of you regardless of whether it’s an urban or wilderness environment. Without always being conscious of it, all animals (humans included) make a series of small decisions to avoid or minimize discomfort while moving based on the terrain. Taking routes that present the smallest physical challenge by gravitating towards paths that go down over those that go up and choosing well worn routes rather than going through the effort of creating new ones.
How Pressure Negates Long Term Weight Loss
There is absolutely nothing novel or revolutionary about these rather mundane reactions. We all understand and easily see them enacted throughout the course of our everyday lives. What is not as self-evident is how this system plays out on an emotional level, and how it can create structures that lead to long term failure. Here is a clear weight loss related example: If you are overweight, you might not be very happy about how you look and how you feel. That unhappiness is often a sad fact of life that over time you learned to bear-until one day the inner pain and turmoil reaches a point that is unbearable to you and you decide that you need to make a change. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back can be of either an internal or external nature. A day where you simply woke up feeling especially disgusted with yourself. A snide comment or situation where you were especially embarrassed about how you look. An obesity-equals-early-death doom and gloom message you may have heard or seen. A physician’s warning that you need to lose weight or else. An inspiring photo of someone with the body you would like to have. Or perhaps it was a product, fitness related ad, article or infomercial that made you look inward and decide that you could not continue to live has you have and that it was time to make a change. Regardless of the origin of the stimulus- you feel compelled to take some steps towards changing your life as the discomfort of not being where you would like to be has become intolerable. Thus resolved and resolute, you begin the work of going about making that change a reality.
Sounds healthy thus far, and it is the experience of most people who have tried to lose weight at some point in their lives- but as effective as it may seem, it is a proven formula for failure. Think about it for a minute if you will. If this approach (as natural as it is) actually worked then why do we see dismal long term weight loss success figures ranging from 2-5%? It’s the driving force behind almost all initial weight loss endeavors, but if such a path did indeed lead to success we would not have a population struggling to lose weight. The reason why this approach fails isn’t readily obvious- especially if you are part of the system itself. However an analysis of the inherent structural defects with this way of thinking does indeed shed some light on the cause of the problem. You see, when you start your regime to lose weight by exercising, eating better or both, you are lessening the feeling of discomfort that compels you to start the process in the first place. As time goes on and you see the numbers on the scale go down, you no longer have as intense or as visceral a drive motivating you to make the almost insurmountable sacrifices needed to keep you going forward. The more weight you lose, the harder it gets and that is precisely the point where you will naturally begin to relax and fall back into your old habits. Habits which alleviate the discomfort of being hungry or having a craving for foods that are most likely not on your diet. How this relapse is justified is of little consequence- it might come as a sense that a reward is due for all the hard work you have done, an idea that a couple days off from training won’t hurt or a slow movement away from doing what you need to do in order to lose weight and keep it off. What is significant is that it happens- switching your focus from trying to alleviate the discomfort of not being in shape to the increasing discomfort of not being able to eat what you used to enjoy and the incredible peer and social pressures that goes with it. Thus, the path of least resistance is to return to old eating and lifestyle habits, which slowly and stealthily undo all the hard work and dedication you put forward. That is until tension builds up again to the point where the discomfort of being out of shape outweighs the discomfort of not eating as you wish and the yo-yo cycle begins anew.
Exercise Isn’t Always A Weight Loss Solution If Motivation Is Not Balanced
In an interesting twist, some maintain some form of exercise a a bleed valve that serves to continually reduce tension caused by not being shape or from indulging in behaviors that are not conducive to health or their weight loss goals. In some people exercise actually increases the likelihood of unhealthy lifestyle choices- a factor that is quite apparent among those who manifest symptoms of exercise addiction. (Read my article on exercise addiction here.) Sadly, as good as exercise may be, in some instances it only locks the individual in a structure where long term success is unlikely. This structure, in addition to the physiological and emotional obstacles to losing weight, goes a long way in crippling your long term success. As all encompassing as such behavioral structures can be you could make the argument that it is a significant causative factor behind the yo-yo weight loss/weight gain phenomenon. It’s a structure that shapes the lives of not only regular people trying to get into better shape by losing some extra pounds, but elite athletes and bodybuilders as well. For example, most physique competitors have no problem getting into shape for a show as the pressure and discomfort of not being in shape onstage wearing as little clothing as possible can be a powerful motivating factor to make you stick with a strict diet and intense training program. However, having relieved the tension of not being in great shape for the show by achieving that goal it sets the stage for movement in the polar opposite direction. Without the driving force of not being your best pushing you to stay on your diet and train above and beyond anything that you would ordinarily do, other motivations come to the foreground. Dieting is extremely difficult and restraint theory says that the harder you push yourself to avoid a particular food, the more you will desire it. Add to that the inevitable cravings for high calorie foods as the body does its best to avoid fat loss as much as possible and you have an extreme discomfort to overcome. One that doesn’t go away from your eating well but is simply overpowered temporarily by the stronger drive. Remove that drive by coming to a conclusion in terms of achieving your goals and unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle choices return in force. This structural movement towards tension relief explains the often food disorder level eating common after physique competitions among both male and female competitors along with the inability for many of them to stay in great shape all year round.
Weight Loss Requires A Different Structural Approach To Be Successful Long Term
The universality of this experience makes you question the possibility of long term weight loss and sets the stage for a rather bleak and Sisyphean outlook. However, as comforting as such defeatist ideas may be it ignores the question of what motivates that 2-5% minority who ARE able to lose weight and keep it off? The successful individuals alluded to in long term weight loss studies must have some formula for not falling under the influence of this structure of diminishing returns and in twenty years of helping hundreds of people lose weight and keep it off, I can say with conviction that there is indeed a common thread that separates the successful from the unsuccessful. A key difference that can be replicated. Most people who are successful at losing weight long term or getting into ridiculous shape and staying there tend to start off very much in the same way that everyone else does. They were most likely unhappy with how they looked or how they felt and the inner and outer pressures of this discomfort reached a unbearable point where they felt that some form of action was needed. To reduce the discomfort they began watching what they ate and incorporating exercise into their regular routine just like everyone else- but somewhere along the line, something different happened. Instead of being focused on the numbers on the scale, the reflection in the mirror or compliments from friends and family, they simply kept on going. In essence, they did not focus on losing weight, exercising and eating better as a way of alleviating their discomfort regarding their health or appearance. Instead they somehow learned to reduce their tension by regularly performing the actions required to lose weight instead of the actual weight loss itself.
Weight Loss Comes From An Evolution Not Problem Solving
The difference is significant and it yields an invaluable lesson: Instead of focusing on the result, individuals who are successful at losing weight, eating well and staying in shape focus on the process. It’s a philosophy that is completely alien to today’s penchant for fast weight loss, quick results and a mountain of products and services promising to give you just that. But the promise is not only an empty one, but a counterproductive one. Reliance on results always leads to reduced adherence over time as that reward oriented focus diminishes the drive you need to overcome the incredible pressures required to lose weight and keep it off. On the other end of the spectrum, those who focus on the process are relieved of their tension only by habitually doing what they should be doing. Thus, when they stop eating well and training regularly, discomfort kicks in and pushes them to keep on going in a positive and self-sustaining loop. The fact of the matter is that ads and scare tactics- (well meaning or not), make you perceive weight loss as a problem that needs to be solved. You don’t feel good about how you look so by using this product, joining this gym or eating this food you will have a solution. Except the structure of problem/solution does not apply to weight loss- as the only true solution is not to try to solve the problem- but to outgrow it through the creation of new habits and new ways of thinking. A process that happens over years and is anathema to the idea of ‘quick’ and ‘fast’.
Lifestyle change is the word often used to describe what needs to happen for long term weight loss but I would add that it needs to also be an evolution. A completely new set of habits that form a completely new you. Such a change is essentially a path towards mastery. In this case mastery of the most difficult challenge of all- yourself. You need to master the impatient self that craves reward and reassurance to keep on going. You need to master the defeatist perspective that you don’t have what it takes to achieve what you want- a nagging voice that limits so many of us. You need to master the cravings that come with restricting yourself from eating the foods you used to eat and the formidable social pressure from friends and family that can derail such a commitment. You need to master training. Not just exercise regularly, take a class here and there or go on the treadmill when you feel like it- if you truly want to change your body permanently you have to master your training. Which is exceptionally difficult to do without the guidance of one who has already mastered such a path. Mastery of training does not come from enthusiasm or willpower as such initiatives fade in time without the fuel of some continued reward.
The Key to Weight Loss Is Mastery- The Key To Mastery Is A Focus On The Process Not The Results
Mastery is about developing good habits. Habits that will allow you to perform a relatively difficult task over and over for years- which is the harsh reality of what is required if you truly wish to change your body. It’s not weeks, not months but years- decades even. Like the martial artist who slaves away practicing the same techniques day after day, or the athlete training day in and day out, there will be periods of abject frustration. A plateau where your actions seem to amount to nothing. Yet this is precisely the time when you make the most progress for if you persist there is one day a sudden- and almost magical realization that you have achieved precisely what you set out to do- if not more. As great as the realization may be, if good habits have been formed and this will not affect your continued practice and you will go on to even greater things. This is how we achieve the seemingly impossible- from persistence and a work ethic of consistency- in a structure where the work itself becomes the reward and a structure is created where discomfort comes from not practicing as you should. Thus the path of least resistance is eating well and mastering the form of exercise that you undertake- a path that becomes its own reward.
Such ways of thinking are often thought of as Zen-like in nature, but there is nothing mystical or foreign about its application. It’s the same structure that allows surgeons to become surgeons and pilots to become pilots- one based on years of consistent practice and sacrifice where the act itself becomes the habit that is hard to not perform on a regular basis. Thus a drive and passion is created that keeps them going through decades of long hours without being blown off course by the many failures and frustrations along the way. You won’t see a sign for fast neurosurgery courses or ads for courses where you can obtain your commercial pilot’s license in 90 days or less- such disciplines do not fall within the realm of the quick fix and weight loss is no different. In the end all significant accomplishments come from developing a structure of good habits and being in a state of mind where you continue to do what you need to do regardless of your immediate successes. It’s an intimate and personal journey that frees you from the need for much in the way of sustained outside motivations and from the cycle of short term success that sets the stage for long term failure. Losing weight is not a problem to be solved. It’s about the creation and mastery of a whole new way of life, a whole new way of thinking and the cultivation of a different set of habits- ones that lead to a whole new you.
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Kevin Richardson is an award winning fitness writer, a natural bodybuilding champion, one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training. His personal training service is the 2012 winner of the Best of Manhattan Awards for Personal Training and if you need help losing weight or getting into cover model shape, give Kevin and his team a call at 1-800-798-8420.