Do you remember that show, The Biggest Loser? The show brought on people who were overweight, to live in a house where their meals, exercise routine, and lifestyle were in a fairly controlled environment. They worked with personal trainers and were split in two teams that engaged in competitions. I remember seeing some of the episodes back when I was in college. Initially I found it interesting but I began to get a question about the show, “Travis, some of these people lose the weight and gain it all back. Why? Why didn’t that happen to you?”
My mother has always been proud of the fact that I lost the weight and I’ve kept it off. For a while I didn’t have any suitable answer to the question people would ask me, but as I’ve gotten older, I realized the problem. I think the audience of the show and every reasonable adult sees the problem as well: Context and Sustainability.
Context – The Path of Least Resistance
If doing hard things were as simple as flipping a switch, we’d all be wealthy, healthy, and happy. But they’re not. The challenge with losing a bunch of weight in an environment that has been modulated for you, is the fact that you haven’t had to go through the critical thinking and exercising of will power, to change all the environmental factors at home that helped create conditions that facilitate obesity.
A long commute to work means sitting in a car at least two hours a day and not having time to prepare meals (Hello McDonald’s — Or, whatever…). Then there are work conditions. I’ve got a friend who says his employer keeps a refrigerator stocked with soda and bowls of candy around the office. It’s a ‘perk’. When I worked in healthcare there was almost always some dessert or treat of some kind sitting at the employee counter. Then, of course, there’s sitting all day. With so many jobs oriented towards tech and office work, we just don’t have many incentives to move. Easy access to calorie dense food combined with an ever decreasing incentive to move your body. Without a lot of conscious effort on the part of the individual this situation is likely to float you down a river of steady weight gain over time. Let alone if you have a family at home who may or may not be on board with making changes at home.
The real skill here is in noticing environmental factors that create resistance to a healthy lifestyle. Over the years I’ve learned to implement small lifestyle changes that make the path of least resistance, more often than not, lead to quality food choices and more movement. However, some of that has required hefty critical thought and understanding the trade-offs I’m making at a deep level. Once again, self awareness is key to understanding how different environments are likely to affect our personal decision making.
It’s still valuable to put yourself in an entirely different context and see yourself change. I’m not saying that The Biggest Loser has no value. Exposure is extremely powerful in facilitating a shift in mindset. If a person has 100-200 pounds to lose and they go into a unique situation where they lose 50 lbs and then return to normal life and gain it all back, they at least know that weight loss is possible. That knowledge is extremely powerful, but, if success is to be recreated, the contextual differences have to be understood.
Sustainability – White Belt to White Belt
The next question after contextual analysis is, what changes are sustainable? People on The Biggest Loser worked hard. They were doing some hard workouts. In terms of volume of intense effort and amount of recovery needed, you might compare those people to professional athletes. Are they going to be able to sustain that effort when they get home? HELL NO!
When people first started asking me about this show I still had the mentality that I needed to workout like a mad man to lose weight. The problem with that was the fact that I was also in Engineering School at the time. What I was able to sustain in terms of exercise and output during my final semester of high school and the summer before starting college, was vastly different from what I could do in the midst of taking a 15 hour plus course load in Electrical Engineering, while working part-time.
As a personal trainer, I probably had this argument with people a thousand times. If you’ve eaten bread your whole life you’re not likely to be able to quit cold turkey. If you do, you’re likely to have a hard relapse. You quit bread for 7 days and on the 8th day you eat nothing but a french loaf with butter for 3 days straight and you feel terrible, physically, mentally, and emotionally. What if you just started by trying to reduce the amount of bread in one meal or cutting it out of one day in the week?
Often we try to go too far, too fast when it comes to physiological change and it ends up making the timeline longer than it has to be. The most pernicious symptomatic behavior of this thought process being when we jump into an intense exercise regimen when we have been sedentary for a long period of time. I saw lots of people get injured this way at the gym. They jump into some hardcore routine they saw online somewhere and their body isn’t ready for it and there lifestyle doesn’t support it. Recipe for disaster and discouragement. After all, if you keep hurting yourself when you exercise, eventually you stop trying all together for fear of injury. Then exercise becomes something for those who are genetically gifted to do so… Or, maybe you need to start at White Belt before advancing to Black Belt?
The Small Incremental Changes
We live in an impatient, anxious, ‘everything fast’ culture. We want everything right now. We want the pandemic to go away and we want everything to go back to the way it was, right now. Broadly, I think this is how we tend to treat our bodies. One of the things that makes me sad for others is when I see someone fail at an attempt to change health habits and they begin to concede, “I guess I’m always going to be overweight.” But how much of that belief is fortified by taking on too much, too soon, while overlooking the power of small sustainable incremental changes. This is just a tactical error like putting a plus sign where there should’ve been a minus. You start with a small dietary change. You start by adding in a little bit more movement into your daily life. You hit that small target, over and over again for 2-3 months and then you go a little further… you settle in to the fact that this is a lifestyle and not a 3 month, fix it all in one day, overhaul. It’s a lifelong campaign.
We also live in a comparison culture. No, I don’t have kids. No, I don’t have a chronic illness. No, I don’t have to work 50 hours a week. And no, I don’t see any of those factors as reasons why you shouldn’t try. Because, everyone has the ability to think through their personal context and decide what is a sustainable change for their own situation. In the time you’re worrying about what others can or can’t do, and comparing yourself, you could be implementing change that works for you. You could be taking ownership and solving the problem.
Some Stuff Is Just Hard
Recently I had a conversation with a woman who had just lost 100 lbs. She’d struggled with her weight her whole life. She’s married, a mother of two kids under 3 years old, and she works full time. I’ve known her for a while. She knows I have a background with weight loss. I shared with her how proud I was of her and how happy it made me to see her have such success. I asked her what changed in her mind. I can’t remember her exact words. Essentially, she communicated that she knew what she had to do: eat less, move more. She finally got to a point where she decided that she was going to do the work, no matter what. She was ready to fight. She was ready to be tough and she wasn’t letting go this time. To hear her speak that way, made my heart full.