Okay, maybe it is a little bit your fault, but there are forces working against you that you may not even be aware of.
I’m assuming that you’re trying to lose weight and, I know what they say about assuming making an ass out of you and me, but I think I only know two, maybe three adults who aren’t actively trying to lose weight.
That leaves the rest of us.
I know the frustration of exercising and eating endless salads (dressing on the side!), only to find that the scale hasn’t moved one bit.
Why? There are a lot of reasons, some we can control and some we can’t. The one thing I want you to understand is this: It’s not entirely your fault you’re struggling and there’s something you can do about it.
Why is Weight Loss So Hard?
There are two overarching reasons it’s hard to lose weight and I’m going to break them down for you.
Your Environment Doesn’t Want You to Lose Weight
The first problem is the universe. Specifically, planet earth where we have so many things that create inactivity
- Our jobs – If you have a job, what is it? Are you sitting at a computer right now like I am? The American Heart Association says that sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950. That is just crazy! And, it’s making us fat.
- Streaming Video (e.g., Netflix) – I love Netflix. I love binge-watching. When I am binge-watching, here’s what I’m not doing: Moving around. Back in 2009, The Neilsen Company figured out we were watching about 153 hours of TV a month. I would imagine it’s even higher now.
- iStuff – iPads, iPhones, tablets and video games are fun. And we usually sit while using them. One study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology studied survey data and found that Americans spent about 54.9% of their time doing sedentary things. That comes out to almost 8 hours a day. Yes, that just made me stand up and walk around my house.
- Cars – Collectively, we all wasted about 6.9 billion hours sitting in traffic in 2014. And just think about the good old days – Yes, I’m going to say it. In my day, I used to ride my bike and walk everywhere. Now, I drive one mile to see my doctor when I could totally walk. Suburban sprawl and busy schedules make it harder to find the time to walk.
- Cats – There is actual study showing that cat owners are messy and lazy. I wouldn’t say I’m completely messy or lazy (I have two cats) but, when I got a dog a couple of years ago, I walked a lot more. Dogs require walking if you want to keep your furniture/shoes/socks/walls/baseboards/clothes, etc. in tact. Cats? Require 23 hours of sleep.
The bottom line is, in this world we actually have to invent reasons to move around. And your environment isn’t the only thing working against you…your body is too.
Your Body Doesn’t Want You to Lose Weight
Aside from the world we live in, we have another problem – The human body. The human body is designed to store…no, a better word is hoard, fat. That’s because, back in the day, food was scarce and we needed to be able to live off our own body fat should famine occur.
It’s survival of the fittest at its best…only we don’t really need that anymore. Now, we actively try to eat less and our bodies simply don’t know the difference between going on a diet or full on starvation. As soon as you restrict your calories, your body goes into survival mode and holds on to that fat with both hands.
Basically, your body is working double time to keep the weight on.
The Dieting Backlash
And here’s another fact we’re only just starting to understand: If you go on a diet or weight loss program, your metabolism actually slows down. When you go off that diet (which you probably will because diets don’t work) and start eating more, those extra calories are stored as fat.
One study by Columbia University found that this backlash starts to happen at around 8 weeks of dieting and, here’s the worst part: To maintain a steady weight, dieters had to eat 400 fewer calories a day after dieting than before dieting. Their metabolisms actually reset to a lower number, something they probably didn’t know until they gained the weight back, and more.
That just crazy talk.
Your Mind Doesn’t Want You To Lose Weight
Yes, I know. You think you want to lose weight but, if you really did, you would be doing all the the things you need to do to lose weight. That is:
- Getting enough sleep
- Managing your stress in a healthy way (I know, drinking wine and eating Doritoes is so much more fun than meditating, isn’t it?)
- Exercising – Not just taking a walk now and then
- Eating healthy foods – when you’re actually hungry and only until you’re full (I know, that’s hard)
- Moving around instead of sitting for 8 hours a day.
If you don’t do these things, you don’t lose weight. You might even gain weight and here’s why:
- Stress – Dr. Len Kravitz wrote about this in The Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. He says when we get stressed out, our bodies release cortisol – the so-called stress hormone. And, as Kravitz suggests, that stress hormone directly effects fat storage when you’re stressed.
- Lack of Sleep – Sleep is another thing that affects our weight. One study published in The Journal of Sleep studied short sleepers (5-6 hours), average sleepers (7-8 hours) and long sleepers (9-10 hours) and found that short and long sleepers were 35% more likely to experience a weight gain over 6 years. And here’s something interesting – the long sleepers were also more likely to gain weight, while average sleepers didn’t. The problem? Researchers cite a ‘“24-hour-a-day” turbulent lifestyle” that changes our hormonal profiles and screws up our energy balance.
- Lack of Exercise and Shifty Numbers – And not just not working out, but not working hard enough, at least during some workouts. And, here’s the rub: If you do exercise (yay you!) you may think – Darn it, I’m burning some serious calories! The truth is, exercise isn’t all that great at weight loss. Why? Because we don’t burn as many calories exercising as we think we do. If that treadmill says you burned 500 calories after a 30 minute run, you can bet that number is off by up 15%, maybe more. If you’re counting calories, that can really mess up your totals.
- Sitting on Our Collective Butts – And then there’s that general lack of movement. What you may not realize is that Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenisis (or NEAT) is part of the overall calories you burn each day. How many calories do you think you burn when you sit as opposed to standing or moving around? Yeah.
What’s the Answer?
Now, I don’t mean to stress you out even more with all these numbers and stuff. What I’m trying to do is, first, educate you about all the all the things that contribute to your weight and your health. It’s not just because you suck, so you can stop kicking yourself and feeling guilty for failing.
It’s easy to fail in the environment we live in. And, failing is always a part of success…you know that, right?
So, let’s get to the good stuff, the most important thing I want you to remember: You can do something about this and it doesn’t have to be hard.
Forget About Will Power or Self-Control
If you’re not losing weight, you probably think it’s because you just don’t have enough willpower or self-control. You think – “I was all prepared to order that salad but, when I got there, I was suddenly eating a cheeseburger.” Then you feel guilty and like a loser. But, wait. That isn’t really the case.
The truth is willpower is a bunch of crap. Yes, willpower can help you in certain moments, but willpower doesn’t have enough stamina to last through all the decisions and choices you have to make each day. And those choices are what determine weight loss.
Here’s something interesting about the human brain
Losing weight is all about one decision at a time. The decision to drink water instead of Coke. The decision to go for a walk instead of sit. The decision to get your dressing on the side.
Yes, that’s simplistic, but it really is all about the choices you make every day and we have to make a lot of them. What does that have to do with anything? First, Do you know what happens each time you face a choice and have to make a decision? Your brain gets tired. Every single decision drains your brain of energy, thus making each subsequent decision harder and harder.
Here’s what David Rock, who wrote Your Brain at Work (an excellent book) has to say:
“Conscious mental activities chew up metabolic resources, the fuel in your blood, significantly faster than automatic brain functions…Your best quality thinking lasts for a limited time.”
And here’s my absolute favorite part of his reasoning:
“The answer is not always just to ‘try harder.'”
Just think about it. You wake up in the morning and have a healthy breakfast. But, by the time you hit lunchtime, you’ve probably made thousands of other decisions and now? You’re hungry. So you’re brain is tired and needs fuel and so does your body.
If someone is standing in front of you with an apple or a donut, what are the chances you’ll choose the apple? In that kind of shape? Probably not great.
Making it Easy to Make Better Choices
The real secret to exercising and losing weight lie in a few key behaviors and tricks.
- Make exercise a habit – This is probably the single most important thing that will help you when your willpower is on the fritz. I’ll cover this in depth later but, for right now, here are some quick tips for this:
- Do something every day – It doesn’t really matter what you do, so much as just showing up every day for some kind of exercise. It could be walking every day or you could set up a more complex program.
- Do it at the same time every day if you can – Doing this starts to teach your brain that this is your exercise time. Do it long enough and you’ll automatically be programmed for exercise.
- Make it easy to be healthy – In order to make good decisions, you need to eliminate the things that make them hard. For example, it’s easy to choose an apple when that’s all you have available. But if you know there’s a box of cookies in the cabinet…well, you get the picture.
- Clean out your pantry – If I have Doritoes in the house, I will eat them. The entire bag. I’ve made it a rule to NOT have them in my house. If I really want them, I can go out and get them but I’m lazy, so I know I probably won’t do that. Set rules for what you allow in the house. You don’t forbid yourself to eat it – We all need treats now and then – But if it’s not there, you won’t eat it. And if you really want it, you can always go get it. Sometimes just knowing that is enough.
- Make it easier to exercise – The hardest part of any workout is just starting, but there are tricks exercisers use to make it easier.
- Habit – I mentioned this before. If you’re used to doing it, it’s less of a hassle to get yourself going.
- Be prepared – Yes, Boy Scouts (aren’t the Girl Scouts supposed to be prepared too?), that means get everything you need before your workout. If I can’t find my shoe or my water bottle or whatever, that’s just one more reason to say ‘screw it.’ Get every single thing you need – Clothes, water, food, watch, etc. the night before. Put it next to your bed or somewhere close.
- Put on your workout clothes right away – As soon as you get up, if you’re a morning exerciser, or when you get home from work. Waiting will only give you more space between your intension to workout and all the excuses you can come up with in the meantime.
- Know what you’re doing – Have a plan. If you need help with that, hire a trainer, go check out some of my programs at Verywell.com or consider working with me. I’m good at that kind of thing.
Okay, so, you’ve got a broad outline of behaviors, but where do you actually start? I’ll tell you:
Pick One Thing
Today, pick one thing you need to work on. It can be anything – Maybe you need to work on exercising more or maybe you snack too much after dinner. Whatever it is, it bugs you and every day, you promise you’ll do better and you don’t.
Pick that thing and look at it. Really, look at it. Get some paper and write about it, if you can. Ask questions:
- Why do you keep skipping your workouts? Is it because you hate them? Or you don’t know what you’re doing? Or you don’t have the right shoes?
- Why do you snack at night? Is it because you’re bored or is it just a bad habit?
Once you’ve picked that thing, figure out some solutions. What could you do to fix it? If you hate your workouts, what’s an activity you don’t hate? If you can’t figure out what to do, who could you ask?
Think of it like this: If a friend were to come to you and lay out the problem you’re wrestling with, what would you tell them to do?
Tell yourself that.
Now, you have something to work on. And that one thing is all you have to work on. I’m giving you permission to forget about all the other stuff you’re doing wrong because, remember what I said above? Your brain doesn’t like multitasking or making tons and tons of decisions.
Right now, just use your energy on that one thing. Every day, that’s your focus – That One Thing.
When you’re done with that one thing, when you feel that you’ve mastered that, pick the Next Thing.
Slow and Steady
I know. This approach isn’t very sexy, is it? There’s no instant gratification. No quick weight loss. No amazing results! Just you and your one thing. But when you change that One Thing? That’s a change that will last. That’s a change that will go so deep, you won’t even remember when you were doing (or not doing) that One Thing.
Just One Thing.
Rock, David. Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. Harper Collins E-. Print.