By Dennis Brabham, Melissa Hantman, William Whitney, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Americans are highly motivated to lose weight—as a growing list of best-selling books and highly trafficked dieting Web sites attest. We're just not approaching it the right way. The pressure we put on ourselves to succeed—and the self-criticism we indulge in when we fall short of the mark—can have dire emotional and dietary repercussions.
Consider that pair of jeans hanging reproachfully in the closet. You realize they don't fit, and you feel unattractive and worthless. This tendency to evaluate yourself too harshly will only make you give up altogether. You want to head to the fridge for solace.
You need to identify the things you're telling yourself that cause you to feel discouraged and to throw in the towel. Don't beat yourself up when you overeat. Accept that you acted in a self-defeating way, then establish better methods to meet your goal. Review what you'd like to do and work toward that goal.
Perhaps you're not (yet) berating yourself for failures, but putting inordinate pressure on yourself to succeed. When you tell yourself, "I must lose 25 pounds by Valentine's Day, or I'll never get a date," you're setting yourself up for emotional turmoil, as well as weight-loss failure. Losing weight in a prescribed amount of time is a worthy goal, but the perfectionist premise that sneaks into your thinking may well interfere with sensible eating and exercise.
In a perfect universe, the sight of those jeans, or the knowledge that Valentine's Day is around the corner, would elicit rational thoughts like, "I'm going to look great soon, and I'm going to enjoy the challenge of eating sensibly and exercising along the way." But few of us think that.
PT spoke with Nando Pelusi and Mitchell Robin, clinical psychologists in New York City, about what we really tell ourselves, sabotaging our own best efforts to lose weight—or meet any goal.
This creates desperation, which undermines a healthy long-range approach to sensible eating. Also, perfectionism pervades this thinking (I must not only be thin, but also perfect).
Early humans lived in an environment in which food resources were scarce. While our ancestors had to hunt down squirrels and eat them, we can supersize a Whopper meal and skip the workout.
The demand for immediate improvement undermines commitment to a long-term goal. Quick fixes are hard to pass up: "This cupcake will make me feel good right now." We think, why bother eating healthfully, when the reward is far off? Dieting requires present-moment frustration and self-denial with little immediate reward.
People eat to avoid feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Fatty and sugary food provides immediate comfort and distraction from other issues. Resolving some of these problems may help you overcome poor eating habits.
"It's terrible being heavy." For some, being overweight is the worst thing imaginable; it can immobilize you and leave you dumbstruck. That's a reaction more suited to tragedy. Weight loss is best achieved without that end-of-the-world outlook.
"It's just too hard to diet." This thinking renders you helpless. People who are easily frustrated want easy solutions. We're seduced by fad diets because they appeal to that immediacy. Yet people who rely on fads suffer high failure rates. When you diet with the short term in mind, you don't learn strategies that require patience and persistence.
"Because I am having trouble in this one area I am worthless." Being overweight can be viewed as a sign of weakness or worthlessness, and most people aren't motivated when they feel that way. Another form of worthlessness: "My worth is dependent on my looks." This idea confuses beauty with thinness, a concept played out endlessly in the media.
Now that you've thrown out your irrational thinking, a little motivation is key to change. But how do you make that leap? Psychologist and marathon runner Michael Gilewski has found that the brain can achieve a state of habitual behavior through small successes—turning a once extraordinary effort into mere routine.
"Even when someone climbs Mount Everest, it's usually not his first time climbing," he points out. Perhaps motivation may simply be the product of positive reinforcement and repeated success.
PT asked five expert motivators—including an active-duty drill sergeant and a rock-climbing instructor—how they rally everyone from first-time dieters to hard-core soldiers.
Inspiration From Within
Deborah Low is a certified weight management and lifestyle consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"We have an all-or-nothing attitude: If we don't do our full hour at the gym, we may as well sit around and eat junk food. If you feel guilty and punish yourself, you may eat 10 cookies instead of 2. If you criticize yourself, you'll never change.
"Motivation is something we get from other people; but inspiration swells within us. Thinking 'I'll lose weight and then I'll be happy' is not enough. If we respect and love ourselves, independent of our weight, it's easier to make healthy choices.
"We struggle because we're fixated on the end result. We force ourselves to go to the gym, restrict food, measure and weigh ourselves. You let that number on the scale determine how your day's going to go. I ask clients to remember what it was like to play as a kid. You ran around, climbed on things—your goal was not to lose weight, it was to have fun. Being active gave you a sense of freedom, excitement and amazement. You have to reconnect with that emotion."
Being a Team Player
Chris Broadway instructs an Outward Bound outdoor classroom on Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine.
"I set the tone of team spirit in the beginning; I teach one person a skill, and his or her responsibility is to teach everyone else. We let the students make their own mistakes. We expect students to have problems, as the activities we construct are a challenge. Discouragement can occur, but we celebrate accomplishments. Students set their own level of achievement. Some have a focus on the end result, but not everyone is results-oriented. Some want to measure success by relationships they form, by the process itself.
"Another motivating factor is how their experience here connects to their lives. We create situations where there are actual risks and perceived risks, as in sailing. We let the group navigate ahead of a storm, deciding when to pull back and when to move forward. We show them how to apply these situations to their own businesses or personal lives—calculate the risk, know when to take it or when to step back.
"It's so much more powerful when another student steps up to deliver the message of leadership. As instructors, we're always building their tool kit so they have the means to do that. With a group of 12, it's difficult to hide in the background. Even if someone's in a slump, he or she absolutely needs to fill a role."
Savor Every Mountain
John Joline is a climbing instructor at Dartmouth College.
"Certain kinds of teaching are done from below—telling people what to do but being removed from the activity. I try to teach from above—I climb with my students, participating fully in the activity. I make my enthusiasm infectious.
"Even a climb well within your physical limits—if you strive to climb it beautifully—can be challenging and rewarding. Our culture puts emphasis on goals, on absolutes. We're taught to believe competition should be ferocious. But if we lose that sense of fun, of delight, all the haranguing in the world from an instructor won't give a student lasting motivation. The bottom line is to savor the movement, the physical sensation of moving up the rock and over the stone. That itself becomes a reward compelling enough to keep one involved.
"For someone in his or her mid-30s or older, climbing is still seen as a potentially dangerous sport, daring and terrifying. It's a mental construct that can be inhibiting. Plus, for white-collar workers, running hands and fingers over rough rock could be shocking to the system."
Coming Home Alive
Billie Jo Miranda is a U.S. Army drill sergeant in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
"The goal is being prepared for war and coming home alive. The [desire to] drop out occurs in the first few weeks. Once they learn they have a comfort zone, get along and trust people, we're pretty much over the hump. We motivate through example; we do it next to, in front of and behind them. We tailor training around the weakest soldier. It may not be beneficial for the soldier who was a college athlete, but everybody is part of a team, they push each other.
"There will be those who do the minimum. Today's youth are Nintendo children. Training requires them to get out of bed and walk an extra mile. The more rigor you put into training, the more a soldier knows what he can accomplish in combat. They shouldn't enjoy training. It should hurt physically and mentally. And they hate it. But we want them to enjoy the accomplishment.
"If you have heart, you have the motivation and the desire to get through anything. It's a patriotic thought process: What we're doing is for the betterment of America. When they say, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' just give me 10 minutes with a soldier and she'll do a 180. We use their being volunteers as a motivational tool: 'Soldier, I didn't ask you to come here. You obviously joined the military for a reason, you wanted to do something for your country.'"
Think Like a Thermostat
Peter Catina is a professor of exercise physiology at Pennsylvania State University.
"Most elite athletes are already at the top of their sport, and to reach the next level is a challenge. But it's difficult to sustain your level when you're at your pinnacle—novice or expert. Everyone must have both physical and mental discipline.
"Self-regulation is key; you can make it simple by being your own monitor. You have to think like a thermostat—be able to detect a discrepancy between the environment and your internal standard. It's the difference between your current state and where your mind and body would like to be. You can then adjust—raise your standards to meet your expectations—through strategy and action. Some of us are born with high self-regulatory skills, but I can identify clients who lack the know—how and I teach them. Awareness is the first step: noting how many calories you've consumed, how effective your exercise is, how frequently and intensely you've exercised.
"Aerobics is no longer the panacea for losing weight. It's the change in body composition that makes you look better, and for that, strength training is more effective. Don't constantly weigh yourself, since muscle weighs more than fat. Instead, measure your body mass index—or even your waist—and only once every four to six weeks. I've had many female clients gain five pounds but go down three dress sizes."