Anyone who has ever tried to lose a significant amount of weight will tell you that it's one of the hardest things they've ever done. It takes an endless supply of motivation and willpower, not to mention serious knowledge of what's going on in your body, financial resources, and serious emotional support. And, even if you do manage to accomplish your goals, maintaining what you've achieved can be even harder than achieving it in the first place.
About six years ago, I lost 60 pounds over the course of nine months, through a combination of diet changes (mainly portion control) and seemingly endless hours at the gym. To say that the experience was incredibly illuminating would be a massive understatement. I learned more about myself in those nine months than I had my entire life — and a lot of it wasn't pretty. The process was as much an emotional catharsis as it was a physical one. All the hateful thoughts I had built up about myself, all the self-control issues, all the laziness and negativity and shame came flooding out. A huge part of the battle became addressing these thoughts, and replacing them with positive ones. Even more than the physical challenge, getting healthy was an overwhelmingly psychological battle.
More and more experts are pointing to all sorts of scientific evidence suggesting that achieving our fitness goals depends on way more than gym time and diet changes. It turns out that sleeping habits, for example, can sabotage even the most dedicated dieters. Sleep apnea and other disorders can lead to everything from chronic fatigue to blood sugar issues (which make it even more difficult to make good food choices) to depression. According to Dr. Sabrina Magid-Katz, not getting enough sleep "affects the levels and response to hormones called leptin and ghrelin, which make it harder to lose weight and actually contributes to increased appetite and poorer food choices."
But, as many people who struggle with weight loss know all too well, we can be our own worst enemy. The APA cites emotions as the number one obstacle to successful weight loss. The shame and guilt that many people feel about their weight and their dietary choices often make it extraordinarily difficult to create real, lasting change, no matter their intentions. Studies have shown that feeling guilty about what we eat doesn't make us eat better — it makes us much less likely to accomplish our objectives.
And, it seems that our bodies can affect our thoughts and emotions in ways that we don't even realize. Research has long suggested that the brains of heavier people are more vulnerable to the effects of food. One study showed that images of food activated reward centers and blunted satiety signals in the brains of overweight people, but not in their fitter counterparts. People who are overweight thus face an uphill battle — they must overcome wiring in their brain that predisposes them to crave and binge.
But, it goes even deeper. A sophisticated new study, published last month in the International Journal of Obesity, compared the brain processes of heavier women and fit women in response to images of exercise. Among the overweight participants, images of people exercising activated parts of the brain associated with negative emotions, while pleasure centers remained inactive. In active women, the findings were reversed. Apparently, the brains of overweight individuals are wired to form a negative association with exercise.
On the one hand, this isn't terribly surprising. Our attitudes about exercise are affected by a wide variety of factors, from body image issues to self-consciousness about our fitness level and abilities. Indeed, even the fittest among us can feel a bit uncomfortable at the gym. But, what this finding demonstrates, painfully clearly, is that being overweight is what Dr. Magid-Katz calls a "vicious cycle" — feelings of negativity and brain function prevent people from accomplishing their goals, which in turn feeds their negative thoughts and further cements their aversion to exercise.
So, with so many obstacles to overcome, how can we maximize our chances of achieving our goals? We talked to Giovanni Roselli, pro trainer at Equinox in Greenwich, Connecticut, for some expert tips and strategies for actually keeping our resolutions this year.
Big surprise: One of the most important things when trying to lose weight, Roselli says, is having the right mindset. "People need to realize that they didn't gain weight in one day so they can't expect it to come off extremely quickly if done properly. They need to have the mindset that every day they are making positive choices that are eventually going to add up to significant progress," he says.
So, it's vital to take on your fitness goals one step at a time. As Roselli says, "Studies have shown that attempting to make more than one behavior change at a time leads to a very low success rate. The ideal practices should be attainable daily, are easy to understand and measure, actually feel simple to the individual, and inspire confidence and a 'can-do' attitude." And, make sure they're concrete. "Think about it, if you want to make a change that you aren't able to easily understand and measure, how likely is it that it's going to get done?"
Another major pro-tip: Numbers aren't everything. As Roselli says, "There is a big difference to losing weight and losing fat. If the scale isn't moving much, but the sizes are getting smaller, that's a good thing!" And, it goes without saying, but you need to actually eat in order to lose weight. "Starving yourself is not the way to go. In the long run, you are killing your metabolism," he says.
But, maybe the biggest secret is to get in touch with your body. Figure out what you like, what works for you. Focus on looking for options that are truly realistic and sustainable over time.
"There are many ways to achieve success," Roselli says. "What may work for some people, may not necessarily work for you — and you may not even have a lot of interest in it. You just need to find the best way for you."