Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"I Decided"

I have described how years ago I lost 60 lbs over the period of a year, going from tubby to normal weight. I have mostly kept the weight off for more than two decades.

A couple of years ago, I ran into a longtime friend who is reaching a point where he can likely envision retirement from his teaching career on the horizon. He was my boss when I worked at Boy Scout camp as a teenager. Back in those days my friend was thin and wiry. Like almost every other middle age American, the years had added a bit of padding around his formerly lithe middle.

The day I encountered my friend after not seeing him for half a year or so, he looked decidedly older. But he also looked to be about the same size he was back when I worked for him. The excess pounds were gone. He had shed 70 lbs from a high of 203 lbs (which is plenty for a guy of his stature).

My first question was whether my friend was in good health. He told me that people ask him and his wife all of the time whether he has cancer or not. He assured me that he was in top health. In fact, he said that he hadn’t felt so good in years.

Having been through my own weight control challenges, I asked my friend what he had done. He said simply, “I decided.” When he saw my questioning look, he continued, “I decided to do what had to be done to lose the excess weight. Making the commitment was the hardest part.” He then flattered me by suggesting that I had been part of his motivation. Having seen me do it, he knew it could be done.

My friend’s approach to weight loss differed somewhat from my own. He employed a self designed approach focused on reduced calorie intake. This was not something he jumped into without research. There is a growing body of evidence that supports the concept that maintaining a restricted but adequate calorie intake both improves health and lengthens lifespan.

The plan was simple. Eat only at regular mealtimes (three times daily). Eat only a (truly) reasonable portion of the elements of a balanced meal at each mealtime. Eat nothing else at all. No between meal snacks. No dessert items — ever.

By implementing this plan, my friend was pleased to watch the excess pounds melt away over the months until he was normal weight for his frame. He boasts of pleasantly hiking to Angels Landing in Zion National Park without ever feeling out of breath or fatigued.

At the time I met up with my friend, I had slowly added about 10 lbs that were proving stubborn to get off. Having inspired my friend, I felt inspired by him. Last spring I decided to get rid of those extra pounds. Once the commitment was made for real, I found a way to successfully shed the weight and fit comfortably into my pants again.  It is surprising how much of a difference 10 lbs makes in stamina, agility, heart rate, blood pressure, just breathing, and general physical health.

My approach to weight loss isn’t like my friend’s. He says that for him it is a good thing to keep his appetite perpetually keen. He feels that self denial adds moral and mental strength. Besides, he loves his grandchildren so much that he wants to perpetuate his life as long as possible. If the research is correct, he is well on his way to his goal.

But not everyone shares my friend’s level of self discipline. Hunger is the bane of most people trying to lose weight. When hunger strikes dieters tend to eat excess calories, often of the variety they would normally avoid while trying to lose pounds. For this reason, many weight loss coaches suggest eating small but adequate meals and healthy snacks throughout the day to prevent hunger buildup.

Over the years I have discovered that no single weight loss plan really works for everyone that desires to lose weight. It’s not simply whether it works scientifically. There are hundreds of plans out there that do that. A plan has to work socially and psychologically for the individual as well.

For this reason, weight loss is a highly personalized thing. Each person has to find a plan that actually works for them. That might take muddling around until you find the right thing. In fact, it may require changing approaches over the years as you and your social situations evolve.

But the more I think about it, the more I think my friend is right. The biggest key to weight loss is deciding to do it. Once the commitment is firmly made, you will put up with a lot of things you wouldn’t have endured before making the commitment. Once the commitment is made you will find a plan that works for you.

But making a commitment is a two part thing. A commitment is no good if you don’t know where you’re going. You have to have a goal. My friend’s goal was to get back to his normal weight of yore. He made it. Those that are 70 lbs overweight but commit to simply “lose weight” will be far less likely to find success. A specific but realistic goal is an indispensible element of making a commitment of this nature.

Without a real goal-oriented commitment you will tend to sabotage your imagined purpose. My Mom attends a water aerobics class with some friends several times weekly. Mom complains that her friends want to stop at McDonald’s for a treat after almost every exercise session. This is an example of the well known exercise-reward-sabotage syndrome.

It takes an awful lot of physical exertion to burn 100 calories. Experts have long known that people that work out tend to reward themselves afterward with more calories than they burned during their workout. One of Mom’s exercise friends complains that she can’t seem to lose any weight no matter what she does. Her real problem is a lack of a real target and a real commitment.

You want to lose weight? The first step is a serious commitment. The rest will fill itself in. And who knows? Maybe you will end up being an inspiration to somebody else.

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