Monday, January 7, 2013

New Year, New You

It’s early January, so it’s that time again when millions of Americans make resolutions that are made to be broken. In fact, since today is the 7th, it’s possible that many of those millions have already fallen off the resolution wagon.

Most of these resolutions center around diet and weight loss. Unfortunately, we are already setting ourselves up to fail by making these promises in January, a cold month in which the body is biologically programmed to eat more and move less in order to conserve heat.

More broadly, our brain is designed to form habits and make it difficult to break those habits. Most diets fail, and dieters end up gaining even more weight. So it seems that in order to lose weight, one must break out of that pattern and find a completely different way to change behavior.

When we moved to Florida last summer, I was pretty much at my ideal weight, but still flabby in all kinds of places. Since I really don’t like the bony chest and sunken eyes look, I decided that rather than attempt to lose more weight, I’d hire a personal trainer, get serious about the weight lifting, and tighten up all those flabby areas. I’d been consistent about cardio, but there was no weight training in my exercise routine.

My new gym made it easy; it has you buy a package of sessions in which the price goes down the more you buy. The salesman at the gym gave me an enticing pitch – adding weight training to my routine would speed up my metabolism, allowing me to eat more and do less cardio. A sign posted near the treadmills emphasizes this message, saying that weight training burns nine times more calories than cardio alone.

So I developed a routine of having personal training sessions twice a week with a trainer who varied the routine every time and made each session more challenging. I even added a “learn to run” program a few months ago, spending 2-3 times a week on the treadmill trying to up the number of minutes in a half hour I could run.

So what happened? I’ve gained six pounds. And no, these are not “muscle weighs more than fat” pounds. These are “your favorite clothes don’t fit any more” pounds.

The stupid exercise that was supposed to tighten up my flab and rev up my metabolism made me constantly hungry all afternoon. I started snacking at times I hadn’t, and eating foods that I knew weren’t filling me up.

So while the evidence seems to say that the best way to lose the weight and go back to eating less would be to go back to being a couch potato, I like being stronger, having better balance and being able to run for longer than 90 seconds at a time. So it looks like it’s time to dive back into better eating habits.

I wanted to make “healthy eating” a habit just as much as going to the gym had become, so I bought two books: “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by Charles Duhigg, and “The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You can Do to Get More of It,” by Kelly McGonigal. Interestingly, both books contained – but did not acknowledge-- the same paradox: They both cited studies that people who had begun exercise or money management programs developed better habits in other areas of their lives, as well as studies that showed that willpower is a finite resource and people who use it in one area of their lives are left depleted in others (Hence, overeating after exercising.)

Duhigg’s book has a simple hypothesis that habit is formed through a trigger-action-reward chain, and just about any habit can be developed or broken by substituting one action for another in that chain. The trigger can be something as simple as a certain time of day or the sight of your spouse’s dirty socks on the floor. I found the hypothesis intriguing and some examples compelling, but I’m not sure it’s necessary helpful for people who chose the wrong foods. He did have a personal example of this; about eating a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon at work. He realized that he used the cookie as an excuse to get up and socialize and thus was able to eliminate it from his diet. Maybe if the trigger were actual hunger, it wouldn’t have been so easy. If so, it would be just as easy to substitute a banana for that chocolate chip cookie, and believe me, that’s not an easy substitution at all!

The willpower book was definitely more relevant to the eating right quandary. Although McGonigal also cited exercisers who blew their diets, she also looked at when, why and how willpower seems to be depleted and how to manufacture more of it. Along with the traditional “write down everything you eat” advice, McGonigal says that five minutes of meditation a day helps people keep focused on their willpower goals. She also recommends exercises that slow down the breathing to 2-4 breaths a minute.

This advice sounds easier that going back on Weight Watchers for the 100th time. (Although the meditation first struck me as “Great, another thing I have to do!”) For the past few days I’ve been writing down everything I’ve eaten, and I’m hoping to find a trigger and reward in order to make it a habit. Most dieters already do this, either through Weight Watchers or some other kind of program, but I’d always fall out of the habit because I eat mostly the same thing every day and could justify not writing it down since it was the same as the day before.

I do have other goals for 2013 – read more classics, watch less TV. I even have “take more baths” on that list because we have a huge Jacuzzi tub that I’ve only used twice since we moved in. I hope these books help me make these goals into habits. I really miss wearing my Calvin Klein skinny jeans.

Best of luck to everyone on meeting their 2013 goals!

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