May 17, 2011
Calories in, calories out — in theory, losing weight should be that simple. But we’re going to venture a guess that the reason two thirds of Americans are classified as overweight or obese isn’t because they can’t do basic math. Age, genetics, hormones, and the big one — a lack of will power — better explain the disconnect between wanting to lose weight and actually doing it.In fact, while 84 percent of people claim they’re trying to take better care of their health today than just a few years ago, 59 percent of people reported they don’t have the will power to change their habits, according to a recent survey by The Futures Company. Lack of will power is the number one barrier preventing Americans from living healthier lifestyles, ranking higher than a lack of money, time, desire, and a perceived lack of need, according to the survey.So what’s the secret to propelling yourself from an “ah-ha” moment to reaching a healthy weight? It’s all about the day-to-day. Focusing on lifestyle changes, heeding the right how-to advice, and finding support from a group of like-minded peers will help you stay on track better than if you focused on the impetus (a scary obesity poster in the subway) or the end result (fitting into your skinny jeans again).Here, we sift through motivation research and enlist the help of Andy Core, an exercise physiologist, motivational speaker, and author of the forthcoming book “Why Don’t I Do What I Know That I Should?,” to muddle through five motivation misconceptions—and provide the help you need to stay on track.Myth 1: Knowledge is power.The Reality: Information can be ineffective if you don’t know how to apply it.You’re overweight. And if you don’t lose weight, you’re putting yourself at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and early death. The message is clear and it’s one that’s been hammered into our heads via every medium available. Still, even the most scientifically sound PSAs or flashiest billboards are void of a vital piece of information — how one actually goes about losing weight.“Knowledge without application is guilt-inducing,” says Core, adding that over time, information overload can actually become demotivating. “In a way, it’s better not to know than to know and to not do,” he says.A better solution: “If you really want to move people — busy, working people — to change, you need to use direction versus information,” says Core.Research suggests that directions are more motivating than cold hard facts. When University of Missouri scientists analyzed data from 358 reports on the success rates of interventions designed to increase physical activity among 99,000 healthy adults, programs that focused on behavior change — feedback, goal setting, calorie and weight tracking, and exercise recommendations—were better predictors of success than cognitive-based approaches, those that focused on education and changing attitudes.Myth 2: The end result is what matters.The Reality: Enjoying the path to success is what helps you reach it.You know the Chinese proverb “The journey is the reward,” but you’ve probably never thought of it in terms of losing weight. The reward typically associated with a diet and exercise plan is watching your goal weight calibrate on the bathroom scale. But according to Core, thinking ahead to that magical day isn’t enough to motivate you to get there. “Starting with the end in mind is the fast track to failure in a health-improvement program,” he says. “You want to have goals, but your daily focus should be on gaining gratification from checking the box.”“Checking the box” could mean finishing a workout, drinking eight glasses of water in a given day, or dedicating 10 minutes in the evening to laying out your gym clothes and making a healthy lunch for the next day, says Core. The important thing is that it becomes a positive experience that you want to repeat, he says, adding that setting up healthy lifestyle patterns helps you build the momentum necessary to reach a weight loss goal.In a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study, 136 women between the ages of 44 and 55 with BMIs of 25 to 38 took part in a weight loss program focused on adopting small changes in their diet and exercise patterns. Researchers made specific recommendations for daily caloric intake and exercise frequency and monitored participants’ weight on a weekly basis. After 4 months, the women had lost 6.2 percent of their body weight, on average, and reported being highly motivated by the improvements in mood, increased energy levels, and better sleep quality that resulted from increased exercise. Study authors concluded that feelings of enjoyment and interest in physical activity helped explain the effectiveness of the intervention beyond seeing a lower number on the scale.Myth 3: I am my own biggest motivator.The Reality: Social support is essential to reaching a weight loss goal.You could have all the gumption in the world, but it won’t get you far if you’re going at weight loss alone—or from inside a circle of friends who make unhealthy decisions, says Core.Research suggests that having obese friends can make you gain weight, too — and that your peers can help you lose weight or maintain weight loss. The trick to using social support to your advantage is surrounding yourself with the right company. “Ask yourself Are my family and friends encouragers, or are they part of the problem?” Core suggests. Think about your coworkers, too. “Working adults spend most of their waking hours at the office, so if the workplace doesn’t have your back, that’s a big roadblock to sustaining motivation,” says Core.And don’t forget about your online support structure. In a study published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics, researchers at University of Texas Medical School at Houston surveyed 193 members of the SparkPeople online weight loss community and found that 88 percent of respondents used the site for encouragement and motivation, while 59 percent used it as a source of information and 43 percent as an outlet for sharing experiences.Myth 4: Scare tactics work.The Reality: Messages that evoke strong emotion only work if you’re unaware of a threat.Scare tactics — from in-your-face ads depicting the consequences of obesity to a doctor’s chiding for your through-the-roof cholesterol — will make your stomach churn, but they’re not always effective at promoting a change in behavior, especially if you’re overweight and understand that unhealthy food and drink choices are part of the reason why. “If people are already aware — and most are hammered with information — it’s harassment at best and demotivation at worst,” says Core, explaining that guilt is not an effective motivator. “If the choice to change is pressured upon you by other people, then the long-term success rate is really slim,” he says.Consumers tend to agree. When researchers asked 142 obese adults about their opinions on things like public health initiatives, media campaigns, commercial diets, and fitness programs for a survey published in the journal BMC Public Health, they found that respondents preferred interventions focused on lifestyle changes rather than those that strictly promoted weight loss and rated programs that were judgmental, stigmatizing, or shameful as least effective.In a society overloaded with information, it’s hard to control the messages coming at you (ever tried turning off a billboard?), but you can seek out the positives. Look to weight loss success stories or case studies for inspiration, suggests Core. “As a motivational speaker, it’s like a holy grail for me if I can get someone to think If they can do it, maybe I can do it, too,” he says.It’s also important to surround yourself with powerful cues that will aid in making healthy changes, says Core. These can be things like checklists on your fridge, bathroom mirror, or smartphone or photos of yourself at a smaller size. These cues will help you stay motivated from within, says Core, explaining that dieters will be more successful in the long-term if they are fueled by self-determination and decide to make lifestyle changes without external interference.Myth 5: Failure is a sign of weakness.The Reality: Failure results from a lack of preparation or poor behavior patterns.If you hit a weight loss plateau or derail your diet over a holiday weekend, it’s not a reflection on your character and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it, says Core, explaining that core values don’t drive motivation.“Most people at some point in their lives have felt motivated to live healthy,” says Core. “Those same people have also felt unmotivated,” he adds, explaining that the two sometimes happen just days apart. “In a period of days, your core values, your metabolism, the way you were raised, and your life experiences haven’t changed.”What did change: your habits. Perhaps you stopped tracking calories or skipped a series of workouts and feel like you’ve completely killed your diet. The best way to power past a slip-up: “Think execution versus outcome,” suggests Core. “Reenergize and refocus on checking the box. Don’t focus on what good things happen if you do, or bad things happen if you don’t.” And to make weight loss goals — and mistakes — more manageable from a success/failure standpoint, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. “You don’t have to change your life; you only have to change your day,” says Core.