After an absolutely insanely challenging year, we find ourselves once again smack dab in the middle of January, the start of a brand new year and in the throws of the unofficial International Diet Month. This is the time of year when the diet and fitness industries pull out all the stops with all the gimmicks and enticements they can throw out to lure us in.
Unfortunately, all the lofty goals and resolutions we set this time of year are out the window by February for the majority of us. The following are a few things to think about to help give you a different perspective on approaching this New Year and help set intentions that are both meaningful and lasting.
Making Weight Loss Your Main Focus Isn't Necessarily Healthy.
Lose weight. This is the common answer to seemingly every health problem and the main reason many clients want to work with me. But when we focus on the scale as the end all be all determinant of health we miss the forest for the trees.
The popular belief is that our extra weight is the source of all our problems and if we could just get it off by any means possible we would finally have succeeded. Many of us are looking for that magic plan that will once and for all help us lose the weight and keep it off.
The problem is that when our main focus is weight loss we tend to turn to extreme quick fixes. Whole30 anyone? These typically very restrictive, unsustainable diets may work, but only temporarily, leading to weight cycling (aka yo-yo dieting) for the vast majority, upwards of 90-95% of people. The simple truth is that attempting to alter your body through dieting often results in the exact opposite of your intended goal: weight gain. As one researcher on this subject put it, the phenomenon that weight regain eventually follows intentional weight loss is as certain as smoking causing cancer.
The kind of up-and-down weight cycling so many of us do, over and over, believing that we're trying to make ourselves healthier, is almost certainly hurting our physical and mental health in ways we don't yet understand, but that are becoming more clear. An ever-growing body of research suggests that losing and regaining weight over and over correlates with higher levels of heart disease, impaired immune function, cardiometabolic risk, insulin resistance, increased triglycerides, and hypertension.
As if all of these physical ill effects weren't enough to give us caution, we also know that weight cycling and going on and off diets can have a negative impact on our mental health. Some of those include decreased self-esteem, increased sense of failure, increased preoccupation with weight, disordered eating and increased incidence of diagnosed eating disorders, such as anorexia or binge eating disorder. (Eating disorders are often triggered by the start of a seemingly innocent diet).
Ultimately the extreme diets and plans this time of year do not deliver what they promise and instead of making us healthier, actually do the exact opposite.
Be a Friend to Yourself, Instead of Your Worst Enemy
Many of us approach New Year's resolutions from a very self critical place full of guilt and shame for past or even current behaviors. Coming instead from a place of kindness towards yourself, not a desperate place of self-loathing, is a more effective approach to reaching goals. Ultimately what we know is that shame, guilt, and self-hatred aren't motivating. This isn't just some pie in the sky notion, but instead is backed by loads of research on the subject.
As discussed in a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast, episode #309, Study after study has shown that if you are looking to stick to long term goals, you are more likely to succeed if you have a self-compassionate approach as opposed to an inner drill sergeant who is constantly self-lacerating.
The common theme of this month of January is that we all need fixing and marketers and the diet and fitness industry claim to have all the answers. This idea automatically puts in our minds that we are flawed, making it very difficult to practice true self-care and kindness. Resisting the messages being thrown at us that we are damaged goods in need of rescue from ourselves can be challenging, but so much more effective in finding sustainable ways to live and be healthy, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
If you're interested in learning more about this idea of self-love and self-compassion, that is so foreign to most of us, I highly recommend the Ten Percent Happier podcast, specifically episodes #309 and #310, or anything written by Kristen Neff, one of the premier experts on the subject.
Focusing on Behaviors and Actions, Not Weight, is a Far More Sustainable Approach.
The focus of my work with every single one of my clients is on changing and improving behaviors and helping them set actionable intentions and goals that make them feel good in their bodies and improve their overall health. Whether your goal is to improve health or feel better in your body, the behaviors we do day in and day out are where it's at. When we look at the science, people who follow healthy habits for enjoyment and wellbeing rather than weight loss are more likely to stick to the lifestyle changes.
If you think about it, weight is not a behavior, so setting your sites on weight loss isn’t really a productive goal. Changing our focus to the actionable things we can do to improve health, versus trying to control the number on the scale, is empowering. We know that there are certain habits that positively impact our health and mortality. Things like moving our bodies regularly, including fruits and vegetables several times a day, drinking moderately, getting good quality sleep, eating regularly, and reducing stress.
Instead of keeping the focus on the scale, and setting a goal to lose weight, you might consider creating a list of actions you can take, like, I will…
• Take a 10 minute walk every day.
• Start the day with a balanced breakfast.
• Take a few minutes each day to take a few deep breaths.
• Stretch for five minutes before I go to bed.
• Go to bed at 10:00 p.m. (or at a time that allows you seven or more hours of sleep.)
The less extreme, and more doable and realistic your actions are, the better. One of the specific things on my mind to improve right now is eating more fruit. It just doesn't come naturally to me and I have to be intentional about it. So I have realized I enjoy mixed fruit or a fruit salad prepared and ready when I am, and that helps me to eat more of it. So my I will is I will make a fruit salad at the beginning of each week.
Research reveals that most health indicators can be improved through this focus on health behaviors, regardless of whether weight is lost. Lifestyle changes alone have been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower blood lipids- such as triglycerides and cholesterol, and improve insulin sensitivity, largely or completely independent of changes in body weight. In fact, in one study, improvements in insulin sensitivity and blood lipids as a result of incorporating aerobic exercise training were seen in individuals who gained body fat during the intervention. In a culture obsessed with our weight and the scale this can hard to fully comprehend, but it's true.
Despite what we're told, real change and self-improvement doesn't happen overnight. The end goal should be to create goals, intentions, resolutions – whatever you want to call them- that bring positive lasting change, not added suffering. If you are white knuckling your way through that diet or workout plan, what are the chances you will stick with it long-term…really? A health and/or fitness plan should complement, enhance, and fit into your life; not dominate it and make you miserable. With a shift in focus away from weight loss, a little kindness towards yourself, and setting some actionable behavioral goals; meaningful, lasting change, with health improvements as a result is absolutely possible!