Giving Up the Weight Loss Obsession

If you're like millions of people, you'd probably like to lose a little weight - maybe a lot of weight. You'd probably like to make some changes in your body - maybe around your belly or your thighs, or around your hips or butt. Maybe you've been trying to achieve this for years and you're frustrated because it hasn't happened.

If you're like most people, you've tried a number of things to make this happen.

Diets you eventually gave up on or exercise programs you've started and stopped more times than you can count. Maybe you've even bought expensive equipment, joined a gym or hired a trainer. But none of it seems to work. The question is: why?

The Weight Loss Conundrum

Though you may be asking why nothing you've tried seems to work, there's a bigger question you may need to answer: Do you really want to lose weight? If you said yes, let me ask you another, perhaps more difficult question: Are you doing everything you need to do to lose weight? Take some time to think about that and then rank the importance of losing weight on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being most important and 10 being least important). Now, think of a typical week in your life and figure out how much time you spend doing the things necessary for weight loss. Some of those tasks include:

  • Cardio exercise (5 or more times a week)
  • Strength Training (2 or more days a week)
  • Flexibility exercises
  • Being as active as possible - taking the stairs, walking when you can, moving around more, etc.
  • Eating healthy, balanced meals and watching your calories
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Managing your stress and keeping it at reasonable levels

Do you do all of these things each week? Maybe a few, but not all?

Maybe none? Take a moment to compare these two things: Where you ranked the importance of weight loss as opposed to how much time and energy you spend in the pursuit of it. If you're seeing a gap there, you're not alone. For many of us, there's a difference between what we say we want and what we actually do. Where does this gap come from? I think the disparity lies between what's really important to you and what you think should be important. If weight loss is more of a 'should,' maybe it's time to give up on it.

Giving Up the Weight Loss Obsession

The idea of giving up on losing weight may seem completely foreign to you. In fact, it may sound downright dangerous, especially if you have health issues that could be managed with weight loss. But, I'm not suggesting you stop losing weight...what I am suggesting is changing how you approach it.

One thing we know is that focusing on the process of exercise rather than the outcome leads to greater long-term success. Why is that? Because, as Dr. Jim Gavin and Madeleine McBrearty state in their IDEA Fitness Journal article, Exploring Mind-Body Modalities, "Once the pounds are off or the health risk is reduced, why would any clients continue doing something that they don't enjoy, that doesn't have intrinsic meaning...?"

In fact, in one study about exercise and motivation, researchers concluded that "...[a] change in exercise-related motivational factors, with a special emphasis on intrinsic sources of motivation (e.g., interest and enjoyment in exercise), play a more important role in longer term weight management."

With this in mind, ask yourself what would happen if you gave up on weight loss as an end result? What would happen if you freed your mind from the pursuit of an ideal you haven't been able to reach? What would happen if you forgot about results and focused on what you're getting out of your workouts right now? Are you willing to find out?

Too often, we set goals based on a body we'd like to have. Thinner thighs, flatter abs, more defined muscles...who wouldn't want that? But the dangers in these types of goals are that:

  1. There are no guarantees you'll reach them. Because your body is in charge of where the fat comes off, you might be disappointed if you don't lose fat from those problem areas as quickly as you'd like. That my lead to frustration and, of course, giving up.
  1. They don't change who you are. Changing how you look can certainly make you feel better about yourself, but you're still the same person no matter what the outside looks like. Too often we think external changes can help us deal with emotional or psychological issues but are disappointed if the same problems still exist, even after we've lost the weight.
  2. They require perfection. Weight loss goals aren't very forgiving. To lose one pound in a week, you have to consistently burn an extra 500 calories every single day. What if you have to miss a workout or eat a little too much at a party? Just one slip can set you back.
  3. They lose importance over time. We may get motivated to lose weight when our clothes feel tight or we feel guilty about overeating but that motivation will usually fade when those feelings of guilt or frustration go away.
  4. They aren't always functional. Looking great in a bathing suit is something we all want, but how often most of us wear bathing suits? Working for something that only happens once or twice a year doesn't always translate to daily life.

    If you've found that the goal to lose weight isn't enough to get you moving, it's time to explore some new ideas.

    Change Your Life, Change Your Body

    The way we often approach weight loss is that we want to change our bodies and realize that, to do that, we have to change our lives. As a result, we take some program or diet that someone else came up with and try to squeeze that into the nooks and crannies of our lives, which often doesn't work.

    But what if you started from the other direction, changing your life and letting your body respond? By doing it this way, you're implementing changes that YOU come up with and that actually work with how you live. You're no longer focusing on weight loss (e.g., I'll lose this many pounds) but on the actions you need to take to get there (e.g., I'll exercise this many times this week). This, of course, requires the ability to focus on what you're doing now rather than the future and the key to doing that is to set new goals for yourself.

    Setting New Goals

    In previous articles I've talked about the importance of setting goals using the SMART principle - i.e., they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Timely. But there are other important parts of goal-setting that have been left out of the SMART principle and they include: meaningful and functional.

    Make your goals meaningful. You may want thinner thighs or flatter abs, but how much does that really mean to you? If you're a model or celebrity, probably a lot.

    But if you're like me, an average person making a living and taking care of a family, where do flat abs and thin thighs fit in? Do you need them to be a good parent or employee? Probably not. So, in thinking about your life and the things you want to accomplish each day, what other fitness goals would have more meaning for you? If you believed that exercise would help you accomplish more each day, would you be more motivated to do it? What if it could help calm you down and reduce some tension...would you do it then?

    Taking your focus off weight loss may help you see all the ways exercise can make your life better. What meaningful goals could you set for yourself if you took weight loss out of the mix? Here are some ideas to get you started:

    • Having more energy to accomplish more each day.
    • Getting more and better quality of sleep each night.
    • Being more alert and able to concentrate.
    • Becoming a good role model for your family.
    • Increasing your body awareness and sense of accomplishment.
    • Reducing the tightness, tension and anxiety caused by stress.
    • Keeping your body strong, balanced and fit as you get older.

    Make your goal functional. Another way to change the way you look at exercise is to focus on how it improves your life right now. Functional goals, by definition, will usually be very specific and more immediate than weight loss goals. In fact, there are a variety of things you can expect immediately from just one exercise session - no waiting involved:

    • A better mood. One study found that exercisers experience immediate relief from depression.
    • Increased creativity. One study published in the Creativity Research Journal shows that exercise can increase creative potential. As a writer, I find I get some of my best ideas when I'm exercising.
    • More energy. Elizabeth Scott, About's Stress Guide, mentions in her article, Exercise and Create Energy that moving your body is a sure way to boost energy.
    • Relaxation. Some types of exercises, like yoga and Tai Chi, are known for calming the mind and body and helping you relax.
    • Lower blood pressure. Some studies have shown that regular mild exercise improves blood flow which can help lower blood pressure.

    Other functional goals may take a little time to manifest, but can be just as meaningful in your life. Think of a typical day for you and how your body feels. Do you have any chronic aches or pains that could be managed with a little more movement? Are there things you wish you could do better? Working towards something tangible can help you stay on track.

    As the studies mentioned have shown, we exercise regularly when we care about what we're trying to achieve. Weight loss, on its own, just doesn't seem to do the job, at least for the long-term. If you've tried everything and still haven't made any lasting progress, perhaps that's a sign that making changes in how your body looks isn't enough to keep you going.

    So, let's pretend that's the case and let's take weight loss off the table leaving other goals.

    The funny thing that happens is that these other goals, these meaningful and functional goals I mentioned earlier, require the same work as weight loss goals. The difference is, you get immediate results from your functional goals and that's what keeps you coming back day after day. The weight loss goals require time--weeks, months, even years. No wonder they don't keep us motivated.

    To prove this point, let's compare the two. Say your functional goal is to have more energy and your weight loss goal is to, well, lose weight. What would you have to do to have more energy? I can think of at least two things that will do the job:

    • Eat a healthy, balanced meal. Eating a balance of nutrients will give you instant energy, whereas overeating or eating too much fat can leave you feeling tired and fatigued.
    • Exercise. What happens when you move your body? Blood flows, oxygen gets to your muscles, your heart rate increases and that means instant energy both during and after your workout.

      These energy-generating tasks are also two things you would need to do to lose weight. The difference is that if your goal is to have more energy, you've reached it...no waiting required. But, if your goal is weight loss? There's no change in the scale from that one workout or that one day of healthy eating.

      With your functional goal, you've experienced success and that will boost your confidence and help you do it all again tomorrow so you can get the same results. Keep doing that and the weight will come off as well.

      Resources

      Gavin, Jim PhD, and Madeleine McBrearty, MA. "Exploring Mind-Body Modalities." IDEA Fitness Journal Volum 3, Number 6 (June 2006): p. 60.

      Teixeira PJ, et al. "Exercise motivation, eating, and body image variables as predictors of weight control." Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Jan;38(1):179-88.

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