New Year, New You?

When it comes to resolutions such as weight loss, change is both easier and harder than you think.

Love them or hate them, it’s the time of year for new year’s resolutions. It may be just an arbitrary date in your calendar, but there’s a lot to be said for the psychological effects of new beginnings and making a fresh start.

Why is it, then, that so many people start out with good intentions, but are back to the same old habits before the end of January?

I think in many cases, it’s because we look at change in the wrong way. We imagine it as something like pushing a boulder up a hill - a process that requires a lot of effort to make something happen against the forces of nature. When we try to lose weight by meticulously counting out 1500 calories a day, or we aim to get in shape by going for a run at 5am every morning before work, it’s like pushing that boulder. We can keep it up for a while, but sooner or later we run out of steam, the boulder starts to feel too heavy for us and it rolls back down the hill again.

What if we thought of it a bit more like tending a garden? Rather than forcing something to happen, we’re trying to guide a natural process. Instead of one big continuous effort, it’s about putting in place small, consistent habits that steadily shape our results over time. Once in a while you might want to dig over the flowerbed and plant something new; but mostly the work involves weeding and watering, looking out for pests and being patient while nature takes its course.

Applying brute force to the problem only gets us so far, because brute force will eventually run out. We need to be smart about how we use our energy. Figuring out exactly what to change, and using our effort in the right way, counts for a lot more.

Let’s talk about weight loss, as an example. This is something I find myself discussing regularly with clients who come to me after being told they need to lose a few pounds to help with their back pain or knee pain. Very often, they’ll be trying out a diet plan that involves restricting the number of calories they consume. In theory, this should work - weight loss is all about taking in less energy than you use. But the evidence tells us that most diets won’t work in the long term - in fact, those who diet are more likely to gain weight over time.

People often think of dieting as something that they need to do until they get back to a weight they want to be - at which point they can go back to their usual eating habits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Return to your previous eating habits, and it won’t be long before you’re back to your old weight (and often a bit more).

Your body has powerful feedback mechanisms that pull it back towards the status quo. You can count your calories and eat less for a few weeks, or even months, but if it leaves you tired and constantly hungry then you’re pushing the boulder up the hill. It can work for in the short term (and if you’re an athlete in a weight class sport, or a competitive bodybuilder then it might be the right approach, at least some of the time); but it’s hard to maintain. Sooner or later, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to reach for that snickers bar.

So if dieting doesn’t work, then what can you do instead? Is there a better approach than counting calories? I think so - check back next week for my common sense guide to weight loss.

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