Tag Archives: motivation

Weight loss “frenemies”: How the people around you can support–and sabotage–your weight loss.

Anyone who has tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or make another behavior change knows that having the support of family and friends is a key to success. Additionally, having a “buddy” to go through the process with can help keep you motivated, leading to greater success now and in the long run.

However, a lack of support can make these changes even more difficult. Some people even encounter behavior by friends and family members that directly interferes with their efforts, something that seems to be more common among women than men.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Social support has long been recognized as a key component of group exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation programs. This support can be both real and perceived. Family, friends, co-workers, and others who directly or indirectly offer support and encouragement are obvious examples. But research shows that even thinking that you have the support of others can boost your chances of success.

Group weight loss programs are popular because they provide accountability, positive role models, and practical advice in a supportive environment. From my perspective as a weight loss researcher, the group dynamic is a major reason people stick with a program when they otherwise might not. In fact, research supports the idea that programs with a group component tend to be more effective over time. Not wanting to “let the group down” keeps many participants focused and on track. While guilt isn’t the best reason for continuing a weight loss program, it can be an effective motivator for some people to reach their goal.

Group support can also make up for support that may be lacking from other people. Some dieters find that the people around them are unsupportive. This can include comments (“seeing you eat healthy makes me feel guilty!”), being excluded from activities because the person is on a diet, and direct sabotage of the person’s efforts by encouraging them to stray from their diet. Participants of group programs report that support from other members helps them get past these barriers.

Even with strong support from others making the same lifestyle changes, the assistance of friends, family, and coworkers is essential. Some support is relatively simple to provide and includes making positive comments and encouragement. A simple acknowledgement of the effort a dieter has been making goes a long way. Sometimes others may see changes before the person losing weight notices any progress. This feedback can be especially motivating.

Other forms of support may be more challenging. For example, if one member of a family is trying to lose weight, the rest of the family may need to alter their habits as well to accommodate changes in eating and exercise. Others can contribute by helping a dieter shop for healthier food, prepare meals, and find time for exercise. Sadly, missing this support is a frequent reason why people are unable to realize long-term weight loss success. The bottom line is that those close to someone who is trying to improve their health can be influential, both positively and negatively, in their success.

If you are trying to lose weight, look for people who can provide support, whether that is encouragement or actual assistance. If you know someone who is on a diet, try to be a source of support for them. Complimenting them on their progress and encouraging them to continue is a good start. At the very least, don’t do or say things that make their health improvement process more difficult. Best of all, you can play along with them—chances are, you could benefit from eating better and getting more exercise!

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Why turning off your phone is so hard, and what it means for losing weight

I had an interesting conversation with one of my students recently about making a behavior change. It brought up a good point. So good, I wrote about it in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

One of the courses I am teaching right now is Health & Behavior Change. In it we identify the major factors that contribute to chronic disease and discuss how to modify them to improve health. Throughout the course, the emphasis is on health behaviors and how to change them for the better.

For example, smoking is among the most difficult health-related behaviors to change. Obviously, there is the addictive nature of nicotine that makes smoking cessation challenging. Beyond the drug effect, smoking also has a behavioral component. This includes what a smoker does first thing in the morning, after a meal, or on a work break as well as the act of holding a cigarette in his or her hand. Add to that the social aspects of smoking, including the influence of friends and family members, and it is easy to understand why it is a difficult habit to break.

This same principle applies to other health behaviors, including eating and activity. Like smoking, what we eat and our activity level are complex behaviors that are difficult to change. Because of this, losing weight can be as difficult as quitting smoking for similar biological and behavioral reasons. We think of weight loss as being about a diet or exercise program, but it’s really about changing behaviors and habits.

his is a difficult concept to teach, so I have my students learn through experience. Since almost all of my students are non-smokers and most are active and at a healthy body weight, I have them complete a project in which they change some other behavior. They are responsible for identifying a behavior that has a negative effect on their life, coming up with a plan to change it, and embarking on a four-week behavior change experience.

One student wanted to change her social media habits. As a compulsive social media user, she spent more hours than she realized checking, posting, and commenting on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Her goal was to limit her social media time so that it didn’t interfere with classes or studying. One of the steps she took was to turn off the notifications that alerted her to new activity. This was helpful, but she still found the habit of checking her phone hard to break.

In a conversation, she noted that the one thing that would help more than anything else would be to switch her phone off during the day. This way she would have her phone if she needed it, but it wouldn’t be so easy, or tempting, to use it. Despite knowing the most effective strategy—the one thing—that would help her, she never did it.

I thought this was an excellent example of something that is common in making health behavior changes. In many cases, people probably know the one thing they need to do to be successful but for a host of reasons, they don’t do it. This may lead people to make other changes that aren’t nearly as helpful. While even the smallest behavior modifications can help, successfully losing weight or quitting smoking really does require making big changes.

This goes a long way in explaining why quitting smoking, losing weight, and changing eating and activity behaviors can be so difficult, even when people know what they need to do. There is no easy solution for this problem, but finding someone to hold you accountable for making the necessary changes and sticking to them is a good start.

Time to make your new school year resolutions

Today is the first day of school for my kids and the first official day back for me and my colleagues at USC Aiken. So, it seems like a perfect time to make and plan for New School Year resolutions. It’s also a good time to assess your progress on your New Year’s resolutions and restart (or finally get started) on your goals. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and the start of a new school year is upon us. As teachers, students, and parents know, this is the real beginning of the new year. For those of us involved in education, the first day of school is a perfect time to make new goals for the upcoming year, whether they are related to school or not.

This is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions on January first. Hopefully, you are still on track with your resolution. Sadly, research suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their goal (more data here).

There are a host of reasons for this. Some of the most common resolutions—quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting in shape—are also some of the most difficult behaviors to change because they require making significant lifestyle modifications. To make things worse, many people set unrealistic goals or try to take on too much at once.

Many people who fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions this year will recycle them next year and try again. In fact, most people who manage to successfully quit smoking or lose weight have tried many times in the past. Sometimes experience, even a bad experience, is the best way to learn what does and doesn’t work.

But there is no need to wait until 2015 to restart your stalled New Year’s resolution or finally get around to doing what you planned months ago. Setting a date to begin a behavior change is an important step in the process so, why not make a New School Year resolution and try again now?

Here is some advice to help make this second chance to start or restart your New Year’s resolutions successful.

Be realistic. Many people fail to keep their resolutions simply because they don’t set realistic goals or aren’t realistic about what it will take to meet those goals. For example, running a marathon is an ambitious goal for almost everyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. A resolution to work up to jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 5k run is more realistic and achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involves learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating a healthier meals requires learning about the nutrients that make some foods healthier than others, learning to read food labels to select healthy foods, and learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. If your resolution is to learn about healthy meals you will be able to achieve that goal and be well on your way to eating a healthier diet.

Manage your time. Most health improvement projects require taking time to learn about, implement, and maintain those healthy behaviors. If you resolve to manage your time to include exercise or meal preparation in your daily schedule you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Trying to add these new activities as “extras” to your already busy day will inevitably lead to them getting squeezed out.

Plan ahead. Most people already know that changing health behaviors can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. It’s no wonder that holidays, travel, and other life events can complicate or even derail an otherwise successful diet or exercise program. Make it your resolution to think about what you can do before, during, and after these (and other) disruptions occur to keep yourself on track.

Hopefully these steps will help you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make this a happy, healthy year. As a bonus, you can take January 1 off!

How to win at losing: What to do when your diet ends.

In the past few weeks several community and fitness center-based weight loss programs have ended. Since many diets and exercise programs last 12–15 weeks, this time of year marks the end of many programs. During this time many people have met personal weight loss goals through individual diets and “biggest loser” type programs. (I have written about competition-type weight loss programs in the past here and elsewhere.)

One of these is the Team Lean program at the Y. This year over 1,600 people from the Aiken and Augusta area participated in this 12-week program that included weekly education sessions and weigh-ins, a strong group dynamic, and monitoring to prevent rapid, unhealthy weight loss. The average participant lost almost 10% of their body weight, which is sufficient to promote improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

This level of weight loss is common among people who participate in individual or group programs. But the real challenge is to maintain that weight loss after the program ends. Many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or 20 or 30) pounds over and over.

Losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging. Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes and revert to their old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success.

It turns out that they lost weight through a variety of diets and programs. Nearly half lost weight on their own and the other the other half followed of some type of program. Regardless, almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that diet and exercise together are important for successful weight loss.

There is also variety in how NWCR members keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.

The Health & Fitness holiday gift guide.

If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, you are not alone. As of last week, the average shopper still has half of their gift buying left to do. The good news is that there is still time to pick out perfect gifts for your friends and family, including gifts that will help them meet their health and fitness New Year’s resolutions.

There are many good gifts that can help people get started on their exercise or weight loss programs. Gift guides including gadgets, apps, clothing, and other gear, like this one from Greatist.com. Many of these tools would no doubt be useful for getting people motivated, providing feedback, and even some healthy competition through social networking.

But these are not the things that people really need to begin and be successful making diet and activity changes. After all, no one ever quit an exercise program or failed at losing weight because they didn’t have the right nutrition app or the latest activity tracker. The real reason people struggle is because of factors like time and support from family and friends in the real, not virtual, world.

In my Health & Fitness column this week in the Aiken Standard  I provide a practical gift guide. These are the things you can give your friends or family members to really help them make their healthy lifestyle changes:

1. Time. The most common reason that people quit an exercise program or struggle with weight loss is because of time. That includes time to exercise, obviously. But it also includes time to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals and snacks. This year, give the gift of time. Commit to helping your friend or family member plan time to focus on their program and dedicate yourself to taking on some responsibilities to help them do that.

2. Help. In addition to helping find time, you should commit to actually doing things to facilitate your friend or family member’s health improvement program. Taking on chores and projects around the house, picking up the kids after school, and helping with shopping and cooking are examples of things you can do.

3. Support. Anyone who makes a major lifestyle change needs the support of others to be successful. Your role can be to provide encouragement, ask about progress, and take your friend’s program into account when planning meals and other activities together. You should also be ready to provide a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge when you see them getting off track.

4. A buddy. People who take on an exercise program with others are more likely to stick with it and be successful. So get involved with your friend or family member. Going for a walk together during a break at work or developing a healthy eating plan as a family is an excellent way to play along. Chances are, these healthy changes will benefit you, too.

So, if you really want to help someone in your life make lasting healthy changes, use the remaining shopping days to come up with a plan. Leave the stress of shopping to everyone else!

Could you be The Biggest Loser?

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the popular television show The Biggest Loser. In the column I address the question, could a viewer at home duplicate the weight loss results of the contestants on the show?

In my column I include data on average weight loss of the winners of the past 14 season, which I found here.

I also cited the results of a  study examining the contributions to weight loss experienced by Biggest Loser contestants. It is interesting reading.


If you were paid millions of dollars, you would lose weight too!

Jared Fogle has been a spokesperson for Subway restaurants for 15 years now. He has had a huge impact on Subway sales, largely because of his remarkable weight loss which was due, in part, to eating Subway sandwiches. (Of course, there is nothing magical about his “Subway diet.” The weight loss was due to the fact that he was eating far fewer calories!)

What is more remarkable than his initial weight loss is the fact that Jared kept the weight off for 15 years. He has had some serious motivation to do so. First, he has literally been paid millions of dollars to keep the weight off. Second, because his story is so widely known and because he is so recognizable, Jared is accountable to all of us. His weight regain would be noticed by many people, include some who have made him a role model.

Most of us won’t get paid to lose weight (or exercise or quit smoking), but we can find something to motivate us. And by telling people about our goals—or better yet, getting them involved with us—we are accountable to others. In this way we can benefit from the very same factors that have contributed to Jared’s success.

You can read more about motivation and accountability and making health behavior changes in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.