How to keep lost weight from coming back

by Rob Tiller

Healthy snacks on the counter at Casa Tiller

Returning from travels over the holiday break, I stepped on the scales to find myself three pounds heavier. It always happens! I swear, though there were temptations aplenty, I was reasonably moderate in my eating and drinking. How amazing that the body can accumulate mass so quickly! Also, a little scary.

In recent years, I’ve not been much concerned with losing weight, but I’ve been working hard not to add it. This basically means being careful about eating and diligent about exercising. That sounds — so — boring! Even if you do it, who wants to hear about it!

Thus, I was interested to read the NY Times magazine piece titled The Fat Trap: Do You Have to Be Superhuman to Lose Weight? by Tara Parker-Pope. According to the article, sustaining a healthy weight after losing a lot of pounds is not just unusual — it’s extraordinary. Those who do it are a “tiny percentage.”

That’s a bummer, both for the individuals who struggle with their weight and for our health as a society. Scientists are trying to figure out why people usually gain back weight after losing it and what can be done about it. Meanwhile, as a member of the fortunate “tiny percentage”, I may have something helpful to contribute. I’ve previously posted about losing 50 pounds, but here are some additional thoughts specifically related to how I’ve kept that weight off for several years.

It isn’t easy, but it also isn’t impossible — obviously! In fact, the methodology is basically the same as any worthwhile achievement that takes sustained effort. If you’ve learned to play the piano, speak a foreign language, play golf, or whatever, you’ve probably already employed most of the same methods you need for ongoing weight control. You need to find your motivation, keep it simple, be empirical, and have fun.

1. Find your motivation. Actors talk about needing to find a character’s motivation to bring the character to life. Try it: ask yourself what you really want, and why. For anything that’s going to take a long, sustained effort, you’ll need a motive that carries real meaning for you — something that’s more important than simply feeling good right now. It helps to articulate it clearly. My own guiding motivation has to do with the battle with father time. More concretely, I’m working today to be able to ski the deep snow in the big mountains of Colorado and Utah when I’m in my eighties. The snow on the mountains is beautiful. I sometimes think of this in the very early morning when it’s still dark and I’m making myself go to the gym.

My friend in the gym on the roof -- the elliptical machine

2. Keep it simple. If a system is too complicated, it will not be sustainable. A good system is one you don’t have to think about very much once it’s in place. It involves turning good intentions into good habits. For myself, I have some simple rules that help in avoiding bad eating decisions, such as: no chips, no sodas, and no candy bars. For snacks, I put in place simple and nutritious substitutes, like apples, bananas, and baby carrots. If you are considering going vegetarian, I’ll note that one of its many benefits is helping to simplify the challenge of eating a healthy, less fattening diet. Anyhow, these types of snack choices have gradually become habitual for me, and as habits they don’t take much mental energy. Of course, there’s the countervailing powerful force of other lifelong personal habits, customs, traditions, and advertising tempting you to make bad eating choices. There will be slip ups — and hello, there’s three new pounds. Then you refocus, and move on.

3. Be empirical. Look at the available data, and consciously monitor how you feel. I bought a digital bathroom scale and use it every day. I watch food portions carefully, and notice whether I’m feeling too hungry or unenergetic. I have not adopted a single off-the-shelf theory of eating and exercise, because I think every body has somewhat different needs. What works for you may not work for me. You need to be experimental. If an approach isn’t working, chuck it, and try something else. If you test a healthy snack or an exercise approach that seems to work for you, try it again and see if it still works.

4. Be creative and playful. We’re talking about a long-term approach here, and if it is no fun, you will eventually give it up. Simple repetition is boring. Try out interesting new healthy foods and new exercises and sports. When traveling, I make it a little game in airports to find the least unhealthy meal, and to find something interesting to do in the little hotel gym. I vary activities over the course of a normal week, so that at the moment I alternate among the elliptical machine, the stationary bike, and swimming, and various types of resistance training. For more fun, I enjoy listening to music and reading while doing the elliptical. I’ve found that classes liven up the cycling experience. Every so often, I change the mix of activities and try something new.

So there you are, for whatever it’s worth. Having said all that, I’ll note again, sustaining weight loss isn’t easy. It takes conscious work every day and every meal. But it doesn’t have to be white-knuckle misery or boredom. The guidelines of motivation, simplicity, empiricism, and playfulness help. And developing skill with the guidelines could lead to other good things. They can be applied to any rewarding long-term objective, like learning a sport or a musical instrument.