The Casual Blog

Tag: weight loss

How to keep lost weight from coming back

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.

Dropping some weight and hitting some golf balls

I came back from the long weekend in St. Croix five pounds heavier than when I left.  It’s difficult to account for the sudden gain, since I was reasonably careful about not over eating and held the veggie line against temptation.  Perhaps our very pleasant seaside daiquiris, pina coladas, and pain killers had something to do with it.  In any case, I managed to shed all the extra weight this week with some vigorous early morning workouts, and as of this morning was at my fighting weight of 160.

Earlier this week the NY Times published a piece by Gretchen Reynolds on the positive effects of exercise on the brain.  Studies with rats show the exercising rats with much superior brain functioning (“little rat geniuses”), and the apparent interaction of BMP and Noggin leading to increased production of neurons.  I can believe it.   When I first began regular exercise in my college years, I viewed it as primarily benefitting the cardiovascular system, but especially in recent times, I find that I feel duller if I can’t find time for a workout.

We’ve had a record-setting heat wave this week.  This Saturday morning, I was hoping to get an outdoor swim at Lifetime Fitness, but unfortunately the outdoor lanes were all taken when I got there at 6:40.  I made do with the indoor pool for 60 laps, then 15 minutes of yoga in the sauna, then 5 minutes in the steam room (whew!).  Then I headed over to Lake Jordan to drive my sports car on some backwoods roads.

I ended up at the end of a gravel road off US 64 at a down-on-its-luck golf range with a old barn on one side.  There was no one there when I showed up, but a guy emerged from a small adjacent house and got me a bucket of golf balls.  He couldn’t take a credit card, and couldn’t break a $20, but he agreed to let me have a $9 bucket for all the smaller bills I had ($7).  Then he drove off, and left me alone to practice.   The grass was very long, and so I was effectively working on shots from the rough.  A good thing to practice, though not so fun.  I got sweaty and tired, and was happy to get to the bottom of the bucket and see the last ball fly away.

My weight loss secrets revealed

Over a two-year period, I lost 50 pounds to reach my personal goal and have now maintained my target for another year.  I learned some things in the process, and it may be that this information would help others.  We Americans have a tendency to thicken, which is both unsightly and unhealthy.   It isn’t a great mystery what needs to be done.  To sum it up in five words:  better eating habits and more exercise.  But even knowing that, it took me a long time to figure out how to get rid of excess pounds, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person to have had such a struggle.

Still, with all good intentions, I’ve found it difficult to write about this subject.  Part of the reason is, it sounds a bit like bragging, which I try not to do, or at least get caught doing.  Also, the subject suggests a certain narcissism, an excessive interest in one’s own looks or well-being, and I don’t like to think of myself as more-than-normally interested in my own physical aspects.  Also, it’s hopelessly hackneyed.  You can get more diet advice in the  grocery store checkout line than a normal person can digest in a year.

Still, the obesity epidemic persists, and in my own circle many continue to fight their individual battles of the bulge.  I’ll therefore dispense with further introductions, excuses, or formalities, and just say what worked for me.

1.  The most important thing is commitment.  I had a better than average diet and exercise system when I was at my largest (205 pounds), but it was not adequate.  The change began for me with a decision at age 50 to make real changes and a personal commitment to stay with them for the duration.  I developed a personal animating vision, which was this:   if no piano fell on my head first, I’d  ski deep powder at Alta on my 85th birthday.  Well, maybe not the exact day, since my  birthday is in July.  The point is, I would take care of my body so as to maximize health and happiness for quite a few years out.   I determined that I was willing to accept the sacrifice of certain customary pleasures, like Snickers and Lay’s, in return for my geezer powder day.  Developing a sustaining vision and planning to sustain it were essential for me.

2.  The second most important mental element is an experimental attitude.  It’s necessary to experiment with diet and exercise.  There really is no single formula for what to eat and what activities to do, even for an individual, because our metabolism is not constant.  The system that worked for the first 20 pounds may not work for the next 20.  I approached the effort somewhat in the spirit of a science experiment.  I tested a routine for a while, and if it didn’t produce results, I modified it.  I did not look for one comprehensive, enduring solution.  I accepted the likelihood that the process would always be one of trial and error.

3.  Eating is important, and should be done with loving care.  Keeping health in focus, I avoided fad diets, which are almost by definition unsustainable.  I triangulated from the conventional wisdom (e.g. the U.S.D.A. food pyramid) and respectable weight loss programs like Weight Watchers for eating advice.  My guiding rules, developed with the benefit of numerous inputs and through trial and error, involved healthier inputs and smaller portions.  Being vegetarian helps (though I should admit that I was a fishetarian-type vegetarian even when I was at my maximum).   At various points I focussed on (a) a larger percentage of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet, (b) a lower percentage of processed foods, (c) less fat of every sort (eventually I worked my way down to skim milk), and (d) fewer pointless carbohydrates.  I quit my habit of decades of having seconds at dinner, and got accustomed to a smaller plate of food.  I quit having desserts except on special occasions.  I quit having wine on weeknights.  None of this happened suddenly, and some of it I’ve modified up as well as down.   The point is, eating well involves eating more nutritious food and less unhealthy food and generally eating more sensibly.

4.  Snacking is important.  I made it my goal never to be hungry.  My reasoning was that I needed to continue functioning effectively as a professional and a human, and hunger makes it hard to do that.  Also, hunger tends to lead to overeating, and makes it hard to have small portions at meal time.  Also, hunger is no fun.  So, I tried to have a healthy low calorie snack every two or three of hours.  This required experimentation to find qualifying foods, and continually requires planning to make it work.  My current favorites include:  unsalted nuts (10 per serving), apples, bananas, raw carrots, small low fat yoghurts, and small bags of popcorn (100 calories).   Regular snacking on pleasant, healthy foods works.

5.  Exercise is necessary, and one probably needs to do more of it than one thinks.  Through trial and error, I discovered that my half hour of aerobic activity three or four times a week needed to  become 40 minutes of more intense activity five or six times a week to get rid of weight.  I’ve done just about every type of aerobic machine, including  ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, various types of stairs, and rowing.  I like to vary the activity both to avoid boredom and to work different muscles.  Lately I’ve taken up swimming, which I find challenging.  I vary the duration and intensity depending on how my body feels and other factors.  For example, I exercise harder and longer when the scale indicates a meaningful upward trend.  Weight loss is only one good reason to exercise, of course.  I’ve gradually come to enjoy my gym routine, with more of a view to strength, flexibility, and mental health.  But there’s no way to work around the need for exercising to lose weight.

6.  A good bathroom scale is helpful.  I got one that measures tenths of a pound and keeps a record of prior weights.  It’s part of the science project to take measurements.  I do it every day before I shower.  Some days there’s a little moment of happiness, other days a moment of less happiness.  But the feedback is important.

Could it really be that simple?  No.  My over eating had to do with my upbringing, culture, social milieu, and long standing habits.  Like most people, I ate (and eat) for many reasons in addition to the need for nourishment — happiness, sadness, anxiety, you name it.  A lot of bad eating has to do with bad habits, and habits are hard to break.  Breaking the worst bad ones  and building better ones did not happen all at once, and the process for me is still ongoing.  But I have proven to my own satisfaction that it is possible to change dramatically for the better.