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MEDICINE | THE LEAN PLATE

A sprint is no way to start the weight-loss journey

Taken step by step, that path paved with good intentions really can lead to success. But aiming too high, too soon can trip you up.

January 16, 2006|Sally Squires | Special to The Times

Nearly half of all adults celebrate a new year by making resolutions to improve their lives. And for many, weight loss tops the list.

But the determination often doesn't last long.

"About 75% are successful in keeping their New Year's resolutions for a couple of weeks," says John C. Norcross, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. But by Feb. 1, nearly half have given up their attempts to change behavior.

Resolutions "are good intentions that rarely have much impact," says Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University, "because they're too general and too distant." Plus, the lofty, ambitious goals that most people set can be difficult to meet.

"It's not the 100-yard dash, it's truly a marathon," says Norcross. "Otherwise, you wind up with yo-yo diets, [home] exercise machinery that is used for three weeks, and one-year gym memberships that are essentially exhausted after three to four weeks."

It doesn't have to be this way. Research suggests there are ways you can increase the odds of sticking with your resolutions:

* Ramp up slowly. Rapid takeoffs usually result in a fast crash and burn, so begin your resolutions gradually.

"When people say to me, 'I am going to start to go to the gym five times a week,' I ask them, 'Can you sustain that for six months?' " says Norcross, coauthor of "Changing for Good." "They say, 'Of course not.' "

The better, long-term strategy, he advises, is to "aim modestly and realistically and then build on that." Plan short workouts daily; then, over a period of weeks, slowly but steadily increase time and intensity.

* Resolve to change habits, not reach arbitrary goals. Instead of saying, "I need to lose 10 pounds," focus on what you need to eat and how much activity will be required to achieve your goal. Set short-term challenges to keep motivated long-term. "In successful self-change, you have to break these distant goals into small steps," Bandura says.

If you're trying to lose weight, you might start by eating 100 fewer calories per day and getting 100 more calories of activity. Each week, try to gradually decrease calories and increase activity until you hit a total 500-calorie deficit daily. That works out to about one pound of weight loss per week. When you focus on changing your eating and physical activity behavior, the pounds will begin to come off.

* Believe in yourself. Self-efficacy is the psychological concept that Bandura introduced in 1977 to describe how much someone believes he or she can succeed at making a habit change. Studies clearly show that the greater your self-efficacy, the better your chances of success.

"Unless people believe they can succeed, they have little incentive to act or persevere when faced with difficulties," Bandura says. His research shows that self-efficacy improves when people set attainable goals and then meet them.

* Expect slips. When Norcross studied people who made New Year's resolutions, he discovered that nearly everyone experienced a slip within the first two weeks of the year. What separated those who succeeded long-term from those who failed was how they viewed their slips.

Successful habit changers saw the slip as a reason to recommit to their efforts, while those who failed long-term "misinterpreted their slips as evidence of their inability to maintain their habit change," he says. "If you can forgive yourself for the small sins, salvation is still in sight."

* Card it. That's how Norcross teaches his patients to keep the change. He advises them to carry a 3-by-5-inch card. On one side, they make a five-point list of steps to extricate themselves from a slip. On the other, they list reminders of why their resolution is important to achieve.

* Act now. "Manana is the busiest day of the week," Bandura says. "We are really well practiced at putting off what needs to be done under the illusion that we will have more time tomorrow." By finding excuses and reasons not to be more physically active or to overeat, he says, "we take time away from what really needs to be done."

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