The lure and the lie of the extreme

I’ve done it, you’ve done it. Those of us struggling with our weight and healthy food relationships all, at some point, vow to change everything. And we mean it, we really do. We’re going to cut out all bad foods, eat super low calorie (or low carb, or low whatever), and we’re going to exercise for an hour five days a week. We’re going to make it our all consuming 24/7 mission to get fit and thin from this moment on!

Maybe there’s a specific reason for this vow — new year, reunion, cruise, wedding — maybe we’re just fed up with how we look or how we feel. But we make that pledge and it feels really good. It feels like finally taking control when you’ve been feeling powerless. It’s exciting. And it’s, almost always, a lie.

We’re not lying to ourselves knowingly, I’ve meant it every time I’ve promised “the big change” to myself. But it’s a lie nonetheless. I’m thinking it’s a combination of decades of false industry claims, and basic human nature. We like easy, uncomplicated solutions and long waits for results are always hard things to embrace. Besides, clearly what we are doing now isn’t working, change it! Change it all! Now!

Thus the extreme works it’s thrall on us. You can be everything you want, without waiting, without doubts, without failing. Frankly, it sounds fantastic, pretty much as fantastic as all great lies do.

Why is it a lie? Because, outside of a few outliers or radical circumstances, human beings are just not set up either physiologically or psychologically to make permanent radical changes. We are fundamentally programmed to maintain where we are. We are creatures of powerful habits and patterns. And, really, this is a good thing overall. It gives our lives and bodies stability. But it goes against us when the habits and patterns our bodies and minds form are unhealthy for us.

Unfortunately, changing our habits, bodies, and minds takes time. There really isn’t any way around it. You may argue saying you know someone who did it, someone who made a sudden radical change and it stuck. But you need to consider a couple of things first:

  1. They might be an outlier. There are always a small minority of people who defy the norm. People who chain smoke for 80 years and die with the lungs of a non-smoker. And at the other end, people who are deathly allergic to common things like water. Study after study says that habits, especially around eating, are very difficult to change. Are you and outlier? Math says probably not. Sorry.
  2. You don’t know their whole story. Often, as it is with people outside our immediate family, we only see fragments of other people’s lives. What appears from the outside to be a sudden change in a person’s life, can actually be the result of years of quiet work on their part. I know when I lost weight, most people thought it was very sudden, when it was anything but, as I’d struggled with changing my habits and behaviors for literally decades leading up to my weight loss.

So, here’s the actionable bit, what you can do to fight back against the lure of the extreme change and actually make some real and lasting progress in your goals.

  1. Accept that this is going to take a while. If you have an event in a short time that you are determined to lose lots of weight for, you can choose to do something extreme. But just know, your results will not last. In addition, if you are looking for long-lasting results, your short-term, extreme tactic might actually make that goal harder to achieve. Studies have shown that very low calorie diets both increase binge eating disorder AND have possibly permanent slowing effects on your metabolism. I’d say that event better be well worth the long-term consequences.
  2. Focus on changing specific habits instead of “losing weight” or “getting fit”. Habits are VERY tough to change. Pick something small and work on changing that, and just that, for a month or two. When you feel comfortable, and are no longer struggling with this change, pick another small habit to change. Repeat and repeat. For example, you want to eat less to lose weight. Take a look at your diet, maybe you eat a lot of highly processed food, or a lot of desserts (added sugar), or drink a lot of soda, or tend to overeat late at night. Take one of those things and focus on it. Make a goal of not eating past 8pm (or only having a small snack), or only having one soda a day, or not eating desserts on weekdays, or not hitting up the vending machine at work. Don’t worry about the rest of your diet right now, work on changing that one habit, then add another small habit to change. As time goes on, and you replace your unhealthy habits with healthy ones, your weight will change and it will be unlikely to go back.

    By the same token, don’t take on a massive change to your exercise all at once either. If you are currently not exercising at all, don’t suddenly decide your going to take up cross-fit 5 days a week. It’s too much, you may do great for a while, but without any exercise habit to start with, and even if you don’t injure yourself in the process, you’ll find that once the novelty wears off your motivation will too. Regular exercise is tedious (really, even the stuff you enjoy) and time-consuming. Whether you get up early or do it later in the day, you’re often tired from work and life, and the lure of just sitting on the couch or staying in bed feels irresistible. I’ve been regularly exercising most of my adult life, and I still struggle with getting my workout gear on after work. Again, start small, 20 minutes of easy exercise 3 times a week until that’s a habit. Then build 30 minutes, or 4 times a week, slowing increasing the challenge.

As I’ve said before, and will say again, you are playing a long game here. Stop focusing on the short-term and resist the lure of the extreme change, and you will find success.

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