Packing on The Holiday Pounds
The Holidays … the name we generally throw at the “Big 4” events starting with Halloween (ok, maybe that’s a stretch), Thanksgiving, ChristmasChanukahKwanzaaFestivus and the New Year. Each of these is meant to commemorate something other than what they often become; a time of gluttony and disregard. Gluttony of chocolates and commercial goods (and turkey, and stuffing, and ham and gravy. Oh my!). Disregard to our health, personal limitations, and productivity.
Subsequently, many of us tend to gain a few pounds around this time. The weather is cold, we are inside being jolly with our friends and we are eating. It’s OK though, because with the new year come the resolutions. Anyone who is a member of a gym for more than a couple of weeks a year knows that January means that their gym is about to turn into a zoo. Hoards of generally over-weight well-doers flock to the gym with a goal of finally losing some weight. The new year is a seen as a sort of “reset” and makes it easy to forget all the mistakes of the past and start from scratch. The problem with this is that for many people, being overweight doesn’t stem from a few weeks of gluttony. Most overweight people have been overweight for a while and although being overweight isn’t something that happened on a specific date, often a decision is made to try and change that bad habit or lifestyle on a specific date.
As a result, it’s common that the upsurge in post-holiday gym memberships are followed by a return to normalcy within a few weeks. Without diving into accounting or economics, we can turn to Google for an illustration (as with anything). Take the image below, which represents daily search volume for the keyword “gym membership” over the past decade.
Google Trends graph of search volume for the keyword "Gym Membership"
Hazard to guess what each of those massive spikes is every year? In a word: January.
What successes have you had in your life to make dramatic change? I’d love to hear your stories and any additional tips. Share your story below.
New Year’s Resolutions
New Year’s Resolutions are about making changes for the better. This usually means making a commitment to some sort of difficult but attainable goal. Lets analyze this for a moment.
- The New Year’s Resolution is optional: No one is forcing you to take it on.
- It’s inherently difficult: If it were easy you would already be doing it.
- Accomplishment of this goal will increase happiness: Why else would you take on goal that is difficult and optional?
Unsurprisingly, resolution trends tend to be the same from year to year and every year you know someone (if not yourself) that has made the commitment to losing weight. It is consistently one of the top resolutions every year, and is very likely this year as well. This fact makes obesity an excellent topic to discuss habits, addiction, and the idea that it is difficult for some to change bad habits on a whim. Ultimately, that’s what New Year’sResolutions aim to change: Bad Habits on a whim. The problem is that habits of any kind (good or bad) take time to develop and bad habits are usually ones that are subjectively easy while good habits tend to be more difficult. If this were not the case, no one would have bad habits. This is, broadly, why New Year’s resolutions tend to fail at an absurd rate (as much as 88%). Instead of hammering out the reasons why this is the case, lets analyze six of the major reasons for failure and how they can be combated.
6.) Identify The Cause To Change The Effect
If you smoke cigarettes when you get stressed out or eat junk food because you’re bored then simply setting goals of “quit smoking” and “lose weight” really aren’t going to get you very far. For obesity alone there are several reasons why people overeat. Unfortunately, many people are not always very good at assessing themselves. If you really want to make a change you have to take a real close look at yourself and try and figure out what is causing you to do things that you ultimately don’t want to do. Only then can long-term change occur.
REMEMBER: The manifestation of a bad habit is often what we identify as the issue. Being overweight, for example. If you are overweight, maybe it’s because you fill your time eating junk food instead of doing something healthy. For me, I lost 30lbs in 3 months the summer I decided to take up cycling. I never made the decision to lose weight, I made the decision to be healthier and enjoy myself while I was doing it.
5.) Be Properly Motivated
Now wait a minute please before you go yelling at me for stating the obvious, hear me out. Coming up with resolutions is pretty easy. There is something in your life that you think you don’t like, and you wan’t it changed. Easy right? Well, not exactly. If you are overweight (sticking to our theme here), there is a reason for this. It’s not like you got overweight overnight. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to you. Sure, at the end of a year you may sit back (and break a chair under your large derriere) and think, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go”, but the reality is that weight gain is often a fairly slow process as are most bad habits.
The Psychology of Motivation is a classic field in psychology and several different theories on why we do what we do have surfaced over the years. The “Incentive Theory” of motivation, states that we act out certain behaviors because of external stimuli rather than internal drive. That is to say that the stimuli we interact with and the rewards that they give us drive us to do much of what we do. The stronger the reward, the sooner the reward, and the ease with which we can replicate the reward as a result of the action, the higher the likelihood that the action becomes habit.
Before changing something that has become a habit, be honest with yourself: Is this something I really want to change? If so, recognize that it is going to be difficult at first. Whatever the habit, whether it is smoking or being overweight, it is something that likely formed over many years of constant and easy reward. With most things in life, things that take a long time to build cannot simply be reversed with the flick of a switch. Being properly motivated isn’t so much a decision, “I want to be thin”, as it is a recognition that bad habits are the results of misguided motivation. Get rid of the short-term rewards for the long-term rewards.
REMEMBER: We all enjoy desserts, some of us just allow the more instantaneous reward of the dessert to drive us to action than saying “no thanks” and enjoying the reward of happiness and health. You must be honest with yourself though. Do you really want to not eat cheesecake every night or are you being compelled by outside forces (fashion magazines, skinny friends, etc)? Ultimately you must decide which you find more important. Happiness is the key here.
4.) Set Yourself Up For Success
We’re going to a get a little morbid for a moment but this next scenario is so powerful that it must be put out there, even for people just looking to get a six pack. This is very closely related to Rule #5 and the Icentive Theory.
It turns out that when you give animals a way to self-administer powerful drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, they will self administer it (Surprise!). And if you give them unlimited access to these drugs, they will continually self administer until they kill themselves. In an eye-opening experiment, rats were given unlimited access to cocaine for 16 or 12 hours separated by either 1 day or 10 days. The rats that were only given access to cocaine every 10 days showed little change in their binge behaviors but the rats that were given cocaine every other day continually increased the amount of cocaine they self-administered during their binge. Chemically, the rats that had cocaine every other day were becoming more addicted to the drug and required more of it to get the same effect.
The takehome for the human is that it’s ok to eat potato chips on very special occasions if your goal is to lose weight but if you know you can’t control yourself when they are around then maybe you shouldn’t have them around. For those of us that only indulge every now and then, whether it’s a glass of wine or a piece of cheesecake, a single piece of cake or glass of wine provides enough enjoyment to be satisfied. When you surround yourself with vices, it takes more of that vice to garner the same level of enjoyment. While drugs tend to have a stronger effect on our brains reward system than good food, the basic principles are the same. And this applies to anything that brings us joy.
REMEMBER: If you surround yourself by your bad habit, the bad habit will go never go away and will likely get worse.
3.) Allow Yourself To Fail A little Bit
Listen, you’re not going to change a bad habit overnight. As I said earlier, these are habits that developed over many years. The manifestation of these bad habits have as well (poor diet and lack of exercise have caused you to gain weight over several years). You’re going to have to accept that your’e going to have some bad days. One failure shouldn’t cause you to throw your arms in the air and conclude that this is just the way you are. After all, if habits were easy to break, no one would have a bad one. It turns out that habit formation is a function of your brain (duh) on a neural level. An increasing body of academia is pinpointing exactly where in the brain habits are formed. While there are several methods for pinpointing such things, I’m always a sucker for a good lesion (damaged brain) study! A group of really clever psychologists from the University of California, Los Angeles discovered that the relatively easy task of forming habits in lab rats become much more difficult when there was damage to a very specific part of the rat’s brain; the striatum, which is located in the basal gangila, one of the oldest parts of the brain (both ours, and the rats).
So what does this mean? To keep it simple, habits are hard-wired into our brain much in the same way (and utilize some of the same parts of our brain) that memory is hard-wired into our brain. Habits, like memories, can vary in intensity. The more ingrained the memory, the less likely you are to forget it. In the same light, the more intense the habit, the harder it’s going to be to break it.
REMEMBER: You don’t just wake up one morning and say “I’m done doing all the bad things I can’t help doing” and that’s that. It takes time, and you’re going to fail every now and then. Don’t let a single failure cause you to throw in the towel. In fact, it can often be helpful to give yourself a window to fail. When I’m trying to lose weight, I often tell myself that Friday or Saturday night’s I’m free to do whatever I want. This makes it easier to say no the other 6 days of the week and if you’re 6-1 every week, you’re going to make it to the playoffs; you’re going to win.
2.) Take Small Steps
I’m going to now start to get (more) repetitive. This is going to be hard! A lot of resolutions fail because people bite off more than they can chew. Part of this is because New Year’sResolutions are bullshit (I’m foreshadowing here). When starting on day 1 and are putting it in terms of a new year’s resolution, there is a sense you must compare where you are today with where you want to be in 365 days. Big goals are great, but guess what, no one accomplishes a big goal without first setting and following through with smaller goals. Interestingly, I see smokers do this very well. The prospect of going from smoking to not smoking is scary. The idea of going from 10 cigarettes a day to 9 by the end of the month…that’s manageable. Manageable and realistic goals are achievable goals. If these goals are part of something bigger, that is fine. But be sure to set yourself up with small successes.
REMEMBER: If you want to avoid viewing your goals through a bleak dark and long tunnel, set smaller more-achievable goals (smaller and less dark tunnels). This is easy if you frame your goal in terms of a life change rather than in terms of a New Year’sResolution.
1.) New Year’s Resolutions Are Bullshit
We talked about motivation earlier and we only touched on the motivation issue. Lets stay with weight loss. If I’m overweight, it’s because I eat too much and exercise too little. Exercise is hard and not usually all that fun. Eating chocolate cake is easy (as pie?) and is a damn good time. Not only are habits hard to break but often times the habits formed because they are fun, easy, or enjoyable. To make real change you must be intrinsically motivated, if the motivation isn’t doesn’t come from within, it relies on something external. This is fine, as long as that external motivation remains in place. The problem with New Year’sResolutions is that the motivation is centered around a date. “Starting on the 1st, I’m going to stop (bad habit)”.
It’s comforting to start from scratch and we have trained ourselves into thinking that an arbitrary number on a calendar is that – a reset. The reality is that it’s just another day (January 1st, to be exact) and in the long journey of changing bad habits, you will have many ordinary days. The glitz and fabricated hope that the New Year brings only stands as a finite and temporary motivation. Remove the motivation for change, and you remove the change. Lastly, relying on an event to mark the start of your change sets you up for failure if (and when) you do slip. “Well, I was doing so good on this year’s resolution, then I ate that bacon-filled chocolate cake. Guess we’ll have to wait until next year.” The one thing I will say about New Year’s Resolutions is that they can act as a “jump-start”. If January 1st is what it takes to start making you think differently then that is great. Hopefully you can start to see some positive return which then turns into real intrinsically motivated action. From there, it’s smooth sailing to success.
REMEMBER: New Year’sDay is just that, a day. If you want to make changes, start right now. If you started on January 1st and failed: START AGAIN!
RememberBad habits are easy and are often fun. That’s the crux of life though: short-term gain’s don’t always have long-term benefit. Making changes is a hard process but it’s not impossible. To succeed you have to have the right frame of mind, the right motivation, and you have to approach it intelligently.
In the Spring of 2007 (notice NOT January 1st) I realized that I had formed some bad habits of my own and had gained a lot of weight in the first few years after college. This is common. Some people right the ship, many remain overweight late into adulthood. I decided to make a change. The decision wasn’t to lose weight, it was to find a healthy outlet and adjust the way I ate. The result was 30lbs lost by the time the Fall Semester of School started. What successes have you had in your life to make dramatic change? I’d love to hear your stories and any additional tips. Share your story below.
Tim at 195lbs in May 2007
Tim at 165lbs in August 2007