Weight and Obesity
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Thinking in a New Way

To lose weight and keep it off, you'll want to adopt some new attitudes. The following are some good places to start. Be realistic "It's simply not realistic to want to lose 50 pounds in two months," says psychologist Thomas Wadden, Ph.D., of Syracuse University's Center for Health and Behavior. "A realistic goal is five pounds in two months."

"Tabloid headlines like: 'Lose 15 Pounds in a Week' train people to be terribly impatient about weight loss," psychologist Ronette Kolotkin, Ph.D., says. "Quick fixes never work. Weight doesn't come off quickly. If you're not ready to give it time, you're not ready to lose."

"Two lifestyle changes a year is a good pace," says fitness instructor and author Joan Price. "After 18 months or so, most people lose weight without gaining it back."

It might take even longer, which is fine. It took Jean Antonello, a nurse in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, almost five years — more than two to get ready, and two more to actually lose her weight.

Forget "dieting"

Dieting means deprivation, and no one chooses to remain deprived for long. "Diets set up artificial rules," says weight-loss psychologist Susan Olson, Ph.D., "and because the rules don't come from within, they automatically feel unnatural. After a while, people rebel."

Diets are also by definition temporary. "People never say, 'I'm going on this diet for the rest of my life,'" Kolotkin says. "They say, 'I'll try it for a while.' When they stop, of course the weight comes back."

Instead of dwelling on how much you're depriving yourself, remember why you're fed up with being heavy. "Mental preparation for weight loss," Wadden says, "involves refocusing your self-talk from 'I can't have this or that ...' to 'I'm going to look better, feel better, have more energy, and wear the clothes I love.'"

After a few months without alcohol and taking his nightly walks, Steve Purser of San Francisco was delighted to discover benefits he hadn't even imagined: "I had more stamina. I slept more soundly. And I felt less tired during the day."

Never say never

"Most people expect themselves to be perfect," Olson says. "They're so hard on themselves, so unforgiving. When I ask how they view themselves, they say: 'I'm a refrigerator with a head,' or 'a balloon with legs.' Preparing to lose weight means realizing that everyone makes mistakes. Forgive yourself."

Consider what happens in most marriages. When spouses fight, they don't immediately get divorced. After most marital mistakes, spouses forgive each other. That's part of any permanent relationship. Permanent weight control is similar. It means entering into a new, more forgiving relationship with yourself.

"We're only human," explains Trish Ratto, R.D. (University of California at Berkeley). "Personally, I use the 80-20 rule. I watch what I eat and make sure I exercise 80% of the time. The other 20%, I don't worry about it."

The quest for perfection leads to preoccupations with two other dieting demons: willpower and guilt. "When dieters realize they're not perfect," Jean Antonello says, "they decide they have no 'willpower,' and feel guilty for being 'bad.' Of course, they're not bad. They're starving, and no matter how much willpower they muster, after a while they binge and feel guilty. But when people eat quality food normally, they lose weight without guilt and without the need for all that willpower."

Forget the models in the magazines

"Most are way too thin," says Maria Simonson, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University's Health, Weight, and Stress Clinic. "America is the only place in the world where 'beauty' means anorexia. Everywhere else beautiful women have curves. Many women shouldn't lose as much as they think they need to lose."

"Getting ready to lose weight involves accepting yourself," Ratto says. "Women often have trouble accepting their bodies. We're always changing our hairstyles, hair color, clothing, and makeup. We're never satisfied. No wonder we're not satisfied with our weight." Ratto says the emotional process of getting ready to lose weight helps people feel better about themselves. "And when you feel better, you start to look better even before you lose a pound."

Forget genetics

Recent studies suggest that weight is genetically programmed; the implication is that fat people are fated to be fat. "There is a genetic component to weight," Wadden says, "but no one is destined to be obese. If weight has been a major problem in your family, you may not be able to become as thin as you'd like, but you can lose weight."

Forget "exercise"

Enjoy physical fun. No one loses weight permanently by diet changes alone. Regular exercise is a must. "The problem," Joan Price explains, "is that it's very difficult for longtime couch potatoes to get off the sofa." Her solution? "Don't 'exercise.' Just become a little more physically active in your daily life."

Price speaks from experience. An uncoordinated child, she hated gym class and didn't learn how to swim or ride a bike until her mid-twenties. "The only physical activity I enjoyed was dancing — but I had no idea it was 'exercise.'"

During her thirties, Price took up bicycling to lose weight — and was amazed how much she enjoyed it. But she couldn't ride in the winter, so she gained back the weight she'd lost. Casting about for a winter activity, she heard about an aerobic dance class at a local health club. "I'd never set foot inside a health club and I felt terrified to enter. But my cycling had given me some confidence, and I'd always enjoyed dancing. I figured it was either try it, or sit at home and eat."

At her first aerobics class, Price lasted all of five minutes. "I had no stamina." But in the locker room, the other women were supportive. "Each one had a story about arriving for the first time thinking they were the only one out of shape." Price stuck with her class and slimmed down permanently. Now she teaches aerobics.

Price seconds fitness authorities who recommend three or four half-hour workouts a week. "But not immediately," she insists. "That activity level should be your ultimate goal. If you're getting ready to become more physically active, a half hour can feel intimidating. To start, try going just five minutes three times a week."

That was what Price did after collapsing five minutes into her first aerobics class. She gave herself permission to stop after five minutes. "That changed the experience," she recalls. "Instead of feeling defeated before I started, I felt more positive: 'Five minutes? I can do that.'" Soon her five minutes became 10, and within a year, she could last an entire class, and was greeting shy, overweight women in the locker room with the story of her own first time.

Kiss your old self good-bye

Once you've faced your fears about losing weight, bid farewell to the overweight person in the mirror. "Remember leaving home?" Ronette Kolotkin explains. "You felt excited but you knew you'd miss your family and friends. Losing weight has the same bittersweet quality. Give yourself a chance to grieve over the loss of your old lifestyle — even though you know it kept you heavy. It's easier to open a new chapter in life when the previous one is really closed."

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