You better work!
Saturday April 23rd 2016, 9:12 pm
Filed under: Main
Last week a WeightWatchers member (@whateverwerks1 on the WW “Connect” app) showed me that her Fitbit recorded she had taken more than 30,000 steps on the previous day. Then she said “But that won’t happen again. Walking that much every day would be a FULL TIME JOB.”
It got me to thinking – is “being active” a full time job?
The past six months or so I have very consistently gotten in around 20,000 “steps” a day or more. Every day. And from time to time, as often as once a week, I’ve gotten to 30,000.
I put the word “steps” in quotation marks because I’m just going by what my own Fitbit device records. The fact is, most days I walk, run, bike, and workout at the gym – all of which gets picked up as some kind of movement by my little device.
And I have to wonder – am I treating this like a job?
The truth is that I do make extra efforts to literally “go the extra mile.” Frequently I take a quick extra jog at lunchtime, or after lifting weights at the gym I’ll hop on the treadmill for a half mile or so. Anything to squeeze in a few hundred more steps. Or 1,000.
When I take the dog out, I dart down alleys, I add a few blocks here and a few blocks there. Even when I’m tired.
Parking at the supermarket? I park farther away. Running an errand? I try to go on foot or by bike. Doing laundry in the laundry room? Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Most of the time this seems pretty normal to me. It might be inefficient at times and it can feel a little obsessive. But as far as obsessions go, isn’t this harmless?
Barring injury or illness, do I want to keep “stepping” this much every day?
I don’t have any answers here. But for now, I’m just going to continue with my crazy antics with the idea that the more often I’m active, the more it’ll just be an automatic part of my life. Something I do without thinking. Something I would do even if I were …retired.
Beauty and the (Self Critical) Beast
Monday April 18th 2016, 12:00 pm
Filed under: Main
Recently, I was contacted by WeightWatchers magazine for an online feature that they put together about male body image, as a companion piece to their article in the print publication about women and body image. They took a short excerpt of what I wrote and published it here:
But I did write a great deal more, and thought I would just share here on the blog:
First name: Jonathan
How long have you been on this journey? I’ve been overweight my whole life! I was 10 pounds at birth! My first diet was in college, 35 years ago and for the next 20 years I tried and failed at every diet I could find. I joined WeightWatchers in 2002 and lost 55 pounds and have been a Lifetime member (and employee) since then.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Has that changed from the beginning of your journey, or has it remained the same? From my earliest childhood memories, I felt shame about my body — too fat, too weak, totally inadequate for sports, etc. When I joined WeightWatchers at age 41, I had nothing but remorse and embarrassment about the way I looked. I’d lost weight before, but in the past diets always left me looking haggard and unhappy. As a WeightWatcher, the transformation I saw in the mirror was nothing short of shocking! I have abdominal muscles? Who knew? It’s amazing how great my body looks when I’m eating right and exercising right. At age 55 I’m in astonishingly good shape. At a wellness checkup last year the clinician said my blood and other metrics were “in line with what I usually see with athletes like you.” ATHLETES? Well, okay. I did run over 2,000 miles last year.
What shapes your perception of yourself? Was it something in your culture? Did any family member or friend help you shape how you view yourself? I grew up as the youngest of three boys. My brothers were high school jocks on the track team and never had weight problems. But I was never into sports and was overweight from a very early age. My Dad was also overweight and clearly embarrassed about it, so I picked up that sense of shame from him. I was constantly judged by family members for what I ate as a kid (chips, soda, candy, etc.) and the fact that I was “lazy” and inactive. I grew up with a very poor self image, that was perpetuated into adulthood.
Were there things you used to avoid? The gym? The beach? Photographs? I used to think that the problem was I couldn’t find the right clothes for work or the gym or the beach. Everything looked wrong on me. For years I assumed it was my hairstyle, or the cut of the clothes, or the patterns that I was choosing that “made me look fat.” I also avoided having my full body photo taken because I never felt the photos were accurate! My clothes and photos didn’t show me the way I thought I “really” looked.
Did you have any behaviors that you’ve changed now that you’re more confident? Did you feel like you were hiding yourself in some way? My entire wardrobe has changed. 100%. I am much more confident about my workout clothes — I wear tank tops at the gym a lot, and on hot days when I run outside, I’m happy to take my shirt off. For the first time in my life, I’m not worried about summer (that is, the season of shorts and short-sleeves). I also started wearing work clothes with a more tailored look, and find that instead of trying to be “colorful” (which I used to do as a way to mask my body shape), I’m much comfortable with a classic, timeless look that suits my now trim body type. For the first time in my life, I feel that I can inhabit my physical space with self-assurance and confidence. Whether it’s giving a presentation at the office, or lifting weights, or walking on the beach. Recently I realized my passport was about to expire so I just walked straight to the drug store and had a photograph taken – it only dawned on me later that I was totally confident that I would be happy with the picture and willing to live with it for the next ten years!
Sunday April 17th 2016, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Main
On Saturdays, after leading my two WeightWatchers groups in the morning, I take the dog for a 7 mile run along Lake Merced in the western part of the city. On the lakeshore path, we encounter tons of other people and dogs, and sometimes they want to interact, sometimes they don’t.
Samson, however, is almost always curious and alert about this– especially when we come across dogs his own size (50 pounds). In his delight, he often prepares to leap and jump as a playful prelude to saying hello. Which is the last thing I really want when we are out running.
From previous dogs I’ve had and previous obedience school experiences, I’ve long known that gripping a dog’s leash tightly and pulling back on it with steady pressure actually achieves the OPPOSITE effect that owners want. Typically, once there is a tug of war between dog and owner, with the dog straining at the end of the leash, all bets are off.
So here’s a crazy piece of counterintuitive magic that I have discovered and it works more than 90% of the time:
As we approach a dog coming the other direction, I firmly hold one end of the leash in my right hand, and gently gather up some extra with my left hand (being careful to leave the leash slack). Then, staying very attuned to Samson’s body language, the split second he looks as though he’s going to start leaping and jumping…I let go with my left hand and DROP THE SLACK.
That’s right, at the moment I think he’s going to lunge, I actually make it possible for him to do so.
And yet… he doesn’t.
For whatever reason, giving him slack right at that moment of greatest leaping potential appears to send him some kind of signal to relax. That it’s okay. That he can chill out.
I don’t ever say anything to him or give him any other signal. I just gather up the leash as we approach, and drop it at just the right moment.
Once we have passed the other dog, if Samson has behaved and not broken stride, I praise him with a few “GOOD BOY!s” But that’s it.
A few years back, a WeightWatchers staff training I attended addressed the concept of “flexible restraint.” Essentially the idea is that having structure helps when trying to build a habit (like eating healthier), but that it can’t be too rigid or it won’t work.
I can’t help but think this concept is at play when I’m with the dog. He knows that the leash is a general constraint on his movements (i.e. he can’t get more than about three feet away from me) but he also knows that I won’t use the leash to jerk him or attempt to restrain him.
Early last month, I found myself sorely tempted at the supermarket bakery and ended up bringing home a GI-NORMOUS cinnamon roll. I ate the whole thing and enjoyed it, though I did worry about whether it signaled a slippery slope. So much sugar! So much grease!
A week or so later, I was back at the supermarket, and was tempted again. Rather than denying myself or trying to say “no,” I brought home another cinnamon roll. I ate half and enjoyed it. And then the next morning I threw the other half down the drain.
It seems to me that by “dropping the slack” I actually felt relieved and less stressed out than if I had tried hard to rein myself in. Ideally there would be no cinnamon rolls in my life…but if there are GOING to be, at least by being chill about it I raise the possibility that I can remain in control.
Flexible restraint, indeed.
Sunday April 10th 2016, 12:02 am
Filed under: Main
It’s a paradox that, on the one hand no one can know us better than we do ourselves yet on the other, self-knowledge is often quite elusive. In the realm of weight loss, this is particularly poignant.
Scientifically speaking, the only way a person becomes overweight is by taking in more caloric energy than their body is able to use. But in individual terms, this energy imbalance is often both very personal and very opaque.
For example, when I was at my highest weight, I was really only vaguely aware of how much I was eating, even though the evidence was staring me in the face (clothes that didn’t fit, painful spasms in my back, a general sense of bloatedness, etc.). As hard as this is to believe, when I weighed over 200 pounds, I didn’t think I had an eating problem.
Behavioral psychology tells us something interesting, however. Namely, that in order to adopt a lifestyle of healthier eating, moving more, and managing our weight, we already have inside of us all of the resources we need to make it happen. No one can “give us” the keys to success. We need to find them within ourselves.
Thus it was when I found myself talking to a friend at the scale today, I completely understood the astonishment she was expressing to me: “I can’t believe it. I’m learning what it means to be full, I’m more active than I’ve ever been, and since the middle of December I’ve been consciously making good food choices over and over again. It’s like an alien took over my body.”
I gently suggested that this “alien” was actually constructed of components that she already held within herself, but that she had been unable to tap into in the past. Perhaps, I mused, the very fact of “trying to diet” in the past was what prevented those internal strengths from coming to the fore.
When we “follow rules” and do what we are told in order to lose weight, it’s possible that our deep internal drives become disconnected and unempowered. We lose weight on commercial diets as long as we go along with them, but because we’ve never really engaged ourselves in the process of change, once we hit a roadblock, all hell breaks lose.
Whereas when we dig deep, examine ourselves, and make conscious changes, we are shining light into the depths of our personal resources and learning what tools we have available to us to build a successful path forward. Maybe we always had the ability to know what it meant to be full (or physically satisfied with food), but we had to awaken that knowledge for it to work.
To be sure, there is also a very straightforward possibility that merely eating healthier in itself leads to positive change. Healthy, whole foods are simply more likely to trigger fullness signals in our bodies, nourish us in ways that leave us feeling stronger and more energetic, and lead to less temptation over time.
“Embrace your inner alien!” I told my friend. Because whether it’s psychological, physiological or (more likely) a combination of the two, that inner self is the one most likely to keep us on track, feeling motivated, and moving towards a more successful future.
In WeightWatchers, which relies heavily on the neuro linguistic programming (NLP) language of the “levels of change,” where the rubber hits the road is in our “capabilities” and in our “beliefs” — they are the “how” and “why” of personal growth. This is where our inner alien most likely resides!
Weight, weight, don’t tell me…
Sunday April 03rd 2016, 8:09 pm
Filed under: Main
I originally got into the idea of blogging about weight management AFTER I had gone through the process of losing 50+ pounds in 2002. My overarching goal was to document the experience of post-weight loss maintenance, which is something I felt I never saw or read about anywhere.
Looking back on it, I’m okay with the fact that it turned out to have been a very naïve idea: namely that I would (a) be successful at maintenance and (b) would have something worthwhile and interesting to say about it.
At its greatest reach, my blog’s readership has never exceeded 200 people, and frequently my posts are seen by just a dozen or so folks – mostly old friends.
Be that as it may, my writing on the topic over the years has helped me personally with the process of acknowledging both my own human frailty (having gained and lost weight numerous times since starting the blog) and of working very hard to pin down what it means to be a “successful” person.
It’s really all about perspective – understanding what’s possible, what’s worth pursuing, and what constitutes actual progress.
As it happens, I’ve been at, or just below, my goal weight for about four months lately. After having spent a lot of time OVER goal, and then about six months losing some weight, it’s thought-provoking to be back in that place of neither wanting to gain or lose.
When I see the small fluctuations happening now, which are in themselves unremarkable, it’s hard not to feel panicked about potentially gaining weight or –conversely—disappointed that I’m no longer losing.
The WeightWatchers app’s new approach to graphing one’s weight actually zooms in on the data to show week to week fluctuations, which only exacerbates the emotional tug that I feel. Looking at it their way, it’s hard not to feel as if I’m experiencing undue gains and losses these days. (This is not a screen shot from WWers, but it mimics how the app shows weight change):
Only by stepping back and looking at the big picture is it clear that I’m maintaining. Zooming out, seems to be the more realistic approach. Here is the *exact same data*…just presented by starting the graph at “0” pounds:
Another strategy I’m trying right now is to weigh myself 4 or 5 times a week, instead of just once. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but the point is that if I have just a few more data points throughout the week, I will stress a little bit less on Mondays when I do my “official” check in. I’m not sure I’m going to stick with this approach, however. For one thing, I’m using a borrowed scale that I will need to return at some point. For another, I know that there is a certain insanity that comes from hopping on the scale and attempting to attribute a gain or a loss to some kind of food or exercise behavior.
I hear this all the time in my work at WeightWatchers. Someone will hop on the scale, see a gain, and then say “I knew I shouldn’t have had that cupcake last Thursday.” As if one cupcake would explain a change on the scale several days later. (It might, but it’s just as likely NOT to).
So… back to “success.” It’s all about figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It can’t be about perfection…the scale matters, of course, but it doesn’t define progress.
I have to do that for myself.
The Problem with Problem-solving
Thursday March 24th 2016, 5:46 pm
Filed under: Main
No one likes to hear another person complain. And yet I suspect I’m not alone in having the desire to share with others when I’m feeling low or upset. The ability to get something off your chest or to “vent” is a useful tool because –for whatever reason– verbalizing our negative experiences feels helpful.
At the same time, it’s only natural that hearing someone tell you about a problem they’re having inspires the instinct to help them. We want to heal their pain, mitigate their frustration, ease their anxieties.
In truth, however, we want them to STOP complaining!
As someone who takes the WeightWatchers service provider trainings seriously, one thing I’ve learned over the years is to listen when someone raises a concern. And not only that, to reflect back what I think they are saying, and then to pose an open-ended question. (Something that doesn’t have a yes/no black and white answer).
I had this discussion with my WW colleagues last Saturday before we opened the doors. I suggested they imagine someone at the scale saying “I don’t understand this. I’ve been perfect and yet I’m not losing weight! I want to quit!” Then I asked them how they would respond.
One said she would ask if they have been keeping an accurate food journal (um, NOT an open-ended question). The other said “I’d tell her that we don’t always see results at the scale right away.”
So I reminded them, that it works like this. “Sounds like you are saying you followed the plan perfectly and you didn’t lose weight. What are you feeling right now?” The member would likely say something like “Yes, I was perfect, and now I’m upset and disappointed.”
At this point, the next step is to ask an open-ended question. This stumped my colleagues!
I suggested one thing would be to ask “Describe your motivation for losing weight right now?” Or to say “In the past when you’ve felt like this, describe what happened next.”
Only by digging deeper, can we help the unhappy person find some kind of peaceful way to resolve what they’re going through.
From personal experience, I can’t stand it when someone says to me “Here’s what you should do….” or even “This is what I did when that happened…” It’s like slapping a band-aid on a still-bleeding wound and saying “ALL BETTER!”
I know it’s hard, but the next time you hear someone complaining, think about a question you could ask that would direct them to a deeper and ultimately more meaningful place.
Are we done yet?
Thursday March 17th 2016, 7:30 pm
Filed under: Main
I got back to my goal weight in January of this year after six months of concerted effort. During that period, I developed a habit of accurate food journalling, greatly reduced intake of ultra-processed foods, upped my exercise game, and undertook a daily mindfulness meditation practice to help me get in touch with what my psyche and my body need.
And you know what?
Once I hit my goal weight, the only change I made was to ever-so-slightly increase my food intake. Essentially, a couple of crackers with peanut butter and maybe one extra piece of fruit per day. But everything else is the same: journalling, careful eating, exercise, and mindfulness.
It’s a LOT of work.
In the WeightWatchers world, once a person has (a) lost at least five pounds, (b) is at a weight within the published body mass index guidelines, and (c) has not exceeded that weight by 2 pounds after six weeks, they become a so-called “Lifetime” member. We say that they are “on maintenance.” We celebrate them, give them a little bling, an opportunity to talk about their journey and then, essentially, we have no further instructions, information, support, or ideas for them that’s any different than anyone else.
Now: let me be clear. Lifetime members are *NOT* dismissed or told they are cured or expected to stop coming to meetings. It’s just that as much as people might desperately wish to believe otherwise, the process of maintaining your weight isn’t any different than the process of losing weight.
Let me repeat that: THE PROCESS OF MAINTAINING LOST WEIGHT IS NO DIFFERENT THAN THE PROCESS OF LOSING WEIGHT.
Ugh. Sorry to break the news!
One positive thing I can say is that it is most emphatically NOT TRUE that maintaining is HARDER than losing. There’s actually some science to support the fact that the effort to maintain becomes more acceptable over time. It’s still an effort, but we get used to it, basically.
Still, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just lose weight and be DONE?!
A farewell to shoes
Thursday March 10th 2016, 2:15 pm
Filed under: Main
I’m 55. And the truth is that there are compromises that come with age.
My whole life I’ve been obsessed with self image. While my weight has gone up and down like a roller coaster over the past 5 decades, the one constant is that I have always tried to dress nicely and keep a “neat and clean” appearance.
This includes two cardinal general rules: (1) no blue jeans and (2) always wear dress shoes.
While over the span of my working life we went from men wearing suits (or at least a jacket and tie) every day to a much more causal look, I never felt that blue jeans fit my person working style. [After being laid off twice, I noticed that the all of the men who kept their jobs wore suits, while many of the men who didn’t, wore jeans. So to this day, I’ve never worn jeans to the office.]
As for shoes, I’ve always worn gym shoes at the gym and running shoes while running. But for everything else, from church, to shopping, to commuting, to dating, I’ve always worn actual shoes. Usually made of leather. And hopefully tasteful.
When I lived in New York City, however, and began commuting to work frequently on foot, this posed a problem. I was walking up to 8-10 miles per day in shoes that were built more for appearance than for comfort. Even when I chose brands like Rockport that were intended to be ergonomic, it was a lot harder on my feet.
And in the end, I got bursitis (basically a painful swelling of a joint) in my right ankle. With therapy and stretching, I was able to lessen the symptoms. But the bursitis persists and may never completely go away. My podiatrist assured me this was not a “running injury” but a problem brought on by walking in dress shoes.
So the upshot is this – if I want to keep having healthy feet, I can’t wear dress shoes anymore. Not if I’m going to be walking (or even standing around). There are some brands of dress shoes that might address this problem, but most of them cost upwards of $250, and aren’t that great looking. (Trust me, I’ve looked into it).
Lately, I’ve reluctantly begun to wear running shoes all the time — even to places like the symphony or to mass. Supermarket? Running shoes. Dog walk? Running shoes. Quick jaunt to the laundry room down two flights of the stairs? Running shoes.
I even ditched the casual sporty shoes that I was wearing to the gym and now I only wear running shoes.
So far, the only exceptions are (1) when I’m biking — because I need narrow shoes that fit into the pedal grips and (2) when I’m within the walls of my office building.
You might think this is no big deal. But I’ve spent a lifetime dressing in a certain way, and now –for my health– I have had to change. The benefits are immediate. My feet feel better than they ever have. Yet I’m still adjusting to the idea that I’m just not going to be that “neat and clean” guy I always aspired to be.
Still. I’m not wearing jeans. Not yet, anyway.
Sunday March 06th 2016, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Main
If you could wave a magic wand and the result would be that you would never again be interested in eating anything unless you were hungry and the food were nutritious, would you want that?
For the past six months or so, I’ve eaten really well, kept my weight in control, and made choices that have been by and large good ones. I can flip through page after page of my journal and see that the vast majority of my eating is centered around whole foods that are satisfying and nutritious.
Last week I popped into the supermarket to grab a few things I needed. On my mind was the fact that we were supposed to have had cupcakes at work that day, but instead we were offered cheese and crackers (say what?!). It felt like I had been robbed!
So I wandered over to the bakery section, ostensibly to look for a cupcake to “make up” for the one that I never got at work.
What caught my attention instead was, quite literally, the largest cinnamon roll I have ever seen in my life. I had actually been thinking about them a few weeks earlier as I pass a bakery on one of my early morning running routes. And besides, it was only $1.50!
So, into my basket it went.
When I got home, I microwaved half of it and scarfed the cinnamon roll down. The other half I left in the fridge “just in case”. And I ended up devouring that the next day.
Over the past 14 years, whenever I’ve gone off track, it’s always been because I turned to foods and eating habits that are born of emotions, rather than logic. I’m not saying this particular cinnamon roll was the beginning of another roller coast ride.
But I can’t help thinking that if I could find a magic wand and be “cured” of the desire to eat emotionally, this whole thing would be so much easier.
In a nutshell
Wednesday March 02nd 2016, 1:41 am
Filed under: Main
When I kick off the orientation for new WeightWatchers members at the end of a meeting, I typically rattle off a short introductory spiel that goes something like this:
I was overweight my whole life. I went on my first diet in college, losing 15 pounds and then gaining back 20. That started a two-decade roller-coaster ride of dieting that led me to my highest weight ever. So when I joined WeightWatchers in 2002, it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to lose weight, it was that I was still looking for the “perfect diet.” What I discovered, however, was that I needed a behavior change plan, not a food plan. By attending meetings I learned not just what to eat, but how to approach my food-related behaviors –including giving myself a break for not being perfect. In the end, while I’m glad I lost 55 pounds in 2002, what makes me happiest is that I don’t weigh 60 pounds more in 2016.
There’s a little poetic license in there, as my goal is to keep this to about 90 seconds. But it’s essentially my story.
What I wonder is whether the people listening are tuning in or tuning out. Is my story relatable or does it sound too canned? When I tell them I lost weight in 2002, does that seem so long ago that I can’t possibly know what it’s like for them now, in 2016?
The part of the story I don’t mention is that the best WeightWatchers leaders I’ve had appeared on the scene long after my initial weight loss. (Kelly in San Francisco, Patti in Wisconsin, Melanie in Manhattan) The journey is also full of twists and turns, and it’s not exactly true to say that I got off the weight loss roller coaster. Much of what I’ve learned about maintenance is more recent, and is the result of repeatedly falling down.
And what truly works for me is having a strong routine – routine exercise and food habits, fixed menus, and little deviation in my weekly work and social schedule. I almost never eat at restaurants, either.
So yes, I’m happiest that I don’t weigh 60 pounds more today than when I lost weight in 2002. But I’m still on this journey, I’m still learning, and I still screw up.