How to Lose Weight and Keep it Lost

Straight from my van down by the river, here is every motivational tip and scrap of advice that I have ever mulled over, as I managed to lose weight and then faced the challenge of keeping the weight from coming right back. I can only hope that these thoughts, however aphoristic or clichéd, will help someone. I know it helped (and still helps) me to strategize my weight loss campaign with a set of tactics. So here goes.

Fourteen years ago, I realized that I weighed more than I wanted to and I was completely out of shape. For several years, my weight had slowly and steadily been heading up. During those years, I kept buying larger sized jeans, and not giving it much thought. I probably would have continued on in ignorant bliss, buying bigger and bigger clothes, but then my college friends got together for a weekend. I hadn't seen my college roommate in a couple of years. We both were married, working, with one young child apiece. And that's where the similarities ended. My college roommate weighed a lot less than me, and she had muscular arms. She wasn't flaunting it, and I wasn't upset. It was a wake up call.

I knew exactly how hard she could, or would, work out (maybe a little bit harder than me, but we were in the same ballpark). I knew exactly how much dieting willpower she had (pretty much the same amount as me: not much). The comparison motivated me to start doing something, so that my trend would imitate hers. She didn't give me any diet tips, but when I asked about her buff arms, she mentioned a workout video, Kathy Smith: Lift Weights to Lose Weight (released in 1998, so it will look a bit dated). I'd never heard of Kathy Smith (more on her later). Needless to say, I bought it, and I started to think harder about my eating habits. It took me a year to get myself to a happy weight, and I've managed to keep it off during the past fifteen years. I'm still a work in progress with the goal of being in shape. In other words, my arms aren't buff.

Hard Truths

Let's get these over with. First of all, do I guarantee any of this? No. This is going to be difficult! If it wasn't hard, no one would have a weight problem. Easy is sitting on your couch, watching TV, and eating junk food.

Let's do another hard truth, one that I don't often see mentioned. If you want to lose weight, you will have to experience the feeling of hunger, and you will have to resist the urge to eat. If you're feeling "oh, my god, I'm going to pass out" hungry and you skipped breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner, you are officially naughty, and you need to eat a healthy, normal meal or snack. If you had a decent healthy breakfast and you're starving at ten o'clock, get a glass of water and hold out until 11, 12, or whenever normal lunchtime is for you. Repeat to yourself, "Yes, I'm hungry, but that's okay. It means that I'm going to lose an ounce or two or three before I eat the PBJ and carrots and cookie that I brought myself for lunch. Yay, me!" This is an example of positive reinforcement (more on that later).

One more. If you are a "naturally" thin person, it usually means you have healthy eating and exercise habits. If you're reading this, you probably don't have healthy eating and exercise habits. And if you get those healthy habits, they probably aren't the habits that your mind and body would settle into if you stop paying attention. So the hard truth is, you're going to have to spend the rest of your life, every day, maintaining your healthy habits. It will get easier, depending on how habitual you are, but you're going to have to exercise will power every day for the rest of your life. This is not a six week diet. This is your life and how you live it, every day. Sorry.

Healthy Habits

Here's the plan. Three healthy meals a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Preferably those are small meals (I'll harp on portion control later). Don't skip meals. And every day, get some exercise. That's it. So why do all these words keep going on and on and on down the page? In my case, I had to keep myself motivated to stick to the plan, or if I failed, to get up the next day and get back on track. The rest of this essay covers a bunch of mental building blocks that helped me build my fortress of willpower. In other words, the healthy habits that helped me stick with the plan.

"Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the big secret to success." -- Savas Dimopoulos, particle physicist

Positive reinforcement is the number one healthy habit I would instill, in all aspects of life, but I'm focusing here on weight loss. No one is perfect. No one is going to start a healthy diet and exercise program, and never slip up. Did you have a huge bowl of ice cream? Did you skip the three mile walk and instead plant yourself in front of a rerun of Seinfeld? Oh, well. Let it go. If you start to beat yourself up about it ("I'm a failure." "I can't do it." "What a screw-up I am."), where do you think that will lead? Straight to more self-indulgence! Instead, forget about it, and get yourself back on track. It is a continuing process. Every minute of every day, you have the chance to make a better choice, a chance to improve.

Don't listen to negativity, especially if it is coming from you. Instead of harping on the not-so-great moments in this struggle, encourage your internal voice to only think about the successes. And no success is too small. "I got up at seven and took Rover for a three mile walk." "I walked on the treadmill for half an hour." "I did an exercise video." "I played tennis." "I lifted weights." "I went to the gym three times this week." "I made a healthy meal for myself and I skipped dessert." "I didn't go back for seconds." "I got the vegetable side instead of the French fries." "Yay, me! I feel good about myself when I do these things!" This is what you should be saying, in your mind, all the time. If you're saying it out loud and other people hear you, it might sound strange. But if no one's around, who cares! Everyone has an internal voice, and in many instances that voice is critical. If this applies to you, and your internal voice is negative in tone, change the tone of your internal voice. Let that internal voice start bragging on you.

As a side note, revel in it if another person ever says something along these lines: "Wow, you look great." "Did you lose weight?" "You're all sweaty and your face is bright red. Did you just finish a 5K?" "Yes, I did, thank you very much!" Those moments are ones to treasure. Bring those triumphs out when you need them, when you're feeling the urge to chow down. You may never hear these words from other people. Oh, well! The only voice that truly matters is yours. Make it a positive force in your life.

"If you think you might need somebody/ To pick you up when you drag/ Don't lose sight of yourself" -- What Light by Wilco

Starting with your internal voice (which I think I've harped on enough), be your own best friend. I honestly believe that if you begin a daily routine of healthy eating and exercise habits, and you stick with them, you will lose weight and get yourself in better shape. Some people may quickly morph into earthbound Adonises or Aphrodites. Most of us, however, won't sculpt ourselves into perfection, so we might as well get used to it now. What I mean is, even if you haven't lost a single pound, best friends accept you as you are. You must accept your body as it is, even while you're trying to lose weight. You and your body are in this together, so you might as well team up.

If you know that you're a dedicated self-hater, one practical tip is to start watching my very favorite show (yes, it is off the air, so you have to catch re-runs): What Not to Wear. The hosts, Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, also have a book that I thought was excellent: Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That's Right for Your Body, which gave examples of how to dress yourself, for all shapes and sizes. I know that a lot of people say that Clinton and Stacy are snarky. I just watched an interview during which Stacy admitted to being mean during the early episodes. I think I've watched every episode since season three, and yes, they make fun of people's wacky clothing, but in general, they're trying to help women look better! They are not snarky about body acceptance; they harp on it! They are all for accepting the body you have, and making the most of it. (They are still extremely snarky about unflattering clothes. Sorry.)

So I like What Not to Wear. It inspires me. You may be inspired by something/someone else. Seek out inspiration, wherever you can find it. When I first started trying to lose weight, I read Jane Brody's Good Food Book. Jane Brody (digression: a wonderful article by her, about optimism) is a writer for the New York Times. The Good Food Book came out in 1980 (I know, I know, it recommends lots o' carbs on the cover. Go eat your caveman diet if you want -- I'm not telling you what to eat), so when I read it, it was about twenty years old. I don't know if I ever even cooked recipes from the book. What I took away was Ms. Brody's story about how she lost weight. As I remember it, she ate three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and she got exercise every day. Sound familiar? She also talked about portion control. I think it was the first time I'd really thought about controlling my habits, and I found it to be inspirational.

Another source of inspiration for me, from time to time, has been magazine articles about weight loss success stories. I used to always pick up Self or Shape (I can't remember which) just to read the one page stories about women who had lost a lot of weight (or in a few cases, recovered from an eating disorder) and gotten into shape. Lately, I can't not buy the People issue with the "Half Their Size" headline. I love reading success stories! I've never watched any of the reality shows (Biggest Losers, etc.) but I could see how they could be inspirational. Would a support group help you? Find one. Maybe you know people who have transformed themselves. Ask them about it. Release your competitive spirit, if it's a friend, a relative, or your spouse, anyone who is willing to be a healthy lifestyle buddy. Don't get down if they "win." Let the competition inspire you.

Set yourself up for success. If you can, get rid of easy-access temptations. Don't buy trigger foods. Avoid places where you habitually overeat. Figure out ways to distract yourself, when you're about to slip up. Hardest of all, find ways to not eat when you're with your tribe of overeating friends. If the routine is that you all go out together and chow down/drink major calories, figure out a way to portion size it. Tell them you're trying to lose weight. (If they seem to be sabotaging it, that's a complicated situation. I'd probably just let it go -- we all have our own internal dramas going on, and it can be hard to watch other people's successes.) All of these strategies are firmly within the tactic of being your own best friend. A best friend wouldn't buy a gigantic bag of M & Ms for me, if she knew I was trying to lose weight!

Don't set up roadblocks against good habits and demolish any roadblocks that you already have. You are not allowed to say "I don't have time to exercise," if you watch more than a half an hour of TV a day. Oh, I can't say that. I hate one-size-fits-all, absolutist statements. So okay, maybe you do watch an hour of TV a day, but during the rest of the day you work two jobs, you go to school, and you're a good parent. I understand that you don't have time to exercise. Or do you? In your case, twenty minutes. Just twenty minutes a day. Did you know that an hour long show on commercial TV contains 17 minutes of commercials? If you jogged in place and/or did sit-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks during the commercials and the show's intro and closing, that would do it. I might start this routine at my house! Seriously, do whatever it takes if you really don't have time. Stand instead of sitting. Fidget (it really does burn calories!). Park as far away from your destination as possible. Find ways to burn calories, even if you've got to spread them out like spangles onto the overstretched fabric of your daily routine.

Side note on finding ways to exercise during a normal day: I've had a Fitbit One for three years and I love it! I am incredibly habitual, and it fits right into that mindset. FitBits support a community, and you can set it up to see your friends' steps, etc., if competition helps you. (I am not competitive, so for me it is just the 10,000 steps a day, which is my new religion.) Fitness trackers open a door to a new world of gamification of fitness for people like me. There are probably a million examples out there, but here is one: the website, where you can link your FitBit and then track yourself on a bunch of long-distance trails set up by a professional hiker. Walking4fun is a perfect fit for me -- non-competitive, but with some goals and distractions along the way. If it doesn't appeal to you, though, keep looking. There's something out there that will appeal!

And if you don't want a FitBit, there are other options for tracking steps/activity. I know Apple Watches will do it and I assume there are apps for it on every type of phone. Is an Apple Watch beyond your budget? It is for me! How about a pedometer?

Beyond the "I don't have time" roadblock, there are probably a million others. Here's one of mine: "I don't feel well." I have successfully turned this roadblock over. I'm not talking about days when I can't get out of bed with a fever or I'm worshipping the porcelain god. I'm talking about mornings when I feel, "oh, I may be getting a cold. Maybe I shouldn't exercise?" I have replaced that thought with "Oh, gosh, I'm getting sick. I definitely won't be able to exercise tomorrow, so I better do it today." It works for me. (And 99.99% of the time, I'm not sick the next day either.) Figure out a way to overturn your own roadblocks. "My old water polo induced hamstring injury hurts." Do an upper body workout. "It's raining." Walk on that treadmill you're using as a clothes hamper.

At the beginning, all of these habits feel strange. If you're used to eating all day long, confining your eating into three separate meals will be weird. Exercising every day might make you feel tired or sore. You will mentally massage away the soreness with a mantra of "Good job, me. I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, they were normal-sized healthy meals, and I walked for a half an hour after dinner. I am doing such a great job. I am so glad that I controlled my appetite and I exercised today. I am proud of myself." But the next day, you might feel like heading for the Sausage McMuffin drive-through and planting yourself on the couch. Why? Because that's your habit. Your new habit (remember the three healthy meals and exercise?) has to be reinforced for a certain amount of time before it becomes a habit. If you keep reinforcing the new, better habits for six weeks, they actually become habits. And then they get easier. Of course, you know that you're on the lifetime plan now. So you'll never get to go back to your old ways. Let them go, and they will fade away . . . in just six weeks. That's not a long time, geologically speaking. Willpower is like a muscle. It gets stronger, the more you use it.

"What's wrong with you? If you don't eat thirds/fourths/fifths of that deep-fried deliciousness I made you, I will take it as a personal insult." -- my grandmother, at the start of a summer vacation at her house (I'm paraphrasing, okay?)

"The way you eat, you won't be in a slim sized jean much longer." -- my grandmother, about a week into the summer vacation (exact quote)

The most important eating habit to cultivate is portion control. I eat off a salad plate at every meal (at home. No, I don't ask for a salad plate at restaurants or other people's homes). And then don't go back for seconds. You will be forced to eat less. Plus, you will become more aware of what a normal-sized meal should look like. So when you're at the restaurant and they serve you a meal on a manhole-cover-sized plate, you'll know just how much you're overeating. Except that you won't be overeating. Instead, you will carefully cut the meal in half and share it with someone else (if it's just okay) or take it home for breakfast tomorrow (if it is delicious). I can't stress the salad plate tip enough, especially if you're a woman. I was raised with a family mantra of "food is love" and "if you love me, you'll eat seconds or perhaps thirds." I loved those deep fried southern foods, but . . . as an adult, I've got to bring myself back to reality.

So we've covered the "too much" side of the salad plate. And I mentioned my deep fried childhood. But I haven't gone into a lot of rules about what to or not to eat. I'd like to leave it up to you, for the most part. The point here is, whatever you eat, you've got to come up with strategies for eating less of it. Here's one: conscious eating. Every time you're about to eat something, ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" If you're not hungry, stop eating. If you can't stop yourself from eating even when you're not hungry, keep asking the question. If you want to lose weight, you've got to stop eating, even when you feel hunger. So keep asking yourself, "Am I hungry?" and put on the brakes as quickly as you can.

Another question that works for me is, "Does this taste good?" If it doesn't taste good, why are you eating it? After you've gotten into the habit of eating healthier foods, fast food French fries might not taste so good. Here's a question that another woman told me she asks herself: "Is this nutritious?" She has become an ingredient-reading, label-inspecting, nutrition-obsessed eater. This may shock you: a lot of the food in front of your face every day is not good for you. If you can get yourself into a nutrition obsession, you're going to keep a lot of ubiquitous foods off your salad plate. Feel free to put foods on your do-not-eat list, and keep practicing not eating them. "I do not eat fast food/soda/fake food." Whatever works for you, if it includes three meals a day and daily exercise. If you eat at Subway every day, if you eat the same thing for breakfast every day of your life, if you don't eat after 5 p.m., if you won't eat fat/sugar/carbs, whatever. (I'd probably take a multi-vitamin every day if I was relentlessly unvaried in my diet.) Which brings me to another corollary of good habits.

It is easier to do something 100% of the time, than it is to do it 99% of the time. This has definitely been true in my life, especially during my youthful, impulse-control-challenged days. But I've noticed that the slippery slope trips up a lot of people. I just read a New Yorker profile of Clayton Christensen, an influential thinker in business theory and practices. I enjoyed the whole profile, but he told one story that seemed particularly applicable. He is Mormon, and loves to play basketball. His religion proscribed participating in athletic events on Sundays. Even under a lot of pressure as a young basketball player, he wouldn't do it, and he made my point. It is easier to never do something, than it is to do it just once. If he had played on one Sunday, then it would have been harder not to play on the next Sunday. Back to my subject matter. If grande frappuccinos are your weakness, and you have them once (twice? more? come on!) a day, it might be easier to give them up entirely, rather than try to have one once a week. But that's your choice. I'd avoid them. They're not nutritious and they are a wallop of calories. But maybe you'd like to have one once a week. Just remember that they could be a slippery slope, and you should set yourself up for success by avoiding them.

And now Grandma story #2. I remember my grandmother telling a story about a close friend of hers who weighed herself every day. If she gained weight, even just a little bit, she'd immediately alter her diet (I'm not sure about exercise. This was the 70s.) so that she lost the small amount of weight. The story was supposed to illustrate how odd it was to be so obsessive about your weight. I took it the other way entirely. Women close to me, including the same grandmother, had gained and lost 50, 60, 70, 80 pounds. When I heard about this gal, I thought, "Wouldn't it be better if you realized, hey, I gained five pounds?" Rather than ignoring your increasing weight for months, and then torturing yourself with a diet that you couldn't maintain for the rest of your life, and then gaining the weight back. (An endless cycle of failure!) I'm not the type to step on the scale every day. Instead, do as I do, and pay attention to your pants. Pick out a pair of jeans or pants that you love, or at least can tolerate. The tighter, the better. Pay attention to how they fit. If you find them getting looser, give yourself a hearty "Yay, me." You are making progress. If you find them getting tighter, you need to double down on the plan, and all the tips and tricks that you've found helpful. Tighter pants means it's time to pay closer attention to your healthy routine. Don't ignore tight pants!

I've harped a lot on eating habits, probably because I'm a believer in "calories in, calories out." There is probably someone out there who can just start exercising more, and lose weight. I think science these days is backing me up, though, when I say that your diet is key to your weight loss or gain. However, exercise is at least a piece in the puzzle. Exercise is going to make it easier to feel good about yourself. (Release the endorphins!) Beyond the science, let's say you don't lose an ounce in two weeks of healthy eating habits. It would be easy to lose motivation. Unlike weight loss, exercise is something that you have complete control over. It is completely up to you whether you do it or not. You can exercise and give yourself a "Yay, me!" every day.

I'd advise not asking the question, "Do I exercise today?" Don't even think about it. If you're a morning person, get out of bed, put your workout clothes on, and get it over with before you can start thinking clearly. If you have a sport that you like, seek it out. If you feel energized by going to a gym or getting a personal trainer, do that. Do you like to run? Start running. The very easiest exercise is walking. Walk, outside, on a treadmill, wherever.

Do you like the privacy of your own living room? Do you like a routine? Cheap, convenient, alone (works for me): exercise videos. Don't know which one to pick? Here's a website devoted to workout video reviews. I'm not crazy about how the website is organized, but if you take the time, you can probably find a DVD that would work for you. (I wish that they'd have a form for checking off what you want, and you'd get suggestions. For example, I just spent ten valuable minutes of my life looking for a fast moving, 30 minutes or less, weight training DVD with good reviews. The way the website is organized, you have to hunt, and hunt, and hunt. But there are a lot of choices; so you can find a workout video that will work for you. And of course, Amazon reviews are also helpful.) I mentioned early on that my first-ever workout video was Kathy Smith's Lift Weights to Lose Weight. I moved on from that through Kathy Smith: Lift Weights to Lose Weight 2, Project You, Kathy Smith - Matrix Method - Ultimate Sculpt, and I did Ageless with Kathy Smith - Staying Strong. I just got a new Kathy video: Kathy Smith: FastFit, which I'm on the fence about. The con is that it is hard. I have to do the modifier's moves, and use light weights, and my muscles are sore. The pro is that there are four ten-minute workouts on the DVD and they are all a hard workout (if you think they're easy, you use heavier weights to make it harder). No one (including me) doesn't have TEN MINUTES to do a workout, and if I put on my workout clothes, start the DVD, and finish a ten-minute workout, it is unlikely that I won't continue into another one. If you do two of them, it is twenty minutes -- that is my definition of quick!

You may have noticed that I only recommended videos by Kathy Smith. And I know that she bugs some people. (Obviously, she does not bother me at all! I love her.) All of these videos include some weight training, and I'd have to say that for me, lifting weights with a workout video to guide me has been helpful in losing weight and keeping it off (the goal). For my physiology, give me weight training over cardio any day. Does that mean that you must do weight training? No. You have to find some form of exercise that you like, so that you can stick with it. Any form of exercise that appeals to you, so that you'll do it every day -- that's the right exercise for you.

"All his life has he looked away . . . to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing." -- Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back

Finally, a life lesson straight from AA: one day at a time. Don't think about 1, 5, 10, 100 lbs. down the road. You need to focus on right now. Do I eat that gigantic fake chocolate Costco muffin? Do I go for a walk with my dog? I have ten minutes to make and eat dinner; do I eat a PBJ or get fast-food takeout? Every single one of these little decisions matters to our waistlines, but it's easy to pretend that they aren't important issues. The goal: take all of this advice (or whatever advice works for you), make it through one day, give yourself some positive reinforcement, and then wake up and do it all over again. Every decision made correctly (no, yes, PBJ) is a triumph. And they add up. Practice really does make perfect. But you have to practice.

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