Here we are in January, New Year’s Resolution Central. I can’t find a parking space at the gym when there are usually plenty. But I’m not worried. By next month, I’ll have my pick of spaces again. Why? Because people tend to bite off more than they can chew this time of year, and they give up when they aren’t able to do everything perfectly.
If you want to make a change that will stick, you have to do more than set a goal. You have to make a plan for when things don’t go as planned. And if you define success as all or nothing, chances are you’ll end up with nothing and fall right back into old habits.
What people fail to realize is that even small improvements are worth celebrating, and that mistakes are just part of the journey, so there’s no need to overreact. There’s a samurai saying, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” That’s really the key to success.
I am speaking from my medical training and my own life experience. I have fought with weight my entire adult life with lots of ups and downs. I have been in phenomenal shape, and I have been 60 pounds overweight.
When we want to lose weight, we tend to think we can just go run a mile and eat what we want like we could as a teen or twentysomething. Exercise is good for your heart and brain and helps keep weight off, but it is not the key to weight loss.
Exercise has plenty of benefits, but you do not need to run several miles a day to get healthy. You can get 70 percent of the benefit if you walk the same distance like you mean it. In fact, if you walk around the block every night after dinner, it’ll help with digestion and drop your blood sugar dramatically. This is a great place to start.
If you struggle with motivation, find a friend, a buddy (maybe your dog) who will make you walk that block. If you plan to exercise to feel better, that’s wonderful. If you think exercising more will melt away your extra pounds, it won’t. I tell patients all the time: you cannot outrun a bad diet.
If you want to lose weight, you’ve got to change your relationship with food. It’s hard to come to terms with the amount of food you actually need once you hit your 50s and beyond. It ain’t much. Our brains want a plate of food as big as our head, but our body knows we really only need about a fist’s worth.
If you don’t solve the emotional piece and you don’t have a plan about what to do when you’re tempted to cheat, it’s hard to win. In some ways, it’s easier to quit smoking or drinking, because at least with those you can go cold turkey. Obviously, that doesn’t work with food.
Try not to set yourself up for failure. Reaching your high school fighting weight isn’t likely or necessary. If you’re 200 pounds and you lose 5 or 10 percent of your body weight (10-20 lbs), that would reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and several other chronic illnesses. It may not be bikini shape, but it has huge benefits for your wellbeing.
If you’ve been doing something for 50 years, it won’t be easy to break that habit, and you won’t be 100-percent successful. But 50-percent successful is 100 percent better than not even trying. Sustained change takes self-compassion and commitment—make friends with the idea that you will slip up and that’s okay.
Maintaining a healthy weight may require new skills as we age, and learning any new skill takes time. Pay attention to your patterns and plan for them. Feel hungry when you get home from work most days? Have healthy (and yummy) snacks ready to go. Know you love soda and you’re going to cheat from time to time? That’s fine–have a couple of 12-ounce cans in the fridge, not a two-liter bottle.
It can be hard to recognize how much we’re actually eating. Even highly trained Olympic athletes who are both disciplined and motivated often underestimate their calorie intake by about 30 percent—and these people are good at the nutrition game. So, the average person can snow themselves pretty easily. For example, one glass of wine is considered 3-5 ounces, but we pour 8 ounces and don’t realize it. You can have a glass of wine, but measure half a cup. The amount might be emotionally disappointing to look at, but you’ll have something you enjoy in a responsible way.
Once you get into a good routine, it’s easier to keep it up. Just remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Take each day as a new opportunity to do better.
Matthew Swain, DO, is the chief medical officer at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.