Weight Loss: Before You Move Your Muscles, You Have to Move Your Mind

Your willpower is a muscle that can be trained. Here is a wealth of scientific information to help you understand your behavior and engineer a successful health and weight-loss plan.

Sylvia Tara: I have a chapter in my book in which I talk about how to build a self-control muscle. It's really important to do because when they do, again, FMRI studies of some dieter's brain people who have lost 30 pounds and managed to keep it off for three years or more they have them hold a lemon lollipop in their mouth and the people who successfully lost weight their reward center lights up pretty brightly. They're pretty excited by this lemon lollipop, more so perhaps than people who are obese or normal weight but haven't lost the weight, haven't been successful dieters. The other part that lights up in their brain is that associated with restraint so it's self-control. And that lights up very brightly showing that they have control over this emotional response so at the same time they're getting excited they're also having a high self-control activity. The other people, normal or obese people are not having that self-control light up with the lemon lollipop.

So it shows that one of the reasons we're able to stay on for three years or more on their diet is that they've gotten this really good control over what they eat every day and they've managed to keep weight off for years. Now any diet that you want to stay on or that you like it really does require willpower to stay on it. And I have to say that it might sound like it's something obvious but because a diet doesn't it just last for six months it last for years and years because the effect of our lower metabolism lasts for years you have to be able to stay on something for years. And one of the reasons that people come off quite a bit is they get tired of being on a diet. No one wants to stay on it for years. You have to kind of build these self-control muscles, these habits if you will make it part of your lifestyle so that it's automatic, it's not a big effort for you anymore.

And so in the chapter I do wright about some techniques we can use because a diet it's like an eating regiment for the long haul. There's small things we can do and we can build it up into larger accomplishments later. Some of the small things are there's a study that shows that just managing your posture, keeping your back straight for two weeks, just stopping the swearing for two weeks, those people are able to manage more stressful tasks later, they're able to do more tasks that involve physical discomfort after that two week period. So in a way they kind of start exercising self-control in one dimension but it's leading into this other realm as well.
And then there's another study were they pay people to use a gym eight times in one month and they pay another group to use it once a month and then they don't pay anyone at all the next month. And the people who have been using the gym for eight times, they were paid to go eight times they just start just using the gym without getting paid and so they've built up this habit. And so you can start small, start with small things, make them a habit and then build up to bigger things. There's also something called temptation bundling. And so we compare a want activity with a should activity. No one really wants to do a should activity all the time. But another study they had people listen to a really juicy audio novel and some people could only listen at the gym while they work out, other people they say take it you can take it home listen whenever you want. And the people where the novel is tied to the gym they go to the gym much more frequently than the people who get to listen to this novel all the time.

And in fact after the experiment is over that group of people actually wants to pay to stay on the experiment because it's so successful that it forces them to go to the gym all the time. And so we compare like a should activity with a want activity to get us to do those things and hopefully those things then become habits over time. But it is a muscle and even willpower you have to give it a little bit of a break. And so when people do a should activity all the time they get fatigued and they show healthcare workers they're supposed to wash their hands all day. And they start doing it less at the end of the day. And so when they give them longer breaks in between their shift they find that they'll continue to do it, they'll wash their hands through to the end of the day. And so it's important to take the breaks, engineer in a break into this long-term regiment that you have.

Another good experiment that really illustrates that is there's one where they have people hold hand exercising equipment, they have them do this hand exercise. And after a while they separate to the group into two and let one group watch a really happy movie and one has to watch a sad movie. And when they come back in the room and they're supposed to continue this exercise the group that watched a happy movie they're ready to go, they're at it, they're able to do it. The group that watched a sad movie there depleted, they just don't feel like doing this exercise any more. So whatever is that really you motivate you, that excites you, that gives you a little bit of a lift or a relieve, engineer that into your day if you can somehow, into your week. Make sure that you're relaxing every once in a while rewarding yourself in some way that this doesn't become a slog.

And the reason I do talk about willpower is on the horizon right now there are some things you can do to manage weight. We have gastric bypass surgery, we have hormone replacement therapy if you really want that, there are diet pills you can get and then there's diet and exercise. And if you really need a medical intervention everyone of them has a risk benefit profile and you really need to discuss that with your doctor. If you've gotten that level where it's really medically necessary for you to have one of those interventions that's a different discussion. But for the here and now it's diet and exercise I'm sorry to say. And there are things on the horizon, there's possibly lepton injections for people who've lost weight, there's possibly injecting brown fat, which we can get into that too. There are things out there but for now we're stuck with what we have, the technologies we have and the abilities that we have. And so diet and exercise is still important. You have to be very smart about it. You have to understand your hormones, your other things that are making you fat. And then you have to be able to stay on whatever that regiment is that you pick. And that's why willpower comes in. But the book is full of many more things than just willpower and diet and exercise.

Willpower is one of the most elusive qualities to get a handle on, but according to Dr Sylvia Tara, biochemist and author of The Secret Life of Fat, your willpower can be trained like a muscle. We have all sorts of medical interventions for weight loss and new procedures on the horizon, but there is always a risk-benefit trade off to these measures. What we have here and now, she says, is diet and exercise. These work best of all, the only hurdle in your way is changing your behavioral patterns to embrace them. Here, Tara presents a list of ways to apply what we’ve learnt from psychological studies towards your fitness and health goals – from temptation bundling, to reward schemes and just getting past the two weeks it takes to form a good habit – or break a bad one. Sylvia Tara is the author of The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.


Sylvia Tara is the author of The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.

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