Our bodies are miraculous; they are incredibly adaptable and capable of massive changes, but they are not built to change at the speed of social media posts. It's not that change at this speed isn’t possible, but if we slip right back into old habits immediately after accomplishing a goal, were we really successful?
What I described above is commonly called the ‘yo-yo effect’ and is used to describe a process also known as weight cycling, or the cyclical loss and subsequent gain of weight. But it can be used to represent any goal where, once achieved, we see an unmistakable slip back to where we started. I call this the ‘Hot Pizza Problem.” Avoiding this slide back into old habits and loss of everything that we worked so hard to gain is what we are after.
Picture it:You haven’t eaten all day, when a friend says “wanna go get pizza” the answer is emphatic, “Yes, Yes, I always want pizza” You order your favorite pie and swoon when you see your large pie arrive piled high with sausage, onion, and peppers. In your extreme hunger and excitement to FINALLY eat the delicious pizza you grab a slice and shove that first delicious bite in your mouth (this is New Jersey we DO NOT use silverware for our pizza). For a moment you are overjoyed, then you feel the unmistakable feeling of molten mozzarella and boiling tomato sauce on your tongue. Now, you have one option: spit that bite back out and end up right back where you began, hungry but now disappointed at your failure while staring enviously across the table at your friends patiently blowing on each bite before they enjoy their pizza as you contemplate what are most definitely 3rd degree burns on your tongue.
(The above is a first hand account of far too many personal experiences)
There’s good news and bad news, which do you want first? I’ll plan to leave you on a high note. The bad news it is, sustainable goal setting does not result in the astonishing, overnight transformations we see on TV and in social media these days. These crash diets and overnight transformations we see are often too much for our body to handle all at one time. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and bite off more than we can chew, both mentally and physically.
In 2016 researches from NIH completed a study on contestants from the the TV show The Biggest Loser. Though all the contestants lost a substantial amount of weight through diet and exercise at the end of the show, six years later, their size had largely rebounded. Thirteen of the fourteen contestants had put a significant amount of weight back on. More than anything what I think this study indicates is that while our bodies are capable of dramatic transformations, there are many aspects to take into account, both the physiological demand of undertakings like this, as well and potentially more importantly the mental aspect, the drive and desire to change and the long term commitment that is necessary to maintain our desired result.
The good news is this: with sustainable goal setting and a realistic understanding that physiological change takes time and effort as well as an appreciation for the commitment necessary to achieve our goals, we can achieve lasting change.
Beyond the obvious and not setting the bar for our goals too high, a common issue seen with many New Year’s resolutions is that they are based on a minimum threshold- these are the “at least” goals. Examples of this are “I am going to lose at least 5 pounds” or “ I am going to squat at least 300 pounds.” These goals have an implicit assumption with them that gets most people who chase them into trouble; they assume that if you can do more, you should. “But, Nick, more is always better right?” No, not necessarily . More is not necessarily better if that extra weight loss causes you to break your nutrition plan and spiral back to where you started or that extra training session causes you to get injured and miss weeks or worse, months of training.
But where do you stop? Once you hit that 5 pounds, shouldn’t you keep going? In most cases people just pass these goals by like they blow by a gas station on the highway while jamming to their favorite Taylor Swift song (‘22’ in case you’re curious) too caught up singing along to notice the gas light on. Before they know it, it’s far too late to recover and they both literally and figuratively run out of gas. When we set goals with these assumptions, it’s easy to feel great about how things are going and to ignore the signals from our body that we should take a short break and evaluate our progress to ensure we don’t hit a point of no return. The solution to this is simple: to put an upper limit on our goals, and give ourselves a target window. Perhaps this looks like the goal “I will lose 3-7 pounds.” Once achieved we are in a position to evaluate the process and our progress and make an informed decision as to the next step in our goal setting process and perhaps that next step is “I will lose 2-5 pounds” . This process is akin to taking a patient moment to blow on our slice of pizza before we take that next bite of deliciousness.
By making small adjustments and letting our body adapt over time, we are much more likely to achieve long term success. It may not be the glamorous route, or the made for TV transformations that we get excited about, but we have to remember that our bodies, while incredible at adapting and transforming their physiology from weight loss to increases in strength and endurance capabilities, take time and we need to approach them in a progressive and sustainable way. If we ask too much of our bodies too fast, we are bound to face a major setback, an injury or major shifts in metabolic rates and hormone levels as a result of crash dieting or even the simple loss of motivation due to the extreme mental strain of what is required to achieve such incredible shifts. Inevitably, we will see that scalding hot pizza shoot from your mouth and back onto your plate.
So here’s the deal, can you lose 15 pounds this month or run get across the finish line of a marathon this month? Maybe. But will it be a fun and enjoyable process? Most certainly not. And, will you be able to keep that weight off or walk up the stairs to work following the marathon? Probably not.
Goals keep us driving forward, they act as the carrot that keeps us pushing on, and keep us moving in the direction of our big picture, long term goals (more on these next post). If we don’t have realistic timelines and a sustainable approach, we are ultimately bound to fail and fall right back to where we began. But if we approach our goals with both process and outcome goals and a sustainable approach we can achieve long term growth.
Fothergill, Erin, et al. “Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years after ‘The Biggest Loser’ Competition.” Obesity, vol. 24, no. 8, 2016, pp. 1612–1619., doi:10.1002/oby.21538.