Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

I’ve taken time off this blog to consider whether what I preach still aligns with the current findings supported by the latest studies. And increasingly, I’ve found that there’s a dearth of research focused on the matters that concern me most. While research must necessarily explore nutrition and exercise science, I feel that the “best” (if such a thing exists) program will be useless unless the individual attempting to implement it is prepared to accept it.

What I’ve read continues to affirm my belief that successfully reducing high levels of overweight in this country will come not from pushing dietary restrictions and creating exercise programs, such as have lead to a billion-dollar fitness and weight loss industry. It will come from developing a greater understanding of what the forces acting on modern-day humans are that make them hold on to the behaviors that contribute to the gain and maintenance of excess body fat.

And that’s not something you can market via late-night infomercials.

If you’re familiar with triathlons, you may know that, in addition to age-groups and relay teams, it’s not unusual for there to be a race division referred to as Clydesdale (for men) and Athena (for women). In order to participate in this division, competitors must meet bodyweight requirements, generally 2o0lbs for men and 150lbs for women. This enables heavier athletes to compete and medal in a sport that’s often populated by smaller and lighter racers who have a distinct advantage at speed. In doing so, many individuals who might otherwise not consider such a race can not only get inspired to train, but also benefit from increased fitness levels as a result.

Personally, I think that’s great. But I witnessed something last weekend at a local triathlon that really drove home the concept of  “all athletes not being equal” in the eyes of society.

First, a little background about me, in case you’re new to this blog. It took me until my 40s to figure out that, for many people, the key to losing weight was more than simply the “eat less/move more” strategy that is often espoused by the already-lean. I never had a weight problem, so, obviously, I was an expert on how people should lose weight, right?

Obviously not.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the concept of weight bias/stigma on both a personal level via friends, and an academic level through research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (Yale University) that I realized not only how widespread anti-obesity bias is, but how acceptable it’s become to berate heavy individuals. It’s probably one of the most pervasive and persistent biases that society holds, and it has been documented throughout history.

Fast-forward to last weekend. As the racers from the Clydesdale division got into the water prior to their swim, the announcers tried to explain to the spectators what a Clydesdale was. They described the competitors as “not wanting to share their pizza”, and promised them beer at the end of the race, saying “that should keep them motivated.” They giggled about trying to be politically correct in their description of this race division. All this over loudspeakers.

There was more, but I was too shocked to remember it. None of us knows why these individuals are heavier than competitors in other divisions. They are, at least, competing, which is more than I can say for myself, since I was only there to cheer someone else on. No one poked fun about the other race divisions. But comments about stereotypical eating habits of overweight individuals were okay?

If you want to call me hyper-sensitive, stop. After all, if singling out a single group of people based solely on societal biases about their body types were justifiable, why would I care? Especially when I don’t have a weight problem.

But I do have a brain. And a close friend who carried a lot of excess weight due to complex factors, whose attempts to “move more” were met with insults yelled from cars as she walked down the road. I know thin people who are self-conscious about exercising in public — you think someone who’s heavy and been dealing with colorful commentary for most of her life should be able to shrug off invectives?

My guess is, if you’re unsympathetic, it’s because you feel that insults are motivating and that a heavy individual is deserving of verbal abuse. Maybe it’s tied into your feeling that anyone who carries extra pounds is gluttonous, greedy, unmotivated, lacks self-control…and taking that further, is stupid and evil and ugly. History is replete with these types of descriptions.

What if they’re not? What if the reason someone is heavy has nothing to do with personal character?

Ponder that thought. Please.

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Here’s a side note: notice that the weight requirements of the Clydesdale/Athena divisions are not particularly high, given the relative size of the current U.S. population. Because of the direction that we’re heading, maintaining our fitness is paramount to keeping ourselves healthy.

Wouldn’t it be a travesty if someone opted NOT to train and NOT to race simply because they feared opening themselves up to ridicule?

Prepare yourself for some ridicule. Because when you set foot in the gym, the “regulars” will look at you and roll their eyes. They might make comments. Or give you icy stares if you break the rules of gym etiquette. They might even be trying to intimidate you so that you retreat to a safe corner where the cardio machines are. When you do eventually give up going to the gym (yes, the odds are stacked against you) you won’t be tempted to even consider returning.

Here’s my advice: ignore them. I know this is easier said than done, but I want you to focus on this. You’re not embarking on an exercise program so that people like you. You’re doing it to save your life. You’re doing it so that you can be stronger, run faster, live longer. Your goals are yours, and yours alone. Others in the gym don’t care if you fail or succeed. But you do.

Those others? They were beginners once too. They might have done biceps curls in the squat rack or tried talking to someone who was in the middle of a set . But 9 times out of 10 even the “regulars” can be pretty clueless, and that includes the personal trainers. The seasoned veterans who DO know what they’re doing didn’t learn everything overnight. It took time and practice and a willingness to ask questions and search for accurate information. And yes, even make mistakes.

Please don’t give up. Our kids are growing up in a world where everyone’s getting increasingly more sedentary. Technology has provided us with myriad more opportunities to move less. What we need now are people willing to buck that trend and establish another that moves us in the direction of more activity and a healthier future. They are people like you, who choose the first of the year to start something new.

You can do that, but you have to keep going.  Little by little, bit by bit.

And all those naysayers at the gym? I hope you kick their asses some day. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’m counting on you.

Do you really know what you want? Do you know what steps you need to take to get it? If not, you’re going to be at greater risk of being swayed from your goals. What happens at the point when we’re faced with a decision whether or not to engage in a behavior that may or may not be detrimental to our goals? Our actions will depend in large part on how meaningful our goals are and how attractive the other option is. In a way, it’s a balance of those two factors. Knowing exactly what you want will help sway things in your favor and keep you moving towards where you want to be.

If most people have an opportunity to (1) eat a doughnut or (2) abstain in favor of their fitness goals, which one will win out?

Eat like Homer, look like Homer. (www.sfgate.com)

My money’s on the doughnut, and here’s why: most people don’t have a truly clear idea of what they want as far as fat loss goes. They want to lose pounds or “get into shape”. Some just want to “look good”. What do all of those mean? They’re very fuzzy goals, and as a result, achieving them will be difficult. How will you know you’ve reached the point where you’re “in shape”? What if you think you “look good” but then pass a mirror or see yourself in a photo and realize that you don’t look as good as the person next to you? What if you still “feel fat”? All these things make it hard to claim success…

And that’s why the doughnut is such a formidable opponent. In contrast to the uncertainties of fat loss, you know what you’ll get with the doughnut. The melt-in-your-mouth sweetness, the sugar rush…the desire for more. Those pounds you want to lose are so far away. The doughnut is here and immediate. It’s tangible. You can practically taste it.

Add to that, it’s easy to justify eating the doughnut, right? How much of a difference will one doughnut really make?

All of this is why it’s important to not only have clearly defined goals for fat loss, but also an understanding of the day-to-day steps you need to take to get there. Success is determined by your daily efforts. Your daily efforts are determined by your long-range goals.

When you know specifically where you want to go, and are aware of what you need to do every day, resisting temptation becomes easier. When the sun sets every evening, you can claim victory for another day, and the resulting changes to your body become your reward.

Recently, I participated in a discussion about a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, during which one person expressed frustration that a tax would impinge on our freedom of choice. This concern is not new and many have argued that the government oversteps its authority when it tries to discourage consumption of foods deemed to be unhealthy. However, I found the freedom of choice argument very interesting because, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Used to be, there was one type of Oreo cookie. Now, according to NabiscoWorld.com, there are fifty varieties of Oreos to choose from. FIFTY. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to breakfast cereals, and yet think of how many people skip breakfast altogether (the estimates I found ranged from 20-40%)! You can’t drive far without passing a fast-food joint, and the last time I went to Fedex something, they had several shelves of candy conveniently close to the cashier, lest you get hungry while standing in line. And the list goes on.

You want something, you can get it, and umpteen varieties of it. Food choices have greatly increased in the past 20-30 years, and this explosion in variety has been implicated as a factor in the increase in obesity: we are likely to consume more when we have a variety of foods to choose from rather than when our choices are limited (Physiol Behav. 1981. 26(2): 215-221.; Obes Res. 2005. 13(5): 883-890.).

Need help finding anything?

To make things worse, much of this variety comes in the form of prepared, processed foods that require little effort to consume. You can find several types of squash in the produce section, but that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling selection of chips in the snack food aisle, ready to eat as soon as you get them out of the store.

And yet, there’s also choice when it comes to exercise. So many different exercise classes, an overabundance of weight machines for every muscle group, a wide array of training protocols and cardio equipment at which you can stand, sit and lie. A flavor to suit every potential exerciser. All this, but about 70% of Americans do not exercise regularly, citing “lack of time” as the main reason…so the myriad of choices hasn’t resulted in more interest…

…however, consider that cable television providers offer over 900 channels of distractions. With that kind of competition for your time and appetite, is it surprising that many people have difficulty establishing healthy food and exercise routines?

My take on this is that we’re nowhere near in danger of running out of choices. Rather, we have far too many selections of the wrong kind of stuff for our own good. Most people expect government intervention in the food industry so that they can be confident that their food is safe. At the same time, Americans freak out if the government proposes legislation to limit access to unhealthy food because that’s viewed as infringing on our personal freedom.

And besides, we’re all smart enough to make healthy choices. Right?

Many people seem to be confused by the interplay of nutrition and exercise in the context of weight maintenance and fat loss. It’s really not that complicated, although it’s critical that you understand how one will affect the other…and how they do that is not unlike, say, driving a car with a manual transmission.

This analogy will be more effective if you already know how to drive a stick-shift, but even if you don’t, bear with me. Imagine you’re in the car: if you hold down the clutch pedal, even if you floor the gas, you’re not going to go anywhere. In essence, the clutch mediates the effect of the gas. Until you begin releasing the clutch, the gears won’t catch and the wheels won’t turn. Now, think of exercise output as being the gas pedal and nutritional intake as the clutch. You can train your butt off, but if you don’t watch your diet, you won’t make progress. That’s not to say that your exercise efforts will be for naught, but if your goal is to shed fat, it ain’t gonna happen. Your food intake will, in effect, mediate the fat-loss effects of your workout.

That’s why it’s commonly said that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. And that’s why it’s also true that you should never fool yourself into thinking you can eat anything and everything you want just because you workout out on a given day. You can consume far more calories in a sitting than you can easily burn off during a training session, and as a result you’ll end up, pardon the pun, spinning your wheels.

So when someone tells me that they’re working out hard but it’s not making a difference in their fat stores, one of the first things I do is ask then to show me their food log. Don’t have a food log? Well, that’s the place to start. Because unless you’re paying attention to both the intake and output sides of the equation — manipulating both pedals to drive — you’re probably not going to get very far.