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. 🙂

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.

Obesity: You'll know it when you see it...or will you?

We need to be careful with how we throw labels around — psychologists are particularly prone to this, and sometimes we don’t consider the repercussions from careless diagnoses, official or not. Some of these terms are derived in ways other than how you’d expect. A perfect example of this is the term “obese”. Interestingly enough, while we imagine an obese individual to be someone who is very fat, it’s possible for an individual with low body fat and a LOT of muscle (think Mr. Olympia) to end up in the same category. That’s because the official designation of “obese” is based not on fat, but on height and weight, using the Body Mass Index. But once you label someone as “obese”, our imaginations run off with what else that means…

In health terms, an individual is described as obese when he/she has a BodyMass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated as:

weight (kg)/[height (m)]2.

That’s all. It simply means that the person has attained a certain, greater degree of overweight that has knocked them into a certain category. Note that there is no direct measurement of fat involved, and in fact, the correlation of BMI with body fat is rough and imperfect, but “kinda, sorta good enough”. However, in the realm of public health, collecting reliable data is critical to making accurate assessments about populations, and it’s easier to measure height and weight (which are fairly straightforward measurements) than to try to gather body fat data (generally more time consuming and fraught with user-errors). And because of that “kinda, sorta good enough” correlation, the BMI is used to determine whether a person gets knocked into the “obese” category. The BMI was never designed to diagnose individuals, as has begun happening. If you’ve ever played “Wii Fit” and wanted to throw the balance board at your TV screen, you probably know what I mean — BMI is all over the place and being misused regularly. Wikipedia does an unusually good job of describing the problems with overinterpreting BMI here.

So the BMI, the measure by which we determine whether someone is, or isn’t, overweight/obese, is simply a number that doesn’t have anything to do with body fat, really. HOWEVER, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “obese” as “having excessive body fat”. Doesn’t that seem wrong? “Fat percentage” is not a variable in the BMI formula (have I stated that enough times in one post?), but the word “obese” by definition is based on body fat. And the designation of “obese” as it’s used in our daily lives becomes painfully emotional to many people.

I came across an interesting article (via Twitter, thanks to @AliciaMarieBODY) about an obese woman who managed to avoid looking at herself as she gradually put on fat, thereby ignoring the changes to her body, only to be confronted by her physician with the reality of her physical state. She knew she was heavy, but grossly underestimated her actual weight. When her doctor told her she was obese, her response was,

“It may sound unlikely, but I was genuinely shocked. In my mind I was far from obese. To me, obese was beyond fat  –  with connotations of someone who was greedy, lazy and uneducated and that wasn’t me.”

Wow! To her, it wasn’t simply excess weight or even fat, it was something much worse than that. It was a character judgment. How frightening that a simple measurement (BMI), calculated from two very objective measurements (height and weight), would be interpreted so subjectively.

Even the word itself — “OH-BEEEESE” — sounds unpleasant and bears a resemblance to ‘obscene’, so it’s not surprising that there are several levels of negative connotations wrapped around it. Obese suggests extremely fat to the point of being a circus sideshow. It sounds hideous and evil.

So, we’ve transitioned from simple body measurements to their interpretation as body fat to something that’s nasty. The issue is no longer a number, but rather a reflection of who the person is as a human being. That’s a heavy emotional hit for someone who sees themselves as merely “carrying extra pounds”…and then is confronted with the loaded label of “obese”.

Taking all these things into consideration, it’s not surprising that the woman’s quote above reveals something more insidious that merits consideration: even the obese are prejudiced against the obese.

While I’m not recommending that we take “obese” out of the English language, I hope that people understand how that designation arose. And even more importantly, that it’s not an immutable life sentence. It doesn’t mean you’re bad, lazy, gluttonous, stupid or anything else negative that some people ascribe to that label. It does mean that you should take stock of your habits and see if you’re one of those who needs to reduce their body fat levels to get themselves out of a high-risk category for a number of diseases.

Perhaps I’m too trusting, but when the number on my dumbbell says “20”, I kinda sorta expect it to really weigh twenty pounds.

I had been training with a pair of 20-pounders that were purchased individually, so they were slightly different in form. The shape disparity was subtle in the heads but noticeable in that one dumbbell had a teensy-bit wider bar, making the grip feel different. Well, that would always throw me off, because the thicker bar made me tire faster, or so I thought. I searched PubMed for a viable explanation and went so far as to contact exercise scientist Mike Nelson about whether he’d seen research on the connection between grip diameter and fatigue. And then — DUH! — it occurred to me to actually weigh the stupid things!

If it says "20", it MUST weigh 20#, right? Right?

Okay, it wasn’t exactly twenty pounds, which surprised me…but not as much as what I got weighing the OTHER dumbbell:

Well, THIS one's gotta be 20#, right? EEEEEK!

Gee, that explains the sensation of imbalance! A full two pounds-worth. That may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with twenty pounds on your triceps, it makes quite a difference.

I emerged from this experience somewhat wiser, all the while hoping Mike didn’t think I was a total moron. Incidentally, I happened to weigh my 30-pounders and both came up as thirty-one pounds. At least they were consistent.

Caveat emptor.

In a guest post for the PhitZone, I wrote about your body’s reactions to the sight of food, and how those responses may awaken your appetite, even to the point of making you think you’re “hungry” when, in fact, you’re not. Next time you encounter a ‘heavily desirable’ food item (the more appealing the better), try to pay attention to what’s happening to you physiologically. The more senses that are aroused, the more potent your response may be. Note how quickly you start salivating, see if you sense a compelling ‘urge’ to eat. Consider all those signals and how they are affecting your perceptions of hunger and appetite. Awareness of these responses is the first step to learning how to resist those “irresistible” temptations of the palate.

Try an experiment: next time you’re in a situation when you’re about to eat something that makes you drool, stop. Close your mouth (you may need two hands for that ;)), close the bag/push away the plate…and see what happens to you. It’s not easy, is it? When your whole being is poised to receive a palatable food, you may experience an intense frustration. All that saliva and nothing to chew. The stomach is ready but nothing’s coming. The more you were initially expecting to eat, the more intense your reaction may be. How much does your body protest? How about your mind?

Note all of these sensations, and come back and tell me what they were! I’d be interested in knowing if, at that point when you’re deciding whether to engage in this experiment, you actually go through with pushing that special food item aside just this once. For the sake of science. Or does the sight of that food make you forget everything else and just dig in?

Happy resisting!

Note: this experiment is more effective if you have a partner whom you entrust with the task of pulling that tempting food away from you at an unspecified time in the future. Try not to drive a fork through their hand!

Just a quick word about my Maternal Rant post…

You know all that stuff I wrote about moms not having time or energy to exercise? Well, I babysat a 14-month-old toddler for two days last week, and even though I’ve already raised children through that toddler stage, that pair of 8-hr sessions left me exhausted (mentally, which meant that I also perceived a physical exhaustion). In fact, if anyone had visited me with the great revelation that I needed to put myself first and make time to exercise, I might have hurled them through the window.

Is that healthy? NO! But who said anything about health? I’m talking about just getting through the day. Would exercise lessen my stress and make me feel better? OF COURSE! And I’m not suggesting that being a mother justifies abandoning healthy behaviors! As a matter of fact, it’s all the more important to establish a solid routine, not only for mom’s sake, but also for her children who will be modeling their behavior after hers. What I’m stressing, however, is that we all go through stages in our lives where we have to make do the best that we can. If you view exercise and proper eating as being for the sole purpose of losing weight, then a series of tough days/weeks/months may completely derail your efforts.

However, if you give fitness its due and understand that this is a life-long journey, it’ll be easier to accept the days/weeks/months of inconsistency in progress, and stay on track for long-term success.

Sometimes we need a dose of humility peppered with a helping of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” This is especially true when dealing with someone who’s embarked on a weight loss journey but is getting nowhere with it. No amount of education will do a trainer any good if  they can’t find a way to understand a client’s difficulties, or even worse, refuse to accept that such hardships exist.

Some years ago I had the following exchange with an obese young man:

“Exercise is fun!” I chirped happily.

“That’s because you don’t have to do it lugging around 280 pounds,” he shot back.

And you know what? He was right. His answer caught me off guard because I was trying to help him maintain a positive outlook, but the truth was I really didn’t have anything to say to make him feel better. I was pointing to the benefits of exercise, but he was still working on bending over to put his shoes on.

I’ve never been obese, although I did peak at 181 lbs for a week or two, right before giving birth to my heaviest baby (8 lbs, 5 oz) – but even that wasn’t terribly dramatic for my 5’11” frame and barely nudged me into the “overweight” category according to my BMI. While getting back into the 150s where I remain now took some months, I was so preoccupied with caring for the new family member that I never obsessed about it. Couple that with the fact that I don’t have the food issues that plague many Americans, and you can see why I’ve had to work hard to relate to people who have been fighting their weight for years, even decades. Even so, a gap remains between their thinking and mine.

Apparently, I’m not the only one trying to bridge this gap. Australian underwear model and personal trainer Paul “PJ” James made big news last year for putting on 90 lbs in order to better relate to his overweight clients. What he found was that losing that weight was not as simple as he expected, even with all his fitness knowledge. During the process of weight gain, he also gained a sugar/fat addiction that was tough to kick. And carrying around that excess weight made exercise more difficult. His joints ached and every movement required more effort.

James noted that the first three months were the most difficult because he was doing everything right, following his own fat loss plan, and still the weight wasn’t coming off. Breaking his junk food habit took a good six weeks. All this, when he had the benefit of knowing what proper eating and exercise were. Once the pounds started dropping, however, he said he regained his motivation and powered through with his weight loss.

A number of people have weighed in on the pros and cons of his experiment. Some say he’s “been there” and will be able to relate to what an overweight client may be going through, particularly because he struggled in the beginning and had to fight a food addiction. Others say that his efforts prove nothing because he wasn’t subject to the same stigma that befalls many overweight individuals, gained the weight over a short period of time using extreme measures (not the way most people gain) and will cash in on the instant fame that this stunt afforded him. Both of these points of view are valid; however, I’d like to underscore something else.

James didn’t make progress for about three months. Wait, let me stress this: THREE MONTHS. He worked for six weeks to overcome his sugar addiction. How long would someone without James’ experience have lasted on a fitness program that didn’t show results for a quarter of a year? By that time they’d figure that if they’re doing everything “right” and still not dropping fat, there’s something wrong with them and substantial weight loss is a pipe dream. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that James would have had faster results if someone had been yelling at him to get his act together, or calling him a fat, lazy slob like a trainer on the “reality-show-which-must-not-be-named” feels is necessary to do.

So if James’ story has a lesson, it’s not that 1) it’s possible to lose weight (we know it is) or 2) that someone who’s heavy for several months will fully understand what it’s like to overweight for decades (we know he won’t)…but rather that if you focus exclusively on weight loss as a measure of success, your motivation may peter out with the first few obstacles you encounter. If you’ve spent years putting on weight, prepare to invest substantial time into changing the behaviors that got you there. Focus on your lifestyle, not the scale.

However, there’s warning here for those of us who’ve never had to wage that fight. Really, we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re the quintessential car mechanic who can’t drive and would be well served not to pass judgment on those who are still fighting. Use our knowledge and fitness experience to offer solutions, yes. Provide needed support, yes. Lay down the law, yes. But not pass judgment.