How Shaping Habits Helps Fitness Goals

90 Percent.

That’s the number of people who lose weight, only to put it all back on. I’ve been part of that number before, and it sucks. But there’s always a lot of discussion as to why that is.

Some argue it’s purely a matter of biology:

Unfortunately, these insights into how our bodies work have not led to reliable interventions to control them. Two lessons are clear. First, people do not regain weight because they lack willpower. Instead, powerful biological responses counter their best efforts at every turn.

But is that right?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

The Whys

While biology is what it is, if biology were the only factor, I’d suspect those who lose weight would universally gain wait again.

But they don’t. Roughly 10 percent keep it off. I know several folks who have had massive weight loss and have managed to keep it off. If biology were the sole determinant, I doubt I’d know all that many.

Instead, part of the problem is lifestyle and lifestyle adjustment.

Simply put, most people diet to lose weight, but they set their eyes on the prize and don’t plan for what will happen next.

The problem is that they haven’t accepted a few basic facts.

The Facts Of Life

Let’s face it. If you’re overweight, unless there’s a legitimate–and diagnosed–medical problem, chances are good that you’re there because you make poor decisions with food and exercise.

When you are just going through the motions on a diet, even if you do so sincerely and adhere strictly to the diet, you’re just working toward a goal and haven’t accepted the one simple fact that you can’t go back to how things used to be.

You can’t do what you’ve always done and expect anything other than what you’ve always had.

The Secret Is Creating Habits

People are a product of their habits.

Now, establishing habits isn’t easy. Lally et al (2009) looked at 82 people on a self-reporting survey. Each person made a conscious decision to do a given thing at a given time, all to study just how long it took for a habit to form. Here’s what they found:

The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days; indicating considerable variation in how long it takes people to reach their limit of automaticity and highlighting that it can take a very long time. Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process. With repetition of a behaviour in a consistent context, automaticity increases following an asymptotic curve which can be modelled at the individual level. 

While 18 days is probably an outlier, 254 days probably is as well.

As such, we don’t know precisely when habits will become ingrained in someone’s behavior. However, let’s also keep in mind that this is a self-reported survey. It’s possible that some of these habits were hardwired far sooner than the individual thought.

However, here’s the thing about habits. Once they’re built into your behavior, they’re excellent guides going forward.

And what does this have to do with weight loss?

To start with, habits also dictate what you eat, when you eat, and how you eat.

For example, if you’re used to eating pizza every Friday, you’re going to feel a strong urge to eat pizza when Friday rolls around. That is, until you “unbuild” that habit.

I’m a strong proponent of flexible dieting. That means I’m also a proponent of tracking your food.

But when you just go and track your food until you reach your goal, when you’re not consciously trying to build a habit, you’re likely to slip back into those old habits. After all, you’ll tell yourself, you deserve it.

When you build those habits, and you have accepted this new reality, you can recognize something most don’t want to tell you: This is for forever.

I mean, I’m can’t say for certain. You might find a way that you can be more intuitive in your eating going forward. I’m not psychic.

But the reality is that you probably need to understand that the habits of weighing your food, measuring your vegetable, recording everything is the new norm. That has to be the habit.

What it can’t be is you doing what’s needed to drop 20 pounds, all so you can turn around and start eating whatever. That’s not going to happen without you putting all that weight back on.

Typical actions yield, at best, Typical Results

When you do what everyone else does, you get what everyone else gets. Since two-thirds of the population of this country are overweight or obese, guess what? If you do what they do, you get what they get. Heart disease and diabetes.

As I’ve talked about before, I know a little about the subject.

But build the habits. Build good habits.

When you do that, you don’t get sidetracked. Then, keep up with the habits afterward, only making adjustments as needed, and you’ll keep the weight off. It’s just that simple.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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