In her 42 years, Tammy Zeug has seen every dress size from 22 to 6. Looking through old photos, she would think to herself, “Is that really me?” When Tammy Zeug recently reached 100 pounds lost at Motions Fitness in Marquette Michigan, she had a simple message: “self-shame was making me eat and I didn’t know how to fix it.” This is familiar rhetoric ground: warning of important weight-related feelings of shame and guilt as critical factors for coping responses in obesity.
The ability to change entrenched habits in individuals takes both us as professionals, and them as individuals, wanting to change. There are five psychological components you can use with your clients to reverse habits: loss aversion, awareness, competing behavior, competing thoughts, and support. Following these major tenets can help you and your clients regain control of their behavior resulting in dramatic success like Tammy’s.
The first is one of the most powerful emotions in the weight loss department – what behaviorists call loss aversion. The basic idea is that you might expect loss aversion individuals to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outcome like losing weight, since loss aversion often makes individuals feel cautious: offered the choice between one thousand dollars and a fifty percent chance at ten thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing. However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically. Offered the choice to lose one thousand dollars and a fifty percent chance at losing ten thousand dollars, most people prefer to gamble – the opposite of what they did when presented the chance to win ten thousand dollars. As one study puts it, “People are willing to run huge risks to avert or cover loses.” In the real world, this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet. For Tammy, her obese years “felt like a disaster.” Taking a chance on losing weight actually starts to feel sensible. Hitting rock bottom is the beginning of EVERYTHING. At the bottom, you realize just how far off course you were and that your life choices were simply not sustainable. It’s in those dark moments of despair that your anger and frustration become so great, you declare once and for all, never to accept such mediocrity from yourself or from others ever again. At the bottom, all your dysfunctional behaviors are finally revealed. If you never hit your lowest point, the dysfunctions continue to go unnoticed and unchecked, playing out under the denial radar and inevitably creating bigger dysfunctions and a harder fall down the track. Until the bubble bursts, you cleverly delude yourself into thinking everything is juuuuust great and your life ends up being built on a big fat lie and a false foundation.
The second component is awareness. Being aware means that your client has a conscious knowledge of the behaviors that are making them overweight and out-of-shape. It is extremely important that they understand what makes them overeat, not get exercise, not get appropriate sleep, and more. Becoming aware that there’s a choice to be made means bringing the setting, and your habitual response, into conscious thought. “I had to specifically pay attention to what I was eating and how I was exercising,” said Tammy. “Once you pay attention, you have the ability to control your behavior.”
The third psychological component of reversing habits is engaging in competing behaviors. Clients need to learn and develop alternative responses. Rather than coming home at night and going straight to the refrigerator, the client changes their routines and starts going to the gym instead. The client drives a different route to work in order to avoid the coffee shop that tempts them to get a calorie filled latte and muffin. A big one we use at Motions Fitness is having clients make a grocery list and have someone else go to the store to get it so they don’t make off-limit purchases. In order to successfully compete with old habits, this competing behavior needs to be pre-planned before the situation arises. The client needs to know exactly how to respond. To break these old habits, clients must have a road map to guide them.
The fourth element of reversing habits is competing thoughts. This requires formulating thoughts that compete with, and serve to quiet, the old ones. The thoughts, and the language our clients use to express them, can remind them of the consequences of their old bad habits. Tammy stated her biggest consequence was, “that I may not be here for my husband and children.” This guided her actions, and heightened the reinforcement value of her success. This shift of attention is a tool for gaining cognitive control. “Thinking about outcomes changes how you feel about the situation,” Zeug explained.
The fifth component of reversing habits is support. None of these changes are easy to make, and having someone around who can hold you accountable, keep you motivated, and remind you of your successes makes the whole process easier. Ultimately, the choices our clients make are theirs alone, but supportive and educated professionals can make all the difference. We have a saying at Motions Fitness, “people need people.” If our clients know they have a plan and the support behind it, they will be successful. We can help reduce the anxiety that accompanies losing weight and getting in shape and the ambivalence our clients may have about saying no to their family and friends. Finally, the prospect of disappointing us, or earning our disapproval, can keep them on track.
Historical parallels are always tendentious. But these five psychological components have been instrumental in the success of dramatic weight loss seen at Motions Fitness. Mike Koskiniemi the owner of Motions Fitness argues that, “it plays a crucial role in the rise of obesity all over the world.” Tammy may not be an American Perón, but, to her supporters, her weight loss is a huge inspiration.
By Mike Koskiniemi PhD – Motions Fitness