Is It Time For You To Rethink The Way You Are Trying to Lose Weight: Part 2

Is It Time For You To Rethink The Way You Are Trying to Lose Weight: Part 2

Is It Time For You To Rethink The Way You Are Trying to Lose Weight: Part 2


Is It Time For You To Rethink The Way You Are Trying to Lose Weight: Part 2

Is It Time For You To Rethink The Way You Are Trying to Lose Weight: Part 2

Clearly there are two different mindsets when it comes to healthy living and the gap between them is vast. This isn’t exactly news to most people. But I was shocked to discover just how vast the chasm was when I attended my first Filex (the national Fitness Industry Leisure Expo) in 2011. I was stunned to hear remarks such as this:


Comment: “I hate obese clients. They lie to you. They cancel at the last minute. They just must be so terrified of coming for the first time.”

My reaction: “Yes, we/they are!”

(What’s even scarier is that this woman had actually been working in the industry for over 20 years – not five minutes like me. How could she not have understood this after so long?)


Comment: “Imagine hating exercise? I don’t get it. I can’t process it”

My reaction: “Have you ever thought that exercise to some people is like studying mathematics (or something similar that you find difficult or don’t enjoy) is to you?”


Comment: “Can you believe that most women’s biggest fear is getting into a bathing suit?”

My reaction: Duh!


These comments weren’t just from other delegates, they were also from invited speakers during their presentations – and these were just a few of the negative remarks I heard. Clearly this near complete lack of understanding of the mindset of obese/overweight clients is something that permeates a large proportion of the industry. Most people who go into the fitness industry are people who LIKE exercise. They’ve been happily doing it for their entire lives, and go into the industry because they want to share their LOVE for exercise with those less fortunate. Of course they can’t comprehend people who aren’t as “fortunate” as they are!


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Ask any personal trainer why they chose their career path and they will probably tell you that it’s because they like helping people. In fact, they probably decided to become a PT more because they like exercising and spending time at the gym. One PT freely admitted to me that he was absolutely shell-shocked when he started working in the industry. He’d been used to training with fit and healthy people. His new clientele were mostly overweight and didn’t like exercising at all. He didn’t really need to admit this to me, though – it was written all over his face for the first couple of months of his new career.


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Forget What You Think You Know


The biggest challenge I face when dealing with new clients is getting them to forget what they think they already know about weight loss. This is a really tough task! Logically it makes sense: you need to adopt a new approach to weight loss, because what you’ve done so far hasn’t really worked. Emotionally, however, it’s a different story. Human beings are programmed to seek sameness, rather than difference. With weight loss, as with many other areas of life, it’s often a case of the “devil you know” being far less scary than the road less traveled.


When I’m engaged as a public speaker, I often talk about what I actually did to lose weight and all the established weight loss rules that I broke on my journey: I didn’t follow a specific diet or exercise plan, I didn’t set a goal weight, I didn’t announce to the world that I was going to lose weight, and I ignored the concept of portion sizes. The looks of disbelief – even shock – on the audience’s faces (especially if they happen to work in the fitness or weight loss industries) are quite bemusing! “That’s not right – that goes against everything I know to be true”, I can see them thinking.


Neuroscience offers some valuable reasons for these looks of horror. Research reveals that whenever we’re forced to confront something we don’t agree with our minds activate a whole network of neurons that produce feelings of distress[1]. Because we obviously don’t like to feel distress, our brains combat it by activating a whole other network of neurons that rely on faulty reasoning. This explains why we’re so quick to agree with the leader of our favourite political party, regardless of what he or she says or does, or why it often takes people some time to realise that “he’s just not that into you”. Our brain doesn’t like to face conflict and we work hard to resolve it as soon as we can. The danger with this way of thinking is that we become blind to anything outside our comfort zone, blind to different ways of thinking and doing, and resistant to unfamiliar ideas. We bury our heads in the sand and allow our illusions to transform our reality.


But the reality is that the fatter we become, the less we seem to notice. BUPA’s “Health Pulse 2011” survey reveals that Australians are the people in deepest denial when it comes to the state of their waists (and bums and thighs). The reality is that while 60% of us are overweight, only 33% of us are aware of it. The reality is that there’s been a monumental shift in what society considers a “normal” weight. Studies in weight perception (or misperception) reveal that as we gain weight, we gradually losing sight of what a healthy weight actually is[2].


Indeed, I was flabbergasted to be part of a body image panel in which one expert said, “”I don’t believe that obesity is at crisis point” and that we lived in a “fat phobic” culture![3] You only have to look at the differences in clothing sizes available off the rack from department stores – there’s no way that a size 12 person today would fit into a size 12 garment from twenty, or even ten years ago!


People with a BMI of 28 were much more likely to identify themselves as overweight twenty years ago, compared to ten years ago when more of them considered themselves to be “about right” even though they were technically overweight.



The reality is that there’s no denying that the weight loss and fitness industries are losing the battle against the bulge…yet as a society we deny it every day when we keep adopting the same (or strikingly similar) approaches to the problem.


So why we do we deny the fact that the current approaches to losing weight just don’t work (in 96% of cases) for long-term weight loss? Margaret Heffernan explores the concept of collective denial in much greater detail in Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore The Obvious at Our Peril[4]. While she doesn’t consider weight loss at all, her arguments can easily be applied to it. Our denial allows us to remain hopeful that our actions are actually having some positive effect on solving our problem. However, this feeling of hope simultaneously stops us from examining whether there’s any real foundation for this emotion, from debating whether our attempts are actually having a positive effect and from devising and taking more effective action to solve them if they aren’t.


Our denial also allows us to remain in our comfort zone. Being in your comfort zone means that you can effectively limit your options so you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by choice. You can take short cuts – you don’t have to start from scratch. You can do what works for someone else and just assume that it will also work for you. Sometimes it does…often it doesn’t. Most of us know at least one person who has lost weight and kept it off using one of the more traditional weight loss methods. However, that’s no guarantee that the same method will work for us. Indeed, for every one person you know who has succeeded, consider how many others you know who have tried and failed.


Our denial means that we don’t have to think, and the “you don’t have to think” mantra is surely one of the most disempowering marketing ploys of the weight loss industry. If you don’t learn how to think about losing weight while you’re doing it then how do you learn how to keep it off once you’ve lost it? The answer, of course, is that you don’t, so you regain all weight you’ve lost again (and, as studies show, usually more). You then create even more revenue for the weight loss industry when, a short time later, you decide to try something new (again), convinced that this will be the plan or program that really works.


Our denial also allows us to be part of what Heffernan calls the “cult of cultures.” Struggling with your weight immediately allows you to build rapport with others. It’s acceptable, even fashionable. It’s normal. Human beings like to belong and will often forego their individual needs in order to maintain cohesiveness within a larger social group. How many times have you been pressured to have that piece of cake at work just to be sociable? How many times have you just ordered whatever was on the menu at a restaurant or coffee shop (instead of asking for a healthier version of something) just to avoid causing inconvenience or drawing attention to your healthy eating ways? Similarly, tell the world that you are detoxing, dieting or part of a popular weight loss challenge group, and watch the camaraderie build. Ironically it’s the very “get a gym buddy and you’ll be more successful” mentality that works equally well in reverse: studies show fat people are more likely to have fat friends[5].


If you’re overweight, having a friend who is even more overweight than you makes you feel normal. Furthermore, there will often be more synergy between the types of activities that you’re likely to do together if you’re both overweight than if one of you is a lean, mean fitness machine. Two overweight people are more likely to catch up for lunch than a game of squash, and are much more likely to have their cake and eat it too when they go out for coffee, rather than just enjoy the beverage by itself. Obesity is thus often referred to as being socially contagious.


Finally, our denial allows us to keep getting fatter and fatter, while simultaneously our ability to face the inevitable consequences of our actions. But of course denial only works for so long. At some point, the pain of being overweight outweighs what you think of as pleasure (such as lying around and stuffing yourself full of chocolate all day!). At some point, you’re no longer able to maintain a fair degree of normality in your life without too many negative consequences and you have to start to face at least some of the facts. Whether it’s a health scare, a social embarrassment or purely an aesthetic issue (such as suddenly having to buy size 22 pants), for most people, the realisation that something has to give doesn’t happen overnight. Most people do it in stages and move from what I like to call “unconscious denial” to “subconscious denial” to “conscious denial”.


Unconscious denial is best described as complete and utter denial. If you’ve never been overweight then you’ll probably find it hard to believe that someone who is 20, 40 or 60 kg overweight doesn’t realise it. Trust me, it happens. It happens all the time. And having friends and family who are in a similar position makes it easier to stay in this form of denial for a very long time.


Subconscious denial is quite similar to what psychologists call the contemplative stage of change. People are aware that there’s a problem and usually start thinking about how to tackle it. These thoughts are usually followed by some form of action towards alleviating the problem. However, if people don’t take action now, they move into conscious denial.


Conscious denial is a pretty dire stage to have reached. This is when you know your weight is bad – really, really bad – and you want to do something about it, but you just don’t feel able to. Why? As I said earlier , if everyone knew how to lose weight, then why don’t they take Nike’s advice and “Just do it!”?  Find out in my next blog post! Meanwhile, check out my top 50 Weight Loss Mindset hacks below!


50 Mindset Hacks For Weight Loss That Lasts Forever

Get Yours Now


[1] D Western, The political brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation, PublicAffairs, USA, 2007.

[2] MA Burke, FW Heiland & CM Nadler, ‘From “overweight” to “about right”: evidence of a generational shift in body weight norms’, Obesity, vol. 18, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1226–1234.

[3] Mornings with Kerri-Anne, television series, Channel 9 Studios, Sydney, 14 September 2001.

[4] M Heffernan, Wilful blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril. Simon and Schuster, Australia, 2011.

[5] D Hruschka, AA Brewis, A Wutich & B Morin. ‘Shared norms and their explanation for the social clustering of obesity’, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 101, no. S1, 2011, pp. S295–S300.

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Sally Symonds

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