Instituting Exercise – Part I

Last week in session, my dieter, Jamie, and I tackled the question of exercise. Should she do it? How much should she do? How much is reasonable to do? What types of exercise can she do? Will she hate doing it? How will she fit it into her busy schedule? How will she get herself to do it?

Like many of my dieters, when Jamie first came to see me she was a classic all-or-nothing exerciser, meaning she was either exercising intensely 7 days a week or she wasn’t exercising at all. Jamie had very little middle ground and was always either “on” her exercise plan or “off” of it. Jamie had also told me that she really hated to exercise and she was not looking forward to the day that I would “make” her do it.

As soon as I heard that from Jamie – that I would “make” her do it – I immediately reminded her that my job wasn’t to make her do anything because these were not MY goals for her, they were her goals for herself. I pulled out Jamie’s Advantages List and asked her how important all of those things were and Jamie responded that they were the most important things to her and agreed that she would be willing to try new things if it meant she could achieve them.

In session last week, I discussed with Jamie the fact that she might not need to exercise to lose weight, but almost definitely would need to exercise to maintain her weight and she unquestionably needed to exercise to have good health. Since a lot of Jamie’s goals involved having better health, preventing future health problems, and being able to be more active with her children and husband, I reminded her that all of those things implied a better level of fitness, which she would not be able to achieve without some form of exercise. Albeit reluctantly, Jamie agreed that exercise seemed like a necessary evil.

The first thing Jamie and I did was discuss what type of exercise plan would be reasonable for her. Jamie initially told me that since she would have to exercise again, she might as well do as much as she can so that the weight would come off more quickly. I reminded Jamie that we are working on getting her away from all-or-nothing thinking of all kinds, and besides, when has being an all-or-nothing exerciser ever helped her to maintain an exercise plan and reach her goals?

Jamie and I decided that since she loved the fall season, and since the weather was cooling down, she would start off by walking outside for at least 20 minutes 3 days this week. I encouraged Jamie to not make her plan for more days or for more minutes/hours this first week because setting too hard of a plan would only be counterproductive. I discussed with Jamie the fact that it’s always important to set reasonable homework because that way she can achieve it and feel good about it. If Jamie had decided to make her plan for 6 days that week and instead was only able to walk on 4 days, she would wind up feeling bad about the 2 days she didn’t walk, instead of feeling great about the 4 days she did. Jamie and I then discussed what would be the easiest time for her to get this walk in, knowing that the earlier in the day she aimed to do it, the more likely she would be to get it done. Jamie decided that 3 days this week she would get up a half hour earlier and get her walk out of the way before her kids woke up.

Now that Jamie had her exercise plan, the next step, which will be covered in Part 2, was to discuss with Jamie how she would get herself to actually institute the plan, in part by helping her to identify in advance what sabotaging thoughts might get in the way of this.

Ask the Diet Program Coordinator

Question: I struggle with feeling boxed in by the phrase, “No Choice.” Is this just immaturity and something I need to work on to accept?

Answer: For a lot of our dieters, the phrase NO CHOICE is extremely useful because it helps them reduce dieting struggles. If they want to give in to a craving, have a second helping at dinner, or eat a bag of chips while zoning out in front of the television, they can tell themselves, “Absolutely not. NO CHOICE. I’m not going have it.” When dieters, even subconsciously, give themselves a choice about something, like eating a cookie they just saw in the break room, it sets up the uncomfortable struggle of should I/shouldn’t I have this, which often sounds something like:

I really want to eat this.

But I know I shouldn’t because it’s not on my plan.

But it looks really good.

But it might jeopardize my diet.

But just having a little bit won’t matter.

But it will matter because it will set up a sugar craving.

But just this one time won’t hurt.

When dieters engage in this struggle, it makes it harder for them to make the right choice, especially if their sabotaging thoughts are strong and they don’t yet have good responses to them. In this way, just ignoring all the sabotaging thoughts and telling themselves, “NO CHOICE,” is very helpful in getting past the difficult situation.

However, some of our dieters don’t like the No Choice phrase and sometimes find themselves rebelling against the notion of not having a choice, so we don’t use it with them. Many dieters in this camp prefer thinking about it terms of actually having a choice that they are making. “I choose not to give into this craving,” or “I choose to not have any of those cookies because my weight loss goals are much more important to me.” Sometimes the phrase, “I choose,” can be just as powerful as the phrase, “No Choice.”

The advantage of dieters using the “I choose” phrase is that it cuts down on any rebellion because it reminds dieters that they are doing this because they want to, and because it will enable them to reach their goals for themselves (and not the diet coach’s goals for them). That way they don’t have to feel like their diet coach is the one pushing them to do something unnecessarily or taking away their free will in any way. Because, after all, dieters are ultimately the ones in charge of everything that they do or don’t eat and it is up to them to choose what that will be. For some dieters, a possible disadvantage of using “I choose” or not using “No Choice,” is that then they are still engaging in the should I/shouldn’t I struggle if they initially forget why it’s worth it to make the choices that will get them to their goals.

So the answer is no, this is not necessarily something that you have to work on or accept. We understand that each and every dieter is unique and will respond differently to each thought and response. While some phrases and responses are helpful to a great number of dieters, that doesn’t mean it is true for everyone. If “No Choice,” isn’t right for you then you just need to figure out what other phrases or responses will be helpful to you in those moments when the sabotaging thoughts are the strongest. For every sabotaging thought there is a helpful response!

Sabotaging Thoughts and Unhelpful Cognitions

When dieters first come into our office, they have all kinds of unhelpful cognitions (which we call “sabotaging thoughts”) about everything related to diet, food, and weight loss:

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Dieting

Once I lose weight I won’t have to diet anymore

Dieting should be easy

Dieting should not take a long time

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Food

I should eat as little as possible to help me lose weight more quickly

I should cut out all high-fat or high-calorie foods while I’m dieting

It’s not okay to waste food

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Hunger

Hunger is bad and something bad will happen to me if I get too hungry

If I get hungry, the hunger will just get worse and worse until I eat something

I shouldn’t ever be hungry

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Cravings

If I am really craving something, it means I need to eat it

I might as well eat what I’m craving now because I will just end up eating it eventually

There is nothing I can do to make cravings go away

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Weight Loss

Weight loss should be really fast – all the magazines say that it is

Weight loss should be easy – all the magazines say that it is

If I’m dieting, I need to lose weight every day/week or it means it’s not working

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Permission

It’s okay to eat this food because….I’m stressed; I’m tired; everybody else is eating it; it’s just a little piece; it’s free; I’ll make up for it later; I’ll exercise more later; someone will be disappointed if I don’t have it; no one is watching; I’ve already blown it for the day so I’ll start again tomorrow; I’m celebrating; it will go to waste; I’m really upset; I’ve been so good lately, etc.

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Perfectionism and Cheating

Either I’m 100% perfect on my diet or I’m totally off of it

I’ve already eaten too much today so I’ll continue to eat whatever I want and start again tomorrow

If I make mistakes while dieting, it means that I just can’t do it

Sabotaging thoughts like these are at the root of why dieters are overweight in the first place because they cause dieters to act in a certain way. Let’s say it’s 4:00pm and a dieter passes by a vending machine on the way to the bathroom. If she says to herself, “Those cookies look really good. I’m really hungry and dinner won’t be for another few hours and since there’s no way I’ll be able to hold out, I might as well just have these cookies now,” she’s probably going to end up having them.

But take the same situation – it’s 4:00 and a dieter passes by the vending machine on the way to the bathroom but this time she says to herself, “Those cookies look really good. I’m really hungry but I know that if I have these now, then I can’t have the dessert I’ve already planned to have after dinner. I absolutely don’t need these cookies and I just need to either go have the healthy snack I have at my desk or wait until dinner,” then she’s probably NOT going to have them.

Once we help dieters figure out which sabotaging thoughts they are having in any particular situation, we can help them come up with really strong responses to them so that dieters are no longer at the mercy of these thoughts.