THE MENTAL EDGE
Most of my life has been defined by my experiences as an avid sportsman, whether it was playing basketball or swinging the golf clubs. I learned at an early age that what happens on the field of athletic competition is often mirrored in our everyday lives. I was first introduced to the powers that the mind had over the body during my teenage years of playing Pop Warner football. Our most important practice of the week would be Friday afternoon, right before the big game on Sunday. Instead of tackling and hitting one another the way we did during the earlier part of the week, we spent most of the Friday practice perfecting our techniques and analyzing our opponent’s expected game plan. Our scouting report often gave us an idea of the offensive plays they’d try to run against us, as well as the defensive formations they’d assemble to stop us from advancing the football.
Friday practices were less about strength and endurance and more about sharpening the mental aspects of our game. The coaches worked us methodically through Sunday’s game plan, accentuating most of their points with catchy slogans meant to key our minds into the task ahead of us as well as our physical skills. Coach Murphy had a saying that I heard so often, I would hear it in my sleep before a big game: “Football isn’t all about physical prowess. It’s 15 percent skill and 85 percent mental.” These percentages would change, of course, depending on who was repeating it, but the intended message was equally received—if you wanted to succeed on the football field, your muscles and speed wouldn’t do you a bit of good if your mind hadn’t mastered the game.
Losing weight requires a major commitment that not everyone is willing or able to make. Depending on how severe the modifications are that you need to make, the physical investment in changing your diet and increasing your level of physical activity can be nothing short of exhausting. Remember, you’ll be asking your body to continuously adapt to a lifestyle that will put many of your body’s systems in flux. But regardless of how effective a plan you might be attempting to follow, or how physically prepared you are to climb a few extra flights of stairs a day, if your mind isn’t in the game, your efforts are doomed before they even get under way.
With the exception of extreme gimmicky diets, much of the science behind weight management programs is the same. Decrease the amount of calories you consume and increase the amount of calories you expend and those billions of fat cells will begin to shrink. Regardless of how fancy the language an author uses or how complicated a formula he or she offers, it’s your mind that gives you a major advantage. The beauty of our minds is that they are all different, and the way we process information becomes the individualism of our identity. It would be so much easier if I could prescribe a program that trains your mind to take on the future rigors of a weight loss regimen. The truth, however, is that you must find your own way, one that works for you and makes you feel comfortable. Who knows your mind and body better than you do? I simply offer a few areas of concern and thoughtful advice that you might want to incorporate while developing the winning strategy.
The body fails before the mind, but if the mind is strong enough, it can resuscitate it.
dana o. smith
Many things we attempt in life have attached to them a set of prerequisites. If you’re applying for a particular job, the company will list the work and educational experience requirements. This same idea of pre-requisites transfers to the task of losing weight and making lifestyle changes that will last forever. At the top of the list is a requirement that before beginning any program, your mind is sharp, focused, and up to the arduous task that lies ahead of you.
My brother and I were discussing the prerequisites of anyone heading into battle, whether it be military, athletic competition, or weight loss. We decided that the prerequisite they all shared was the need to have a tough mind, able to charge the body when it felt it couldn’t go any farther. Each battle can present its own obstacles, but to reach victory, a participant must be able to mentally overcome any challenge that waits ahead.
Dieting programs, specifically those like mine that advocate fundamental changes for lifelong benefits, are full of obvious and hidden obstacles that crowd the path to victory. Whether it’s going over, around, or through these potential stumbling blocks, you’re going to need a mental edge to help you navigate the pitfalls. Many people who read diet books brush up on important nutritional facts, such as unsaturated, low-fat foods are healthier than the saturated, high-fat foods. This knowledge, however, means nothing if your body begins to rebel against the changes in your new diet and exercise program. This is where the mind takes over and becomes the savior. If it’s properly trained for battle, it’s prepared to carry on when exhaustion and frustration have paralyzed you. The mind is that weapon in your arsenal that you can rely on when all other systems fail.
One of my favorite things to do is read the stories of successful people, whether it be in business, Hollywood, or sports. I’m captivated by the strategies they’ve implemented that have catapulted them above their competition. Most of these stories share certain themes, and mental toughness is one of them. Famous author John Grisham had his original manuscript rejected more than a hundred times by agents and publishers, but it was his mental toughness and conviction in the strength of his work that allowed him to withstand the barrage of criticisms and hold out until it was accepted. Not only was it eventually accepted, but A Time to Kill topped the best-seller lists for weeks and was made into a top-grossing movie.
This is the mental toughness that you’ll need if your real goal is to attain long-term weight loss and lead a healthier life. Confidence is a natural by-product of this toughness, the belief that regardless of how tough the battles that lie ahead, you’ll be able not only to survive, but to surge forward with a determination that nothing and no one will stop you.
REASONS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Often the reason why you choose to do something can be the most critical factor in your ability to succeed.
There are hundreds of reasons why millions of people reach the decision that it’s time to lose weight. The first step, of course, is actually looking in the mirror and honestly admitting to yourself that you need to lose the weight. Your physician or a loved one might tell you repeatedly that it would be important if you lost the weight, but it won’t matter at all if you don’t truly believe it. Losing weight isn’t an easy endeavor; in fact, for many it could be one of life’s most difficult tasks. Succeeding will depend largely on the level of your commitment and your ability to persevere when you’re tempted to return to your old bad habits.
One of the biggest mistakes dieters make is that they lose weight for others and not themselves. I’ve talked to several people who’ve said they’re losing weight to make others happy, whether it’s a child who’s embarrassed by his girth or a loved one who no longer desires a physical interaction because the excess weight is a turnoff. It’s great if others are also happy about your decision to lose weight, but you are the primary person who must be pleased. Tying your satisfaction to the approval of others is an unpredictable situation that often ends in failure. The weight must come off because you think it needs to and because you realize its important benefits.
How many times have you said or heard others say, “If I could only lose five to ten pounds by the wedding”? How about this one: “I need to take off another fifteen pounds to get into the clothes I bought last year”? While losing weight and being able to fit into your favorite clothes or feeling good about yourself at a wedding are important, the problem is that you’re making an investment in short-term goals. Once the wedding is over or the clothes are no longer in style, many people are no longer worried about what the scale reads and gain the weight back and then some. Once they’ve lost their motivation—which was event-specific—the drive to lose the weight disappears.
Instead, a better approach to losing weight and keeping it off forever is to look at weight loss as an important change in your overall life. Modifying your diet to make it healthier and increasing your level of physical activity are adjustments that you should incorporate for the rest of your life. People who decide that they want to lose weight because it will make them healthier, allow them to live a better quality of life, and help them live longer are more likely to not only lose the weight, but keep it off longer. These aren’t the crash dieters trying to fit into a bikini for summer; rather, these are people who are fed up with being overweight and realize that making these lifestyle adjustments will provide them with lifelong benefits.
I remember speaking with one of my patients who had lost thirty pounds in just a few months. I was interested in what plan she followed to lose the weight, but I was more captivated by her reason for losing it. “After years of trying all of these diet plans and attempting to lose weight to make others around me feel better, I finally decided I was going to lose weight to make myself feel good. I was having pain in my knees and suddenly I was a diabetic, and it all was connected to being overweight.” I was even happier that she had lost the weight not on some gimmick diet, but through a commitment to eating fewer calories and making exercise a higher priority in her life. Not only did she eventually lose another twenty pounds, but she also kept it off and became more in tune with her body and her unique relationship to food.
Most people still remember the tremendous talents of former Boston Celtic great Larry Bird. This legendary basketball player amazed competitors and fans alike by his mastery of the game despite the fact that he lacked the physical prowess of other athletes. He couldn’t jump, his ball handling was suspect, and he was slower than anyone on the basketball court. What he could do, however, was shoot with a marksman’s deft accuracy and refuse to give up even when his team was inevitably facing defeat. During his NBA reign, Bird revealed very little to the media about the secrets of his success, but in a rare moment of openness he said something that I’ll never forget. Bird admitted that he played each game several times in his mind—from the opening buzzer to the last shot—before he even stepped onto the court.
The world finally got a glimpse into the mind of one of basketball’s greatest players. We soon learned about how his pregame “visualization” translated into his ability to stay one step ahead of almost everyone else on the court. How was he able to always find the open man to pass to? Why did he always seem to know which way the ball was going to bounce? How could he beat others to the basket when he moved as though his feet were stuck in quicksand? It all traced back to his ability to visualize the game and see things that others couldn’t.
This visualization can be a tremendous benefit to dieters before they even make the first behavioral modification. It could be a tremendous psychological and practical boost as you imagine yourself changing your dietary choices to healthy fruits and vegetables. Picture yourself stepping on the scale on a weekly basis and finding your weight to be one or two pounds less than it was last week.
You must also, however, visualize the bad times when you can’t resist the temptation of a deliciously rich, sugary dessert. Watch yourself eat the entire dessert, then imagine how disappointed the lapse in your willpower will make you. Realism is important here, and you must concede that losing the weight won’t be a simple act of wishing the weight away and the scale responding. Instead, imagine two weeks of consistent weight loss, then a week where your weight stays the same. The big focus is on that fourth week and whether you’re mentally prepared and physically capable of maintaining a regimen that will continue to burn the calories and pounds.
Arguably the most important reason to be emotionally prepared is to handle those periods of weakness as well as the minor failures that you’re likely to encounter. Most people who have attempted dieting will tell you that the easiest part of any weight loss program is the beginning. I’ve spoken to many patients who’ve lost so much weight the first couple of months of dieting that they couldn’t understand why people made such a fuss about weight loss. Then they hit the infamous “plateau,” where the pounds stop coming off and the scale seems to be stuck at the same number.
It’s at this critical juncture that mental toughness is an absolute must. You’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and if you’re not emotionally grounded and psychologically prepared to stare down temptation until it whimpers away, then you’ll take a turn down the road of weight gain. Unfortunately, many people are so frustrated by this juncture, and so overcome with disappointment that the weight is no longer burning away as easily, that they throw their hands in the air and once again eat at will and spend less time participating in physical activities. We’ll discuss more on setbacks later in this chapter.
From the Hardcover edition.