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January 21, 2013 // By Sally Sapega // Comments

You Can Do It!

Brain and Behavior // Community // Experts // Heart // Obesity, Weight, and Eating Disorders // Women's Health Share this article

IMG_0355The new year frequently brings with it resolutions to improve our lives. And the two goals topping most people’s lists are losing weight and getting more exercise.  Every January, gyms suddenly become more crowded and weight-loss programs see significant increases in membership. Diet aid apps are downloaded by the thousands. 

But within a few months -- or even sooner --  many become discouraged and give up. 

What’s the key to success? We spoke with Penn psychologist David Sarwer, PhD, director of Penn’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program, for tips on keeping the momentum going.


Slow and Steady Win the Race

Excess weight is a complex problem, Sarwer said; causes are often multi-faceted.  So not every approach to losing weight will work for every person.  However, there are some basic guidelines that will help you lose weight in a safe, sustainable manner.

First, don’t try to lose a lot too quickly. It most likely took years to put on the weight so don’t try to take it off in a few months. One to two pounds a week may not sound like a lot but Sarwer said this is a safe weight loss. Indeed, losing just five percent of your current body weight will make a significant improvement in many weight-related health problems, like high blood pressure or blood sugar.

Weigh yourself weekly and evaluate the approach you’ve taken.  If, at the end of the month,  you’re down at least four pounds, it’s working.  If not, it might be time to try another approach.  For example, if you’re doing this on your own, try enrolling in a weight-loss program.  Some people prefer the structured approach and comradery of these groups. Weight Watchers has a standard approach, using a point system to help people lose weight. Penn's Albert J. Stundard Weight Management Program uses a more customized approach with plans that are customized to each person’s specific weight and health needs.

No matter which approach, though, share your goals with close supportive family and friends to help you stay on course.

 Keep Track of What You Eat

Most people would be amazed at how much they actually eat. You may think you don’t eat a lot but, chances are, your daily intake contains extra calories… which can add up really quickly.  Lowering the total intake can be as simple as switching from regular soda to diet or, better yet, water.  Or, if you eat two cookies for lunch, cut back to one. “Our patients tell us that they’ve cut  500 calories a day without feeling hungry or deprived,” Sarwer said.

Keeping track of -- and planning -– what you eat is key to staying on the diet.  Pack your own lunch so you know how many calories you’re eating.  If you’re going out to eat, look up the restaurant’s menu on line and plan what you’ll have. 

Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, said Penn dietician Andrea Spivack, “Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytochemicals which can reduce your risk of chronic medical conditions.” 

Make small sustainable changes.  If you eliminate foods you love, your cravings might overwhelm your willpower.  Sarwer’s advice? “Don’t give them up. Just  eat them less frequently.”

And give your diet time to work, he stressed.  “Most people tend to abandon a diet or a weight-loss program earlier than recommended, before they’ve seen benefits.”

 Get Moving!

Many people cringe when they hear the word exercise but burning calories doesn’t have to be agony.  One of the easiest ways to work fitness into your lifestyle is to increase the number of steps you take each day.  It’s not hard. Use the steps instead of the elevator. Take a walk during lunch. Get off the bus one stop earlier and walk the extra 10 minutes home.

Buy a pedometer, Sarwer suggested, and work your way up to 10,000 steps a day, the equivalent of five miles.  Add 500 steps a day each week until you reach the 10,000-step mark. Counting  steps when shopping at a mall, you can probably cruise past 10,000 in a couple hours!  

It’s also important to set aside dedicated periods of time for physical activity. Do something you love. It will help you stay motivated.  

At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, an onsite  zumba class has become a popular resource for those wishing to lose weight and tone up. The employee who leads the class discovered a passion for the exercise in June 2010, when weight-related health problems led her to change her lifestyle.  She soon joined a team of zumba enthusiasts who have combined exervise with community outreach (raising money for organizations like the American Heart Association and the National MS Society). She’s now lost –- and kept off -– 60 pounds.

Most of the participants in HUP’s zumba class have been coming since the sessions started last February and the instructor fully understands why. “Zumba is not just a workout…. It’s a party.”

Photo caption:  Cheryl Kenney, an employee of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, leads the onsite zumba class.


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