When I first read Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One”, I was struck by the now popular question he asks in interviews: “what important truth do very few people agree with you on?” While discussing the book with a co-worker the next day, he asked what my answer would be.
The response popped into my head uncontrollably, as if it had been waiting all along.
“If you asked most health professionals how to lose weight, they would focus on exercising more and proper nutrition, but before approaching physical fitness I would address mental health.”
A quick google search on “how to lose weight” yields this article from WebMD, the most heavily trafficked health information website on the internet. Their advice, from Doctors and Registered Dieticians, boils down to the popular opinion: “Eat less and exercise more.”
In the fitness community, there are an overwhelming number of resources available to help people achieve their healthy goals. Whether it’s calorie counting or cardio, low-carb or crossfit, there’s undoubtedly huge consumer demand for weight loss strategies and programs. However, without proper attention paid to mental health, any positive steps are unlikely to translate to sustained success.
There’s a reason why losing weight is repeatedly the #1 New Years Resolution: the vast majority of exercise and nutrition programs fail! In fact, they may even be harmful in the long run. Consider the stunning results of the study presented in this TED talk: “the typical outcome of dieting is that you’re more likely to gain weight in the long run than to lose it.”
So what would I do if someone asked me how to lose weight? Ultimately, the goal in any health improvement plan should be to create lasting change. Although healthy habits like regular exercise are undoubtedly vital to achieving those goals, there are a few things that should be addressed first:
1. Readiness To Change
Have you ever thought about improving your health without doing anything? Or maybe you’ve been prescribed a new regimen by your doctor, personal trainer or nutritionist and not followed through? If so, you understand that making changes is not as simple as just taking action. Whether you want to lose weight or quit smoking, lasting change is the result of assessing where you are in the readiness to change cycle, then understanding the positive actions you can take to make progress towards the next stage.
2. Create a Healthy Environment
Humans are a product of their environment. With the proliferation of processed foods and the convenience of a sedentary lifestyle, being unhealthy is simple. Without supportive people surrounding you and proactive decisions to make healthy choices easier, even the most motivated individuals will eventually succumb to the easy route.
The UN has defined stress as a “global epidemic.” The negative effects of stress and anxiety can lead to overeating and decreased energy levels, throwing you off the healthy track. One of the best ways to reduce stress and modify other unhealthy behaviors is to begin by developing awareness of them through mindfulness meditation.
Mindful eating can be particularly helpful to begin understanding how much you’re eating and why. I really enjoyed Mindless Eating, an illuminating book on the topic. If you’re wondering how to make time for meditation in your busy schedule, there are a couple of amazing apps that make mindfulness attainable anytime, anywhere.
Everyone always starts out strong on their diet and exercise plan. The gym is always full the first few weeks of January. But once February and March roll around, most people fall off the wagon. As Angela Duckworth’s fascinating research has proven, one of the most important factors in determining success in any venture is not talent or IQ, but rather Grit.
Getting and staying healthy is a marathon, not a sprint. Do you have the mental fortitude to stick with it after the initial honeymoon phase? If not, it's helpful to set personal reminders as to why you want to improve your health in the first place.
These ideas and concepts are not ground-breaking. But there’s a disconnect between the leading research and the recommendations of many health professionals, resulting in millions of failed health plans every year. Maybe by placing a stronger focus on mental health strategies, more people can achieve their goals of living a healthier life.