For months, maybe even a year, a weight-loss client has resisted my exhortation to exercise. The excuses ranged from plausible to doubtful, but the result is always the same.
“Maybe next week.”
She had participated in a walking program in the past, a few diets ago (before we met), and because of back pain, had been given exercises to strengthen her core muscles. But this time, despite knowing intellectually that her weight, her diabetes, and her bad back would all benefit, she refused to literally take, the all-important first step. But she also refused to join social groups, volunteer, look for a job, or get out of the house; in short my client refused to do anything that would stop her from sitting home at night and eating. “I will, I will,” she would tell me. But she never did.
When we discussed this, she excused her failure to take on those activities beneficial to her attempts to lose weight by saying she was a procrastinator. Obviously she would get around to following my suggestions, but not just yet.
There have been many studies on the phenomenon of procrastination, and it is a rare person who has not put off doing something he or she has to do. The reasons range from fear of failing a task (such as locating cancelled checks for income tax preparation) to avoiding emotionally painful situations like breaking up with a boy/girl friend. Dieters or wannabe dieters may procrastinate starting a weight-loss regimen because of past failures, and memories of deprivation and hunger. More than several weight-loss clients have told me that they waited for years for a perfect weight-loss pill to be discovered before attempting to diet, and the effect of this procrastination on their health did not bother them. (Some are still waiting.)
Procrastination may also lead not just to putting off strategies to lose weight; it can easily contribute to weight gain. Eating is an effective way of delaying doing what one does not want to do. The procrastinator tells himself, “I will eat dinner and then maybe a small snack after dinner, and then maybe make myself a cup of tea and a couple of cookies. Oh, then I think I will pop some popcorn and fish out the ice cream from the freezer to take away the salty taste of the popcorn and then…” Eventually time passes and suddenly there is no time to pay the bills, or phone the parent, or clean up the garage.
Procrastination is a huge stumbling block to effective dieting. How many very low-calorie ice cream bars or bowls of air-popped popcorn can the dieter justifiably eat while procrastinating without eventually undoing the diet? And how long can the dieter avoid, as my client is managing to do, engaging in some exercise and non-eating activities, without this influencing the rate of her weight loss?
Any parent who has lived through the toddler and adolescent stages of child rearing knows that it is often impossible to get the two-year-old or the 16-year-old to do something they do not want to do.
“No, I won’t” is a favorite reply, be it a toddler told to pick up toys or a teenager asked to at least take the dirty clothes on the floor and put them in the laundry basket. The teen, considerably more sophisticated than the toddler, may temper the reply with, “I will do it later” and thinks, “I can procrastinate until I move out of the house.”
But what about the grownup who says, “I will do it later” to excuse failing to take on the responsibilities associated with weight loss, i.e., choosing low-calorie healthy foods, drinking sufficient liquids, getting enough sleep and exercise, and dealing with the stresses causing overeating—rather than eating his way through them? Isn’t, “I will do it later…” a way of saying, “NO, I don’t want to do it at all”?
Weight-loss counseling really does not have any answer for this problem. If it did, fewer people would fail to lose weight and even fewer would fail at maintaining their weight loss. So far, we don’t know how to strengthen motivation and commitment to permanent lifestyle changes so someone can banish being overweight for good.
Maybe one reason why so many wannabe dieters fail to commit to permanent change is that it is overwhelming. There are complicated diets with points, counting calories, and determining good and bad carbs, saturated/unsaturated fats, and whether a food is high or low protein. Exercise is boring, repetitive and even unpleasant and painful if muscles are worked too hard. It is easier to put it off, to procrastinate.
But I think of advice given often to new runners by those experienced in the activity. The new runner is told to run for a minute or two and walk for the same period of time. Run and walk, run and walk. Eventually as muscles and stamina grow stronger, the runner is able to shorten and then cancel the walking bit. By that time, she is committed to the sport. Perhaps dieters should be given similar advice: eat sensibly but do not follow a harsh and unforgiving diet. Exercise, but start slowly. Five minutes is better than zero minutes, one pushup up better than none. Try one activity, class, or social interaction on a lonely winter weekend rather than keeping company with the refrigerator and cookie shelf. No excuses.
Eventually these small changes will increase into large ones resembling a healthy lifestyle that feels natural and comfortable. Reserve procrastination, saying, “I won’t!” for balancing your checkbook.