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The grand transformation has to be one of the most appealing stories out there. Can’t you just picture it? The ugly duckling, after years of feeling unattractive and unloved, all at once sheds his duckish down and ungainly appearance to blossom into the elegant and beautiful swan.
And look at the many shows that play out the dramatic transformation: The Biggest Loser, Queer Eye, What Not to Wear. They display for us a life-changing alteration in appearance and promise a better life because of that change — more confidence, self-contentment, and inner peace. As we watch, we get to experience that transformation and subsequent contentment vicariously.
And tucked inside that experience of watching someone else’s transformation is the idea that it can happen quickly and easily. Reality television packages the hero’s journey into a pleasing story with a beginning, middle, and successful end. It may show some hurdles, but we know that the hero will win out — in about forty-five minutes.
But I’m here to tell you, it ain’t that easy.
Let me paint you a picture. This is a few years ago. I’m in my mid-thirties, just had my second kid. I’ve been carrying extra weight since college and the pounds I put on during my two pregnancies have left me pretty overweight. I’m dang uncomfortable, and tired of it.
So, I join a nationally recognizable weight-loss chain and drop some pounds. I start working out and getting fit. I sign up for a 5K, and then another. I get into the sport of triathlon, and eventually I successfully complete a Half Ironman.
Yay me, right?
Now, guess how long my grand transformation took.
Go ahead, guess. I’ll wait.
Would you believe me if I told you it took more than a decade?
My Weight-Loss Success Story Took 12 Years
If someone had told me, back when I first joined that weight-loss chain, that one day I would complete a triathlon consisting of a .9-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run, I would have thought they were nuts.
At that point in my life I couldn’t run a half a mile, much less a half marathon, and never mind the other two legs of the triathlon. And you know what? If I had known getting to that point would take me twelve years, I probably would have quit right then and there.
When I started on my path to fitness, I didn’t have a Half Ironman as an end goal. I knew I wanted to get “fit” and lose weight, but I didn’t have a specific event or fitness ability in mind. But I did have a social event on my calendar: a family wedding months away in a faraway state.
The thought of showing up at that wedding in a new dress, several sizes smaller than I’d worn before, was hugely motivating. I used this mental picture to drive me in making the small daily choices that would lead me to my goal weight.
But sometimes putting too much focus on the end result can backfire. Focusing on the end goal makes it all too easy to get sucked into wanting the big payoff, the sudden success. This is the downside to stories and TV shows that package an amazing transformation into a bite-sized chunk. These stories obscure the true effort required to make real change.
And when it’s your real life (as opposed to “reality” TV), success is not assured. Every hurdle has to be overcome through your own grit, not knowing if you’re going to make it or if, this time, you fail.
So, what’s a person to do? How do we make the weight-loss and lifestyle changes stick?
1. Go Slow
We may want to get to the end goal as quickly as possible, but a moderate pace has more chance of success. Weight-loss experts advise a loss rate of no more than one to two pounds per week. A faster rate can lead to health problems such as lean muscle loss and lowered metabolism, eventually leading to regaining weight.
In addition to these health benefits, another reason to go slow is that it gives you time to get used to your new habits. A diet involving drastic measures that we abandon after a couple weeks isn’t going to be very effective. But learning new habits, like having a better understanding of portion sizes or avoiding added sugar and processed foods, will have a long-term positive impact.
My first week after joining that weight-loss chain, I think I lost five pounds. I thought, “Great! This is going to be a piece of cake.” Of course, that rate did not last, and there were many yo-yos and restarts.
But gradually, over time, many of the new habits I was learning about became second nature. I’ve learned there are lots of foods I can eyeball and know I’m serving myself a correct amount, and there are some foods I have to measure every time, even now after so many years of paying attention.
2. Be Specific
It’s all very nice to say, “I have to get fit,” or, “I’ve really got to lose some weight.” But with such a vague idea of what you’re going to do, it’s hard to make it happen. It’s like saying, “I’m going to tour Australia,” without ever cracking open Google Maps.
Instead, set some goals. One type is the outcome goal, as in “I’m going to lose ten pounds.”
But another type of goal, called a process goal, is the series of baby steps that will bring you to the desired destination. A process goal is something like “ride my bike for a half hour three times a week,” or, “keep a daily food journal to track calories and nutrients.”
When I did finally get to the point of having a Half Ironman as a goal, I had a concrete, detailed training plan that laid out for me exactly what I needed to do on a daily and weekly basis to achieve that goal. I knew if I followed the plan, I would reach my goal. You may not be aiming for a Half Ironman, but you can outline the incremental steps you need to take.
3. Be Sticky
Sometimes people embark on a grand transformation only to give up part way there. We may not exactly think it’s going to be easy, but we underestimate how hard it will be to keep going back to the plan after setbacks. We get down on ourselves for “failures” and think it means we “can’t” do it and will never succeed.
But the real difference between someone who gets to their goal and someone who doesn’t is the word “yet.” People who get there tell themselves, “I’m not there — yet,” instead of telling themselves, “I can’t get there.”
What we need is stick-to-it-iveness.
Training for a Half Ironman is tough. It’s a lot of hours in the saddle, a lot of yards logged in the pool, and a lot of pavement under the running shoes. And balancing that with taking care of a family is tricky, let me tell you. More often than not, the thing that kept me from completing a workout on any given day was taking care of my family. And then I would get down on myself for not being able to fit everything in.
But missing a workout or two isn’t a deal breaker. Even elite athletes can afford to miss a workout from time to time. And here I was, just trying to live a healthy life and push myself to see how much I could achieve.
I learned that I had to let go of the workout that didn’t happen and go on to the next one. I had to make it a habit to keep going back to the plan and trying again. I just hadn’t done my workout — yet.
Real and Lasting Change Takes Time
There’s a reason why The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson is a classic, and why transformation TV shows are hits. It feels good to see underdogs blossom into the best versions of themselves.
But the reality is these kinds of dramatic changes do not come easily. They take a lot of time and are marked by setbacks. Before I finally lost all the weight I wanted to, I had many times where I regained some of that weight. And every time it happened, it felt awful. But I dusted myself off and started over again.
The truest path to lasting success is one marked by many small, but steady, steps.