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'Shape-Up Shortcuts': Quick tips for meaningful weight loss

Jen Ator of Women's Health shares secrets to a healthier, hotter body in "Shape-up Shortcuts." Here's an excerpt.

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty."


The Easiest Weight-Loss Secret Ever
Here's the thing: Not all shortcuts are created equal. Most people who try to beat the laws of weight loss end up shooting themselves in the foot. Many women merely view weight loss as a means to an end. They set their sights on a quick fix, which typically translates into a month of early-morning spin classes and salads sans dressing. The problem? Almost anyone can suffer through a brutal month of overtraining and calorie restriction, but research has continually proven that people can't keep it up for long periods of time. It's simply not sustainable--physically or mentally. Cue a single roadblock--like a week off from the gym or that pint of Ben & Jerry's you swore you wouldn't polish off--and all of a sudden the wheels come off. When women set out on an all-or-nothing approach, they see one slipup as complete failure and they give up.

While small fluctuations on the scale are normal, this start-stop pattern usually leads to a significant increase or decrease of body weight (generally 10 pounds or more), and it's usually not a one-time deal. Experts refer to this as weight cycling--you know it as yo-yo dieting.

"Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still."

According to a study published in the journal American Psychologist, dieters successfully lost up to 10 percent of their weight within the first 6 months on any number of diets; problem is, nearly two-thirds of dieters put the weight back on (sometimes gaining even more) within 5 years.

As if the roller-coaster scale wasn't tough enough, weight cycling can actually change your physiology, increasing a hunger hormone called ghrelin and decreasing a fullness hormone called leptin. The result: You feel hungrier and less satiated, and over time, the more diets you've been on, the harder it becomes to lose the weight. Researchers from Columbia University in New York City found that dieting can actually slow your resting metabolism and make it harder to maintain a stable weight post-diet. They reported that dieters may burn up to one-quarter fewer calories during exercise than those naturally at the same weight.

Just as yo-yo dieting hurts your waistline, having an on-again, off-again relationship with working out wreaks havoc on your health: People who gained 14 pounds in a month by exercising less and eating more were still up nearly 7 pounds from their original weight 30 months later, despite going back to their healthier patterns, according to a study in Nutrition & Metabolism. An irregular exercise pattern can raise your body's natural set point (the weight your biological system naturally tries to maintain) and make it harder to dip below that number. And research shows that bouts of vigorous exercise followed by weeks of inactivity can increase fat levels and put excess strain on your cardiovascular system.

Consistent exercisers who see working out as part of their lifestyle, rather than a way to change their appearance, have the most success keeping weight off.

But your relationship with healthy eating and exercise doesn't have to be so hot and cold. In fact, ignoring strict guidelines could be the secret to a successful slimdown. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people with a flexible approach to eating--one that allows for sweets and other perceived slipups--had a better track record of maintaining weight loss than dieters with an all-or-nothing strategy. So if some days you're too busy for even a few minutes of exercise or you slip up from your diet, you can give yourself a break. Because here's the bigger picture: It's what you do most of the time--not all the time--that makes a difference. When overweight subjects in a study made several small lifestyle shifts--such as eating breakfast, having as many veggies as they'd like with each meal, and watching TV for only as long as they'd exercised that day--they dropped an average of 8 pounds in 2 weeks. And kept it off.

So when people say, "There are no shortcuts to any place worth going," here's what I think it really means: You can't skip the little things and jump ahead to the big finish. You have to put in the work every day. The road from dream to reality is laden with digestible and specific monthly, weekly, even daily challenges; bigger, long-term results are merely the sum of daily actions. But that doesn't mean the work has to be drastic or draining. Reaching milestones, however small, helps you stay focused and builds confidence. In fact, when you skip extreme regimens in favor of a handful of smaller strategies, the cumulative effect can be huge--and, more importantly, it won't feel as if you've given up your entire life to be fit.

Reprinted from “Shape-Up Shortcuts” by Jen Ator. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jen Ator. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.