Are We There Yet?

Straight Talk And No Nonsense

“Are we there yet?”

Has there ever been a more inane question asked from the back seat of a car? Once on a two lane highway twenty miles from the nearest town, with nothing, but cotton fields and pump jacks on the horizon as far as the eye could see, with the child’s father pushing the gas pedal down as the stripes on the road whizzed by at 80 miles an hour, I turned around to the small boy in the back and answered, “Yes, get out of the car NOW.”

Of course he had enough sense, even at age 5, not to get out of the car when his grandmother’s house was nowhere in sight. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever heard that child ask that question again. He knew we weren’t “there,” he was just tired of the drive.

Now it is obviously perfectly easy to tell when we have and have not achieved our goal when the goal is to pull into grandmother’s driveway. But what about our weight loss goals? Are we there yet?

To answer that question, of course, we all have to decide for ourselves where “there” is.

Some of us have been scared into our weight loss effort by the threat of dire consequences. Our doctors have told us we will die if we don’t lose 100 pounds, or our husbands have told us they will leave us if we don’t lose 50. The surgeon says the lifesaving operation can’t be done until the weight comes off, and we don’t want to die. We have four small children and no job, so we can’t afford to lose the husband, so the diet starts and we will know when we get there. If either of these are true for you, you can stop reading right now, because your course is simple.

But what about the rest of us? The doctors have been vaguer in their pronouncements, the dear husband has not expressed his intentions, only his dissatisfaction. Or neither of them has said a word, and it is we ourselves who are unhappy about our obesity. How do we set our goal?

Our culture seems to have two conflicting themes that may underlie our goal setting.

One is the value that seems to be placed on modesty, that makes us believe that it would be prideful, even sinful to set a goal that would have us be glamorously slender and vigorously athletic. We aim at what the English have called “The Gentleman’s C” and say that we simply want to take a few pounds off, that we simply want to get to a point where our health is not an issue. What we are saying here is that our goal is negative. We want to be “not fat.”

In five years I have observed many people establish this as their goal. They define it in many ways, good examples are the average height women who simply want to break below 200 pounds, or to be able to shop in the regular size department, not the plus sizes anymore. Or they want to get back to a size they were before, forgetting that they weren’t really happy with themselves then, either. They clearly state that looking sexy is not important to them, they simply want to be a healthy weight.

Most of the people whom I have seen set such goals achieve them. And they maintain them for at least a week. Very few maintain for a year, or even six months.

The experts would say that this is precisely because their goal was a negative one. In focusing on what they did not want to be, obese or unhealthy, they kept their subconscious visualizing exactly that. It seems that, more often than not, what we visualize we become. And maybe we also know that one bag of potato chips is not going to ruin our health, so what’s to keep us from eating them if our goal is to be healthier than we were? In that case it is enough that we gave up soft drinks, that alone has made us healthier. It is easier to rationalize that potatoes are low on the glycemic index, and eat them.

Our culture also, conflictingly, values great achievement. When surveyed, again and again, the American people, if given the choice between becoming President, getting rich, or winning an Olympic gold medal, invariably go for the gold. We want to be the best, not just better. We want, even if for only one minute, to be the best in the world.

Our value on modesty can get in our way. Even our Olympic athletes know that in an interview they should say that they are simply going for a personal best, that they will be happy if they just beat their own previous record. But one look at their faces at the end of the race tells us what a lie that is. They want to win. Setting a personal record is a hollow victory when you’re off the medal stand. The truth is that every one of them wants to win an Olympic gold medal. That’s why they are there; that is what got them on the team and marching in the opening ceremony. That is why Olympic gold medals get won: because someone, a lot of people, want to win them.

It seems to be a much harder goal to say that we want to get thin, that we want to be in the smallest of dress sizes, that we want heads to turn when we walk in the room. You would think that fewer people would achieve that, but in my observation, those who set the goal of having drop-dead gorgeous figures more often than not get there – and they stay there, too, more often than not. I don’t think this is because vanity is a powerful tool. I think this is because their goal is clear-cut, and positive. They have a strong positive vision to hold on to in the face of those potato chips.

There is another conflict that can come into play in our goal setting. Do we set the goal based on results or based on behavior? In other words, do we want to weigh 135, or do we want to change how we eat?

In one way, setting the goal based on our behavior is a better technique. After all, we can control what we eat, and we cannot control how our body will or will not respond to those changes. We want to stop eating when we are not hungry. We want to stop stress eating. Obviously, we need to do both of those things. But notice again that they are negative goals; they are about what we want to not do.

We can also get waylaid by having behavioral goals when our behavior is under control, when we are eating exactly as we set our minds to eat, and we are still not losing weight. Of what value is this excellent behavior if it achieves nothing? We can go along for a while by telling ourselves that at least we are not gaining, that at least we are not bingeing, but for how long can this satisfy?

We must have behavioral goals. If we don’t change our behavior, we will never change our figures. The Olympic athlete must decide every day in practice to improve her time, to go be higher, faster, stronger. But behavioral goals are not enough. They can only change our behavior.

We must have an actual physical destination in mind or we will never get there. It must be a positive destination, a physical condition which we can describe in clear, positive terms. I am convinced that this must be actually quantifiable. In other words, we need to be able to put some numbers to our goals. If we have been thin before, we know what we weighed then and that is our goal. There is a dress size we aim for, or a body fat percentage we aspire to. Set a numerical goal. It’s the easiest way to know when you get there.

Please, set that goal with ambition.

No one sets out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to get to the rest area on Interstate 20 outside Sweetwater. We set out to make it all the way to grandmothers house, don’t we? If you set the rest area as your goal, would you be likely to stay there long? Of course not. There’s no bed, no turkey, no TV to watch the football game. There is not enough reward to keep us there. Neither is there enough reward to keep us at “not as fat.” The reward is “thin.”

That being said, there are two more issues about goals that need to be discussed. In weight loss it truly is hard to know when we get there. We get to 125, but our bellies still pooch and sag from excess skin, or could it be still more fat to be lost? Or we get to size 8 and discover that we weigh 15 pounds more than we thought we would. Are we at goal or not? We were aiming for 125 and size 8, not 140 and size 8. Or we get as far as we meant to go and there is still cellulite on the back of our thighs. Our bodies are not perfect, how do we know if we are there?

This is when it is smart to go back to setting health related goals, specifically goals related to our body fat percentage. Research what is considered to be a healthy body fat percentage, what is considered to be obese, what is considered to be athletic, and what is considered to be anorexic. Remember that it is different for men than for women. Then get your body fat checked and set your goal or call yourself done accordingly. Typically, women who get to goal set their goal to be in the low 20s for their body fat percentage. When they get there they may decide to exercise their way into the teens, or they may not.

I had this happen to me. I was still ten pounds or so from goal weight when I discovered that I had achieved my goal body fat percentage of 24. I declared myself officially done, with the postscript that I was going to begin an exercise regime to see how much further I could take things.

Which brings us to a little secret about goal setting. When we have set ambitious goals, when we have worked hard, maybe for years, to get there and we do get there, it’s a bit of a let down. We’re “there” and this is it?

That’s when it’s time for a new goal in life. Because setting and achieving goals can be every bit as addictive as potato chips, and much more rewarding.

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