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Are You Ready to Lose Weight?

"People tell me, 'I know I should lose weight, but ...,'" says psychologist Diane Hanson, Ph.D., a lifestyle specialist. "That 'but' means they're not ready." The reasons people aren't ready vary, but the following questions should tell you a lot about whether you're in a position to achieve your weight-loss goals.

How fed up are you with being overweight?

Most people automatically say, "Very." But quite often, that's not the case. When psychologist Ronette L. Kolotkin, asks people how their weight affects their daily lives, those who aren't ready typically respond, "Not much." People who are really ready say, "I'm fed up, and I'm committed to making a change."

Being fed up means fed up, period. Diane Hanson knows about weight-loss readiness from personal experience. Her French-Canadian family added butter and cream to everything. "Whole milk wasn't rich enough for me. Growing up, I drank half-and-half." Not surprisingly, she was 30 pounds overweight by adulthood. She "yo-yo dieted" for years, and then one day realized she was truly fed up. No more "buts." She lost the 30 pounds 20 years ago and has never regained them.

Steve Purser of San Francisco knew he was ready to lose weight when he, too, became truly fed up with his extra baggage. The 47-year-old San Francisco health administrator gained weight from high school through college, "but it didn't bother me." Then he hit 30, and his attitude changed. "I felt older, and didn't want to wind up old and fat." Once he felt mentally prepared to lose weight permanently, he dropped 20 pounds, and has never regained more than five.

Is this a good time for you to lose weight?

People who aren't ready to lose weight always find reasons not to try. But sometimes those who feel genuinely fed up face life problems that make losing difficult, even impossible. "Everyone has 'background obstacles,'" explains weight-loss expert Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale, "bills and hassles with kids and jobs. But if you're facing extraordinary problems — divorce, serious illness, a death in the family, or job loss — then you may be too preoccupied to lose weight."

How long should a person wait after a major problem? "It depends on the individual," says psychologist Thomas Wadden. "But you should feel back to normal, and no longer preoccupied by the stressor."

Occasionally, however, serious life problems can help people get ready to lose weight. "A woman who has just decided to leave a destructive marriage may be facing divorce," Brownell explains, "but if she feels excited about starting a new and better life, it might be a good time for her to lose weight."

Who do you want to lose for?

"When people tell me they want to lose weight for their high school reunion, or because their doctors or mothers-in-law have been nagging them, they usually gain it back," Kolotkin says. "External forces can help people start to lose weight, but any weight lost is rarely permanent. People who keep weight off lose it for themselves, because they're committed to doing it."

What do you expect from losing weight?

Fairy tales end "happily ever after," but in real life, things are often messy — even for people who are slim. "It's amazing how unrealistic people can be about weight loss," says Kolotkin. "They think that losing weight will make their lives wonderful. It doesn't."

Kolotkin contrasts unrealistic expectations about weight loss with the more realistic expectations most people have about job changes or second marriages. "People don't expect new jobs or marriages to be perfect. They know that to do so is a setup for disappointment. But when it comes to weight loss, many people have trouble getting past fairy-tale endings."

Be realistic. You probably won't wind up a movie star, but chances are you'll be able to sit comfortably in a movie theater seat.

Are you afraid of something?

Consider the rewards of being overweight — that's right, rewards. Being heavy may provide advantages you'll sacrifice if you lose weight.

Some people use their weight as an excuse for not working on other problems. "They think: I have a lousy job because I'm fat," Wadden says, "or a lousy marriage. If they lose weight, they lose their excuse for their other dissatisfactions. That can be scary."

Others, especially women, fear increased sexual attractiveness if they lose weight. Why fear sexiness? Because it often means wolf whistles on the street, and approaches by neighbors, co-workers, and friends' husbands. "Being thin," Kolotkin explains, "can be a real hassle."

A key part of preparing to lose weight involves confronting fears of thinness. If you've used your weight as an excuse for inaction on other problems, you won't be ready to lose until you've explored those issues. Once you do, weight loss can help build the self-esteem necessary to deal with them. If you fear a loss of friends, try recruiting a "weight loss buddy." The two of you can become each other's support system.

But perhaps the biggest inner fear that keeps people from losing weight is fear of failure. "Every long-term dieter feels burned by all the diets that didn't work," Hanson says, "so they're skeptical about trying again." Hanson suggests viewing weight-loss attempts not as successes or failures, but rather as experiments. "Think about what you've learned along the way. Analyze what you did right, and what you need to do differently next time."

Wadden says losing weight is like quitting smoking: "It usually takes several tries. I never use the term 'failure.' Regaining is frustrating, but it's a necessary step on the path to permanent weight control."

What small changes are you willing to make for life?

"People who focus only on their weight usually regain what they lose," says Michael Hamilton, Ph.D. "Permanent weight loss means making small, manageable changes and sticking with them for life."

Of course, change is never easy. It often feels threatening, especially when it's "for life." That's why part of getting ready to lose weight is deciding which changes are small enough to feel manageable and non-threatening. In other words, which changes are no big deal for you?

"'Dieting' means making drastic short-term changes that never last," says fitness instructor Joan Price. "To keep weight off, make small changes over time and incorporate them into your life."

When pondering possible changes, Trish Ratto, R.D., advises, "Be honest with yourself. Don't even consider a change you're unwilling to stick to. If you can't live with it, it won't become permanent."

How should you make those changes?

First, list all the little things you're truly willing to do. Maybe you can't give up frozen desserts, but it's no sacrifice to switch from ice cream to nonfat frozen yogurt. Perhaps you are repulsed by jogging, but it's no big deal to park one block farther from the mall and walk the extra distance. Or maybe you can't live without burgers, but you're willing to switch from cheeseburgers to plain hamburgers.

These changes may sound insignificant, but they're not. "It's the small changes that become permanent," Kolotkin says, "and permanence is crucial. I applaud switching from cheeseburgers to hamburgers — if it's for life."

Once you've listed all the changes you can live with, rank them from easiest to hardest. Then make your easiest change — and no other. Within six months, it should become a permanent habit. Then make change number two and so on, one change every six months. "It takes about six months for personal changes to become cemented as habits," Price says. "When you no longer have to struggle with one change, it's no big deal to make the next."

When Steve Purser felt ready to lose weight, he made only two changes: "I cut out alcohol, and instead of diving into sweets after dinner, I took a walk. If I still wanted dessert after my walk, I'd have it. But usually when I got home I felt fine going without it." In other words, his attitude about food and exercise changed.

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