Reward and Punishment

One of the reasons that I think trying to lose weight is a bad idea is that when “weigh less” becomes your goal, it becomes easy to do unhealthy things to reach that goal, and drop healthy habits that don’t further that goal. I mean, how many people do you know who’ve started exercising and eating better only to give it up when it didn’t result in weight loss, or they gained the weight back? Or women who don’t want to lift weights for fear of gaining “too much” muscle mass?

Back when I was dieting, I hung out on a diet forum that encouraged some extreme and obsessive behaviors. It wasn’t pro-ana or anything, but it was definitely in disordered eating land. Most people in the group saw no problem with feeling light-headed during the beginning of the uber-restrictive Phase 1. They described it as “detox,” but I’m pretty sure now it was just hunger and tanking blood sugar. And I went to some pretty foolish extremes myself. I was so set on the fact that I *had* to eat only the foods on the diet plan, because I *had* to lose weight, that if I didn’t have “South Beach-legal” food available, there were times I’d just deal with the hunger pangs until I could have something “allowed.” The worst example of this, the one that I’m embarrassed to admit because it was just that stupid, is when I thought a single cheese stick constituted an acceptable breakfast before going for a bike ride. After a bit, I felt weak and dizzy (no huge surprise there) and almost passed out. A random passerby called me an ambulance (no small feat since she didn’t have her phone and there was no cell coverage*), and the EMTs checked me over and took me home.

Really dumb, I know. I can’t be too critical of myself for this, though, because we are constantly sold the message that dieting is healthy, that anything that leads you to weight loss is good for you, as long as you eat over 1000 calories a day and don’t force yourself to throw up. Also, amazingly enough, your brain needs food to function. When I’m hungry, I get really dense, much like when I’m tired. So, combine weight loss as a goal and reduced brain function from hunger and, well, goodbye common sense.

For me, once weight loss stopped being my reward, it made it easier for me to exercise, because I didn’t have to worry about whether it was “working” or whether it was “enough.”

One of my main theories of life, the universe, and everything is that cultivating new habits (and influencing the behavior of others, for that matter) is very much like training a puppy. My dog knows, for example, that if I say “Sit” and she plants her fuzzy little butt on the ground, good things will happen. Praise is guaranteed, scritches are likely, and there’s a decent chance of a treat. People function a lot the same. A stimulus occurs, and we respond to it in a way that we think will result in something good.

Granted, we can think longer term and more complexly than a dog. Like, the average adult knows that visiting the restroom before a long car trip is a good idea. My dog hasn’t yet grasped that her walks will be longer if she “goes potty” before we leave our property, or that if she does her business away from the house, we turn around and head home once the person on the end of the leash has picked up after her.

So, if “lose weight” and the associated rewards of “have people compliment you on weight loss” or “avoid dirty looks or snide comments from your trainer/doctor/skinny coworker” are foremost in our thoughts, it only makes sense that we’ll focus on the actions that lead to those rewards. Whether or not they’re good for us. And avoid things that prevent us from getting that reward. Again, whether or not they’re good for us.

For example, I recently read an article on how yoga doesn’t burn enough calories to be effective for weight loss. If that were still a goal of mine, I’d find that incredibly discouraging. Here’s this form of exercise that I like, that’s building my flexibility and balance and strength and helping me relax, and I can easily see judging it as a waste of time because it won’t make my butt smaller.

Another article, though I no longer have the link, is about a woman with depression who found an antidepressant that worked wonderfully and made a huge difference in her life, except that it caused weight gain, so she went off it. Better to have an untreated illness, to be deeply and profoundly unhappy than to be fat. Wait, what? Seriously?

*Edit: I realized upon rereading this that it made no sense. The woman who stopped, who didn’t have a phone with her, flagged down another car. That driver did have a phone, but had to drive down to the corner to actually get a signal.


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