Health Coaching: How Behavior Affects Maintaining Healthy Weight

by Marcy Simpson, LCSW

Have you ever felt discouraged because despite your best efforts, losing weight has felt impossible for you? Have you ever been frustrated because no matter how many raw veggies you munch or healthy low-fat, low-sugar smoothies you sip, the number on the scale seems frozen? And figuring out time to exercise with all you have going on only adds to your frustration. Multiple factors affect our weight and health, and gaining a better understanding of our behavior can contribute to how we make better choices resulting in improved overall health and wellness.

Why maintain a healthy weight?

If we view our bodies as machines we want operating at optimal capacity (like our cars, for example), then we can consider how regular, preventative maintenance benefits functioning in the long run. Too often we focus on the short-term gain of enjoying special events such as vacations and weddings with all of the additional opportunities to eat and drink that accompany these functions, and lose sight of how this impacts our physical health, especially weight. Keeping our weight in a healthy range will help prevent and control conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems such as sleep apnea and asthma, and certain types of cancers. 

What factors influence weight?

Many of us feel frustration when we can’t seem to control our weight, body shape, or ethnicity, but we can change our behavior to help tip the scales in our favor. Since overweight and obesity can tend to run in families, genes are one factor that may contribute to how much fat you store in your body and where you will carry it. Race and ethnicity also contribute to obesity rates. In America, African American adults, both male and female, have the highest obesity rates. They are followed by Hispanics/Latinos, then Caucasians (NIH 2018.) Our sex can also be a determinant with regards to weight. Additional fat stored up around the abdomen can put men at risk of health problems including cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes, even if they are at a normal weight. Certain medical conditions and medications can also lead to weight gain.

How can we learn to maintain a healthy weight?

While it’s true that some factors can be challenging with regards to supporting healthy weight, we have much more control over this issue than we think. Our behaviors directly impact our health. Just accepting that we can influence our health by incorporating small habits daily will combat the myth that gaining weight is a normal result of aging. Becoming aware of how we act is the first step to change. The following are different ways to alter our responses to certain changes – our behavior – in order to positively affect our weight. 

· Perspective– Our view of health determines our approach. If we think we have to give up all the foods that we love in order to maintain a healthy weight, then we will be resistant to making changes. When we view doing things differently as an opportunity to learn new hacks, we feel less constricted and more confident in our ability to maintain healthy habits. 

· Goals– How many times do we find ourselves setting unrealistic goals? If our expectations are too high, we may find ourselves disappointed. If this happens too many times, we may give up. Set small, measurable goals that make sense and adjust if you need to. That way you can build on your successes.

· Habits– The definition of habit is a settled or regular way of doing things. This applies to exercise and eating routines. How frequently do we move our bodies in our day-to-day activities? How many times are we mindlessly nibbling on snacks? Transitioning to retirement, making a move, or recovering from an injury all affect activity level and eating patterns. Challenge yourself to change one aspect of your daily routine and pay attention to the impact. Ask for feedback from someone you trust.

· Culture – The customs of our particular ethnic, religious, or social group can contribute to weight management issues. Do we find ourselves eating and drinking too much at social functions on a regular basis? There is often an expectation present that is difficult to overcome based on the generally widely acceptable practices of the group. Consider how you can limit intake of foods that are less than healthy, even if it means fielding comments from others. 

· Access– Where we live, work, and participate in leisure activities can make a difference in maintaining a healthy weight. Living near open, outdoor “green spaces” may encourage us to get outside and increase our physical activity. Finding others who share similar interests can be a motivator to move more. On the flip side, fast food and “party food” can be tempting and make it easier to eat processed foods with higher fat, sugar and salt contents. Consider packing healthy snacks or taking your own healthy dishes to share at events laden with unhealthy options. 

· Sleep– This behavior is so basic that it is often overlooked. However, studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep may consume more calories. Adults ages 65 and older need 7-8 hours of sleep daily (NIH 2018). Again, this is a factor that we can control. Pay attention to your sleep patterns and reach out to your doctor or health coach if you are having trouble regulating this important function.

· Margin– Building a cushion, or margin into your day is essential in managing stress. Chronic stress can affect your weight due to the hormone cortisol, which is released when the fight or flight response is triggered. This hormone results in higher insulin levels and the body craves foods that are high in sugar and fat. Eating comfort foods or emotional eating can results in weight gain. Schedule regular time for self-care to combat daily stressors.

· Keeping it Real– When it comes to most behaviors, we can justify our actions, even if these justifications aren’t necessarily true. This can get us into trouble if we do it on a regular basis. The broken cookies or chips in the bottom of the bag still have calories that can show up on our waistline. If there are barriers to maintaining a healthy weight, accept the issues and work on developing an action plan to address them.

Making small, sustainable changes in our daily habits and behaviors can yield substantial improvements in our overall health, including our weight and predisposition or vulnerability to illness. By changing our behaviors and embracing healthier choices, we can actually spend more time doing the activities we enjoy with the people we love, feeling our best along the way. 

Factors Affecting Weight and Health. (February 2018). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/adult-overweight-obesity/factors-affecting-weight-health

Marcy Simpson, LCSW, is a Health Coach at Pinehurst Medical Clinic in Pinehurst and Sanford. She can be reached at 910-235-3347 or msimpson@pinehurstmedical.com.