You wake up after having slept a little, grab a breakfast you’re not really excited to eat on your way to a job you’re not really excited about. You spend your afternoon dreading going to the gym to work out after work. And you’re frustrated that you’re not losing weight.
Stress is real and has a real physiological effect on the body via the endocrine system. But people don’t often think about the effects of stress because, when you’re neck-deep in life, it’s hard to gain perspective.
In 2008, I was 60 pounds overweight. I decided that I wanted to change, hired a personal trainer, and changed my diet. I was doing everything that people tell you to do when you want to lose weight, and the weight started to come off slowly. But then in July, I did something that very few people talk about, but it proved to be the biggest step in my personal weight-loss journey: I quit my terrible job.
Quitting my job immediately changed my environment, both psychical and social. And I began to notice new things that had escaped me. For one, going to work at a job I hated every day had given me a negative outlook on life. Instead of seeing opportunities to improve my life, I saw things with what Dr. Carol Dweck calls, “a fixed mindset.” Leaving that job gave me fresh perspective, and I started to think that changing my body was actually possible.
Secondly, it forced me out of a routine that I was not even aware I was in, and made healthier food choices and physical activity easier. I no longer had to resist a soda machine. Because I was spending less mental energy on resisting and coping, I wasn’t going around in a state of what Dr. Roy Baumeister calls “ego-depletion.” I actually had extra willpower that I didn’t have when I was spending all day at a job I hated.
Finally, I started spending more time with people for whom health and fitness was normal. And it became my new normal. And the weight just started to slide off.
I am not advocating that everyone should go quit their jobs (I was privileged to have a spouse who worked and a new job lined up), but since I have seen so many clients whose lives get in the way of their weight loss—and completely unaware of it—I suggest that they initiate more awareness with one of my favorite mental exercises.
This practice comes from my mentor, Dan John. He asks his clients (elite athletes) to rate the stress in their lives with a system of lights:
- “Red” means, “There is something in my life that demands immediate attention outside of my training.” This can include: deaths, divorce, injuries, newborns, March and April for accountants.
- “Yellow” means, “I’m coping, but training is not going to be my top priority.” This can include: stressful jobs, relationship trouble, high school kids picking colleges.
- “Green” means, “I’m good to go and I can make training a high priority for a while.”
Green-light situations are rare, but they are when we can expect the fastest fat loss. Most of us are in Yellow most of the time, and we should manage our expectations accordingly. Weight loss is going to be slow, but it’s still possible.
And every now and then, we slip in to Red. But as any grief counselor will tell you, denial is universal. We’re really good at telling ourselves we’re not in the Red, and I’ve had many clients who could not personally see it without outside eyes. And when you’re in the Red, often it’s your body telling you: You’re always tired. You’re getting sick all the time. Maybe you miss a period or two. These are signs to me that weight loss might be really difficult and, in fact, maintaining weight would be a real victory at this time!
So before you get too frustrated and give up, take a look at your life and see what “light” you’re in. You can still make progress, but you’ll make more if you can manage your expectations.