The formula is simple — at least it is supposed to be:
Eat healthier + more exercise = weight loss.
Yet more people are struggling with obesity — and the lengthy list of health-related co-morbidities — than ever before.
“It is as simple as diet and exercise, and as complicated as diet and exercise,” said Dr. Christopher Motto, of Evangelical. “We live in a society where it is cheaper and easier to eat poorly — where technology embraces convenience and shuns the need to get up and move around.”
Breaking the vicious cycle requires a break in the habits that have become engrained in our daily routines, according to Dr. Steven Barrows, of UPMC Susquehanna, citing a book he recommends called “Power of Habit.”
“It talks a lot about how the things we do are conditioned responses — things like overeating and tobacco addictions are wired into our playbooks,” he said. “The play we’ve written ourselves the past 20-30 years is hard to rewrite. If I’m stressed, I grab a carton of Ben & Jerries. A bad day at work? Come home to a beer and a bag of chips.”
According to Barrows, we learn these plays from parents and others around us as we grow up — they become our responses to things in life that trigger us and veering away from those conditioned responses can be difficult. It becomes like a sports team that realizes that certain plays just aren’t working in the game of life.
“It takes a long time to replace plays in our playbook,” he said. “It’s a process where we mindfully find new ways to cope with old problems.”
This strategy is why Barrows rarely recommends diets to people.
“The diet, by nature, is temporary. My goal isn’t to provide a temporary solution,” he said. “I’d much rather see people make smaller, more sustainable changes with long-term results.”
Examples would be replacing a sugary snack after a stressful day of work or school with some sort of fun, active game — or taking some time reading a favorite book.
Part of changing the playbook involves identifying which plays lead to the unhealthiest of habits. One may be eating out — something Geisinger dietitian Tasha Dershem admitted can be a huge roadblock to maintaining an ideal weight.
“Most entrees at restaurants average 800-1,000 calories just in the entree itself. There can be additional calories in the beverages you consume. Fast food items can be even worse when it comes to calorie intake,” she said. “Cooking and eating at home is a dying art, it seems, but a critical one for a family who wants to make healthier choices.”
What you eat that home-cooked meal on can also make a difference.
“Research has shown over the years that the average size of a dinner plate — even a wine glass — has increased quite a bit,” said Dershem. “When you see a plate that represents the size of portions we should be consuming, it almost looks funny how small it seems.”
According to Dr. David Parker, of Geisinger, there are a variety of apps that can aid in making healthier choices — from those that count calories to those which monitor exercise and encourage people to get up and walk around at regular intervals. One app, developed with assistance by Bucknell, is called Get to Goal.
“It shows what realistic weight loss can look like for an individual, and helps give us an idea of what types of interventions may be best,” he said.
For Elizabeth Swartz, of Danville, who lost more than 100 pounds since weight-loss surgery last year, the enhanced playbook includes small, yet effective, changes in daily tasks.
“I started parking the car at the spot farthest from the store, which forced me to walk more,” she said. “It is amazing how you want to fight stuff like that at first, but now, I’m doing it without even thinking about it.”
Another resource Swartz appreciates — places locally to get fresh produce at a good price, such as various farmers markets and Aldi’s food store.
“You can spend $50 getting all the healthier options for a good salad, or pick up a few boxes of processed macaroni and cheese for like $3,” she said “That is why my family loves Aldi’s, which offers good produce at a good price.”