Weight Loss As A Design Challenge
I shy away from writing about subjects like fitness and health. I’d rather write about design, the future, and honestly, things that annoy me. I resisted writing this until I realized that weight loss is a design challenge. Breaking my weight loss down into repeatable patterns and creating a system rather than just setting a goal allows me to measure progress, avoid frustration, and provide more valuable insight to those looking to repeat my success. I’ve lost over 75 pounds since September 15th of last year. I will turn 40 in about 18 months so people are surprised when they see what I’ve accomplished, how fast I’ve done it, and though they don’t say it, the fact that I’ve done it at my age.
I tell people who ask how I’ve done it the truth. I’ve lost the weight through diet and exercise changes. I also found out I have hypothyroidism and am treating it. That explanation doesn’t give people looking for answer they can replicate my success a lot to go on. I’ve also found that people may focus on my thyroid. Let me make clear that the pill I take everyday has not done the heavy lifting.
Why I Mention My Thyroid
My TSH was outside of normal range just enough that we are treating it medically. I mention my thyroid to remind people that sometimes there are things something that we’re unaware of. Including your physician in your weight loss planning is critical. You might have a thyroid issue, a benign tumor, the medication you take for one thing could affect your ability to lose weight or your motivation. You won’t know until you talk to your doctor. Getting the all clear and buy-in from your medical team is a critical but often overlooked step. Treating my thyroid problem didn’t lose me 75lbs but my weight loss wouldn’t have been as easy without addressing it for a number of reasons.
Designing a System for Better Health
I didn’t think of weight loss as a design problem at first. In fact I’ve lost most of the weight without seeing it as such but I’m an anomaly. Weight loss is generally a lot harder than it was for me. If I want to keep losing and keep it off I’ll need a solid system that can help me transition from weight loss to healthy weight maintenance once I reach my optimal weight and strength.
I lost around 50lbs over a decade ago and kept it off for several years without a good plan. When I quit the only form of exercise I was doing (long story) I slowly began to put the weight back on. When I allowed stress and work to take over my eating habits suffered. Lack of activity and poor eating habits are the formula for weight gain.
The first step to creating a better system is analysing your current system. Even if it’s chaotic and inconsistent what you’re currently doing can be viewed as a system. Look for the patterns you’re repeating over long and short periods. Long period patterns include overeating at the holidays every year for a number of years. Short period patterns would be eating a giant popcorn, a whole box of M&M’s, and a massive soda when you go to the movies twice a month. Another example would be ordering unhealthy calorie heavy take-out or delivery several times a week.
Identify not only active problems but deficits as well. A deficit is not getting enough activity or not eating enough fiber. Once you understand the system you’ve created (passively or otherwise) you can begin to make changes to it.
Building a Better You
Now that you’ve analysed your current system you can begin to build a better one. The contents of that system must be personalized to you. That doesn’t mean that you must create it from scratch. You can draw inspiration, patterns of behavior, or large scale plans from existing systems but they must work for you or you will stop incorporating them into your life. Break down what you plan to change into categories such as meal design, meal planning, exercise planning, contingency planning in the event of injury.
Those categories can be filled with patterns of behavior. I prefer to create patterns over plans for a few reasons. Plans can be complicated and can also be disrupted. Patterns are more natural and require less concentration. If we’re having a particularly difficult time sticking with a pattern we can do two things. We can quit that pattern and find another that we can stick with or we can build a habit.
A word about Habit Building. Habits are not easy to establish, especially if we don’t enjoy them at first. Take smoking for example. Nobody likes to smoke when they start, they pretend they do because they want to look cool but it’s not an easy habit to establish. Many people don’t like that they smoke even after years of doing so. Yes nicotine is physically addictive, but beyond that it’s a habit that has been built up over time. Good habits and bad habits are equally hard to establish when we don’t particularly enjoy them.
You’ll find on the internet and in respected books a lot of information about how it only takes 21 days to establish a habit. This number is unscientific and it turns out based on one very old study that hardly applies to active habit building. A habit takes far longer to establish according to those who’ve studied it such as Jeremy Dean who wrote the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits and found that if there is a magic number it’s closer to 66 days or even far longer. That may sound discouraging since workout challenges tend to be 30 days because they’re based on the flawed idea that you’ll have created a new habit within that time but remember we’re building a system for ourselves and we have the right to adjust our system to make it work for us.
Weight loss doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need to design our life around being healthy and we need to start with where we are. Some people will not see results quickly while some will. Some will have an easy time integrating running or other physical activity whereas others won’t. Some will have an easy time changing their diet. We need to design a system for ourselves and we have no other person to compare that system to so we shouldn’t. Creating a system isn’t about reaching a goal quickly it’s about moving in the right direction in a sustainable way even if that movement is slow. We can always add, change, or remove behavior that can change the speed of our transition. Systems work best when they’re living, evolve, and semi-fluid.
Weight loss and maintenance requires regular observation and analysis to ensure that the system is working the way we planned. We’ve done the analysis the first time around but we need to keep checking in to measure progress on ourselves (weigh-ins for example) as well as the effectiveness of the plan itself (are we sticking to it).
It’s critical to remember that this is a personalized health plan that we’re building so our measures of success must be based on metrics that are also personal. That means that the time it takes us to lose weight, our ultimate sustained weight, the amount of weight we can lift or number of situps we can do, and so on can’t adhere to some formula based on our age, height, or BMI. Those things are great measures of average health but we’ve got to work with our healthcare professionals to make sure we’re where we should be (when we get there) and we shouldn’t measure our success based on societal expectations.
Now that I’ve written this piece and am thinking about weight loss and health as a design challenge I am considering writing more. The next time I’ll outline detail of the system that I designed and talk about how I measure and analyze how I’m doing as well as the issues I’ve encountered on my journey thus far.