As 2018 begins, many of us make New Year's resolutions. According to studies, the most common of these promises is to lose weight. We start off, guns blazing. We promise ourselves that we'll never eat a whole pizza or coffeecake again. We promise to work out extra-hard to blast those unwanted pounds away— and as a result, gyms and health clubs enjoy a sharp spike in their membership enrollment this time of year.
We're gung-ho! For a while. Then January turns to February, and soon it's June, and it's time to put on shorts or a swimsuit, but, sadly, the pounds remain right where we left them. Maybe we melted off a few inches, or even a dress-size, in those early months, but they've returned. Summer turns to fall, fall to winter, and next year, we make the same resolutions. With the same results.
As a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist, for over 30 years, I've devoted my practice to helping patients learn how to get to their desired weight, and maintain them for a minimum of seven years on average. The reason that many health and fitness New Year's resolutions generally don't work is that most people don't realize that a profound, authentic learning experience is required. It starts with honesty and new habit formation.
By honesty, I mean being honest with yourself in consciously recognizing everything you eat and do on a detailed level, but also realizing that much of the language around food, eating, weight-loss, exercise and fitness has a negative, punitive sting. If you're feeling desperate, you may be attracted to the idea of punishment. Desperation is the root of many New Year's resolutions, but the cold sweat of this brutality only motivates us for a short time. Soon, we burn out and return to our soothing, comforting old patterns, where we perceive ourselves with shame.
But know this: feelings of reward and success are far more enduring as forms of behavioral nourishment. They are a complete meal will give you a steady burn of strength and energy for much longer than a few weeks. Basing your New Year's vision on reward and success will allow you to create habits that can last a lifetime.
To get your body to look and feel the way you want it to requires that you literally change your mind, and retrain your brain with a few new, almost unnoticeable changes in habit to get the weight off and keep it off. A more trim, sleek shape begins in your head—train your brain and your body will follow! Think of it like learning how to more efficiently swing a tennis racket or golf club. Making a few minor adjustments in your posture and the way you hold the racket or club can make a world of difference in your swing, which can last you a lifetime.
Remember, to create habits with staying-power, you need to design your own individual eating plan, based on your own authentic likes, dislikes and experiences. Someone else's rigid diet or fitness regimen probably won't work for you, although you can get useful information and inspiration from them.
Ways to make your New Year's Resolutions a greater success:
1. Count to 21.
Neurologists and other scientists agree: new habits are formed in our human central nervous system in 21 days, based on daily repetition of the new behavior. This includes, for instance, quitting tobacco. Generally, if you get through 21 days of the new practice, the new habit is pretty securely set. This means you have a good chance of maintaining the new behavior indefinitely, even when compensating for occasional setbacks.
2. Set yourself up for an immediate win.
Complete an emotionally neutral activity every day for 21 days to set up a new reward pattern. Don't make highly stressful, dramatic changes in lifestyle. I suggest that you set a daily goal for yourself that isn't painful to deal with. Do it consistently every day for 21 days to set up a pattern of winning, success and reward in your brain and body. Examples: Commit to flossing your teeth twice a day, every day for 21 days. Or, commit to drinking a big glass of water every morning, even before coffee, every morning. Draw a big heart on each calendar day where you keep your promise to yourself. Give yourself credit for consistency— neurologically speaking, you've created a new habit by Day 22.
3. Apply your attitude of success to how you deal with food.
Begin applying this pattern of reward to how you eat. Begin by honestly observing and recording what you eat, when and why you eat. The goal is to change the behaviors that cement unwanted pounds on your body. Observe yourself, and note what you observe. This will allow you to plan your eating, and respond to food in different ways, to allow you to shed weight and keep it off successfully.
4. Create an authentic pattern for success which is unique to you.
This world is full of reformers, and many of them take a rough, Marine Corps-style approach. In fact, the “boot camp" metaphor is applied widely to all sorts of training and learning. This “boot camp" style has a moralistic, even menacing tone at times.
I take a more nurturing approach. Just as every child learns to speak, read, write, play, interact and so on in her or his individual way, you will do best with your weight management if you create a pattern that is authentic to you. Don't allow yourself to bullied by what other people say is right.
Don't say that you will never eat chocolate again. If chocolate is important to you, build it into your new habit. Accept it. Also, if chocolate is one of your personal favorites, prepare a coping plan when you encounter the random chocolate birthday cake at the office. Surprise! Have a practiced response in place to deal with the unexpected.
5. Food is not the enemy. So enjoy it.
Food issues are often lumped into the same therapeutic conversations as alcohol, cigarettes and addictive drugs. Our bodies cannot function without food. The same cannot be said for those other substances. Part of creating your self-management plan is remembering that food is here to serve our bodies. There is no shame in biting into something that tastes delicious, thrills our senses, fills our bellies, nourishes us on a cellular level, and gives us the opportunity to socialize with other human beings. To achieve and maintain your best weight, you don't need to hate food. You need to create a good relationship with it.
6. Your body is not the enemy. So cherish it.
People who have a history of struggling with weight may have ambivalence about their bodies. Creating new habits of reward and success around food can be deeply helpful when we want to release negative body-feelings and move on. In addition to creating new patterns around eating, use your self-management practice as the opportunity to appreciate your most essential physical self. Treat your body to a massage as often as you can. Moisturize your feet, heels, elbows and other areas of your skin you may typically overlook. Instead of a quick shower, try a luxurious, medium-warm bath with an aromatherapy soak.
7. Keep learning and adapting your food and exercise plan.
Although I advocate planning, this world is filled with unexpected surprises. I honestly think that the unexpected—a sudden thunderstorm, even—keeps us alert, alive, and always opening to experience. Surprises expand our awareness. So we need to be agile and flexible in our self-management.
You cannot control the world, and in fact, I'm not so sure any of us would want to. But, we can control how we respond.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.