|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Like many Americans who’ve made resolutions for 2012, I made these very same New Year’s promises about this time last year.
Which, it turns out, is great for business. Our collective failure to keep our resolutions represents an annuity of sorts for health clubs, weight-loss centers and other enterprises that make up what you might call the self-improvement industry. It’s an industry that thrives on our failure to change: recidivism is good for the bottom line
Americans spend many tens of billions every year in the hope of keeping resolutions to lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, fix their finances, organize their closets — on and on. Last year, we spent $62 billion on health club memberships, weight-loss programs, exercise tapes, diet soda and the like, according to projections from Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm.
We start with good intentions. Memberships for health clubs and weight-loss programs spike each January, says John LaRosa, the president of Marketdata. But by March, the lines thin at the treadmills and many dieters relapse. So the next year, we try — and pay up — again.
“If I try one quick fix and it doesn’t work, I may be more likely to try the next quick fix,” says Lisa Lahey, the co-founder of Minds at Work, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., which coaches executives and educators in sustained behavior change.
Supposed easy remedies like celebrity diets hold a powerful allure, but they rarely work in the long term, she says. After all, it’s hard for people to shake the underlying conditions — like stress or anxiety — that cause unwanted habits. If exercise tapes, dietetic meals, nicotine lozenges and personal finance apps worked by themselves, we’d all be fit, thin, smoke-free and rich.
The hard work of changing a lifestyle isn’t as alluring as dropping 30 pounds in 30 days. But some stop-smoking and weight-loss programs, as well as gyms, are trying to help for the long haul, a strategy that can improve customers’ chances of success and, for companies like Weight Watchers International, build brand loyalty and revenue.
JANUARY is the most important month of the year in the health club industry. At many gyms, new memberships double. Given that about a third of all members tend to turn over every year, the resolution crowd is crucial.
“The resolutioners always pop up,” says Scott Hamann, an analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets covering the fitness industry.
But you probably know what happens next. Only a fraction of members work out twice a week or more, despite all those monthly dues. Health clubs in the United States had more than 50 million members and revenue of $20.3 billion in 2010, according to the latest data from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group. But clubs reported that members typically visit only 54 times, or slightly more than once a week.
For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.
Janice Bridge, a registry member who has successfully maintained a 135-pound weight loss for about five years, is a perfect example. “It’s one of the hardest things there is,” she says. “It’s something that has to be focused on every minute. I’m not always thinking about food, but I am always aware of food.”
Bridge, who is 66 and lives in Davis, Calif., was overweight as a child and remembers going on her first diet of 1,400 calories a day at 14. At the time, her slow pace of weight loss prompted her doctor to accuse her of cheating. Friends told her she must not be paying attention to what she was eating. “No one would believe me that I was doing everything I was told,” she says. “You can imagine how tremendously depressing it was and what a feeling of rebellion and anger was building up.”
After peaking at 330 pounds in 2004, she tried again to lose weight. She managed to drop 30 pounds, but then her weight loss stalled. In 2006, at age 60, she joined a medically supervised weight-loss program with her husband, Adam, who weighed 310 pounds. After nine months on an 800-calorie diet, she slimmed down to 165 pounds. Adam lost about 110 pounds and now weighs about 200.
During the first years after her weight loss, Bridge tried to test the limits of how much she could eat. She used exercise to justify eating more. The death of her mother in 2009 consumed her attention; she lost focus and slowly regained 30 pounds. She has decided to try to maintain this higher weight of 195, which is still 135 pounds fewer than her heaviest weight.
“It doesn’t take a lot of variance from my current maintenance for me to pop on another two or three pounds,” she says. “It’s been a real struggle to stay at this weight, but it’s worth it, it’s good for me, it makes me feel better. But my body would put on weight almost instantaneously if I ever let up.”
So she never lets up. Since October 2006 she has weighed herself every morning and recorded the result in a weight diary. She even carries a scale with her when she travels. In the past six years, she made only one exception to this routine: a two-week, no-weigh vacation in Hawaii.
She also weighs everything in the kitchen. She knows that lettuce is about 5 calories a cup, while flour is about 400. If she goes out to dinner, she conducts a Web search first to look at the menu and calculate calories to help her decide what to order. She avoids anything with sugar or white flour, which she calls her “gateway drugs” for cravings and overeating. She has also found that drinking copious amounts of water seems to help; she carries a 20-ounce water bottle and fills it five times a day. She writes down everything she eats. At night, she transfers all the information to an electronic record. Adam also keeps track but prefers to keep his record with pencil and paper.
“That transfer process is really important; it’s my accountability,” she says. “It comes up with the total number of calories I’ve eaten today and the amount of protein. I do a little bit of self-analysis every night.”
Scientists are still learning why a weight-reduced body behaves so differently from a similar-size body that has not dieted. Muscle biopsies taken before, during and after weight loss show that once a person drops weight, their muscle fibers undergo a transformation, making them more like highly efficient “slow twitch” muscle fibers. A result is that after losing weight, your muscles burn 20 to 25 percent fewer calories during everyday activity and moderate aerobic exercise than those of a person who is naturally at the same weight. That means a dieter who thinks she is burning 200 calories during a brisk half-hour walk is probably using closer to 150 to 160 calories.