Is There a Shortcut to Weight Loss?

How your shortcut might end up the longest road to your health and fitness goals

Man thinking of decision in front of forked path
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Many of us approach exercise with unrealistic expectations of how much we have to do and what we'll get out of it. When we realize things aren't going the way we'd like, we often give up or try a shortcut. Maybe a fad diet, a pill or a gadget to finally get you where you want to go. With all the choices out there, it's easy to believe there's something out there that will make this weight loss thing easier, isn't it? Unfortunately, the shortcut to weight loss may end up taking you the long way around.

The Shortcut to Weight Loss

What's the fastest way to lose weight? Ask that question and you'll probably get a variety of answers, depending on who you ask. A fitness expert, like myself, would say there really is no safe way to lose weight really quickly unless you're under a doctor's care.

Ask your friend or co-worker and he might say you should skip a few meals and start exercising your tail off. Someone else might say to starve yourself or go on a liquid diet, maybe take some diet pills. Whatever the answer, most would probably fall under the category of shortcuts or, in my definition, a method of weight loss that isn't sustainable long-term. Some typical shortcuts could include:

  • Diet pills, fat burning supplements, laxatives
  • Fad diets or very low calorie diets
  • Skipping meals or not eating at all
  • Questionable fitness gadgets or programs that offer amazing results for very little work (e.g., 6-minute workouts or ab machines, etc.)

Most of us have probably tried at least one thing from that list in an effort to lose that stubborn fat. But what happens when you follow a shortcut? You lose weight, go off the diet or start eating again and end up gaining even more weight. So, while shortcuts aren't always bad or dangerous, if you keep trying them again and again you might actually end up worse off than you started — several pounds heavier and a few weeks or months gone that you can't ever get back.

Two Roads to Weight Loss

In my experience, there are two roads to weight loss: There's the shortcut road which involves things like pills, diets, infomercial gadgets, etc. and then there's the long road, which usually involves lifestyle changes such as more exercise and a healthier diet. I'm convinced that most people already know the best road to take. We know the long road works…just look at The National Weight Control Registry, which has studied long-term weight loss for over 5,000 people. All of these people found the secrets to successful weight loss and none of those things included a pill or a specific diet.

Despite the fact that we know these shortcuts probably won't work, we're still compelled to try them…maybe because the alternative doesn't offer quite as many dramatic results. Think about it. Making lifestyle changes is a hard, slow process. There's no dramatic weight loss, no big changes that make us feel like we're accomplishing something…just small, day-to-day changes that when taken together over a period of time add up to a better life.

So, which path do you choose when it comes to getting healthy and losing weight? Taking a look at these different approaches may help you learn a little more about yourself and nudge you in the right direction.

Shortcut = Drama and Excitement

Shortcuts are exciting, aren't they? They offer big, sweeping changes that, of course, lead to big sweeping results. We like seeing instant results, don't we? It's kind of fun (at least at first) to totally change your life in a day. It makes you feel like you're really doing something whereas just changing one or two things (as in lifestyle changes) doesn't feel like much is being accomplished. The weight loss is usually dramatic and exciting as well since most diets end up cutting your calories much lower than what you've been eating. Another thing about shortcuts like diets or skipping meals is that you often feel hungry much of the time. For many of us, going hungry almost seems like a goal in and of itself after years of believing that eating is just wrong.

The downside?

So, what do you have to look forward to with this approach? Most likely, fast weight loss and a temporary feeling of accomplishment. Know what else you have to look forward to? Gaining it back.

Here's something that might make you feel better: Diets don't work. Dr. Len Kravitz, a renowned exercise expert, evaluated nine data-based research studies to find out what happens to our bodies when we diet. Here's what he found:

  • In women who dieted, BMR was lowered up to 20%, even more in very low-calorie diets
  • There was an average weight gain of 0-5 kg (0-11 lbs)
  • The women in these studies experienced a rebound effect after going off the diets, gaining much of the weight back

Lifestyle Change = Moderation

Moderation. Even the word sounds boring, doesn't it? It certainly doesn't have the sparkly excitement of a shortcut…there are no big changes to make and no big results to look forward to. The thing about healthy living is that it's all about balance. You don't give in to every indulgence or even give up every indulgence, you simply plan better and try to make healthy choices most of the time. That doesn't sound so bad…so why don't we do it?

The downside?

Three words: Slow weight loss. The thing about lifestyle change is that it's more about feeling better than looking better. If you make small changes, it may take weeks, months or even years to see significant changes and that's not very exciting, is it? Ugh. Just watch the scale not move over a period of weeks as you start a moderate exercise program and make some small changes in your diet. With this approach, it may feel like nothing is happening, even though there are changes taking place. You're creating healthy habits, generating more energy, sleeping better and feeling a sense of satisfaction at all these good changes. For some people, those changes aren't even on the radar because weight loss has taken center stage, though there are tons of health benefits of exercise.

Shortcuts = Absolute Answers

I'm convinced that one thing we love about following diets or other shortcuts is that there's no guesswork. Some nice person has figured out exactly what we need to eat every day or exactly what exercise we should be doing. Isn't it nice not to have to figure it out for ourselves?

The downside?

The problem, of course, is that these programs are designed for the masses and won't always fit your individual needs. What if the exercise program you're following involves equipment you don't have or workouts that are too hard or too easy? What if you're following a diet that's loaded with foods you hate? Or requires more cooking and grocery shopping than you have time for? Almost every diet will have at least one (and likely more) aspect that just won't work with how you live, eat and shop.

The Lifestyle Change = No Easy Answers

A person making lifestyle changes won't find any absolute answers. Instead, he has to find the answers himself by trying different things. How else will he figure out what he likes and what fits with his goals and schedule? Even more important is the ability to recognize when what you're doing isn't working and you need to try something else.

The downside?

It's hard to give yourself permission to take time to learn something, especially when you want results right now. It may take time to figure out what you like, what you're good at and what will work with your schedule. Many of us are so impatient to reach our goals, we don't want to waste the time it would take to try different things…what if it doesn't work? When you're making lifestyle changes, you're often on your own. Sure you can read books and magazines, get advice from friends or experts about what to do. But, in the end, you're the one who has to figure how to change your eating and how to move your body. You have to trust yourself and that's something many of us don't feel comfortable doing when it comes to health and fitness.

Shortcut = An Excuse to Quit

Another reason some of us like shortcuts is that they give us an excuse to keep living the way we want. Most shortcuts are impossible to follow forever so when you finally quit or give up, it's almost like permission to back to that unhealthy lifestyle. After all, you obviously can't be trusted to follow this great diet…there must be something wrong with you, so why bother?

The downside?

It's not you, it's the shortcut. If you can't follow something because it's too strict, too hard, too complicated or too something, you're better off taking what does work and discarding the rest. That means, of course, that you can't go back to the way you were living before, but that you have to keep working and changing. It may seem easier just to follow the same old habits we've always had rather than dredge up the vigilance, commitment, and energy needed to make changes.

Lifestyle Change = No End in Sight

A diet often has an end. Lifestyle changes are forever. You don't just make healthy choices until you lose weight…you keep making them for the rest of your life, which means choosing changes that you can imagine yourself adhering to for the long-term. That's why lifestyle changes are small - getting rid of a Coke here and a donut there, getting an extra walk in or turning off the TV one night a week. Making small changes feels less like sacrificing what we enjoy because we're not giving anything up, we're just making room for other, healthier choices.

The downside?

Obviously, knowing you have to continue to choose healthy things every day, forever can sound like a real bummer. But, it's kind of like brushing your teeth…you have to keep doing it every day for it to work. And the good thing about lifestyle change is that you can plan your indulgences so you can have some fun without feeling a lot of guilt.

Shortcut = Living in Fantasy Land

With diets or other shortcuts, you don't really have to think about how you look or feel now because you're always working towards this future, better self. As soon as you fit into those jeans or get those love handles gone, then you'll finally be happy. As a result, you can ignore how you really are right now and, I don't know about you, but denial is a great way to avoid a reality I may not like.

The downside?

It might be fun thinking about this future beautiful you, but living for some future day that may never come can put a real damper on how much fun you're having right now. Regardless of the person you potentially become, you're still you right now and that isn't going to least not any time soon. Wouldn't life be more enjoyable if you could find a way to accept who you are right now, flaws and all? That's what you work on when you follow lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle Change = Being Present

Another thing about lifestyle change is this: It requires a certain amount of acceptance for where you are right now, regardless of where that is. It means facing yourself, really facing where you are right now, the good and the bad, and finding some way to live with yourself even as you're making improvements. If you're overweight, that means you may need to buy some clothes that are flattering to you now, even though you plan on losing weight in the future. It means focusing on the whole you, not just the parts you don't like. Don't wait to get a new outfit or cut your hair or ask someone on a doing those things now, you're doing that thing we call living and it's okay to live life, even if you're not the 'perfect' size.

The downside?

Obviously, facing ourselves in the mirror every day can be tough, especially if we only see the flaws. Being present means accepting reality instead of focusing on a future, better you. Believing that you're good enough now, exactly as you are, is hard and it takes some work to overcome those negative thoughts. It often seems easier to follow the same old cycle of thinking because, if we let go of that fantasy self, what will we have left?

Is It Really a Shortcut?

In weight loss as in other areas of life, shortcuts almost always end up adding even more distance between you and your goal. Think of the hiker who, exhausted, looks up at the mountain and thinks, why am I wasting all my time on these switchbacks when I could just go straight up and get there faster? Now, think of that same hiker, halfway up the mountain only to realize that the trail is nowhere to be found and the peak is unreachable by the path he's chosen. How much time will he spend backtracking and starting all over? Or maybe he's so lost, he can't find the trail now and will have to sit and wait for someone to find him. Or, maybe he won't even make it to the top now because it's getting dark.

So, how much time do you waste on diets that don't work? Or exercise programs that are so hard, you burn out after a couple of months? What would it cost you to slow down and take your time with this process? How far would you get if you made small diet changes each day, added a little moderate exercise to your life? Would your weight loss be slow? No doubt about it. Anyone who has successfully lost weight (without surgery) and maintained that weight loss will probably tell you that it took them years to get to where they are now. Are you willing to give yourself — your body, your health and your quality of life — that time?

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