I know how he did it. I know how everyone, barring surgical removal of a giant cyst or a limb, loses weight.
They sustain a caloric deficit.
There are many paths to achieving such a deficit. Some are better than others. But in the end, it all boils down to that deficit.
But “How” people lose weight is not the right question.
The right question is: “Why?”
And by asking that question we begin to understand one of the most fascinating phenomenons behind major lifestyle change. With Chuck, the “why” involved getting hit in the head with a baseball bat.
It all began in 2008 in a Bourbon Street pub in New Orleans called the Boondock Saint. A strange man sat at the end of the bar who Chuck ended up talking to for a time. Long story short, the man said something to Chuck, who at the time weighed over 400 pounds, about seeing fear in his eyes. Taken aback, it abruptly ended the conversation.
But the wheels were set in motion. Three months later, Chuck Gross would be dead.
“It’s obvious what he was talking about,” Chuck told me. “During those three months the conversation was eating away both subconsciously and consciously. A lot of the things that you bury when you’re that heavy you ignore because they’re constant: the back pain, the aching feet, always being out of breath … Before, they were facts of life, but after that meeting I became more aware of them.”
The Gap Between Thinking and Doing
In Hamlet’s Act 3, Scene 1 soliloquy the Danish prince contemplates his future, wondering if he should “Take Arms against a Sea of troubles. And by opposing end them.”
“To be, or not to be.” It’s thinking vs. doing, which in the transtheoretical model (TTM) of behavior change is referred to as the “contemplation” stage. TTM is one of the most studied lifestyle transformation models ever created. Since its initial development in the 1970s it has been analyzed from myriad angles, with research funding that totals over $80 million using over 150,000 participants.
There are five stages to TTM:
- Precontemplation – Not even thinking about changing.
- Contemplation – Thinking about changing behavior, but not ready to act.
- Preparation – Getting ducks in a row in order to make changes.
- Action – A challenging time when fragile habits are being formed.
- Maintenance – Habits are more ingrained and the new behavior becomes sticky.
But I don’t want to look at all that. For this article, we are only looking at the gap; the single and critical moment that divides one’s life into before and after, where the decision is made to take arms against your sea of troubles. With TTM it happens between Stage 2 and Stage 3. If it is a powerful enough moment, you’ll not have to worry about relapse, and getting the new behaviors to stick will be that much easier.
Preparation is a form of doing, a form of action. It is a giant leap forward towards your new life that happens in an instant. It requires bravery and force to leap this chasm. When it comes to dramatic lifestyle change it can be far less about what you do after you leap – how you lose weight – than why you leapt in the first place.
James Prochaska, a psychology professor and director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, developed TTM along with his colleagues. I had a conversation with Prochaska to discuss some of the stories I’d heard regarding making this leap, and to examine how it all applies to weight loss.
The Decisional Balance Sheet
“Reaching a tipping point to move towards action involves a change of focus,” said Prochaska. “One goes from the balance favoring the ‘cons’ of adopting a new behavior to giving more weight to the ‘pros.’”
But it’s not just a 51-49 tipping of the balance sheet.
“A person is going to be a lot better prepared to stick with the new behavior if the pros significantly outweigh the cons,” Professor Prochaska told me. “If the pros only slightly tip the balance when a person starts down the path to losing weight, she will still be profoundly experiencing those cons. Her balance teeters around ambivalence; she is more inclined to give up.”
In 2010 Jennifer Di Noia, a professor of sociology at William Patterson University in New Jersey, worked with Prochaska on a meta-analysis of 27 different studies of how TTM was used to evaluate decisional balance; they were specifically looking at dietary changes to affect weight loss. Published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, they came to some fascinating conclusions. Specifically for implementing dietary changes, the pros have to outweigh the cons by almost a two-to-one ratio to be truly effective!
This stresses the importance of the great leap forward to cross that decisional chasm. Again, it’s not just tipping gently past the halfway point.
“Pros and cons of decision making is not a conscious, rational, empirical process,” Professor Prochaska said. “It is very emotionally based.”
What can make you passionate about a new direction? What can give you the drive to change? “A dramatic event can certainly cause someone to reevaluate the pros and cons,” Prochaska said.
Chuck had a dramatic event. That’s what killed him.
For three months Chuck became more aware of the dilemma of his weight, but he was still only barely contemplating what to do. Then it happened.
“My wife Denise came out of the bathroom with a positive pregnancy test,” Chuck said. He explained that this was not something that was planned for. They’d talked about having children, but it was always for the future, when he was healthier and had lost some weight.
“The lightning bolt was instantaneous,” he said. “It first hit me with overwhelming joy that I was going to be a father, but then I also knew with absolute clarity that I had to do something about my condition. It was like someone hit me in the back of the head with a baseball bat, full swing.”
The bat to Chuck’s skull was what ended his life, metaphorically speaking.
“I tell people I died that day. The old Chuck is dead. I killed him.”
The dawning realization that Chuck had to change happened in an instant, where he knew he had to become not just the father his child needed, but the husband his wife deserved. But Chuck didn’t stop thinking there. The powerful “A-ha!” moment brought additional clarity to who he was, and how that needed to change.
“I realized that a big part of my identity was wrapped up in me being fat,” he told me. The emotion of the moment was clear because years later he still struggled to tell his tale. Voice thick, Chuck continued. “I was always the fat kid growing up. People made fun of me for it. My identity was that of the funny fat guy; the guy girls wanted as a friend, but never to date. People knew me for being able to eat and drink a lot, and that was it.”
Chuck described hating exercise, he hated watching what he ate, hating trying to lose weight and failing. “Before, I never felt like I’d be able to change.” But this time was different. That lightning strike / baseball bat to the head doesn’t come from a considered weighing of the pros and cons, it’s an overwhelming sensation where your emotional self resoundingly proclaims, Dear Life: We Must Do This.
“That old identity was an anchor and he needed to die for me to move forward. That was the defining moment where my life divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ The person I am now was born that day.” From ashes gray, a phoenix arose.
“There was an overwhelming sense of joy and relief,” he said. “I didn’t need to struggle with my motivation; it came built in. I had a sense of inner peace and there was no question I would do it. There were still struggles to overcome, but I had this momentum that began that day, and it pushed me forward.”
That sense of joy and relief? There is science to it.
It’s a parameter of the transtheoretical model called “dramatic relief” that can take place when one moves from the contemplation stage and into the planning stage, from thinking to doing, because you anticipate relief from your problems because you know you’re ready to work for their resolution.
It is important to note that the transtheoretical model of behavior change is not without its critics. We don’t always go through rational, linear stages towards change. Sometimes it is a highly chaotic process involving major shifts in an instant. Chuck went from barely contemplative to beyond action into full-blow maintenance in an instant because he achieved what can be called an epiphany. Lightning struck with an “A-ha!” moment where motivation to succeed comes built in.
It’s the why of losing weight that provides the energy to succeed. And as research shows, perhaps Nike was right. Perhaps rather than methodical change, it’s important to just do it. For some people the greatest success with weight loss is made by taking …
A Quantum Leap in Motivation
This is not your Deepak Chopra version of quantum. My friend Robert J. Sawyer, a Hugo-award winning science fiction author who also lost a third of his body weight via taking a quantum leap in his motivation, explained it to me, with a weight loss twist.
“Most things in life go along in an analog wave; they go up and they go down and they change gradually and continuously. People will say: ‘Today, I want to lose weight.’ But then tomorrow they feel blah about the idea. Then the next day they once again feel they have to do it because ‘My God the high school reunion is coming up!’ It’s an ongoing undulation of motivation that has a wave-like quality.”
With quantum cognition, however, there is no wave.
“Quantum is not analog,” he said. “It’s not wave-like. It’s digital. It’s either on or off. It’s either this or that.”
This or that. These are words I’ve heard before in speaking with those who’ve had a life-changing epiphany. One is Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, who after a struggle with alcohol, suddenly and totally quit drinking at the age of 29. “It was very black or white,” Phil told me of quitting. “I knew I had to go this way or that way.”
“We talk about the quantum leap of an electron, going from a lower energy state to a higher state,” Rob said. “It doesn’t mean that the electron travels to that higher state the way a mountaineer ascends Everest. It’s not step-by-step. It means the electron has gone instantaneously from the base of the mountain to the peak of the mountain, bypassing all the intermediate steps.” Beam me up, Scotty. “That’s a quantum change.”
And it happens. There are people who just one day instantly and irrevocably decide Enough of this bullshit.
The Ground Shifts
“This is about exponential change.”
Ken Resnicow is a professor of health behavior at the University of Michigan who has published a number of papers on the phenomenon of quantum behavior change.
“Using their terms (from Prochaska’s TTM),” Resnicow said, “one can jump from precontemplator into action at a moment’s notice.” Not just that, but dedicated action. In TTM the “action” stage is tenuous. They’re struggling to adopt the new behavior in order to achieve “maintenance.” But with this type of epiphany there is no struggle; it is not a tenuous adoption.
And while Chuck Gross, who in addition to his full-time work as a programmer now helps others with their weight loss journeys, had been doing some minimal contemplating because of his encounter in an Irish pub in New Orleans, he didn’t slowly slide over into laborious action as a result of his epiphany, but rather was fully dedicated and in “maintenance” in an instant.
“It isn’t about struggling,” said William Miller, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico who is known as the co-creator of the behavior change model called motivational interviewing. Professor Miller has been treating addictions for 40 years, and he told me, “With overcoming addiction, some people are often white knuckle holding on to not go back to their previous situation.” But he explained that it’s different for others – for the ones who experience an epiphany – because they just decide they’ve had enough.
“The typical epiphanies are, ‘Oh, shit! I don’t want to be this person anymore!’” said Ken Resnicow. “It’s an overwhelming sense that the ground has shifted beneath you and it’s not going to go back. There has been a tectonic plate movement in how you view your identity and your behavior, and they’re no longer compatible.”
That’s what happened to Chuck, and why his old self needed to die.
It’s hard to describe an epiphany as an “approach” to behavior change, since we don’t know much about what causes them – they mostly just happen. However, when they do happen, they’re usually more effective than the rational, linear approach to behavior change that rules modern psychology.
Although not weight loss relation, it is interesting that a 2009 study of 900 smokers and 800 ex-smokers published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research found that those who spontaneously quit smoking were almost twice as likely to still not be smoking after six months than those who chose a carefully planned quitting attempt. It’s also interesting that the spontaneous quitters were less reliant upon pharmacotherapy to quit.
Way Beyond Weight Loss
An important thing to consider with a quantum cognitive event is that it’s not often “OMG I have to lose weight!” Rather, the person changes at a fundamental level, and this change gives them the power they finally need to apply to weight loss.
And to do other things.
Chuck went back to school after losing weight to finish his degree and was a straight-A student. He also gained confidence in his interpersonal dealings. I had an epiphany at the age of 23 that had nothing to do with weight loss, but it sure came in handy two years later when I suddenly decided to lose weight.
“For most people, it wasn’t about changing a particular behavior,” William Miller said. Instead, it was about a shift in values. From his paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology: “A common response, when we asked people what had changed, was ‘everything.’” It was often a release from negative thinking and even depression, being replaced with a sense of “well being, safety and joy in living, and peacefulness that endured decades later.”
In my business you meet a lot of people who have lost weight and kept it off; the ones who have bucked the trend of weight loss failure. They are the outliers.
For few, it seems, it was a linear process. The ones who went through the big change, the ones who lost considerable weight, going through a significant transformation not just of body, but of mind, had a life-changing moment.
Those I’ve spoken to tell a tale that lacks any doubt. When the decision was made to change, that was it. Except it wasn’t just a decision, it was a heightened sense of understanding one’s purpose. Losing weight was often just a byproduct of such newfound purpose.
But how does one increase the likelihood of making the epiphany lightning strike?
“That,” said Ken Resnicow, “is the $64,000 question.”
When professor William Miller began his research into quantum change the goal was to determine if it was even a real phenomenon. His opinion? “Having done the study, I have no question that it is a real phenomenon. This is something that happens in real life. It’s not even that uncommon.” Miller said it could be as much as a third of the population who experience such an event.
And it’s not always something dramatic that causes it. Miller told me of one man who achieved a life changing epiphany while walking across his living room, and of a women who had her “A-ha!” moment while cleaning a toilet.
I had an epiphany while cleaning a toilet once. I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to teach a young boy how to aim.
The phenomenon of a life-changing moment, from a psychological research perspective, is not yet in it’s infancy. Let me channel the pseudoscience conspiracy crowd for a moment: It’s all a plot by Big Psychology! It’s something THEY don’t want you to know about!”
But Ken Resnicow doesn’t see that linear and quantum models of behavior change need to be at odds. In 2008 he had an article published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at how we normally see behavior change – as a rational, reductionist model that is proportional (small inputs = small outputs) – and how real life is often a chaotic process that is unpredictable. In it, Resnicow examined how life transformation can also arrive “beyond cognition,” and that’s it is necessary for the psychological community to take a more serious look at integrating a “complex systems” approach to public health with the current, more linear model of behavior change.
But I understand the resistance. It’s not like a psychologist can say, “Go have a life-changing epiphany and you’ll be fine.”
Can you stack the deck? Can you make epiphany happen? Can rational and chaotic processes work in concert to not only help you lose weight, but perhaps change many other aspects of your life for the better?
William Miller wasn’t that hopeful that an epiphany was something that could be generated, but Ken Resnicow definitely was. He felt there are actions a person can take in order to increase the likelihood that the switch gets flipped in a profound way so the quantum behavioral leap takes place. And Ken isn’t the only person who thinks this way.
Part of the approach involves introducing some chaos into your life. Because when you change the initial conditions, the brain begins to fire in different ways, increasing the possibility that the “solution” will suddenly coalesce.
Resnicow stressed not stressing. If the actual epiphany is meant to happen, it will. And it can happen going through the regular, more linear and rational step-by-step process of changing one’s behavior. And just because you’ve had your life-changing moment doesn’t mean the work stops there. In fact, it means the real work has just begun.
For me, I struggled through a fitness regimen for almost five months – a truly chaotic process – when my weight loss epiphany finally hit. And it is in such a moment that a life suddenly changes.
It’s when your new lifestyle no longer feels like work, but instead overwhelms you with an undeniable sense of destiny.
My book Lose it Right is now available online. Get started by reading the Introduction here.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.