Behavioral Steps Towards Permanent Weight Loss and Lifestyle Change: Insight to Action

by Alan Wayler

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Behavioral Stages of Change | A Model for Weight & Lifestyle ChangePermanent change is gradual change. At Green Mountain we’ve been saying for almost three decades that “one brownie never made anyone fat.” Part of what we mean is that strict avoidance of specific foods and rigidity are roadblocks, not milestones on the path to success. Permanent lifestyle change is a flexible, ongoing process that involves body, mind and spirit. It is a matter of responsible choices and long term effort. Achieving it means not only a healthier, fitter body but an inner strength that makes it last.

Change Comes in Stages

In their book Changing for Good, based on a groundbreaking study on the dynamics of permanent lifestyle change, psychologists James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo Diclemente discovered that successful changers went through six predictable stages in the course of permanently altering problem behavior. (They studied people who wanted to change eating, smoking, drinking or money spending patterns.) Each stage was important in determining a successful outcome. Skipping a stage negatively affected success rates.

The first stage is resistance or pre-contemplation. You may be aware that your behaviors are not supporting your health, but you refuse to even think about doing anything to change. You make excuses like: “I don’t have time to exercise” or “Eating well is too difficult, time-consuming and expensive” or “If I want to eat healthy, I have to eliminate sugar. Once I eat it, I’m out of control.”

Eventually your discomfort leads to the second stage – contemplation. Here you begin to accept the problem and start thinking how to solve it, but are not yet ready to act. You think about your behavior, and it no longer satisfies the way it once did. This is an important period and one that is often overlooked as part of the process.

The third stage involves the decision to change and active preparation for doing so– creating a climate where positive change can occur. Only after the first three phases are you ready for sustained action. While the action stage is the only phase most people think about or notice, it is far from the entire story. Research shows that most successful changers have spent a considerable amount of time in the first three phases and trying to skip or minimize these first phases can seriously affect ultimate success. Timing is everything.

Action is the Middle Stage

Action involves doing it! You go to Green Mountain, you join a gym or commit to walking daily with a friend, you decide to start feeding yourself regular, balanced meals and begin doing it. You succeed some, and you slip a bit, but you stick to it through thick and thin and remain undaunted by the inevitable relapses that are part of the process.

Sustained action segues into what the researchers call maintenance. The action and maintenance stages can last for months, even years, but eventually culminate in a real integration of the new behavior referred to as the termination stage.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Termination is the light at the end of the tunnel. You know you are there when you’ve gone beyond behavior modification to an inner paradigm shift. No matter how angry, depressed, stressed or happy you are, the old behavior no longer seems attractive. You have found new ways to cope. You relate differently to yourself and to the world around you and know in the deepest part of yourself that you don’t want the “comfort” that your former behavior gave.

An important by-product of this phase is increased confidence and self-esteem. You find yourself rethinking other areas of your life, making better decisions and just enjoying yourself more. This kind of deep-seated internal change cannot be rushed and there are no shortcuts, but it is possible. There is no timetable. Some people never get there, others make it in a matter of months, but the average, according to the study, was about a year.

What This Means for You

If you are resisting change or contemplating it but not ready to act, give yourself a break. Pat yourself on the back and put yourself around people, places and things that affect you positively. If you are unhappy with yourself and your eating and exercise patterns, think about coming to Green Mountain for a week-either for a first-time experience or a refresher package. Getting away from your daily grind and putting yourself into a safe supportive atmosphere with people who understand can be the catalyst that puts you at last on the track to permanent, long-lasting change and the life you really want.

If you’d like to learn more about the dynamics of change, get a copy of Changing for Good by James O. Prochaska, PhD, John C. Norcross, PhD, and Carlo C. Diclemente, PhD.

Gauging Your State of Change

Here’s an example of the different stages of change a person might go through as she begins to work towards managing health and weight without dieting, according to the new book Staying off the Diet Roller Coaster.

Classic model of change Behavior
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
I’m not even thinking about changing my behavior or thinking. Continues to diet
Stage 2: Contemplation
I’m not doing anything differently but I’m seriously considering making some changes in the next six months. Frustrated and aware that dieting doesn’t work
Stage 3: Preparation
I’m not doing anything different but I plan to in the next 30 days, and I’ve tried over the past year. Find out about alternatives, educate yourself.
Stage 4: Action
I’m doing some things differently but this is new for me, only over the past six months. Buy resources to help you get off the diet roller coaster; perhaps take a program.
Stage 5: Maintenance
I’ve changed my behavior and have maintained that change for more than six months. After the book, after the program, a lifestyle without diets won’t work without support. Get support.
Relapse
I’m having trouble maintaining changes and feel I’m slipping into old patterns. Although discouraging, relapse is a normal aspect of change. Most people cycle through stages several times before experiencing maintenance. It’s spring. You went back on another diet. You’re feeling discouraged – don’t be! It’s quite normal to go back to old patterns, especially when you are trying to make a change for the first time. Find out what motivated you to go back once more. Look again at why you decided to stop dieting and reclaim your nondiet attitude. Move to whichever phase will put you back on track.
 Stage 6: Termination
Your old behavior no longer appeals; you’ve changed your way of thinking. You’re no longer a dieter. When you feel the need to improve your eating habits, you tune into your body and let it guide you.

Adapted from Staying Off the Diet Roller Coaster, Linda Omichinski, RD. 

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