Did you know you can actually train your brain to lose weight? Yes, you can.
When it comes right down to it, the only reason we pursue anything is because of the reward system in our brain. If there’s no benefit, it won’t happen.
It’s as true when working for a paycheck as it is for eating warm chocolate chip cookies barely cooled from the oven!
Examples of rewards could be feeling satisfied, happy, fulfilled, in love.
They could also be receiving something you’ve been craving or just wanting, like a new dress.
The reward can also be something you want to avoid.
Perhaps you pursue looking for a job because you want to avoid not having any money to buy groceries.
Neuroscience explains this as a biochemical pattern where dopamine floods the brain’s reward center, causing us to pursue whatever it is we are driven to.
The reward system is one of the most important systems in the brain. It drives our behavior towards pleasurable stimuli such as food, sex, alcohol, etc. And it drives us away from painful ones (conflict, homework, etc) that require more energy or effort. It’s where we feel emotions and process those emotions to start or stop action. It consists of a group of brain structures at the core of the brain. They weigh up whether or not to repeat a behavior and form a habit. A reward is a stimulus that drives an appetite to alter behavior. Rewards typically serve as reinforcers. That is, they make us repeat behaviors that we perceive (unconsciously) as good for our survival, even when they’re not. Pleasure is a better reward or stimulus than pain for motivating behavior. A carrot is better than a stick etc.
Without this reward center, we pretty much wouldn’t do anything. And we’d perish.
But we do have it, so we desire and strive for things, even if it’s just sitting on the couch eating bonbons.
Weight Loss and Your Brain’s Reward Center
Here’s the thing. You want to lose weight and get fit, right? Especially since you’re over 50…you’ve been trying for a while.
And you know what to do to get there (well, I mean, you know the recipe…eat less, exercise more).
And, other things being equal, being fitter and more healthy overall would presumably benefit humans more than being overweight and unfit.
So why don’t you do it? After all, as human beings, we only do things that give us some sort of payoff or reward.
If you consistently sabotage your weight loss and exercise efforts, doesn’t it follow that at some level you’re getting something you want?
What the hell? Why would I WANT to have these fat thighs, this roll of fat around my stomach, and flap-in-the-breeze arms? Of COURSE I want to lose weight!
Well, then, here we are again.
Do you really? Or on some level, are you more comfortable staying as you are? This could be because of:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success (it’s a thing)
It sounds kind of crazy, but think about it. Your entire identity may be wrapped up in the process of going on a diet, being really good for a while, having some success, and then falling off the wagon.
You’re always striving for that elusive body you’ve always wanted, but never quite getting there. It’s comfortable, and it gives you something to work toward.
Maybe because you are afraid to work toward the thing you REALLY want, whatever that may be.
Protection & Familiarity
These are really two sides of the same coin.
If you want to lose weight and get fit, how would sabotaging this process “protect” you?
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, your brain thinks almost anything new and different is dangerous.
Who knows, maybe a saber-toothed tiger 🐅 is lurking outside the cave door.
Fact is, though, your brain likes things to stay more or less the same because, well, it’s familiar, and because less energy needs to be expended.
And that’s what your brain is all about–expending the least amount of energy necessary to keep you alive and procreating.
Yeah, I know most of you reading are no longer procreating, but you get what I’m saying, right?
Familiarity: Keeping Up Is Exhausting
Let’s say you have a goal to lose 20 pounds. You fantasize about how awesome it’s going to be, how great you’ll look in your new clothes, etc.
And then let’s say you actually DO lose the 20 pounds! You’ve white-knuckled through and finally met your goal.
What are you going to do next? How will you reward yourself?
Will you go out to drinks and chips after work? Or finally eat all those treats you have been giving up over the last few months?
In other words, will you go back to doing the things you are familiar with?
Yes, most likely you will. Because, see above where I said your brain likes things to stay the same. Familiar. Not scary and challenging.
The likelihood you’ll keep up with all the new rules and avoidance of food you crave is slim (no pun intended).
Fear of Failure
Fear of failure with respect to weight loss is extremely common, especially for us over-50 gals. Most of us have dieted so many times we lost count decades ago.
And if we’re still dieting, we must’ve failed before, right?
Oh, sure, maybe you actually LOST WEIGHT. But eventually you gained it all back. Maybe more.
Now perhaps you’re just sick and tired of failing again, so you short-circuit the process real quick-like and just “fail” after a couple of days.
Then your smart little brain can say, “See? I told you we’d fail. Stop even trying, you dummy.”
The truth is, it’s just easier to quit early than risk failing. We can crawl back into our it doesn’t really matter excuses, or I’m too tired to exercise, or planning my food or shopping or cooking just takes too much time.
But I’m here to tell you, that your feelings of failure or fear will come roaring back again.
Fear loves to disguise itself as protection. But it isn’t really protecting anything. It’s keeping you from your dreams.
As George Addair so eloquently said:
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”
I have to remind myself of this always. ALWAYS. I have let fear stop me too many times in my life, and dammit, I’m through with that.
I took a big, BIG chance more than 10 years ago, and I was so scared I didn’t think I could go through with it.
But despite big ups and equally giant downs, I am so glad I took the chance. I would never change anything that has transpired in the past baker’s dozen years, despite some of the most difficult times of my life.
But everything I wanted (in that realm of life) WAS on the other side of that fear! It truly was (and still is).
Moral of this: do not let fear stop you from achieving your goals, dreams, and aspirations. JUST. DON’T.
Fear Of Success
So this one is weird. It just goes against logical thinking that anyone would fear success. But it’s really a thing.
Often when you succeed at something, suddenly you…and others…expect more. You may feel you have to keep it up and that can be, or at least seem, exhausting.
If you succeed at something you’ve worked for and dreamed about for a long time, just giving up the pursuit itself can be scary.
You might feel that a part of you is missing. As mentioned before, your whole identity may be wrapped up in the wanting of something.
When you finally succeed at it, what’s left? Well, there’s maintaining your gains (or losses), but you’ve also become someone else entirely in a way.
You may begin to doubt your ability to keep at it and thus have a while new set of neuroses pop into your life.
But you may also fear that if you succeed it won’t really make your life better, or won’t give you the things you were hoping it would. So it becomes easier to do nothing real toward reaching your goals or aspirations.
A Brief Aside…Focus on Healthy Behaviors Instead of Concrete Weight Loss Goals
I wrote a whole series on this idea…instead of having a goal of losing 40 pounds, aim for healthy behaviors instead.
For example, eating 5 servings of veggies per day or drinking 64 oz of water. Walking 3 days or 5 days per week or some other fitness activity.
Any of these would serve to get you closer to a healthier you. A new identity as a person who chooses long-term health over immediate comfort because she values fitness, independence, being active, etc.
How To Break Away From Weight Loss Self-Sabotage
If you secretly fear success, whether because you are invested in the victim mentality, the safety blanket that keeps you from really pursuing your dreams (because that can be scary), or some other reason, you can break free from this.
- List the reasons you believe you will be worse off if you achieve your fitness goals.
- It never works…I’ll just gain the weight back and I don’t want to feel even worse about myself.
- My partner wants high-calorie food all the time and I don’t want to cook two meals.
- I’ll never be able to eat the things I want.
- I hate exercise.
2. Challenge those reasons.
- Are you sure it never works? Have you lost weight in the past and kept it off for a while? Do you know anyone else who has had success?
- Perhaps you can talk with your partner and tell them how important it is to you to be more healthy and fit. Ask him or her to help brainstorm healthy things you both like, and then they can fix their own hi-calorie foods you don’t want to be tempted with.
- You can still enjoy your favorites while losing weight. There are nearly always ways to make treats or favorites fit into your meal plan.
- While exercise is important, you can find some form of movement that is enjoyable or at least tolerable to you.
3. List the reasons your life will be better once you become more fit and healthy.
- I’ll be much healthier and stay independent longer.
- I’ll look and feel better!
- I can be more active.
- I can stop worrying all the time about how much I weigh, how I look, etc.
- I won’t mind having pictures taken.
You Can Train Your Brain For Weight Loss
When you’re clueless about how your brain tries to keep you the same (whether that’s good or bad for you), you’ll continue spinning your wheels whenever you try to make big changes in your life.
Knowing how your brain works is half the battle.
BUT, just knowing without action will not equal results.
You have to dig to find out why you think you’ll be worse off (hint: you don’t usually KNOW you’re doing this until you search yourself).
And then you have to challenge those thoughts and train your brain to believe new thoughts.
It’s something you absolutely CAN do. And you can do it when you’ve over 50! Our brains are plastic and capable of change until we die. So why not use this marvelous gift to train your brain to help you lose weight?
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