6 Ways to Help Yourself Reach a Healthy Weight

Courage! You can do it.

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Anyone who tells you losing weight will be easy has never tried. But it can be done. Consider Barbara Kelley, 36, a high school activities director in Rialto, Calif., who has dropped 240 pounds since June 2005 without surgery, drugs, or an extreme diet. Instead, she has simply watched her portion size—and hits the gym four to five times a week. Her incentive? She wanted to adopt and needed a doctor's ok. (He gave it, but with a warning.) "Once your mind-set is right, you can do it," says Kelley, whose success inspired her to try to conceive a child instead. Here are some tips to help you succeed, too.

Get sleep. This tip may seem counterintuitive: After all, if you're up and about, aren't you burning more calories than when you're conked out? Yet a host of studies have shown that getting too little sleep—five hours or less, in the most recent study focusing on mothers with newborns—is associated with weight gain. One suspect is a group of hormones that regulate hunger; for unknown reasons, those are elevated when sleep is restricted. (Excessive sleep is also associated with obesity.) The sweet spot seems to be about six to eight hours, says Matthew Gillman, director of the obesity prevention program in the department of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard Medical School and author of the new mother study.

Use a pedometer. While 30 minutes of purposeful brisk exercise may suffice to keep your heart in shape, experts say that to lose weight, you need to accumulate 60 to 90 minutes a day. But the steps you take while working, shopping, and gardening count, too—so take thousands. Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine coined the term neat (for nonexercise activity thermogenesis) to describe this unintentional exercise, and he has found that lean people burn 350 more calories a day than obese people doing the same amount. Recommended: Take 10,000 steps a day. Wearing a pedometer for years has helped Howard Buxbaum of El Cajon, Calif., 63, maintain his weight of 203 pounds—down from 270 a decade ago.

Avoid sugary drinks. Robert Lustig, an obesity expert at the University of California-San Francisco Children's Hospital, lays this down as law for his pediatric patients, who often get a large percentage of their daily calories from soft drinks. The drinks contain fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which can lead to obesity. Moreover, they've got little nutritional value and crowd out nutritious drinks like milk. Cutting out a can of Coke a day saves 15 pounds a year.

Wait 20 minutes before a second helping. By pausing, you can make your gut work for you. Once your first portion makes its way to the distal intestine, you can expect help saying, "No, thanks" from a hormone that causes the satiety signal to kick in.

Solve other problems. People who are obese often turn to eating to escape some other problem, says Albert Ray, physician director of patient education and health promotion at the Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group. "If you don't attack that behavioral problem, all the diet advice in the world won't help," he says. Kaiser Permanente's weight-loss programs, which helped Kelley and Buxbaum, feature support groups and other opportunities to talk about nondiet problems.

Make your own dietary rules. If your eating plan is too restrictive, you won't stick to it. So, advises Brian Wansink, in his book Mindless Eating, make your own rules. Perhaps "no bagels on weekdays" or "if I eat the fries, I have to skip dessert." And allow your-self a few indulgences. "Work it into your calorie budget," advises Barbara Kelley, who dropped from 437 to 197 pounds. "It has to be a lifestyle, not a diet."