You’ve embarked on a new weight loss diet or fitness program. You’ve read a book, become inspired, signed up for a program or health club and what’s more — it’s working. For the first week, two weeks, a month, the weight is coming off, you’re hitting the gym on a regular schedule. You even drop a size or two and garner some compliments from friends.
And then…progress stalls. You’re still eating the same foods, faithfully completing your workouts, but your weight loss stalls, perhaps the scale even goes up a few pounds. The progress you make at the gym similarly maxes out…you can’t lift any more weight, your running speed or distance maxes out…maybe even some soreness or injury sets you back a bit. You’ve hit the dreaded plateau. Sometimes it lasts a few weeks and progress resumes. But it can last months. And it saps your morale because you are not getting any more return on your invested effort. In all likelihood, you give up or cut back, your discipline withers. Your weight goes back up, maybe adding a few pounds on top of where you started, and you cut back on or cut out your exercise program. The genie is back in the bottle.
What causes plateaus? Are they inevitable endpoints in any effort to make progress? Or are they at best temporary way-posts or resting points that you can move beyond with the right approach? The school of thought that says that plateaus are unavoidable indicators of biological limits is called the Set Point theory. I think that the Set Point theory is wrong, and that there is a reliable way to push past plateaus to bring about substantial weight loss and improved fitness.
One of the most difficult challenges to overcome in life is getting out from under the grip of an addiction, whether it be drug, alcohol or nicotine dependency, a food addiction or eating disorder, or compulsive activities such as gambling, shopping, pornography or Internet addiction. Taken to the extreme, addictions can become highly self-destructive, antisocial or criminal activities such as self-mutilation, kleptomania, or pyromania. At the other end of the scale are ordinary activities, such as exercise or work, which in normal degree are healthful but when excessive can become addictive. There are also minor compulsions which might best be considered bad habits rather than addictions, such as nail biting, hair pulling and the like. Broadly speaking, an addiction can be any habitual behavior which takes over one’s life, interferes with social relations and personal achievement, and threatens one’s autonomy. There are many ideas about what addiction is and how to treat it, but unfortunately success rates are low and relapse rates are high. However, there is a recent approach to snuffing out addiction based on the emerging sciences of neuroplasticity and behavior modification, which holds out the promise of lasting change. The approach is called cue exposure theory, and it goes against the conventional wisdom. I will discuss it after first reviewing the more conventional approaches. And I’m going to do something else unusual at the end of this particular blog post: I will apply this methodology to an “addiction” of my own and follow my progress in the Discussion Forum associated with this blog.
In any area of self-improvement, a common complaint is that we often reach a plateau and get stuck there, failing to make progress towards our goals. While this is a natural consequence of homeostasis–our organism’s inbuilt resistance to change–the experience of plateaus often leads to frustration and abandoning our resolutions. One person who understood this well and offered sage advice on how to handle the plateau was George Leonard, who recently passed away at age 86. As an author, fifth degree black belt aikido master, and a giant in the human potential movement of the 1960s and 70s, Leonard’s passing brought to mind his little gem of a book that I first read in 1991: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. It is a self-help classic that has grown in stature with time, but it is so much more than that. The ideas in this book made a strong impression on me the first time I read it, and it has never been far from my mind. I picked up the book again this week to take another look and realized how much wisdom it holds, and how pertinent it is to the topic of getting stronger, and persisting through plateaus. It is a very short book, but powerfully succinct, with profound lessons about the path to mastery in any field. Read More