Fat target, or, the weight of performance improvement

I’ve lost about 18 pounds in the past three months, so I’ve been thinking about goals and performance improvement. (When I say there’s more to me than you might think, I’m not necessarily bragging.)

Whaddya mean it's just baby fat?In February, people in my wife’s office started a Weight Watchers group. It seems if enough people sign up, the Weight Watchers organization arranges for a leader who coordinates weekly meetings. My wife saw this as an opportunity to lose weight that had begun to bother her. I’ve gotten to benefit from the program without having to be in the group.

This post and its planned successor aren’t meant to advocate for Weight Watchers per se. What I’m doing is examining this specific program as a multifaceted approach to a complex problem.

You’d think the goal part would be simple. “Lose 20 pounds” sounds reasonable. When you hear that, you assume someone’s done some analysis, and a 20-pound loss is the desired result. In a way, it’s like a client who wants people to “understand” some business process.

When I’m off duty, I think “understand” is a terrible word to see in a goal. It utterly fails the Heydad test: “Hey, Dad, watch me while I understand inventory management.” Not that I don’t believe in understanding. It’s more that people will load this over-broad term with their own meanings, and it’s inevitable that the various meanings will clash.

I’m reluctant to change a client’s own vocabulary at the outset, though, so I’ll try to find out what “understand” means in terms of observable results. And that’s an approach to take with “lose 20 pounds” as well, even if the client is your own fair self. Probe for the symptoms, probe for the possible causes, and look at the fit between cause and possible intervention.

What tells you you need to lose weight? What indicates that 20 pounds is a good amount to lose? What time frame do you have in mind (and why)? How do you know a diet is the way to go?

To make some of those answers explicit for myself, I’ve come up a goal of being in the best shape I can be. That’s tough to write, because I’m not in particularly good shape, and because I can be mighty self-critical. But it helps me reframe weight loss as an enabling objective: I want to lose weight as part of getting myself in shape.

This reframing also helps keep quibbling down. Take body-mass index, a widely used formula to relate weight to health risks. If you’re really tall, or really short, or really muscular, then your BMI may not be a good indication of health.

On the other hand, if you’re six feet tall, not muscular, and weigh 243 pounds, you could do worse than pay attention to your BMI number.

That number would be 33. It’s beyond overweight; it’s  more than 20 pounds into the “obese” range. Whatever a good weight for you is, it’s probably not one with a BMI of 33.

When you come to Weight Watchers, the program assumes you’ve done some of that analysis, and that weight loss is a reasonable goal for you. I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess the meeting leader tries to counsel people who don’t seem to need to lose weight.

The program’s “healthy weight ranges” make use of BMI, suggesting that you aim somewhere between 20 and 25 (for that six-footer, 147 to 184 pounds).  But dogmatism isn’t the characteristic tone:

For now, use the Healthy Weight Ranges chart as a guide… your ultimate weight goal is totally up to you, and any weight loss that results in a lower BMI than your current one and can be maintained for the long term means success.

In addition, if you adopt a goal outside the range for your height, the program will accept that with a note from your doctor.

While I assume many people have some ultimate goal in mind from the beginning, Weight Watchers suggests an interim target of 5% of your current weight. (That 243-pound person’s target would be 12 pounds.) So you’ve got a flexible goal tailored to the individual, one that relates to the short-term desire for progress while acknowledging that its achievement is a stage on the way to greater accomplishment.  The next target?  10% of starting weight.  (That’s cumulative, not an additional 10%.)

I see a great deal of value in this. For most people, it’s hard to lose weight. Without extreme effort, a pound or so a week is good progress. But who wants to “progress” through 20 or 30 or 40 or more weeks? Three months isn’t a bad time horizon. In fact, in the initial stages of a weight-loss plan, most people lose at a slightly more rapid rate.

Here’s the deal: if you want to lose weight, you have to use more calories than you consume. How you manage that equation can vary: eat less, move more, or combine the two. “Eat less” and “move more” are concise expressions of complexes of behavior.

In my next post, I’ll talk about a number of approaches to initiate and sustain behavior to help achieve the overall goal.

CC-licensed photo of baby and scale by Salim Fadhley.

3 thoughts on “Fat target, or, the weight of performance improvement

  1. Over here, Weight Watchers is the subject of much derision. I think it’s a way of being sizeist by proxy, unfortunately. Though they also have a residual reputation for stating the bleedin’ obvious in AA-style support group settings (not undeserved, according to family members who attended in the 80s/90s).

    I’ve been keeping an eye on this for a while and you might find it interesting – weight loss programmes in virtual worlds:



    Apparently, they’re getting good results (though, as with everything diet-related) it’s a very noisy environment and I haven’t seen anything that could be described as truly objective.

    It occurs to me that ‘weight loss’ would be a fantastic module on any ISD/Train the Trainer-type programme. I’ll think on that a bit more but may give it a test on my next T the T engagement.

    A comment on your blog:
    I love coming here. And this post’s a fantastic example of why. Sometimes you read something and you get that sense of un-recognition (jamais vu?) where you realise, “I never would have thought of that in a million years but it seems so obvious now.” I’m talking of both the Heydad Test and applying hard-nosed training stuff to the weight loss. Thanks.

  2. I’m sure Weight Watchers gets a fair share of derision here, too. My hunch is that its members are predominantly female, and of course anything done more by women than by men is fair game for mockery from those overfond of their Y chromosomes.

    The comedienne Rosanne once noted how much more fortunate men are than women, as they age. All a balding man has to do, she said, was let his hair grow long on the side of his head, comb it over, and “nobody can tell.”

    More seriously, because of my experience these past months, I began thinking about weight loss, or rather successful weight management, as a sort of individual-scale complex skill. Adding in the performance improvement viewpoint ended up making it too complicated to treat in a single post.

    I get your point about stating the obvious in AA-style settings. There is something to that, but I also think that you’ve got to adopt your own mantras, your own watchwords. I have been close to several people for whom AA was a sheet anchor, including one who stayed sober for 55 years.

    Not a proselytizer, not even a “One Day at a Time” bumper sticker, just a hard-won awareness of the difference it had made in his life. And the lives of those in his life.

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