At the Endocrine Research Unit of the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, a study of 20 self-proclaimed couch potatoes―half of whom were lean, half mildly obese―revealed that the thin volunteers were more likely to stand, walk, and fidget. The researchers noted that the obese participants sat, on average, more than two hours longer every day than the lean ones did.
“If the obese subjects took on the activity levels of the lean volunteers, they could burn through about 350 calories more a day without working out,” says endocrinologist James Levine, the lead author of the study. “Over a year, this alone could result in a weight loss of approximately 30 pounds, if calorie intake remained the same.”
Simply moving around more, taking walks during the workday, and parking your car at the far end of the parking lot can burn many calories. But regular exercise is important, too. “Ninety percent of people who maintain their weight are exercising in a way that’s the equivalent of walking four miles a day,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, the author of 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet(McGraw-Hill, $17, amazon.com).
Johnson, for instance, does “some yoga stretching and light weights in the morning.” Then, she says, “I combine a run with walking my son to the bus. I’ll usually get some aerobic exercise every day.”
Regular workouts have another dividend: “Exercise makes you more aware of your body,” psychologist Stephen Gullo says. “You’re less likely to eat the chocolate cake that you know will take hours to burn off on the treadmill.”
Thin people weigh themselves.
For years diet experts discouraged stepping on the scale to keep weight in check. Yet one of the findings of the NWCR is that slim people do weigh themselves regularly. Not obsessively, not agonizing down to the ounce, but at least a couple of times a week. “At the first sign of weight gain, they go right back to their weight-loss plan,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer.
Anne Fletcher, also a registered dietitian, says of the weight maintainers she’s interviewed over the years, “Most have found that it’s easier to manage their weight if they don’t allow themselves to go over their goal.”
Holly Johnson, age 45, a co-owner of a Sarasota, Florida–based marketing and public-relations firm and the mother of an eight-year-old, confirms their findings. She always knows whether she’s in her preferred range of 105 to 113, because she weighs herself about twice a week. “If the scale starts creeping up to the higher end or I feel that things are starting to get out of control,” she says, “I cut back on starchy carbs and dessert.”
Thin people don’t skip breakfast.
You’ve heard it ad nauseam:Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.It’s also a way to stay svelte.
A 2002 study of nearly 3,000 NWCR participants found that 78 percent ate breakfast every day; just 4 percent said they never ate breakfast. (The registry also found that people who don’t eat breakfast have caloric intakes similar to those who do, meaning the skippers make up the calories later.)
A recent study of breakfast eaters in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association backed up other findings that people who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight than those who don’t.
Thin people enjoy their food.
It’s tempting to think that one of the reasons thin people stay that way is that they simply aren’t “foodies.” Not true, psychologist Stephen Gullo says. “Naturally thin people enjoy their food every bit as much as overweight people do,” he says. “In fact, many enjoy it more, because they eat without self-reproach.”
Feelings of guilt, or believing that everyone is watching what you’re eating (and thinking you shouldn’t be having that hot-fudge sundae), interfere with enjoyment. “Thin people are selective gourmets,” Gullo says. “Our bodies have a budget, like our checkbook. We should ‘spend’ on what we eat selectively, not compulsively.”
Thin people practice early intervention.
“A large number of the people who seem to be ‘naturally’ thin have evolved their own strategies for staying that way,” psychologist Stephen Gullo says. They have to, because thin people do gain weight. But they take action when the numbers on the scale creep up or their pants become hard tobutton.Theirresponse usually involves a combination of exercise and dietary changes.
Carla Matthews, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother of two in Newport Beach, California, says that when she goes over her upper limit of 130 pounds, she cuts out dessert and wine, drinks more water, and rides her exercise bike three times a week instead of once (in addition to doing Pilates twice a week). “I also tend to eat more salads and do my ‘halves’ routine, where I only eat half of whatever I would normally,” she says. “After 7 to 10 days, my weight is usually back in the comfort zone.”
Understanding what causes you to put on pounds can go a long way toward preventing them. “Thin people know they need to either limit exposure to certain foods that trigger appetite or limit the quantity or frequency of those foods,” says Gullo, whose personal kryptonite is pizza. “Or, if they can’t do any of those, they ban the food completely.”
Anne Casher, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother of two in Wilton, Connecticut, has learned to steer clear of her enemy: “I decided not to keep ice cream or cookies in the house,” she says, “because if there are some really good chocolate-chip cookies in the drawer, I’m inclined to eat them after dinner even if I’m not hungry.”
Because stress, sadness, anger, loneliness, and grief can send anyone to seek solace in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, the successfully thin person knows mood-driven eating when she sees it and defends against it, Gullo adds. “Thin people recognize the syndrome and don’t bring trigger foods into the place where it happens,” he says. “Mood eating takes place primarily at home.”
Thin people do what works.
Perhaps nowhere does the frequently cited definition of insanity―doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result―apply more aptly than with weight loss. The math makes this clear: By one estimate, one-third of Americans are on a diet, but 64 percent of us remain overweight or obese. Something doesn’t add up.
The biggest difference between the permanently thin and everyone else might very well be this: Those who don’t gain (or regain) have come up with effective, specific, and often personal ways to keep their weight in check.
Becky Grebosky, age 38, a children’s-clothing and gift manufacturer and a mother of two in Albuquerque, New Mexico, makes a smoothie when she feels like having a treat. “I mix up yogurt, a bit of juice, some water, ice, and whatever fruit is around,” she says. “It tastes like a milk shake.” Other thin people can’t live without dessert, so they shave calories elsewhere or “pay” for the indulgence with extra time or intensity at the gym. “Thin people get out of the mind-set of being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” psychologist Stephen Gullo says. “It’s about doing what works.”
This practice may account for the single most annoying trait of the always-thin: that their achievement seems effortless. But it’s not. “People think you never have a fat day―I do,” Holly Johnson, age 45, a co-owner of a Sarasota, Florida–based marketing and public-relations firm and the mother of an eight-year-old, says. “I have days when I feel awful. But I spend a lot of time and energy on fitness and cooking. And I have to work really hard, especially now that I’m over 40.”
But when good habits are integrated into your life, something shifts. There’s no need to count calories, agonize over an order of fries, track miles walked, or (worst of all) talk endlessly about what you’re eating and not eating. For the thin, feeling strong, healthy, and, yes, slim are powerful rewards―and their chief motivation to continue, as Anne Fletcher, a registered dietitian, has heard from dozens of people. “More than 90 percent of those who have mastered weight maintenance feel like they’re not dieting,” she says. “It becomes a way of life.”