David Sarwer, PhD
Don’t Give Up on Your New Year’s Resolutions


The new year frequently brings with it resolutions to improve our lives. Not surprisingly, the two goals topping most people’s lists are losing weight and getting more exercise.  Suddenly gyms are more crowded and weight-loss programs see significant increases in membership. Diet aid apps are downloaded. 

But within a few months -- or sooner --  many become discouraged and give up. 

What’s the key to success? We spoke with psychologist David Sarwer, PhD, director of Penn’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program, for tips on keeping the momentum going.


Set a Realistic Goal

When it comes to weight loss, people want to lose too much, too quickly, Sarwer said.  “It took years to put on the weight so don’t try to take it off in a few months,” he said. “One to two pounds a week is a safe weight loss.” Indeed, losing just five percent of your current body weight will make a significant improvement in many weight-related health problems, like high blood pressure or blood sugar.

“Weigh yourself weekly and evaluate your approach,” Sarwer said. “At the end of the month, if you’re down at least our pounds, it’s working. Slow and steady win the race.”

And, while you might have several items on your resolution list, pick one to focus on.  You’re more likely to succeed when your efforts aren’t being pulled in multiple directions.


Keep Track of What You Eat

You may think you don’t eat a lot but, chances are, your daily intake contains extra calories.  “Calories can add up really quickly,” Sarwer said. Yet, lowering the total intake can be as simple as switching from regular soda to diet or, better yet, water.  Or, if you eat two cookies for lunch, cut back to one. “Our patients tell us that they’ve cut 500 calories a day without feeling hungry or deprived.”

Make small sustainable changes.  “Don’t give up food you love,” Sarwer advised. “If you love cheese steaks, keep them in your diet but eat them less frequently.”

Kathleen Cassidy, clinical coordinator for the Rapid Response Team, is proof of the importance of recording what you eat.  She’s lost 16 pounds in three months, using the Weight Watcher’s point system.  She said keeping track of -- and planning -– her meals is key to staying on the diet. “I have learned to eat appropriately,” she said. “I pack my lunch because it’s easier to keep track of points.  If I know I’m going out to eat, I’ll look up the restaurant’s menu on line and plan what I’ll have.  I make healthier choices.”

And give it time to work, Sarwer stressed.  “Most people tend to abandon a diet or a weight loss program earlier than recommended, before they’ve seen benefits.”

Share your goals with close supportive family and friends to help you stay on course. Or enroll in a weight-loss program.  Although some people succeed on their own, others prefer the structured approach and comradery of these groups. 


Shake a Leg

Many people cringe when they hear the word exercise but burning calories doesn’t have to be agony.  One of the easiest ways to work fitness into your lifestyle is to increase the number of steps you take each day.  It’s not hard. Use the steps instead of the elevator.  Take a walk during lunch.   “The campus provides the perfect opportunity to do that,” Sarwer said.  Get off the bus one stop earlier and walk the extra 10 minutes home.

Buy a pedometer, Sarwer suggested, and work your way up to 10,000 steps a day, the equivalent of five miles.  “An inactive person may take fewer  than  3,000 steps each day. Add 500 steps a day each week until you reach the 10,000-step mark,”  he said, adding that when shopping at a  mall, a person can “cruise past 10,000 steps in a couple hours!”

Sarwer also recommended dedicating periods of time for physical activity.  Cassidy found her niche in swimming at a local fitness center.  Keisha Hamilton of Patient Accounting found it in zumba.  She joined the thrice-weekly sessions held at the Center for Nursing Renewal last March and that, along with cutting out “bread, pasta and white sugar,” helped her lose 50 pounds.

“Do something you love” is her advice. “It helps you stay motivated.” 

Zumba has also done the trick for Cheryl Kenney of the Clinical and Translational Research Center, who leads the zumba classes.  She discovered a passion for the exercise in June 2010, when weight-related health problems led her to change her lifestyle.  She soon joined a team of zumba enthusiasts who have combined exercise with community outreach (raising money for organizations like the American Heart Association and the National MS Society). Kenney has lost –- and kept off –- 60 pounds.

Most of the participants in her class have been coming since the sessions started last February.  And Kenney fully understands why. “Zumba is not just a workout…. It’s a party.”

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