self-efficacy as a weight loss tool

Last year for my Learning and Motivation class, I wrote the following essay. I just reread it and thought it was pretty cool so I wanted to share in case anyone else was interested. It’s about how I used self-efficacy to lose weight.

I was fat all of my life and I never believed that I could ever lose the weight. It was a vicious circle—because I never believed I could lose it, I couldn’t. But this year, I lost all of the weight that I needed to lose, and for that, I needed to use the self-efficacy that had built up from a number of sources in my life.

Perceived self-efficacy is defined as “one’s beliefs concerning what one is capable of doing” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 338). It is an important part of social cognitive theory, which suggests that much learning happens vicariously, as people observe others and integrate these observations into their beliefs. Self-efficacy is part of this theory because it develops largely from the observations of other people, and its end result is the formulation of self-perceptions.

To begin, I should explain the reasons that I never believed I could lose weight. First, all of the weight loss advice I had ever seen was unreasonable. On the one hand, there were people who advised taking pills or doing crash diets or taking herbal supplements; I knew those didn’t work. On the other hand, there were people who said the only way to lose weight is to avoid eating your favorite foods and to engage in an extended period of vigorous exercise every day. I knew I couldn’t do that. I had tried throughout my life to stick to a set number of calories or work out and I always failed after a day or two, because the lure of candy or the couch was too great.

Then, on January 6th, 2011, something changed. I came across a post on a blog I had never read, where Greta Christina, the author, described her experiences having been overweight her whole life but then finally losing weight. As I read through her blog, I realized she had struggled with many of the same things as I had—of course, there was the fact that she had trouble exercising and resisting delicious foods. But she also was a scientifically-minded person who understood the importance of going through the research of a particular topic in order to make her decision about a personal choice, and she was also a feminist who had had to reconcile her choice to lose weight with her support of the fat positivity movement, which encourages people to be happy with themselves at any weight. Reading through her blog post, seeing that she had such a similar mindset to me, and finally seeing that she had successfully lost a great deal of weight, I couldn’t help but be faced with the realization that my notion of the impossibility of losing weight had to be at least partially wrong. That day, I discovered several things. First, I learned about the iPod Touch application that she had used, called Lose It, in which I too would be able to record my calories and exercise. Second, as I read through her blog, I could see that a person who was relatively similar to me in mindset could be successful. Third, I learned that it was possible—and in fact optimal—to indulge relatively frequently in my favorite foods as I lose weight.

Albert Bandura described four sources of self-efficacy (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009), and I will describe how three of them related to my experience. The first is mastery experience, which means that previous success leads to the belief that one can accomplish future goals. This was very important to me. There have been several experiences in my life in which I have overcome a personal flaw. The most salient is my pulling myself out of a bad academic situation in high school. In my junior year of high school, I realized that as a C student, I was not doing well, and in that year I suddenly scurried to get organized and change my approach to learning. Over the course of a year, I raised my grades from Cs and Ds to Bs and As, and also passed all of my AP tests. This required constant effort and mindfulness, but I managed it. Another previous experience that had shown me I had the ability to make major improvements in my life that taken place several years earlier. Growing up, I was very shy and awkward. I had not had many friends in elementary school and by the time it came to middle school I was one of the most unpopular people in my class, and had nobody whom I could truly call a friend. Near the end of my 7th grade year, I had a conversation with a girl in my class and she suggested ways that I could behave differently to relate better to my peers. The following year, 8th grade, was one of the most difficult of my life. I struggled to incorporate my peer’s suggestions, and along with changing my own behavior, I had to overcome my classmates’ established opinions of me. Over that year, I learned a great deal, and when I went to high school the following year, I had grown enough to find some people with whom to hang out—a triumph! In my later years of high school, I finally made many friends with whom I connected deeply, and have had little trouble making friends since.

Because I had been successful in these enormous tasks, I had reason to believe that I could be successful in this one. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I had been aware for several years of the implications of overcoming these previous difficulties, I clearly still did not believe that I could extend that ability to follow through on a goal to lose weight. Somehow, food had a power over me that I knew could not be overcome. To surmount this obstacle, I needed another push—a reason to believe that an endeavor to lose weight could be successful. For that, I needed another source of self-efficacy that Bandura described—modeling (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Modeling affects self-efficacy in that if you see someone else successfully completing a task, you will be more likely to believe that you too can achieve it. This makes sense in light of social cognitive theory, which states that learning can occur even indirectly. I had had several experiences of seeing somebody else overcome something enormous. For example, my mother had earned a medical degree in Russia, because she had always dreamed of being an ophthalmologist, but when we moved to the United States, she would have had to go through medical school again in order to practice here. She decided to find a new line of work, so in addition to having to learn English, she had to completely re-establish herself, learning how to use computers, how to program them, and how to write in complex programming languages. She did, and watching her struggle with the difficult required courses showed me that it is possible to get through a difficult situation. However, in order to really make an impression on my belief in my ability to lose weight, I had to see that someone else had accomplished the specific goal I had. This is why that blog post had such an effect on me—it was the first time I had really read about somebody who had specifically overcome the exact problem I was facing, and therefore it was incredibly moving and it was absolutely the jumpstart I needed to actually begin. I believe that the moment I read the blog post, my perspective—and my life—changed.

Bandura’s third source of self-efficacy is social persuasions (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This also played a huge role in my self-efficacy regarding my ability to lose weight. As I was in the process of losing weight, I set up Lose It so that every time I logged exercise, or lost any weight, it would announce it on my Facebook account. My friends on Facebook routinely would comment or ‘like’ it, which was incredibly encouraging. Many of them would write supportive comments, telling me that I could persevere and that I was inspiring them to become healthier, and that always kept me going. Everybody seemed so convinced that I was not only making the right decision but that I could really succeed, and that undoubtedly helped me believe that I could.

I think a vital part of my use of self-efficacy this year (without even being aware of it) was making sure that at every step, my plan to lose weight was extremely realistic. After all, perceived self-esteem is related to actual self-esteem (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Had my plan to lose weight required a substantial amount of willpower or deprivation, I certainly could not have followed it through to completion. What was the likeliness that a person who had over-indulged her whole life could suddenly eat a restricted diet and engage in vigorous exercise every day for the entire period of weight loss, and then maintain these habits for the rest of her life in order to maintain the weight loss? The odds were close to zero—I knew it could never work.

Instead, I made a plan for myself that was more reasonable and would require only a modest amount of willpower. I made an account on Lose It, and told it I wanted to lose 1 ½ pounds per week. I had tried in the past to record all of my calories in food journals but had always quit after a day or two. But somehow I believed that this time I could do it—perhaps for the simple reason that recording food on my iPod was more fun and less of a hassle than carrying around a notebook and having to manually look up calories. And so, because I believed that this time counting calories would be more manageable, I launched in and started doing it!

Next, I had to figure out how to deal with my food choices. On Greta Christina’s blog, she had written about her decision to indulge occasionally in her favorite foods. Reading about this, I knew I had to do something similar. I love ice cream and cookies, and any meal plan that did not allow me to eat both could never be successful. With this in mind, I made the decision that if I was ever craving a certain food, I would eat it. This usually meant that if I had calories left over at the end of the day, I would walk to the corner market and buy ice cream, but on some occasions, even if I had already used up my calories for the day but really wanted something or was hungry, I would never hesitate to allow myself to indulge. It was far more important to me that my meal plan was sustainable in the long-term than it was for me to never exceed my daily calorie budget.

The final major part of my weight loss was exercise. While I did enjoy occasionally going to the gym and running on the elliptical machine, I knew that as a busy student, it was unlikely that I could make it to the school gym frequently enough to form a fitness habit. Additionally, I have some problems with my knees (ironically enough, caused by the very weight problem I was trying to fix) that prevented me from always being able to do vigorous exercise. Luckily, a few weeks after beginning my weight loss journey, I found exactly what I needed. My roommate bought a Wii game called Just Dance 2, and as my roommates and I all played it together, I realized it was the perfect tool for me! It was exercise I could do in my house (saving valuable time on transportation), and it was so much fun that it didn’t even feel like exercise. I started going to sleep earlier so that I could wake up in the morning and do this new exercise. I couldn’t force myself to get out of bed every morning to run (and in fact, when I tried, my knees wouldn’t allow it), but it took very little effort to get out of bed knowing that a dancing game awaited me. Because it was easy and enjoyable, I knew I could do it, and because I knew I could do it, I did, and have all year.

This year has been dramatically life-changing. Beginning on January 6th, I have slowly changed my views on food, exercise, fitness, and my beliefs about what I can achieve. As I lost more and more weight, I felt not only better physically but also more confident in my ability to follow through on my goal. I also felt so much respect from my family and friends, which has been incredibly rewarding.

In July of this summer, when I was nearing my 50 pound goal, I had a pleasant surprise. While attending a conference about science and skepticism called The Amazing Meeting 9, I came across Greta Christina in the list of panelists. I was excited but nervous—in these hallways walked the person who had completely changed my life without even knowing it! On one of the last days of the conference, I found her in the hall and nervously approached her. I briefly explained my story and the role she had had in helping me turn my life around. She thanked me for sharing my story and we took a picture together. That weekend, I had met many famous and important scientists and scholars, but the meeting that most stuck with me was this one.

Throughout the year, as time passed, it became somewhat more difficult to stick with my goal. As I got closer, the weight fell off less quickly, and I found myself losing some motivation. Determined to continue, I changed my plan so that I could eat a bit more and lose the weight more slowly. This way, I could continue my mission to stay as realistic and reasonable as possible in order to keep my plan one that I knew I could stick to.

On November 16th, 2011, 10 months and 10 days after I began this journey, an incredible thing happened. I stood on my scale, as I do every morning, and read 169.2. For so long, I had awaited such a number, just below my goal of 169.6. Seeing this number on the scale, I was faced with the fact that I had achieved my weight loss goal. I started crying, thinking of how growing up I had just known this was the one problem I could never overcome, thinking of all of the times I had tried before and failed. I thought of the beginning of this year, when I finally began to believe that I could actually succeed, and had made a plan to make sure I did. Finally, I thought about the fact that I had followed through on my plan and achieved it. Still crying, I stepped off the scale, and I called my parents, so excited to inform them of my news.