Transform Your Weight
Deb’s Goal: "I want to stop fearing exercise so I can lose weight."

By Kelli Rosen

The Situation
Deb Johnson has always had a weight problem. As a teenager, she didn’t weigh enough. At 5 foot 8 inches, Johnson was a mere 107 pounds in high school and was often teased by classmates because she was so thin. “I would eat anything and everything hoping to gain weight,” she recalls. But once Johnson entered perimenopause in her mid-30s, a rapid shift occurred; today she weighs 148 pounds. Armed with the goal of dropping 20 pounds, Johnson also hopes—regardless of what the scale reads—simply to feel healthy again. “I’d like to feel like I’m 20 again, instead of like I’m 90,” she says.

Deb Johnson
Age: 48
Status: Single
Occupation: Quality assurance editor Johnson’s tried dieting, but with little success. Last November, she attempted the South Beach diet and lost six pounds in the first week. But with the holidays looming, she lasted just two weeks on the diet, then quickly gained the weight back. Although Johnson has wheat and dairy intolerances, she endures the intestinal cramping so she can eat her comfort foods. “I just don’t have the self-discipline,” says Johnson, adding that she missed bread the most while on her diet.

Johnson’s job requires long hours at a desk, so she doesn’t get to move around much during her 12-hour workday, which includes an hour-long bus ride to her office. Although she eats breakfast (a poached egg, or oatmeal), Johnson usually heats up a low-calorie frozen entrée to eat at her desk for lunch. She also eats chocolate snacks throughout the day. By the time she gets home, Johnson is so harried from her deadline-oriented job that, more often than not, she noshes on popcorn or cookies for dinner.

Johnson’s goal to lose weight is further complicated by a medical issue. She has a serious heart condition known as long QT syndrome (a lengthened recovery time between heartbeats). Two of her sisters died from the condition, so Johnson is understandably concerned for her life and worries that exercise will kill her. “Being in such poor shape already, anything gets your heart going,” she explains. “Then once the adrenaline gets flowing, I panic.” Her doctors say she must be cautious when it comes to exerting herself but have given her the green light for mild to moderate exercise, such as walking. Four years ago, Johnson practiced yoga for about six months and loved the results—but says she’s too busy to attend classes again. “I wish I had a magic pill to stay motivated,” she says.

Our Advice
The life coach says:
Life coach Gloria Silverio questions Johnson’s goal of losing 20 pounds; given her height, the loss may make Johnson too thin. Silverio suggests calculating a healthy weight range based on body mass index and percent body fat analysis. In general, Johnson should focus less on the scale and more on how she feels. Another of Johnson’s primary goals—to look good in a swimsuit—is somewhat ambiguous and difficult to measure. Silverio says she can start by setting realistic, attainable goals.

“I would have Deb define her goals more specifically in terms of SMART goals,” Silverio says, defined as Specific, Measurable, Action-based, Realistic, and Timed. “An example of a SMART goal is ‘I will increase my exercise by walking three times a week for 15 minutes each session the first week, and increase by 5 minutes per session each week, until I’ve reached 30 minutes per session by the fourth week.’”

To ease her fears of exercise, Johnson must educate herself, says Silverio. “I would advise Deb to talk to her doctor and read all she can to understand her condition and the risks involved in exercise and the benefits she can receive from participating in a regular exercise program.”

Because Johnson attributes her poor dinner habits to the stress she feels after a long day at the office, Silverio suggests reducing work-related tension before it affects her meal choices by disengaging from work for just a few minutes every two hours. She recommends doing some quick stretches, taking several deep breaths, or making a brief phone call to a friend.

The naturopathic physician says:
Before achieving physical fitness, Johnson must first work on mental and emotional fitness, says naturopathic physician James Rouse. “She needs to move beyond the history that may be keeping her from moving toward the life of her dreams,” he says. “This does not mean that she should ignore her family history and her congenital heart condition, but it does mean to live from a place of possibility and positivity, rather than from a place of fear and helplessness.” To achieve this, Rouse suggests Johnson keep a journal to get in touch with her spiritual side. He also stresses the importance of yoga, taking time for walks, visualization, meditation, and putting herself first on her to-do list.

To feel healthier, Johnson must also make smarter choices at mealtime. Rouse suggests a balanced, low-glycemic diet—one that avoids all trans fats (those found in some processed foods, fried foods, and baked goods) and keeps saturated fats to a minimum; both fats are bad for her pre-existing heart condition. “Deb should set a goal of five small meals daily, without skipping meals,” he says. “Five smaller meals will help Deb maintain a stable blood sugar level throughout the day. When there are just three meals, people tend toward larger portions and more binge eating.” Healthy meal suggestions include egg or tuna salad over greens; hearty vegetable soup with spinach, onions, tomatoes, turkey, and beans; and tacos with tempeh or ground turkey, plus green chili salsa.

Rouse also points to the importance of portion size. “She needs to keep an eye on portions and may need to measure food for a day or two to gain perspective on her portion sizes,” he says. According to Rouse, an ounce of cheese is about the size of your thumb, 3 ounces of meat is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards, and a cup of milk or yogurt is approximately the size of a small hand holding a tennis ball.

“If Deb has been diagnosed with an intolerance to wheat and dairy, she needs to avoid them, period, and do so in such a way that she doesn’t feel deprived,” advises Rouse. He suggests experimenting with soy alternatives, such as soy milk, cheese, and yogurt, and adds that nut milks—almond milk, for example—are delicious. If Johnson is choosing wheat products to satisfy her sweet tooth (she admits cinnamon rolls are a favorite treat), Rouse recommends snacking on berries and seasonal fruits when the sugar cravings hit.

The herbalist says:
In addition to eating well and taking a daily multivitamin, Johnson may also want to drink green tea (Camellia sinensis) or take the extract in supplement form (90 mg, three times daily), says herbalist Kim Erickson. “Green tea extract may help Deb lose weight by speeding up her metabolism.” It’s also an antioxidant with cancer-preventing qualities, she adds.

For a general feeling of well-being, Erickson recommends Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng; 200 to 500 mg daily) and says Johnson should take the herb for three weeks at a time, followed by a one-week hiatus. Asian ginseng will also help ease stress, improve concentration, and increase energy.

Because Johnson has recently stopped hormone replacement therapy, Erickson suggests alternative ways to relieve menopausal symptoms. Standardized black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa; 20 to 40 mg, two times daily) and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus; 30 to 40 mg, once in the morning) help to relieve hot flashes and night sweats and work well together. Another option is red clover (Trifolium pratense; 40 mg daily), which helps protect postmenopausal bones and may help prevent breast cancer.

The yogini says:
Although Johnson’s heart condition does limit her workout intensity, it does not preclude workouts altogether. Giving yoga another try is a wise option. “Yoga is about breathing,” explains yoga expert Rainbeau Mars, “and breathing supports what the heart is doing.” Based on Johnson’s injury history (she’s had spinal surgery and numerous broken bones), Mars suggests an alignment-based class, such as an Iyengar practice, which utilizes props, such as blocks and straps, to help achieve proper postures. Iyengar is generally recommended for those recovering from injury or suffering from chronic pain. Regardless of the type of yoga Johnson chooses to practice, Mars stresses the importance of finding a good instructor—one who understands Johnson’s needs and is able to work with her limitations.

Even the gentlest forms of yoga burn more calories than sitting on the couch, says Mars, plus spinal twists stimulate organs, support elimination, and will help Johnson lose weight. To get motivated, Mars recommends that Johnson find a small class where she can get plenty of attention, and that she attend the class regularly to build relationships with others—in order to have exercise buddies.

While at the office, Mars suggests Johnson take a yoga break and do a couple of restorative postures to get through the day. First, Johnson should lie on her back with her buttocks six inches from a wall, and then gently elevate her legs so they’re resting on the wall. “This is good for circulation and promotes detoxification,” says Mars, who adds that Johnson should get her doctor’s approval before trying any yoga poses.

Second, Johnson should lie flat with a pillow under her lower back and her shoulders resting comfortably on the floor. Her legs should be fully extended and palms facing up. “This provides a slight stretch in the abdomen,” explains Mars, “which promotes circulation and aids digestion.” Mars says Johnson should try to hold each posture for about 10 minutes.

To help keep her diet healthy, writer Kelli Rosen substitutes juicy pineapple pieces, ripe strawberries, and mouth-watering cantaloupe cubes for chocolate.