Want to Lose Weight? A Coach or a Buddy Can Help

A weight-control coach — even it's only a peer, not a professional — can help you stick to your plan and shed those pounds, a new study suggests

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Perhaps the biggest barrier to weight loss — whether you join a commercial plan or forge your own path — is simply sticking with it. Fortunately, there is a trick that may help, a new study finds: Enlist a coach. And it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune either. Even a friend will do, even if it’s someone who also struggles with weight.

That’s the finding of a new pilot project from the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. The pilot was small, with just 44 study participants. But it found that when assigned to a health coach — whether a behavior specialist or merely a peer (another study participant) — the would-be weight-losers shed 9% of their body weight on average over 24 weeks, an unusually big success for a weight-loss program.

The study did not have a true control group, and the study authors say their results should be considered only preliminary. Still those researchers are optimistic.

“Our study suggests health coaches may not only yield impressive weight loss outcomes, but that lay — or peer — health coaching may be particularly promising as a cost-effective obesity treatment strategy,” Tricia Leahey, the lead study author, told reporters. Her findings are published in the journal Obesity.

It’s not hard to understand why coaching would work. Anyone can eat well for a couple days and do a brief exercise routine. But maintaining that schedule day in, day out, keeping up with regular exercise and watching what you eat not just for a few meals, but for a lifetime, can be hard work. Even in clinical weight-loss studies it’s not unusual for half of all participants to give up. When you’re short of cash, short of time or short of energy, it’s easy to let your healthy lifestyle slip.

When you fail, you may think you just lack willpower. But a good weight-management coach — like any kind of coach — can help you break down performance and pinpoint specific areas for improvement. Maybe you’re having trouble with portion control while your growing teens are coming back to the dinner table for seconds, and then thirds. A coach could help you figure out strategies to deal with that, perhaps. Are you overly hungry? If so, maybe you could eat a healthy snack some time in the mid-afternoon. Or do just you feel awkward sitting around with an empty plate for 20 minutes while others chow down? In that case, you could try consciously to eat your meal more slowly.

For the new study from Rhode Island, participants met with their coaches weekly at the beginning of the program, and then less frequently as the months went by. In the weeks that they didn’t meet with coaches, they would send a weekly progress report by email, updating the coach on their weight and giving calorie count and physical activity information. The coach would then provide feedback on that email report.

Surprised that peers perform as well as pros when it comes to weight-control coaching? Don’t be. For one thing, even people who struggle with weight usually know what kind of diet and activity changes should be made to slim down. In fact, they may be better than the habitually lean at understanding the major obstacles that overweight people face. And in the end, as anyone who’s ever played on a sports team knows, there’s more to having a coach than getting good advice. Coaches can motivate simply by watching over you. With them on the sidelines, you know someone will notice if you skip that workout, or if you don’t give it a good effort. In short, coaches hold you accountable — and that’s why they may be good for much more than just sports.