Hello, We’re People: How Losing Weight Made Me Appreciate the Value of Community in Creating Meaningful Change

weightwatchers

At Switchboard, we begin our weekly team meetings with a segment called “Hello, we’re people.” It’s a chance for us to be light-hearted and share something about ourselves. This one comes from Karen Altus, our Industry Advisor and Professional Development Coach for our Higher Education Innovation Fellowship.

Change is hard. (See: Newton’s first law of motion). And humans are inherently lazy and creatures of habit. If there is more than one way to do something complex, we will almost always take the easy route. That, or shove it in a drawer so we won’t have to look at it.

So when I decided I wasn’t happy with the way I was looking and feeling about my weight for the umpteenth time, I held on tight to my inertia until a friend invited me to a Weight Watchers (WW) meeting. 

There are countless theories and models about how change happens, but they all include a great deal of “preparation”. This is the battle-with-self that usually involves a lot of “shoulds” and “yeah, buts”. According to the transtheoretical model of stages of change, THINKING about making a change is actually part of steps 1, 2 and 3, before any type of DOING. The bottom line is, we all have a natural ambivalence when it comes to change, and studies show that being invited by a friend will enhance motivation and strengthen commitment. 

Once inside the door, here’s what WW offered me: 

  1. Shared Experience – when starting a journey, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone. Meeting others with a common interest immediately creates a social support system that can counteract stress (which, it turns out, actually contributes to belly fat) and provide motivation. Everyone at WW has been on the program, and only people who have met their goal weight and maintained it can work there. 
  2. Shared Data – I had to stand on a scale each week and the numbers don’t lie. That extra piece of pie was going to show up, even if I did eat it while standing alone in front of the fridge. But analyzing data with a supportive person allowed for conversation that led to new ideas and new energy for change.
  3. Shared Praise – I got a sticker every time I shared an innovative strategy (chewing gum while cooking) or success story (finally donating my “big” pants to charity) or if I offered support to a fellow member. Honestly, I don’t know why so many grown-ups wanted little silver stars all over their notebooks, but even the shy people jumped in to share how they chomped on celery instead of cake at the office party that week.
  4. Shared Struggles – I’ll never forget one member’s story about buying jelly beans for her kids’ Easter baskets and then popping a few in her mouth while driving home – only to find out that the bag was empty by the time she pulled into the driveway. She had to go out of her way to find a different store to replace the goods without raising suspicion… Oh, wait! That was me! 
    But feeling safe to admit my failures and struggles in a supportive environment allowed me to learn and grow (or, in this case, shrink).
  5. Shared Success – I eventually reached my goal weight and earned “Lifetime Membership.” I decided to become a Meeting Leader so that I could give back and remain a part of the community that had given me such a wonderful sense of belonging and support. It’s been an honor and a privilege to contribute to the success of others.

As Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, stated on a recent EdTech Podcast, “the most effective community of practice that’s out there (and proven by science) is Weight Watchers.” Since social connection is one of our fundamental human needs, linked to health, weight, and longevity, I learned that change happens best within a group of people who share a common interest and want to support one another to develop personally or professionally. For me, community is vital. Just be careful with the jellybeans!