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Learning How to Lose Weight

Psychologists in Potsdam have developed a training program for obese young people
Picture: Karla Fritze

Picture: Karla Fritze

They’ve just grown out of children’s shoes and are already too fat. Unfortunately this no longer a rare situation. Pathological obesity at an early age represents a growing problem. The psychological strain on those affected is great, and the effects on their lives cannot be underestimated. In addition to the personal consequences, illness and loss of earnings cost society millions every year. Against this background, the YOUTH research project has been developed in the field of counseling psychology. Professor Petra Warschburger heads the project, which focuses on the development and evaluation of a training plan for obese youths and young adults.  The project aims to improve the participants’ quality of life and to enable them to take charge of their own body weight.

The program focuses on adolescents and young adults between 16 and 21 years of age. These are patients who suffer from extreme obesity. They are often threatened by serious health consequences. They have long lists of troubling complaints, and they suffer from both physical and psychological problems. Up until now, there have been no scientifically supported consulting and therapy services targeted specifically for this age group. The research project by psychologists in Potsdam may be the first. The proposal is a patient training program that takes into account the wants and needs of young people and incorporates the target group’s problems. Important topics include inappropriate ideals of beauty, dealing with alcohol and drugs, extreme diets, as well as gender-specific behavioral differences. Special attention is being paid to obese young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. The training program consists of nine sessions. A needs analysis establishes the foundation for how the program progresses. The research group evaluated experiences from other projects and delved through relevant scholarship. Interviews were also conducted with young people to find out how extremely obese youths are supposed to lose weight over the long term and successfully prevent the yo-yo effect. “It’s not easy,” says Petra Warschburger. “You have to motivate young people to change their behavior with their own willpower.” A strategy is developed together with the research subjects in 90-minute sessions, and there are no illusions about the fact that a very difficult path lies before them. The scientists must first perform some important educational work. “Young adults often do not know anything about the health risks posed by obesity,” says Warschburger. “We want to learn and implement a complete turnaround in nutrition and eating behavior.” Mistakes can pile up already when shopping for food, so participants receive training on that too. What is absolutely decisive for success, though, is setting realistic goals. “A five-percent reduction in weight can be a real challenge for morbidly obese patients,” says Warschburger. It helps to keep a daily journal so that patients can document their progress toward the goals they have set for themselves. 

The program works a great deal with media-based aids. For example, there is an app for smartphones that keeps track of nutritional data. Games and role plays support the learning process. Participants learn that they have to change both eating habits and physical activity patterns. 

Strengthening feelings of self-esteem is also important. It is not clear to some participants that their personalities are not defined by their body weight. 

The training program assists young people in taking what they have learned in clinical rehabilitation and applying it to their everyday lives in a lasting way and on their own responsibility. This brings a bright spotlight onto the domestic environment, where parents and siblings become important helpers in the process of losing weight.

Six months after the training is completed, the scientists review the results. “Our experience thus far has shown very good results,” says Warschburger. “Our goal though is long-term weight reduction, and that often becomes more difficult in the subsequent months.” A second examination takes place after a year typically confirms this, which is reason enough for the research group to continue working on this subject. 

Text: Ulrike Szameitat, Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Susanne Voigt