Chapter 9: Introducing the Virtuous Cycle

Chapter 9.

Introducing the Virtuous Cycle


There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

—Morpheus, The Matrix



Suffering is not an effective strategy.

How many people wake up on January 1 with a mouth tasting as if they’ve been French-kissing a komodo dragon and drag their hung-over butt to a place they’d rather not be to do some exercise they’d rather not do because it’s time to follow through on that New Year’s resolution?

The night before they had a booze-to-blood ratio that would have tranquilized Charlie Sheen, and now they’re going to suffer through something they hate and starve their bodies with some fad diet because this year is the one they finally get in shape.

That’s a bad plan. Actually, it’s no plan. It’s white-knuckle fitness based on the “I must endure this torture” mentality that has a higher failure rate than Midwestern girls heading to Hollywood become stars.

Disgusting similes and metaphors aside, allow me to congratulate you on making it this far. I realize there’s a lot of information to digest, and you’ve already completed significant work to this point. Way back when, I mentioned that you should ignore Nike’s advice and instead “Learn, prepare, then do it.” Well, you’ve learned and prepared. Now, you’re finally ready to do.

But please bear with me just a little longer while I tell you how the Virtuous Cycle fitness and eating plan works.


The Plan

It’s time to leave the vicious circle and enter the Virtuous Cycle.

Now you know what junk food does to your brain. Now you know how exercise combats the compulsions this creates and can make you crave healthier food. Now you now how to manage your time and be motivated. Ducks in a row, you can now Do.

Doing is a three-level process, though as I mentioned in the introduction, you can hold fast after Level 2. Each level begins with an exercise component to strengthen your ability to deal with food and is followed by a diet component that focuses on incremental improvements. Each level is progressive and more challenging, with exercise and diet continually reinforcing each other—creating a Virtuous Cycle—to keep you motivated and on track.

One thing you should know about the Virtuous Cycle is that we kind of made it up. Don’t panic. You can’t have gotten this far without realizing that there’s a lot of science and expert recommendations packed into this book. I’ve talked to the experts and researched adoption rates for exercise and altering eating behaviors. And I’ve collected a boatload of anecdotal evidence provided by real people. All of them (including the hundreds I’ve talked to over the past two decades who weren’t specifically interviewed for the book) say the same thing: weight loss is the result of a steady process toward behavior change in which exercise and eating reinforce each other over time. That, in a nutshell, is the Virtuous Cycle. It looks like this:

The model we’ve designed—and are about to walk you through—involves a suggested method for integrating exercise and making changes in your diet. And by “suggested method,” I mean what I wrote earlier: we made it up.

News flash: pretty much every diet program out there is something that was just made up. We don’t know the best way to lose weight, and that’s why gimmicks that someone pulled out of their posterior sell so well. Remember the publisher’s rejection letter at the beginning of this book? Sensationalism is what sells, but we’ve rejected that to create a program with the highest possible standards of scientific proof backing it up.

The Virtuous Cycle is based on years of experience, interviews, logic, consultations with numerous clients and gut instinct. But it has not been empirically tested, peer reviewed and published in a reputable journal. Still, you have to admit it sounds like a good idea. So try it, and if it doesn’t quite work, modify it. You’re a grown-up, and you have the ability to adapt. Everyone is different. Some of you will be great at dietary adherence but hate the exercise component, or vice versa. Some of you may have injuries or illnesses that make intense exercise impossible. The key point is to work your own way through these steps, mixing and matching as needed, and achieve your desired sustainable outcome.

So let’s break this sucker down.


Steps and Stages 101

I just described how the Virtuous Cycle works, but here are some bullet points to represent the various levels with more clarity.


The exercise levels are

  • Level 1A: Making Moves (Easy)
  • Level 2A: Fitness Focused (Medium)
  • Level 3A: Workout Warrior (Hard)


The eating levels are

  • Level 1B: Nutrition Newbie (Easy)
  • Level 2B: Gastronomically Good (Medium)
  • Level 3B: Eating for Excellence (Hard)


Here it is, laid it out in handy chart form:

  Exercise Level Eating Level Outcome
Level 1A Easy No change Very low
Level 1B Still easy Easy Low
Level 2A Moderate Still easy Pretty good
Level 2B Still moderate Moderate Good
Level 3A Hard Still moderate Very good
Level 3B Still hard Hard Freakin’ amazing


Do you see that last column—outcome? That tells you what you can expect during each level in terms of improvements to health, looks, weight loss, physical performance, mood, stress and other psychological aspects.

And yes, those higher-level outcomes do require a higher level of effort. What’s more, you’ll be battling the law of diminishing returns, which means that the more impressive the outcome, the more substantial the level of effort required.

And one final note on that front: you want to be careful to stick with the slow and steady pace that we’re advocating. There is real danger in trying to do too much too fast. If you overtrain, or are too restrictive with your diet, you can actually start to slide backward on the outcome scale. The graph below shows that the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in around a perceived effort level of 5 out of 10. Beyond 9 out of 10, actual harm can be done.


Take note of where extra effort begins to work against you.


The Theory behind the Plan

If you’re looking at these steps and stages and wondering about our insistence on this slow and steady thing, let me explain again why it’s so crucial. Willpower is something that develops slowly. Human beings are creatures of habit, and we can tolerate only small amounts of disruption in our lives without causing stress.1 What’s more, psychologists believe willpower is a limited resource. You have a limited amount of energy to spend on self-control. The good news is that willpower is something that can be strengthened with practice.2

And practice takes time. Tortoise pacing gives you that time.


Exercise First, Diet Later?

Throughout this book, we’ve driven home the role of exercise as a powerful tool for dealing with the multiple food temptations of the obesigenic environment. Since we can tolerate only small amounts of disruption, it makes sense to focus on changing just one thing at a time. And Harvard neurologist Dr. Miguel Alonso-Alonso thinks exercise should be first.

“We tend to do exercise and diet at the same time,” he told me. “But if we know exercise builds resources to improve diet, why not exercise first to enhance your capacity for eating control and then engage in dietary changes later?”

Why not? We can’t think of a good reason why not. In fact, we think it’s a brilliant idea.


Why Gradual Exercise Integration Is Recommended

Pain is one big reason why gradual exercise integration makes sense. If you push too hard and too long without giving your body a chance to adapt, you will hate life. No one likes the way it feels to go way beyond her limits, running as if she’s being chased by a wolverine coming off a meth bender, lungs rasping like an asthmatic Darth Vader after a dozen bong hits of hydroponic flesh-eating bacteria. Significant results require significant effort, but if you see your dead grandma beckoning you toward the light, you’re pushing too hard.

“The biggest mistake people make when starting a fitness program is doing too much and too hard,” sport psychologist Jim Taylor told me. “There are few rewards early in an exercise program and many disincentives: a sense of incompetence, negative social comparison, pain, fatigue, sweat …”

And if you push too hard, you also may lose less weight. This is what a 2012 study out of Denmark found, at least. Using 61 sedentary and overweight men, they compared moderate exercise (burn 300 calories via exercise each day) with high exercise (600 calories per day). And guess what? The “moderate” group lost more weight.3

No, I am not gearing up to say “less is more” when it comes to exercise. MORE is more, dammit! However, you need to look at the big picture here. These men were sedentary and overweight. Doing 300 calories worth of exercise a day did not wipe them out; it energized them. They engaged in additional movement during the day as a result of their moderate exercise regimen, and they also had the brain energy to make wise food choices.

The other group, however, jumped from overweight and sedentary to 600 calories worth of exercise each day, and this meant they spent a lot of the rest of the day sitting around because they were tired and in pain. What’s more, it wiped out the brain energy required to resist eating junk food.

Can you exercise so you’re burning 600 calories a day or even more? Hell, yes! But take your time getting there. I go on multi-hour bike rides that burn thousands of calories, but it took me years to develop that kind of endurance. This trial lasted only 13 weeks. Not stopping to carefully analyze the results, as we’ve done, many in the media (*cough* New York Times *cough*) misinterpreted the results as being some kind of metabolic miracle. If the trial organizers had kept the trial going for several months, the higher exercise group would have eventually adapted and most likely become leaner and fitter, but they suffered early on.

Don’t make yourself suffer. You’ll be less likely to feel the love, and it can hurt your ability to lose weight. You might even injure yourself. Be a tortoise.


Why Gradual Changes to Diet Are Recommended

Back in chapter 1, we recommended Dr. David Kessler’s The End of Overeating for the way in which it exposes the obesigenic environment. However, we disagree with Kessler’s approach to quitting junk food—a total purge of it from your diet, at least until you’ve gained control over your impulses. “An attempt at moderation won’t work,” Dr. Kessler says.4

We have a problem with that advice.

First off, Kessler quotes only one expert, a professor of psychiatry from the University of Kentucky, who said in regard to eating junk, “It is almost as if there needs to be a total reversal.” Beyond that, the majority of Kessler’s sources promoting total abstinence studied alcohol and drug addiction, not food.5

As we’ve shown, though it’s compelling, food does not meet the criteria to be an addictive substance. Second, you can live without drugs and booze but not food. This obvious fact brings us to the most important reason why baby steps are key to changing eating behaviors: it’s damn hard, from a practical and time-management perspective, to do an overnight 180-degree turn from a highly processed diet to a healthy one.

Recall that half of American food dollars are spent eating out. Half! As we pointed out, a major reason for this is the shift to women working full-time jobs and having far too many time pressures to ensure that every meal has healthy and fresh ingredients purchased from a grocery store and then prepared at home. (Again, we’re not blaming women; men did not exactly step up when their significant others took jobs.) Taking something from box to nuker, hitting the drive-through or ordering pizza is so much easier than actual cooking, and reorganizing and reprioritizing your schedule to accommodate healthier eating will be a lengthy process. From a practical standpoint alone, baby steps trump all or none.

“In my experience a slow and steady approach to dietary changes has been the most successful for achieving sustainable weight loss,” obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told me. Freedhoff also did a thorough review of Dr. Kessler’s book for his Weighty Matters blog. His thoughts: “my belief is that the type of blind restriction that Kessler is suggesting will ultimately and eventually do exactly what he predicts—magnify conditioned hypereating. Zero tolerance as a dieting strategy has been around forever. If it worked, the world would already be skinny.”6

“I suggest weaning yourself off junk food,” Prof. Nicole Avena told me. “I don’t think cold turkey is the way to go. Small changes are easier to maintain.”

And in regard to the dietary baby steps concept—removing certain bad foods a bit at a time and replacing them with good ones—eating behavior expert Eric Stice said, “This is precisely what we do in our most effective obesity prevention programs …  I do think this is a better way to get people used to eating healthy foods with few unhealthy foods.”

That all being written, if both your schedule and your psyche can handle the complete purging of all junk food without leading to a relapse and/or yoyo dieting, then you go. There won’t be (physical) pain or injury, unlike when you go from couch potato to workout warrior overnight. You may find you start losing weight fast, which people do like, and you’ll start feeling better sooner and be better fueled for exercise.

Again, though, we think the abrupt 180-degree shift is too difficult for the majority of people, so we’re sticking to our baby steps recommendation, but it’s a recommendation, not a law like gravity or thermodynamics.

When it comes to the pace of adoption for dietary change, do what you discover is best for you.


Follow, Bend or Break?

The real reason we’re providing these six concrete steps at all is that some people like direct guidance. Whether you stick to the list rigidly or use it just as a general guideline will depend on your personality and your current life situation. So follow these steps, or bend them, or break them if you must. Just follow the basic advice of gradually improving in both increasing your physical activity levels and eating a healthier diet. You’ll reap benefits.


Getting Started

Coming up next is a key piece of the puzzle: a self-assessment to determine how fast you can go through this process, and where you should start. Remember, everyone is different. If you’re already active and your diet isn’t terrible, you may be able to skip Level 1 and go straight to Level 2. That’s up to you. I’m going to be honest with you, though: running the numbers on North American society, it’s fair to say about 80 percent of you are sedentary and have lousy diets, so you’ll probably be starting off at the beginning. And there is no shame in starting there. Most of the population is in the same boat.


Measuring Your Baseline

How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you start? I know I said I wasn’t a fan of the scale, but even if you decide to bury it under a pile of tax returns, it could be good to know where you are right now. Take an assessment of what’s important to you, be it weight, waist measurement, endurance, cholesterol or even a “before” picture to go with the “after” you’re going to take down the road. One day in the future you’ll be pleased with how you compare.


Figuring Out Your Pace

The self-assessment quiz you’re about to take looks at your resistance to and ability to change. How you answer the various questions (honesty is key) will help you determine if you should progress through each step at a one-, two- or three-month interval. If you’re quick, it will take about six months to become a “Workout Warrior” who is “Eating for Excellence.” If you’re taking the slow road (again, no shame), it takes 18 months to get all the way through the end of Level 3.

And, yeah, we kind of guessed on this too. There is no hard data on how fast or slowly one should progress through a program like this, but these time periods seem reasonable based on background scientific investigations, our experience and numerous interviews with regular people who changed successfully.

The reason we’re being so open about the guesswork is that we’re not alone on this front; NO ONE knows with certainty the right way to do this. Beyond the fact that there are no studies showing the perfect way to integrate exercise and change eating behavior, I’ll reinforce the fact that everyone is an individual and needs to do some muddling through and finding his or her own way. It’s your brain getting retrained here.

Look at the bright side: at least we didn’t sling a bunch of poop at you—like saying your blood type determines what you should eat—or name the diet after a place where rich people live to make it seem legitimate.

Anyway, when it comes to pace, if you feel that you can reasonably go faster, then do. If three months per step is too fast, slow down. If you make it to Level 2 and want to hold fast for a decade before going to the next level, you can do that too. That’s what I did. I achieved Level 2 and lost 30 pounds in the process and held firm for more than 10 years; then I upped my game to Level 3 and lost another 20 and have been there another decade.

As I mentioned in the introduction, we’re not cracking whips. There is merit in setting goals that are time based, as this boosts adherence to achieving your desired outcome, but this needs to be tempered against the goal of long-term sustainability. Sure, you can kill yourself and get an awesome outcome, but how long can you hang on to that if you hate the journey?

Go at a pace you can tolerate, be at peace, have fun, feel that you’re making progress, get all Zen … That’s a good pace. Sure, do the self-assessment, but do the Zen thing too.


The Self-Assessment: How Fast Can You Go?

This self-assessment contains 10 questions. Give yourself 1 point for each “Disagree” that you check. If you “Neither” agree nor disagree, it’s 2 points. If you “Agree,” it’s 3 points.

The lowest score you can get—if you disagree with everything—is 10 points. The highest score, if you agree with everything, is 30.

Get out your pencil and start checking.

Statements Disagree Neither Agree
I have been overweight or obese for many years.      
I work long hours.      
I don’t eat many vegetables.      
I spend a lot of time watching TV or on the Internet.      
I am resistant to change. It upsets me.      
My family (spouse and children) is resistant to change.      
My job requires a lot of travel.      
I want to lose more than 60 pounds.      
I eat for emotional reasons (stress/depression/boredom).      
I am responsible for the care of very young children.      
Total number of checks      
Multiply by: 1 2 3
Add these three together for your final score:      


Interpreting Your Score

So what does it all mean? Let me tell you:

  • If you score between 10 and 16, proceed through each step at 1-month intervals.
  • If you score between 17 and 23, proceed through each step at 2-month intervals.
  • If you score between 24 and 30, proceed through each step at 3-month intervals.


It’s important to reiterate that each level contains two steps. Therefore, the fastest you will progress through a single level is two months, and the slowest is six months. To go through all three levels, following these guidelines, takes between six and 18 months.

If you ended up with a low score, and are looking at proceeding at one-month intervals, it means you’re not terribly resistant to change and have the flexibility in your schedule to make it happen. It also means you’re likely in a more genetic and psychologically advantageous position to tackle sustainable weight loss.

The folks in the mid range, moving forward at two-month intervals, have a tougher battle to fight, perhaps in terms of genetics, emotional issues, resistance to change or time management. Welcome to the middle of the pack.

For the high-scoring people who are moving at three-month intervals, yours is the hardest battle. You know why. There are cards stacked against you, but do not despair. When, not if, you are successful at this life-changing endeavor, you will have developed a set of skills that can be applied to the rest of your life in myriad positive ways. Often it is those who face down the toughest trials who end up achieving the most.

Okay, I have no references to back up that last sentence, but you’ve got to admit it sounds good.

Enough math; it is time to get your butt in gear.



  1. Kathleen Vohs and Todd Heatherton, “Self-regulatory Failure: A Resource Depletion Approach,” Psychological Science11, no. 3 (May 2000): 249–54.
  2. Roy Baumeister et al., “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 5 (May 1998): 1252–65.
  3. Rosenkindle et al.,” Body Fat Loss and Compensatory Mechanisms in Response to Different Doses of Aerobic Exercise—a Randomized Controlled Trial in Overweight Sedentary Males,” American Journal of Physiology, Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 303, no. 6 (September 2012): R571–79.
  4. David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009),
  5. , 221.
  6. Yoni Freedhoff, “A Review of David Kessler’s The End of Overeating,” March 22, 2010, Accessed November 17, 2010.