“Behavior”, Dr. Gary Foster of Weight Watchers (WW) and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

It is important to get the right balance of doing things you enjoy — make sure to spend enough time on what has meaning to you or gives you pleasure or satisfaction. This is a way of rewarding yourself throughout the journey, whether that’s by taking a break, disconnecting from the office every night at the same […]

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It is important to get the right balance of doing things you enjoy — make sure to spend enough time on what has meaning to you or gives you pleasure or satisfaction. This is a way of rewarding yourself throughout the journey, whether that’s by taking a break, disconnecting from the office every night at the same time, etc. — create a routine.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Foster.

Gary Foster, Ph.D., is the Chief Scientific Officer at Weight Watchers International, Inc.

Foster, a psychologist, obesity investigator and behavior change expert, was previously the Founder and Director of the Center of Obesity Research and Education and Laura Carnell Professor of Medicine, Public Health and Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to Temple, he served as the Clinical Director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He has authored more than 180 scientific publications and three books on the etiology and treatment of obesity. Foster has received numerous honors including President of The Obesity Society, Honorary Member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology from the American Psychological Association, and the George A. Bray Founders Award from The Obesity Society.

Dr. Foster’s research interests include the prevention, behavioral determinants, treatments, and effects of obesity in adults and children. His current focus is on scalable, evidence-based approaches to obesity management. Foster earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Duquesne University, an M.S. in

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I started in the field right after graduating from college with a degree in Psychology; my first job was with a group that specialized in obesity and had three of the most prominent scholars in the field as my mentors at the time. While I had no particular interest in weight management or obesity when I took this job, I knew I wanted to gain some experience. In this role, I was able to conduct research while having a lot of exposure to people who were struggling with their weight. This was a very formative experience in understanding the stigma surrounding obesity and how to help people change their behavior. The work I was doing was helping change peoples lives, and I am grateful to have had that unique opportunity so young in my career, for it showed me two things: for one, there is a significant weight-based stigma in our society; many people have harsh and ill-informed views about people who live with overweight or obesity. Also, I was captivated by the way science-based approaches can make an impact. These two reasons are still why I am in the field and stay in the field.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today?

I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and had some really great mentors, including Albert Stunkard who wrote The Pain of Obesity — a poignant book about the significant discrimination and stigma that larger people experience living in a world with a thin cultural ideal. I’ve also received mentorship from Kelly Brownell, now at Duke University, who taught me the value of thinking big as well as Tom Wadden from the University of Pennsylvania who taught me about rigorous research and compassionate care.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

At one point in my career, I was doing research around reasonable goal weights. In speaking with one of the patients for the study, I was so focused on discussion in the field — that 5% weight loss was really clinically meaningful — that I wasn’t really listening to the patient as to what he wanted as it related to weight loss / his goal weight. When he lost 5% of his weight, I was so happy for him. I was prepping him along the way saying that “A 5% weight loss is really important and it will help improve your health,” but when I asked him, “How do you feel?” he just looked at me and said, “That [5% weight loss] was your idea, not mine.” What was really instructive about this was that I was studying patient expectations and perceptions, but I wasn’t really listening to him. He was saying, “I don’t care what you think, Dr. Scientist.” It was very humbling but also taught me the value of really listening and taking the perspective of someone else versus always leading the discussion with “the facts.”

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Exposure is incredibly important. If I was really picky and said, “I don’t know anything about obesity, therefore I’m not interested in it,” I wouldn’t have been exposed to a field that has become my passion point and entire professional career. Expose yourself to different experiences, see what interests you and jump in. For instance, when I got out of high school, I thought I wanted to be a priest, and I went into seminary for a couple of years. But I ended up realizing that wasn’t the path I wanted to take.

Also, don’t feel like there is just one thing you can do. I happened to get lucky that my first job out of college pointed me in the direction of my professional career, but for many other people it doesn’t work out that way. Whether you think you’re going to like an area or not, use it as a learning opportunity.

My last piece of advice would be to seek out mentors. It’s truly been invaluable in retrospect to hear, and have heard, their perspectives.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

At WW, we are always leveraging science to help people with their weight and wellness journey — we always have to be anchored to the science. We listen to people and hear what they’re looking to do — whether that’s tied to how they are eating, moving, thinking and/or sleeping — we then look at the latest science and find practical, actionable ways to translate this science for their benefit. This approach is what helped inform the latest updates and launch of our myWW+ program.

For example, we know it is a public health problem globally that people do not get enough sleep, and they need help. So we sat down with some of the world’s top scientists on sleep and asked what is the science, what is practical, and then we tested it with members to see what will help them most on the journey. Sleep is now one of the four pillars of our program — along with food, activity and mindset — as we recognize the impact sleep can have on your health and wellness. We are also always looking at our approach to eating so that it is based in the latest U.S. dietary guidelines — the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines were recently released — to help our members develop a healthy pattern of eating.

In addition to science in specific content areas, we embed behavioral science in everything we do; we take basic behavioral principles that fuel behavioral change and see how to best manage those things, including within our digital experience. For instance, we just launched Digital 360 (or D360), a new membership plan focused on coaching within our app, and we’ve rooted the approach in proven coaching principles to help people looking for expert guidance and community support, digitally.

Some other exciting projects we’re currently working on:

Success Registry:

Our success registry surveys WW members across the globe who have lost at least 10% of their weight and have kept it off for at least a year. Within the survey, we’re asking members about what they are eating, how they are moving, any setbacks they have had, their degree of self compassion or self criticality, etc.

The purpose of this survey is to learn the habits of people that are successful and share advice and tools with our own members on how to be successful.

Weight-Based Stigma Research:

We are also doing global work on weight-based stigma learning more about how people experience it and from whom (i.e. family members, doctors, strangers, etc.). One of the more troubling things about weight-based stigma is that, unlike most other forms of stigma, those who experience it have a tendency to internalize it and believe what is being said about them. We are really worried about that from a humanitarian point of view, self-worth point of view and how it impacts one’s health and wellness journey.

By raising awareness and conducting this research, we hope to better understand the collective health consequences of weight bias, factors that lead people to internalize weight bias and identify coping strategies and tools to apply when dealing with the effects. As a result of this research there is a twofold outcome: we can teach the scientific community as well as leverage the science for the benefit of our members.

Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Before we get into thinking about helpful or less helpful habits toward your goals (we don’t tend to call them ‘good’ or ‘bad’), let me spell out what a habit actually is. Habits are behaviors that we do automatically after we experience a specific cue — so once they are formed, they don’t require conscious effort. Having healthy habits can be very helpful when we’re stressed or tired — times when it’s harder to make conscious decisions. The great news is that while it takes effort to start developing a habit, the more frequently we repeat a behavior in the same context, the less effort it takes, and it becomes habit. So when we’re forming new habits, it’s important to experience some type of reward that encourages us to repeat the behavior again and again (could be the feeling of satisfaction, or that you enjoyed it, or planned a more material reward like a new book or carving out time for self-care).

We know that habits around simple behaviors develop more quickly — so a great strategy is to start there and build. Let me give you an example; a habit to drink a glass of water as soon as you walk in the door after work is simple. A habit to leave work at 5pm and drive to a yoga class is more complex.

The benefit of creating healthier, more helpful habits is that not only do you make things easier for yourself, but by design more likely to be more successful too. Remember — habits are automatic behaviors — meaning once they’re formed, they don’t require as much thought and effort to do.

We know that creating and maintaining new behaviors is challenging and a barrier to many people on a weight and wellness journey. This is at least partially explained by the ongoing cognitive load required to maintain new behaviors — it takes a lot of work. But, once habits are developed, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. So even when life gets in the way, habits are likely to continue.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

To help our members create a new habit, we use a proven technique called the habit loop. You can create a habit by using the principles of the habit loop. The more frequently you practice your loop, the sooner the behavior can turn into a habit. Here’re how:

What to do: Build a habit loop for a behavior you want to make automatic. Start by identifying the behavior, then identify the cue and reward.

Cue (simply put the thing that will prompt you to act): Choose when and where you’ll do the behavior. Be consistent! Choose a time you encounter each day.

Behavior (simply put the thing that you want to do): Based on your goals, choose a simple action you can do on a daily basis. Try to aim for a behavior that takes less than 5 minutes to do to start. Practice it every time you come into contact with the cue.

Reward (simply put something you’ll look forward to and that brings a feeling of reward): This is what makes the behavior worth repeating again, which is very important until the habit is automatic! It might be a physical sensation, like getting more energy, or an emotional payoff, like satisfaction or enjoyment. The sooner we experience the reward after doing a behavior, the more likely we are to do it again.

We have the power to create and change our habits. By understanding how habits work, we can turn helpful eating, activity and mindset behaviors into healthy habits that fit our lifestyles and help us on our journeys. In addition to building new behaviors, understanding how new habits form is essential in eliminating unwanted behaviors. In fact, the most effective way to eliminate an unwanted habit is not to focus on breaking it, but to focus on replacing it with a new, wanted one.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

It goes back to fuel and friction; what fuels a habit is routine. For me, things that are routine are easier to accomplish. For example, I tend to have the same breakfast every day because I enjoy it, and I don’t have to make decisions every morning about what I am going to eat (that’s why eating can be so difficult — you have 200+ choices a day for what you should eat and when). Having a built-in routine reduces choices, and it reduces friction.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each and some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

It is important to get the right balance of doing things you enjoy — make sure to spend enough time on what has meaning to you or gives you pleasure or satisfaction. This is a way of rewarding yourself throughout the journey, whether that’s by taking a break, disconnecting from the office every night at the same time, etc. — create a routine.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each and some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

We know that not all habits apply to every person in the same way and needs change across a person’s weight and wellness journey. But, there are three fundamental habits that are proven to be important and an effective part of changing behavior.

Tracking. Research shows that tracking what you eat helps you lose and maintain your weight. It is effective because it makes you more aware of your actions and the changes you want to make — and the good news, contrary to what people may assume, is that tracking consistently is more important than tracking everything exactly. The simpler a behavior is, the more likely you are to do it, so finding ways to fit tracking into your routine is key.

To amplify your efforts to build healthy habits — do what you enjoy. When the actions we take are rewarding or satisfying, we’re more likely to keep doing them. In other words, the actions are reinforced. By making activity more reinforced, we can start to be more active — and make it a habit. When you can’t find an activity you enjoy, making the experience of being active enjoyable can help you repeat it. There are many ways you can make the experience more enjoyable. For example, enlisting a family member or friend to do it at the same time. Or, saving something you want to do for a time when you are being active (this is called temptation bundling); only watching your favorite show when you’re on the treadmill, only listening to the new music you downloaded or your favorite podcast when you’re walking.

Spend time paying attention to your thinking patterns. This helpsto identify unhelpful patterns and can be a gamechanger. We know that what we think impacts how we feel, which drives the things we do. Unhelpful thoughts can lead us to do things that get in the way of their weight and wellness goals. Unhelpful thoughts can lead people to feel and act in ways that get in the way of their wellness goals. For example, if someone thinks “I should give up” after a setback, they might then feel hopeless, decide to skip their healthy plans for the day, stop tracking, or skip their activity. This is a great example of an unhelpful thought. Research shows there are several ways in which we can change how we respond to unhelpful thoughts:

We all have thousands of thoughts a day — many of which are out of our awareness. We must learn to recognize our thoughts so we can start noticing their impact — and figuring out which ones are helpful and unhelpful.

Thoughts are not facts. They are simply things we say in our heads. Once we notice an unhelpful thought, we can shift how we respond to help us feel and act differently.

We can shift how we respond to thoughts in different ways — for example, we can challenge them with a reality check or simply observe them from a distance without trying to change them.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?

I would eradicate weight-based stigma and discrimination.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela. Both had resolve, persistence and made a great impact on the world. I would love to learn more about how they managed the ups and downs of their journey and what kept them going.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Pain of Obesity by Albert Stunkard. It’s an eloquent description of the pervasive, persistent and pernicious weight-based stigma and discrimination. It opened my eyes to what it is like to be judged harshly and irrationally based on your size.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Maya Angelou’s quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It resonated with me because I tend to focus on what I’m saying, and it is a really good reminder of thinking about your audience and the impact your words can have on them.

How can our readers further follow you?

You can go here to learn more about me as well as my LinkedIn page here. I’d also encourage you to check out the WW Science Center for more information and resources tied to the science behind our myWW+ program.

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