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Living Lean: Recommended With Reservations

Update April 2015: Living Lean has been updated since I wrote the entry below. Please understand that my comments do not refer to the current program.


As I’ve sometimes mentioned, I work for the State of Alaska. As part of their wellness program they offer some online lifestyle improvement classes. I recently took a seven week class called Living Lean, which is offered by the company Self Help Works. The course is taught by Lou Ryan. Now that I have completed the program and have had a chance to observe its results in my life, I am ready to offer a positive endorsement and recommendation — with reservations.

Let’s start with the positive. Why I am recommending Living Lean, especially if your employer offers it as part of a wellness program?

— It works. Before I started the course on 1/5/2010, I weighed 217 lbs. When I weighed myself last Saturday, I weighed 189 lbs, a loss of 28 pounds. I haven’t weighed this little since I was married 18 years ago. I’ve actually had to work at not losing weight too quickly. I’ve been aiming for 2 lbs/week. Doing the math shows I’ve averaged 4 lbs/week, but the last two weeks have been around the 2 lbs a week I want.

— I’m only eating things I want to eat and there is no special food. The Living Lean program sets out a nutritional philosophy and asks you to go to your supermarket and find 100 food items from what sound like the traditional four food groups that fit that philosophy. Other than finding desserts with less than 30% fat and sugar, my list is filled up with things that I enjoy eating. I have three regular meals a day plus a morning and afternoon snack. I’m not walking around hungry.

— It deals with the critical problem in all weight loss programs – motivation. One thing I absolutely HATED about Jenny Craig commercials is their tag line of “You’ve always had the will. We’ll show you the way.” I don’t know about you, but I knew at least a half dozen reasonable diets that would produce weight loss if only I could stay on them long enough. But I never cared enough to stick with something. Living Lean recognizes that part of obesity is a dysfunctional relationship with food and comes with a strong cognitive component that has been very helpful to me.

— The Living Lean program promotes mindfulness. It has tools to make our unconscious choices conscious ones. Like so many things in life, once the secret is out in the sunlight, change is easy.

— The program lasts long enough to enable habit changes. Research I can’t immediately lay my hands on suggests that it takes four to six weeks to instill new habits. At seven weeks, Living Lean seems to have taken hold.

— Related to the above point, I feel like the nutritional philosophy in Living Lean is one I can live with. I’m not on a special deprivation course that I feel I need to break out of. I’m not worried about losing too much weight because the number of calories needed to maintain a given weight fall with the weight. Eventually I’ll come to equilibrium that I expect to see at around 150 pounds if I continue to make the choices I’m making now. But now is the only moment in time I can choose in. If I choose differently, my results will be different.

Daniel, all that sounds really good! Where do the reservations come in?

I have four problems with Living Lean. Two are with how the program is implemented and two problems are with Mr. Ryan’s underlying assumptions about obese people.

1) The program is rough around the edges. The calendar and the instructional videos give conflicting information. When you first sign up for Living Lean, you are asked to agree to a schedule and treat the online experience as an in-person class. You can accept their recommendation or choose a “one session a week” option. Once you agree to a schedule you are provided with an online calendar that list both the sessions and tasks that you should do between sessions. I agreed to the standard schedule, so my expectation was that scheduling notes presented in the video would match my calendar.

No such luck. The calendar indicated I would have two sessions the first week, then three sessions a week for the next two weeks. But in the videos Lou Ryan kept talking about how the first five sessions of the course were designed to be viewed every day for the first five days. In later videos he’d tell us to do something every day that the calendar would list as doing three times a week. The calendar referred to “breakthrough day” when some of Mr. Ryans’s videos would call it “freedom day” and others would name it something else. I decided to only pay attention to the calendar and the course was easy enough to follow.

I suspect the course materials are being revised. This does not excuse the company from the responsibility of matching their course content to their standard calendar. When (or if) they do so, the course will be even easier to follow.

2) Throughout the course Mr. Ryan invites feedback and encourages students to ask questions via e-mail. I asked one tech support question and offered one suggestion in the first two weeks of the program. I got one automated response, but my problem was left unresolved and no human being ever got back to me. It’s possible that only people who actually pay the usual $125 fee get actual personal attention, but that should be made clear up front. If you take this course as part of the wellness program, don’t expect human help.

3) Although I was undeniably obese when I started the program, I have been working out every weekday morning since 2007. For the last six months I’ve been using a heart monitor to ensure that I’m in my aerobic zone 45 minutes five times a week on an elliptical machine. I enjoy hiking during the summer.  I’ve earned the President’s Champions – Silver Award from the President’s Fitness Challenge web site.

I’ve been and am still currently defined as obese, but I am active. I dare say I’m more active than most Americans despite my body fat.

So when Mr. Ryan kept insisting for us to “get off our butts” and exercise even if it was just a 12 minute walk, I found it irritating. I think Living Lean should have an intake survey about physical activity. If you’re past a certain activity level, you don’t get shown the multiple videos on the importance of exercise. Struggling with food is hard enough without the assumption that you can’t possibly be active because you’re fat being thrown in your face.

4) The final problem I have with Living Lean comes in the last three or so sessions when Mr. Ryan repeats that one must have purpose in life to live Lean. He suggests volunteering or doing something else to serve a cause larger than oneself. I get the impression that Mr. Ryan believes that fat people have no concerns beyond the next chocolate malt or three foot stick of salami. Some of the most dedicated volunteers I know are clinically obese. They knock themselves out with church committees, professional associations and youth organizations. They already know all about serving a cause larger than themselves. It is a stereotype that fat people are lazy slobs and it isn’t one that I think Mr. Ryan should be pushing. I have not observed any link between volunteerism and body type.

Despite these problems, I think Living Lean is definitely worth trying. If you’re ready to change your relationship with food and get lighter and healthier AND your employer pays for Living Lean as part of their wellness program, go for it. Don’t let my quibbles stop you. Your experience might be different from mine anyway. But if you are contemplating paying the normal $125 course fee, make sure that your desire for life change is stronger than any possible resentment at the program’s rough edges and possible lack of feedback. If you’re a physically active and volunteering obese person like myself, try to let Lou’s talk of “getting off your butt” and “making a contribution” roll off your back like the pounds which will melt away. But if that really raises your hackles, try something else and don’t waste your $125 raising your blood pressure.

Note: Any curious State of Alaska employees reading this blog entry should access this program through the Retirement & Benefits site.

Update July 2011: I gained most of my weight back and as of July 2011 weighed 206 lbs. For more, see I am the Yo-Yo. I’m not blaming the Living Lean program.  As Lou Ryan says, it’s all about choosing living lean or living lardy. For a number of reasons I’m not going into, I’ve developed a problem in continuing to choose lean. But they’re still my choices. I’ve recently started on trying to make better choices and we’ll see what happens.

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