When we try to lose weight and exercise more, we often get caught in a traffic jam. Something is in the way. It is possible to fail without knowing what happened. We follow advice, make a plan, find our motivation, and decide to really do it this time.
Despite all this, something is missing that stops us on our path. We can conclude that there is something wrong with us. We can decide that we don’t really have the ability to change and we can give up.
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Research in support of a solution
Recent research has definitely shown what is missing. A research group in Australia (2014, 2018) conducted a randomized, controlled study to differentiate between a commonly used Behavioral Weight Loss Treatment (BWLT) and the same treatment supplemented by what is known as Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT).
The focus of cognitive remediation therapy was to develop the executive function of the participants, in particular cognitive flexibility. They used Cognitive Remediation Therapy to teach individuals to think differently in order to influence the decision-making process. Insight into a patient’s thought process was followed by the use of reworked thinking to find new solutions that had not previously presented themselves.
The group suggested that using cognitive rehabilitation therapy would improve participants’ ability to use what they learned about behavioral therapy for weight loss. The results were significant. The CRT group showed a significant improvement in their cognitive flexibility even after a three-month follow-up. In addition, 68 percent of the CRT group achieved a weight loss of 5 percent or more compared to only 15 percent of those who had the BWLT without CRT.
What are the elements of cognitive flexibility?
This research is supported by many findings that show that cognitive flexibility is an integral part of the ability to change behaviors. New behaviors can then be integrated into daily life through sustained practice.
In short, cognitive flexibility enables a person to invoke complex mental processes to solve problems. It includes working memory (learning), impulse inhibition, task organization, time management, and the ability to acquire skills to achieve behavioral goals.
On the other hand, cognitive inflexibility (also known as deficits in executive function) leads a person to see a problem as due to a specific cause and then look for simplified solutions. Thoughts like “I just need more motivation” or “I know what to do, I just have to do it”. In addition, cognitive inflexibility can lead to an inability to plan, regulate impulses, or make thoughtful, creative decisions. These limitations often affect a person’s ability to assess the likelihood of failure.
Cognitive causes and effects of obesity
Unfortunately, obesity is repeatedly associated with cognitive inflexibility. The deficits make it very difficult to control weight gain, maintain weight loss, or organize regular exercise.
Although the cause of these deficits is not fully understood, it has been suggested that elevated markers of inflammation and problems with glucose control may play a role. Obesity can cause high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, all of which have been shown to affect executive function. There is also a linear relationship between cognitive inflexibility and physical activity. Little physical activity is particularly detrimental to cognitive function.
There is a reciprocal relationship between obesity and cognitive inflexibility. Cognitive inflexibility can lead to obesity, and obesity can lead to cognitive inflexibility.
Develop cognitive flexibility
To emphasize the importance of cognitive flexibility, we can look at other treatment areas that have shown some success in making and maintaining weight loss. They each relate in some way to teaching cognitive flexibility. Some are listed here:
- Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: In the book Mindset, Carol S. Dweck outlines the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset. A solid mindset leads people to believe that any talent or ability they have is fixed. When failure occurs, it is seen as part of the person’s solid identity. On the other hand, a growth mindset allows the person to see each mistake as a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the solution.
- Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility by developing attention and focus. This gives the individual the opportunity to take a step back, not act impulsively, and has the time and mental space to consider creative solutions.
- Behavior Modification: This type of program is aimed at health literacy and weight loss strategies. In addition, weight monitoring is promoted, nutritional guidelines are given, training planning is supported and perceived barriers are addressed. This type of program has been used successfully, perhaps because it takes into account the complexity of the problem and empowers individuals to go their own way by choosing which behaviors to work on.
- CDC Problem Solving Guidelines: The agency’s five steps to solving health problems are as follows: (1) describe the problem, (2) work out options, (3) choose the best option, (4) create a plan of action , and (5) try it out! The implication here is to work on a small, solvable problem (which requires focus and attention) and then use decision-making rather than the impulse to apply a solution.
One last word
Let us return to the research study mentioned at the beginning. According to the authors, cognitive flexibility can be taught. To do this, the teaching must include these three important concepts:
- There has to be a learning curve, that is, acquiring new information that can be applied to personal experiences.
- Find solutions that do justice to the complexity of the problem.
- Success comes when a person practices the new solution over and over until an adjustment is made.