Social Support is Good Medicine

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The December 2015 Why WAIT class, which brought the program’s total weight lost, over nearly-10 years, to an incredible 10,000 pounds

Weight loss is completely personal. What works for one person may not work for another. Even so, group weight loss programs are known to motivate people to reach their goals.

Not surprisingly, research shows that those who join a weight loss group are more successful than those who diet alone. At Joslin Diabetes Center, the Why WAIT program, a 12-week multidisciplinary intensive lifestyle program created to help people with diabetes lose weight and control their diabetes, is proving that people can lose weight more successfully in a group setting. And, more importantly, keep it off once and for all.

“I am a believer that type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease and I also believe that it is a reversible condition. People can have complete remission from type 2 diabetes with weight loss,” says Osama Hamdy, M.D., Ph.D., FACE, Medical Director of Obesity Clinical Program at Joslin Diabetes Center and founder of Why WAIT program. “There is a lot of hope for people with type 2 diabetes.”

The group setting provides a unique dynamic that’s impossible to duplicate on your own.  No question, the accountability factor is among the many benefits of group visits. Connecting with others who have the same struggles and the same goals keeps you more focused. And through the experiences of others, you can get practical advice about what works best in a variety of situations.  As a result, people start to take better care of themselves and change their behavior.

Also, there’s always someone there to help you get back on track if you falter. “People who lose weight usually relapse and regain the weight,” says Dr. Hamdy. “They eat what they used to eat before they lost the weight.”  Why WAIT? helps people maintain their weight loss over the long term.

Between diet and exercise and medication management, dealing with the same challenges over and over can feel isolating. “When you are in this by yourself you can begin to think, what is wrong with me? Why am I struggling so much with food, weight and diabetes management?” says John Zrebiec, L.I.C.S.W., Director of the Behavioral Health Section at Joslin Diabetes Center.  “We know that people with diabetes have a tendency to be overly self critical and self blaming. When things don’t go right, it’s easy to think it’s your fault.”

But group programs allow people to open up about their personal troubles and frustrations, making them ideal for individuals who consistently struggle with the same issues. For example, individuals who have participated in Why WAIT have commented that although they have lived with diabetes for decades, they never met someone else with the disease until they joined the program.

“What is different about Why WAIT is that the group setting is like a hall of mirrors, what you see is multiple images of yourself reflected in the mirror,” says Zrebiec. “There’s nothing like being in a room with other people who have the same experience to inspire you to do better.”

What most people don’t realize is how demanding diabetes management really is. But research shows that the average person makes anywhere between 90 and 270 decisions a day regarding their diabetes, and that a person living with diabetes can spend up to two hours a day managing it, says Zrebiec.

“If you are alone with that, and have no comparison, you could find yourself wondering, why am I spending so much time thinking about and managing this,”, says Zrebiec. “It’s such a tremendous comfort to know other people do the same.”

And, keeping all the diabetes balls in the air can push people to their limit. In fact, people with diabetes suffer from high rates of emotional distress. While some rely on friends and family for support, there is no replacement for sharing the ups and downs with others who have diabetes.  A group gives people the opportunity to freely express their negative emotions about the disease and make progress.

Simply put, we learn from each other. Joining a group promotes camaraderie for years to come. “We encourage participants to stay in touch with one another after the formal program ends,” says Dr. Hamdy.” “They will meet up once a month to have dinner and go for a walk and share stories. A lot of people in the group make lifelong friends.”

In general, there is a lot of shame about having diabetes, and being overweight just adds insult to injury. “The group decreases shame,” says Zrebiec. “One thing that attracts people to Joslin is that we do not make people feel ashamed or blamed about their weight or blood sugars.  We try to focus on solving problems, rather than shaming people into compliance. It’s a very different approach.”

For more information or to enroll in the Why WAIT program, click here.

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