Dear Oprah: Those health guests may not be so healthful


Dear Ms. Winfrey:

I get it.

I understand why you have so many guests on your show offering advice about health. I’m not a fan of alternative medicine, but I know sensationalism sells. Stuff that stands up to scientific scrutiny often lacks the pizazz that makes for scintillating television.

And just because I’m not into aligning my chi or awakening my Tony Robbins giant within doesn’t mean other people don’t have the right to seek alternatives to modern medicine. I know you are interested in presenting the millions of people who watch “Oprah” with different options.

However, I’m concerned that some of the people you have had as guests on your show and highlighted on your website may have led you astray when it comes to your own battles with weight, a topic about which you’ve been admirably frank. For instance, it might be a good idea to get advice from a doctor who doesn’t say things like many women develop thyroid problems due to “an energy blockage in the throat region” that develops over “a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say,” as your frequent guest Dr. Christiane Northrup writes in her book, “The Wisdom of Menopause,” which you discussed and endorsed on your show.


You’re not known for swallowing words, are you?

You seem to have an affinity for the Law of Attraction — the idea that your thoughts “are sent out into the universe” and “magnetically attract” your desires, as Rhonda Byrne explains in her bestselling book “The Secret” and discussed on your show — but I don’t think you believe that you can achieve your ideal weight just by thinking about it. You’ve proved you know that maintaining your desired weight requires a combination of exercise and eating a healthful diet. It just boils down to staying motivated to stick with it.

And that means an attitude adjustment is called for. You’ve repeatedly said you hate exercise, and this needs to change. It’s time to feel the love, Ms. Winfrey; you need to learn to love exercise rather than just see it as a means to an end.

I’d like to introduce you to some motivation guys who are less charismatic than the aforementioned Mr. Robbins but nonetheless have great advice to offer about behavior change.

The first is the eminent psychologist B.F. Skinner, who would make a lousy guest because, well, he’s dead. Nevertheless, his advice about how positive reinforcement can lead to behavior change is important. Quite simply, if exercise (stimulus) is something you enjoy (response), then you will seek to do it again and again. On the other hand, weight loss is a terrible motivator because the response takes place so long after the stimulus. So forget the focus on counting calories for now — just find something fun and get good at it.

Next is Icek Ajzen, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who developed the theory of planned behavior, which is like a scientific version of Norman Vincent Peale’s book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Ajzen determined that people who have a positive attitude about a new behavior (like finding an exercise they can fall in love with) and believe they have the wherewithal to follow through are far more likely to succeed. He also discovered it helps if you perceive that others want you to succeed. I’m guessing there are about a billion people out there who want that.

Another is Albert Bandura, the renowned Stanford psychologist whose self-efficacy theory is about having the situation-specific self-confidence to succeed. Nike says, “Just do it”; Bandura’s less catchy motto would be: Learn, plan, prepare, then do it. So don’t jump into a new exercise; do some research and get expert instruction. You can also draw on your track record of many other incredible accomplishments to know that you have the ability to succeed at this.

Now, I don’t expect you to instantly become so in love with exercise that you start jumping on couches like Tom Cruise. It’s a gradual process, like starting a fire with two sticks. Finding an exercise that you don’t completely hate is an ember, which can be nurtured into a flame, which can eventually become a raging bonfire if you feed it.

Try skiing, surfing or mountain biking. Play soccer with the girls attending the school you built in South Africa. Go out and have a good time, and then do an episode in which you proudly show off all your bruises. Find your exercise bliss, and hang out with people who share your passion.

And your diet? Perhaps you can set that concern aside for a while. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition reported in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior that exercise can prompt “older adults” to adopt good eating habits. Not to say that you’re “older,” but it stands to reason that increasing your willpower via exercise will make you more likely to succeed at healthful eating over the long term.

When you’re ready to fuel exercise with better eating, consider hiring renowned sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, who has helped professional athletes and casual exercisers alike. You may also wish to find a trained psychologist who specializes in emotional eating, instead of relying on “Women, Food and God” author Geneen Roth, who relays hokum like “Diets are based on the unspoken fear that you are a madwoman, a food terrorist, a lunatic” in a book excerpt on your website and whose primary qualification seems to be personal experience. (Roth did not respond to questions about her credentials, and none are mentioned on her website.)

No one can question that you are an amazing and accomplished woman, Ms. Winfrey. Now it’s time to turn that world-changing determination inward.

You may think you hate exercise, but I disagree. Deep down, every one of us is genetically programmed for intense activity, a trait our ancestors needed to survive. Your DNA and your spirit combined can transform you into a true workout warrior. This woman who loves exercise is inside you, somewhere.

Go find her.

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.