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Weight Watchers groups, such as the one led by Ashley Gibson in Toronto, have been around since 1963. The latest science endorses its approach.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Charles Cicciarella had always told himself that he wanted to lose weight, but it was only when he watched his aunt die that he finally got up off the couch.

"The way I saw it was she was quite young, passed away from cancer, and I was thinking, 'I was given this ticket to life and I'm not taking advantage of it,' " says Mr. Cicciarella, a Toronto-based e-learning trainer. "That really gave me the wake-up call."

A former "fast food junkie," he cut out double-cheeseburger combos and started opting for healthy foods. He also took to walking as far as he could to work before jumping on the subway, rather than going straight to the stop nearest his apartment. "I started walking to Dundas station, then I started going to College, then to Wellesley and then Yonge," he says of stops farther and farther from his apartment. "I literally did it one step at a time."

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That was in 2003. He eventually got a personal trainer, and continues to work out five days a week, mixing weightlifting with cardio. He has lost nearly 150 pounds.

After losing the weight, Mr. Cicciarella was inspired to write a book to help others follow in his footsteps. As he writes in Life is a Fat Onion: My 8 Rules for Losing Weight and Gaining Life, to find the right motivation you have to ask yourself "what is the most important thing in your life."

A dieter's initial motivation is an essential part of how successful he or she will be at losing weight and keeping it off. Many other factors will play a role, but like any change of behaviour, eating healthy and becoming active are first and foremost psychological tasks, not physical ones. If you don't truly want to change, you won't.

The National Weight Control Registry, a U.S.-based initiative that collects data on people who have been successful at long-term weight loss, has found that medical "triggers" (the reasons people get off their butts to lose weight) are the most popular motivators. Reaching an all-time high in poundage and seeing a picture or reflection of themselves were the second and third most popular triggers.

Studies of registry members have found that people who set out to lose weight after a medical "triggering" event, defined broadly to include everything from being told by a doctor to lose weight to a family member having a heart attack, lost more weight than people with other types of triggering events and were more successful at keeping it off.The registry has also revealed another key component to the psychological side of weight loss: There is strength in numbers. According to its findings, people who lost weight and attended bi-monthly support groups for a year maintained their weight loss, while people who didn't attend meetings regained almost half the weight they'd lost.

In Weight Watchers, the diet program first established in Brooklyn in 1963, group support is a key component.

Ashley Gibson, who attended weekly Weight Watchers meetings in Toronto beginning in 2006, credits the groupswith helping her lose 30 pounds. "I think that was absolutely instrumental in me getting to where I needed to be."

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Ms. Gibson, who lives in Durham, Ont., is now a group leader.

"Weight loss and making a lifestyle change is hard, and the group setting allows you to recognize that there are other people in the same place as you," she says.

Kate Mills credits those group meetings with helping her lose just under 80 pounds since February, 2009.

"Everybody there is going through the same thing, so you get tons of encouragement," says Ms. Mills, a 29-year-old registered nurse who also lives in Durham. Sharing stories of overcoming the temptation to order a pizza isn't just cathartic, she says. "People clap. You get applause. Sometimes, that's what you need."

The encouragement offered by groups, and their friendly sense of peer pressure, helps explain the popularity of group fitness classes, people posting their weight-loss attempts online, and the number of organized weight-loss challenges, especially frequent during this time of year as they seize on people's New Year resolutions. The X-Weighted National Challenge, launched earlier this month, will see thousands of Canadians record their starting weight and measurements online, then go on a 26-week program to reach the goal they've been assigned. Last year, more than 4,500 people participated in the contest, which bills itself as "a robust social network that offers unprecedented peer support."

Kristi Van Kessel, who has been featured on X-Weighted, a reality television show, has signed up for this year's national challenge.

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"It comes back down to that accountability thing," says the construction company supervisor who lives in Little Britain, Ont. "It's fine to say, 'I'm accountable to myself.' But if you sign up for a program where you know you need to do a weekly weigh-in, or a bi-weekly weigh-in, you know you're going to work your butt off."

Obesity researchers warn that motivation alone is no guarantee of success. It can backfire, as over-enthusiasm prompts people to shoot for unrealistic goals.

Arya Sharma, chair of obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, has met patients who told him they planned to lose 100 pounds and others who said they'd reach their weight-loss target by cutting all their portions in half. Both goals are too ambitious.

"What you really often find in practice is that people are coming in, they're ready to make changes, but they're trying to make the wrong changes or they've set themselves the wrong goals," Dr. Sharma says. And that can put the brakes on weight loss.

It's better to start slow and build on the successes of eating healthy foods and engaging in physical activity rather than race toward goals that you cannot reach.

"If that motivation is channelled into the wrong activity, or is aimed at achieving unrealistic and unsustainable goals, very often what happens is that people try, it doesn't work, they fall back and they simply give up."

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