Have you ever approached fitness resolutions with a “just do it” attitude? Were you disappointed that you summoned up all of the willpower that you could muster in January only to find yourself back to your old ways by March?
If you’re like most people, this is exactly what happened. It’s like battling Zeromus at the end of Final Fantasy IV with a measly average party level of 60. Kain comes back from his “jump” to find a dead party. (Non-geek translation: You will fail.)
The reason is simple. Fitness isn’t something that you can “just do.” Sure, there are some resolutions, such as quitting smoking, that allow you to jump in headfirst, but fitness-related endeavors are not one of them. That’s because fitness is a skill, one that you need to improve in order to succeed in your New Years resolution endeavors.
Why fitness success isn’t about willpower
The crux of why most people wrongly go about their fitness New Years resolutions is that willpower, self-control, and motivation are limited resources.* Sure, all of these play a role in your success, but not as much as you might think.
Let’s look at an example. New Years Resolution Joe is all gung ho about his New Years resolution – running on the treadmill every single morning. He hates running, but he pounds the pavement anyway. Things are going swimmingly for a few days...
... that is until he misses a session. Then another. Perhaps he hit snooze on his alarm clock too much. Or he had an early work meeting. There are infinite reasons to break an exercise streak, all which you’ve encountered before. To make matters worse, after all that work, the number on the scale wasn’t very much better than when Joe started, a phenomenon that is not uncommon.
Average Joe cannot “will” his way to fitness success any more than Joffrey Baratheon can will himself to stop being a jerk. By March his New Year’s resolution is no more than a faded memory.
For Joe to stick to his resolution, he needs to build a positive feedback loop around fitness. In other words, he must make sure that the results from fitness greatly outweigh the pains of fitness. Joe needs to develop a perpetual machine where he knows that putting in x effort will yield results that are greater than x.Only then does fitness then become self-motivating.
I’ve seen people build this feedback loop. Once they do, it’s like fitness “clicks” and suddenly, they’re always able to find time. To miss the gym for an entire week would be like not brushing your teeth.
Accepting that fitness success isn’t predicated on willpower is analogous to Neo taking the red pill. After all, the implications may shatter your mental model around not only fitness, but around how you view the world. Because many of us have our entire mental mindset geared towards this approach thanks to popular culture.
Perhaps fat people aren’t just “lazy” or perhaps your past fitness failures weren’t entirely within your control.
Succeeding in fitness requires you to take the red pill. But this is no easy task. Change is hard, and many will find it easier to believe that some Internet bozo (i.e. me) iis wrong than to accept that you may have been looking at things incorrectly.But if you’re ready to take the red pill, read on. After all, if you’ve read this far then chances are what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working.
What do you have to lose?
Fitness success is a skill. You need to practice and learn to get better at it.
In psychology, there’s this concept of fixed vs growth mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets believe that skills are relatively immutable; you either have them or you don’t. By contrast, those with growth mindsets believe that skills and talents are acquired and improvable through dedication and education.
Those who fail in fitness often have a “fixed” mindset; they believe that people either have the discipline and willpower required to be fit or they don’t.
You need a growth mindset to succeed in fitness. That is because fitness success is a skill like any other. You get better at it by practice and getting better at the underlying skills.
Here are the top skills you’ll need to develop:
Domain knowledge – Learn the basics of diet (calories and macronutrients) and exercise. Sheer learning about the science of fitness goes a very long way to developing a positive feedback loop. For example, learning that a high protein diet vastly reduces hunger and increases your metabolism – both of which lessen the “pain” part of the feedback loop that we discussed – leads to an overall stronger loop.
Mindfulness – Develop an awareness of how everything impacts your fitness-related feelings and outcome, such as hunger, energy, mood, etc. For example, perhaps the Paleo diet worked for someone else, but you’ve noticed that low carb diets increase your propensity to binge. This realization takes mindfulness to a pinpoint. It then takes knowledge to know what to do instead.
Self-compassion – Sometimes the underlying skills behind fitness are not so obvious. Self-compassion is one of those skills. On the road to fitness, screwing up is inevitable, and it may be tempting to blame yourself. However, knowing that fitness is a skill also means that slipping up is not a character flaw. You must forgive yourself so that you can learn and try again.
In studies, those who practice self-compassion actually learn from their mistakes and are less likely to make them again. Learning to forgive one’s self is a valuable skill, especially because the natural reaction is one of guilt or shame.
Humility – If I had to identify the most common thing that prevents people from getting fit, it’s a lack of humility. I’m sure many readers stopped after the first paragraph and said “I don’t need to read this crap. I know everything that I need to know in order to succeed this time around.”
The reality is, most of what people think they know about the physiology and psychology about “getting fit” is probably wrong. It takes a truly humble person to realize this fact from the start.
For example, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day, announcing your fitness goals makes you less likely to succeed, people today don’t burn many fewer calories than they did in the past, salt isn’t bad for you, and saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease. I could go on.
Talk about a powerful red pill!
The point that I’m trying to make here is that most of what Average Joe thinks he knows about fitness is probably wrong, so it’s best to approach it with humility and an open mind. If it’s any consolation, it’s not just Average Joe’s head that’s filled with erroneous fitness knowledge – most MDs aren’t much better.
Next steps to nailing your fitness resolution
What to do now?
Well, despite this bevy of information, I don’t want to detract from the most important part of fitness resolution success – generating the positive feedback loop. So, let’s get a little bit more concrete.
Pick a fitness goal. Not fitness goals, but just one fitness goal. Then, do the minimum amount that you need to do in order to start seeing progress. Because weight loss is the goal for a majority of people, I’ll use it as an example. (For other goals, you might want to check out Reddit’s fitness FAQ for some good information.)
First, read this article on the basics of weight loss and calories and measure your weight and waist measurements religiously so that you have a starting point.
Then, do the minimum, most painless effort required in order to lose weight. Using the article above, that means eating about 10x your bodyweight (in lbs) in calories and 1g of protein per lb bodyweight. So if you are a 250 lb man who wants to get to 160 lbs, eat 2500 calories/day containing at least 160g of protein.One week later, check your measurements again. If you stuck to the plan, they will have gone down significantly.
Rinse and repeat and there you have it – recurring motivation! Need more help? There are programs out there to help you suceed.
I sincerely hope that in March, instead of your fitness resolutions being a distant memory, you’ll look back and realize that swallowing the red pill was the best decision you ever made Now, hit me up with some questions!
*This has been recently been made controversial through recent research, but everything still applies. There is a finite amount of self-control, attention, willpower, and simply time that one is willing to put forth until they give up.
Learn more about Minimum Viable Fitness & how to optimize your willpower usage to get fit
Why Willpower Doesn't Work
By Dick Talens