If you’re completely satisfied with your health, don’t read this article. This is not for you. Give yourself a pat on the back, and save yourself the scrolling. For the rest of you, approach what I’m about to say with an open mind, and maybe you can come out of this a fitter person.
(This article was inspired by Cracked’s “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” It’s one of the most life changing articles I’ve ever read, and there were too many parallels not to write a fitness version.)
Truth #1. You Alone Are Responsible For Your Health and Fitness. Not Your Genes.
“I can’t help that I have bad genes!”
I spent half of my life obese, blaming my genetics. Hell, I had the right to be angry at my genetics. My family tree bears doughnuts, not fruit. My aunt had a heart attack in her 40’s, my sister developed Type II diabetes as a teen, and my mom found a way to grow up obese in a third world Asian country.
But I eventually realized was that having bad genetics does not mean that you cannot take charge of your own health.
If you are out of shape, I’m not saying it’s your fault. I’m not blaming you. Perhaps, much like myself, you grew up in a poor neighborhood with no access to “healthy” food. In fact, if your entire family ate this way, you had little opportunity to end up differently. What I’m telling you is that you—and you alone—are responsible for improving your fitness.
I see it far too often: somebody is overweight for some combination of factors, but instead of tackling them head on, they prefer to hide behind it. It’s a crutch.
But here’s the thing. The factors that led to your current health and the responsibility of fixing it are mutually exclusive. It might not be your fault that you’re unhealthy, but the onus is on you to fix it.
Before you feel like I’m shaming you, know that you’re not alone. It’s self-protection– the same reason that, instead of reading this article, some readers are actively clicking away (“u don kno me bro”).
If those people stop placing blame elsewhere, the natural conclusion one makes is “All of my decisions and actions are the reason that I’m unhappy with my health and fitness/life.” An uncomfortable conclusion at that.
But your brain is wrong. There’s a natural tendency to believe that if there’s a party at fault it’s a binary situation. It’s them or us. The former makes you a victim, the latter a villain–neither of which are comforting to identify with.
The key to overcoming this is self-compassion. Being overweight or unfit isn’t a moral failure. You can’t just “eat less, move more” to better health, and the failure to do so is not a failure of character. Anyone in with your same genetics, psychology, and environment would have ended up in the same state as you–how can anyone be blamed for that?
Be forewarned. Change is difficult, and your brain will do everything it can to convince you to stay the same. It’s even going to band with others who have have convinced of the exact same thing…that all you need to do is “love yourself for who you are.” Why? Because that’s much easier than change. You’ll be told that you should love yourself, flaws and all.
But here’s why they’re wrong: being out of shape isn’t a character flaw. Unlike the color of your eyes or skin, your fitness is not an immutable characteristic. It’s something that you can actively change. Being overweight doesn’t mean that you are fat. It means that you have fat.
In fact, loving yourself is the first step towards change. Without it, you can’t show yourself self-compassion and forgive the decisions that led to your current fitness. Those who love themselves strive to become the best versions they can be rather than convincing themselves that they are flawed. Fat is not a flaw.
Truth #2. When You Fail, It’s Because You’re “Lazy”
Let’s clarify something: When I say lazy, I’m not talking about physical laziness. In fact, I encourage trainees to do the minimum amount required for results. This might mean taking the elevator if you hate stairs.
When I say failure, I am not talking about setbacks. On your fitness journey, you will have continuous setbacks, like an accidental binge or feeling too unmotivated to go to the gym. That’s okay. By “failure,” I mean it in the sense of throwing in the towel and say “F**k this. I give up.”
You failed, because in some way—mental or emotional—you were lazy. You lacked the humility or drive to examine your habits, then adjust and sustain them.
This comes down to being unable to change your thinking.
As a perfect example of this, many binge eaters who come to me unable to lose weight are actually over-exercisers and under eat until they hit a breaking point, followed by an uncontrolled binge. Even before training them, I tell them that they need to actually exercise less and eat a higher volume of food more consistently. Some trust me and we make good progress. Others don’t get that far. They were too stuck in their ways and preconceived notions to successfully affect change.
Being hard working in one area doesn’t always translate to others. For example, I’ve observed lawyers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and more–people who don’t shy away from hard work in the professional sense—be lazy when it comes to health. Instead of learning that they should simply build a positive feedback loop around fitness, they cling to what they’ve been taught to think is right. “More work is better”–an adage that might apply well to business, but extremely poorly to health.
It encourages the attachment of purely arbitrary challenges to the idea of being healthy or losing weight. The thought of becoming fit grows into an insurmountable challenge—a solid, impenetrable wall of hardship. But it’s an illusion, as half of these requirements are as meaningful to your progress as basing your goal weight on the number you get by slamming your face into your keyboard ( “y4A^90r3 by summer! #beachbody” ).
This is what I mean by laziness.
It’s being too lazy to actively change your thinking, exhibit self-compassion, be mindful, and swallow your ego. It’s being too lazy to face daunting task of self-reflection rather than “just do more.”
Understand that fitness is a skill and there are many facets to learn. You’ll find much comfort in the revelation that you don’t have to be perfect.
Truth #3. You Probably Know Less Than You Think About Health and Fitness
I once had a co-worker named Steve who loved to dispense health advice, despite talking openly about being out of shape (which I only mention because it’s relevant to the phenomenon explained below).
I remember eating a deli sandwich at my desk when Steve came up to me to lecture me on the fattening effect of carbohydrates in my sandwich, a monologue he had almost definitely regurgitated from everyone’s favorite TV doctor. After a few awkward minutes of conversation, it was clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond what he’d absorbed about the latest fad diet.
This might be something you’ve noticed: when it comes to health and fitness, those with little knowledge, often struggling with their own issues, are the quickest to dispense advice.
Are you guilty of this? Do you share strong opinions around topics like carbs, gluten, or GMOs without having made an honest effort to learn?
Fitness is on par with politics and religion in terms of topics: everyone has an opinion, whether or not they actually know what they’re talking about. It’s no coincidence, either. The fields tie intrinsically to our sense of self, our beliefs, and how we perceive ourselves relative to others.
Thus, by showering the world with their nuggets of Wisdom™, they construct a persona for themselves. They become the ‘expert’ on their field of choice and hang on to any factoid that may resonate with their inherent ways of thinking. Because they’re so wise, any failings they face can’t have been for lack of knowledge, but something else.
It also introduces an awkward situation when you try to explain why they might be wrong.
Do you know what happens when you contradict someone’s deepest convictions? They don’t listen. It’s due to a phenomenon called the “Backfire Effect.” This also explains why we have such polarizing opinions on everything from vaccinations to America’s involvement in Iraq.
While Steve was a convenient example, everyone (including you and me) ties some amount of health beliefs to their identity. Case in point: only five years ago, I staunchly argued that sugar is toxic, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
And it’s okay to change your beliefs. It might be embarrassing to back down, but wielding an ego instead of an open mind will only do you a disservice. The truth is that no one really has the answers to health and fitness in the grand scheme of things. We’re constantly finding out new information, such as the fact that exercise alone isn’t a good weight loss strategy or breakfast isn’t that important.
The only thing that I can tell you for sure thousands of clients and thousands of hours of reading later is this: the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
So if you are learning about fitness for the first time, it’s best to approach with a blank slate. Approach new information skeptically, but with an open mind. Start by learning the basics.
Be humble enough to keep learning and more importantly, courageous enough to admit when you’re wrong.
Truth #4. You Are Too Sensitive About Your Existing Beliefs
There’s a viral article where the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe, tells the story of his friend Claire, who asks him for dating advice:
“Look at me,” she said. “I take care of myself. I’ve put myself out there. Why is this so hard?”
“How about that guy at the end of the bar,” I said. “He keeps looking at you.”
“Not my type.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“Have you tried a dating site?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? I would never date someone I met online!”
“Alright. How about a change of scene? Your company has offices all over – maybe try living in another city?”
“What? Leave San Francisco? Never!”
Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the “right” man. She wants a soul-mate. Specifically, a soul-mate from her zip code. She assembled this guy in her mind years ago, and now, dammit, she’s tired of waiting!! I didn’t tell her this, because Claire has the capacity for sudden violence. But it’s true. She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations. Is it possible that you’ve built a similar wall?
While this article isn’t about fitness, it’s mandatory reading for all of my trainees. Why? Because they have the tendency to act the same way.
Many come to me, or some other coach, because what they’ve done hasn’t worked. Often, I find out they’ve done the same thing over and over again, expecting the different results. That, as seen in the image above, is the definition of insanity.
Yet when I ask them to do something different, it’s often rebuffed:
“I’m used to doing cardio and you took it away. Can you add it back to my program?” – Client with history of binge eating
“I’m upset with my results this week. I only lost two pounds!”
– Client with a history of yoyo dieting
“I can’t give up breakfast! I’ve never done it before and get lethargic without it!”
– Client who doesn’t get enough sleep
The recommendations were explicitly created to break their respective patterns of failure. Yet, I’m met with a common response: “These are my beliefs. I know best.” They are no different from Claire in the example above.
People are unnecessarily sensitive about their beliefs. They take pride in them, which only leads to resistance to change, rather than disassociating beliefs from their sense of self. Of course, this isn’t always possible, such as with beliefs that make up your core principles. For example, while not everyone shares this belief, I am a strong believer in gay marriage. This belief is part of my personal moral code.
You should not be basing your fitness beliefs on a moral code, because health is not a religion. There is no one who prays to the vaccine gods. Your beliefs on health should be based on evidence, and you should be willing to change these beliefs if you are presented with better evidence
When you dissociate your identity with your beliefs on health and fitness, and stop being so sensitive about shielding them, then you can finally learn and grow.
Where to Go From Here
I’ve repeated myself like a broken record, but there are some messages worth repeating:
Take responsibility for your health, but be kind to yourself.
Introspect, rather than blame, for times that you have failed, and make sure to exhibit self-compassion.
Realize there is much to learn, and approach fitness with an open mind.
Disassociate yourself with your beliefs, and realize this is fitness, not religion we’re talking about.
I suspect that there’s a correlation between making it this far and your success. You might’ve agreed with this entire thing (and don’t need changing), or there might have been moments where you hated my guts. I hope you had those moments, because it means that I prodded a protective layer that may be preventing growth.
I also hope there was a little voice inside your head that says “hmmmm… maybe I’ve been wrong, and that’s okay.” If so, follow that voice. It will help guide you to the best version of yourself.