On the surface, the numbers mean nothing. They could be a lottery number, a gym locker combination, or the estimated age when all men mature. But if you look closer, these numbers are proof that fitness programs aren’t working the way they should. Or maybe more accurately, bad fitness has become the norm.
- Approximately 33 percent of the population is now obese or overweight, and that number is projected to climb
- More than 60 percent of people who visit gyms have trouble sticking with their plan consistently for more than three months.
- Up to 92 percent of people fail at their fitness resolutions by the end of the year.
Some might find these numbers depressing. The reality is, the numbers—while disconcerting—are a sign of hope and improvement. Because while most experts continue to spend so much time stressing the search for the perfect exercise program or diet—research is finally uncovering why so many people struggle to get in shape.
And the reason is simple: an important variable is missing that significantly influences whether you see the type of results you want.
Good health and fitness books or good diet programs work because they provide information that has been proven to achieve a particular goal, whether it’s burning fat, building muscle, becoming more athletic, or just boosting overall health.
Whether a diet and training program works is not why so my people fail. Many diets work. Many types of exercise burn calories. But certain programs are effective for individuals because each person is able to crack the code and learn how to change behavior.
It’s time to flip the script on why certain people are fit and others struggle to fit into their favorite pair of jeans. It’s the secret in the fitness world that few people address because most never grasp why some people succeed on the same plan where others fail.
Beyond the calories in versus calories out equation, finding the perfect workout or number of sets or reps, the real breakdowns in body transformation don’t occur in the muscles or fat cells—they happen in your head.
Whether you realize it or not, your success is determined by your ability to adhere to a number of behavioral changes that make it easier for you to experience success on any type of program.
The two most common explanations for why fitness programs don’t work are:
1) The workout (and/or diet) was no good and full of nonsense
2) Your body sucks. Your genetics are awful. Everyone can lose weight and you can’t.
The reality is, the second reason—while valid (genetics do play a big role)—is not a reason for your lack of success. Anyone can change and transform. Weight loss and muscle gain are not restricted to the genetically blessed.
The list of why programs don’t work is missing two essential elements that make it complete:
3) You didn’t follow the program, weren’t compliant, and constantly made adjustments
4) The program was delivered in a way that gave you no option but failure.
It’s this fourth element that most people overlook and never even consider, which is why so many are frustrated because it is probably the most common reason for frustration and a lack of progress.
Unless you inherently love exercise and eating good foods, shifting to new habits takes a lot of mental energy. And if you don’t take the right approach, your brain can literally prevent you from making the changes you desperately want.
Instead of blaming yourself, you can arm yourself with some basic knowledge that will make sure you mind is strong enough to carry your body to its new and improved look.
Bad Fitness 101: Don’t Rely on Willpower…
The first rule of willpower is doing everything possible to not rely on it. Willpower is a real thing, and it can be the reason why you head to the gym and eat broccoli instead of lay on the couch and eat ice cream, but it’s also the reason so many people have trouble adapting to healthy behaviors that feel foreign.
You see, you have much less control over your behavior than you’d want to believe. That’s because stress and anxiety—emotions that are inevitable—can wreck havoc on even the strongest intent, and make it difficult for you stay focused and push yourself to stay consistent with new behaviors.
Which is why it’s important when taking on a new plan to be aware of the ways that your willpower might make it difficult for you to experience success. Instead of thinking, “I must avoid all of the candy in my pantry,” you need to throw out all the food you know you have trouble avoiding and replace it with the stuff you want to eat.
If you’ve noticed that you can’t make it to the gym consistently, hire a trainer and make a special request that they text you an hour before your session.
Willpower can be faulty, so building systems that guide behavior can ensure that when willpower breaks down failure is not the only option. The more structure and rigidity to the systems you build, the easier it is to program your behavior.
If you feel that you need to walk more, you can purposely park your car 15 minutes away from work. Sure it’s inconvenient, but it will get the job done, right?
All too often we over-rely on the belief that creating change will be easy. Instead, anticipate that it will be hard and simplify your job by making it easy for you to adhere to your new behaviors. After a while, you will change as a person, and you won’t need the systems any more.
…But Creating More Willpower Will Help (Yes, it’s possible)
The most frustrating thing about willpower is that we legitimately have limited amounts available. The area of your brain that controls your willpower is located in your prefrontal cortex. You might remember this from biology as the area directly behind your forehead.
It’s the same part of your brain that helps you with all your day-to-day tasks, everything from your short term memory (What did my wife tell me to buy at the store?), figuring out some simple tasks, and even staying focused.
The point is, the pre-fontal cortex is busy at all times. So whenever you take on a new behavior—especially one that is as big as getting in shape, exercising, and eating better—it’s like having a massive project dropped in your lap and being told everyone else in the office is too busy to help.
The result is that desired actions—if new—can be very (very) hard to execute. In fact, it’s more than your brain can handle, meaning you default to old or undesirable behaviors.
Here’s how manipulative your brain can be. In a well-known study at Stanford, two groups were given a number to remember. One group needed to remember a two-digit sequence, whereas the other needed to remember 7 digits (Both short-term memory tasks). Then the groups went for a walk. At the end of their walk, they were offered an option of snacks: Fruit or chocolate cake. (This type of dilemma might sound familiar.)
What happened? Those who had to remember the 7-digit number were two times more likely to dig into the cake instead of opt for the fruit.
Researchers refer to this as “cognitive load.” The more space you’re taking up in the prefontal cortex, the harder it is to make certain decisions. That’s why you need to train yourself and prepare accordingly so that you have enough willpower to take on new tasks.
This is one of the reasons why resolutions are such a flawed concept. If you’re trying to change 10 behaviors at the same time, it’s nearly impossible for you to succeed. Your brain won’t have it, and, as a result, you’ll be more likely to find yourself in December eating cake—and not because you’re celebrating your new body.
Instead of listing off many goals or taking on too many projects, it’s best to focus on one big effort and then break that down into habits. Researchers from Australia found that taking a step-by-step approach, such as building one habit at a time helps reduce cognitive load.
So rather than saying “I need to lose 10 pounds” it’s best to program simple behaviors that will help make this possible. This might be, “I will have an accountability team to make sure I go to the gym.” The habit is simple—building a team—rather than something more complex such as promising that you’ll exercise for 60 minutes five times per week.
The lesson: Be aware that your willpower is the most overworked employee in your brain. Make the job easier and you’ll see your habits change along with your body.
5 Ways to Boost Willpower
In order to make sure you create more willpower and don’t sabotage your efforts, here are five things you need to consider when trying to change your body, take on a new diet or fitness program, or accept a new behavior.
We all want to believe that we can achieve our fitness goals, but all too often “false hope syndrome” makes the process harder than it needs to be. You need to set realistic expectations of who you are, what you are capable of achieving, and want processes you need to set up to help you be successful. This goes back to building systems.
If you know that you fall victim to cravings, don’t tell yourself those days are over and that you can completely control yourself. Odds are, you’re lying to yourself and these positive intentions—while seemingly good—can be harmful. That’s because the moment you slip up you’ll not only revert back to old behaviors (not terrible when it happens once in a while—hey, we all screw up!) but more importantly it can crush your self-esteem. And once that happens, willpower becomes overrun and you fall off the wagon.
Therefore, it’s important that you start out confident, but also be realistic with what will be easy and what will be hard. Make a list. Separate it into two goals (easy and hard), and for everything that’s hard, plan certain systems that will help ensure that you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself.
Think Small (But Still Dream Big)
If you’re serious about your fitness goals, you need to determine what other areas of your life should be prioritized less. Go in open-minded and realize that making these changes will be tough; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. So make sure you have the energy to take on the task and be prepared for the hard days. You can simplify this process by:
- Creating goals that matter to you. This will make it easier to fight for them.
- Setting up a plan
- Creating Milestones
- Trying new ways of living
All four of these elements have something in common: you’re creating new thought patterns. When brain scientists have looked at MRI’s they’ve found that our minds work off of old memories. It’s like a taking a particular route to work. After a while, it becomes you routine. But when it comes to behavior, oftentimes you simply try to tell yourself, “Don’t go that way!” That’s a recipe for failure. You need to find a new route. Don’t try to “not to do something;” that just strengthens a pre-existing behavior. Instead, create a new line of thinking, build a new neural pathway, and take that route enough times until it becomes your new habit.
Set specific Goals
This is a good lesson for anything in life: When you set goals, make them specific and tiny. You want to make it as easy as possible to succeed. We all are susceptible to a psychological concept called learned helplessness; fail enough and you come to expect failure. This is the foundation of bad fitness. And yet, all too often goals are set that increase the likelihood of failure. If you make your goals almost too easy to not fail, you’re on the right track. This builds positive reinforcement. And in no time, a series of small successes will have you feeling good and making more changes.
Set up An Accountability System
Speaking of positive feedback, having a team—whether it’s friends, family, a trainer, or workout partner—pays huge dividends for any fitness goal you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, research from the University of Chicago suggests that your likelihood of success is directly related to accountability and support. The ongoing lesson: don’t convince yourself you need to go at this alone. Build a team that can help you succeed. And the more that team is either invested in your goals—or are willing to be a part of your journey—the more likely you’ll succeed.
If all else fails, bad fitness can be offset by building an incentive system that hacks your behavioral patterns and forces change. Research has shown that rewarding behaviors—especially with a monetary value—can help reinforce actions (such as going to the gym) that lead to long-term change. While it might be hard to find someone to pay you to exercise, you can invest your own money (in a trainer or gym) that might help make you less risk aversive. But if gym attendance shows you anything it’s that belonging to a gym is not reason enough to get in shape.
“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” –Abraham Maslow
Now that you’re aware of your brain’s role in the fitness plans, it’s up to you to execute. Build your own structure and systems to help improve the likelihood of success. Or find an option that considers all of those factors.
Whether it’s online coaching or any other proven tactic, you must start with awareness and then move to planning and action. Create a structure for psychological support. Doing so will change your mind, and soon after your body will follow.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.