Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why people fail at fitness (and some possible solutions)

Why do people fail to get into shape?

An obvious question, since so many people are out of shape. People giving fitness advice tend to talk a lot about the practical things to do to get into shape, but we don’t talk much about why people fail at it, beyond calling them lazy or ignorant. While there is some truth to that cynical view (some people really are lazy slugs), there are also other reasons that bear discussing.

It is obvious that you’ll fail to get into shape if you never try to get into shape. But why don’t more people try to get into shape? And why do some people try for a while, and then give up? Certainly we can blame ignorance or laziness, to a point. But there is more at work than that, because a lot of people desperately want to stop being fat or weak or sickly, but fail to do so, even though the things they need to do are well understood. Why is that so?

I think the question is worth asking because if you don’t understand why people fail, you are unlikely to help them succeed. So without further ado, on to the list...

Some possible reasons for fitness failure:

1) They believe that getting into shape is so difficult or complicated that they don’t believe they can ever do it. They read about fitness, and the sheer volume of data out there overwhelms them. They see amazing looking people and can’t imagine that they could ever make such a huge change in themselves. Everyone talks about what an ordeal it is and how much willpower it takes, and they can’t picture themselves accomplishing such an Olympian task. It just looks impossible to them, and so they never try.

The key to overcoming this is to realize that this outlook is based on a false premise. Getting into shape isn’t about constant suffering and iron willpower and killing yourself 24/7 to look like a supermodel. It isn’t about some finding some perfect formula or solving some inscrutable fitness mystery. What it is really about is accumulating small, simple, livable changes to your lifestyle over time, and then sticking to them. People who get into shape aren’t killing themselves to stay that way; they’ve just made being healthy part of their routine way of doing things, like mowing the lawn or whatever. And they haven’t found some secret to success that nobody else has; the basics of health and fitness have been well understood for the last 50 years or more.

2) People failed in the past, and so think they have to fail in the future. After a while, they assume that they’re incurable because of some fatal defect in their genes or character. They often tried very hard, and maybe even had short-term success, only to flunk in the end. So they’ve quit trying.

The key to overcoming this is to understand why they failed in the past. Almost all fitness failures are the result of people using self-destructive strategies that have never worked for anybody. Sometimes this is the result of simple ignorance (meaning lack of knowledge, not stupidity), or being duped by one of the innumerable weight loss and fitness scams out there. These self-defeating strategies include:

- Extreme diets, fad diets, super low calorie diets. Some of these can produce impressive short-term weight loss if you follow them. But they all flunk in the long term, because they have no long term. They’re all fundamentally wrong because they miss the whole point of a good diet, which is keeping you from getting fat for the rest of your life.

And not only are they wrong conceptually, they are also wrong physiologically. Massive weight loss in a short period of time is usually produced by what amounts to starvation. The problem with starvation is that your metabolism bottoms out, which causes you to gain weight super-easily once you get off the diet. In that situation your body also tries to conserve any fat it has left and breaks down your muscles instead wherever it can. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want to happen.

- Over-exercise. People will just try to jump into doing immense amounts of cardio or weight lifting 7 days a week, and quickly injure themselves or be horribly sore all the time or just burn out. This is not how you work out; you need to follow a sensible workout plan, gradually increase how much exercise you do, and give your body days off to recover.

- Not taking the long view. Sometimes the problem is ultimately one of mindset. Your objective isn’t to hit X weight. If you think that way, you might hit X weight, but then what? You’ll go eat Big Macs every day for a week and flunk again, that’s what. The real objective is to eat right and exercise so you can stay at a healthy weight.

What about genetics? Well, what about them? A tiny minority of people have legitimate, innate limitations that are actually relevant to what they can accomplish with diet and exercise. But the truth is, genetics are a minor factor; most people are so far from their genetically-dictated limits that they are, as a practical matter, totally irrelevant. Can you look like a supermodel? Probably not, but who cares? You sure can look and feel a whole lot better than you are now.

Your excess fat didn’t come from your genes; it came eating more calories than you burned. Believing anything else is an appeal to magic and a stupid, counter-factual excuse. Don’t misunderstand me; your genes may give you a harder time of it generally. But your body doesn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics.

3) Your unhealthy behavior is the symptom of an underlying psychological problem. Becoming fit is largely a function of adopting the proper mindset concerning diet and exercise. So it follows that if you have serious mental or emotional problems, it is unlikely that you will be able to succeed at fitness. I'm not talking about being a crybaby, I'm talking about things like:

-Severe depression, anxiety/panic attacks
-Extreme self-esteem issues like genuinely hating yourself, thinking you don’t deserve to be successful at anything, and so forth
-Habitual binge eating
-Binging followed by forced vomiting/laxative abuse (bulimia)
-Starving yourself (anorexia)

The key to dealing with this is to get the underlying problem under control first, and then worry about diet and exercise. While exercise can act as a natural mood elevator, you are unlikely to succeed if you can barely cope with life or have massive emotional baggage associated with eating. If you fit any of the above criteria, seek professional help, not some guy on the internet.