Health

How to Finally Get in Shape, Even if You've Failed Before

Published On 07/28/2016 Published On 07/28/2016

Getting fit can seem like an impossible task. First, there's all the information you have to deal with -- someone telling you to do this program or that program, or follow this diet instead of that diet.

Then there's the real work. Dealing with cravings when nothing sounds better than putting away a dozen donuts. And you can't forget actually exercising, right?

What you may not realize is that on top of all of this, you actually have to fight your own brain when it comes to fitness. You see, for all the talk we do about how we'd like to change this or that, get fit, go on a diet, or whatever it is, most people prefer to stay the same. This isn't necessarily your fault; change is terrifying, and because of that, your brain uses a number of tricks to keep you the same. Here are three ways your brain is sabotaging your fitness goals, and how to fix those.

Your brain tells stories to make you believe you're doing just fine

Humans enjoy hearing stories -- it helps us make sense of the world. Without the ability to make stories, every event would be a disconnected piece of information without any precedent, cause, or consequence.

The only problem is when these stories wind up sabotaging your diet or lifting program. For example, if you're not keeping track of the foods you eat, you may not be aware of when you're "treating" yourself. Months down the road, you wonder why nothing's changed, even though from what you can remember, you've been eating everything you're supposed to.

Same thing for workouts. You may go into the gym and jump on the treadmill, do a few machines, and get out. That works for a little while, but after a point you may become frustrated at your lack of progress, especially when you keep telling yourself that you're lifting and doing everything that you should. See how that story begins to unfold?

This is called narrative bias; the stories you tell yourself may downplay your slip-ups, instead fitting them into a bigger picture of how you see yourself. So after months of various treats and cheat days, or not tracking your workouts, it's easy to forget all the times you went off the rails with your diet, or didn't work out the way you should have.

How to beat it: I'm a big fan of journaling for a number of reasons, but especially when it comes to narrative bias. Keeping a record of your diet, your lifting program, and other daily activity is a great resource, because if you're frustrated with your lack of progress, you can look back and see where you may have unexpectedly slipped up.

You tend to believe the success stories without seeing the failures

This is another bias, called survivorship bias. How many times have you seen a celebrity with a body that you want and found yourself searching for what their diet looked like? Or looked up what sort of training program a movie star followed to get in shape for a specific role?

Most people have done it, and anyone can find success stories for celebrity training programs and fad diets. What you typically see in these cases, though, is the cream of the crop, the very top 1% that has succeeded with a particular plan.

What you don't see is all the people who failed to obtain results using the exact same methods. This can lead to banging your head against a wall, trying diets or workouts over and over, while failing to realize that the successes might be successful in spite of their program, not because of it.

How to beat it: The biggest key to beating survivorship bias is hiring an expert in the given field you're trying to improve in. If it's a diet or training program, hiring a great trainer who has experience in helping people achieve what you're trying to do is the best move.

These individuals are not only qualified, but they're knowledgeable enough to know what works and what doesn't work, and not leading you astray with the latest and greatest program that some celebrity may have tried. They're also more likely to know your unique motivators and habits, which goes a long way toward creating a plan that works for you.

If you're unable or unwilling to hire someone, reminding yourself that over-the-top success stories are rarely the norm for any diet or workout can go a long way toward not getting sucked in.

You mistakenly believe an unlikely or single cause of your limitations

Another logical fallacy! This one has a lot going on, but it's a questionable cause fallacy that usually serves to make you powerless to change. You already know that you love a good story, but what you may not realize is that one of the ways your brain sabotages you is by seeking out causes for behaviors, no matter how unlikely that cause may be.

Sound confusing? Here's a great example: I had a client one time who explained that he kept failing on his diet because his grandparents owned a sugar plantation. Because of this, he was genetically hardwired to be addicted to sugar.

It sounds crazy, but the crazier thing is that quite a few people actually believed him. It's such a unique circumstance, but also quite unlikely, or at least quite unlikely to be the sole cause of his weakness for sweets. More probable is that he -- like many, many other people -- has a fondness for sugar independent of his family heritage, and simply keeps too much of it around the house.

How to beat it: Like narrative bias, using a journal can be a great tool in highlighting this fallacy in action. Most of the time, though, what's really necessary is a little "tough love" and realizing that perhaps you haven't put the necessary work into achieving your desired goals. This doesn't apply to everyone, of course, but it's a general principle to consider before you throw in the towel.

Getting fit is, at its most basic level, a very simple thing. Just because it happens to be simple doesn't mean it's easy. If you're finding yourself stuck at a plateau, or frustrated with your lack of progress, then one of the best things you can do to help keep your brain from holding you back is keep a journal, find a great coach, and try like hell not to over complicate things.  

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Tanner Baze is a trainer and writer with plenty of stories to tell. Follow him: @dtbaze.

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