Why do some people succeed at fitness while others fail miserably? If there were ever a subject I could be called “obsessed” with, this would be it.
This subject pains me greatly; it pains me, because if people simply internalized the things I'm about to say, obesity would cease to be an epidemic.
Yet even the smartest people think about fitness in the wrong way. They'll often reduce fitness down to “eating less and moving more.”
As an example, I’ll often see the smartest tech minds in Silicon Valley become enamored by the latest fitness gadget. These same people constantly struggle to get fit, as evidenced by the tweets from these very same devices. (This also leads me to believe that there is no correlation between fitness IQ and actual IQ, but that’s a different subject altogether.)
You see, the biggest myth in all of fitness and nutrition is that people fail because they're lazy about exercise... that they fail because they didn't have the willpower to "eat less, move more."
Skinny people love to tell this to fat people, and fat people love to beat themselves up about it when they fail. I should know this very well. I've been on both sides before.
At a high level, there’s only one way to succeed at fitness. All fitness successes and failures can be explained using the following framework.
The only way to succeed at fitness is to create positive feedback loop.
In laymen’s terms, that means engaging in fitness‐related activities, and then seeing enough results to motivate you to keep going.
When you decide to start any fitness regimen, there is a certain amount of friction or "pains" working against you – the pain of giving up your favorite foods, taking time to exercise, giving up alcohol, being constantly hungry, etc.
After some time has passed, you will have to determine (consciously or subconsciously) if the results are worth continuing. One week into a fitness regimen, you might ask yourself a few questions:
Did I lose enough weight? Do I look better in the mirror? Do I feel healthier and more energized?
If the rewards outweigh the pain, then the feedback loop is renewed. The strength of your feedback loop can be summed up below:
Strength of Fitness Feedback Loop = Fitness Reward - Fitness Pain
Creating this feedback loop is the only way to succeed in fitness. It’s the same way that a business must become profitable to exist. You must create this feedback loop to stick to a healthy lifestyle. There is no alternative.
If you’ve always struggled with maintaining a fitness regimen, it doesn't mean that you're a pathetic, weak willed individual. It means there was a breakdown somewhere in creating this feedback loop: the pain of dieting was too high, you did not accumulate enough reward, or funny enough, or you didn’t measure your progress.
Notice I made no mention about willpower. That’s because willpower only plays a small part of success – a very small part.
Willpower will help you make the decision to start a program, and it will help you keep going if you don’t see results at the start.
Willpower will not bring you success.
That’s because willpower is a finite resource. No amount of willpower alone will make you get up every morning to run if you hate running.
In order to do this, you need to see results – whether it’s weight loss, a further distance, whatever. You might even learn to love running, but first you need to create this feedback loop. You need a self-perpetuating motivation machine that says, “I put healthy choices in, and I get results out.”
It pains me to see people who want to lose weight, then do things meaningless things like cut back on sodium, increase their water intake, or make it a point to “run every morning.”
Sure, they may sound like healthy activities, but many times the opposite is true.
As a formerly obese kid who once tried running to lose weight, I can tell you that having your fat bounce up and down whilst gasping for air and bathing in your own sweat is not fun. Oh yeah, cardio alone is also ineffective at weight loss. Tack on a diet of only low-sodium foods (which doesn’t really do anything by the way) and you have a whole lot of pain and not much reward.
Activities, painful activities, that don’t yield a return are cruft. Yes, cruft. The act of reducing sodium, eating “organic”, and “moving a little bit every day” (just for the sake of it) actually prevent you from creating a healthy lifestyle.
Hate running? Then don’t run. Don’t like giving up pizza? Then figure out a way to fit it into your diet. Don’t like salads? Then don’t eat them.
This feedback loop is the only thing that matters in creating fitness success, and it’s the reason that shows like “The Biggest Loser” actually hurt the fight against obesity.
You see, The Biggest Loser gives people the perception that exercising until you vomit, starving yourself, and being hardcore are all necessary means to fitness success.
But this leads to an unsustainable feedback loop. An enormous amount of fitness pain is inflicted, when only a fraction of that amount is needed to lose weight. Maybe that’s why 85-90 percent of participants regain their original weight, as explained in this eye-opening piece by my friend, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.
So what would be more successful for weight loss? The most painless, most effective thing possible. A 450 lb individual can lose a tremendous amount of weight eating 4,500 calories a day – that’s three whole rotisserie chickens and some chipotle afterwards.
Want someone to stick to fitness in the long run? Make them lose weight while still stuffing their face. Sadly, most obese people don’t know that this is possible, in part because The Biggest Loser is on TV.
This feedback loop also explains why it's silly, even harmful, to force your own fitness or nutritional ideologies to others. (Did you hear the joke about how you know if someone does CrossFit or Paleo?)
Similarly, too many people treat fitness like religion and try to push their own preferences on to other people. Perhaps the Paleo diet worked very well for you. That doesn’t mean that it will work for someone who feels horrible on low carbs or absolutely loves bread.
If you find a diet that works for you, congratulations! Sure, you might want to recommend this diet to your friends, but don’t turn it into nutritional dogma. And definitely do not backwards-rationalize your diet’s “optimality” by seeking out supporting science. (Note: I'm not bashing Paleo. It's a very simple, effective diet and has changed many lives. It's dogma and the misuse of science that I take issue with.)
A better use of your time would be to be thankful that you’ve found a good strategy and move on with your life.
Saying that there is one way to eat is the same thing as saying that everyone has the same preferences. That people are all the same. They’re not, and that’s why everyone’s feedback loop is different.
At this point, I know what some people are thinking. “Well, fuck, Dick. If you're so smart and it's not about willpower, I guess no one is at fault for being fat then, huh?”
On the contrary. If there's one thing I've seen in my decade of talking to thousands of people between forums, clients, Fitocracy, and real life, it’s that people are responsible for their own failures. Most times, it is their fault.
But it’s not for the reasons that most people think.
Most don't fail because they didn't eat less or move more. They failed because they could not see beyond the oversimplification of "eat less, move more." Many times, this is a problem of hubris.
In that very same vein, they failed to be curious, introspective, and mindful. These people also beat themselves up for all of their past failures, not realizing those plans had them doomed for the start.
The Biggest Loser will have you believe that fitness success is about being tough, being hardcore – dangerously hardcore. In fact, it's about the exact opposite.
Fitness success is about humility – realizing you cannot reduce one of the world's most challenging problems to "eat less, move more," and then seeking out the knowledge to improve yourself. Success also requires compassion – forgiving yourself for past failures so that you can try again.
Those things are the exact opposite of being “hardcore”.
That's the ultimate irony. It’s why people are ultimately responsible for their failures – not because they failed to shrink their waist, but because they failed to expand their horizons.
I want to hear the joke.
So, getting out of bed early and going for a 90min run almost every day isn't the result of willpower? 99% of the population would have to disagree with you.
It saddens me to see you still beating this drum.
I lost 20 kilos, 22cm from my waist and about 15 bpm from my resting heart rate just through a (near) daily practice of doing a 90min jog before work. I didn't even push myself. I wore a HR monitor and limited my pace to no more than 65% of my max heart rate. I started at 30min/day the first week, didn't allow myself to increase by more than 10min beyond what I'd done the week before, and I took a day off if I felt beat. I did zero speed work until after losing the weight and maintaining the higher fitness level only takes 2-3 days a week.
I feel that "moving more" if not eating less, has been one of the best changes I've made in my life. Not only my body but even my brain is energized by regular cardio.
It saddens me that you completely missed what this article was trying to express
First of all, yes YOU have been able to get out of bed every day and YOU have been successful in losing 20 kilos - by jogging at that 'particular' pace for that 'particular' duration, working at that 'particular' percentage of max heart rate for that 'particular' period of weeks - but YOU are not ALL and what works for you may work for some but not everyone. if it was that simple for everyone we would all be supermodels and the diet industry would not be the multi billion dollar industry it is today
Secondly You have obviously created a positive feedback loop (as disused in this article) as you tried a method, saw results and continued with what you saw as the best way to your continued weight loss.
Lastly You have in your own words have shown humility "I took a day off if I felt beat" proving that if you felt 'beat' you took a day off, didn't 'beat' yourself up about it and just carried on the next day. Now ask yourself an honest question would you have lost weight if you would have done weights and a bit of cardio whilst slightly reducing your intake or would you have lost weight doing Paleo or Crossfit (had you been mindful and forgave your slips and began seeing results in order to create that positive feedback loop as you have done)....the answer will most likely be yes
I personally cannot stand getting up before work to go for a jog...nothing makes me cringe more, I hate cardio and I love my bed. So I began weight training and doing high intensity interval training instead (the former was intruded through friends that are massively into strength training the latter because I wanted a way to do the most cardio in the shortest time). Now I love to weight train and do HIIT...why? I saw results. I have been able to see my body transform from pictures of when I first started 17 kilos ago to a more muscular (although I still have a ways to go) version of myself.
The point I think he is trying to make, from the way I interpret the information in this article, is there is no ONE SIZE FITS ALL, find what works for you by being open to learning from others until you find something you enjoy (whether the enjoyment starts because its an activity you like or, as in your case, you begin to see results) in order to create a positive feed back loop and understand that as a human we are prone to mistakes and the key is not to punish yourself when we fall off the wagon but understand that mistakes will happen and the best thing you can do is try not to do it again and continue forward.
Tell it like it is brother!
Anyway I admit I'm guilty of the low carb zealotry myself. After thinking about it for a bit and reading about the thousands of varied diets of every possible combination that supposedly work then I must admit we might all be more unique than we'd like to think (in terms of fitness/diet). If most of these diets were indeed BS each one wouldn't have their own private militia backing them up ruthlessly.
Expanding on the 'you're fat because you're lazy' concept the US government has created an uphill treadmill with their policies that promotes obesity. Truth is often obscured by lobbying from powerful trade organizations that only care about their own interests. The culture of exercise and victimization of self is partly due to the fact that the food industry is beyond criticism (they cannot be touched!). Thus the only path of recourse is to blame the individual instead of the environment when in fact it is a double whammy of both aspects which need to change. I remember touching on this subject in my ancient blog at: http://truthseeker1234.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/personal-responsibility-and-the-denial-model/ (may be a slight segue as usual with my writing style)
Anyone ever find it weird that our food pyramid is written by the USDA - an agricultural trade organization instead of a scientific research non-profit benevolent entity? I find it a bit disturbing when the bulletproof diet (which was all supposedly self funded research and study) comes up with a totally divergent view from what has been fed down the mainstream for years. Maybe the mainstream does work but so far observational experience shows us that something is definitely wrong.
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Love the idea of humility in celebrating finding something that works for you but not pouring your ego into it and trying to proselytize everyone else into drinking your particular flavor of fitness kool-aid. I am curious though. What is your definition of 'fitness'?
Thanks for the reply, fruitpunched! I implicitly give "fitness" a loose definition here for brevity's sake, but for the 90% of people that I deal with, it involves weight/fat loss. Of course, the feedback loop works for anything... better cardiovascular health, getting stronger, etc., but I'm placing a major focus on the subject of obesity since that's the biggest one.
I would suggest you to make video on this topic and upload it on YouTube. Here is a great article an how you can get more free YouTube views fast. Free, simple and fast.
I'm not one who defines fitness in terms of weight/fat loss. For me, it really means being fit. Weight control is pretty much second nature for me now (I'm 64), and I basically controlled it by finding out on my own what you've espoused here. I know what works for me (both is terms of what I eat and what I do to stay fit) and the fact that I can see that it DOES work and I like what I'm doing and eating keeps me doing it.
Thank you very much for putting this out there. Hopefully others will read this, seriously think about it and start to take it to heart.
I agree, and it's interesting that you mention Biggest Loser because my mom has watched the last several seasons and has been trying to lose weight unsuccessfully for years. I think the biggest thing is educating yourself on WHY certain foods are bad and getting yourself to the point where you don't even want to eat them because you understand that consuming them would force your body to work less than optimally.
"too many people treat fitness like religion and try to push their own preferences on to other people" This is so true and annoying. Everytime I go to the gym I always find someone who has something to say about the way I do my exercises. I think people have to pay much more attention to what they do instead to watch at other people.
It’s been 13 weeks since I wrote the in-depth post on my fasting experiment (read that first if you haven't already), which I originally only expected to try for 8 weeks. But the results have been so life changing that I’ve decided to continue doing it through at least the end of the year, and possibly indefinitely. Here’s what I’ve learned and experienced over the past couple of months, along with the pro-tips I recommend for others interested in trying it themselves, and answers to the questions I get most often.
The main thing I’ve learned in the past couple of months is that fasting is deeply misunderstood by people, including the reasons for doing it, the science and nutrition behind it, the actual experience of fasting, how it makes you feel, and how best to be supportive of someone in your life who’s giving it a try. Fasting just isn’t mainstream enough to make sense to people, and they often immediately respond with “I could never do that” (which is how I used to also feel before really diving into it).
From my fasting experience I’ve also become convinced that the obesity epidemic in America can be solved by integrating fasting elements into our culture. I don’t know if fasting will ever reach that level of cultural prominance, but I do now know with certainty that there’s a solution out there that works, and although fasting is a very individual thing, I’m convinced that it could be codified into an approach that could work for anyone. This also means that if you are unhappy with your current level of health, fasting is something you can do to fix it. It may not be the only thing you can do, but from experience I can tell you that it is absolutely an approach that will work. If you’re serious about trying to become healthy, fasting will work.
I just came back from The Fitness Summit in Kansas City. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a yearly summit that takes place in Kansas City featuring lectures from the world’s best fitness folks, such as Eric Cressey, Alan Aragon, and Mike Nelson. These lecturers showed incredible insight in the realm of exercise and nutrition by combining science and their extensive real-world experience.
I was going to use this post-summit blog post in order to go through the highlights, but I have a much more important message in mind.
These last two years with Fitocracy have given my partner Brian and I an amazing look at the fitness industry – perhaps one of the most holistic. We’ve been able to observe the way people approach exercise, the obesity problem, and the state of the fitness industry.
This industry is incredibly broken. It’s been unable to help a majority of people live healthier lives.
The dichotomy between The Fitness Summit’s awesomeness and the industry’s brokenness made me ponder. During the plane ride back and into the next day I racked my brains, creating a brain dump of two years worth of insight around fitness failure.