When we think about the path to fitness success, we often obsess over tools, tricks, and resources. We want to know what our macronutrient ratio should be. We want to know which type of cardio is best for fat loss. It’s not that these inquiries aren’t meaningful. The food we eat and the exercise we do are the stimuli for change. But for most, obsessing over these surface-level details moves us away from the strategies we need to succeed.
The average person already possesses the information required to make long-term, meaningful progress. The missing piece is the ability to consistently apply what we already know. You know what to eat and understand the basics of exercise, even if it’s a simple as ‘I know that exercising is better than sitting on the couch.’ Where you struggle is in the long-term application of positive habits and behaviours you already understand.
So if diet and exercise interventions aren’t the key to success, what should you focus on?
Discipline, Resilience, and Long-Rewards
Success inevitably stems from improving what is happening under the surface. In my experience, this includes a focus on discipline, building mental resilience, and re-targeting your focus onto long-rewards (and away from short-term thinking).
I will define each of these critical strategies below.
You think discipline is a matter of making the right choice in the moment, or, in other words, willpower. That isn’t the case. Willpower is a myth. It is finite, unreliable, and nearly impossible to improve. Discipline, on the other hand, is a strategy that includes three parts.
- Know yourself: where are your weaknesses, and where are you routinely slipping up?
- What do you need to do to give yourself the best chance of overcoming your weaknesses?
- Do the preparation now, well ahead of time.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to work out at 5 AM each day before going to work. You set the intention, but you rarely follow through. When the morning comes, it’s just too easy to hit the snooze button and stay in your comfortable bed. What needs to change, and how do you need to prepare to change this lack of follow-through? You may need to begin by going to bed 30-60 minutes earlier. You may also need to leave your phone on the other side of your bedroom at night, so when the alarm goes off, you need to exit your bed to turn it off. Then you might need to have your workout gear laid out, ready to go beside your bed.
You’ve identified the issue (I struggle to wake up for my workout). You’ve identified the changes you need to make to give yourself the best chance of success (go to bed earlier, put my phone away from the bed, have my gear ready to go), and, if you have done things right, you’ve given yourself adequate time to put these interventions into action.
Resilience is the ability to move forward in the face of turmoil. In the case of health and fitness, the turmoil is primarily emotional. Let’s say you’ve set the goal to get back to the gym and lose 10 lbs. You begin making healthier choices, exercising regularly, and cutting out snacking and alcohol. A few weeks pass, and you’ve lost 4 lbs. You feel great! But as the weeks continue to pass by, real-life returns. You are stressed about work, fighting with your significant other, and your kids are sick. Naturally, your healthy lifestyle begins to slip. You begin missing the gym, and you ramp up your late-night snacking to distract you from the emotional overwhelm you’re facing.
You may think that missing workouts and overeating are the factors that lead to relapse and fitness failure, but you’d be wrong. It is what happens in the aftermath of these slip-ups that determines your ability to succeed in the long-term. When most of us are in the midst of stressful life situations (that lead to a lack of healthy behaviours), we hold it against ourselves. We make it about our character. “Why do I always do this? I was doing so well, and now I’m back to eating my face off and being lazy. I’ve lost all the progress I made over the last few weeks. I might as well just quit. I don’t deserve to be healthy.” This feeling of failure results in further self-sabotage and eventually quitting on our healthy efforts. It becomes easier to quit than to feel like a failure.
The moment you quit is the moment you’re unsuccessful. It wasn’t when you missed the gym. It wasn’t when you ate an entire pizza. It was the moment your expectations left you feeling like a fitness fraud.
Resilience is the ability to be forgiving but not complacent. Life gets in the way sometimes, and perfection is a fool’s strategy. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, falls off the wagon. The people who succeed are those who don’t take relapses personally. If you don’t make a relapse about your character, you can return to making healthy decisions, doing the best you can, and move forward. The person who can move forward- across a long enough timeline, always succeeds. The person who crumbles every time s/he overeats, snacks late into the night, or does other things that human beings do rarely see meaningful success. Stop making natural human behaviours about your personality. We eat, distract, stimulate, and numb when we suffer. When you’re not suffering, you’ll make better choices and begin seeing progress again. As long as you can maintain cognitive resilience and get back to making healthy choices, you’ll succeed.
Focus on Long-Rewards
Lastly, a successful individual must focus on long-rewards. These are the changes that come after 6 months or 6 years of effort. Human beings are present biased, and this is a major barrier between us and success. We want to see progress, and we want to see it right now. If we don’t see immediate progress, the thing we’re doing isn’t working, and it isn’t worth doing anymore.
The process of trading long-term rewards for a short-term view is another way of setting expectations that end in heartbreak. Weight loss, fat loss, muscle gain, and other basic health measures are an up and down process. Some weeks or months, you make progress. Other times, you don’t. And there will always be periods where you start moving in the wrong direction. Over the course of a year, this isn’t a big deal. You will fluctuate between progress, stalling, and moving backward, but you will trend in the right direction, and progress will win out over time. If you condense this process into weeks or months, it will appear extremely volatile, and you will obsess over the times when you aren’t progressing. You’ll bias the negativity and overlook your positive changes. The process will result in the same failure cycle I previously mentioned in this post.
A simple way to overcome these short-term biases is to shift your focus from outcomes to actions. For example, when you want to make changes to your body, you likely focus on superficial measures. You think things like ‘I want to lose 20 lbs’ or ‘I want to fit into ‘x’ size of pant.’ There’s nothing wrong with having a goal, but it is your choices that get you there. The question to ask is ‘what actions would I need to take to reach my goal?” Be general, and then specific.
Goal: I want to lose 20 lbs
General Actions: I need to get to the gym and eat better
Get Specific: I need to get to the gym 5 days per week and cut out late-night snacking
Get More Specific: I need to get to the gym 5 days per week and bring my late-night snacking down to just weekends.
That should be what you’re measuring: how many days per week are you exercising, and how many days per week are you snacking. The more frequently and consistently you hit those action goals, the closer you will get to the superficial goal. You can reward yourself for taking action instead of being emotionally attached to something like the scale.
Most people don’t like advice of this nature because it is complex. It forces us to assess our lifestyle deeply, and that makes us uncomfortable. We’d rather hear that we need to eat 1800 calories per day, get 120 grams of protein, and do 4 days of HIIT training each week. If we can obsess over the superficial strategy, we don’t have to do meaningful work. Unfortunately, only one of those approaches leads to success, and I’m sure you can guess which one it is.
Discipline, resilience, and long-term thinking is the road to success, and it is a skill. You aren’t going to change yourself overnight fundamentally. You must give it time, give yourself room to breathe, and trust in the process of sustainable change. It is the hard problem of fitness, but it’s the problem worth solving.