The Fitness Existentialist: It Starts With You
There is a piece of advice that I give to all of my clients before they embark on a journey toward newfound health and fitness:
Don’t tell anyone about what you are doing.
Fitness is a noisy place. Behind every curtain there is someone waiting to tell you that you should do things differently: not eating this, doing this routine, taking this supplement. It can feel like a true descent into Birdcage-y madness (or, as I call it, “spiraling down the wormhole of cray-cray”). If you open yourself up too much to people, you are inadvertently inviting a cacophony of voices into your head that may leave you feeling frustrated and confused.
- “The keto diet is phenomenal!”
- “CrossFit changed my life!”
- “Don’t run; it might kill you!”
Okay, but what if my favorite meal is pasta and sauce? What if I prefer to exercise alone? What if going for a jog helps me relieve stress? Am I going to die now? Are my fitness goals moot? Should I just go live in a cave and do push ups by myself while howling at the moon? Okay, I go to a cave now.
Look, if I listened to every piece of “fitness advice” I have received from other people, I never would have lost weight. I would still be where I was five years ago - angry, depressed, insecure, and paralyzed with self-doubt that I would always be making the wrong decisions. Instead, I took action to find out what works best for me. Now I am a much happier and healthy person, I am a personal trainer, and I can manage to run without dying. For now.
Motivation and Habit Formation
The brain, much like the bottom of the ocean, is a complex landscape that we are still trying to fully understand (and, most likely, never will). That said, there is a lot of fantastic research going on in regards to habit formation and information processing.
Basically, we have our thinky brain (the prefrontal cortex) and our auto brain (the basal ganglia). Habit formation comes from when our auto brain deciphers patterns in our thinky brain and then decides to make a habit out of that pattern for the sake of minimizing the neural energy it takes to complete a given task.
Life would be tedious if we had to exert maximum mental effort in all of our daily pursuits. Could you imagine needing to think about every single stroke of your tooth-brushing ritual? Our brain is set up to be fast, efficient, and effective in making room for new stimuli (and also to readily respond to stimuli such as “SHARK!”). Waste too much mental energy on silly BS, and you might find yourself too exhausted to make decisions when things truly matter.
Dan John talks about this in Never Let Go, where he discusses his shaving can theory of motivation. Basically, we have a single daily shaving can full of motivation foam. Every time we use our “willpower” to resist something, we take a palm full of foam out of the can. If you spend all of your energy saying “no” to office treats and happy hour offers, reading fitness articles on Facebook, or planning to plan your next plan while asking your friend for advice on how to start, and you might find it quite difficult to get to the important things.
The important things are:
- Eating within your daily caloric boundaries while staying nourished and happy
- Reducing stress
- Following a simple yet progressive resistance training program
- Reading and learning new exciting things
Did you know that dinosaurs might have had feather-like down? Mind. Blown.
“What do dinosaurs and shaving cream and the prefrontal cortex have to do with fitness?” you might ask. Nothing, really. Then again, these days the majority of things related to health and fitness don’t actually have anything to do with health and fitness. They have to do with sales.
It Starts With You
So this all comes back to my original point - change starts with you. Not with your friend, your coworker, or that guy with the abs on Facebook. It starts with you.
Don’t reach out for the answers from other people because chances are they are either trying to obtain your credit card information or they are looking for external validation for their own choices. A life of being scared of Christmas cupcakes is a lot easier when you have other people to share that fear with. There are also many financial opportunities in the selective research of cupcake-related deaths. Who knew that I should be more scared of the sugar in frosting than getting hit by a car on my bike ride home? Thanks, Internet!
Speaking of which, I need to rethink my bike riding. Cardio kills.
I suppose you can call me a fitness existentialist. I often feel like the figure in the Friedrich painting Monk by the Sea, only instead of gazing into a shapeless and incomprehensible expanse of the ocean, I am looking at aisles of powders, pills, and books, and asking myself, “What does this all even mean? How can I assert my identity amidst such a vast landscape of seeming nothingness?”
You just do. You, as Camus put it, “open yourself up to the gentle indifference of the world.” You imagine that - if you have found something that works for you, and you feel connected with that process, and that this particular process doesn’t empty your daily shaving can of motivation and leave you too exhausted to enjoy your life - you might be on to something.
Right now, I am imagining this world where I lost a bunch of weight, and I am getting stronger, and that I like peanut butter and jellies - and that no one cares about any of it. I imagine a world where the brain is complex, and dinosaurs might have had feathers, and I might die from a shark attack and not from riding my bike, and that none of these things have anything to do with what might work best for you.
I would not be able to embrace this mentality if I posted all of my sandwiches on Facebook and asked for your opinion.
Fitness is Fun
Actively limit the amount of jive turkeys that you allow into your process of self-improvement. Selectively fill those spaces with people who actually care and coaches who can actually help. Give any extra space to books, either on the brain or on dinosaurs (or another topic of your choice). Fill your life with other bright, shiny objects and be thankful for every day that you managed to not get eaten by a shark (or a feathery dinosaur).
Back away from Facebook. Maintain the belief that someone needs to take you to dinner before they get to see you with your shirt off. Abandon the progress photo and replace it with a daily journal. Measure progress by how good you feel about yourself as opposed to how able you are to actively avoid pizza at a Super Bowl party.
I promise, fitness doesn’t have to be so serious and scary. When you find something that you truly love, it is actually pretty damn fun.
1. Baechle, TR., Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.
2. Duhigg, C., The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.
3. Hone, Dr. "Feathered Everything: Just How Many Dinosaurs Had Feathers?" Theguardian.com. June 10, 2013.
4. John, D., Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning. Santa Cruz, Calif.: On Target Publications, 2009.
Photos 1, 3, & 4 courtesy of Shutterstock.