Tapping Into the Power of Identity Is the Secret to Sustainable Fitness

How to reframe your identity to fit who you are and who you want to be.

My dad began waking up my older brother and me a few days a week to practice karate and lift weights in the basement in elementary school. While I wouldn’t recommend starting eight-year-olds on weights, these experiences had a lasting impact on me.

My dad began waking up my older brother and me a few days a week to practice karate and lift weights in the basement in elementary school. While I wouldn’t recommend starting eight-year-olds on weights, these experiences had a lasting impact on me.

I’ll never forget my father bragging to other adults about how much I could lift. This bragging became a point of pride that stoked my confidence and gave me an identity that I wanted to keep.

The early development of this strong dude identity has been a tremendous influence throughout my life.

In junior high, I began playing football—a sport where strength matters. I was among the stronger kids on the team, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I committed to a consistent training regimen that I’ve maintained to this day.

Each Identity Breeds the Next

Eventually, my identity was not just that of the strong guy, but also the guy who works out hard.

In high school, I became serious about trying to break lifting records to get better at football. When I got to college and was no longer Shane, the football player, I doubled down on the big and strong part of my identity.

It became essential to me that I was the strongest-looking guy in every room. This desire led me to research workout programs and buy fitness magazines.

As I read and talked to more people at the gym, I was turned on to other types of training and eating that highlighted virtues outside of the meathead realm.

When I began coaching, I realized that I knew a lot more about strength and conditioning principles than most other coaches, and I developed an identity as the guy who knew how to train better.

This led me to pursue my CSCS and various other certifications, which led me to Breaking Muscle and many other contacts, books, and experiences that helped cultivate the commitment to fitness and healthy living that I have today.

That outline is simplified. There have been many other influences and parts of my identity that steered me throughout my life.

But, more than anything, my commitment to nearly twenty straight years of consistent training is the consequence of developing an identity as a strong dude.

  • First, I was strong.
  • Then, I was an exerciser.
  • Then, I was big.
  • Then, I was fit.
  • Then, I was knowledgeable.
  • Then, I was healthy.

Each identity bred the next, and at each point along the way, I was determined to maintain whatever behaviors facilitated that crucial part of myself.

Tapping into the power of identity is the key to creating consistent behavior in any realm of life.

To work out consistently, I didn’t have to worry about creating a why or writing down my goals. These behaviors became a part of what made me, me.

Identity May Also Impede Your Goals

There are also times where your identity can stand in the way of your goals.

For example, at the end of college, I embraced the idea that I would be the kind of guy who drank alcohol every night after work.

That was typical among most of my friends and many other adult influences at the time. But three IPAs a night is not a good formula for health or performance.

Finally, the drinker identity came into conflict with my value for health, and I was ultimately determined to change who I would be.

Most people approach fitness and behavior change as robots who need to follow a different script. We want to be the same person but to be stronger or thinner. So we decide we need to start exercising, eating better, or doing some other behavior that will bring us to our goal.

This approach is not necessarily wrong, but we make failure more likely when we only look at processes and outcomes without regard for who we are and what we need to maintain a particular behavior.

Success is far more likely when you approach your goals as attempts to become an enhanced type of person—to bring something else into your identity.

How to Reframe Your Identity

Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, notes this identity distinction in people who quit smoking. Those who say, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.”—rarely do. Those who say, “No thanks. I don’t smoke.”—are more likely to succeed.

But it isn’t so simple (or hokey) as just speaking things into existence.

We have to believe changes are possible by slowly believing that we are a different kind of person. You can’t fake belief.

So how do we shift our beliefs about ourselves and our identity? You focus on imitating the sort of people who do your desired behaviors.

As James Clear writes:

“Your identity emerges out of your habits. You are not born with preset beliefs. Every belief, including those about yourself, is learned and conditioned through experience. More precisely, your habits are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. When you write each day, you embody the identity of a creative person. When you train each day, you embody the identity of an athletic person.”

We all have experienced what Clear is talking about in his book.

  • In high school, I defined myself as an athlete.
  • When I got a 4.0 in my first semester of college, I began to define myself as smart and began working to embody that ideal.
  • When I was 25 and wanted to overcome my anxiety to be better for my wife-to-be, I began meditating every morning.
  • I became a meditator.

This last example is the most instructive.

I had done many on-off meditation sessions in the past. I had learned enough to be convinced that meditation could help me. But I wasn’t ready to change my lifestyle. I’d try it and move on. When I finally made the no-excuses commitment to meditate every day, I gradually began appreciating its benefits.

To create a lasting behavioral change, ask yourself, “What kind of person acts this way?”

Find a Like-Minded Community

This question is why a great place to start is to embrace a community where your desired actions are already typical. You get to see the belief patterns and habits of people who have already adopted your desired behaviors.

These people’s examples highlight an array of better paths.

And the more time you spend around these people, the more their habits rub off. Such is the power of CrossFit. Their community rapidly creates CrossFitters who know their Fran time, favor a Paleo-Esque diet, and do mobility WODs between WODs.

There are plenty of good cultures to join outside of CrossFit, though. Justin Lind and my IHD Seekers Membership mean to create the exact positive behavior change on a global level.

Every action, according to Clear, is a vote for the kind of person you want to be.

To be healthy doesn’t mean every vote (action) in your life needs to facilitate that goal, just that gradually more do. So rather than asking yourself what outcome or behavior you want to adopt, it is probably best to start by asking, “What kind of person would behave the way I want to?”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a group identity like CrossFitters. You can note successful identities and decide to take them on like toughness, reliability, or tenacity.

The author Michael Lewis explained this best on an episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast:

“As I’ve gotten older… I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people… you’ll find patterns in the way they talk about themselves. There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There’s the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There’s the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there. There are many versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, ‘I am going to adopt… as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.’ And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.”

This narrative often comes down to a reframe.

You already have an identity about which you care.

  1. How do your goals align with that identity?
  2. In other words, how can you make failing to follow through threaten your identity?

Say, for example, you value your identity as a good father or mother; reframing this value is among the most important things you can give your kids as your healthy model.

Your children are more likely to live active, healthy lives if you do.

From this perspective, the chaos of parenting is no longer an excuse for sacrificing your health. Committing to eating better and regularly exercising is the only way you can be the parent you want to be.

That’s the real motivation.

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