The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

The Crucial Step in any Successful Change

Over the past 7 weeks, I have been running a 90 Day program at work.  The concept of the program was easy.  Individuals come up with their fitness goals, in particular with a strong, motivating why and they come up with their own diet plan, using guidelines we provide, for a  M-F schedule and a  Sat & Sun schedule.  I create the Exercise Programs for them. 
What I’ve always found interesting is that many people will sign-up for a program and then never start it.  This post isn’t about them (but a later one will be). 
More interesting to me is how individuals will join the program, bust their ass 5-6 days a week in the gym, get their bodyfat and weight tested weekly and almost without fail, give me the same exact excuse week after week, “I haven’t been eating right.”  Which almost universally means I have been eating like shit. 

Why shoot yourself in the foot like that?  Sure, you’re making some progress, but completely missing the potential of what you can be making if you just followed the diet plan that YOU made? 

But I don’t like blaming individuals for their short-comings.  And so I’m not about to go on a rant saying how they lack self-control and how they don’t have a backbone for getting beat up by a chocolate sundae.  We all lack adequate self-control and we’ve all gotten fucked up by more ice cream then we’d care to admit. 

What I do like to do is figure out why we have those short comings and possible solutions to them.  Which brings me to food logs.  Food logs are funny things.  I personally despise them because I don’t have the discipline to write down the things that I eat as I eat them.  I can make a plan and follow the plan, but food logs are too much work for me.  Yet despite my disdain for Food Logs, they work.  I remember a program which we ran last year in which people lost more weight successfully in 6 weeks (at least those that stuck to the program) than any other program we’ve run.  This was despite the fact that the exercise prescription was ambiguous and their were no dietary guidelines.  What they had to do, though, was to write down everything they ate, every single day and turn in their food logs at the end of the week.  Simple enough to do and it created success. 

The question I have is why?  Why did that, annoying thing that I can’t stand work so damn well?  Why did something I would NEVER do for more than a couple days work for 6 weeks with people? 

What I think it comes down to, is what any successful change starts with – Awareness.  Awareness of the mistakes we are making, awareness of what we are putting into our body, and awareness of the amount of what we are consuming.  In the program above, there was also accountability which typically helps. 

So how does that pertain to exercise?  Do we keep an exercise log?  Is that how we become aware and integrate more exercise into our lives?  No, not really.  If you’re having a problem sticking to exercise and feel even a modicum of guilt about not exercising, what I think we do instead has to do more with awareness of how we spend our time. 

Time, and the way we spend our time, reflects, not always so adequately, our priorities.  How we spend our time is a combination of our “priorities” while also being a result of the amount of money we have, the people who are around and the potential conflicts that we believe may occur if we spend our time in one way vs. another.   The biggest problem with time though is that we still hold onto habits that no longer serve us.  We chastise others who “have no self-control” as we are caught up in our own chains of habits. 

I’m not one that prescribes to the thought that people can be omnipotent with their ability to have self-control.  Change is a process.  One that we can control and one in which I don’t believe that shame, guilt or regret can steamroll for very long, but those three are still the Great Catalysts for change.    Shame, guilt and regret start the process of change for more people than any other emotions.  After the feelings of shame, guilt and regret pass though, better come enjoyment, satisfaction and hope,  otherwise it’ll be a firecracker that makes a lot of noise but without much staying power. 

So how do we access those three catalysts of change?  The key is awareness.  Sometimes that awareness comes as an epiphany with an “A-Ha” moment or it comes deliberately over time, but either way, there’s always awareness.  Without awareness, any change that occurs is by happenstance, no better than a shot in the dark.  Awareness is the starting point for change, because if you’re not aware of what is, how could you possibly change to what you want to become?   

So what’s the solution?  Do we keep track of our time?   Do we keep an exercise log?  I think the best solution I know of is that we keep an exercise book and make an initial plan of when we plan on working out.  If you plan to workout at 8pm on Monday and didn’t, write it in your book and what you were doing instead.  If instead you were sitting down watching TV eating potato chips, I sure hope that there was some guilt, shame and regret involved.  If instead you were at your kid’s recital, you know that you should plan better next time and have an alternative instead.  Maybe a 15-minute workout in your house instead of a full-blown workout or an alternative time. 

With the Awareness of how you spend your time, of what you eat, or of any other change that you want, you begin the process of taking the first step in taking control over it and changing it. 

In other words, I’ll be making the people in the current 90 day program keep Food Logs for the last 6 weeks.

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5 comments found

  1. modicum. nice word.

    You hit it on the head John. awareness is the beginning of many things… change, advocacy, even this funny “going green” movement… but RIDDLE ME THIS:

    why is it, then, some people (and i speak for myself when i say this) are completely aware but are just plain ig’nant? i see my friends gourge on swirly almond chocolate pancake croissantwiches, deep fried pickle smoothies, and the like without so much as a twinkle in their eye? and they know EXACTLY what they’re doing?

    See Example Number B: A 2009 food log by a man who shall remain nameless… littered with burgers, hot dogs, curly fries, and maybe one salad that i remember… that had fried chicken and creamy ranch on it. I mean he was consistent as hell! Just, completely missed the point, no?

    i’m pretty sure you know very well when i ask… how does awareness help the people that KNOW already that what they’re doing is wrong but just don’t give a rat’s ass? (and don’t say we’re hopeless pits of death. because i will hunt you down with my vices in tow and you’ll be sorry)

    [cue applause] this was a good one! write more like these please!

    1. Again, it comes down to the standards that individuals have for themselves. They can justify their cognitive dissonance by saying that they “don’t care,” that they’ll “do whatever I please and eat whatever I want,” and get away from the guilt, shame and regret that most of us that do care about our health have. For those individuals, also dubbed those in the pre-contemplative state, if you are trying to help them out, the key is to A-Not judge them. About the last thing that they want is to hear that what they are doing is wrong. Accept them for who they are, as these people need understanding first, if they are to be receptive (and hence, understanding) of what you think is a better way. And B-Possible emotional motivators that come about naturally. They look in the mirror and they see something they truly don’t like, which helps to move them from a pre-contemplative state to at least a contemplative state. It’s at that point, where awareness, such as a food log will help out more.

      Also, if you look at my next post about Standards, that should give some insight as to why awareness doesn’t help everyone.

  2. Hello! I was wondering, with regards to your thoughts on journaling… I consider it more accountability as opposed to awareness. I’ve been journaling my workouts and not my diet, and I’ve found it extremely helpful. It helps me hold myself accountable for continuing and making progress, no matter how small it may be. So isn’t it more accountability, not awareness? Maybe a bit of both?

    1. Good point and I agree. The issue is that you can’t really have personal accountability without awareness and as such, they are pretty inseperable. When you’re keeping track of your workouts though, you are AWARE of what you are doing, and typically why you’re doing it. Accountability though, also takes into account, standards. One can be aware, without needing to be accountable, if he or she doesn’t care about the outcome…and unfortunately, for a lot of people starting out with change in exercise, that’s the case. Many people know exercise is good and if you want to lose weight, it’s the best way, but they don’t do it. This was written for those who are finally realizing that they need to exercise and need to learn the ways in which they can incorporate exercise into their lives (those in the contemplation/preparation phases of change).

      You do care about the outcome, and keeping a journal of your workouts is really having higher standards, while using a tool to keep you aware of what you are doing and thus, the end equation is accountability. High Standards (Desire) + Awareness (Tool) + Exercise (Tool) = Accountability (Results). Therefore, using a journal with and only by yourself, you are using Awarenss as a tool and the accountability that you say is really keeping you on track with your standards.

      Also, people at differing stages of the trans-theoretical model of change will see these same things (awareness vs accountability) as different tools. The piece I wrote was more for those on the contemplative/preparation phase where awareness is more important. It sounds like you are at least in action and possibly maintenance of the habit and therefore, have shifted that simple awareness to a tool of personal accountability. Accountability on the action/maintenance phase is really powerful for keeping with a habit and for positive change overall. For someone just contemplating the change though, having that accountability can backfire if they miss a workout and judge themselves too harshly (which tends to happen). Which is why awareness typically and usually will come before accountability. Accountability, especially personal accountability towards a habit change is on a higher level of change than awarenss, but awareness stills lays a solid foundation towards that personal accountability. I’m sorry if that’s a bit wordy and hope you got it.

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