Warning: These mental barriers are keeping you out of shape

Sometimes your mind is your own worst enemy.  You want to lose weight.  You want to hit the gym.  You want to eat better.  But then your mind starts coming up with reasons why you can’t do it.

I know I should eat healthy…but I want to enjoy my life!

I’m just not feeling motivated today- I’ll do it tomorrow.

I jogged a mile this morning…I deserve a reward!

But I love myself!  Why should I change?

Do these sound like valid excuses to you?  Do people who eat healthy not enjoy their lives?  Does wanting to change really mean you don’t love yourself?

Well, no.  Hopefully you already knew the answer.  But if you’ve struggled to make progress towards your fitness goals, it’s very likely that your mind has been sabotaging you with excuses like these.  Let’s go over some of the ways your mind can screw you over, shall we? 

Making poor fitness part of your identity

The way you see yourself on the inside inevitably gets reflected in your appearance.  This is most obvious when it comes to fashion- you can tell at a glance that the girl in the biker jacket probably has a bit of a rebellious streak, while the guy who looks like Ned Flanders is more of a “play it safe” type.

The same thing happens with fitness- your body will tend to reflect the way you see yourself.  Consider the following statements I’ve heard people use to describe themselves:

I’m your typical jolly fat girl!

I’m a skinny Indian guy.

I’m a tech geek, not an athlete.

What all these people have in common is that they’ve made their poor fitness a core part of their identity. 

The first person tries to “spin” her obesity by associating it with cheerfulness.  Sorry, but you’re not Mrs. Claus.  It’s good to be jolly, but you could just as easily be a jolly skinny girl.

The second person lumps his body type- which is both bad (let’s assume for the sake of argument that he’s too skinny) and changeable, in with his race, which is neutral and unchangeable.  He’d be much better off thinking of himself as a hard-working Indian guy.     

The last person presents a false dichotomy- you can be smart or athletic, but not both.  Wrong!  And this also exemplifies the cognitive bias we’ll be discussing in the next section. 

If you want to eliminate a negative trait, you must ensure that you aren’t internalizing it as a core part of your identity!

So here’s an exercise for you to perform right now- write a paragraph about yourself, explaining who you are as a person.  Be honest about how you see yourself.  Then read it over- have you enshrined any negative traits as a core part of your identity? 

If so, rewrite that paragraph, replacing the negative traits with positive ones.  Then print it out and tape it somewhere you’ll see it every day, such as your bathroom mirror. 

The reverse halo effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which people who possess one positive trait- often attractiveness- are assumed to possess other positive traits, such as intelligence. 

However, the reverse halo effect- in which people who have a positive trait are assumed to have some negative trait to balance it out, or vice versa- is arguably more common.  In fitness it plays out something like this:

Sure I’m not buff- because instead of spending my time in the gym like other guys, I spend my time reading books.

Would you rather date a hot bimbo, or a girl who’s nice, caring and smart, but plain-looking? 

I could work out, but I’d rather spend my time working hard and building my career.

Yeah, I’m not one of those douchebag gym bros. 

All of these people are assuming a tradeoff between fitness and other areas of life.  They’re assuming that they have to choose between being physically fit, and some other trait like intelligence, kindness, or career success.

The thing is, real life isn’t like a role-playing game, where every point you invest in strength or agility is a point you can’t invest in intelligence or charisma.  In fact, there’s a well-established link between intelligence and leanness- smarter people are more likely to make the effort to stay fit because taking care of your health is a smart thing to do. 

Exercise also trains your body to have more energy, and creates a metabolic environment conducive to mental alertness.  Richard Branson famously credits his legendary productivity to working out every day– as do Barack and Michelle Obama.  Branson also says that physical activity improve his mental processing speed.

And that’s just exercise- what about diet?  Eating healthy food takes no more time than eating junk food, and will give you a lot more energy- which you can then invest in your intelligence, career, relationships, hobbies- wherever you want really.    

The point is, there is no tradeoff here.  Getting fit helps you to be better at everything.

Extreme reach barriers

Extreme reach barriers are another form of false dilemma- a choice between doing something that you consider “too hard,” or doing nothing at all.  It sounds like this:

So if I want to get in shape, I have to spend five hours a week at the gym?

What’s the point in running?  I’ll never be able to run a marathon. 

This book says I have to work out for 45 minutes, 4 times a week.  I don’t have time for that, so why bother?

So I have to live on salmon and broccoli for the rest of my life? 

The common thread here: thinking you have to go all-out, or do nothing at all.  People who make these excuses would rather dream of running a marathon than actually run a mile.  They’re use their inability (or unwillingness) to follower the “perfect” plan

When it comes to fitness, consistency is the most important thing.   If you can’t work out 4 times a week- fine.  Work out once or twice a week, but do so consistently.  If going strict paleo/Atkins/Slow-carb is too much for you- just cut out soda, pastries and beer for now, and add in some veggies. 

Once you start working out, sleeping well, and eating healthy(er) consistently, they become habits.  And once something is a habit, it’s easy to build on.  Hit the gym once a week, consistently, and from there you can bump that up to three or four times a week. 

You can either be into fitness, or enjoy life!

Oh gee, another false dilemma- funny how many of those we’re seeing here, isn’t it?  Behold:

Apparently I have to eat salad to be healthy, but I’d rather eat food I enjoy.

There are people who diet and work out every day, and people who enjoy life.

Lift weights?  I’d rather have fun. 

This one’s easy to understand- people who make this excuse equate fitness with misery.  They hate healthy food, they hate working out, so they assume that getting fit will require leading a joyless life.  But the things you enjoy can change over time. 

I hated lifting weights when I first started.  But between the sense of accomplishment I got from seeing my numbers go up, and the enjoyment I get from my post-workout meal and sauna, I’ve become a lifting fanatic. 

I used to think vegetables tasted too bland to ever be enjoyable.  But after I cut most of the sweets out of my diet, I became more sensitive to sweetness- and now carrots, asparagus and peas taste mildly, pleasantly sweet to me.

The bottom line: don’t not do something you should be doing because you don’t enjoy it now.  Instead, start doing it consistently, and eventually you’ll learn to enjoy it. 

Motivation and willpower

Picture this: you start a new fitness program.  New diet, new workouts.  You’re excited, you’re motivated, and that energy propels you to really crush it with your new fitness regimen…for a couple of weeks.

But then the excitement of having a new fitness routine wears off, and your motivation fades.  You start missing workouts.  You start cheating on your diet, as your willpower gives out more and more often. 

Pretty soon, you’ve given up on your shiny new fitness plan altogether.  You’re back at square one, wondering what went wrong.

The thing is, motivation is inconsistent.  It’s highly dependent on your mood, so it can change from day to day and hour to hour.  It also tends to be high when you start something new, and gradually fall as the novelty wears off. 

As for willpower, it’s like a muscle: it can only exert itself for so long before it needs a rest.  It can get stronger with practice, but never so strong that it never needs rest.

Motivation comes and goes.  Willpower always gives out eventually.  What you need is a system. 

Think about your job.  Do you only go into work on day’s you’re motivated?  I’m willing to bet you don’t.  Going into work is automatic- it happens independently of how you feel. 

The only way to be consistent about diet, exercise and sleep is to make them automatic, just like going to work.  That can mean using apps to track your meals, workouts and habits.  It can mean scheduling activities like workouts and meal prep and protecting that time.  It can mean having a friend holding you accountable, and setting up forfeits for failure. 

The bottom line: your ability to take the correct actions for your health should never be dependent on your mental state.  It should be automatic, and it should be systematic. 

Equating self-love with not wanting to change

If you spend a lot of time on the internet- and we all do- odds are that by now you’ve read at least one essay of the “I learned to love myself so I don’t need to change” variety.  Such essays typically feature phrases like the following:

Now that I’m body positive, I no longer feel any need to lose weight.

I’m 35 and have no career, and that’s okay. 

I used to feel bad that I was too shy to talk to people, but I learned to love myself. 

The common thread here is the idea that wanting to change has to be driven by self-loathing- and conversely, that self-love means wanting to stay exactly as you are.  But the reality is that people who make successful changes in their lives are driven not by self-loathing, but by a positive desire to build a better life for themselves. 

Think of how your parents (I’m assuming you had good parents here) would react if you got a D on your high school math test.  They would let you know that your performance was unacceptable.    They would also try to help you improve, any way they could. 

Most importantly, your parents would be pushing you to do better precisely because they love you, because they want you to do well in school so you can be successful in life.  So treat yourself the way you would treat your own child- push yourself to improve, because you deserve a good life. 


The Monday mentality

It’s Saturday night, and you’re out drinking with your buddies.  Since you’re on a diet, your plan is to just have one glass of red wine.  But that glass of red wine turns into a glass of wine and a few beers. 

Well, you think, this night’s ruined.  Might as well enjoy it.  So after the beer, you stop by a pizza joint and have a few slices before heading home.  Then the next day, you wake up slightly hung over and think Well, so much for my diet this weekend.  I’ll give myself a break today and pick it back up again tomorrow. 

When you fall prey to the Monday mentality, one slip-up snowballs into taking a whole day off from your diet- or on weekends, sometimes the entire weekend.  You treat each day/weekend as a binary- either you followed your diet that day, or you didn’t.  So once you slip up and “ruin” a day, you figure there’s no point following your diet for the rest of that day. 

Of course, this isn’t true.  If your willpower gives out and you have a slice of pizza for lunch, you can still have a healthy dinner and end the day at a caloric deficit.  You can still get your protein and veggies for the day.  One mistake doesn’t justify making more mistakes.  When you fall off the wagon, you should get right back on it, without delay. 

Balance sheet thinking

Whereas the Monday mentality uses bad decisions to justify more bad decisions, balance sheet thinking uses good decisions to justify bad decisions.  Balance sheet-type rationalizes look like the following:

I worked out really hard earlier today, so I’ve earned some ice cream tonight.

I had a salad for lunch- wouldn’t hurt to have a burger for dinner. 

I shouldn’t have eaten that pizza- but I’ll make up for it by eating more vegetables tonight. 

According to the balance sheet mentality, a good choice earns you the right to make a bad choice- and conversely, if you do something bad, you can make up for it by doing something good.  If you thought this way all the time, you would only follow your diet and exercise program about 50% of the time- but many people don’t even follow their plan that much, do to a combination of the Monday mentality, and simply not counting some of the times they cheat on their diet.

Unfortunately, 50% compliance isn’t nearly enough.  You don’t need to be perfect to get into great shape- but you do need to follow a clean, healthy diet, and do your workouts on schedule, about 80-90% of the time.  And ideally, the few times you allow yourself to cheat would be planned and incorporated into your diet, rather than simply being a breakdown of your “fitness system.” 

Bottom line: following your fitness program half the time isn’t enough.  Making one healthy choice doesn’t earn you the right to make an unhealthy choice.

Excessive positivity or negativity

Negativity is generally recognized as counterproductive to any kind of self-improvement goal.  However, positivity, in excess, can be just as damaging, if it rises to the level of simply being in denial about your shortcomings.  To illustrate this, first let’s see what excessive negativity can sound like:

God I shouldn’t have done that.  I’m so weak!

I’ve been trying for months now and made no progress- I’m never going to succeed!

It’s my genetics.  I can’t lose weight no matter what I eat.  I’m just fat by nature.

Ouch.  Even just reading that is painful.  Notice not only the defeatist attitude, but also the absence of any talk about how to do better next time.  Now let’s see what excessive positivity looks like:

So I haven’t been following my diet this week- that’s alright, I’ll succeed eventually!

I should have worked out, but no point beating myself up about it.  I’ll make the next workout.

So my body fat percentage is somewhere between thirty and forty percent…let’s call it thirty. 

Sure my weight has been the same for three months, but I know I’ll start making progress eventually.

Okay, so positivity is definitely more pleasant than negativity- but again, notice the lack of solution-oriented talk here.  All of these quotes have one thing in common: they hand-wave away the person’s failures. 

Positivity and negativity are both useful in moderation– positivity provides motivation, while some negativity is necessary when honestly evaluating your own faults.  But in excess, they’ll both prevent you from solving your problems- negativity will lead to pointless self-flagellation, while excess positivity will cause you to be in denial about your problems.

When it comes to losing weight, there’s also a more specific mathematical reason why sugar-coating the truth can screw you over: if you underestimate your body fat percentage, you’ll overestimate your daily caloric expenditure.  This of course means that your “weight loss diet” ends up being nothing of the sort, you eat as many calories as you burn, and the scale doesn’t move at all.

The best attitude to take is one of frank self-evaluation.  You should be self-critical without beating yourself up, and positive that you’ll succeed if and only if you do the work required to succeed.  This requires a balance- moderate amounts of positivity and negativity, working together to guide your actions.

Putting it all together

Now that you know about the mental barriers and limiting beliefs that can sabotage your fitness efforts, the next step is to monitor your thoughts and keep a log of your self-defeating thoughts.  Every time you catch yourself falling prey to one of these mental barriers, write down what you were thinking.  Every time you fail to follow your fitness plan- whether you cheat on your diet, skip a workout, get drunk, or don’t get to bed on time- take a note of the excuses you made to justify it.

After you’ve recorded 10+ entries, look them over for patterns.  Identify the mental barriers you fall prey to most often.  Then, start replacing your limiting beliefs with more productive beliefs- believe in systems rather than willpower, define self-love as striving to be better rather than wanting to stay the same, and start believing, really believing, that being in better shape will make your life better all around.

If you want to get into amazing shape, all it takes is four things: First, get enough sleep every night.  Second, follow some kind of diet.  Any kind works as long as it has a lot of protein and vegetables, and not too many calories.  Third, work out a few times a week.  And finally, crush every excuse that’s keeping you from following steps one, two and three. 

If you want to break through your mental barriers and become a sexy beast, join my newsletter to get my free habit change guide and my seven-day body recomposition course.