Benjamin Franklin once said there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and too much fitness information. OK, he didn't say that last one, but it's still true. Fitness is overwhelming. We compensate by making mindless decisions that actually leave us vulnerable. Let's look at three ways we can prevent ourselves from falling victim to our own psychology and marketers.
Relying On Marketing Language To Determine A Food's Healthfulness
Why It's Wrong: Low sodium, low fat, low carb, organic, gluten free...there are countless labels that food marketers use to convey healthfulness. But what about those titles make them healthy? Nothing really does, because "healthy" is contextual.
Why It's Particularly Bad: While consuming foods with the above labels may seem innocuous, it creates a potentially harmful way to look at food. The problem lies in something researchers call the health halo. Dr Yoni Freedhoff of the Weighty Matters blog explains:
[The health halo was] coined by two prolific consumer behaviour researchers named Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon. What their experiments have consistently demonstrated is that the belief that an item is a healthier choice leads to a disproportionate increase in that product's consumption. In other words, people eat so much more of the ever-so-slightly less awful, so-called "better for you" choice that they actually eat more in the way of calories, or salt, or sugar than they would have had they chosen that food's blatantly junky brother. Had they done so, there would be no kidding themselves into thinking they were making a thoughtful choice.
TLDR: choosing the perceivedly "healthy" option over junk food generally makes dieters eat more calories overall and dashes their weight loss efforts.
The "healthy" labels above might be useful for small groups of people, like "low sodium" for those with hypertension. But most of these labels have been debunked as a proxy for healthfulness. We've over-vilified sodium and fat over the years. There's little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious, and the original researcher who damned gluten recently reversed his stance.
Instead, these labels create something called "black and white dieting", which can damage your psychology in a massive way. Nutritionist Lyle McDonald explains his blog Body Recomposition:
You can find examples of this all over the place where people assume that 'healthy/good' foods can be eaten in uncontrolled amounts whereas the tiniest amount of 'unhealthy/bad foods' mean that the diet has failed, the dieter is immoral and weak, and health will simply be destroyed (this is seen at the greatest extreme in a psychological condition called orthorexia whereby people see food as a moral choice judging not only themselves but others by the foods that they choose to eat).
What To Do Instead: The health halo will make you spin your wheels for years without progress. Learn to avoid labelling foods as "healthy" or "unhealthy". Sure, eating organic foods for personal or ethical reasons is fine. But if you're doing it for weight loss reasons, the only thing getting skinnier is your wallet.
Using Programs Because They're From Famous Athletes
Why It's Wrong: Because there's so much confusion behind health and fitness, it often seems easier to copy the routines of people with amazing physiques. This often ends up being professional athletes. The logic seems sound: If I want a chest and abs like my favourite NFL running back, how can I go wrong if I follow his workout program?
In reality, the physiological response to diet and exercise is different for everyone. Your favourite professional athletes are subject to selection bias — they are already the top physical specimens in the world. They are doing a specific program because it addresses needs specific to their sport, their pre-existing muscular condition, and so on — not because it's an easy way to get ripped or stay fit.
Why It's Particularly Bad: There's no quicker way to fail a fitness program than starting with unrealistically high expectations. When this occurs, a strong psychological defeat takes place. There is a sense that one did not have control over the situation and self-esteem plummets. Anecdotally, I've found that each time this setback happens, it gets more difficult for a trainee to recover.
What To Do Instead: Before you put your full trust in a plan written for someone else, do your research. The disturbing truth that I've learned working in the fitness industry is that many marketers don't care about you once you hand over your money.
Look for someone who aligns with your long term success. Celebrities and professional athletes have no skin in the game when it comes your fitness (I could be wrong, but I don't think Snooki will cry herself to sleep if people fail on her diet program). Always do your research to find a trustworthy source of fitness information.
Gauging Workout Effectiveness Through Sweating And Soreness
Why It's Wrong: Sweat is merely a sign that your body needs to cool off. Nothing more. It might be a sign of calories burned, but it could also be other things — like, oh, I don't know...being hot outside!
Why It's Particularly Bad: Human beings are amazingly inconsistent at forming accurate conclusions based on internal and external data. At one end of the spectrum, we evaluate certain things with incredible precision, especially if they engage our biological hardwiring.
Let's say you're lifting a box in your garage. You aren't sure how heavy it is, but you pick it up. At that moment, your Central Nervous System (or CNS for short) instantaneously gauges its heaviness as you exert exactly enough force to lift it up.
At the other end of the spectrum, some things are impossible for individual human beings to evaluate based on data. For example, famed Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman found out that experts suck at predicting a stock's success (despite being ironically confident in their expertise). Similarly, determining a workout's effectiveness based on measures of discomfort — how much you sweat, how sore you felt afterwards, and so on — is just about as futile.
Confoundingly, fitness tends to glorify these things. ("Feel the burn", "No pain no gain", "Sweat is fat crying", "Look at the fancy new way my foot bends!") But using discomfort as a measure for effectiveness sabotages you in two ways. First, it distracts your focus from your true goals in favour of completely useless feats. Your goal of building muscle turns into "how many burpees can I do until I throw up?" Your goal of weight loss turns into "how many more miles can I run before my nipples chafe off?"
But perhaps you watch The Biggest Loser and find the pain that they experience during exercise to be inspiring. Or maybe feeling hurt and nauseous at the end of your workout makes you feel accomplished. This is where the second, more dangerous sabotage, starts.
As a fitness coach, I quickly learned that clients respond in one of two ways after they slip up. Some clients reel for days after a bad weekend and eventually fall off the wagon for good. Others, however, are unfazed. Like Tom Brady after he throws an interception, they get back on the horse like nothing happened.
But when we romanticise pain, we subtly accept the need for self-flagellation. Rather than show self-compassion and forgiveness after binge eating, we punish ourselves with exercise. Or arbitrarily limit what we eat. This often can lead to more binge eating to fuel a starving body and in some cases, spiral into a serious eating disorder.
It's worth noting that this type of motivation through pain may truly work for some, including the naturally gifted athlete who has never had issues with their self-worth. A former chubby kid like me, on the other hand, must approach fitness in the exact opposite way. I always think of this quote when someone who lacks self-compassion wants to change themselves:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." — Martin Luther King (The timing of MLK day is completely coincidental.)
A successful fitness transformation follows the blueprint above: it must come from a place of self-love, not self-punishment.
What To Do Instead: Ignore useless metrics like sweat and pain. Instead, focus on evidence-based metrics that matter such as waist and weight measurements (or how your pants fit).
Lastly, don't forget to practise self-compassion and love yourself. That's important.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.