“Our dilemma is that we hate change & love it at the same time; what we really want is things to remain the same but get better.” ~Sam Harris
It’s 8pm. I open up our customer support software to a bundle of fresh tickets. The names are different, but the struggles are eerily familiar.
One person writes, “My number one struggle is follow-through and consistency. By that I mean, I can follow any plan for a few weeks and then my cravings and “laziness” kicks in and I binge and eat everything in site.”
Another shares, “…I will be turning 49 in the next few months. And, I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to lose weight for a long time.”
I open one ticket after another…
“I have gained weight, lost flexibility, and it’s contributing to not getting enough sleep… and so the cycle continues.”
“I am 68 years old. I try to be very active and trying desperately to get into shape….again.”
Metabolic Effect clients are smart. Most of them have read every diet book, and follow every health blog there is. They understand how fat loss works. They know what they should be doing.
Rarely is the problem a lack of information. It’s implementing that information to make true, lasting changes in our lives.
So many of us go from diet to diet without truly implementing the plans we read. Or, when we do execute, we quickly run out of steam and burn out before it creating new, lasting habits.
Over the past decade of personal training, I’ve been less interested in how putting butter in my coffee can optimize my brain, or how to spilt up my macronutrients, or why cruciferous vegetables make us all so gassy.
That’s Jade’s area of expertise.
I’m interested in the behavioral change component.
Why do some people love the gym and others despise it? Why it is so difficult for some to cut out sugar and others to cut out popcorn (Oh, that’s just me?)? And why in the hell do those fitness freaks continue to eat those cruciferous vegetables and crush whey protein shakes even though they’re farting all over the place??
Too many fitness professionals chalk it up to “not having enough willpower.”
I call BS. I think that’s a cop out. It’s lazy advice that often just generates more shame and self-criticism than true change.
What, all of a sudden a light bulb will go off, and people will say, “Oh my! YES! This is the piece of information I’ve been missing the entire time! Now I’ll be able to get in shape. More willpower, that’s the answer! Why didn’t I think of that? I’m never eating popcorn again”
No, no they won’t…
So if it’s not willpower, then what is it?
Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath, is one of my favorite books on behavior change. The Heath brothers explain why making diets stick, long term, is more than simply “try harder.”
It’s not a one-piece formula of digging deeper into the “willpower tank.”
They provide us with two pieces of the change puzzle, but there is a third, powerful trigger that will help us stick to our fitness goals
The Heath brothers use the metaphor of “The Elephant” and “The Rider” for two of the triggers, and I added a third, “The Jungle” to stick with the wildlife story we have going on here.
Let me explain.
The Rider is the rational, logical, strategic part of your brain. It’s the written out diet and exercise plan. It’s the “what” to do.
The Rider is the planning and decision making mechanism in our brain. It’s the part that knows what we should be doing to achieve our goals. It’s the process of learning and developing the plan that fits our individual metabolism.
Most of us have our riders in check. We intellectually know that eating chocolate cake and crushing beer likely isn’t the best strategy for shredding fat and fitting into our jeans.
This is the first step in the change process: the directions for your journey.
This sounds silly, but so many of us just leave our plans either up in the air, or to someone else, without weighing whether or not it’s a good fit for our preferences, tastes, and lifestyles.
We need to take the time to create our own plan that works for individual biochemistry and lifestyle.
Do you have a plan? What time will you go to the gym? What will you do when you get there? Will you go only when you feel like it? What are you buying when you go to the grocery store? Is this a good plan? With my life, is this a reasonable plan?
These are the questions to ask yourself as you develop your plan.
The Elephant is your emotional, or animal, brain. Whereas the rider is your mind, the elephant is your heart. It’s your motivations, deeply ingrained beliefs, habits, and emotions.
And it’s a HUGE part to the change formula. The Rider may know where he wants to go (think, “I want to look great at the beach”), but if the 10-foot, 12,000-pound elephant isn’t on board (think unbearable cravings and zero energy) then we don’t stand a chance.
Jade tells the story of a client who struggled with weight gain for years. She lost it all, and gained it right back. Sound familiar? 95% of dieters gain their lost weight (plus some) back.
Her Rider was in check – she was following a plan that kept her hunger, energy, and cravings balanced, used exercise intelligently, and had her lifestyle factors in check.
But she would inevitably deviate from the plan, pick up old habits, and regain the weight.
One day, in passing, Jade and Keoni were talking about a study that showed parents, who were overweight, were more likely to have obese children.
The conversation wasn’t meant for the client, she just happened to be walking by.
She had a daughter who was overweight at a young age. The mother lost the weight, and never put it back on.
That is the power of The Elephant. There is immense power in our “why.” The Elephant is our sense of why. It’s our habits that we create, and the beliefs that drive us. It’s a willpower tank that never runs out.
In Switch, the Heath brothers reference a study where researchers had participants come see a new movie in the theatre. With their ticket, they got the most incredible bonus gift: free popcorn!
The problem was that the popcorn was 3 days old. As you can imagine, it was like eating Styrofoam.
The researchers wanted to see if the people would still eat the popcorn, and if so, how much they would eat?
What they found was that, over and over, no matter how disgusting the popcorn, the larger container that people received, the more popcorn they ate. Every. Single. Time.
This shows how our environment can cause us to do certain things without even noticing.
To stay with the metaphor, we’ll call our environment, The Jungle. This includes our friends, family members, surroundings, and lifestyle patterns.
One strategy is what Harvard Psychologist and author, Shawn Achor, calls The 20-Second Rule: If we can shape our environment in a way that makes bad habits just 20-seconds more inconvenient, we can see profound changes in our behavior.
Want to watch less TV? Remove the batteries from the remote. Want to eat less Cheetos? Don’t keep them at the house. Don’t drive by that McDonalds on the way home from work, take a different route home.
It also works in the other direction. Make good habits 20-second easier to perform, and we are more likely to do them. Pack a gym bag the night before, or sleep in your gym clothes, and you are more likely to actually go to the gym.
This is the psychology behind prepping your food for the week. Set up your environment in a way that you can still succeed, even when your willpower is drained.
We will be teaching more tools like this in Feed The Lean, but the most important factor there is has to do with the people you surround yourself with.
Research shows, in military training groups, that ONE overweight cadet is more likely to decrease the health of the other 9 cadets than the other way around.
We want to create a “Jungle” of success. We want like-minded individuals to influence one another to improve and grow together.
The fitness world too often poo poos these change triggers, but without all three of them working in unison, we are more likely to end up in the 95% of those who regain the weight, than the 5% who keep it off.