Recently I kicked off a one-month exercise and nutrition regimen. And if I’m honest, I’m not exactly sure why. Luckily, that won’t hinder my discipline for following through. Unluckily (if only that were a word), that’s because my discipline is founded on a good chunk of compulsiveness.
But this all got me thinking.
To begin with, I have so many vices and personal failings, but for whatever reason I’m good about exercise and eating well. I’m pretty passionate about wellness, enough so that it drove me to become a certified personal trainer a few years ago. I was exercising regularly and eating well back then, but this gave me the ability to do so more effectively, as well as help others in doing the same.
Anyway, back to my one-month exercise and nutrition program. It is focused on gaining weight. (Hopefully muscle.) Why? Good question. Maybe it’s because I just got over the stomach flu and lost some weight. Maybe I just enjoy experimenting with what’s possible because of my training background–I do really like exercise and this gives me a specific goal to work on. Or maybe it’s because I still have this self image of being a scrawny kid, an image so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I might never shake it regardless of how close to the truth it actually is at any given time. It’s probably a blend of motivations. But if I were a bettin’ man, I’d put most of my chips on option three.
However, if you were to rewind to about a year ago, I hit a point where I decided I needed to lose body fat. I changed my regimen and focused on that.
And if you were to rewind to a year before that, I was feeling scrawny and kicking off a weight/muscle gaining program.
What’s remarkable about all of this is how big these swings in self image have been… much bigger than the outward reality. In fact, I’ve paid attention to this pretty closely and I see that my body image often changes on a daily basis.
If I had to guess, I’ll bet yours probably does too.
In my own case, one day I might see myself in the mirror and decide I am too scrawny. Another day I might be feeling fine about how I look. Another day I might be thinking I could shed a few pounds. The next day I’m back to being relatively satisfied.
You’d think there might be a clue in all of this oscillation. My body certainly isn’t changing in any meaningful way on a daily basis. If these thoughts are shifting daily, how could they possibly be trustworthy enough to pay them any attention? But I do.
As a personal trainer, I had the privilege of interviewing lots of people about their fitness goals. It’s generally how you start off a relationship with a potential new client… you have to understand what they want so you can design the right program for them. To state the obvious, if they want weight loss, you’re going to guide them to exercise and eat a certain way. If they want to gain muscle, you’ll advise them in a different way. If it’s athletic performance, it’s often sport-specific and looks pretty different. If it’s for overall health, it looks different.
But more importantly, in these interviews, you have to understand why a person wants what they want. Because that’s the source of their motivation. And people don’t always wear that on their sleeve. It’s sometimes even the case that they don’t really know why they want what they want. They might think they do, but they haven’t really looked into the root of it.
For example, many times I would ask a person why they wanted to lose weight, and they might say something like “to be healthier.” That’s almost never the real why. Or they might say “because my wife wants me to lose weight.” That could be the truth, but that’s not a strong enough reason to keep them from giving up.
Eventually, after they get more comfortable opening up to you, you get to the heart of it. Because my boyfriend left me and I want to show him what he’s missing. Because my son told me he is worried about me and doesn’t want me to die young. Because I want to look good and have more sex. Because my doctor told me if I don’t lose fifty pounds and get my diabetes under control, I might not live to see my grandchildren.
Sex and survival, sex and survival, sex and survival.
Not to over-simplify things, but that’s generally what it boils down to. Sex applies most to the younger half of the people (in truth it applies to just about everyone until a certain age, and even then, it sometimes still continues to apply). Fear of death or fear of some other negative health outcome associated with old age usually starts becoming an important motivator for people once they finally get to a certain age.
The other significant motivator besides sex and survival is an inner shift–one based on confidence or self image. The same way a person may feel that their clothes are sending a message to the world about who they are, we see our body and appearance as conveying something about our inner self to the world. So with this as our motivator, we want the outer transformation because of the inner transformation we intuitively feel it will bring to us. This is more nuanced and often this motivator kicks in after somebody has firsthand experience of how fitness supports the inner shift.
Many people feel like the sex / “look good” motivation isn’t a noble one, so much so that they are ashamed to admit it and may even hide it. You generally can’t fool yourself anyway, but regardless, it’s one of the most common motivators, it’s real, and it does work.
Your real driver is the only thing that will sustain you, so it’s so important to get in touch with your why, to understand it, and to keep it in the forefront of your mind. It’s easy to give up on that day you’re feeling too tired to get off the couch. It’s easy to get lazy during your workout when you’re feeling low-energy. But your real why is critical to getting you through those moments and ultimately to your goal.
For me, I’ve found the most potent motivator to be about inner transformation. But it isn’t always my primary driver.
If I go all the way back, somewhere along the way I got locked into this notion of being skinny, scrawny, and little. I spent most of my childhood years shorter and smaller than other kids. Eventually I grew to 5′ 9″, which is essentially average, but I still saw myself as small and not masculine. And not masculine is easily equated with not desirable. I started working out in high school and became more athletic-looking, but I really never shook the scrawny thing from a self image standpoint. It still comes up for me.
I also grew up with a mother who struggled with anorexia when she was younger and has had a strong degree of focus on her weight for her entire life. On a daily basis, often multiple times per day, she would talk about her weight, how many calories she was eating, needing to go on a diet, and so forth. Undoubtedly I also absorbed many of those same tendencies… both the good and the bad… they just manifest in a different way for me. So some of what compels me is ingrained at an unconscious level.
Sometimes self awareness is enough to liberate unconscious tendencies. Other times, as I’m demonstrating pretty plainly to myself right now, it’s not. I have noticed this shape-shifting body image of mine. I recognize I probably picked up some unconscious habits from a pretty early age, both at home and from the constant societal bombardment about looking good that impacts all of us. But in spite of knowing these things, it would appear the compulsion still rules me much of the time.
I know I’m at my best when I’m both satisfied with my body and still driven to exercise regularly and eat well for other reasons.
Sometimes that reason is simply that I’ve built up the habit so well that it’s part of my routine. Do something enough and you build enough inertia it becomes hard to stop.
But usually getting to that point starts from a conscious recognition that doing so is central to keeping me energetic, clear-headed and balanced– it’s one of the keys to the basic upkeep of body and spirit. (See James Altucher’s TED talk or visit his blog for another person’s take on something I found to be true for myself long before I had ever heard of him.)
Sometimes, however, a different motivator sneaks in. And it’s often this mix of poor body image (not masculine enough) and compulsiveness.
The thing is, compulsion actually works as a motivator. But it doesn’t feel particularly good. A poor body image also works as a motivator, but it doesn’t feel particularly good either. It might be an okay place to start, but it’s not a good place to stay over the long haul.
I’ve seen some amazing transformations. Many amazing transformations start because of poor body image and are seemingly focused on improving one’s body.
But the essence of the most amazing transformations has less to do with how many pounds a person has shed or how smokin’ they look by the end. It’s about the inner transformation that takes hold. Something gets ignited within. A person who was previously filled with shame or unworthiness gradually sheds that and becomes palpably confident and happy. A timid person plagued by fear begins exuding a sense of power and quiet nobility. Somebody with a rotten body image finds what very few people ever get in touch with–they become comfortable in their own skin.
This is one of the things I love most about fitness. Few things offer such a clear recipe for personal transformation. Follow the routine with enough consistency, and you will get results. It’s within everyone’s power to do so. And with enough knowledge and hard work, I believe amazing feats are possible (i.e. just about everyone could even have the body of a superhero or a fitness model if that was their desire… body change is one realm where nurture can overpower nature.)
But I think it’s important to remember where the real value in all of this is. Body image is a flighty, changeable thing. Self image morphs on a daily basis (and probably more like a moment-to-moment basis). It’s only loosely tied to the actual outward form of your body. So the outer changes are wonderful, but it’s the inner transformations that have the real power. That’s what makes you a true superhero.