The Myth of Willpower and “Eat Less, Move More”

Why do some people succeed at fitness while others fail miserably? If there were ever a subject I could be called “obsessed” with, this would be it.

This subject pains me greatly; it pains me, because if people simply internalized the things I’m about to say, obesity would cease to be an epidemic.

Yet even the smartest people think about fitness in the wrong way. They’ll often reduce fitness down to “eating less and moving more.”

As an example, I’ll often see the smartest tech minds in Silicon Valley become enamored by the latest fitness gadget. These same people constantly struggle to get fit, as evidenced by the tweets from these very same devices. (This also leads me to believe that there is no correlation between fitness IQ and actual IQ, but that’s a different subject altogether.)

You see, the biggest myth in all of fitness and nutrition is that people fail because they’re lazy about exercise… that they fail because they didn’t have the willpower to “eat less, move more.”

Skinny people love to tell this to fat people, and fat people love to beat themselves up about it when they fail. I should know this very well. I’ve been on both sides before.

The only way to succeed at fitness

At a high level, there’s only one way to succeed at fitness. All fitness successes and failures can be explained using the following framework.

The only way to succeed at fitness is to create positive feedback loop.

In laymen’s terms, that means engaging in fitness­‐related activities, and then seeing enough results to motivate you to keep going.

When you decide to start any fitness regimen, there is a certain amount of friction or “pains” working against you – the pain of giving up your favorite foods, taking time to exercise, giving up alcohol, being constantly hungry, etc.

After some time has passed, you will have to determine (consciously or subconsciously) if the results are worth continuing. One week into a fitness regimen, you might ask yourself a few questions:

Did I lose enough weight? Do I look better in the mirror? Do I feel healthier and more energized?

If the rewards outweigh the pain, then the feedback loop is renewed. The strength of your feedback loop can be summed up below:

Strength of Fitness Feedback Loop = Fitness Reward ­- Fitness Pain

Creating this feedback loop is the only way to succeed in fitness. It’s the same way that a business must become profitable to exist. You must create this feedback loop to stick to a healthy lifestyle. There is no alternative.

If you’ve always struggled with maintaining a fitness regimen, it doesn’t mean that you’re a pathetic, weak willed individual. It means there was a breakdown somewhere in creating this feedback loop: the pain of dieting was too high, you did not accumulate enough reward, or funny enough, or you didn’t measure your progress.

But what about willpower?

Notice I made no mention about willpower. That’s because willpower only plays a small part of success ­– a very small part.

Willpower will help you make the decision to start a program, and it will help you keep going if you don’t see results at the start.

Willpower will not bring you success.

That’s because willpower is a finite resource. No amount of willpower alone will make you get up every morning to run if you hate running.

In order to do this, you need to see results – whether it’s weight loss, a further distance, whatever. You might even learn to love running, but first you need to create this feedback loop. You need a self-perpetuating motivation machine that says, “I put healthy choices in, and I get results out.”

It pains me to see people who want to lose weight, then do things meaningless things like cut back on sodium, increase their water intake, or make it a point to “run every morning.”

Sure, they may sound like healthy activities, but many times the opposite is true.

As a formerly obese kid who once tried running to lose weight, I can tell you that having your fat bounce up and down whilst gasping for air and bathing in your own sweat is not fun. Oh yeah, cardio alone is also ineffective at weight loss. Tack on a diet of only low-sodium foods (which doesn’t really do anything by the way) and you have a whole lot of pain and not much reward.

Activities, painful activities, that don’t yield a return are cruft. Yes, cruft. The act of reducing sodium, eating “organic”, and “moving a little bit every day” (just for the sake of it) actually prevent you from creating a healthy lifestyle.

Hate running? Then don’t run. Don’t like giving up pizza? Then figure out a way to fit it into your diet. Don’t like salads? Then don’t eat them.

The Biggest Loser’s big fat lie

This feedback loop is the only thing that matters in creating fitness success, and it’s the reason that shows like “The Biggest Loser” actually hurt the fight against obesity.

You see, The Biggest Loser gives people the perception that exercising until you vomit, starving yourself, and being hardcore are all necessary means to fitness success.

But this leads to an unsustainable feedback loop. An enormous amount of fitness pain is inflicted, when only a fraction of that amount is needed to lose weight. Maybe that’s why 85-90 percent of participants regain their original weight, as explained in this eye-opening piece by my friend, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.

So what would be more successful for weight loss? The most painless, most effective thing possible. A 450 lb individual can lose a tremendous amount of weight eating 3,000 calories a day – that’s a whole rotisserie chicken and some chipotle afterwards.

Want someone to stick to fitness in the long run? Make them lose weight while still stuffing their face. Sadly, most obese people don’t know that this is possible, in part because The Biggest Loser is on TV.

Why fitness dogma is stupid

This feedback loop also explains why it’s silly, even harmful, to force your own fitness or nutritional ideologies to others. (Did you hear the joke about how you know if someone does CrossFit or Paleo?)

Similarly, too many people treat fitness like religion and try to push their own preferences on to other people. Perhaps the Paleo diet worked very well for you. That doesn’t mean that it will work for someone who feels horrible on low carbs or absolutely loves bread.

If you find a diet that works for you, congratulations! Sure, you might want to recommend this diet to your friends, but don’t turn it into nutritional dogma. And definitely do not backwards-rationalize your diet’s “optimality” by seeking out supporting science. (Note: I’m not bashing Paleo. It’s a very simple, effective diet and has changed many lives. It’s dogma and the misuse of science that I take issue with.)

A better use of your time would be to be thankful that you’ve found a good strategy and move on with your life.

Saying that there is one way to eat is the same thing as saying that everyone has the same preferences. That people are all the same. They’re not, and that’s why everyone’s feedback loop is different.

Are people responsible?

At this point, I know what some people are thinking. “Well, fuck, Dick. If you’re so smart and it’s not about willpower, I guess no one is at fault for being fat then, huh?”

On the contrary. If there’s one thing I’ve seen in my decade of talking to thousands of people between forums, clients, Fitocracy, and real life, it’s that people are responsible for their own failures. Most times, it is their fault.

But it’s not for the reasons that most people think.

Most don’t fail because they didn’t eat less or move more. They failed because they could not see beyond the oversimplification of “eat less, move more.” Many times, this is a problem of hubris.

In that very same vein, they failed to be curious, introspective, and mindful. These people also beat themselves up for all of their past failures, not realizing those plans had them doomed for the start.

The Biggest Loser will have you believe that fitness success is about being tough, being hardcore – dangerously hardcore. In fact, it’s about the exact opposite.

Fitness success is about humility – realizing you cannot reduce one of the world’s most challenging problems to “eat less, move more,” and then seeking out the knowledge to improve yourself. Success also requires compassion – forgiving yourself for past failures so that you can try again.

Those things are the exact opposite of being “hardcore”.

That’s the ultimate irony. It’s why people are ultimately responsible for their failures – not because they failed to shrink their waist, but because they failed to expand their horizons.

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