12-week body transformation! Lose 3 dress sizes in 6 weeks! Bigger arms with this 8-week program! Get your Bikini body with this magic pill! Add 30kg to your Bench in 5 weeks! Drink this kale smoothie daily and you will be able to walk on water!
Ok, so I haven’t read the last one in magazines, in a local gym or online, but all the above statements are as ridiculous as each other, and have as much chance of long term success as each other. While online coaches, magazine articles, crash diet program’s and magic supplements all have big marketing budgets, exciting headlines and massive promises, they all fail 100% of the time in the long term. Yes, sure a very small percentage of people will be able to grind out the extreme exercise regime, restrictive diet, cutting this & that in the short term, but in the long run they will return to baseline, and most the time end up worse off.
The worst part of this is that these catchy phrases and false promises pray on the people who generally need the most care, the most empathy and support, struggling with eating disorders, body dysmorphia issues, depression, and anxiety. They can be in a state of desperation to change their declining health or reach their body image goal, but unable to make the required changes for a long term happy & healthy life. So, they will pay for that crash diet, that magic gym program to solve all, and once the money is handed over, that’s where it ends for them. Praying on desperation is not an ethical way to help people nor do business, particularly in the health and fitness industry.
It is not because these programs are necessarily bad for everyone, or the concepts of the diet are way off the mark (although some are just plain ridiculous like any cleanse/detox program, we have organs that do that better than any juice for that) but there are two key factors required for long term success in health, fitness, weight loss, muscle gain journeys, that most plans completely ignore. I will go in to more detail each of them below.
- What Works For Me, Works For You
Do this 5 day a week, 90 minutes per day, high intensity training program, only eat organic whole foods raised on a farm in the alps of Switzerland, do not touch carbs. This may be the perfect recipe for a few single, Anglo-Saxon, 25-year-old men, with a high income, no food intolerances, no children to chase and no injury to manage, but that fits 0.0001% of the population and an even lower percentage of the people that need more help.
These 12 week or whatever magic programs and diets completely ignore genetic differences, cultural backgrounds, differing life stressors and commitments, old vs young, vegan vs carnivore, and ignore human variability and vulnerability. On top of all of that, they often are completely void of scientific reasoning and an understanding of physiology.
Don’t let that airbrushed picture of a fitness model sway you, they have depleted, dehydrated, tanned and shadowed to the nth degree to be able to get those shots, and it lasts for 1 day. Focus on finding activities, exercise frequencies, intensities, and life balance that allows you to maintain them all as pleasurable experiences, intrinsically motivated, not punishment, extrinsically motivated to reach some socially acceptable image of health.
- Forming Habits Takes Time And Support
Humans have not evolved a hell of a lot over several thousand years, we take time to change, to develop new habits, and can only handle very small amounts of change at a time. So, when it comes to forming positive activity or nutritional habits, going from zero to extreme with a million changes from your normal just doesn’t work.
Even if someone can stick to the extreme cookie cutter programs and restrictive diets for the short term, the rebound effect is damaging. There are two reason why this is the case and I will explain them both below.
- The Hedonistic Response
Humans are pleasure seeking beings, we have a host of hormones that fluctuate daily in response to stress and pleasure, serotonin being our key pleasure experience hormone. We need a balanced amount of pleasure to maintain happiness and health, both physically and mentally every single day, every week, every year of our lives.
Now imagine you decide you want to make a change to your body, your health, your body weight or whatever your goal. You go online or see in a gym this ‘magic’ 12-week nutrition and training program to hit your goal. You have struggled with reaching your goal and are now at the point of desperation, willing to try anything to get there, so you sign up and pay the money.
The program and nutrition asks for perfection, but you do get a treat meal or two which you can save for the weekend. The exercise regime is extreme, punishing, you are getting through because it’s “what you need to do” but not enjoying it. The chicken and broccoli is dry, the kale smoothie for breakfast is bitter, but you get it down because the ad/trainer says so. Then the weekend hits, you have that ‘cheat meal’, you have not experienced the pleasurable experiences we all need, so we go to the opposite extreme, eat a bucket of ice cream, sit on the couch and don’t move, and you justify it because of the ‘perfect week’ you just had. This is not a lack of self-control, or anything problematic with you, but the body and mind seeks pleasure, you have had none through the week so your body and mind super dose it with a binge. Your work is completely reset, the guilt sets in, metabolism damaged, and then Monday it starts all over again.
Don’t aim for perfection, the counter response is damaging, aim for good enough, and let good enough for you be self-determined with the support of a quality coach, doctor, nutritionist or dietician, that good enough will progress, so start small.
- Developing habits is a skill
Drastic changes in short term programs, with dreams sold, fail to factor in the ability to develop a new skill, skills that can handle changing situations. When you build a skill to only do the extreme thing, now you only have two skills, one is the extreme thing, the other is not the extreme thing, you have no skill of another path, situation or environment.
Maybe you can handle that 8-week gym program, maybe you can tolerate that new magical diet when the stars align perfectly, but what happens when life happens. A work project doubles in load, you have a child, a family member gets sick, you get injured, they run out of quinoa at the organic grocer heaven forbid so you can’t stick to the plan. This online, magazine, gym sold plan can no longer work, and in no way, has it helped you develop autonomy in health, learned skills or habits that allow you to adapt to a changing environment. So, while you may be able to find perfect times where magic programs can work, for the bulk of your life it doesn’t, and you need to develop skill sets to adapt to changing environments, to find ways that work no matter what the situation.
With drastic/magic programs, there is no connection, support or education that occurs, so when perfect isn’t possible, you know no other option so nothing happens. It’s the whole give a man a fish and eats for a meal, teach a man to fish and he eats for a life time scenario.
Just remember, when it comes to activity & nutrition programs and promises, if it’s too good to be true then it is. There is no magic fix, magic rep scheme or diet plan, it comes down to consistency, sustainability and an educational approach. Work with a coach not a businessman, focus on habits not fads, freedom not restriction, long term not short term, autonomy vs drill sergeant, learn to love movement and eating well so that it is not seen as punishment and restriction.
Good coaches develop habits, not sell promises and fads. Good coaches are not just an excel sheet gym program and diet plan, they are empathy, they provide an education and connection, building a meaningful relationship to help people find joy in movement, health, strength and eating that nourishes the mind, body and soul. Get that right, and you will reach your goals and keep them for the long term.
Written by Head Performance Coach David Smith