Like everything else in our lives fitness has somewhat of a life cycle. Much like the caterpillar that turns into a butterfly there is a maturation process that begins painfully and ends (hopefully) beautifully. In truth, you may go through these phases many times. You may even find that they act like fractals where you will have phases within a phase. No matter what, you will have to go through some degree of each in order to fully transform. Don’t worry though only the first one is really bad. If you don’t like that there’s always plastic surgery, but then you won’t get the strength and the true beauty from your metamorphosis.
Phase 1: Shame and Pain
When it comes to breaking the pattern of being you and forming new habits for good, it takes more than just motivation. It takes pain. You will undoubtedly have to reach a certain level of suffering where you simply can’t continue on the trajectory you’ve been on. Like it’s been said before, when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change then you make different choices. Those who suffer from serious addictions won’t usually commit to a rehabilitation program until they have a rock bottom moment like jail or causing harm to someone else.
You don’t necessarily have to reach that rock bottom level of suffering to make changes to your health that will last. However, it is somewhat of a sliding scale where you usually only make changes proportionate to the level of your suffering. For more serious results you may even have to stoke the fire by prodding your thoughts and feelings.
For myself, I have almost mastered a few key mental phrases that get me up out of bed when I’m tired, and they all have to do with evoking a deeper level of suffering for me personally, pulling my own triggers if you will. In my story, my ultimate level of suffering is becoming a weak, stupid, and lazy person. That’s who I used to be and am terrified of becoming again. So now when I’m having a moment of talking myself out of working out, or eating impulsively, a little imaginary drill sergeant on my shoulder appears and calls me a variety of not so pretty things. It’s not what I really think of myself, it’s just a tool to remind me I don’t want to reach that level of suffering again.
Before you get concerned about this apparent negative self-talk, remember this is just a phase tool – a technique to get moving or light the fire. Typically the positive side of motivation is not what gets you up out of a warm bed at 5am for a workout. Unfortunately, shame, fear and threat of suffering are still the fastest motivators of humans. Since I will never be rid of those emotions, I’ve resigned myself to do the next best thing, and try to harness them for the most positive outcomes.
Phase 1 (part 2): Shame and Pain Continued
As you already understand, change is always hardest at the beginning. If you’ve been eating whatever you want and sitting on your ass a lot then you have a lot of karma to pay off. The bill comes due in two distinct parts, the emotional and the physical. It’s now time to “embrace the suck” and start paying down that debt from years of neglect. For instance, if you start to take sugar out of your diet you will have strong cravings that will be frustrating at best, and feel like full blown withdraw symptoms at worst. As this affects your mood biochemically and makes you painfully irritated, you then get to deal with the bonus of emotional whiplash, because you feel like shit for letting yourself get to this state in the first place.
Likewise, starting a new exercise plan not only comes with the natural pain of embarrassment for being a beginner in the gym, but also the intense soreness that will plague you for days, weeks and possibly months. Don’t forget to throw a random injury in there from time to time for your trouble.
Needless to say, if you make it through this phase you just might be out for good. Who would want to go through all that again? This is the phase where you will be tested the most, and be the least prepared to succeed. So this is where it’s most important to have experienced guidance and lots of great support systems in place. It’s a good idea to invest in professionals for accountability and guidance, but ultimately your success will come down to the establishment of consistency above all else. Every day you “show up” just a little bit, is a day you get stronger in the most important way.
Phase 2: The Undeniable Awakening of Positivity
In case you’ve been living in a cave devoid of all science and common sense (unfortunately some of us have), we have now proven that eating healthy and staying fit makes humans feel better on the most foundational biochemical level. With healthy activity and food our brains receive feel good chemicals and our body feels more alive, stronger, and resilient to stress. Even though you can begin to feel these positive effects almost immediately after your first few workouts, your general outlook on life is usually still dominated by struggle, sacrifice and suffering for a while
Slowly but surely though, the scale begins to tip and you feel better more consistently. Then you begin to notice when you skip your workouts you feel sluggish. Now when you eat things that you used to love you feel like shit. All of the sudden you realize your body simply wants to be rewarded with positive-healthy things instead of the old stuff that used to comfort you temporarily.
Typically this phase can be recognized in the form of annoying people on Facebook and Instagram who constantly post things about their workouts and their new favorite gym etc. Remember, they are on a chemical high and don’t care who knows about it. It’s like they were living in cold wet clothes for years and they just got dry and warm. It has completely changed everything about their existence and outlook on life. Often times they just want other people to feel as good as they do.
Phase 3: Shut Up and Do the Work
Like in any process of maturation, there comes a time for the quiet work. At this stage of the game your habitual clean eating and exercise aren’t novelties or even luxuries- they’re necessities. Just like brushing your teeth, it becomes something that doesn’t get negotiated.
This is also where personal goals can become bigger than they ever have before and serious gains can be made. Now we believe in ourselves more than ever and we’ve expanded our view of the long game, so we’re even more patient with ourselves. We still can’t necessarily see the changes made on a daily basis, but we can definitely look back and see how much we’ve changed. This helps us project even more ambitiously forward. All we have to do now is just chip away at the work. It takes energy to make a fuss on social media, so now we conserve it and keep our head down a bit more. Here’s where the bourbon gets richer in the barrel.
However, for most people this can be more of a maintenance phase rather than a progressive one. We may realize that we don’t have the need, desire or time to chase large aggressive goals, but we know that our mental health is completely dependent on maintaining a lifestyle of strength and health.
Phase 4: Cash in and Play
Ultimately, there comes a time when the fruits of your labor are to be enjoyed both emotionally and physically. This is where once in a blue moon you eat an entire pizza and don’t give a single flying f—. You’ve built up a strong metabolism, and every now and then you can take it out for a spin like a Lamborghini on the Autobahn. You understand how to control your impulsive behaviors better and the risk of backsliding seems very low.
From the physical side of things, hopefully by now you’ve found a recreational activity or sport to enjoy socially, or maybe even competitively. It’s important to have something that doesn’t feel like a grueling workout, but has a big emotional success pay out. Maybe you like to play pickle ball or train in jiu jitsu. Here you find your fitness training becomes something that helps with injury prevention and enhances your performance.
To be clear, sometimes people start getting in shape by doing a recreational sport. In many ways this is great, but eventually general physical conditioning (things like strength, flexibility and cardiac health) will be vital to your human machine and quality of life. So don’t skip the gym if you want to keep playing those pick-up games with your friends that make you happy.
Now go write your story. Be your own hero.