When I was 13, my mom took my sister and I to the movies. We saw Legally Blonde.
There’s an innocent little scene where Elle is walking on the treadmill in her dorm room, I think she might be reading a book and studying for law school.
I turned to my mom and whispered “Yeah, as if she needs to workout.” (Remember when we used to use “as-if”? How nostalgic.)
My mom had worked out all her life, and she wisely responded, “Honey, just because she is already in shape, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t work out.”
I was perplexed.
(You’ll recall: I was 13.)
I was active, playing soccer regularly. I had a fantastic pre-teen metabolism. I had a pretty healthy diet overall, because my mom didn’t keep much crap in the house. (Thanks, mom!)
I didn’t have to do hardly anything to be in “good shape”.
…and I certainly didn’t think that miniscule little whispered conversation would be so relevant to me 15 years later.
The problem with fitness and health is that a large majority of those who make the decision to “get active” do so because of external motivation.
Read: They get to a point where they no longer feel comfortable with how they look (in the mirror, in their jeans, in their bathing suit…) or how much they weigh (OMG! That number can’t be right!) and so they make the decision to get their ass to the gym, workout hard (sometimes every day), eat healthier (or, most likely, try some kind of limiting, not-sustainable, unrealistic “diet”) and they lose weight. Which, yes, is great.
So, why is this a problem? Because, fitness becomes just a means to an end. This is not good.
You lose X amount of pounds, you look better, your jeans fit again, and suddenly your motivation dissipates. There’s no longer a “reason” to keep busting your ass at the gym. You’ve hit your goal. 20 pounds gone? good for you!
I just lost 20 pounds, I can have a slice of pizza!
I just lost 20 pounds, I can skip the gym today!
I just lost 20 pounds, I’m having 13 beers on Saturday!
The problem, friends, is that just like Elle Woods, you need to make fitness and healthy eating habits a part of your LIFESTYLE. Even when you no longer need to lose weight – but you just need to maintain the good health (and sure, the weight loss) that you created.
You’ve heard this before. Weight loss should be slow and steady, if it’s going to be maintainable. And by doing it slow and steady, you’re establishing good habits that you need to MAINTAIN. And further, by changing your perspective about WHY you’re exercising and eating well, you’ll create something that will last forever.
And, just so you know, many people have fallen victim to this vicious cycle – me included!
Other external motivations include: looking good in a bikini for an upcoming vacation; wanting to have nice arms in a bridesmaid dress for your cousin’s wedding; losing X amount of pounds before a photo shoot; wanting to be “skinny enough” to fit into your own wedding dress, that you purchased a size smaller on purpose. (Everybody does this, right?) I may or may not have done all of these things at some point.
Listen, I’ve worked in a gym for a very long time. One of the first things we ask people when they come to check out the club is a well-intentioned: what’s your fitness goal? 99.99999% of the time (when speaking to women) the answer is to lose weight. 10 pounds, 15 pounds, 20, 30, 50, 100 pounds. It’s almost always “lose weight”. And, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – but if you dig a bit deeper, the REAL reason is usually because they want to LOOK better, NOT because the extra weight is causing them to have joint pain, have terrible sleep habits, is putting their heart at risk, is making them feel sluggish and have low energy, or has resulted in them living with diabetes or other conditions which require medication.
If you’re like me, and this ain’t your first rodeo, you know that as soon as you get the fitness bug again, almost immediately upon completing that very first workout after a long hiatus, you FEEL incredible.
That feeling is because of endorphins.
Endorphins make you happy.
Happy people just don’t kill their husbands.
(Come on, it was right there… I had to go for it! If you didn’t know, that’s a quote directly from Legally Blonde.)
The unfortunate part of all this is that a HUGE percentage of the population equates “working out” with “looking good”.
But “looking good” is merely an incredible side-effect of what happens when you become fit and healthy.
If more people started working out and eating properly because of the things they CANNOT see visually, I think a lot more than 16% of the population would be active. (Yes, only about 16% of the population get regular physical exercise. Mind blowing, right?)
The moment I shifted my fitness goal from “lose 30 pounds” to “leg pressing 250 pounds”, my motivation changed. I wanted to be stronger, not skinnier. Then, losing weight happened naturally.
The moment I started wanting to eat foods that were of better quality and of natural origin instead of wanting to eat foods that were a certain number of calories, my food choices changed. Then, losing weight happened naturally.
The moment I decided that I could have it, but I didn’t want it, my fast-food and junk-food intake dropped dramatically. (“It” could be pizza, a big-mac, ice cream, chips, etc. Pick your poison.) Do you see the difference here? The alternative is “I can’t have it, but I want it!” and that makes you start to REALLY want the things that you “can’t have”. (Yet another problem with restrictive diets – a whole other topic entirely.)
I started thinking about cardio sessions as preparation for soccer games. Every time I jump on the treadmill, I’m thinking about how it’s better preparing my body for sprinting, starting, stopping, and keeping up physically with my competitors when I play on Sundays. Instead of doing cardio because it’s going to help me shed fat, my priority is improving endurance – and the fat shedding happens as a side effect.
Does this make sense?
You can’t “see” that my endurance has improved. It’s an internal motivator.
You can’t “see” that I’ve trained my muscles to be able to press 250 pounds.
You can’t “see” that the foods I’m eating are much better at supporting how my body functions, or the increased amount of vitamins, minerals and nutrients that my body absorbs by eating better quality food.
And yet, all of these things have helped me to “see” a big difference in my body.
It might translate to you in a different way.
Maybe you no longer want to get out of breath carrying your baby up the stairs. Maybe you want to be able to keep up with your kids when they’re running around and wanting to physically play with you. Maybe you want to be able to take them up the jungle gym instead of watching while someone else takes them.
Maybe you want to train for your first marathon. Maybe, like me, you want to get back into a sport that you used to love as a kid, and be able to keep up.
Maybe you want to be able to carry all your groceries into the house at once. Maybe you want to be able to lift your own luggage out of the car and onto the carousel, even if your partner is willing to do it for you. (Thanks babe!)
Maybe you want to sleep better, wake up with more energy, have excellent focus during your work day and avoid the sluggish feeling you get at the end of the day when you’re exhausted.
Whatever the reason is – try to think about something external that you can shoot for, and if you do have some weight to lose, it’ll come off as a sweet side effect.
But keep it as a side-effect, and don’t be discouraged if the scale doesn’t move as much as you’d hoped – because your body composition can change too, which will NOT show on the scale! (I.e., you build muscle and lose fat… and muscle weighs more than fat. So it might not look like you’ve lost much, but your clothes and the measuring tape will tell a different story.)
Body composition, too, is a post for another time.
So, I hope you’ve taken something away from this. Try not to focus so much on how you “look”, but how you’re going to “feel” by making healthy changes, and incorporating fitness into your daily lifestyle.
And then, when you get to your “happy place”, you will remember Elle Woods, studying on the treadmill, and that just because you’re in good shape, doesn’t mean you don’t need to work out.
*Images courtesy of pexels.com