“If it’s important, do it every day. If it isn’t, don’t do it at all.” – Dan Gable Olympic wrestling champion
I usually suggest people begin their fat loss journey with daily exercise. Not because I think it is the most effective at reducing body weight. It isn’t, but because daily exercise is a keystone habit that leads to a host of other good habits. Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng found that regular exercise leads to significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors such as less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; and fewer hours watching TV.[i]
Exercise is more about feeling good than looking good. People that exercise regularly are much less likely to suffer from depression or other psychological ailments. John J. Ratey, MD Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. He says it’s a handy metaphor, but the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters — along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.
Daily exercise enriches our lives in unexpected ways. It’s a keystone habit that triggers widespread behavior change. Its primary benefits: less stress, increased patience, improved mood, focus, confidence, and impulse control lead to the development of other good habits. I believe it is because when we feel better, we do better. People who exercise typically start to eat better, demonstrate better self-control, show more patients with colleagues, use their credit cards less often and become more productive at work.
I begin every morning with exercise because I know that is the best way to put my brain and body in a good place. I typically perform a 5 to 10-minute Tabata-style workout, alternating between 20-second bouts of high-intensity exercise with 10-second recovery periods while listening to music or something inspiring. I use it to set my day on a positive trajectory. I complete my longer training sessions during my lunch hour.
Exercise has been shown to improve our mood for up to twelve hours. Why not start the day feeling fantastic? Even a mini-workout will do the trick. I keep a 35-pound kettlebell in our living room, so I can perform a mini-workout whenever I need to re-energize. My standing desk is in our home gym, so I can grab an exercise snack whenever I need a boost. Whenever I feel stressed at work, I force myself to take a short walk to reduce my stress. It also helps me clear my head, formulate a plan and prepare myself to address the source of my anxiety. If everyone took exercise breaks the way they took coffee breaks, they would look and feel much better.
Many think they don’t like exercise because they aren’t motivated to train day after day. Most people mistakenly believe that they need to be motivated to build a habit, but that is wrongheaded thinking. The more times we do anything, the less motivated we’ll be to do it, so relying on motivation to create a habit is fundamentally flawed. While motivation is popular in the self-help space, it doesn’t help build good habits. You’ll discover a lot of popular things that aren’t effective. Most of the extreme diets in vogue today can work. Unfortunately, the results they produce aren’t any more sustainable than the diets themselves.
So why are extreme, overly restrictive diets and motivation so popular? I think it is because everyone is looking for quick results. Look at the popularity of the reality program, The Biggest Loser. Forcing 400-pound people to work out four hours a day on a starvation diet makes for good TV, but the results are abysmal. While they lose a ton of weight during the program, virtually all the contestants fail to keep the weight off. Approximately 14 out of 15 contestants gain back all the weight eight months after the program ends.[ii] Quickly done, quickly undone!
The key to sustainable results is sustainable routines. On average, it takes 66-days to create a habit, so why don’t these people develop better eating and exercise habits? [iii] After all, the program lasts several months. The answer has many components. First, the program is unsustainable. No one with real-life commitments can work out four hours a day. Another reason these people don’t create better habits is that everything is being forced on them. You don’t develop self-discipline when you are being forced to do something. When these contestants finish the program, they are probably eager to exert their autonomy and reward themselves for all their hard work, with the one reward they have all been conditioned to crave, FOOD.
Another reason these people don’t develop healthy habits is that they are taken out of their typical environment. When they return home, they are surrounded by the same old triggers and temptations that produced their 400-pound bodies. Habits never die; they simply go dormant until they are jolted awake again by familiar cues. These people are food addicts. The only thing an addict needs to change is EVERYTHING. I was always astonished by parents that sent their kids to rehab, only to allow them to go back to the same school and associate with the same drug-using friends.
When people are too focused on short-term results, they gravitate to unsustainable programs. The absolute best examples of this are the low carb diets, Adkins, the uber-popular Ketogenic Diet, and the Carnivore Diet. The fitness industry knows that people are looking for quick results, so it advocates low-carb diets because when you eliminate carbs from your diet, your muscles store less water. Since our bodies are approximately 60% water, instant weight loss. When you tell someone with a quick fix mentality that it’s water weight, that won’t improve their appearance; they don’t care. The scale has moved. They’re so focused on achieving their short-term goal, they lose sight of what they really want, which is a leaner body.
When you cut carbs from your diet, you’ll drop five to ten pounds in a week. It isn’t purely fat loss because that would be impossible. You would have to create a weakly caloric deficit of 18,000 to 36,000 calories. To put this in perspective, the weekly maintenance caloric intake for a 180-pound man is approximately 20,000 calories a week. People focused on quick fixes get motivated by the immediate results it produces. Unfortunately, motivation is quickly replaced by disappointment when their rate of weight loss slows down to the normal one to two pounds per week that sensible dieting produces.
I focus on habits and lifestyle because they produce permanent weight loss, which is what we really want. We don’t want to achieve a number on a scale as much as we want to improve our appearance in the mirror. How many of the people that you know who stay thin year after year eat a low-carb diet? How many simply control their portions, reduce their carbohydrate intake, and eat a relatively clean diet consisting of unprocessed foods?
The whole mentality of doing a diet connotes a quick fix mentality. It is our habits that make us who we are, not what we do for 10-weeks. When someone tells me that I don’t need to work out every day or eat clean because I am thin, they just don’t get it. It is the habit of daily exercise and eating unprocessed foods that is responsible for me being thin. Even if you understand the importance of routines, you’ll be too ambitious if you focus on quick results. Focus on habits, and the results will take care of themselves.
We want to shrink the habit down so small in the beginning that we can do it on our worse day. That is why we will focus on shrinking the commitment. Big changes, like eliminating an entire food group, are dramatic. Unless you are exceptionally committed, your Elephant is going to eventually reassert its autonomy by eating a boatload of carbs.
We want to shrink the change by focusing on taking small, sustainable actions because they don’t require much motivation or willpower. Since motivation is as capricious as our mood, we’ll rely on willpower instead. Another advantage that willpower has over motivation is that it’s developed through repetition, not diluted by it.[iv] An over-reliance on motivation is at the root of most people’s failure to create good habits.
Keystone habits, like regular exercise and adequate sleep, improve our willpower by reducing our stress and fatigue levels. Stress and fatigue sap our willpower, so anything we can do to reduce them will improve our odds of developing good habits.
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[i] Oaten M, and Cheng K, “Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise,” Br J Health Psychol. 2006 Nov; 11 (Pt 4):717-33.
[ii] Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D I, The Biggest Loser’ contestants gain again: Why weight keeps coming back, Today.
[iii] Benjamin Gardner, “Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice,” 2012 Dec; 62(605): 664–666. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp12X659466.
[iv] Muraven, Mark, Roy F. Baumeister, and Dianne M. Tice. “Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self-Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise.” The Journal of Social Psychology 139.4 (1999): 446-57.)