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I’ve been lifting weights for over 14 years and I’ve been a fitness professional for over 10 years. Throughout this time, I cannot tell you the number of mistakes I’ve made along the way. I like to think of all of them as valuable learning lessons, though, and I’m happy I know better now. Today, I’m sharing with you five mistakes I made at the beginning of my fitness journey – hopefully so you don’t have to!
1. I thought fitness was all about self control.
In fitness, we tend to glorify strict, rigid protocols, and we admire those who are able to maintain a robot-like adherence to these rigorous plans. Do 45 minutes of fasted cardio every morning? Check. Lift 6 times a week? Check. Carry around your own meals in Tupperware and never eat out at restaurants? Check. We typically try to follow programs that necessarily require extremely high levels of self-control due to how demanding they are.
Unfortunately, relying primarily on self-control to elicit lasting change is a losing strategy. You only have so much self-control to spend, and particularly if you have other priorities in your life, such as performing well at your job or being a loving partner/parent (both of which are completely valid and encouraged), that means that much less in the tank to exert yourself to your fullest with fitness every single time.
This doesn’t mean you should never make an effort; you obviously do. But rather than trying to do a 180-degree life overhaul overnight, instead work on building the right healthy habits that you can keep up week after week, month after month relatively pain-free.
The key defining feature that sets apart habit-based behaviors versus self control-based behaviors is the amount of cognitive effort that is required. In short, habits — particularly strong habits — rely on little to no cognitive effort. So it makes sense that the more the “right” habits you have engrained, the more you’re able to keep that fitness momentum going without feeling like your battery is being drained left and right.
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2. I equated low body fat with “fit” and “healthy.”
For several years, I believed that bodybuilders and other physique competitors were the epitome of fitness. And perhaps they are, depending on your definition of fitness.
But for me, I eventually came to realize that I wanted fitness to enhance my life and help optimize my health, and partaking in a sport as extreme as bodybuilding was perhaps not the best way to go. Increased obsession with your body, heightened body dysmorphia, neurosis and obsession with food, fatigue and irritability, loss of menstrual cycle, low libido, hair loss — these are a mere handful of side effects that can occur when chasing extremely low levels of body fat. It’s clear to see that these are the opposite of health.
What I’ve learned since then is that fitness does not have one specific look. A quick glance at Olympic-level athletes will show you that even among the world’s most elite athletes, everyone’s body shapes and sizes are completely different. Further, carrying some body fat is in no way a bad thing, and we all need body fat to not only function but also thrive in life.
I know now not to judge someone’s level of “fitness” or “health” merely by how shredded their abs are.
3. I neglected my mental health and quality of life.
While I fell in love with fitness, my newfound obsession came at the expense of my mental health. After all, I thought that fitness was all about achieving a certain look, so I did whatever it took to accomplish that.
In the process, I isolated myself from my friends, turned down social invites, stopped going out to restaurants, and spent my free time at the gym or planning out my next meals.
My pursuit of fitness paradoxically negatively impacted my health in some ways as I ultimately found myself lonelier, more anxious, and less happy than before. I distinctly remember during my college years, just about every single weekend was spent alone because I made next to no effort to get to know my peers and classmates. I was so afraid of deviating from my rigid meal plan that I opted not to make an appearance at parties at all, I never went out to eat, and I frequently cooked my own food in my dorm room by myself. Rather than spend an afternoon in the grass or cheer on the Cardinals at a football game, I instead spent my time at the gym.
It took me a long time to fully grasp that mental health and quality of life were just as important as maintaining physical health — and that achieving PRs in the gym could happen while at the same time not missing out on life’s happy moments.
4. I was my own toughest critic, which meant my self-talk was really harsh.
If I ever were to see my own internal self-dialogue typed out on a sheet paper, I would probably be mortified. I know I’m not the only one who holds myself up to an unfairly high pedestal compared to others.
And while it’s totally fine to have standards for yourself, what’s actually detrimental, not helpful, in the long run is being a prick to yourself. This includes beating yourself up when you make a mistake or don’t do as well as you’d hoped, calling yourself names, and demeaning your own character.
Would it surprise you if I told you that self-compassion has actually been found to be highly linked to health-promoting behaviors? Specifically, your ability to be kind to yourself in the face of setback makes you more, not less, likely to continue to persist with your behavior change effort. Many people think that self-compassion means being “weak” with yourself, but it actually helps you persevere rather than self-sabotage and quit.
5. All-or-nothing was my default mode, which often left me with nothing.
Lastly, the all-or-nothing mentality is probably the biggest mindset mistake I see people making — not only in fitness but also in everyday life. And truthfully, it’s still something I am working on to this day.
Seeing foods as “good” or “bad,” labeling myself only as either a “success” or “failure,” throwing in the towel if I couldn’t get everything perfectly right, freaking out whenever my day didn’t go exactly according to plan… all of these led me to shoot myself in the metaphorical foot for years. I didn’t understand that letting good enough be good enough would get me much further in life than demanding perfection every time.
Because the truth is, rarely does life ever go the way you plan. Sometimes you have less time to devote to your workout than you thought; sometimes that restaurant isn’t serving the one meal you had picked out ahead of time.
Learning to go with the flow and be okay with good enough, and then doing that consistently rather than toggling between 100 mph and 0 mph means that you can be flexible with whatever gets tossed your way and adapt so you can still act in a way that is in line with your goals.
If any of these mistakes resonate with you, know that you’re not alone. And the good news is, you can get better at all of these things!