Why do humans get ulcers? It’s a bit of a dated topic at this point. Robert Sapolsky’s renown book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” came out 25 years ago. The simple points of stress are pretty well understood, especially in health and fitness.
- Stress makes it easier to be fat.
- Long-term stress kills your memory.
- Fetal malnutrition stunts your growth.
- Stress makes it harder to gain muscle.
- Stress burdens your sleep.
- And surely some other important stuff.
Some stress is good, yes. Working out is a big stressor (hopefully your biggest one). But working out makes the bones more durable, the muscles stronger, and helps keep the blood flowing smoothly. We expose ourselves to this stressor to build resilience.
But persistent, psychological stress is bad. Worrying about how your co-worker will do on a project is out of your control. Worrying about the one car weaving in and out of stopped traffic to try to get an extra five feet ahead is nothing that’s impacting you. Setting deadlines you know to be unrealistic might make your work get done faster, but at what cost? You get the same physiological alarm as a zebra, but without the subsequent run-for-your-life exercise so familiar to our four-legged brethren.
I believe that people should learn about their options. My 10 years in the fitness industry helps me understand the tradeoffs that each behavior has. Before diving into the details of habitual behavior, however, we need to start higher level.
Eliminate emotionality and encourage rationality
You need to answer these questions:
- What do you want?
- Why do you want it?
- Why do you want that?
- Why do you want THAT?
- Is #1 really what you want?
When it comes to health and happiness with yourself, the secret is to eliminate emotionality and encourage rationality. The best looking people don’t have better willpower, they just avoid using it.
For example, if you know your gorge yourself every day you come home for dinner, it is delusional to think, “I’m weak. I need to be stronger.” Understand where that Irrational You is coming from. Try to empathize. Introspect. “Of course she’s gorging herself! She’s starving! She hasn’t eaten since her short lunch at 11:30AM. It’s been over six hours now!”
Contrary to popular belief, I actually think it’s okay to scold yourself a little. Self-loathing tells you what things you should fix. It gives you a self-improvement road map, so to speak. But once you notice something you don’t like, you have to act. It’s not productive to just sit there and lash yourself. You need a new plan.
So if you find yourself starving when you get home, scarfing take out five to eight nights a week, and worried about not losing weight, write down a new plan. One sentence with one actionable item you can do every day. “I will have a cashew and plain yogurt snack at 3:30PM before finishing up work.” Or maybe you just need your dinner pre-planned. Or maybe you need to politely decline the dinner and drinks with friends.
What you might have to change
The PM dinner example is a simple one, but there could be a lot of things keeping you where you’re at. Once you’ve identified what you want and why you want it, write it down. Make it very clear. You’re going to need this statement when your emotional brain tries to sabotage you. It’s going to be difficult.
We already discussed the negative impacts that habitual psychological stress can have on your body and mind. But do you know that both poor and abbreviated sleep do the same thing? Did you know that looking at your phone screen delays your bed time? And promotes restlessness even if you DO manage to get to bed on time? Did you know that bright overhead lights do these things, too? Did you know that you should do some form of exercise every day? Did you know that exercising after work doesn’t cancel out the fact that you sat nearly motionless all day? And that it doesn’t “earn” you a slice of cake?
What are you willing to change to get better?
- Are you willing to set aside time to work out every day?
- Are you willing to eat meat and vegetables?
- Are you willing to exercise in an unfamiliar way?
- Are you willing to occasionally exercise so hard that you feel sick?
- Are you willing to give up your unhealthy food traditions?
- Are you willing to stop working and watching TV at 8PM?
- Are you willing to learn how to cook?
- Are you willing to turn off your overhead lights at night?
- Are you willing to find new friends?
- Are you willing to quit your job?
- Are you willing to tell your spouse you’re unhappy?
That list, to me, gradually increases in difficulty; each reality more insidious than the previous. You can buy your way out of a few of them (hire a trainer to give you new workouts, get a personal chef to help cook, for example). Most of them, though, require you to be really uncomfy for a seemingly endless amount of time.
If you’re not willing to set aside time to work out every day, you won’t gain momentum. Working out is the easy part.
If you’re not willing to eat meat and vegetables, you’ll have to eat more to get the same nutrition. That makes weight loss really difficult.
If you’re not willing to exercise in an unfamiliar way, you can’t break through plateaus and will continue fighting the same aches and pains.
If you’re not willing to push yourself, you have to be REALLY dialed in with your diet, sleep, and stress management.
If you’re not willing to give up your unhealthy food traditions, you may just never lose weight.
If you’re not willing to stop working and watching TV at 8PM, you may never lose a pound.
If you’re not willing to learn how to cook, you’ll have to find someone else to do it for you.
If you’re not willing to turn off the overhead lights at night, you better find another way to make sure you go to bed on time. Or blindfold yourself.
If you’re not willing to find new friends, you better get used to flexing your willpower muscle and saying no to the drinks, fried foods, and habitual late nights.
If you’re not willing to quit your job, you better be good at setting boundaries and prioritizing your health.
If you’re not willing to tell your spouse you’re unhappy, you better find a way to make yourself happy.
If changing your body were easy, then we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. You must be vigilant in identifying your behaviors and the emotions that cause them. Then plan around those emotions (instead of avoiding them) because they will still arise.
If you’re lucky, you won’t have to make all those changes listed above.
But if you’re like most people, you’re going to have to make at least 80% of them if you’re going to be successful. That’s just the way it is, especially in this day and age.
Society now encourages workaholism, dining out, and habitual electronic device usage. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should.
So we go back to our first questions:
- What do you want?
- Why do you want it?
- Why do you really want it?
We have to prioritize. Do you want this change more than you want to keep your current habits? Some would prefer to continue watching TV until midnight every night instead of losing 30lbs. That’s okay, but you must
and accept the reality.
You can’t have both.
And you cannot pretend that you will have both.
You must choose.
You CAN change. And you’re allowed to enlist help. But first you must decide that you are the type of person who wants to change.
So what will it be?