- The biggest barriers to getting fit for most people are their expectations, mindset, and motivations for making a change.
- You have to be willing to be imperfect when you start, to avoid comparing yourself to others, and to motivate yourself when no one else will (or even when they do).
- Getting in shape is never easy and you will encounter obstacles from a variety of sources, but it’s also one of the single most gratifying things you can do for yourself.
So you’ve found a gym.
You’ve calculated your macros.
You’ve bought new workout clothes.
You’ve curated an inspirational playlist.
Now all you have to do is start working out.
That’s the fun part though, right?
Sure, it can be, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easy part, or without its own unique challenges.
You can find countless articles, posts, and tweets about how getting in shape will benefit your life.
What I’ve found, though, is that the “influencers” writing this pap tend to steer clear of the topics that people new to fitness need to hear most.
The truth is that getting in shape requires a lot of discomfort, struggle, and perseverance.
Why am I telling you this?
Because it pays to know what the road ahead has in store for you when you decide you want to pursue something as important as getting in shape.
The single most common failure people make when they decide to get fit is having unrealistic expectations.
They expect it to be easy.
To be fast.
To be consistent.
Like you, I thought all of these things when I first started taking fitness seriously, too. I’ve learned a lot along the way, though, and much of what I’m going to share with you in this article has helped me to go from:
- Overweight, to a sub 10% body fat percentage.
- Weak, to having a near-500lb deadlift.
- And unfit, unhealthy, and unhappy, to having purpose, energy and an inner contentment I never thought possible.
Let’s start with one of the more uncomfortable facts about getting fit.
Table of Contents
We are inundated with perfection on a daily basis these days.
Picture perfect physiques are the norm nowadays on fitness Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest pages, and sadly, this is where many people go to learn how to get in shape.
Maybe part of the reason you’re reading this now because you’ve seen so much perfection that you’ve started to believe you’re not good enough in your current state.
On the one hand, this seems like it could be a good thing.
After all, viewing impressive achievements gives us something to look up to, to look forward to, to strive toward.
On the other hand, it can also turn into a pathological rat race that leaves you feeling hollow, insufficient, and more broken than ever.
There are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of studies that look into the effects bombarding ourselves with perfection can have on our well being.
And it’s not good.
Research conducted by scientists at the Universities of New South Wales, Kent State, Cleveland State and Arizona State has shown that repeatedly exposing ourselves to idealised images makes us more anxious, depressed, and unsatisfied with our bodies.
What’s more, three meta-analyses (two concerning men and one concerning women) looking at a total of 50 studies found exposure to idealised images through the media is strongly associated with lower levels of body esteem and satisfaction, and with increased levels of negative behavioral and psychological outcomes.
What’s the driving force behind pushing perfection down our throats?
You guessed it: social media.
A good example of the toxic effects of social media was a study conducted by scientists at the University of New South Wales.
To assess the impact of viewing social media on young women’s body image concerns and mood, the researchers gave participants 10 minutes to browse either Facebook, a fashion website, or a craft website.
Following this they were asked a series of questions adapted from the Physical Appearance Comparison Scale and the Eating Disorder Inventory.
Researchers found the women reported being in a more negative mood after viewing Facebook compared to other websites, and viewing Facebook led to a greater desire to change their physical appearance for women who were predisposed to appearance comparisons.
As of mid-2019, Instagram had a billion users. That’s one billion people comparing themselves to countless pictures of other people pretending to be perfect numerous times every day, feeling shittier with every scroll.
Not a pretty situation.
Or one that you need to buy into.
Allow me to pull back the curtain so you can see what really goes on in these “perfect” people’s lives.
Models, influencers and online fitness gurus take hundreds of pictures of themselves in thoroughly unnatural poses in order to post just one picture. Then, they pretend that one shot that made it to their feed is the only one they took.
They make use of preferential lighting, strange angles, and tensed poses. They use filters and effects, and many of them blatantly use photoshop to enhance their looks.
Oh, and here’s the kicker: most of the Instagram fitness models you’ve heard of are on steroids and have had cosmetic surgery. In fact, once you know their height, weight, and body fat percentage, you can plug those numbers into the calculator on this article and see for yourself whether they’re natty or not:
Here’s something you might not want to hear: you’re going to be anything but perfect when you start working out. So was every other person who got into shape.
This is especially true when you start lifting weights.
Learning correct form will be arduous and embarrassing, your strength will be lower than you want, and you’re going to be sore. I suggest you come to terms with these facts now, because in the three months after you start working out, you’re going to see and feel monumental improvements in all areas of your health, both physically and mentally.
Summary: However imperfect you may at first seem, focus on your own fitness journey, and never compare yourself to people on social media. They aren’t nearly as perfect as they’d like you to believe.
If you want one guaranteed way to make yourself more anxious, depressed, and unsatisfied with your life, compare yourself to others, especially when you’re feeling down.
Of course, that doesn’t stop millions (or perhaps billions) of people from doing this every day.
This isn’t to say that you can’t improve how you look, though.
Any person can have a fit, muscular and healthy body—that’s undeniable.
Because what these researchers considered “unattainable” was really just “very fit.”
Sadly, many researchers don’t understand how body recomposition works. They don’t understand that it’s possible to lose fat, build muscle, and more or less transform the way you look through proper eating and training.
There’s no such thing as an unattainable body type.
If you follow solid training and nutrition principles, you can achieve the exact body type that those studies suggest is impossible. I guarantee this without a shadow of a doubt. That said, it’s time to set some realistic expectations.
Most of how your muscles look is dictated by how they attach to your bones. These attachments are called origin or insertion points, and they’re different on everyone.
Look at bodybuilders, and you’ll notice that all of their muscles look slightly different. For instance, in some cases their biceps look like perfect round balls, whereas in other cases they look like flat strips of flesh squished between the elbow and shoulder.
How your muscles look can’t be changed. You can gain muscle, but you don’t get to decide what your muscles look like when they’re bigger. If I had my way, I’d have Arnold’s chest insertions, Dorian’s lats, Ronnie’s quads and literally anyone else’s calves, but I can’t. I’m stuck with the muscle insertions that I’ve got, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make the most of them.
So, if you can’t compare yourself to other people’s bodies, what do you compare yourself to?
Well, past You, that’s who.
Take stock of where you stand, and do your best to improve. With time, I guarantee you can build a body you can be proud of.
Summary: You can change almost every aspect of how your body looks, but it takes work. Persevere, stay consistent, and before long you’ll have the body you’ve always wanted.
Here’s a familiar story: someone decides it’s finally time to get into shape.
They stock up on new gym gear, join a gym and go at it with all the gusto of a dog chasing a ball. Their social media lights up with gym selfies, plates of home-cooked sweet potato fries and mushed avocado, and all the hashtags.
They get some likes, and they post even more pics.
Then the likes start to dwindle, the pictures are more sporadic, and after a few weeks they’re back to posting memes and pictures of their cat.
Why am I telling you this?
It’s an excellent demonstration of a failure of intrinsic motivation.
There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Let’s pretend you love painting landscapes, so every morning you get up and work on a landscape painting because it gives you intense pleasure.
This would be intrinsic motivation. You paint because you enjoy it, regardless of what other people think.
Now let’s pretend you wake up every morning and paint because it’s the only thing you can do to pay the bills. Or because you want to be known as “the artist” among your friends. Or because your significant other admires you for it and you don’t want to disappoint them.
This would be extrinsic motivation. You aren’t painting because it gives you pleasure, but to earn the approval, adoration, or attention of others.
Research conducted by Professor Tim Kasser from Knox College in Illinois showed that the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more likely we are to become depressed and anxious. He also showed that as a society we’ve become much more driven by extrinsic values.
How can you insulate yourself against the negative tendency to rely on extrinsic motivation?
By not caring what others think of your fitness journey, and doing it because it’s important to you.
Think of how good you’re going to feel once you’re in shape.
How nice it will be to smile when you see your reflection in the mirror.
How gratified you’ll feel when you put your hand on your stomach and feel muscle instead of fat.
Focus on these things—not how many likes you get on Instagram, how many compliments you get from coworkers, or how good it will feel to be the fittest person in your circle of friends.
Summary: Get in shape because you want to, not because someone else wants you to.
We humans have developed a strong attachment to comfort.
The very idea of working hard to get in shape is unsavory to many, and most people will go to great lengths to avoid this simple fact (witness the world of detox teas, MCT oil, and other fake fat loss supplements).
Exercise is inextricably linked to sweating, struggling, and discomfort, most of which doesn’t appeal to the average person.
More challenging than exercise is the discomfort of not being able to eat as much food as you normally would. Many people are able to make themselves workout, but few have the discipline to stick to any structured diet for more than a few weeks.
The hard work you have to put in to achieve a fit and healthy body isn’t glamorous.
Inconvenient facts like these are what make devoting hours to working out every week even less appealing, and for some people, it can be difficult to see why anyone would dedicate time to something so seemingly torturous.
Dedication doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a long-term process.
Now for the good news: the more consistently you show up, the easier it’s going to feel and be.
Showing up and working hard regardless of how much you don’t want to will build psychological momentum, and once you have momentum, the discipline and motivation will fall into place.
What’s more, the feelings of accomplishment, progression and happiness you get from completing something that wasn’t easy will become a powerful motivator.
Finally, it becomes much easier to stick to the plan once you start seeing results. If you can stick out the first 8 weeks or so (where progress is often hard to see), you’ll be richly rewarded by much more obvious changes from then on.
The price of this reward?
Missing the odd workout here or there may seem harmless in the grand scheme of things, but its effects are far worse than they first appear. One missed workout turns into two, which turns into three, which turns into a week off, which turns into not working out.
What’s more, once you take one extended break, it becomes easier and easier to fall into the same pattern again. Working out consistently for a few months, then falling off the wagon.
This ability to fall off the wagon can become just as ingrained as sticking to the plan, so it’s important that you don’t make it a habit.
This is also why it’s important to pick a workout routine you can stick to. It’s much better to pick an easier workout program that you actually follow than a difficult one that you follow for a few weeks before ditching.
Summary: Getting in shape isn’t easy, but the more you show up and work hard, the easier it will become.
Getting strong and healthy will likely be one of the best things you ever decide to do; it certainly was for me. However, if there’s something that’ll test your patience, it’s how much people want to undermine your discipline.
For example, you might be out for lunch and ask for water instead of wine because you know that you have to go to the gym later, and people will look at you like what you’re doing is obscene.
“You’re not having wine!? Get a grip!” they laugh.
“Why can’t you just miss a day?”
“Does doing that really make any difference?”
“Are you not working too hard?”
“Isn’t it a bit sad how much you care about this?”
“Surely you don’t have to do that! You have to have a life as well, you know?”
What I’ve realised is that all of the resistance you receive is from people who are insecure about themselves and their own bodies.
People will feel threatened by the amount of work you’re willing to put in, and think that this highlights their lack of discipline. It’s true, it does, but that shouldn’t put you off.
Summary: It’s not your fault other people (friends and family included) don’t have the same drive and determination you have. Don’t let their warnings, admonitions, and misplaced concern prevent you from getting the body you want.
Getting fit is hard largely because we make it hard.
We give ourselves unrealistic expectations, impossible standards, and too many excuses.
Most people simply stumble into these issues when they decide they want to get in shape, which is why most people end up falling off the wagon after a few months of trying.
If you confront these facts before you get started, though, then your efforts will be richly rewarded.
You’ll be ready for the setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations that are inherent in getting fit, and you’ll be able to fight your way through them knowing what lies on the other side.
The five most common truths that you need to understand about getting fit are:
- Getting in shape requires a whole lot of imperfection.
- It’s fine to admire other people, but don’t compare yourself to them.
- You have to motivate yourself to workout. No one else really cares.
- Getting in shape is hard, uncomfortable, and demanding, but it does get easier.
- You’re going to encounter resistance from all angles, including friends and family.
Once you take these truths to heart, your personal fitness journey is going to be a whole lot easier.
What’s your take on getting fit? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Kasser T, Ahuvia A. Materialistic values and well-being in business students. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2002;32(1):137-146. doi:10.1002/ejsp.85
- Kasser T. Materialistic Values and Goals. Annu Rev Psychol. 2016;67(1):489-514. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033344
- Thornton B, Ryckman RM, Gold JA. Competitive Orientations and Women’s Acceptance of Cosmetic Surgery. Psychology. 2013;04(01):67-72. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.41009
- Pidgeon A, A. Harker R. Body-focused Anxiety in Women: Associations with Internalization of the Thin-ideal, Dieting Frequency, Body Mass Index and Media Effects. Open J Med Psychol. 2013;02(04):17-24. doi:10.4236/ojmp.2013.24b004
- Peterson RD, Tantleff-Dunn S, Bedwell JS. The effects of exposure to feminist ideology on women’s body image. Body Image. 2006;3(3):237-246. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2006.05.004
- Hargreaves DA, Tiggemann M. Idealized media images and adolescent body image: “comparing” boys and girls. Body Image. 2004;1(4):351-361. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2004.10.002
- Bocage-Barthélémy Y, Selimbegovié L, Chatard A. Evidence that social comparison with the thin ideal affects implicit self-evaluation. Int Rev Soc Psychol. 2018;31(1). doi:10.5334/irsp.114
- Bessenoff GR. Can the media affect us? Social comparison, self-discrepancy, and the thin ideal. Psychol Women Q. 2006;30(3):239-251. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00292.x
- Agliata D, Tantleff-Dunn S. The impact of media exposure on males’ body image. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2004;23(1):7-22. doi:10.1521/jscp.184.108.40.206988
- Fardouly J, Diedrichs PC, Vartanian LR, Halliwell E. Social comparisons on social media: THE impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body Image. 2015;13:38-45. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.12.002
- Groesz LM, Levine MP, Murnen SK. The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: a meta-analytic review. Int J Eat Disord. 2002;31(1):1-16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11835293. Accessed September 9, 2019.
- Barlett CP, Vowels CL, Saucier DA. Meta-analyses of the effects of media images on men’s body-image concerns. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2008;27(3):279-310. doi:10.1521/jscp.2008.27.3.279
- Stice E, Schupak-Neuberg E, Shaw HE, Stein RI. Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: an examination of mediating mechanisms. J Abnorm Psychol. 1994;103(4):836-840. doi:10.1037//0021-843x.103.4.836