I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself to achieve since I was a child. Some of my earliest memories involve crying, because I couldn’t achieve something fast enough or do it perfectly on the first try.
I’ll save unpacking the “why am I like this?!” narrative for therapy, but suffice to say that I’ve applied this same mindset to fitness only to have it backfire in the form of burnout, disordered behavior, and injuries.
I know I’m not alone.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who share my mindset of pathological overachieving and perfectionism. If you suffer from this, you don’t need me to explain it, but it looks something like…
Drowning in a feeling that nothing you do will ever be good enough, so you overcompensate and try to do as much as possible, as hard and as fast as you can.
It can also look like never taking action, because you know you won’t be amazing at something the first time you try it.
The end result is that you constantly ping pong between these two places. Half of the time, you’re going 120 miles an hour, running yourself into the ground and the other half you’re trapped in a shame spiral too paralyzed and burnt out to move forward. This means that you are miserable 100 percent of the time and it sucks.
However, as I already said, this all or nothing balls to the wall mindset isn’t some sort of rare occurrence. In fact, it’s celebrated in the fitness industry and it sets us up for failure.
Think about it.
How many fitness professionals and brands have you seen say things like…
Make your body your machine.
Transform your body in just 21 days.
Workout like you’re in an Avengers movie and the world is ending or else it doesn’t count.
Actually, it’s 2020 and I’m not entirely convinced that the world isn’t ending, but I’ll save that thought for therapy too. 😉
These messages are all such bullshit. You’re not a machine. You’re a human being with with emotional needs. You’re going to want to eat fun foods. You’re not always going to want to or have time to workout. Life WILL get stressful and hard. During those stressful and hard moments, you are going to have to navigate those things, which means that fitness may take a backseat.
You’re also going to get tired and need to rest, because let me reiterate this. You are a human and NOT a machine, which on that note, you can’t trade your body in like a car. You also can’t replace random parts.
So, why the fuck are we taught to train this way?
Beyond that, even if you did go all out for that rapid transformation, there’s a reality check that needs to happen in all of this. Change is slow.
Let’s talk physical transformation in the realm of weight loss or fitness for aesthetics. This shit does not happen fast. Especially if you are a woman.
Even if you are trying to lose a small amount of weight, for this to be sustainable and not leave you feeling awful, it could require months of cycling between a caloric deficit and the calories that you need for weight maintenance. Beyond that, visual change is slow. Weight loss trends are not linear. The entire process can be impressively tedious, particularly if you have a body that doesn’t handle stressors like a caloric deficit well. #askmehowIknow
Can you crash diet your way to “victory” that way that these rapid weight loss beach body plans promise? Sure, but don’t be surprised when it results in disordered eating, obsessive thoughts around food, binge eating, weight regain and feeling physically awful and psychologically demoralized.
What about strength? You can fast track that, right?
Again, kind of, but not really. The key to building sustainable strength without injury is giving your tissues enough time to recover and adapt, as you incrementally challenge them by adding load. Beyond that, this is assuming that your movement patterns are already pretty good.
If you want to build lots of strength, but have underlying mobility issues or compensatory movement patterns, then you would need to address those issues before loading up a joint where it might be vulnerable or else it may lead to some issues later down the line.
Fine, so you can’t fast track weight loss or strength without some sort of potential (and largely avoidable consequences), but what about higher impact work like running or cardio? You can just go for that, yes?
To my point of body autonomy, you can do whatever you want, but I personally wouldn’t recommend it. Before you start running or jumping, you may want to consider if you have the lower leg strength to control the repetitive forces that will go through your joints during those activities, which unless you’ve been actively working on it, the answer is most likely that no, you don’t.
However, let’s assume that you do. If so, are you gradually increasing the amount of time spent running or jumping, so your muscles and tendons have time to adapt to what you are doing? Because here’s a little known fact, your muscles and connective tissue may adapt slower than your cardiovascular system.
I want to be clear. I don’t say this to Debbie Downer you.
Rather, I think it’s helpful to understand why the hard and fast approach is so problematic.
The reality is that these things take time, so a low-bar-phone-it-in workout that you do just twice a week may get you far superior results than making diet and exercise your ride or die. Keep showing up a little bit on a consistent basis and in the LONG run, you may be surprised by how much you have accomplished.
Finally, and I know it’s HARD, but try not to compare what you are doing to someone else’s pace. The more important thing to consider is if your current pace is sustainable for YOU?
So to return to my original premise. If you have been feeling guilt about not doing enough, is it that you aren’t doing enough or are you actually working smart? So many of the people I talk to and work with feel defeated, because they don’t feel like they did enough or they don’t feel like they are fit enough to even try Pilates, take a fitness class, or start strength training OR they’re doing everything right, BUT they don’t feel like they are progressing fast enough.
So in case you need to hear this.
Everyone has a starting point. If you are just getting started on something, there is no shame in yours.
All of this stuff takes time, so if things are moving slowly, you’re probably doing great!
Change is slow anyways, so progressing slowly is not mediocre. It’s smart AF.
And if you need to take a break, that’s okay! Have a low bar. Quit trying to high jump your diet or fitness. You can’t get anything done that fast anyways.