So you’re scrolling through Instagram and notice the buff people smiling back at you. You think to yourself, “I could totally be like that — I just need to go to the gym more.” But when you start going, you can’t make the habit stick. Work gets in the way, or you eventually forget, and you go back to your normal, non-existent exercise regimen.
What went wrong? Turns out, a lot. We’re going to teach you how to change your thinking on achieving body goals so that you get the body you’ve always wanted.
Your Brain Thinks Exercising Sucks
The human mind is an amazing evolutionary marvel that is capable of putting people on the moon and creating antibiotics, but it’s remarkably difficult to discipline. The brain naturally seeks pleasure and to be lazy, which is often at odds with the goals we want to accomplish, such as working out.
Our natural inclination to be lazy is because of the optimal foraging theory. It’s an evolutionary concept that states animals naturally choose options that offer the most “bang for our buck” in terms of nutrition and physical effort. This is why a squirrel would choose to go to the edge of a tree branch for a big, nutrient-rich nut and risk falling versus going for safer to obtain yet less nutrient-rich nuts.
Optimal foraging theory is also why you don’t want to exercise. Your brain dreads exercising when it doesn’t see any benefit to it — like running away from a predator or obtaining food at the end of it. Sure, you get a runner’s high and release endorphins, but the energy put into modern day exercising is not worth the reward from doing so.
Why Willpower Won’t Save You
So that’s why you have a natural inclination to avoid exercising. But you can push through that, right? Can’t you will yourself to go to the gym every day and brute force your way to a better body with enough discipline and willpower?
You can — and some people have done that. But it’s extremely rare that the brute force method to obtaining goals will work out because of the nature of willpower.
Willpower is a finite resource. Think of it like energy your brain has that can be measured with a little bar, like a thermometer.
When the bar is high, you have lots of willpower to prevent you from doing your bad habits. You also have the energy to take on good ones, such as going to the gym for an hour. But each time you go to the gym, your bar depletes. Each time you go to the gym and force yourself to work out, you’re making it harder for future you to get up and do the same.
So after a week or two, your bar is nearly drained. You know you have to go to the gym, but you can’t stop yourself from going to Netflix and watching an episode of Friends. You have no willpower left to stop you from spending the time you would have taken going to the gym to scroll through Instagram instead.
That’s the thing with willpower. If you spend it all to force yourself to do one task, all other bad habits that need willpower to be kept at bay will resurface, such as Netflix and Instagram when you need to be working out.
Willpower is like a forest. When you’ve logged it all up for short-term gain, you find yourself stuck when there’s none left. And that’s where the problem with goals arises.
The Problem With Goals
Goals are predicated on willpower, and they’re often short-sighted.
So let’s say your goal is to lose five pounds. You can do that by going to the gym every day and completely overhauling your diet to include healthy foods. You brute force your way into losing five pounds — depleting your willpower in the process — but you did it. You accomplished your goal. Now what?
Many people treat accomplishing goals as the treat to undo the effort they put in to accomplish that goal. So let’s say your goal is to run a 5-K. You train, you accomplish the 5-K, and you feel good, so you take that as a sign to go “take a break.”
This break includes not training anymore and eating junk food because you tell yourself you deserved it. And since you depleted your willpower, taking a break from exercising and eating right is your brain’s pleasurable way of recuperating. You accomplished your goal, so it’s all good.
Do you see the problem? Goals don’t cause you to change your behavior. You have the same habit system you had before you ran the 5-K, except you’re not able to say you ran a marathon. You’re still going to go back to how you ate and exercised (i.e. poorly), and you’re not going to obtain the physique you wanted.
To summarize, goals are the motivating force to make you fulfill a short-term desire. They’re not strong enough to cause actual lifestyle changes for a better body.
Instead of just focusing on goals, you need to expand your thinking and incorporate systems of habits into your life to accomplish long-term beneficial lifestyle changes.
How Habits Work
Instead of goals, you need to think about habits. Habits include goals, in a way, so we’ll be using both terms for the rest of the articles.
To best describe how habits work, we’ll refer to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Your brain can be trained like a dog to make exercising and incorporating healthy behaviors into your lifestyle much easier.
Duhigg describes habits as existing in a loop.
- Cues could arise naturally, such as your body digesting the sugary donut you just ate, or come visually, as in you see a donut behind the glass of a bakery. They are what spark the habit.
- You saw the donut, now you want it. You want to bite into the soft, sugary bread of a donut but you can’t, so what will it do about that?
- This is the physical action you take toward your craving. Do you get the donut or do you refrain?
- If you got the donut, you’ve fulfilled your craving. Your brain squirts out dopamine, the feel-good chemical, as a response. You feel good that you’ve gotten this sugary dessert dancing on your taste buds, reinforcing the habit and conditioning your brain to respond to a later cue or craving with more fervor.
You do what you do because it’s pleasurable to the brain. But the thing about habits is that, after a while, they don’t require conscious thinking at all. So you could crave a donut, walk into a bakery and order a donut without even realizing it because your body wanted to satisfy its cravings.
We hope you’ve been taking notes because, at the end of this article, you’re going to be ready to implement positive habits into your own life.
Alright, so you’re committed to building habits for a better body. But before we dive into that, let’s discuss why you have the body goals you want in the first place.
Get Fit for the Right Reasons
We’ve talked a lot about sustainable behaviors, but let’s talk about sustainable mentalities.
Sure, we all want to look better. Our culture surrounds us with beautiful people both online and in person, so it’s easy to feel jealous. But body jealousy isn’t healthy, and you can easily slip into obsessive or unhealthy mental states, known as orthorexia, in regards to your own body.
The only alternative to caring too much about your body and going into health obsession you could not care about your body at all.
This isn’t the same as not caring about how your body looks in the eyes of other people. Body positivity is linked to higher self-confidence and overall happiness, so you should definitely care less about how your body looks to other people.
But what you should care more about is how well you’re taking care of your body. Unhealthy diets, those loaded with sugar, preservatives, and carcinogens, lead to illness such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and a slew of others.
In short, an inactive, unhealthy lifestyle could decrease your overall lifespan on this earth, which is a scary thought.
So ask yourself why you want to be healthy. Do you want to do it to look better to other people? Or do you want to be healthier and live longer? The latter is much more sustainable and can propel you forward in your motivation to pursue fitness habits much better.
Key Habits to Achieve your Body Goals
Make a habit of getting at least eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep has been shown to dramatically improve your productivity and willpower. When you’re more rested, you have more motivation to accomplish your habits and make sure they don’t fall to the wayside of your priorities.
However, life happens. Sometimes there’s an emergency that forces you to stay up through the night. Maybe you have a big project for school making you lose two or three hours of sleep each night for a week. Whatever the case may be, you can always use more sleep because you’ve lost so many hours of it throughout your life.
Many Americans have what experts call “sleep debt,” which is the discrepancy between how much sleep you got versus how much you should be getting. So if you got five hours of sleep when you should be getting eight, you have a three-hour sleep debt.
Your first habit should be to go to bed and wake up each morning at the same time. The body craves consistency, according to the National Foundation for Sleep. Consistency allows the body to better prepare for the activity it “feels” are coming up. If you wake up at 8 AM every day, your body will anticipate that time and make you wake up more alert and energetic. Other systems in your body, such as hunger and digestion, also depend on a schedule.
Even if your body goal is to improve your physical appearance, improving your baseline sleep schedule is tantamount to accomplishing that endeavor. Get good sleep each night before you focus on any other fitness habit. You’ll live longer for doing so.
We’ve all been starving to the point that if we didn’t get food of any kind — even junk food — in our body, we thought we would pass out.
While such instances of not being able to prepare your own food in a timely manner are unavoidable, such as while traveling, there are key ways to make sure you have the necessary healthy foods around you so that you don’t desperately resort to junk.
- Add Foods Instead of Taking Them Away. When we vow to change our diets, we often say we’ll cut out sugar or carbs from our regular diets. Instead, vow to incorporate healthier foods into your meals or snacks.
So let’s say you usually eat spaghetti with frozen vegetables and canned sauce because it’s relatively healthy and easy to make. Instead of carb-based pasta from white or wheat flour, opt for noodles made from zucchini and carrots. It’s essentially the same meal you’re used to, but with major healthy ingredient incorporated.
When you make the mental change, it’s almost as if you’re broadening your palette instead of restricting it, even if you’re essentially eating the same thing (e.g., adding an ingredient forces the original ingredient to be removed, such as with the pasta-zucchini example, so it’s all a matter of perspective).
Try altering your meals little by little until you’re reaching for more healthy foods without thinking about it. If you want to swap out whole meals with something different, we recommend making lunch vegan. Even if you eat animal products for breakfast and dinner, you have one whole meal that’s plant-based, giving you a light lunch packed with nutrients.
- Avoid processed foods. We don’t want to generalize that anything except organic spinach is terrible. Processed food can be good for you — such as dairy, which was pasteurized to kill all the bacteria in it.
When we talk about processed food, we mean heavily processed food. Things with long ingredients lists, and you don’t know or can’t pronounce half the things on it (take a look at Doritos chips for an example.) While typically cheaper and easier to access, processed foods do more harm to your body than good.
Processed foods are usually loaded with refined sugar. Refined sugar, unlike its natural counterpart in fruits, has been shown to contribute to weight gain, decrease cognitive functions, and overall cause your body to perform worse. Cutting out processed foods cuts out the added sugar you eat too.
Even if you have a sweet tooth, bake your own cakes from scratch or buy them home-made style instead of opting for Little Debbie’s snacks. The former still has lots of sugar in it, but without all the crap the latter has. You don’t have to be perfectly free from processed foods, but you should keep the quantity down as much as possible.
How to Set Up Your Exercise Habit
Now that you have a strong foundation from which to build off of, we’ll next guide you on to how to actually keep going to the gym and exercise your body.
Start so ridiculously small, you’ll be embarrassed if you can’t accomplish it. This means doing five push-ups every Saturday morning a week. That’s it for the beginning — just five push-ups. Barring life or death situations and serious physical impairments, there’s no reason you can’t take less than a minute to exercise.
If you think five push-ups once a week is too easy for you, you can up the ante to whatever standard you think is ridiculously easy for you, depending on what your starting physique is. From there, slowly add more weekdays and more exercises.
The point is to build a habit that does not require willpower. It’s like how jumping straight into a hot shower will burn your skin and be uncomfortable. But if you slowly turn up the heat, your skin will acclimate and you’ll be able to withstand the temperature.
By turning up the involvement over a long period of time, the tasks will require less mental willpower than jumping straight into a highly demanding task.
Find a Friend
Peer pressure tormented us in middle school, but it can be the key to sticking to our habits. The brain is wired to respond to society and the people in it, so if you have a person next to you cheering you on and telling you that you can succeed, you’re much more likely to do so.
You should easily find someone in your friend group who would want to work toward a better body too. You’ll not only have a person motivating you to push your comfort zone father, but you can make friendly competitions with your accountability partner to make exercising fun.
As you can see, there are lots of ways to set up habits around building a better workout. But what if you don’t have a gym? Don’t let that stop you from getting the body you want. Below are ways to bring the gym into your workspace.
What to Do If You Can’t Go to the Gym
Depending on where you live, the gym could be too far away or too expensive to afford for your budget.
Don’t let that stop you. Your muscles won’t know the difference between a dumbbell from the gym or a DIY alternative from the list below.
- Fill a plastic milk jug with sand, water, pebbles, or concrete. Water should be the most available in the USA, but if you live near a beach you could get sand that way. Pebbles and concrete mixes are available at most home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
- Fill a plastic two-liter water bottle with sand, water, pebbles, or concrete. You could do beans as well, but beans are better eaten and not lifted — especially when there are heavier materials out there that will do the job.
- Lift already heavy materials, such as paint cans, canned goods, or sacks of vegetables with a handle on it.
- Be sure you’re using a proper bench to lay down on. A cheap, rectangular footrest would do the job, in addition to a piano bench with added padding. For ensured safety, always have a spotting partner with you when you use your DIY barbell.
- Get a broomstick, a metal curtain rod, or some other kind of sturdy, long, thin cylinder. On either end, attach a milk jug filled with gravel, sand, water, or cement and secure it with duct tape.
- You could also get six two-liter soda bottles filled with water and tape them next to each other two by three. Slip the rod between the spaced provided by the necks and use a lot of duct tape to secure it in place. Do this at the other end and you have an even barbell.
- Pull-ups are excellent to work out your arm and back muscles. If you have trees around you, there might be a low-lying branch that’s thin enough for you to get your hands around. There could be other sturdy pipes or other structures that could support your weight for a few pull-ups.
- If none of those structures are around you, you can build a standing pull-up bar using these
- Conversely, you could get a cheap pull-up bar that attaches to the tops of doors. It’s an easy way to get some exercise in each morning before stashing the equipment under your bed for the rest of the day.
Find Free Aerobics
- You don’t need to run on a treadmill at a gym when you could run outside for free. You can run on roadsides safely using these instructions or on sidewalks with ease. If you’re able to, skip driving to work and bike there instead — you’ll kill two birds with one stone.
Once you get to work, take the stairs over the escalator. If you bike to work and take the stairs, you’ve surely hit the recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day to maintain a healthy body.
Of course, don’t knock exercises that use your own body weight to build muscle. There are burpees, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and planks among many others.
Example of an Exercise Habit System
Let’s say the goal isn’t to lose five pounds but to obtain — and maintain — a leaner body.
You first start by running around the block every Sunday morning for 10 minutes. You’re out of breath by the end of the first week, but you’re getting the hang of it after three more weeks.
So you increase your running days to include Wednesday. You run for 10 minutes both days and your body soon acclimates to the routine. Get up, go for a run around the block, come back. You push your running schedule to 20 minutes so that you push your body outside of its comfort zone.
Of course, you’re eating more to accommodate the calories burned, but you’re eating healthier as a result too. Once you acclimate to this new running time, you add another day, then increase the running time and so forth until you’re running every day.
It’s been six months and you’re seeing an amazing difference in not only your physique but your mood and health as well. You’re a lot happier than you were six months ago, and you’re thankful you built up the changes you did.
Reaching Your Body Goals is About Lifestyle Change
Goals are fleeting. Because they’re so myopic, they prevent you from achieving the necessary changes to truly succeed in life. Goals distract you from the hard work you actually need to do to get a better body.
By starting small, maintaining consistency, and learning how to grow in manageable ways, you’ll see serious change in your health and physique. Just think; a year from now you’ll be a totally different person from the one you are today — as long as you start today.
Get rid of the idea of overnight success. Get rid of the idea of grinding until you accomplish your desired body goals. Adopt a systems thinking approach to better work out habits and a better body will be the by-product.
It starts with commitment. You have to be committed to changing your life, to doing the hard work of habit change and, of course, putting in the necessary effort to work out your body properly. Without the commitment, you’ll go back to the regular patterns you’ve fallen into before.
Are you going to make the change? We’ve given you the tools to succeed, now go out and do it.