Finding opportunities for movement instead of a specific time for exercise.
Maybe all we need is a shift in thinking. To move away from prescribed exercise and toward random vigorous movement. Instead of asking “how to do more exercise”, we can seek opportunities for physical activity and movement in our day-to-day life.
Exercise, physical activity and movement are all the same thing
We could call it ‘fat loss’’ or ‘looking sexy and desirable so my ex-boyfriend/girlfriend would feel bad about leaving me six years ago and now I finally get my revenge haha you can’t have this anymore I am awesome’.
Regardless of what we say our goal is, the aim of exercise is to elevate heart rate and challenge the muscles, joints and all the rest to achieve and maintain a resilient and healthy body.
If our only goals are health and longevity, then it doesn’t matter what we do to achieve those things. We can start looking past of what we can do in a gym. Or with a specific piece of equipment. Whether the activity fits the mold of traditional exercise is irrelevant. All that matters is that we hit The World Health Organizations’ recommended weekly physical activity targets.
The only reason the modern idea of exercise even exists is to combat the downsides of the modern sedentary lifestyle. Today, whenever someone doesn’t take part in any form of exercise, they’re the odd one out. But we only have to go back 40 (if that?) years and the one doing exercise would have been the oddball.
Let’s agree that the reason for exercise is to replace the physical activity we no longer do in our daily lives. This opens up the possibilities beyond formal exercise routines.
Adding more physical activity and movement into our day
One way to look at it is to increase the physical challenges in our comfortable suburban popcorn-like existence. To seek opportunities for needless every day “hardship”. Activities that we don’t need to do to survive. But we do it because it’s good for us. If not always fun.
I understand I am not making this sound appealing to anyone right now. But this is the stuff that makes us feel great after we’ve done it. Both physically and mentally:
Parking the car unnecessarily far from the store and heaving the groceries back into the car without a trolly and oh my god get out of the way!
Walking to the shops to get soap. Then carrying two bags of kitty litter home even though we already have four bags.
Speed walking or even sprinting up hills when doing a casual stroll with the family.
Using the stairs and taking multiple steps at once if you have the legs for it.
Buying 100kg of soil for the garden and not letting anyone else carry a single bag.
But it can also be fun:
Throwing a kid up and down at the beach (kid swings, if you will. Only use your own children).
Carrying kids on the shoulders.
Hanging from the bars at the playground – can you tell I’ve got young kids?
Opportunities like these are everywhere. Movement and “exercise” that doesn’t involve counting reps or timing rest periods or tracking the weights. Activities done while living.
We just have to learn to see them. And then take action without worrying what others might think of us.
It might not feel like it makes a difference, but it does
Seeking to increase our physical activity in everyday moments moves (har har) us away from thinking exercise as this one dimensional thing that we have to do in a certain environment, with specific music, while being inundated with the hairy strangers’ body odours and only if we have 45 minutes to spare and our nipple flashing tight top on.
Breaking these mental chains of what we consider “exercise” brings back the freedom, fun and excitement into movement. While also removing the ego and competition from the equation.
So, we don’t need to exercise? Ever?
Well… If your goals are general health and longevity and if you can get your weekly activity levels to those aforementioned WHO levels, no, I don’t think you don’t need to participate in traditional exercise. Things change if your reason for exercise has a specific end goal beyond longevity and health.
Such as training for a sport, rehab, significantly increasing muscle mass, changing body composition beyond just getting slim, and the like. In which case, the entire term changes from exercise to training.
But I know most of you enjoy training, as do I. So we might as well keep doing what we enjoy doing. While adding some movement hardship on top.
Guideline for leanness, health, longevity, and let’s be honest here, looks
Here’s how I would structure a perfect week of training and physical activity for health, longevity and looks. Keeping in mind that this is the perfect scenario, which almost never happens.
Two or three 30-45 minute full body strength training sessions at the 8-12 rep range using full ranges of motion and following a gradually progressive plan. Like this or this.
One or two short, high-intensity cardio workouts.
45-60 minutes of daily moderate cardio at a conversational level. Anything goes. The more enjoyable you find it, the better.
Then I would look for any opportunity (such as those listed earlier) to increase the moderate activity throughout the week.
Also, it would be three strength workouts or two high-intensity cardio sessions. I wouldn’t max out on both columns in the same week. Because recovery and life. Perhaps three strength sessions and one high-intensity cardio suits best for most of us.
But yoga for mindfulness and stress release? Yep, I’m down(ward dog) for that.
Physical activity, movement and exercise are all the same thing. We think of exercise as this thing that we need to do in a certain environment (gym), with specific programs and equipment.
This thinking limits us from finding opportunities for movement in everyday situations.
A better alternative is to look for opportunities for vigorous physical activity and movement in our daily life. As ways to increase the physical challenges in our comfortable suburban popcorn-like existence.
To seek opportunities for needless every day “hardship”. For the lack of a better term. And then combining this with some more structured training sessions.
Having more specific goals beyond health and longevity means that we move away from random exercise and toward training. Something that’s done for narrow goals. Be it significant muscle building, rehab or sports performance.
As for overall health and longevity, anything goes as long as we reach the WHO’s targets for weekly physical activity.
Maybe it’s because of its simplicity and unsexiness that it doesn’t sell a ton of books. Or make splashing headlines in the newspapers. Or lead to sexy Instagram posts. And maybe that’s why I am so drawn to recommending a daily walk for fat loss.
Let’s explore why even a seemingly insignificant 20 minute daily walk can lead to serious result over the course a year. Since I am known to making obvious more obvious than necessary, I’ll dig deeper than obviously necessary.
Breaking this 20 minute average into a weekly habit could be any of the following scenarios:
Two 70 minute walks
Three 46 minute walks
Four 35 minute walks
Five 28 minute walks
Six 24 minute walks
Seven 20 minute walks (duh)
What does this daily 20 minutes add up to in a year?
20 minutes x 365 days = 121 hours 40 minutes.
Just over five full days walking from sunrise to sunrise. That’s 1.37% of the entire year for those of you who love knowing percentages. I know I do.
How much distance could we cover over the course of a year?
According to Google Maps, the average walking speed is 4.82km per hour. That’s over 586km of distance we could cover in a year if we walk by Google’s conservative walk speed estimates.
Now, let’s say you’re like me and prefer a slightly faster walk. Still staying on the more conservative side (we’re not running anywhere here) so let’s settle on a speed of 6km per hour.
Over the course of a year, that’s 730km. Now, because this is interesting, let’s get a bit better idea of the distance by putting it in context.
Where could we go with 730km?
The 7 Bridges Walk (28km) in Sydney 26 times
A conservative estimate of 100 Bondi to Coogee Walks (6km)
A 186km short of getting from the Sydney Opera House to Melbourne Square. But with only 20 minutes of walking a day, I’m sure we could pick up the pace to make the difference.
A return trip from the Sydney Opera House to the Parliament House in Canberra (620km). And another four 7 Bridges Walks once back in Sydney. Although, why you’d decide to go to Canberra is another thing altogether.
Three and a half return trips to The Three Sisters lookout in the Blue Mountains (214km), again leaving from the Opera House
Crossing the Airbus A350 wingspan (64.75m) 11 274 times
Ok, I’ll stop there. I think we all got the idea.
What would happen with your fat loss goals if you could do this for a year?
Or, maybe we should all walk daily to boost up cardiovascular fitness and not get fat. Whatever. But apparently it’s good for us. I probably wouldn’t use that mileage to go to Canberra though. As lovely as it is in there.
How To Lose Fat Without Counting Calories, Strict Diets or Developing a Burning Hatred for Social Life
A detailed guide to a sustainable fat loss and healthier eating.
When trying to lose fat (get toned, lean out and all the other sexy marketing terms), the default action for most of us is to count calories. Spending multiple moons deep in the dietary math to figure out how many calories each food item has.
Did that pink lady apple weigh 100 grams? Or perhaps it was closer to 95 grams? Then painstakingly entering it into a calorie counting app. Repeat ad nauseam.
Some eventually take it a step further. They’ll investigate if it’s the combination of different macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) that’s holding back their fat loss. Playing the next level scientist with their food to unearth the intricacies of their individual thermodynamics.
Yawn. Please excuse me while my boredom makes me jump out of a third-floor window. I don’t know about you, but I rather spend my time doing something else.
Counting calories is as enjoyable as trying to open a can of chickpeas with your eyelids
Obsessive calorie counting sounds like a path to a lifetime of distorted relationship with food. By obsessing over the minutiae that’s unnecessary for most us. I should know. I’ve been there. And it’s not a place worth going.
Yes, calories determine whether you’ll lose weight. That’s an inescapable fact of science. But counting them as a sustainable way to wellbeing for an average person (that’s both you and me)?
The one who wants to enjoy our food instead of downgrading into an exercise in math? The one who doesn’t have the urge to prance on stage in underwear trying to win the Miss Bikini Fitness Pennant Hills competition? No thank you.
Counting calories is just another invention that moves us away from intuitive eating. It reduces the whole exercise of meal times into a robot-like nutrient orgy where feelings, thoughts and mindful eating gets replaced by computerised actions. So yeah, no. I am not a fan of calorie counting.
If you already know what is generally considered healthy and what is not, you can do all the problem solving yourself without ever counting a single calorie. Here’s how.
Start keeping a diet diary (or journal, for those with an aversion to the word ‘diary’)
This is exactly what it says on the tin. A diet diary. You know how in the traditional diary you would write how you saw three seagulls, went jogging while holding hands with Robo (how awkward does it look when people do this?), and bought a banjo.
Straightforward, right? Well, in the simplest form of a diet diary you write how you ate porridge with blueberries, shared a caramel latte with Robo (one straw, cute!), and drank a Mojito while playing the banjo.
A detailed diet diary is a goldmine of information
We often eat without really thinking about what we’re doing. Especially when sharing a meal with friends, eating in a rush or while watching tv. Eating is part of the event, but it’s rare we’re fully present.
Then we get to the end of the week wondering why the weight is not coming off. Or why we suddenly have man-boobs. And connecting nipple piercings.
Anyhow. Our memory has the tendency to make our eating more glorious and healthy than what it really is. We like happy and positive memories to cloud our head like a rainbow in a spray bottle.
The only piece of information we need to get unstuck is woven in the pages of the diary. No need to buy into trendy diets, or even hiring a coach (initial accountability is another story).
Keeping a diet diary eliminates the end of the week confusion of why we’re not seeing results. The answers are beaming you in the eyeballs. Written by you.
“Wow. I was not aware that I did that.”
That’s a statement I often hear from clients when they read back on what they’ve eaten throughout the week. In fact, it’s not uncommon that I say it to myself when I occasionally reflect on my own diet diary.
One of my clients, an avid camper, noticed how she eats well when at the campsite, but the food choices she makes when getting there and back don’t align with her goals. And so she started packing healthier options for herself to take on the road. It’s actions like this done with consistency that shape into measurable results.
How to keep a diet diary
So, what the hell are you supposed to write in your diet diary? Yes, food. But wait! There’s more.
I recommend starting at a note keeping level that you find easy. As in, a level you feel 90-100% confident you can do every single day. Don’t feel you have to be the Patti Smith of diet diaries from the start (or ever, if you don’t want to).
If you currently keep no diet diary, start with an absolute barebones version. Then milk it for all the results you can get. If you get stuck and can’t see results for a few weeks, it’s probably time to add some additional details. Let’s cover these one by one.
And yes, these are in the descending order of importance.
What did I have?
Write what you had. Include everything that passes your lips. I mean, you could write “I saw an airplane” instead of “a muesli bar”. But as entertaining as that diet diary would be to read, it doesn’t always carry its weight when it comes time to adjusting your diet to see results.
How much did I eat?
Another one that falls into the important, although not essential, category. The more specific you can be, the better. And no, you don’t have to pull out a portable scale while having your lunch. Instead, I like the Precision Nutrition method of using hands for eyeballing serving sizes.
If you find the thought of writing your food more daunting than running into a pack of bazooka carrying zombie elephants driving a tractor who somehow look like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, don’t dwell on this for now. Just stick with the food items and grow from there.
Was I hungry?
This is a simple “yes” or “no”. It helps to build the awareness on whether you ate because of an actual hunger. Or whether you just felt thirsty (same signal in the brain).
We also often eat not because we are hungry, or even thirsty, needing food and water to survive and to live another moment. But because of our psychological state. This is especially true with snacking, as you’ll find out below.
How did I feel before eating?
This builds on to the hunger question above. Perhaps you were in the depths of boredom, stress, or anxiety for having that banjo sit on your credit card gaining interest.
Let’s talk about snacking again. That afternoon snack we crave is often just a signal of something else. It can be a habit triggered by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. That’s the case for me. Reflecting and getting in touch with our feelings (yikes) helps to dissect why we eat.
How eating this food made me feel?
This is an advanced level of detail when you’re at a point of wanting to figure out which foods suit you better than others. Not just for fat loss (it’s still about calories), but for fullness, energy levels, alertness, the glow of your skin, and the tenderness of your fingertips.
Whether it’s adjusting your carbohydrate to fat ratio, meal sizes, the types of food you eat and whether you do better with foods that grow, or not grow on dry sand.
You will have discovered a lot about yourself once you get to a point of having a few weeks or a month’s worth of all the details listed above. Some of which will take you by surprise.
Analog or digital? (Some) options for where to log in your diet diary
The general rule in here is, well, general. I’d love to say that using a specific app leads to 99% success. An app that would ideally give me a kickback for each referral I send their way. But it isn’t so. Instead, whatever works for you is the right answer.
For the sake of stationery inspiration, here are some ways my clients have kept a diet diary:
Digital notes on the phone (Google Keep is good and free, but anything works)
A folded A4 and a pen in the pocket for a quick access
Part of the traditional daily journal (as in, “Today I saw a plane. And then I ate a taco.”)
Dedicated physical notebook
MyFitnessPal app (the downside being that writing notes in can be a pain. And it’s too easy to get distracted by the calorie numbers)
iPad with a digital pen (whatever fancy and sexy and marketable Apple calls it)
A photo of each food or drink you have (great for those who feel repulsive aversion to writing)
The medium in which you do this is irrelevant. Pick a one that has the path of least resistance. Whatever that may be for you. Ideally something that allows you to scribble detailed notes as you progress in your diet diary career.
Here’s an example of one of my client’s diet diary
Super simple. And yet a deep well of information when stringing a week’s worth of days together.
When to check your diet diary
I like the idea of checking the diary on a day of the week you gauge your physical/mental progress. It might be a step on the scale, taking the waist measurement, looking in the mirror, trying on clothes that previously felt tight. Or simply sitting down and reflecting how you’re feeling compared to a week or two ago.
Again, our memory is not always something we should rely on, so it helps to have something physical to compare to. For those not keen on any physical measurements, it helps to scribble your feels each week.
The questions to answer when doing your weekly diet diary reflection
Start by answering these two questions each week:
What went well this week?
What did I learn?
You could just stop at this and see how far it takes you. Like with any other skill, building better eating habits is a gradual process. Every week you’ll learn something new about yourself and your food related behaviour.
Sometimes fat loss struggles don’t really have anything to do with food. As in, the relationship with food is just a symptom of whatever else is going on in your life.
If you after a few weekly reflections you realise you’re an emotional eater, it’s worth stopping here and digging in what drives that behaviour. That will do more for your results and wellbeing than knowing the nuts and bolts of what you eat.
It might also be worth considering working together with a professional who specialises in complicated food related behaviour. That’s not me, but I am happy to recommend others if you reach out.
When comparing your results to the previous week, they’re likely one of the three:
You’re progressing towards your goal → Whatever you do is working. Do more of the same.
No change → What could you change to progress? What could you do more of?
You’re moving away from your goal → What could you change to progress?
And tadaa. All the answers will be in the diet diary. Say you do your weekly measurement (whatever that may be) and are not happy with the results. It’s time to take a mental deep dive into what’s holding back your progress.
Here are the fundamental things to keep an eye out for when reading your diet diary.
The things that contain a lot of calories in a little portion of food. Stuff like:
Drinks other than straight up teas, black coffee, water
Muesli bars (and let’s be honest, most muesli), protein bars (aka candy bars with clever, misleading marketing)
Nuts and nut butters
Chips, lollies, cakes, pastries, ice cream (the sweet stuff that lives in the ‘occasionally’ column).
Fast-food, pizza, creamy cheeses, meat with a lot of fat (the salty stuff that also lives in the ‘occasionally’ column). Also, how delicious are hot chips?
Any combination of the above that you’d buy blended in a cup from the Starbucks
Oil you might cook with or use on salads*. But don’t worry about this until all the above is in the ‘occasionally’ column.
*I only bring this up because of a guy I used to coach who’s only reason for not getting results was generous pours of olive oil on everything. Yes, it’s good for your health. But also super dense in calories.
We, the people, like to get real emotional about the things we eat. Here’s an idea. Let’s learn to move away from it.
Reflecting on the foods we ate is not about judging whether it’s good or bad. Rather, it’s about gathering information on our eating habits. That’s all it is. Information without feelings. As hard as that may be to do with food.
Found a lot of the above? Getting anxious about the pending “cut them all out” statement I am about to write next? Chill. You don’t have to cut them all out. In fact, I recommend against it to keep a sanity in your life. What can I say? I’m nice like that.
Instead, reduce some items for a few weeks, re-measure, revisit your diet diary, and revisit this exercise.
Nutrient dense food
You know, the real food section. Things like:
Fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen, it’s all the same)
Beans and legumes
High-fibre whole grains
Seeing a lot of these? Do more of them. Not seeing a lot? Start adding them in. Doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For those of you just tuning in, I am really hammering home this snacking point. For those who’ve so far read every word of this article, I apologise. Onwards, because this is important. Reducing, or stopping snacking, has to be one of the easiest ways to lose fat.
As I mentioned earlier, often snacks are just things we eat because of boredom or some other emotional inconvenience we might experience. One can easily skip snacking when eating nutrient-dense foods during proper meal times.
Here’s where I stand. If snacking is a daily fixture in your diary, cutting it out might be the only thing you’ll need to do to change how your body feels and looks.
Most of us eat way past the feeling of fullness. Usually because we simply eat too fast. I know I am as guilty of this as anyone.
Sounds familiar? Put less food on your plate, slow down, chew your food, cut the distractions, lock the toddler in the bathroom with a Rubik’s cube and a trampoline if you have to.
Wait for five minutes before going in for the second serve. If you’re still hungry, have at it. Otherwise, it’s time to stop and move away from the table.
Ok Joonas, keeping a diet diary sounds cute. But isn’t counting calories more accurate?
Sure, sort of. But the calorie amounts in foods are estimates. Ballpark figures with up to 20% wiggle1. And there are similar problems when estimating our individual calorie burning abilities2.
But the real downfall of counting calories is that it’s way too much work for most people. Most of us don’t want to carry Tupperware containers and a scale with us whenever we leave the house. Or to add food items in an app during, or after each meal.
And I still sometimes check calories in certain foods when I eat them. Just out of pure curiosity. I like to know stuff. Sad? Probably. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend calorie counting for average punters (you and me) as the go-to long-term solution.
The exception might be those who are already extremely lean and need to get leaner for a competition and stand on a stage in their underwear. Or something. I don’t know. That’s not really something I am into. Because, life.
Counting calories to lose weight sucks, hard. It restricts the enjoyment we should have when sitting down for a meal. It also runs the risk of leading into a lifetime of tangled and distorted relationship with food.
I also looks kind of dorky when one has to carry their microwave containers everywhere. You know, when everyone else is just trying to have a good time.
Enter the diet diary. The better fat loss solution for most people who are not into food related maths. It’s flexible, easy to do, and helps to develop a greater awareness with eating habits.
While at the same time building a better, more intuitive relationship with food.
A strong charismatic leader with a powerful, us versus them message. A narcissistic fake saviour willing to twist the facts, fabricate lies and sow the seeds of doubt.
According to the diet guru, the other experts in the field are misinformed fools or even corrupt. He wants us to believe that the solution to losing fat and keeping it off (in most cases) is far more complicated than decreasing lamingtons and increasing the daily activity.
And it definitely isn’t about doing both of them persistently for a long term. Hell no. The words gradual, sustainable and reasonable are a poor bedrock for a sexy, sensational marketing campaign that rallies people together.
Rather, it’s about that one rogue hormone, a demon macronutrient or the deep bloodlines of our ancestors. And he wants us to join him on this crusade to expose the truth.
To move the masses (and their wallets) one needs catchy words and ballooned promises. One needs captivating stories, perhaps a tribe hidden in the jungle, and a sprinkle of that special supplement made of a rare alpine flower that can capsulate it all for the modern audience.
All of this of course fits it into his narrative and the solutions he has created to help us. We can sign up for his ninjitsu training and drink the anti-venom potion his team has cooked for us. Either literally or figuratively.
The struggle to differentiate between familiarity and the truth
The guru is trying to discredit the institutions and their information. He doesn’t want us to believe what we see. He encourages us to do our own research. Starting by reading his. And so people with zero expertise in the field get pulled into these rabbit holes, trying to solve the mysteries of fat loss.
It’s easy for us to fall for these false narratives as they fill our newsfeeds. As the social media algorithms are built to keep us engaged, they feed us the information we’ve been searching and browsing. Only to strengthen our beliefs. The more we see, the more we believe.
The diet cult becomes the tinted lens through which we view our world and the way we eat, even behave. The manufactured stories become real. The more we get drawn into the vacuum of what the guru and his devotees are saying, the more we believe their gospel.
The echo of the diet cult’s message, however absurd to an outsider, sounds like the only explainable truth for those who listen. And so more and more people join the guru’s orbit.
Our beliefs amplify when we come across the true believers of the guru’s message.
As we inch deeper in the hole, the cult draws us into the forums, social media groups and passionate online meetings devoted to the guru’s message. Here is where we find the true believers, the highest priests of the diet cult.
People who are walking testimonies that what the guru is saying is the truth. People who were unfit, overweight, unhappy and down on their luck. And their stories move us. We see ourselves in them. These people had tried everything and were at a point of giving up.
Then one day they stumbled on the guru’s YouTube video or Twitter feed. Exactly like we did today. The one where the Fat Blaster Grandmaster Wiz raged about the injustice of the world. Spraying convincing “facts” about how the organisations in charge have lost their way. How the clues are right in front of our eyes.
And it felt like this man was talking directly to them. He understood what the people were going through. He explained how the system and science had failed to help them. He said that they were not alone.
Then came the promise of something much more valuable than just fat loss or a better health. Something that no one else could offer. Hope.
That they’re even in this point is a failure of our system. The failure of the coaches, trainers, nutritionist, doctors and dietitians whose role was to support and guide them.
Then, along with this hope, came some results. What the guru said did indeed work for some. It made sense. It fit into the narrative the listeners wanted to hear. But the reason we think something works isn’t always why it works.
It’s hard to think things happen at random.
If there is a connection, however faint, our minds will find it. In our head, significant events are supposed to have consequences. And we need a cause to explain them. Knowledge, even if wrong, makes us feel safe and in control.
The promise of a simple, black and white solution is appealing. We hate the feeling of leaving something unsolved. We want a clear-cut answer. An honest scientist running on integrity and data can never sooth most souls the way a guru can. She can only reflect on what the science tells her.
And so we rather believe the guru with a pin sharp focus, the inspiring black and white answer. Something to label as the wicked vehicle of fat. We want to believe in the promises of a six-pack in thirty days.
A cult without a moral compass can give us all of it. While scientists are too busy to do science, the guru with a set narrative and a marketable offer can devote his time and money to build up hype. To create an appealing case for his solution.
He can cook the facts, tell us lies (intentional or not) that make us feel comforted. To make promises that the science can’t. It is comforting to have a definite answer, instead of “it depends”.
The illusion of knowledge
As non-experts of a topic, we think we know more than we do.
We can’t see and feel the Donning-Kruger getting a neck hold on us. We don’t understand the limits of our knowledge. We believe in our own biased research. We think we know more than the top scientists do. “Haven’t these experts seen this YouTube clip of Fat Blaster Grandmaster Wiz?!”
We are all guilty of it. We think we can reason our way through scientific literature. But most of us don’t have the skills to think statistically. It’s too easy to believe the conclusions and arguments that seem to support our current beliefs. No matter how little sense they make.
Neither are we rational. Once we have accepted a theory or a narrative, it is extremely difficult to notice its flaws. It’s difficult to look objectively at anything that contradicts what we believe. Holding a paradox is not what most of us can do without some deliberate training.
I grew up with a close group of friends who bonded over heavy, angry (such a teenage cliche) music. For us, bands like Black Sabbath, Danzig and Pantera added another layer of insulation during the -30 degree winters of the Finnish Lapland. Tony Iommi’s riffs made the months of darkness just that little bit lighter.
This was the time before streaming and YouTube. The era of the dial-up internet. When some people I know, and definitely not me, waited for six long minutes to open up that Pam Anderson photo at the local library.
In the late 90s, with the internet in its temperamental toddler years, physical record stores were still all the rage. It was wandering inside these small houses of sound where you hoped to discover something old. Like The Blizzard of Ozz from the 80s. Or to be the first in line to hear The Misfits’ American Psycho.
And if you had somehow saved up enough pennies, you walked up to the counter and bought the CD. Then you fought your way in the wind and ice over to your friend’s house, kicked off your shoes, zipped down your thick jacket, and walked through the house saying an awkward “hi” to the parents as you half ran past them towards the room full of your buddies. The smell of coffee and youth punching you in the face as you opened the door.
And then, and then when you opened the case, placed the disc in the player and clicked “play” for everyone to hear. At that moment you made yourself vulnerable for the hope of status. Hoping your friends would dig this new thing as much as you did.
Status and group dynamics were a big deal for a 15-year-old.
Consider the uneven risk versus reward of pressing play. If your friends liked what you brought over, they might have nodded to the song. Maybe even mumbled a word or two of encouragement, commemorating of your fine choice. That was it. And if they didn’t like it? Man, they made fun of it for days. If not weeks or months.
The burning pain when I, for reasons lost on me now, bought over a Fastball record will forever be burned in my memory. For years after this we associated anything awful with ‘Fastball’. “How’s that burger.” “A real Fastball.” I paid the emotional tax on status for pressing play on a record that went against the collective grain of the group.
Then there were times when someone else played a hot new record while you were not there. And everyone raved about it. But you had yet to hear it. You really felt the tension of missing out on what was in.
Looking back on all of this as a somewhat mature level-headed adult, it is laughable. Something to put down in as part of the inescapable soul-stirring insecurities of a teenager.
Or is it?
Adults are not that different from a bunch of teenagers.
We think we live above the herd mentality and make our own decisions. But, except for those who live in a bunker oblivious to the world around them, the actions and thoughts of our community heavily influence the actions and thoughts of you and I.
We still care about our status. And we still feel the uncomfortable tension of being left behind. It’s that (sub) conscious feeling of not wanting to feel like an outsider.
We choose the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the activities we do, and the things we believe in based on what it does to our status within the group we want to associate with.
What did you think when you saw the first generation Air Pods?
A lot of folks, myself included, thought they looked like something made out of the scrap metal salvaged from the Starship Enterprise. Yet others bought them with glee. In their group the status comes from being the person who wears the latest Apple tech. And if you’re one of the first to have it? You win in the status race.
What we do, wear and say are signals that tells a part of the story of who we are. Something that we think is worth telling. Something that will elevate our status within their circle.
Sideshow Box Status and tension are why that outrageous Tesla Cybertruck is brilliant marketing. Some people will absolutely hate the design. But a tiny group will find it hard to resist.
Not necessarily because it will be the best and most beautiful car, they’ve ever seen. But because of its “WFT effect”. Buying and driving it tells something about the status that the owner wants to convey. And like the Air Pods, it’s a signal that’s hard to miss.
As more people started wearing the Air Pods it trickled from the early adopters to mainstream. The more Star Trek scrap metal we saw, the more appealing the design became.
Not because the Air Pods sounded great. But because wearing them told a story. And more people started to feel the tension of being left behind. Just like a bunch of teenagers.
Status and tension affect how much we exercise, what we eat, and how we spend our money.
Group dynamics affect our health too. If all our friends are active, training, eating healthy and going for hikes on the weekends, well, we likely want to do that too. We want to feel included. Or more fittingly, we don’t want to feel like we’re missing out.
The alternative is true too. If all our friends still party like Keith did in the 70s, we’ll probably feel the tension of being left behind. Not only on weekends when they’re doing it, but also on Mondays when they talk about what they did. And on Thursdays when they revise their plans for the weekend ahead.
Keeping up and maintaining our status is often the easier, more appealing short-term solution. Something that doesn’t always work to our advantage in the long-term.
I still chase the status of being the first to listen to something new.
To this day we send new songs and albums back and forth with one of my best friends. The same friend whose house I speed walked through all those years ago.
It’s still a thrill to get the dibs on a new song or a band we both like. With music, I love the feeling I get from being the first. And I know he feels the same. Just like we both did over 20 years ago.
And as much as I try to convince myself that it’s irrelevant whether he likes what I share with him… I know it’s not quite that simple.
We’re just a like a bunch of teenagers.
Reading Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing made me understand the power of status and tension, and the power they have in our culture. For the good and the bad.
We pin our hopes and wishes to the randomness of the world around us. Doing the best we can to reach our goal is a one thing. But a part of the success comes from crossing our fingers, hoping that a stray event doesn’t derail us from our grand plans.
And all along our happiness is on hold. Days, months and years go by as we wait for a better tomorrow. That day when we can finally move into our dream forever home, walk up to the shiny double door fridge and reach in to take a gulp from the carton of triumph that looks a lot like milk. And realise the damn thing is actually out of date.
We are guilty of the same with our health and fitness. Focusing on goals we have no full control of. Whether it’s to lose ten kilograms in two short months before summer. Or being able to outrun a reversing 2007 (red) Toyota Corolla by mid-February.
As much as we’d like to think we are the big wheel of our destiny, there’s only so much we can do. Sometimes success is just a matter of dumb luck. It’s the difference of being in the right, or wrong place, at the right, or wrong, time, with the right, or wrong people, while holding the right, or wrong, brand of deodorant. Reaching a specific end goal requires a lot of things to go our way.
Hoping that the earth will align to our benefit is delusional.
It’s a modus operandi for unhappiness. Focusing single-mindedly on the end goal could mean we end up going through our entire life without ever being content.
When focusing on the end goal, we have the tendency to follow actions and habits that have a short shelf life. Strict diets, excessive training, working all-nighters, taking truck driver showers.
These are actions that have a best before date with little to zero carry over to the not-so-perfect real world. Times when we are muddling through life and the earth seems to spin backwards just to mess with our being.
Even in sports focusing on the end goal is risky. The athlete is putting her focus on to something that she has no full control of. Again, a lot in the world has to go her way.
Yes, some people run through walls with the end goal in sight. Like, I don’t know, Michael Jordan. But the chances of you or me (definitely not me) being like Michael Jordan? Slim. And so, the alternative becomes much more appealing.
We can focus on what we can control.
We can align our actions, not with the end goal, but with who we want to be, today. By focusing on the moment we’re in right now. Whether it’s to lose fat, get stronger, or to win the local pub darts competition. To play the best game we can. Choosing the habits we can control and adjusting them as necessary.
Doing so allows us to build habits we can maintain forever. Something that the narrow focus on the end goal doesn’t. We are more likely to feel fulfilled and content when we have (almost) full control of our actions.
We can’t control what we can’t control. But we can do the best we can with the control we have. We can start by asking, what are the daily habits of the person I want to become?
Then, all we have to do is to keep our promise. To follow through with what we said we would do.
165 days. Five and a half months. That’s the minimum military service a Finnish male has to complete after his eighteenth birthday.
The time spent in the service is almost a third less than what it was in the 1950s. Back then, the fine youth of the nation had to gear up for at least eight months. Although the length of the service has changed, one tradition never fades.
Whenever the current group of young men (and women who’ve volunteered) enter the service, you hear the previous generations loath how “It’s not what it used to be. Dammit”.1 I echo this. The current service probably isn’t as tough as what it was when I did it. And let’s be honest, when I did it in 2003 it wasn’t that tough.
Yes, it felt tough at the time and I hated most of it. And yes, our last camp, called “guerrilla battle”, because each team spent a week wandering in the middle of fucking nowhere avoiding being captured, was cold. As in Artic-Circle-in-December-even-reindeers-are-struggling cold.
But as little as I enjoyed it, it wasn’t physically that tough. I definitely wasn’t fitter than an average recruit when I did my service. I might’ve even been below average. Yes, I did occasional weight training. But that was the extent of my fitness or sport endeavours as a 19-year-old youngster.
I also know that the military service in 2003 wasn’t nowhere as tough as it was in the early 90s. And in the early 90s it probably wasn’t nowhere as demanding as what it was when my dad’s generation did it in the 1970s. One only has to imagine the tension of the Cold War. Combined with the ever looming anger of the power hungry leader dicks of the Soviet Union.
And obviously I won’t even discuss any of the above in the same paragraph when comparing what my grandfather’s generation must’ve gone through before and during World War II. Back when the most of dickish of them all, Father Josif, came knocking.
Each passing decade since the World War II, the physical demands of the Finnish military service have gradually gotten easier.
Some aspects of the easing of standards make sense. We do not fight the modern wars the same way as we once did. I don’t think we need to expect the same physical demands from most of our youth during a wartime than was the norm in the 1940s. But I won’t dwell into the triviality of the modern warfare here and now.
The fitness possessed by an average rookie who enters the service is not what it used to be. The Finnish army admits they’ve had to lower the standards because physical demands of the service have to be within a reach of the current youth. However long that reach might be.
And that’s why the definition of being fit enough to go through a military service is different to what it was twenty or fifty years ago. Let alone what it was eighty years ago when one needed a level of physical robustness to get through life.
Today, when an average unfit rookie enters the service, he or she can look around and think of himself or herself as rather fit since most of his cohorts are in the same shape. Oddly, it might be those who enter the service with a high level of fitness that are the outliers.
Sideshow Box Women enter the service voluntarily. And it takes a certain character to do so. I assume that most, if not all the women entering the service are much fitter than an average male.
Frightening as it is, the people entering the mandatory military service provide us with a deep cut into our society’s state of health and fitness. Or at least the future of it. Whether it’s Finland or Australia, it’s clear that our physical fitness is declining.
And it makes me sad and upset. Really upset. As in, “I’m going to Sha Booms!”2– upset.
Where we live shapes our fitness standards
Let’s look at the data in Sydney. For those who live in the inner city suburb of Mosman (I don’t) the standard of being fit is very different to those who live in the Western Sydney3 (that’s me, ish).
In Mosman, the outlier might be the unfit individual. In the West, the outlier might be the very fit-looking person. All we need to do is spend a day observing people in both locations.
So unless we have the means to live in a fit and affluent suburb, being fit means we have to fight against cultural norms. If we see a lot of morbidly obese and extremely unfit people around us it’s easy to think we’re acing health by being “a little unfit”. Even if it means a looming metabolic illness in the horizon.
And because it’s always hard to go against the norm, both locations provide a feedback loop that keeps reinforcing the habits of the population. Great for those living in Mosman. Not so for those in the greater Western Sydney.
It’s possible to bypass this fitness-straightjacket.
Whatever our suburb, we can improve our odds of being fit by surrounding ourselves with people who share our values of health and fitness. It’s possible to create our own pockets of Mosman (health-wise, because, well, if you’ve been to Mosman you’d know) regardless of where we live.
This could be about spending more time with active friends and finding a local community of like-minded people. Or by joining “I Order a Salad at McDonald’s!” – Facebook group. Although, with the current online algorithms that group is probably a breeding ground for the future Anti-Vaxxers and “Finland Does Not Exist” – conspiracy theorists.
It’s not just the people around us that we look for feedback.
As our society is getting less fit the surrounding infrastructure has to adjust to it. More travelators at the airport (except those with illness or movement problems, who would not want to walk every meter after a long-haul flight?). Convenient parking close to services. Drive-through everything. Elevators instead of stairs.
Our world is reinforcing the decline of our fitness by giving us the permission, or at least tempting us, to be less fit. We seek comfort. We don’t have to try, so why would we? We are heading into the direction, if we’re not already there, where we don’t have to be physically active to live.
We are at a point where to get any form of physical activity we have to make a conscious decision to exercise. Whereas a physical activity can be a by-product of doing a wide-ranging tasks or learning skills, we exercise with a narrow purpose of increasing our fitness.
It takes an effort to exercise. And despite all the science on the benefits of doing it, most people don’t. Because it’s too hard, boring and time-consuming.
We’ve becoming a society where at a sight of physically demanding task we spin on our heels and let the people mover take us into the opposite direction. And it’s only going to get worse.
1 Or, in Finnish, “Ennen piti vetaa sukset jalassa telaketjutonta panssarivaunua umpihangessa ainaki kaks kilometria. Ylamäkeen. Perkele.”
I will bet my left knee cap that as you’re reading this, there is something about your body that you’d like to change. That you don’t feel completely satisfied with how something in your body looks (belly fat), feels (spongy) or moves (tight, or constipated).
We often think of this lack of satisfaction as a good thing. It provides the motivation to switch into our training gear. That little voice that urges us to make healthier decisions during meal times. The soft whisper that tells us to eat more fibre.
So if these collective negative feelings about who we are now are driving us to be better for tomorrow, shouldn’t we embrace them with a shriek?
Then, once we reach our goals, we can finally feel content about ourselves.
But, alas, this is not the case. Let’s have my friend Emma prove it. She looks amazing. It’s clear that she cares for her body. Without looking like she has redirected her mailing address to the gym and diligently counts each gram of fibre in her diet.
Naturally my conversations with Emma often turn to training, fitness and health. And time and time again I come away from these conversations baffled by how unhappy she is about her appearance. Be it too much arm fat, back fat or ankle fat. Never satisfied with her present-self, there is always something she wants and needs to work on next.
That’s because Emma is a human. Which makes her notoriously incompetent at predicting what will make her happy and content.
Most of us are no different to Emma. We base the images of our future goals on how we would feel if we’d achieve those things today. We ignore the fact that who we are now is not the same as who we will be.
Thrilled. That’s how he’d feel. But what if this same guy imagines how he’d feel if a bikini babe (still Baberaham Lincoln) would show up at his door in 50 years’ time?
Again, thrilled. He thinks he would feel as thrilled as he would today. But while blinded by these present thrills, he ignores that in 50 years he’ll be in his mid-, to late-sixties and will have a different level of hormones, life experience and whatnot running through him. All of which would alter his future experience.
The point? We are terrible at predicting what will make us content and happy. Yet we keep setting these lofty goals and expecting to feel euphoria once we reach them.
And even if our predictions of our future happiness are accurate, our insatiability keeps us from feeling content for the long-term.
This phenomenon has a catchy name: hedonic adaptation. We feel unfulfilled with what we achieve because we get easily bored with what we already have. The things we worked hard to get lose their appeal and we will take them for granted. And so we come up with new goals and targets. And on and on we go without ever feeling fully content in the present.
Although we typically associate hedonic adaptation with tangible things like new iPhones and fancy leather pants, it is prevalent in our careers, relationships, and yes, in our self-image.
Unless we “cure” our insatiability, we can never jump off the demonic rat wheel of desiring what we don’t have. There will always be the next thing that becomes the burning focus of our whimsical appetite.
The alternative is to find contentment in how we look, feel, and move as we are today.
Instead of using a negative verbal lashing to push ourselves forward, we can learn to appreciate what we already have. A one way to do this is by practicing an ancient stoic technique called negative visualisation. The thick-bearded Roman stoics were the masters at finding tranquillity in the present.
They regularly contemplated how their life would be if they’d lose the things they valued. Whether it was visualising losing the annual pass to their favourite bathhouse, not having enough food on the table, or worse, being exiled to a remote island.
And it’ll work just as well in our fast-paced modern world. We can visualise losing our physical resiliency, our career, family or our favorite coffee mug.
Negative visualisation works, even if we think there really isn’t a way things could get any worse.
If you’re unhappy with that ankle fat you could think how sad you would feel if you’d break your ankle and couldn’t walk at all. Imaging your life navigating the word as an ankless being.
If you are already dealing with a broken ankle and can’t walk, you can visualise how much it would suck if your leg would be cast up to the groin. Got that going for you already? You can visualise how life would be if you’d break your dominant arm.
This might sound extreme, but the Roman stoics believed that regardless of how bad the situation might seem, it could always be worse. Meaning that there is always something to be grateful for.
How much happier would we beif we’d set aside few minutes each day for negative visualisation?
Maybe it’s when we’re commuting or before pausing for lunch. When we’re going for a walk or getting ready for sleep. For only few minutes a day.
If this sparked your interest in stoicism, I highly recommend reading William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy Although the writing could use some heavy-handed editing, the content itself is brilliant. It’s a great introduction to stoicism. Besides, the writing could be a lot worse.
There. Negative visualisation coming right at you.
The firm desperately wanted Jeff* to stay. They were offering more money. A lot more. As in, buy yourself a Rolls Royce made of diamond dust more. There was a promise of elevated status and responsibility. Another rung on the ladder, a feather in his cap, the coveted high-waist big boy pants.
In short, promises of things to come that would’ve been enough to convince the Kardashians to stop getting plastic surgeries. If only in return Jeff would stay and make more money for the stakeholders.
Now, you have to know a few things about Jeff to put all this in perspective. He was beyond successful. He was a partner in a global firm and highly respected among his peers. Thought-leader and a sought after visionary.
But the company’s measure of success did no longer match his internal narrative. He didn’t need the external validation to give him a permission to be who he was or wanted to become.
He didn’t care for diamond dust cars or rungs on the ladder. What he did care about was making a positive difference. And his employer couldn’t offer him that.
Unlike Jeff, we often choose our fitness goals based on what achieving them signals to others.
It’s not uncommon for us to chase things in life because others see them valuable. We want a certain look or master the splits. We talk about how hard we trained, how high we climbed, how many visible abs we have in the shadows of the change room.
Instead of aiming for what would make us intrinsically content and happy, we chase what we think would make other people look at us and go “wow”. We chase fitness goals because we think it will elevate our status within our social circles.
Striving and sacrificing for these goals to win an official competition is a one thing. Doing them to challenge ourselves privately is another. But, to impress others, who might not even give a shit? An empty endeavour.
We lose. Even if we reach the goal.
If we cannot get to the goal, we’ll feel dishearten that we don’t have what it takes. That we are not motivated enough. As we sink into despair, we forget to realise that the goal we thought we wanted wasn’t ours in the first place.
And if we win? We might feel a moment of joy. Shortly followed by emptiness. Maybe even a blow of guilt because we sacrificed so much for something that we didn’t even want. Something that didn’t make us feel content.
The danger is that once we reach one goal, we don’t stop there. If we base our current goals on what we think we should be, we are chasing a constantly moving goal post.
We are looking at other people and what they have and can do. And so we continuously develop these shallow desires that drive our lives. Because we think it’ll eventually make us happier, more successful, more respected.
But at what point do we stop and ask if we are enough? What happens if we move away from achieving certain things based on what we think others think of us?
Being able to achieve our goals privately is the ultimate divider.
“If no one would ever know, would I be content at crushing the goals I set?” Our answers to that question shines a light on who is in charge. Is it us? Or is it our friends, coworkers, bosses or a specific cult we might belong to?
The reward from being able to achieve our goals regardless of the external forces that try to pull us. Without likes, claps or shares.
Slim and toned models trying to entice you to join our gyms. Topless, fit looking guys on their paddle boards to sell our services. Lose fat, oil up the abs, look chiselled, bounce ice cubes off the butt.*
Not appealing? Fair. Not everyone’s motivated by specific, easy-to-measure, look-like-a-cover-model-who-sleeps-with-a-barbell aesthetic goals. Focusing only on fat loss and muscle building and striving for the glistening fitspo isn’t everyone’s jam.
But you keep coming back to the aesthetic goals. Only because you think you should. And so you keep living through the repeated sting of failure.
The industry has made you feel you lacked motivation. The willpower to follow rules. The hardheaded determination to push through. Like you don’t fit in. And this might have been going on for years.
You’ve resorted to thinking the fault must be yours.
Because why wouldn’t you be into looking like that person? Everyone else (even that 73 year old grandma) seems to froth over it. Training in their tight Gym Shark pants and crop tops.
So the result for you is always the same. You cancel your gym membership, wish well to your trainer, and swear to never return. This shit just isn’t for you.
Then the next year, just when the first wave of summer heat kicks in, the tension of being left behind grows too strong. You return. You try again. Maybe even make some progress. Until the sad trombone blows another exit tune.
What if the goals that the industry wants you to have are wrong?
Maybe you keep feeling like a fistful of failure because deep down you’re not motivated by a purely aesthetic-driven training. It might give you a short-term push, but there isn’t momentum to keep you rolling. You can’t find enough meaning behind it. It’s time to look elsewhere.
The good news is that you can focus on any goal you want. Turn the attention inwards. Start showing up for other reasons than superficial, industry dictated goals.
Show up for whatever gives your training meaning and purpose. Especially if you feel that awkward tension of going against the grain. Learn to ignore the noise of what the others think you should do.
Focus on being present, moving and doing something for yourself and your longevity. Internalise goals that are harder to measure. Pay attention to how you feel after you’ve exercised. How clear your mind feels and how much more energy you have for the rest of the day.
Embrace your goal, regardless of what it is. Even when it’s hard to measure.
And then, two more tangible concepts that might help.
One. Stop grinding yourself to the ground in each training session. Instead of making the workout a punishment to expel your past, show up to do just enough. Leave feeling better than you did coming in.
The barrier to show up for another workout is lower when you know you won’t feel like a bag of ground meat afterwards.
Two. Find people who support your approach. Those who welcome you as you are and want to be. Show up with, and for, a small group of people who share your values and your interests.
A group who would miss you if you weren’t there. Share stories. Discuss things that matter. Support and encourage each other to keep going. And move while at it.
Build a stronger connection. With yourself and with the people who help you show up. And then, help them show up as much as they help you.
If that resonated, here is the good news.
I’ve got two openings for Zoom small-group personal training.
Your program, based on your body (and goals, duh). Sessions run Monday, Wednesday and Friday 7.45am AEST. (Your time?)
And because it’s Zoom, you can join from anywhere with a decent internet connection.
$480 / month for two sessions a week. $720 / month for three weekly sessions.