How to build your stepladder of change
Summer is here, and with it, comes the usual onslaught of quick fix ‘beach body’ promises from an industry that knows just how to hit us where it hurts… literally in the gut. In this article we’re going to talk about why we yearn for quick fixes for our fitness, why quick fixes rarely yield lasting changes, and we’ll share some strategies for how you can approach making sustainable changes to your lifestyle that’ll actually stick.
Summer turns up the heat on our body image
A quick look at Google Trends confirms that interest in the idea of getting “fit for summer” peaks annually around May. Google has recorded this trend since as far back as 2004 and the searches are growing in volume every year. Why?
Part of the reason interest grows in getting our bodies ready for the beach is because the media chants it at us. Over and over. But another reason for its popularity is a psychological phenomenon called “seasonal body image.” For over 70% of us, how we feel about our bodies changes with the seasons. As the air warms, we shed our big sweaters and coats and present our more exact body shapes to the world. Seeing ourselves like this reminds us of our self-percieved physical flaws – especially if we’re overweight and/or lack a certain… muscularity. Research shows that the feeling that one’s body is on “public display” and appearance comparisons contribute the most to negative seasonal body image.
We are vulnerable beings, who when faced with insecurity and/or body dysmorphia want to take the quick and easy way to fix the “flaw” and resolve the anxiety. But there’s no quick fix for body changes. To create any sort of lasting change to your personal wellness, it needs to be designed for the long term.
Why we yearn for quick fixes
Everything in the 21st century is fast. Things that once took days, weeks or months now takes seconds, minutes or hours. Everything is on demand. Want a new book? Bam! You can read it right now on your Kindle. Need some groceries? Shop right now online and have it delivered. Need to sign a new work contract? Sign it right now on your iPhone while watching your kid play soccer. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now.
As our lives have sped up, we now expect that everything can happen quickly. We choose solutions not because they’re the smartest, most effective options, but because they promise the quickest remedy. Those who sell quick fix gimmicks exploit this mindset. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking the following things, then you’re probably prone to quick-fix thinking:
- “Why can’t I just snap my fingers and…”
- “Someone should invent…”
- “If I could only just press a button and…”
- “What if you could just take a pill and…”
There is something beautiful about this mindset. In a way, it’s the kind of “what-if” thinking that leads to new time-saving conveniences. But it’s not a great way to think when it comes to human health because, unlike literally everything else in our lives, our biology hasn’t changed since the Holocene period (12,000 years ago). You can’t just ask Alexa to give you six pack abs. Well, you CAN ask, but…
Diet and fitness fads don’t work
As summer rolls around, everyone trying to sell a book or get some clicks rushes in to push their get-fit-quick schemes. “Shred for summer!” they crow. “Get a beach body!” they promise. “Lose 10 pounds in one week.” But what they’re selling is almost always unsustainable and/or unhealthy.
A prime example is the popular “no carb” diet, aka keto. Keto is based on the notion that when deprived of carbohydrates, the body will enter a state of ketosis where it breaks down the body’s fat to use as fuel instead of glucose. While you might shed lbs fast, the moment you start eating carbs again, the weight comes back. And since the keto diet increases your intake of bad (LDL) cholesterol, it can increase risk for health complications like coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer while also leading to side effects like constipation, headaches, bad breath and more. Last but not least, it excludes an entire food group that would otherwise provide essential nutrients: fiber.
So if you’re someone who genuinely wants to change your body’s shape in the long term, what are you to do?
There’s no quick fix for “quick fix syndrome”
Switching to longer term thinking is itself a slow process that takes patience, grit, and reflection. You can’t take a pill, there is no package you can buy, and there’s no 7-day program for $19.95 (if you act now). If you’re committed to changing your body, then you need to change your life. Period. And that’s not what anyone wants to hear. Because most people are hopelessly addicted to the way things are now (though they wouldn’t mind at all if life became immediately easier).
Solution vs. process
Many people think linearly about their goal: I am here, I want to get there, so I will do X. True change is a step-ladder that you simply must climb step by step. Each step in the ladder is a measurable and achievable goal that prepares you for the next step. As long as you’re moving up the ladder, then you’re good. Sometimes you fall off the ladder and have to get back on. We’re human, so failure is part of our process.
How to build your stepladder of change
Many of us choose to orient our goals towards a particular outcome, like “I want to lose 15 pounds”, or “I want to fit into my old jeans again.” The problem with the outcome goal is that it is a singular “thing” – a far-off dream without any tangible milestones. These dreamland goals feel good to make in the moment, but quickly become intimidating, frustrating and sources of endless self-flaggelation.
Enter the process goals
Process goals allow you to break your big honkin’ outcome goal into small, measurable, manageable steps. So, if your outcome goal is running an 8-minute mile, one of your near-term process goals could simply be running twice a week. If you make running two times a week a habit, you’ll up it the next goal to three times a week. At some point, you’ll start timing your runs and setting goals to progressively get your mile times down. Each step on the ladder has a timeline and you only move up once you’ve completed the step you’re on.
By compounding your progress, process goals help shape your lifestyle more concretely while developing you and setting you up for success. As the Greek poet Hesiod said, “If you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great.”
Process goals also give you reasons to celebrate more often, which helps you keep your motivation up (see below for more on this). Changes in the way we view our personal development like process goals can allow us to trick ourselves into making a long-term positive change through frequent affirmation.
Elements of an effective stepladder
There are certain nutrition and exercise components that can help you design and calibrate your ladder and the lifestyle that supports it (because everything’s connected). Here are just a few:
Exercise: The best workout is the one you can actually do regularly. The CDC recommends adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week, which can easily be portioned out to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. They state that the ideal workout contains both moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise and muscle strengthening that works all major muscle groups. However, balance is paramount when it comes to designing workouts too; consider not only muscle growth and cardio but also agility, balance, and flexibility.
Nutrition: What constitutes a “balanced diet” is one of the more controversial topics in the fitness/nutrition sphere, but ultimately it comes down to a few key fundamentals that author Michael Pollen summarizes in seven memorable words: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
- Eat food: This comes down to a distinction between ultra-processed, packaged foodstuffs and real food. Most packaged, canned or restaurant “foods” have been chemically altered and are loaded with too much sodium, sugar, corn syrup, trans fats, (sometimes poisonous) chemicals like BPA, and other artificial ingredients. They often lack the fiber and nutrients that your body craves. These food-like items taste delicious and can be addicting (by design), yet they don’t completely satisfy our hunger. So we gorge ourselves on them and wind up overfed, overweight, and chemically unbalanced as a result. What our bodies truly crave are things that grow. The fewer ingredients the better, and preferably words that you recognize, like lemon juice and chicory extract. Not carageenan or maltodextrin (etc. etc.). Many of the best foods only have one ingredient and can be found in the vegetable section at your local grocer.
- Not too much: Scientists have been investigating the quantity of food we eat as a factor in health. What they’ve found is that restricting caloric intake while maintaining the quantity of nutrients may prolong life. Pennington Biomedical Research in Baton Rouge conducted a small clinical study to look at whether a 25% reduction in caloric intake might contribute to healthier aging in humans. And it did. Tests showed changes in metabolism and body processes mirroring those that have been linked to longer life span in animals and people. It also showed a significant reduction in oxidative stress, or damage to the cells. Pretty cool.
- Mostly plants: Plants are packed with the vitamins, minerals, and other great stuff your body craves. But the emphasis here is on the “mostly.” Variety is good, and meat, dairy and grains have their place in a healthy diet. But think about it like this: cut your plate in half. One of the halves should be veggies. Now cut the empty half in half again so that you have two empty quarters of a plate. One of those empty quarter spots should be filled with meats and/or other proteins and the other should contain grains (the less processed the better).
Hydration: As singer Jack Johnson puts it, “Drink the water, drink it down.” Many are still operating on the “eight glasses a day” recommendation from way back in 1945. The newer science seems to tell us that we need much more than that. About double. Substituting water for other drinks like soda, juice, or alcohol can help achieve that goal, as well as investing in a large water bottle. Drinking more water is about one of the easiest changes to make in our daily lives, and it has a laundry list of health benefits including decreasing cancer risk, improving memory, and even keeping our gut microbiome healthy (check out our article on gut health!).
Rest: Sleep and fitness have a codependent relationship; Good sleep makes for better physical activity levels, while good physical activity levels makes for better sleep. Suffice it to say, maintaining this positive feedback loop is very important. Once again, our friends at the CDC have their take on the minimum amount of sleep that adults should get per night: 7 hours. And, as they briefly mention, “Good sleep quality is essential.” This is true. One of the easiest ways to ensure your healthy sleep quality is to keep a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed every night at the same time can help build a solid circadian rhythm, which is a key component in good sleep quality.
Staying motivated on your journey up the stepladder
Once you’ve designed your stepladder and begin your assent, how do you keep yourself going – especially when this crazy busy life we all live keeps getting in the way? What if you take a vacation, get sick, or host a long lost relative from out of town?
Self compassion: While grit and dedication are important here, self-compassion is absolutely critical in any positive life change. In fact, a 2017 scientific review of seven studies indicated, “a positive impact of self-compassion on self-regulation of health behaviors including eating disorder symptomatology, overeating, physical activity, smoking cessation, and self-care behaviors.” In other words, you’re more likely to succeed if you give yourself permission to fall off the ladder now and again.
Journaling/mindfulness: Another motivator might be to keep a journal and make regular entries about how you think you’re doing against your goals. Jot down things that you notice, things that aren’t working or things you figured out. Writing about your goals often can not only make it more likely for you to achieve them, but also can improve your overall well-being.
Adapt the plan: Keep the structure of your goals, but allow for things to change a little as you get into it and feel around. You might take a little longer to reach a particular step on the ladder. Or maybe you decide that one of the steps isn’t quite right. Maybe you need more steps in the process than you originally thought. So rejigger the plan.
As long as you keep working the ladder, you’re headed in the right direction.