Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fitness: All In Our Heads?

This was an interesting post over at Male Pattern Fitness.
Fitness: All In Our Heads?

Last week my wife and I attended a wedding and were seated next to a woman named Lorrie Kole, an extremely fit woman who looks at least 10 years younger than her 60 years. After a few minutes I realized that our placement next to each other hadn't been arbitrary: we were both fitness freaks, so while everyone else at the table went through the standard 'where are you from?' nonsense, Lorrie and I were off talking about gluteal activation and macronutrient ratios. So much more interesting.

A few years ago, Lorrie (she doesn't seem to have a website or I'd link her) put herself through college and graduate school, finishing with a self-designed MS combining health psychology, nutrition, and kinesiology. She calls herself a "Health Coach," and addresses what I consider to be the major stumbling block of most fitness programs: motivation.

As a fitness coach, I consider myself one of the lucky ones: most (well--many) people who come to me are already either motivated, or know that being accountable to a coach is the only way they'll manage to get themselves exercising regularly. That's not always the case: sometimes I get clients who pay me in advance for multiple sessions and then never show up. They always have their own reasons: something came up, they're sick, the dog needs to go to the vet. And after a while they drift sheepishly away. As a businessman, I'm happy for the brief spat of income, but I'm sorry that these people just aren't ready for my services. They have yet to make the mental leap from contemplation to action.

By contrast, doctors, psychologists, loved ones and friends of dangerously out-of-shape people have it much tougher. They have to get over, under, or through walls of denial, shame, lethargy and general stubbornness to get these people to even speak to someone like me, and I admit that they often have a tougher battle than I do. I encounter resistance, certainly, but I've never met anyone so recalcitrant that they refuse to do ANYTHING in the gym. Almost everyone relents and gets themselves moving after a while. In the personal trainer's arsenal, public shame is a very useful tool.

Lorrie is on the front lines of this battle: unlike the rushed physician, who only has time to say, "Get some exercise and eat better," she takes her clients through the baby steps necessary to go from sedentary and gluttonous to active and discriminating. She works with health nuts who have fallen too hard for a particular fad diet (she's seen scores of people who have cut all carbs and can barely think straight as a result), as well as the obese, elderly, and inveterately sedentary who have decided that it's "too late" for them. Her fitness advice isn't revolutionary: getting her clients to walk two blocks a day can be a major triumph, but she opens their eyes a bit, gives them permission to take charge of their health just a little more.

When I talk to people about exercise and fitness (and they have to ask me; Male Pattern Fitness is my one pulpit-forum where I strap on the white collar and let it rip), I'm often met with a barrage of circumstantial reasons why not: 'I can't exercise because I don't have time, I have a bad knee, the gym is too far away; I can't eat better because there's too much bad food at work, I'm starving at night, I have to eat out with clients.'

These people want me to absolve them: "Well, you get a pass, then. I'll talk to the fitness gods and tell them your intentions are good, so they'll endow you with a perfect physique and gleaming health despite your abysmal eating habits and your 4-hour-a-day 'Halo 3' habit. Let me make that call, I've got them on speed-dial."

I can offer practical solutions till the cows come home, but it won't matter unless those people decide for themselves that exercise is a priority. They have to make that choice for themselves. If it's a priority, then the excuses will fade; they'll go to bed earlier so they can wake up for a jog; they'll find a gym with a daycare center, they'll bring good food with them to work.

Health Coaches like Lorrie are focused on flipping that switch. Hallelujah. From where I'm sitting, she and her ilk have a lot of work to do.

I have to agree -- as far as I can see with my clients -- that the biggest part of the equation is the mental and emotional willpower to make changes and stick to them.

I've even sent clients to life coaches for help with the motivation element, which has helped. Others I have sent to therapists for deeper work when needed.

If we don't have the mental pieces in place, no amount of work in the gym will help someone reach their goals.

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