Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.
As a personal trainer I found that there were two groups of people who were extremely easy to train and who were almost certain to get good results. The first group was competitive athletes. These individuals were unstoppable, self-motivated and relentless. They did what they were asked to do, as hard as they could, and paid very close attention to their actions. They ALWAYS improved and most of them probably achieved their physical potential in terms of movement proficiency, explosive speed and strength. If you want to feel capable, train these people. They will improve and you will feel like you can do no wrong.
The next group of people who were great to train were women, usually parents of 2 or more children. These individuals acted like athletes – the followed instructions perfectly, paid attention when they worked, and were highly motivated to get the best possible results out of the limited time they had to spend training. They also improved, although not necessarily as quickly as their potential would allow because balancing being a mother with training is tough and their workouts were always going to be secondary to their family responsibilities.
Everyone else was a crap shoot. As a general rule, younger people do better than older people. Single men up until age 40 do better than their their female cohorts. Single women who do not like working out, married men in general, and older people all fair equally poorly.
I’m not certain why this is, but I have a few guesses. First off, working out to improve any goal is tough. If someone likes working out, they’ll deal with this toughness and do what is asked of them. But learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. If that practice hasn’t been put in when the person is younger, it may already be too late as the toughness can simply be too much to overcome. They may go to the gym or work out, but they don’t do everything they need to make gains – they don’t work hard enough, they don’t eat appropriate amounts of food, and they don’t replace bad habits with good ones.
Next, there is a lot biological programming that is geared towards keeping things as they are. Body fat is store energy, traditionally used during a famine. This is an evolutionary proven method formed during a time when food scarcity was a reality that it isn’t today. Becoming lean makes no survival sense according to our genetic code; fine so long as there is a constant and stable supply of food and when it is interrupted, a life threatening problem. Eating high calorie foods is also intrinsically rewarding. Most human being release dopamine in response to fat and sugar combinations specifically and fat or sugar in general, so we are motivated to seek out and consume foods containing these macro-nutrients. Green leafy vegetables offer very little in terms of intrinsic reward. While it is true that we can teach ourselves to find these food rewarding, that is a skill and must be practice in order to cultivate it. Generally speaking this won’t happen, and if it does, it is more likely to occur in the younger population.
The final reason why I would say it’s very tough for people who are older than 30-35 years of age to get into better shape is that there is no evolutionary reason to do it. Becoming a parent gets tougher as we age and while those who are older may be in a better financial position to be raise children and have a better temperament as parents, the statistics on positive reproductive outcomes reduce as both sexes age. These negative outcomes may actually provide a disincentive in terms of improving body composition.
Consider the fact that, generally speaking, women allow men to determine who the best mates are – given that men work it out themselves who is at the top of any dominance hierarchy, the best potential mates for women have in actuality been select by other men. At the top of these dominance hierarchies tend to be strong men with good posture, two characteristics that are linked to higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone. Without an exogenous supply of these hormones, men who are in the late teens to late 20s will have the highest levels. The statistics reveal that reproductive success and outcome is greatest for men in this age range.
Men select reproductive partners because of factors embodied by the women themselves. These tend to be waist to hip ratios, body fat levels and posture. Social norms not withstanding, this excludes younger women, and women over the age of 30. An examination of the hormonal averages for women indicate a bell curve distribution with a peak for women in their early 20. Reproductive success and outcomes are also bell curve shaped and map almost identically onto the hormonal averages.
For women and men, the story is the same. When the hormone levels are lowest, reproductive success is lowest. When hormonal levels are highest, reproductive success levels are highest. When hormonal levels are highest, desirability to the opposite sex is also highest. Women and men tend to desire reproductive partners who represent the greatest likelihood of reproductive success. This means high testosterone and GH for men, and higher estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and GH for women. It is not surprising that when people who belong within these groups workout, they change body composition very quickly. The opposite fact is also not surprising, when those who fall outside of these groups workout, the changes in body composition take a lot longer, and may not happen at all in-spite of the fact that fitness levels improve as do a number of other health markers.
There is no evolutionary reason for people to get into better shape, particularly when they have moved past the peak of their hormonal profile. Reproductive outcomes are worse – pregnancy success rates are lower, birth defects and developmental challenges are higher. Given these facts, a narrative justification can be given to the difficulties in changing body composition as people age – for the betterment / fitness of the species, the things that make an individual attractive to the opposite sex evaporate and are harder to achieve when the risks of pregnancy begin to increase.
Learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to find it more pleasurable or easier to like than the bulk of the population, activity is still required to trigger the expression of this increased potential.
It is easier for younger people to teach themselves to enjoy exercise than it is for other people for a few critical reasons. First off, they haven’t spent nearly as long learning what other non-movement activities can be rewarding therefore they are more inclined to put the time and effort into lifting something heavy in an earnest attempt to trigger a dopamine release. Second, they have a more favourable hormone profile that improves the rate of result acquisition; this reinforces the actions they are taking and, while “liking” exercise is not the same thing as being rewarded, it’s a distinction without much of a practical difference. Finally, younger people usually have way more opportunity to exercises, which will make them better at it. Proficiency, particularly when compared to others, does tend to result in a greater sense of satisfaction.
Gene expression and any learning will have much larger impact the earlier in life they occur. A child who learns to associated movement with the sensation of feeling good or who conditions their brain to release reward chemicals in response to movement will, on average, be more active throughout the entirety of their life and will enjoy the benefits associated with an active lifestyle. Similarly, a child who takes advantage of the time and the opportunity to discover many of the different foods that trigger the release of reward chemicals will, on average, consume more of these specific foods over the course of their life. They will, as a consequence, experience sub optimal health outcomes and may increase their risk of disease when compared to those who do not eat a lot of these foods or those who consume them in moderation while engaging in a more active lifestyle. We can therefore conclude that gene expression and learning have compounding effects over time, good or bad.
Unless you like working out because you are genetically predisposed to or you find it to be rewarding because you put the effort into teaching your brain to release reward chemicals when you do, you are NEVER going to feel like getting into great shape, and even less so as you get older. Our genes exist as they do because they gave our ancestors a survival and reproductive advantage. They were shaped by mutations and in response to the various environments over millions of years, but at no point during this time was there ever a long lasting abundance of food. Those species that survived were able to handle intermittent periods of food scarcity because they would over eat when they could in order to store energy as body fat, move as little as necessary, and down regulate their metabolic rate when calorie consumption would drop. Genetically speaking then, we are programmed to be fat, lazy, and to seek out and gorge on high calorie low nutrient foods. These three tendencies are never a part of any weight loss, health or body composition improvement plan.
Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.
This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move forward and achieve the goal.
A few weeks ago I was talking to an old co-worker friend from the fitness industry. We were just spit balling back and forth about who the best clients were to get. When I asked him what exactly he meant by the best clients, is it the ones who get the best results, is it the ones who are the most fun to train, is it the ones that are the easiest to train? He replied with “that is a good question, what I’m really asking is your opinion and your experience with clients who get the best results for who they are, and you know right off the get-go that it is going to be an easy experience for both people.” So for the trainer is it going to be fairly straight forward and for them as the client it is going to be very simple. It is going to be hard work, without a doubt, but it is going to be simple hard work. They are going to do what they have to do, they are going to do it as well as they can, and they are going to do it exactly as it is outlined.
Fundamentally, this is the type of question that I love answering because it draws on a lot of my experience in terms of the work that I have done in a variety of different fields along with my academic background in psychology. At its core is the question “why do people do the things that they do?”
Now we know an awful lot about how the brain works, both in
terms of the physiological things that occur, and in the fifty thousand foot
view of what goes on in the brain and the way people think – so the
neuroscience along with the psychology. There is a boundary separating these two
things. The neuroscience deals with things on a cellular level while the
psychology deals with more of a narrative understanding of what goes on. Regardless
of the differences, a lot is known about both things.
There is not much difference between human beings.
Genetically, we are all very close to identical and the physiological processes
that run under the surface are exactly the same for all people. We are coded in
more or less the same way, by and large we all have the same parts of the brain
and they all work in exactly the same way. And it is that way with most mammals
and most living things. Neurons work the same way, more or less. So given that
there is so much similarity in terms of the neuroscience, on the cellular
level, why are there different outcomes for different people? Why is it not the
That is where the psychology comes in to play. And that is ultimately the question my friend was asking. Who are your favorite clients to work with from the point of view of the ones you know are going to do well, will follow instructions and just be really easy to work with? Well, as the conversation evolved he asked if my experience backed up what I know about psychology. And that is a fair question because my experience NEEDS to back it up because if experience does not back-up what you know about a science, your experience is wrong or the science is wrong, or you have done something new that was not previously known. But one would imagine, that with enough time, over the twenty years I have been working in the industry, I would have found my way into the mean in that the average experience that I have had with people would reflect the average person.
This is more or less been what I have discovered. Some people do not get very good results. They do not get any worse, but they never move toward their goal. The stated goal of losing a few pounds or gaining some muscle, or whatever the goal is that the person decides they want, I know that there will be some people who never move towards it. They will never get worse, which is a version of improvement given that decay is the natural processes as we get older, so that is good. But when they are not moving towards their goal and improving, they are not really getting what they want.
Then there are other clients who get average results, and finally
there are the outliers on the other end, those who achieve their potential in
the scientifically determined length of time – there is an optimal level of
progress and there are a few clients who will hit this. This is ultimately what
he was getting at. When someone sits down in front of me for the consultation,
and they say “hey, I need your help in doing this thing,” who do I
know is going to get the results, and what makes me sure they will? And what then
does the science say about these people?
Well, I will work backwards. What does the science say about
people who get results? Basically it says that the people who do this collection
of things for this time duration at this frequency and for this period of time
(in terms of weeks or months or years), will cause physiological changes to
their body that are the reflection of the physiological stimulation and the
nutritional intervention. So those who get results do those specific things as
prescribed and they get these specific and predictable results. For example,
they do this program four times a week, every week for three months while
adjusting their diet in these ways and they will gain 5 pounds of muscle and
drop 5 percent in body fat.
So if that is on the surface, do X, Y and Z in this way and get this outcome, why is it that some people choose to do X, Y and Z exactly as prescribed while others will not do it as prescribed? What is the difference between these people, and the individuals who find themselves in other groups?
The science and a lot of the research that they have done with people reveals that it all comes down to consequences. On first pass, this may seem silly because consequences are punishments and punishments are about reducing particular behavioral patterns or actions. Compare this to reward, which is about increasing behavioral patterns or actions that someone takes, which is ultimately what personal trainers are asking their clients to do.
Think back onto Pavlov’s dogs that salivated at the sound of the bell when they had learned that food was given right after the bell rang. They would start to get excited when they heard the bell because they learned that the bell meant food. The outcome to this was that the dogs began to display a behavior that was not related to the bell simply because they had been reward in the past and had conditioned the reward to the sound of the bell.
On the other side of it is punishment. Whenever a physical or psychological punishment is administered to a creature in close proximity to a particular action or behavior, the frequency of them displaying that action or behavior will be reduced and overtime it will be eliminated. Now the issue with punishment is that it is not very specific meaning that whatever action the nervous system of the animal determined was what led to the punishment will get suppressed. It is not a clearly defined or a concise understanding of what exactly caused the punishment. This means that any of the behaviors that occurred in close temporal proximity to the punishment might end-up being suppressed. This leads to a situation that allows for very little testing or refinement of the connection – since the punishment MIGHT have been caused by any one of these five actions, repeating one of them MIGHT lead to a punishment so it is best to not repeat ANY of them.
This is the opposite of rewards. Rewards tend to be much more specific because there is no risk associated with testing any of the potential actions. The animal is hell-bent on finding out what exactly it has to do in order to get more rewards and it very quickly tracks down that it was this particular behavior.
What does this have to do with success with personal training clients? It has to do with the fact that consequences have a much bigger role in determining who is going to be successful. Human beings are not like any other creature. We get to enjoy things that do not happen, we get to enjoy the benefits and cost of things that are just a matter of perception, so things that we imagine and that never occur. And while any other animal will learn to avoid doing the things that cause them harm or ill-health, a human being will continue to do them.
To this later point, alcohol is good. You should never ever feed alcohol to a dog, it is not fair as it cannot consent to drink. You should not do it. But whenever they have done it they have found that the dog will drink, it will suffer hangover like effects and it will never go near alcohol again. In fact, the dog will become conditioned to avoid alcohol through single-trial learning. When it comes to alcohol, it does not like it, it hates the feeling and it knows alcohol will cause the feeling so it does not touch it ever again. Human beings will continue to do things that cause pain or that simply do not work for them over and over again in spite of the fact that they causes problems. Consequences do not mean the same thing to human beings as they do to dogs. There is a one-to-one cause and effect relationship with the dog while the consequences with human beings are impacted by a perceptual relationship. This means that the cause and effect relationship manufactured by the human could connect absolutely anything to anything else.
The science basically says that someone who shows up for consultation saying “I want to get better at X,” knowing exactly what they are seeking, is highly motivated, and they know exactly why they are doing it, will tend to get the results they are looking for. A perfect example of this class is an athlete. Athletes know exactly why they are doing what it is they are doing and are moving towards a goal. I am not going to say that they are pleasure-seeking but they are looking for something that they view as positive. They want to achieve the highest level of performance so they can increase the likelihood that they are going to win during competition. This is one group who, if they show-up in front of you, assuming you know the science to support optimal human performance and write and administer the program effectively, WILL hit their potential because they will follow the program almost perfectly. These people are seeking something. There is a huge reward in front of them and that is what they are moving towards.
This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a
function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like
an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very
hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and
they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move
forward and achieve the goal.
Most people, in general, are moving away from something they
do not like, which is not pleasure seeking. Human beings operate from a pain
avoidance point of view when it comes to altering their physical health. The
reason is fairly straight-forward, it is hard work. The easiest thing to do is
nothing. Change is not doing nothing. Doing nothing is doing what we have
automated, living the life that we are currently living. If we want to change
our life this means we have to do something other than what is automatic, which
is going to require effort. Since we know it requires effort there is a
disincentive to doing it if for no other reason than this extra effort (but
there are other reason too). Human beings do not really operate from the point
of view of spending effort unless we absolutely need to. So we will spend
energy to get pleasure, the athlete, and when it comes to everyone else who connects
with a personal trainer, they will spend energy to avoid pain. This is the
reason why we know someone is going to get great results when they show-up to a
personal trainer with a clear idea of what it is they do not want. They are the
ones who are more than likely going to do everything that is asked of them. The
motivational currency of the non-athlete are consequences.
The science basically says when dealing with consequences, the consequences need to be soon, they need to be certain, and they need to be salient. If a consequence has, in the mind of the potential client, these three properties, they are going to agree to training and they are going to commit to doing what you asked them to do as hard as they can. They are going to do what it is needed to move themselves away from the consequences that are soon, certain, and salient. If the consequences do not possess one of those properties, there is a much lower likelihood of compliance to the requests that will be outlined in the program.
The “soon” is fairly straightforward. The consequence needs
to be something that occurs in the very near future and the closer to now it will
occur the better. Far away things may as well not be things at all because the
brain really does not process things that are distant. Things that actually
exist in the here and now or have greater immediacy are going to get a lot more
effort and action taken towards their resolution or prevention.
Certain means the outcome needs to be inevitable and there is no possibility of an alternative outcome that is more pleasant or favorable. The reason for this is a cognitive bias called “the optimistic bias” which has a person believed the best case scenario in a situation when there are two alternatives presented. They are going to believe the best case and assume that is the one that will happen and move forward accordingly. This will happen even if there is only a 1% chance of the best case and a 99% chance of the negative or the worst case scenario. The optimistic bias has a person choose a 1% chance over a 99% chance. This defies logic but so do human beings. We are not logical operators so it is not surprising that we would do something that does not make a lot of logical sense. An inevitable consequence or one that is viewed as near certainty is going to be given a lot more weight than something that is viewed merely as a possibility.
Salience has to do with ones ability to visualize, imagine, consider, and bring to mind what the consequences are and what the ramifications will be upon their life. The more clearly a person is able to perceive the future outcome, the greater the level of salience and the more clearly their perception will be of the negative. This is very important because things that are hard to imagine may as well not be imagined at all. Something that is very clear to see, is very simple to imagine and a brain will work with it to a much larger degree. The specific reasons for this have to do with the amount of stimulation that an idea generates. Imagine you are looking at something very clearly and you are noticing everything about it. This is a huge stream of sensory data coming into your brain that it has to process and make sense of. The same thing is true with something that is very salient. You are able to imagine it clearly, able to feel the way it feels, see, hear and get a real sense of the negative outcome and this will generate a massive amount of data that your brain is going to process and operate on.
The more we pay attention to something and the higher our concentration is on what we are thinking about, the greater the cognitive ripple triggered by this stimulation. This larger amount of data will have a much larger impact on our mental processes. Anything that is salient, is clear, is easy to visualize, is easy to understand and experience will have a bigger wave of impact on the brain meaning that more of the will process it.
The end result? A much better understanding of the negative
outcome will lead to much better change. This is what the science says, as long
as the consequences are soon, certain, and salient, a human being is not going
to have any difficulty dealing with them. They are going to treat it as
important, pay their respect and take the action that is required in order to
address it. However, if a consequence does not have all three of these, or is
missing two of them, a person is not going to do anything about it.
Now how does this line-up with my experience? Well, it
There are three prospective clients that will show up in front of me and I will know with certainty that they will buy training and get great value out of it by following the instructions and working hard to get the results they are seeking. In each of these three cases, they match on all three of soon, certain and salient. These three types of prospects are illness, recently dumped or single, and mothers of multiple children.
This begs the question, how are the variables of soon,
certain and salient present in each of these groups?
Well if you think about illness, which is illness in the person themselves or the illness of someone they care about, it is very salient. If it is in themselves, the doctor has told them that they need to do something about their blood sugar, the extra body fat, or their blood pressure, or else they are going to die or they are going to get sick. Having the experience of the doctor telling them that sickness is inevitable unless they change course makes it very clear to them. The certainty is a doctor saying to them their blood pressure is 180 over 147, which is elevated. So unless there is a good reason for it and there tends not to be a very good reason for that, it is unhealthy and is causing a lot of unnecessary stress on the blood vessels and particularly on the brain. A blood pressure like that for a sustained period of time is setting oneself up for a stroke, a brain aneurysm or any number of really devastating neurological consequences. By ignoring high blood pressure, it is only a matter of time before an artery in your brain is going to explode, and when it bleeds out, it will cause severe intellectual mental impairments and it could actually kill you.
While we do not have any real concept of what it means to be
not alive, because we have always been alive, we have an idea and a very
negative sense of what it is like to be dead, and of what it would be like to
be intellectually impaired because of a neurological trauma that was avoidable.
A cancer diagnosis or a heart attack in a loved one has the same sort of
quality. We see someone we care about who is sick, which makes for a very salient
The certainty and soon is the doctor telling us that we are sick or destined for a health crisis when they show us a blood test that indicates an LDL level that is very high. These are understood by proxy if we see someone who is sick because this is a clear indication that it is really happening RIGHT NOW. That is a benefit, if you will, of illness. People see the consequences and they match all three of soon, certain and salient.
The second group, the recently dumped, is a weird one but it is absolutely true when someone becomes single, if they have not made the decision themselves, once they get past the grief associated with losing the relationship, they move towards a three to nine month period of getting revenge on their partner. They do not actually want their partner to suffer physically but that they want to send them a message that they screwed up dumping them, so they get after a physical transformation and taking care of the things that they put on the back burner. They take care of their health and they take care of their fitness. Maybe it is weight loss, maybe it is gaining strength to become more mobile and active in order to do things they have never done. Whatever it is, they do these so that at some point in the future they will be able to say to their ex-partner “yeah I’m doing all that stuff now, I look great, and it wasn’t me it was you. You broke up with me and now my life is so much better. You were the liability.”
Sure, this is a story that people are telling themselves, but since there is nothing at all wrong with getting into better shape, I am not going to tell them that they might want to go to therapy to understand the role they played in the demise of their relationship. With people, and particularly people who come looking for personal training advice, they do the work, they spend the time needed to figure themselves out and then come to realize that “yeah I played a role in the breakup. I was not being the best person I could be, I was not playing all out in the relationship and while I do not appreciate the fact that the relationship ended I do sort of understand that it was not working for me therefore could not possibly have been working for them.” But when it comes to those realizations, even when they arrive after spending six to nine months improving their health and fitness, it is all good. They will have a better life, they will be happier, they will be moving themselves forward and while they may not necessarily live longer they are going to enjoy a better health span and that is a big deal. While maybe it was not an absolutely necessary journey, they have done themselves and their future selves a huge favor by improving their health.
So how do the soon, certain, and salient apply here? Soon, the consequences are actually occurring. The person has been made single and is already living in the consequences. Certain, well it is the same thing, the thing has already happened and they are already living it. Whatever that is, they are right in the thick of it because they got dumped. Salient, the same thing as well, there is nothing as clear as living an experience.
The third group is mothers of multiple children. This one is
tricky and it took me a little while to figure out but really when it comes
down to it, the soon, certain and salient are all exactly the same thing as the
recently dumped group.
I do not know what it is like to be a mother but a lot of the
mothers I have worked with have all explained it in the same way: you would do
anything to improve the quality and life experience of your child knowing that your
child has no awareness of what you are doing, have done or will do. They do not
say that it is thankless, but they do say the child is completely oblivious to
the fact that you have done anything. All they know is that they had a need and
Mommy took care of it and that is the end of it.
With one child the mother is going to be able to get back to life much sooner than when she has two or three children. Children are spaced out over particular length of time and while there is no set length of time required for the mind of a mother to determine that it is time to get back to doing stuff for themselves, they are going to hit that point later if they have more children. A person could spend ten years with their primary role being mother, looking after all of the needs of the child, making sure the child is not hungry or suffering in any way that they are able to help the child avoid. Ten years to live for something other than yourself is a very long time.
The soon, certain and salient in this case? The funny thing
about this group is that these things are in the past. The person has lived the
soon, it is not that the consequences are going to happen in the future, it is
that they are happening and they have been happening. The certain, they have
lived it. Salient, the same thing, they have lived it; it is very similar to the
experience of being dumped in that it is not a thing that needs to be imagined about
what might happen in the future, it is a thing that has been happening for a
period of time.
If a mother shows up saying “you know, I’ve decided that I want to get some training,” a switch has flipped in their head because they have come to make the decision that they are going to be investing in themselves for the first time in a very long time. There is an opportunity cost associated with doing it – the opportunity cost is taking time away from their children, which has been their focus for the last decade – so they do not end up sitting across from a trainer, asking for help with improving their fitness unless they have actually done the benefit cost analysis. They are willing to say the opportunity cost of continuing to ignore their future is too great so therefore they have to do something. They know what they are sacrificing – time with their children – so they are going to make the most of their time by following every instruction and by trying as hard as they can while they are working out before returning to their role of mother, which remains the main focus of their life.
The beauty about this group in particular is that they are there for themselves in the moment, and in the future. The recently dumped the people are excited but they are there for themselves in the future – the moment they get to show off to their ex. The same applies to their illness group, they are there to avoid something awful in the future. The mother group is there to create something good in the present moment and something in the future or to avoid something awful in the future. They are going to be fully present in the present moment because they need to spend time investing in themselves.
This is how my experience has lined up with the science. When the consequences have the property of being soon, certain and salient, action is much more likely than when they are far away, hard to imagine or unlikely. When the consequence have either occurred in the past, are currently occurring or are about to happen in the near future, there is a very good chance that a person will get great results because they are going to follow the advice that is given. Since professional personal trainers only dispense advice that is scientifically valid, it is very easy to come up with the prescription that helps these people. Do this set of things in this way for this length of time with this frequency over time and you will get these results, and that is really all there is to it. Anyone else who shows up and is sitting in front of you but is there having no relationship to the consequences – there is no soon, certain and salient in what they are talking about – the chances of success are much lower.
Now there are other people who will get great results. Maybe they love working out or maybe they are really powerful at working hard to achieve a future benefit or to avoid a future cost that is not very well defined in their mind. I have worked with people who are not athletes and do not belong to one of the three groups outlined above and who do not have a clear and vibrant picture of the consequences, but who get after it like there is nothing else in their life that is more important. However, the possibility of someone doing the necessary work without the soon, certain and salient being checked off is dramatically lower.
After thinking about it for a few moments, my friends
experience did support what I was saying.
Now the objective of this post is to explain that whenever you are doing a consultation or just having a conversation with someone, I do not think it is wise for you to try and point out the consequences of their actions and the inevitable future that they are moving into order to trigger an emotional response and to then capture them in a training program. There is nothing wrong with telling them the truth and helping them see that the destination if they continue down the path they are on is not a very great place to be. That is a fine thing to do, just so long as you do not immediately capture them in a training program for that reason. They will need to spend some time with the information that has been revealed in order for their brain to fully reorganize and understand that “oh my God I’m actually cruising towards bad health and an eventual health crisis, and I should probably do something to make sure that it doesn’t go down like that.”
Triggering these thoughts and emotions in someone and then selling to them without giving them the time to process and integrate that information, can only lead to someone dealing with the consequences of a rash decision as opposed to anything else. Whenever you are having a conversation with someone who is sitting in front of you, unless they are spontaneously hitting on the three soon, certain, and salient in terms of the consequences, or they are an athlete, do not try to trigger the negatives about what could happen if they stay the course and do not try to trigger the positives of what could happen if they change course. Simply talk with them and try to figure out why they decided to have a conversation with you. If they are able to come up with the reasons why they are there and you are not able to convince yourself that these reason are not really something that they spent much time thinking about or that they are not ready to deal with, they are probably ready for training so sell it to them. But if they do not have a clear reason why they are there or a soon, certain or salient in terms of the consequences of them continuing to live the life the way they are living it, it behooves you to just have a conversation to help them figure out the reason why they are there. If they do not know and you still sell to them that then becomes the thing that was done to them.
You will have manipulated them into buying something they
did not want.
But on the other hand if you help them unpack exactly why
they are there and really help them dig in on their motivations and all of the
other things, and they are crystal clear that “yes this is what I want and I
want it for these reasons,” sell them the training because they are not going
to be upset at you for it. They are going to thank you for it because you will
be aligned with them as a partner and help them move towards their goals.
When someone comes and sits down in front of me and says “hey I am looking for your help,” and I am able to track in and find out the soon, certain and salient in terms of the consequences they are hoping to avoid, or if the person is an athlete, or if they are a member of one of the three groups – someone who has seen or is experiencing illness, someone who is recently single, or a mother who has decided to focus some of her time on herself for a change – it is a sure thing. It is not going to be easy money, it is going to be work but they are going to more than willing to put the effort in and the partnership is going to be a win-win.
Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work.
When it comes to personal training and basically any type of training, there are two type of clients, those who do what they are told and everyone else. Those who do the work are generally self-motivated. They may not know exactly why they are doing what they do, but when pressed on it they can come-up with a good reason, or two, or more. Intuitively they understand that they must pay the metaphoric bill before they eat the metaphoric meal – the bill is the work and every decision that moves them forward while the meal is the results they are seeking. For me, these clients are moderately interesting to work with and most of the joy comes from the validation that my methods and programs work and from the empathetic joy of seeing someone work hard, get what they earn, and feel good about it. I enjoy the conversations as well because these types of people have a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn.
Everyone else acts like training is a meal at a fine dining restaurant. It’s an experience to have and the bill will be paid at the end after they know that the experience was worth it. These people are a lot more work. There is a different problem to be solved and I may not know the answer because they don’t know the question. They don’t necessarily do what is being asked of them because they don’t really know why they are in front of me, asking for my help, on a journey that they may not even have started. It’s messy with a much lower success rate. The best case is that they actually start the journey and figure out why it is important OR that a light gets shined on the life they are living, the future that this will create for them, and a sense of peace about both.
The truth is that it is much more important to me that they find out what their goals actually are and not important at all that they achieve a goal that was never theirs in the first place.
I like my life and I believe everyone else should like their life too. If I can be of service and guide / help them automate the making of the life of their dreams then all the better. Sometimes they are already living the life of their dreams and just have never taken the time to notice it. They may not realize what is involved with chasing down a goal and that the actualization of the goal can be rather unfulfilling. After you reach your goal you are still you. You may be a leaner, more muscular, faster you, but at the end of the day, you remain you.
I used to believe that everyone should work out and improve their health. This is something that I no longer believe. I know everyone will benefit from moderate exercise, improved nutrition, reduced stress, and a more mindful approach to life, but that doesn’t mean everyone should go after these benefits. Sometimes these benefits actually make people miserable. Having single digit body fat is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice. Once you achieve it, it requires continuous effort to maintain because it is a possession of sorts. It is now YOURS to lose, and this knowledge can generate a considerable amount of negative mental energy. And regardless of what you do, if you live long enough, you WILL lose it. Everything that arises will pass away, your discipline, your 6 pack abs, your youth, even your earthly existence.
A quick conversation can unpacked that a person just want to feel happier with who they are, the solution for which is meditation. After a few months of twice a day practice is all that is needed for the laws of nature to reveal themselves, and equanimous acceptance is bound to follow.
An effective consultation can reveal that the goal is simply to feel better. The prescription here is simple, improve posture through the use of structural balance movements, core and breath training. When we automate standing up straight when your head back and breathing deeply into our belly our psychological mind set shifts towards confidence, security, and contentment. The experience of pain is reduced and we feel and act more capable.
Cultivating and maintaining mindfulness is very easy and will add tremendous value to your life because of the compounding effect of experience over time. Improving and maintaining posture and appropriate breathing requires 5 minutes a day of work and offers similar compounding lifelong benefits. These things are easy, and anyone can achieve them. And if they are actually what the person is seeking, it is better for everyone in the long run to just go straight for them.
I am not suggesting that someone should not work out to improve their health. They should, most people should, but it is even better if the person actually wants to do it. There is no downside when someone works hard to get what they want AND need. The same cannot be said when someone gets what they need but do not want. Needs and wants are not the same and when they are not aligned who are we to decide what another person needs?
I find this approach helpful when it comes to training and coaching. Is the person willing to pay the bill before they start – do they know the value of what they are about to do and do they know why they are enrolling you in their possibility? Are they clear on why it is important to them today and for the person they are going to become? If the answer is yes, if it is obvious that there is only one way forward, success is inevitable and this mutual partnership will work. Anything other than this is an indication that they do not really know what they want or that they have not taken the time to get clear on why they want it. A simpler solution likely exists for them, one that has them invest a lot less time and allows them to go directly to what they want.
The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people.
In many of the leadership books and blogs, the notion of mistakes comes up a
lot. To be a leader, you need to take action and any time you take action,
there is a chance that this action will not lead to the desired outcome.
Mistakes are a big part of learning and the best leaders in any industry tend
to make more than their fair share of them.
It makes a lot of sense to regard any mistake as lesson. This will make them
more powerful because it will reduce the long term consequences of the action.
Letting go of a poor decision is easier when we know that we are less likely to
make the same decision again in the future.
But I question the validity of the assumption that actual learning has
occurred when one habitually label mistakes lessons, given the apparent
tendency for people to do the same things over and over again. What may
actually be occurring is more akin to a karmic cleanse vs. a real lesson. It is
easier to call something a lesson and to state that the outcome was the result
of a lack of knowledge / experience than to really dig into what happened and
to accept that you had the resources to think the thing through and still chose
to act impulsively.
To be clear, I’m not talking about innovation here. Making something new
that performs its function perfectly necessitates it having been made and NOT
perform that function perfectly more than once. Each previous iteration was not
a mistake because the inventor could not have known better. Each version is a
lesson that builds upon all of the lessons from before. The outcome was not a
result of having information / resources and choosing not to use them.
What I am talking about are all of the times when taking a few minutes to
think things through beforehand would likely have revealed a lot of the blind
spots or things that did not immediately come to mind.
For example, I used to say “it takes 21 days to learn a new skill and make
it a habit” without any sense of irony. I had heard it when I started working
at a gym and it was something that we were encouraged to say to new or
potential members to let them know that changing course to move towards a more
healthful life requires some effort but that the effort doesn’t really need to
be sustained (3 weeks was all that was needed before the body would do it on
its own). The lack of irony was due to my missing the fact that I had created
the habit of saying that saying in about 30 seconds.
Some behaviors will require 21 days, others 1, some 261, etc. I was wrong. I
wasn’t learning a lesson, I was making a mistake every time I lazily repeated a
simple phrase that served a sales purpose. It turns out that I was lying because
I should have known better than to repeat something so trite and catchy. If I
had taken the required 3 moments to consider what was going on in the context
of my own life I would have realized that 21 days was not an average, was not
an actual and did not reflect how things progressed in my own life. When I was
learning to become a cycling instructor, I started practicing every day the day
after the training workshop ended; so less than 48 hours to create the habit –
I didn’t need to convince myself to practice, I was excited to do it. When I
decide to wake-up earlier in the morning, it takes me about a week of
deliberately getting out of bed at 5:15 am before I find myself walking around
at 5:16 am without a desire to push snooze and stay in bed. The habit of
mindfulness as it applies to my baseline level of anxiety has yet to full take
hold, even after years of knowing that I can be an anxious person and will seek
out the experiences that will create anxiety. My journeys down the rabbit hole
though are much shorter than before but I am still starting them.
On some level I knew I was talking nonsense. However, it was my job to sell
gym memberships so I just kept saying the line over and over again. I got good
at it. Prospective members believed me and I think I started to believe me.
The funny thing about an honest person who actually believes nonsense is
that they are telling the truth when they are lying to people. Someone who is
that convinced that life will be completely different in 3 weeks is able to convince
other people of that “fact.” There I was, pouring out sincerity, stoking the
flames of hope that their future would be better and all it would take was a
few weeks of effort before the body just did the work willingly. I closed a lot
of sales because I believed what I was saying, and that made it easier for the
people on the other side of the table to believe it too.
It didn’t take long, about 22 days after my first sale, before the evidence
began to grow that my silly little phrase wasn’t true. Over a few months it
became evident that I wasn’t going to be able to excel at selling gym
memberships for much longer because it was clear that people have a baseline
and it can take months and maybe years for it to be updated.
I moved on to management, then personal training, and finally fitness class
instruction growing further away from the notion that “it takes 21 days to
learn a new skill and make it a habit.” For me, selling gym memberships for
that club was like convincing someone to convert all of their dollars into the
currency of a country that doesn’t exist anymore – it was something that can be
done but was probably going to be a mistake and when it came time to correct
it, the exchange rate would ensure that the customer lost money. Going from zero
to a sustained full speed, which is what is required when someone makes the
decision to transform their body composition, is going to require that they
create a bunch of new behaviors, put a lot of effort into continuing to do
them, and endure whatever sense of loss going without the things that got them
to the position of needing to change their body composition in the first place
causes. It is possible, but for almost everyone it is going to SUCK.
And that is the power of labeling a mistake a lesson in the fitness
industry. There is no cost to it, so doing it eliminates the incentive to
actually change future actions. In fact, there is a disincentive to changing
because you move away from doing what you know works and into the realm of the
unknown. The new actions may not work so you will be, at the very least, going
without the sense of certainty that what you are doing is going to be
effective, and, more likely, be going without the money. Better to call it a
lesson so you get to continue to do what you did before and get the same
outcome. This is what immunizes the fitness professional from the pain
associated with making a mistake because the reframe allows the “lesson” to be
the cost of knowing something and because it ultimately is the responsibility
of the member / client / participant to put in the work. If the habit doesn’t
take after exactly 3 weeks it is probably the clients fault for doing something
wrong. The mistake was not in the BS statement, it was to belief that the
client or member was willing to put in the work to form that new habit.
So long as there is no pain associated with the action, the motivation to do
anything different will never grow. The client will experience the pain. When,
on the 22nd day, going to the gym and eating more healthful food is not the
automatic, they will begin to feel the pain of their blown expectation. And
this is the problem with not being completely honest with people when it comes
to the fitness industry. People are hopeful about their future and very much
want to believe that it will not only get very easy to do, but that it won’t
take very long for that to happen. “It takes 21 days to learn a new skill and
make it a habit” is tailor-made to capitalize on their vulnerable state of
mind. They are coached into thinking “sure, it’ll be tough for a couple of
weeks but then it will get easy and after that, it’s only a matter of time
before I look and feel amazing.”
That just isn’t true. Well, the second part of it might be, that it will be
just a matter of time before they look and feel amazing so long as they
continue to consistently put in the work in the gym and the kitchen. But for
95% of the people who take-up fitness it can be months or years before their
body and brain make the pursuit of physical improvement automatic. Until then,
and even occasionally afterwards, it will require will-power. In my experience,
the only people for which the 21 days saying actually applies are for those who
have taken a short period of time away from their exercise habit. For everyone
else there is an almost 100% chance that the saying is false and for those who
sign-up for services based on their belief of it will be disappointed and have
less money because of it.
My approach now is almost complete honesty and to even attempt to talk
someone out of joining or starting because a lot of people do not want to
improve their fitness, they simply want to be happier. While becoming a regular
exerciser can improve happiness and improve someone’s feelings of well-being,
it can also contribute to a lot of suffering, misery, and feelings of shame and
inadequacy. If you don’t believe this, consider what goes through someone’s
mind when they hit day 22 and find that they haven’t really learned a new skill
and have definitely not made it a habit. When they find going to the gym on
week 4 to be as tough as or even tougher than they did on week 1, what are they
going to think about themselves? When they start to compare themselves to the
other members who seem to be showing up 3-5 times a week without any effort and
when they remember the certainty in which the sales person or personal trainer
told them that it would only take 21 days it will be nearly impossible to not
be flooded with feelings of inadequacy and failure. Experiencing these feelings
is not conducive to being happy.
I made a mistake and I changed course because I felt horrible for lying to
people when they were vulnerable, easily influenced, and when I stood to gain
from saying something that sounded true but was clearly false. When I had to
face myself in the mirror I realized that I had been using BS to harvest
peoples hope in an attempt to help sell them gym memberships. And morally I
felt awful because I knew that I had contributed to their suffering. It wasn’t
a mistake because I SHOULD have known better and it wasn’t a lesson because I
already knew better.
This brings me to some of the other things I was told when I was learning
how to sell gym memberships. The sales managers and sales coaches tried to make
me feel bad for applying what I knew about people. The statement “how are they
supposed to believe in themselves if you don’t even believe in them?” was
directed towards me more than once. As was “who are you to judge them for
something that might happen in the future? Who are you to deny them the
opportunity to have a better life?” These statements feel like they might be
true, except I knew that they were not. It wasn’t that I was a pessimist, it
was that I was both a realist and someone with a back ground in psychology / human
behavior. I believed in the prospective members as much as I believe in people.
I knew what it took for me to change my behavior and I knew a lot of the
theories about what is required for human beings to be ready for change. The
truth is that there are only a couple of short cuts to the process and unless
someone arrives at the gym for the first time having taken one of them, having
had one of the requisite experiences OR is actually ready to change, they will
have extreme difficult making the changes.
Informed consent is a thing that is very important and it was the only thing
that we were NOT seeking. We needed and wanted their consent in terms of a
signature on a legally binding agreement to allow the gym to access their bank
account to withdraw the membership dues. The act of informing them of the
actions they were going to need to do was vacated in favor of cultivating their
hope and filling their mind with grand ideas that do not hold up. When they
failed to form the new habit it was their decision and completely their own
responsibility. When I would talk about my concerns about the entire
transaction I was reminded that maybe the habit didn’t take because I didn’t
believe in the member enough. The fact that behavior change is hard and
requires sustained unreasonable effort was completely ignored. My crappy
attitude was probably contributing to the member’s challenges in automating a
difficult set of complex behaviors that are both physical challenging and are
experienced as psychological pain. Initially I adjusted my attitude but it
became obvious very quickly that my sincere belief in other people is not
sufficient to move them to do anything more than to sign-up and come in a few
times during the first few weeks. The heavy lifting needed to be done by them.
This all comes down to the following couple of facts:
The first is that people operate using a system of rewards and punishments.
Rewards serve to fuel action and to repeat an action that lead to the reward.
Punishments serve to reduce action in general but specifically the action that
caused the punishment. At the shallowest level, things that feel good are
rewards and things that feel bad are punishments. With references to the “it
takes 21 days” line I learned, it was initially reinforced because it seemed to
be effective at getting people to sign-up for a gym membership. The closing of
the sale felt good because it meant that I had performed my job well and would
result in higher wages come pay-day. However, after the first month, I began to
notice that the new members were not that much different from me and many were
having difficult forming that habit. Their pain and eventual disillusionment
started to weigh on me. They had a desire to finally make the life of their
dreams and started with such hope that it would become a habit very quickly.
Reality landed on them HARD after the first few weeks turned into a month and
it remained a constant challenge to eat better and drive to the gym to do
movements that are not innately rewarding. Either because they were telling me
this, I was reading it on their faces, or because they stopped coming into the
gym, I was getting absolutely clear that the exercise habit is a tough one to
create. The words that had once been powerfully reinforced though sales began
to be experienced as punishments when I realized that I had lied to the people
who had trusted me.
On a deeper level, the pleasure and pain can be perceived as either reward
or punishment, and this is the area that my NOT taking the effort to more fully
inform them of what would be required to become an habitual exerciser and more
effective eater came back to haunt me. At this deeper level, were pain can be
viewed as a reward and pleasure can be viewed as a punishment, the person needs
to take the time to think about what is going on in order to manufacture the
meaning that matches reward or punishment. For me, as a sales person, closing a
sale would only feel good when I made it as clear as possible what the first
few months of the gym would be like for them and the sense of loss or sacrifice
that comes along with changing your diet to remove sugar and junk food while
increasing the consumption of highly nutritious foods. My aim became disclosing
as possible about how long it would take to reach their goal and the number of
times they would have to say “no” to something they wanted and “yes” to
something that felt uncomfortable in the short term.
Of course two things happened here. The first was that the sales managers
and coaches did not like me going off script and tried to move me back on
course; which I wasn’t having any of because I had grown tired of feeling like
a lying jerk. The second was that the members who signed-up became active
members because they were fully aware of what was about to happen, had
considered it, and had still made the decision to join. When, 8 weeks later,
they still found that they had to call upon their willpower to come to the gym
at the end of their work day, they were not plagued with any feelings of “why
hasn’t this become a habit yet?” or “what is wrong with me, why can’t I like
this?” They did not like it, but they accepted it as something that they were
going to have to do in order to get the thing that they wanted. This, more than
anything else, is the formula for success – consistent hard work over time.
They were able to view showing-up and making it to the end of a workout as
rewarding in spite of the fact that NOTHING about it brought them any
measurable pleasure. They manufactured a meaning that served as a proxy for
pleasure to allow their brain to reward the behavior.
This is what is called the “discipline high.” You trigger chemical rewards
in response to doing things that are hard, require will power, and for which
there is a big disincentive to doing. Pain becomes pleasure-like, pleasure
becomes pain-like and the person takes the actions they accepted as part of the
journey. This type of meaning manufacturing might have been what the “21 days
to learn…” statement was getting at, but it was never outlined or explained to
me this way.
Now it turned out that because of my updated approach, the powers that be
thought that I would be a better manager than sales person and I got the
opportunity to perform that role at a different club. I employed the same
updated approach with managing the team as I had with selling memberships and
they responded in more or less the same way. Improving at anything will take
sustained work, a lot of which will not be directly rewarding. The sooner you
accept this fact and just start doing it the better the process is going to go
Years later, when I look at those first steps into to the fitness field I
smile and feel grateful that they are behind me. At the time I didn’t realize
that it is a self-help industry and that no matter what I bring to the table
the members, participants, or clients will need to perform the work. I can
motivate, want, coach, etc. until I’m exhausted, but if they do not put in the
effort there will be NO transformation. They need to help themselves and until
they are willing AND doing it, nothing is going to happen.
It is a fun job for many but for me it is only fun when there has been full
disclosure and the person is agreeing to perform their role KNOWING that it is
going to be hard work, mostly thankless, void of any physical reward and is not
something that feels good initially. Each of us have the potential to learn how
to work our muscles in a way that causes them to release feel good chemicals
but reaching this point requires the body to work at a particularly hard level for
an unpleasantly long period of time. Put another way, you need to be very fit,
have strong muscles, and the ability to tolerate a large amount of discomfort
before the body will respond by releasing endorphins to numb the pain and boost
the pleasure. This can take 3 to 9 months, which is a lot longer than the 21
days I used to promise. BUT when you know that it will happen and that the
journey towards that moment might just suck completely, you are much more
likely to accept the work as part of it and just do it.
I’m now much more inclined to consider a mistake both a mistake AND a lesson. It is a mistake because the pain is a necessary part of the process. It reduces the chances of me repeating an action that causes pain. This simultaneously creates the opportunity of a future perceived contrast reward in so far as any elimination of pain is experienced as pleasure when contrasted to the possibility of that pain. The pain eliminates the actions that do not work as the prospect of pleasure serves to fuel different actions in the future. In the absence of certainty that an action WILL lead to a rewarding outcome, we leverage this hope of a rewarding outcome to keep trying.
Don’t let yourself off the hook by labeling a mistake a lesson. Your brain learns better when there is something on the line so keep it there and learn from your mistakes.
Winters in Ontario can be brutal. It isn’t so much the cold and the snow that grinds you down, it’s the variability that gets you begging for spring. This winter has been no exception. It snows, there is a deep freeze and then everything melts. Just as you start to believe that it might be over, the temperature drops, the sky opens up and there’s another foot of snow to shovel.
In the second week of January there was a spring-like thaw that cleared everything up just in time for winter to return and overcompensate for its absence by causing a big drop in temperature that lasted for a few days before returning back to being just unreasonably cold – a day time high of minus fifteen and a overnight low of minus twenty-five; these are Celsius degrees which made it slightly warmer than Fahrenheit, although “less brutally cold” is probably a more accurate way to state it. If you were a plumber you call it “earnings season” as pipes freeze and burst.
This is what happened at Heather’s cottage. When we arrived on Friday evening and turned on the water pump it started raining behind the shower wall. All at once a bunch of things float through our minds. The first is to turn off the water and assess the damage and magnitude of the problem. It turned out to be only a single pipe, which was good. And it was in one of the pipes that sent water to a small half bathroom – the kitchen and main bathroom with the shower were fine. But with no way to turn off the water flow to the impacted pipe we were going to need to get a plumber in to fix it or close it off. There was no water damage, at least not anywhere that mattered – the cottage was built over sand and the pump had been off, so the water that was in the pipes had leaked out, down and into the sand.
The second consideration was about what we would do right now. We were without running water, so no showering or flushing the toilet, but the gas and electricity were still working. There was plenty of drinking water because we bring it with us, and more than enough food. I figured it made more sense to stay than to go home because we were already there and it’s easy enough to fill-up the water tank to flush the toilet. Heather agreed, so we made dinner, watched TV and went to bed as if everything was fine.
We talked it over the following morning and decided to stay for the rest of the weekend. We made a quick trip into town to get more water to make sure we didn’t run out and the rest of the weekend was more or less normal.
The final consideration was on how to deal with the burst pipe. We didn’t need it fixed right away because we had water, so we were good with saving the ton of money a weekend emergency plumber would charge. The question then became “when would we get it fixed?” Heather had been planning of replacing all of the piping anyway because it is old, copper and was run against the outside walls; the pipe bursting wasn’t entirely unexpected. It had been in the realm of possibility and while it made for a crappy couple of hours digging through the snow to get access to the basement to assess the damage, the work was going to be getting done soon anyway. If anything, the deep freeze just moved the start date forward by three to six months.
And this marked the beginning of one of those “firsts” moments that couples have in their relationship. This was the first time we would be dealing with a home repair that wasn’t part of a well planned schedule with a clear start and end date. Together we would need to figure this out, kind of on the fly, and with people who were on the phone – either the plumber or Heather.
Every relationship has the potential for a bunch of these firsts; although many relationships end after the initial one. The reason they are relationship killers is because they bring to the surface who a person really is. There isn’t enough time to put on whatever mask you have been wearing because the problem needs to be addressed. A sense of urgency is remarkably unveiling. And lets be honest here, most people are kind of messy from a psychological point of view. It is not that we are awful or bad, it’s that we are just people. We’re animals that learn, remember, and talk. Sometimes we listen, but we only really hear from a position made possible from our life experience. This means that the people who understand us the best are our immediate family. It also means that we understand our romantic partners from our own perspective and NOT from a position of actually understanding who and what they are, or from actually understanding their motivations for doing things. Worse still is that we usually have no idea why we ourselves do anything.
Think about that for a second. There Heather and I were with a problem to solve. There are consequences to every possible solution and many of the solutions are mutually exclusive. Since I work from home, I will be meeting with the plumber while she is at work. BUT Heather has greater vision in terms of what she wants done with the cottage in the future so, therefore, how the plumbing should be fixed and how it might get rerouted.
Individually and in isolation the solution is both simple and obvious. And this is the exact opposite of how relationships work. I want the pipes located away from the outside walls so they never freeze again. Heather wants this too, but she also wants the kitchen updated so the sink will be moving six feet to the left of where it is now. Plus there will need to be a water filter for drinking water and eventually a dishwasher and possibly a washer and drier because they will increase the resale value.
We are very different people. There is nothing wrong with this at all, I think it makes for a better relationship because she is many of the things that I am not, and vice-versa, but crisis situations are moments when there isn’t enough time to put on the mask of understanding. While she can appreciate the practicality of my vision – it’ll get things back to what they were before and dramatically decrease the possibility of another plumbing issue for the next fifteen years or so – it is completely lacking in the enhanced usefulness or aesthetics actualized by her solution. But the increased choices and possibilities created by her solution do not spontaneously enter into my mind. The kitchen is fine, I do the dishes and the only time we are there for long enough to possibly need to do laundry is in the summer when we’re at the beach most of the time, which means we aren’t wearing a lot of clothes.
My life experience is shaping how I see things as her life experience is shaping how she sees things. And in crisis moments we are not capable of seeing this, or that there is a different way to look at things. All I know is all there is, and all she knows is all there is. Except there’s at least one other way of viewing things that is critically important in that moment.
During one of the conversations about what the plumber had suggested, it became crystal clear to me that nothing was crystal clear to me. When I asked Heather what she wanted, and she told me, I was left kind of gobsmacked. All at once everything made sense to the two of us. She realized that I had been solving a different problem and I realized that I had been trying to solve the wrong problem.
We wondered out loud why the whole thing was going down the way it was and we tracked in on what seems like a decent enough answer. It isn’t that life is hard, although it is, it’s that relationships are not easy. If it was supposed to be easy, it would be easy. It isn’t just the relationship that Heather and I share that is not easy, it is almost every relationship that has ever or will ever exist, with most of them being deemed too difficult to even continue.
We are fortunate to be self-aware enough to notice when there is more friction than normal and to be curious about the reasons why. Neither one of us make the other person wrong and we reach the point of accepting that we are just different. This process is transformative and it gets us to the end of the situation quickly while sustaining the middle of our relationship.
The best part about all of these “firsts” is that by getting to the end of them they just evaporate. They never come-up again as “seconds” because of what we learned from the initial experience. We just get along better and live with a little more ease.
In Choosing A Fitness Club – Post Revisited I covered some of the considerations a person might have when making a decision on what gym to join. There was a section in which I made reference to the five distinct types of people and how they tend to self-select their training times:
They are early morning, off-hour, after work, late evening lifters, and the generalists. As rules of thumb, anyone who is willing to get out of bed to go to the gym will likely be highly driven and have less time to waste on things they deem as unimportant. The after work people will have a similar desire to waste as little time as possible. The late evening lifters tend to have a very focused lifting intensity but a more laid back approach to their between sets time. Off-hour people have selected these times because they work for them in terms of traffic flow and life management. The generalists workout whenever they can or feel like it.
This is an interesting topic that I need to expand on because, in general, people unconsciously and automatically find the time that works for them and just stick with it. With the exception of the generalists, the people who workout whenever they can make the time or feel like it, the chances of people remaining as active members at a gym are determined by their ability to get this time of day selection correct. Rephrased, most people who cancel their gym memberships or stop going to the gym / working out do so as a consequence of choosing to train at the wrong time. My belief is that it isn’t that the time was not convenient for them it is that who they are is not convenient for the time they picked. Who they are is NOT so malleable as to become whatever they want it to be.
There are five different types of people which correspond to five specific time frames in terms of when people train at the gym. Anytime, or what I referred to as generalist, early morning, off-hour, after work and late evening. Let’s talk about each one specifically because being able to identify which one you are will go a long way in making sure that you get the best start on your deliberate fitness journey:
Anytime / generalist – these are people who can workout whenever they feel like and will tend to do so based more on their availability than any other factor. These people tend to be lifers who enjoy working out for its own sake. Moving feels good and being healthy is not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of necessity. There is a very good chance that if you are one of these people you already know you are and you are already a member at a gym and working out regularly. Of those who are not regular exercisers, only a very small percentage of them belong to this group. It is possible for people to become a member of this group by joining one of the other four groups first, developing the exercise habit, learning how to really enjoy it for its own sake, and them transitioning.
Personality traits include independence, internal locus of control, lack of a need for social approval, strong time management skills, self awareness and a tendency towards free-thinking. They probably won’t talk much about their training or workouts and will simply just do them. There is a very good chance that they will look like they workout and their food choices will tend to be on the healthy side of the scale. Consider these people to be the doers and not the talkers who roll with the punches in order to accomplish unreasonable amounts of work.
Early morning – these are people who need to workout early in the morning, usually within an hour or so of waking and their first venture out of the house will be to the gym. Their training goals will primarily be to improve fitness and improve body composition with a higher focus on reducing body fat. They may not necessarily be morning people and may drag themselves through the first thirty minutes of being awake, but they will show a dramatic surge of energy once their workout begins and will always leave the gym feeling WAY more energetic than how they arrived. They will show a propensity towards “all or nothing thinking” and this will manifest as a need to get to the gym by a certain time or else not going. Missed workouts will not be made-up later in the day and will only be made-up later in the week.
Personality traits will include being highly driven, goal oriented, binary in their thinking, a tendency towards accountability to other people leading them to benefit from group fitness or personal training experiences. On days that they miss their morning workouts, as opposed to off days, they will be a little insufferable and will operate very differently compared to the days they worked out or took a planned off day. It is be as though one bad decision first thing in the morning serves to set the tone for more bad decisions through out the day. These people are best served by getting out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off in the morning, so to NEVER push snooze, and get up at the same time every day REGARDLESS of what they have planned. A successful first five minutes will result in a day of massive action and the creation of a lot of forward momentum.
Off-hour – these are people who have the flexibility to workout more or less anytime and choose to get to the gym when it is less busy. There reasons for training will be varied – strength, body composition, muscle growth, fitness, cardio performance, or for pleasure. They will have a similar mind set to the early morning people in terms of there being a cut off time for going to the gym although they will have a wider range in terms of when they can go. If they miss a workout, they can catch-up later in the week or will do more work in the remaining workouts of the week to make sure they get the training time in. The people will be the first to have training partners or to form more obvious social groups. For example, the early morning people might participate in fitness classes and spend time socially with the other participants, but their conversation during class will have a transactional flair and may lack a closeness or softness that is afforded by having more time to fully engage someone. Off-hour people, on the other hand, will be able to take the time to engage other people in a more connected way. Their closeness will be obvious to others and it can often be interpreted as cliquey. This is usually not the case however as they will welcome new members in and will quickly begin to look out for the needs of others.
Not all off-hour people are joiners or part of a group. Some will be as single minded as the anytime / generalists or the early morning people, but just have the flexibility to go to the gym whenever they like. With these specific people, they will display the same “no nonsense” approach to their time at the gym and will come across as transactional vs. collaborative. They have a mission while they are at the gym and nothing is going to get in their way from achieving their objective.
Personality traits for those who are not like the anytime or early morning people might include a more calm, deliberate or laid back approach to life, having a success pattern that includes a social or connection component, an absence of any perceivable sense of urgency, and the heightened quality of relationships with the staff.
After work – these are the people who workout right after work and for which the gym represents “me” time in terms of throwing way the days stress. Their training objectives will be very similar to those of the early morning – general fitness and body composition with a higher focus towards reducing body fat – and they will have an awareness that they will be able to have a higher degree of flexibility with their dinner as a result of working out so close to it. Their food choices will be positively impacted by this proximity and their workout will serve to empower / improved decision making – their meals on workout days will be healthier than their non-workout days , with particularly positive impact on their dinner choices. They will have slightly more flexibility when if comes to delaying their gym visit, but there will be a cut off and most of them will NOT come to the gym if they go home first. Missed workouts will only be made-up later in the week and the effect of missing a planned workout will very often lead to a series of bad health choices in the hours between the missed workout and going to bed. The elation that is experienced by the early morning people will not be so obvious or may not even be present. However, the workout will serve to refocus them for the rest of the day and the massive reduction in physiological and emotional stress that their training causes will manifest itself as a enhanced sense of well-being, contentment or peace of mind.
Personality traits include being driven, goal oriented, determined, the ability to manage time and balance many competing demands. There will be a more or less equal mix between those who are accountable to themselves and those who are accountable to other people, although most will have an internal locus of control in terms of determining what they want for their future. The mix of energies will be broad ranging from almost manic with an exceptionally high sense of urgency to a low almost sedated “I don’t give a crap” / “nothing matters” which will have a lot to do with the evening responsibilities of the people – parents will still be getting after it because their day is about to begin again while those with fewer responsibilities might be crossing off the final item on their daily “to do” list.
The after work group will be the largest of the five. It will show the greatest diversity in how they use the gym space and services. There will be a high number of group fitness enthusiasts and a higher percentage of personal training consumers. Monday and Tuesday between 4:45 pm and 7:15 pm tend to be the busiest times of the week, with Saturday morning being a distant third, although there are regional specific patterns based on demographics.
Late evening – these are the people who, for the most part, go home after work to eat dinner before coming to the gym. Their training goals are very much on body composition with a big focus on gaining muscle, and on the development of strength. In general there will be a much higher percentage of males vs. females when compared to any other time of the day. The energy will be lower and slower with the exception of the periods of time spent under the bar when the people will be putting between 75% and 100% effort in. To a neutral observer it will seem like very little work is getting done when compared to early morning and after work. However, it will only seem this way. The reality will be that while there are fewer calories being burned via the cardio equipment and classes, there will be a lot more work being done in terms of force X distance. The time needed by the central nervous system to recover from these great efforts is the reason why the energy between sets will be very low. There is a great sense of urgency but these people have learned how to channel it into the lifting.
Personality traits include being driven, goal oriented, strong willed to stubborn, with an almost complete self-accountability to oneself for the work that needs to get done, with mixed accountability to others for showing-up. This is the realm of training partners because of the need for spotters and because progress is so slow the lifting of heavy objects can become a hyper competitive way of keep things interesting. These people tend to never miss workouts and will usually create and stick to a very rigid schedule that does not change often or vary much. The physiological reasons for this are clear and fairly well supported by evidence – building muscle is a process that requires you to train a muscle a particular way, give it a specific length of time to recover and then train it again, over and over again for years. Getting massive is not something that happens by accident or as a consequence of achieving any other fitness goal. This is different from fat loss, improved general fitness or specific cardiovascular health which are complementary objectives – by training for one you inevitably achieve the others.
There will be a much lower percentage of people who are doing intense cardio training because of how that type of training ramps up metabolic rate and tends to make falling asleep very difficult. This is why there will be very few people training to reduce body fat at this time of day. Very few general interest classes will be offered during this time and those classes that are available will tend to be very skills focused with a narrow appeal – boxing or other combat type sports.
How do you make use of this information? The first thing you will need to do is figure out what you are trying to achieve and consider what your schedule looks like in terms of open times you have or can make to train. The next thing you will need to do is take an honest inventory of your traits and begin to compare them to what is outlined above. Once you start to get a feeling for the type of person you are, factor in your training goals and consider what the ideal time of day is to fit that training is. Re-look at your schedule to see if you can make this time available for training three to five times a week.
None of what I have said above should be taken to mean that you cannot make a less than ideal situation work. You absolutely can, but knowing that you are moving forward into a head wind is often the only thing that is needed to ensure that you keep moving forward. No matter what your goals are, you will need to do a lot of work and this work is not ever easy, even when you learn to love doing it. The thing is, it’s a lot easier to learn to love working this hard when your training time matches who you are. The weights will give you enough resistance, there is no point in adding more friction by trying to do something that you have never done during a time that doesn’t suit you doing it.
Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ during the escalation of the war in Vietnam. He had an interesting life with many jobs, but as he got older he opened-up a lot about Vietnam. He had no lust for war and had reservations about it while he was in a position of influence. When he left office in 1968 he had already suggested that the sunk cost of the Vietnam war was too high and that the US should transition their direct fighting role to the South Vietnamese. These suggestions were not accepted and the fighting continued.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 documentary film about Robert McNamara. What is interesting is that he admitted to his mistakes and expressed that he had done some very wrong things while Secretary Of Defense. He learned from his actions and tried to move forward applying these lessons.
From the movie, the 11 lessons are:
Empathize with your enemy
Rationality will not save us
There’s something beyond one’s self
Proportionality should be a guideline in war
Get the data
Belief and seeing are often both wrong
Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
Never say never
You can’t change human nature
When I read the list, I considered how these lessons would apply to personal training. This is possible if we regard war as a partnership between two countries / groups to fight; in a fashion similar to the partnership between client and trainer. Maybe it’s more of a thought exercise and that I have defined the players in a way that allows me to apply the lessons to something that they were never intended to cover. And that is fine, what matters is if something is useful, not that it is right.
1) If a client wants to change, you’ll benefit from gaining an understanding about how they are suffering and what is motivating them to change their course. While you may not know what it is like to be in chronic pain or how unsatisfying seeing your reflection can be, a moment or two spend considering these things can soften the most dogmatic trainer enough to actually connect with a client to establish the trust needed to guide them towards a more fulfilling path.
2) Burning more calories than we consume is, for the most part, how people lower their body weight. That is a logical and rational thought. People know this yet it does not help them achieve their fat loss goals. Their choices are based on something less rational so the solution is likely going to flow out of uncovering or addressing the illogical something that is making life unfold as it is.
3) Often, people will only change for other people. Having enough energy to be an fantastic mother is one of the biggest motivators for a women to begin to exercise and improve her cardiovascular health. Being told that you are 6 months away dying from a heart attack moves people to make the changes they need to in order to enjoy eventually seeing their children graduate, get married and start their own families.
4) Busy people do not have ample time to do all the things that are needed to quickly achieve optimal health. If they are able to create 3 hours a week to dedicate to to improving it, these three hours need to pack in as much of the most effective movements as possible. Stretching, while important, is not going to improve strength or boost energy as much as lifting weights and increasing movement intensity to elevate heart rate. In this case, there is an enormous opportunity cost to stretching or low intensity exercise.
5) If your goal represents a 5% change in your body / fitness, you need to dedicate a small amount of time to it. If the goal is a 50% change, proportionately more effort is needed. Both the client and the trainer will spend a lot more time and effort at the beginning that then will towards the end simply because there is less to achieve towards the end.
6) Great trainers, like great people, make great decisions when they have all the information they need to make a great decision. Without the information to guide your decisions, your solutions will be incomplete and maybe even geared towards solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Listening without judgment is critical for collecting the highest quality data. You’ll remain open to what is actually occurring and this will shape your counsel.
7) Cognitive biases impact our perceptions in such a way that we see what we believe we see and we find the evidence we need in order to support our beliefs.
The things we see may not exist at all and the real world is likely somewhat different from how we perceive the real world. Effective personal trainers are always aware that they have the capacity to see things that aren’t there and to believe things that are not true. These keep the trainer open to the world and bring them closer to seeing the truth as it unfolds in front of them.
8) Progress is a state of constant change and each change may impact the next action. Effective coaches re-examine their clients course regularly and select different actions when they are called for. They know the reason for doing particular things and will not continue coaching something if a better action exists.
9) Doing good work for your clients is going to mean that you engage the worst parts of their behavior. You may not track in completely on their reason for over eating chips and under eating veggies, but to do the good work as a trainer, you are going to have to engage your clients evil and self destructive actions.
10) Everything that is possible IS possible and will come to be with the correct strategy and enough hard work. If the possible remains impossible it is simply because the strategy is incorrect or the work has not been done. “Never” is something that is said at the end of life or in the event that someone quits working towards their goal.
11) You cannot change human nature and as a personal trainer, you need to be aware of your clients nature. In some cases you can just tell someone to stop eating candy and they will stop eating candy – it’s not these peoples nature to eat candy. Regardless, you will need to work with a persons nature to help move them towards their goal. Someone who loves eating candy will probably always love to eat candy so they need to be allowed to eat candy every now and then because their nature will be expressed if repressed for too long, and these unplanned expressions tend to be over the top and extreme. You can work with their nature by asking them to eat good quality food 80% of the time, and have some candy once a week.
It’s probably fair to say that any good lesson can be applied somewhat to any other area in life. The Fog Of War does present some lessons and growth opportunities for personal trainers.
There is this thing people do that used to annoy me but that I now use as a vetting tool and that is a persons ability to admit that they were wrong. Regardless of their motivation, if someone isn’t able to say that they were wrong they are not a scientist, so their inflated opinion of what they know is tainted by an unmentioned emotional need and biased by something that isn’t an objective truth or reality.
I have been wrong a lot, even if it was well intentioned and based on everything that I knew at the time. And it is important to be wrong and to admit it because only the divine and the foolish do not change.
Here is a list of some of the ways that I have been wrong and changed over the last 15 years in the realm of the fitness industry:
Believing that nutrition is more important than food. This mistake, like a number of the ones I have made while in the fitness industry, was based on the need to make statements that sounded correct, were thought provoking, and that were sticky. But it is nonsense. Human beings NEED to eat food to get nutrients, they cannot thrive consuming the nutrients alone. Whole food is a natural concoction of 1000’s of chemicals that work in a synergistic way inside the body. When these chemicals are taken in one at a time, they have a different impact on the body and there is no certainty that this is going to be a health promoting.
Believing that the program is more important than consistency. I used to believe a lot of the hype and I would dispense this advice as though it was scientific fact. The fact that my clients were getting good results I interpreted as proof that the programing was effective. But over time I started to notice that the clients of some other trainers who programed using the same methods were not experiencing the same results. Furthermore, I noticed that clients who were using extraordinarily simple programs were experiencing great results. What I had missed was the fact that doing small things consistently will generate better results than a perfectly crafted program that is done occasionally.
Believing that by creating an emotional response a transformation has occurred. This one is false, completely false. While there may be times when an emotional response indicates a readiness for change or that a person has started their transformation, setting out to make a client cry is not helpful and will usually permanently damage the relationship. This is not to say that there is no useful information revealed when a client has a spontaneous and organic emotional response, there is just very little useful information to be gained by setting out to create an emotional response. It’s a sales tool that is used to breakdown defenses so someone can sell their services. It’s unforgivable and anyone who sets out to do it is trying to help their own bottom line and doesn’t care about the well-being of the person they are trying to take money from.
Believing that EVERYONE should workout and become more healthy. Morally I struggled with this one for a while. I believe that everyone is entitled to live an amazing life, rich in health and vitality BUT they must choose to live this life. Any coercion or pressure that forces them to choose it will usually result in more suffering as they fail to achieve success and feel worse than they would have had they not tried. I am always enthusiastic and possibility driven with anyone who is suffering the effects of poor health choices, but I’m only at their service when they choose to transform their life. Everyone CAN be more healthy but people shouldn’t be pressured into it.
Believing that what gurus said was more useful than what I knew. Within the fitness industry the gurus have a field day selling their wisdom to anyone who is looking for a shortcut. These people in turn make money dispensing this wisdom to the people they convinced would benefit from it. The problem with believing the gurus is that they rarely have any scientific basis for supporting their claims, and given that they have a financial motive for stating anything, there is a conflict of interest that motivates them to lie. Their well of wisdom in poisoned and unless science supports their claims, you shouldn’t buy into them. After 15 years in the industry, the formula for success is very simple, consistent intense work through a full range of motion, moderate amounts of good quality food (mostly vegetables), adequate rest and recovery, and a positive outlook on life in general. This isn’t flashy and it won’t make me millions of dollars, but it works for everyone and it is based on science.
When someone approaches me inquiring about training, I skip the whole fitness assessment and will instead focus on their goals, their behaviors, their thoughts and their definitions of success, failure, and health. I do this because fitness assessments, as performed outside of a medical setting, are pointless, useless and geared towards selling what the trainer has to sell. EVERYONE can fail some aspect of a fitness assessment therefore everyone needs to buy training.
Most people do NOT need training. While almost everyone will benefit from working with a personal trainer, people can and have been creating amazing results while training on their own for as long as people have been training. If you workout in an intense and pain-free way 4 times a week and eat sensible amounts of good quality food you’ll become fit and any imbalances that you have will correct themselves. Evolution ensures this.
Working with clients is about helping them achieve what THEY want regardless of what I think. Just because a girl is an amazing squatter, can move extremely quickly and would be an outstanding Olympic lifter doesn’t mean that her goal of having a flat stomach and becoming a better road cyclist gets ignored. The opposite is almost true – whatever potential she has in an undesired goal will only be leveraged to help her achieve her stated goal. The world is full of people who do amazing things in areas where they have no particular innate talent.
Very often a fitness assessment will be set-up to measure athletic indicators that are then used as reasons to justify huge training investments. Failing a Klatt test is meaningless if your goal is to look good naked because your glutes, VMO and adductor muscles will be trained during the course of your body composition training. The fact is, most people will never need to perform at the highest physical level and will enjoy an amazing life simply by moving more. It won’t matter that they are quad dominant, slightly internally rotated, or whatever the test reveals.
There is another reason why fitness test performed by fitness professionals are not appropriate and that is because they are used to make a diagnosis; which most fitness professionals are NOT qualified to do. It sure does feel great to have someone look at you and say “wow, you know what’s going on with my body just by looking at the way I move” but that’s ego stroking or salesmanship. The trainer may be correct but they are not in a position to say what is going on. They are in a position only to create and administer programs. When they make a diagnosis and set out to fix it they are failing their clients in a very fundamental, and arguably, an unethical way.
That is why, if someone is going to work with me, we’ll just train the entire body including all of the smaller muscles. The methods and principles that are used will depend upon their goals, but that is it. The client isn’t broken so we don’t need to fix anything, they just need to consistently move their bodies more and reap the benefits associated with improving their health.
“Ever notice how the things you talk about not wanting end up being the things that you get?” The reticular activating system (RAS) is a mental process that directs attention onto the things that are considered important to a person. Our experiences and thoughts serve to populate the RAS with these items. IF someone spends a lot of time thinking about they don’t want to gain body fat, their attention will be directed towards all of the things that will cause them to gain it. As a consequence, they’ll probably over eat and gain body fat simply because they are focusing on NOT getting fat.
“You think eating good quality food and exercising is hard? Try living with diabetes, recovering from a heart attack or a stroke or beating cancer, THOSE things are hard.” People do not identify the consequences of their actions as the initial symptoms of their impending illness, so they just assume everything is fine. But gaining body fat, losing mobility or muscle mass, or becoming lethargic ARE the initial symptoms of disease promoters of disease. It’s irrefutable, people who eat sensible amounts of good quality whole food and exercise moderate amounts are at the lowest risk of death. You have a choice though, do a little hard work now to promote recovery or compress that hard work into a few months in an attempt to survive.
“When you say I’m just a little fat you’re ignoring the fact that you have damaged your ability to process sugar.” Telling yourself that you’re just a little fat is a softer story than the blunt truth – you are wrecking your body because by eating too much sugar you are impairing your bodies ability to handle insulin. This is hurting your body and it will eventually cause disease and an early death.
“Not everyone’s metabolism slows down as they age, it only happens to those who choose to let it happen.” While it is true that a person will burn fewer and fewer calories as they get older, making the decision to use this fact as a justification for gaining weight vs. a reason for engaging in intense physical movement is what makes it true. NOT everyone gains weight as they get older BECAUSE they remain active and move a lot. Hearing someone reference an inevitable metabolic slow down reveals a belief that needs to be addressed and updated.
“Stress isn’t a part of everyone’s work.” Accepting that stress is a necessary part of work is an excuse for accepting this damaging aspect of life and letting it continue to destroy and shorten life. Work can be a challenge, placing unnatural demands on a person, keeping it in perspective will go a long way in helping someone strike a more healthy balance. By assuming that work should be stressful, it give you permission to change priorities and move proper diet, exercise and relaxation down and move work responsibilities up. The negative outcome of reversed priorities is eventual ill-health and disease.