Why Do People Quit On Their Bodies?

For just over eight years now, I’ve been working as a 1-1 PT/health coach in Doncaster – and I’ve seen hundreds of people get in incredible shape (I’m proud to say I was a part of those transformations). However, I’ve also seen hundreds of people quit on themselves and go right back to the behaviours that caused the physical & mental situation they’re so unhappy with.

To be totally up front with you, I’ve always took it hard when this happened on my watch. Every time a client didn’t turn up to a session, cancelled their coaching, dropped off the radar or just didn’t stick to anything we’d set for them – and as a result, didn’t get the results they wanted, I’ve always inevitably blamed myself to some degree for that. Now, before you get your violins out or call the Samaritans for me, I’m not making this about myself. I mention this purely because this has been the motivating factor for me to think really deeply about the question that titles this article: Why do people quit on their bodies?

This article is the culmination of many years of reflection on that question. It’s also born out of my research and experimental approaches with certain clients, all in search of the psychological mechanisms I might be able to leverage to help people increase their likelihood of success with changing their bodies for the better. While I obviously can’t include every possible thing I’ve thought about, read, or tried in the gym, I’ll try and make this article as comprehensive (but readable) as possible, so you can take some practical things away to try and learn from my experience.

I started planning this article by asking myself the following question: “What’s the ONE thing, that if everyone had it, would make my job cease to exist?”. The undeniable answer, and the most important point I want to make in this article, is broader time horizons. Let me explain what I mean.

Broader Time Horizons

Most people, when it comes to their fitness (and many other things in life), adopt an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. They’re either 100% committed: doing the strict low calorie, low carb, low fat, low fun diet, doing the workouts every day, getting their 20,000 steps in and doing hours of cardio – or they’re completely uninterested and sitting on the sofa seeing how many glasses of wine they can throw back with their fourth takeaway of the week. I’ve exaggerated here for the sake of making a point, most people aren’t that extreme, but the mentality is the same. They’re either all in, or they’re all out.

In my opinion, it’s this mentality that is primarily responsible for people quitting on their body goals. You see it across age groups, genders, socio-economic statuses… it’s a universal principle of human nature. If you’ve ever yo-yo dieted, done a few weeks at the gym and not gone back for three months or just give up on something you were so determined to see through just a short time ago, you’ve probably fallen victim to this psychological landmine too.

When we’re stuck in this way of thinking, our time horizons are incredibly short. We think we have to do everything perfectly today, and if we don’t get everything absolutely spot on, then there’s no point in doing it. We can’t see past today, tomorrow, or next week. Our goals, mindset, and entire approach is temporary and short-sighted. To have any hope of sustainable change, we need to address this as a matter of urgency.

Years ago, when I was barely a year into my career, I took a friend of mine on as a client. We agreed to four personal training sessions per week with the aim of helping him to lose some body fat, build some muscle and improve his fitness. Incidentally, this person didn’t drive and had to catch the bus to make it to the gym. At the time, my diary was extremely busy with clients and I had very little flexibility to move sessions around. This detail is important because, every single Monday when this guy missed the bus and couldn’t rearrange that session, he would write the entire week off as a bad job and tell me he’d start next Monday.

Crazy, right? But it’s this way of thinking that gets us all into trouble at one time or another. Sure, this is an extreme example that may sound silly to you right now, but there are countless others I could tell you like it. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone’s reported back to me saying that their diet and/or training has gone ‘out the window’ because of some inconvenient life event.

Here’s the headline: Life events happen. Work gets stressful. Kids are kids. Relationships break down. Buses get missed. I say this not to diminish the importance of these events – they are all undoubtedly major events and deserve time, attention, and energy (except for the bus one). But none of these things mean that you should suddenly stop taking care of yourself. If anything, it’s times like these that it matters more than ever to prioritise your physical and mental health, so you’re robust and resilient enough to deal with the challenges life throws your way.

Don’t get this twisted, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to have a bad day. That’s the opposite of what I’m saying. Bad days are not only OK, they’re pretty near inevitable. I can’t recall a single person I know (myself included) that achieved an awesome body transformation without having a bad day here and there. The difference lies in whether you let that bad day define you, or you accept it, let it go and go right back to your plan.

A great question to ask yourself if you’ve strayed from your plan today, is “will this day matter one year from now?” – this is an important question for two reasons.

Firstly, it pulls your perspective out of the day to day and into a broader time horizon. Forcing yourself to see that actually, in the grand scheme of things, if you’re really committed to this goal then one bad day won’t matter in the slightest this time next year. This is the antidote to the all or nothing mentality.

Secondly, acknowledging the longevity of this process anchors in the importance of consistency. Because ultimately, the reality of whether that one bad day matters one year from now depends on the actions you take as a consequence of it. If you allow your mind to convince you that you’ve “screwed up”, or there’s “no point” in carrying on, then that one bad day will turn into a new lifestyle of poor health habits. This will continue until you reach a point of extreme discomfort with your body shape, energy levels, self-confidence, mental health or something similar, and the cycle will repeat itself. In contrast, if you decide not to allow that one bad day to trigger a cascade of poor health habits, you won’t even remember it a year from now. You’ll be too busy enjoying all that new energy you have and reaping the rewards of your consistent effort.

Making It Practical

So, you might be thinking, okay, that all sounds nice, but how do I actually do it in real life? How do I give myself the best chance of succeeding and getting rid of this all or nothing mentality? I hear you. Now we’ve gone through some of my thoughts on why people quit on their body goals, I want to give you some practical tools so you can set yourself up with the absolute best possible chance of success – so the next time you ‘start from scratch’ is the last time.

1. Be Realistic

One of the biggest mistakes people make, especially when starting a fat loss programme, is they get ridiculously trigger happy with cutting calories and ramping exercise through the roof. Let’s make something perfectly clear – that isn’t necessary. If you’re currently maintaining a certain bodyweight (even if that bodyweight is far from what you’d like it to be), your current level of food intake and energy expenditure is maintaining that weight. As soon as we start to make small adjustments to that, things should start to move at a nice, steady pace.

Expecting yourself to be able to stick to a crazy low-calorie diet is delusional. As is expecting yourself to hit the gym six days per week if you can only really manage two or three.

The bestselling author and podcaster Tim Ferriss has a saying: “Set the bar low”. He explains this by talking about how setting the bar for what “success” means to you at an achievable level makes success more likely. If you try to train and eat like an athlete when you’re an out of shape office worker, you’ll be pretty demoralised when you can’t keep up with athlete standards. Grabbing the low hanging fruit and employing the minimum effective dose will keep things ticking over without you wanting to ever-so-gently place your head in the oven and cook yourself alive.

2. Make It Fun

Let’s face it: no one wants to do things they hate doing. Sometimes it’s necessary to do things you don’t enjoy, like some tasks at work (hopefully not your entire job), putting the bins out, or tolerating the One Show at your mum’s house. Full disclosure, you might not enjoy some of the things you have to do to get in better shape. However, you don’t have to hate every waking second of your life in pursuit of fitting into smaller clothes, picking up heavier weights or seeing a lower number on the scale. As much as possible, we’ve got to make this process fun.

In the 1970s, a psychologist named B.F. Skinner ran a series of experiments that laid the foundation for what we now know as behavioural psychology (building on the work of people like Pavlov and his famous dogs). Essentially, he took a group of rats and pigeons and placed them in their own individual boxes, with a lever (for the rats) or a key (for the pigeons) on one of the walls. Using a technique known as positive reinforcement, he then trained the animals to press the lever, and in return, receive a food pellet. Now, this isn’t anything particularly fascinating, we all know you can use food as a mechanism to train animals. But the point here isn’t the detail, it’s the mechanism. Since the days of Skinner, positive reinforcement has been used to successfully alter behaviour in humans – in prisons, hospitals, and schools. The point here is that you can make a desirable behaviour more likely to occur by creating some sort of reward for completing that behaviour. That reward is not food. We’re trying to create a better relationship with food here, using it as a reward for things is the opposite of that.

Instead of food, reward yourself for hitting that gym session, sticking to your food plan or getting to bed on time and sleeping properly by doing something you really enjoy. Something you’ll appreciate and look forward to (again, not food). This doesn’t have to be the same thing each time, it’s probably quite useful to switch things up. Sometimes it could be a relaxing activity like a hot bath with some music on, other times it could be weekend away or a trip out for the day. You can probably come up with much more appealing things here than I can because you know what you enjoy. But plan for those things and use them as a reward for hitting certain behaviours consistently. Rather than rewarding yourself for milestones (like weight loss), reward yourself for doing the things that lead to those milestones. The success will then come as a by-product of anchoring in those behaviours through positive reinforcement.

3. Get Some Accountability

One of the main benefits of hiring a personal trainer or coach of some description is the aspect of accountability. Even if your PT is completely hopeless at their job (and I hope they aren’t), the act of paying for their services and booking appointments to go and see them at the gym significantly increases your chances of sticking to your body goals. Once you’ve spent that money you don’t want to let it go to waste, so you show up to your sessions and put more work into your nutrition and other aspects of health. Once you’ve made that verbal commitment to your trainer/coach and arranged an appointment, you don’t want that person to think less of you, that you’re flaky, unreliable, or lazy, so you show up to your sessions and put the work in outside of the gym. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but it’s one I’ve seen countless times over the years of my coaching career.

A coach is probably the best way to achieve accountability, because you have the financial aspect on top (plus if you hire a good one, they’ll actually help you make the right choices). But if that’s not the route you want to go down, enlisting a gym buddy or joining a group on social media can work too. The trick is to find someone outside of yourself that expects you to do what you said you would do. This is why slimming clubs work. It has nothing to do with the “sins” or “points” or whatever backwards terminology weight loss companies are using for carbs these days, it’s the fact that the people that go there are absolutely terrified of the public judgement and shame they’ll feel if they get on the scales in front of thirty other people and weigh heavier than they did last week. Making people feel this way is ethically questionable (in my opinion), but there’s no question it provides the level of accountability necessary to achieve the desired result – in this case, reducing your gravitational relationship to the earth (losing weight).

4. It Has To Work

Now, I’ve spoken a lot about the need to make things realistic, to not put yourself under too much pressure, and to broaden your time horizons when it comes to pursuing a body or fitness goal. But the fact of the matter is, if what you’re doing isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how simple you make it to follow, you’ll lose patience with it. Because if we aren’t seeing the reward for our efforts, we are unlikely to continue putting that effort in. What was it Einstein said again? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Something like that (I’m too lazy to look it up).

One of the most fundamental principles of change I learned a few years ago was that progress motivates. Once you start to see the outward manifestations of your efforts – i.e. you see the numbers on the scale going down, the jeans you haven’t fit into for twenty years start to feel loose, or that girl at the gym finally noticing your existence, it’s almost like a switch flips in your mind and you start to double down on your efforts. The weird thing is, once you know that what you’re doing is working and you can see the results in your life, the work stops feeling like it’s such a chore all the time. I’m not saying it’s easy, but your more motivated to push through the discomfort. Set up a plan that’s easy to stick to and create some consistency and momentum, but that also actually has the necessary level of intensity to create change and show the results of your efforts within a few weeks. This will keep you motivated and significantly reduce your likelihood of quitting on your body.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, we’ve covered some of the factors that in my experience, contribute the most to people quitting on their body & fitness goals. This is primarily the “all or nothing” mentality and is cured by broadening your time horizons (viewing your goals in months and years, not days and weeks).

Hopefully this has given you some things to reflect on and some value to take away into your own efforts with your body goals, and the practical aspects have provided some ideas for making your next pursuit of a body goal more successful and sustainable.

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Thanks and speak soon