Why People Fail Their Fitness Goals

Image of author recently sweating buckets

The most popular new year resolutions in the world are fitness-related. They are also the most commonly failed resolutions.

Here are the most common reasons people fail at fitness:

They don’t account for a net loss in happiness

For any new habit that you’re bringing into your life, you’re re-budgeting your time.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the busiest CEO in the world or you watch 7 hours of YouTube a day. You take away time from one activity in order to give it to the new activity.

What people fail to take into account is the loss of happiness (or more realistically, comfort) from this change.

Even if you’re not very intentional with your time, there are reasons you do what you do. If you’re watching 7 hours of YouTube a day, it probably gives you some form of emotional comfort.

I know because I’ve done it. Having something on in the background, like Lofi music or a podcast, helps me to stop thinking and letting my brain wander. So I keep something on whether I’m being productive or not. It brings me temporary emotional stability.

So if you take away an hour of that to put into fitness, that’s an hour of temporary emotional stability you’re exchanging for… body soreness.

The same is with food. When you first start eating responsibly, you probably have to budget time for cooking. You exchange emotional comfort for… increased effort and a feeling of not having eaten enough.

That’s why people give up on fitness goals. The benefits of fitness come later, sometimes as early as 2 weeks of consistent effort. However, those 2 weeks of net loss of happiness is where most people fail.

If this is the problem you're dealing with, knowing is half the battle. When you resolve yourself to be healthier, think about what you're giving up. You will be more realistic in estimating the struggle.Also, you can start finding emotional comfort in your fitness to offset the loss. The next point helps with that.

They don’t clarify their what and why

“I want to lose weight” is not a goal.

What do you actually want to achieve? And why do you want it? How does achieving your goal make you happier?

If you want to get past the initial net change in happiness, you need to look forward to something concrete and definite. When you have a strong reason and/or vision for fitness, you build resilience and stay on track.

Good fitness goals I’ve heard from people:

  • “I want to maintain a healthy athletic body so that I can play with my kids even in my 40s.”
  • “My family has a history of heart problems. I want to strengthen my heart and keep my stress low so that I can avoid the same fate.”
  • “I want to be lean and muscular so that I look good and don’t feel conscious in clothes.”

My own: “I feel suffocated being at home all the time and have never related to sports. I want to lift weights because lifting makes me feel capable and gives me a feeling of control.”

If this is the problem you're dealing with, try a simple technique like Five Whys. For exercises like these, writing is better than simply thinking.Basically:
1. Ask yourself why you want to do something.
2. Answer.
3. Repeat until you coax a deeper answer out of yourself.

They add unnecessary, invisible clauses

Speaking of goals, if you say things like this, you have a problem:

  • “I have to exercise at 5 AM.”
  • “Every time I go in to the gym, I must lift a little more weight.”
  • “I must get 1% better every day.”
  • “I can only eat grilled chicken and steamed vegetables.”

I’ve heard way too many people say things like that. Even beginners say things like “I am going to wake up at 4 AM tomorrow and go for a run.” Why?!

You don’t have to work out at 4 AM just because The Rock and Mark Wahlberg do so. Just because it is the best time to run doesn’t mean it is the best time for you. If you are trying to optimize your decisions, you may be giving in to perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a rampant problem. Not only does it not work, it also gives people an out when they inevitably fail. If the task is too hard, you feel a lot more comfortable giving up entirely.

I personally work out somewhere between 4 PM and 8 PM. Would it be better if it was the morning? Yes. I could free up the rest of my day and possibly maximize post-workout metabolic benefits.

It is a more optimal decision to work out in the morning. Do you know what it is not? It’s not sustainable for me at the moment. Trying to force myself to work out in the morning increases the chances of me giving up my workouts altogether.

Find what you can do at the moment, and repeat it until you get better and can take on more.

If this is the problem you’re dealing with, read up on success spirals.Focus on building a habit that you can easily manage, not a habit that is optimized from studying the habits of 55 other people.

They get trapped in the 3-act structure fallacy

Movies, TV shows, books, blogs, and all other forms of storytelling inevitably fall into a 3-act narrative. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

For people in fitness, their 3-act narrative is:

  1. I am dissatisfied/unhappy/upset about my body.
  2. I will train hard and eat better.
  3. I will have a better body and be really happy.

The problem with this narrative is twofold. First, you’re deferring your happiness to the end. This is another example of not accounting for the net change in happiness. If you fail, you will be even more upset than you were when you started.

Second, the hidden clause in that 3-act fitness narrative is “I will have a better body and be really happy and then I will stop training hard and eating better.”

Your life (and your fitness journey) is not a movie or a book. There is no end until you die. There is only a lot of middle.

This is why it is important to find a fitness system that sustainably works for you and allows you to be net happy. You’re always going to be in the middle of your life.

If this is the problem you're dealing with, here's good news.Your health and well-being are also in the middle of your life, not at the end. You don’t magically get to your ideal weight, strength, and agility at the end of a training program. You start seeing incremental improvements the longer you do it.Recognize your victories and allow them to keep you happy in the middle.

They have a latent fear of success and don’t recognize the cost of inaction

Success comes with pressure of maintenance. With lifestyle habits such as fitness, there is an invisible pressure to keep it up indefinitely.

“If I get healthy, I can never eat french fries again in my life” is a very real deterrent to getting started.

Having a fitness commitment is a difficult, emotionally-taxing promise to yourself. As discussed above, there are problems like the 3-act narrative and invisible clauses that make fitness harder than it needs to be. Because fitness appears so hard, the fear of success and maintenance stops people from trying.

The problem is that this fear of success stops people from realizing the cost of inaction.

The average person is unable to recognize the increasing burdens of fatigue, inactivity, high blood pressure, and other health problems that come with an unfit body.

Side anecdote: In the past, some family members (uncles with pot bellies) have told me not to work out because “when you stop, you’ll gain back double the weight you lose.”They didn’t even consider the idea that you’re not supposed to stop. That was unimaginable to them because it sounded so daunting.Also they’re simply wrong. You’re not going to gain back double the weight unless you double your consumption over a long period of time.

This is not a moral argument. People are not bad for not being able to see themselves objectively. Our brains are tricky. We get continuously coaxed into thinking that we are normal, no matter how unhealthy we might be.

This is why you hear inspirational stories about people having epiphanic moments. People talk about “the one moment” where the mirage broke and they realized they need to do something.

If this is the problem you're dealing with, look for signs that break the illusion. Do you hesitate when people take pictures of you? Do you catch yourself frequently out of breath? Do you wake up tired?If yes, talk to your doctor. Getting a clear picture of the cost of inaction will help you start.

Summary

  1. Account for the net loss in happiness — Realistically estimate the initial struggle of a fitness lifestyle.
  2. Clarify your what and why — Sit with yourself and understand what you want to achieve and the deep reason you want to do so.
  3. Avoid unnecessary rules — Focus on making a sustainable system, not an optimized one.
  4. Beware the 3-act fallacy — Don’t defer your happiness and remind yourself that life is not a movie.
  5. Recognize the cost of inaction — look for signs that help you with the first four.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt