Guest post written by: Jason Seib
I have something that I need to share with you. There has been a slow evolution throughout my career as a fat loss coach – one that took me to a place where entirely different kinds of questions must be asked. Let’s start with the ‘why’ question that drove the whole process for me and I’ll walk you through my epiphanies.
Why do so few people succeed in making lasting positive change to their bodies, even when they have a perfectly good plan? If we were to take all the interested people in the world and lock them down in a ward study of the Paleo lifestyle (food, exercise, sleep, stress management), the results would be absolutely astonishing. Yet, in the real world, so many fail to apply what we definitively know will work. What’s going on? Why hasn’t the mere discovery of this Paleo thing meant guaranteed success for everyone who tries it?
In the world of fitness and nutrition, the answer has always been to write off these individuals. “I know my plan works, but you’re not doing it right.” “You just don’t want it enough.” “You’re not motivated.” “You don’t have enough willpower.”
The problem is that it’s the overwhelming majority of people trying to get healthy and fit who never reach their goals. They may regularly revisit their goals with a new plan of attack, but success remains out of reach. Why? Damn it, why?? And how can we just offhandedly write off any majority?
None of the regurgitated answers about motivation and willpower are enough for me. I have come to a place in my career where simply throwing a plan out to the world and watching most people remain frustrated will never be good enough, even though I have absolute confidence that my advice is solid. If the majority of people are not capable of stepping in the footprints that I draw on the ground for them as I guide them to their goals, then we don’t need to talk anymore about the legitimacy of my advice. We need to talk about the obstacles, which are both enlightening and maddening.
With my evolutionary biology bent, I started by thinking about how we are mismatched with our environment. There was a time when there was nothing called “food” that was bad for us, at least not in the quantities in which we could acquire it. If Uncle Bob didn’t die or get sick when he ate it a few generations ago, if it didn’t leave you still hungry after eating tons of it, and if it didn’t come out looking the same as it did going in, then it probably made the list. Our taste buds did the work of telling us when we had found something worth eating again. Believe it or not, that is their job. Contrary to how it might seem today, we actually evolved the ability to taste things in order to help us gauge the quality of the potential food items we put in our mouths. We didn’t evolve a sense of taste just so we could hear a choir of angels when we eat.
For those same hunter/gatherers, exercise for the sake of exercise was a foreign concept. Living our lives required lots of walking, along with occasional sprinting and heavy lifting. We have always moved for fun, playing games that require physical activity, but we didn’t do these things to “get some exercise.”
Acknowledging these lifestyle disparities, it became clear to me that my job is very strange. I get out of bed each morning and go out into the world to teach people things that no human ever even thought about until just a moment ago in our history. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to explain what I do for a living to one of our hunter/gatherer ancestors who simply lived their lives and got, by accident, what people pay me to help them find. Continuing with this line of thinking, I started looking deeper into psychology and neuroscience in regards to human nature and habits.
As it turns out, we have brains that do everything in their power to relegate as much of our lives to habit as possible. I found this to be obvious upon examination. When was the last time you thought about what you were doing when you took a shower, or brushed your teeth, or drove home from work, or tied your shoes, or any of the other dozens (maybe hundreds) of mundane things you do each day while your mind is anywhere but on the task at hand? Your brain has long since converted those things into habits, freeing your mind from the exhausting concentration that was required when those actions were new. We would all be drained husks at the end of each day if everything we did required constant focus.
Now reconsider the fact that there has never been a point in history, aside from the last blink of our human existence, in which health and fitness were things that we needed to make an effort to create for ourselves. Once we understand this concept, it becomes clear that most of us just want to live our lives. We don’t have brains that are wired for all this focus on abstract concepts like moving and eating for the sake of becoming what we always became by accident before we started playing this society game.
Let’s look at how things might play out with food. If something tastes good, our brains make the assumption that we have found a healthy source of calories and they take action to make sure we eat this food again when we find it in the future. But now there exist such “foods” as ice cream. You don’t eat ice cream when you’re hungry. You only eat ice cream for its flavor and the resulting chemical reward in your brain (dopamine). Thus we have broken the system. What used to be a necessary tool for survival has been turned against us by those who manufacture hyperpalatability in processed foods without also including the nutrition that the added flavor should indicate.
So, temptation is everywhere, but that’s not news to you. However, what might be news to you is that we don’t have brains that are hard wired for the pursuit of long term goals. We are driven by immediate gratification. Hunger, thirst, fear, lust, and every other basic drive we might experience will usually prompt immediate action of some kind. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors didn’t really have a need for long-term goals. There was nothing to save or earn, no body fat to lose on purpose, and if food became scarce you moved to where it was more plentiful. Living like this through the entire history of our species has made us great at getting off our butts and making things happen right now. Not a bad trait to have, but a very un-advantageous one when you are trying to make something happen months from now despite hourly temptations to throw in the towel. When the choice before you is a good body in 6 months or cheesecake now, every relevant chemical process in your body is telling you that the right answer is cheesecake now. The only thing saving you is your ability to cognitively override your innate drives, which means you must be mindful in your choices and you can’t leave anything to habit.
And that’s just a food example. Add to this the fact that we have outsourced the lion’s share of our daily movement, and we have real problems. I could also go into the stress of striving to outperform our neighbors at tasks unrelated to our survival, the late nights on social media trying to decide if our lives are as worthwhile as those of our peers, and every other similar stressor that makes up the wackiness of modern life, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The point I’m trying to make is that when it comes to our health and fitness endeavors, our brains are as mismatched with modern society as our bodies.
So what’s the answer? To be honest, this stuff is never going to be as simple as we might wish it to be. Like I said, we really shouldn’t have to have goals that involve changing our bodies. Healthy human bodies should be our default mode. But that just isn’t in the cards anymore. We have to consciously make changes with the intent of being healthy instead of just being. I believe that what the world of fitness and nutrition professionals has been missing is consideration for human nature and the creatures we have always been. The Paleo community has done a great job of applying this logic to things like food and exercise, but it’s not good enough if most people can’t follow through.
When we consider the fact that modern life probably isn’t going backward anytime soon, and that our stressors and the demands of our daily lives will remain mostly unchanged regardless of our desires, then it becomes clear that we need a non-stressful approach to real, sustainable change. We need a way to casually slip into new habits while flying under the radar of our stress responses, and we need to do it all without having to tend those changes with constant attention and analysis. In other words, massive goals that require enormous willpower and diligence may be appealing, but they don’t usually produce lasting results. How many times have you done a diet challenge with your friends? It’s time for something new.
After a lot of research and a ton of experimentation on people who trust us, Sarah Fragoso and I wrote The JASSA Method (www.jassamethod.com) as our answer to all of this stuff that plagues our frustrated clients. We knew we needed an entirely different tact, not to try to be trendy and new (a common trick in our world), but to actually get results. And it’s working!
The beginning of the book explains why we are doing things differently with this plan, and it was absolutely essential for us to thoroughly explain ourselves and support our claims with science. Asking people to slow down and bite off only what they can chew is not an easy sell. Enormous goals feel really good when you first set them. You identify with what you believe you will achieve and all is right with the world – until the work starts. At that point, the enormity of your goal is highly correlated to your likelihood of failure.
What follows the “why” section is a very specific and detailed plan designed to guide you to some substantial changes without ever causing you to freak out. This is a whole lifestyle approach, not a diet or exercise plan. We help you change the way you eat, exercise, sleep, and manage your stress. Every little step that we assign you is delivered with its accompanying stress load in mind. We want you to make small changes in multiple areas of your life each week while not thinking about any of those changes for more than a little time each day. In short, we want you to change your life without ever feeling like you’re making any major changes in your life.
I’m frustrated that so many of you are frustrated and I hope the takeaway of this post is that you need to come at your goals from a new angle – one that doesn’t have you butting heads with your human nature. We believe The JASSA Method is the best plan available to those who continuously struggle, but if you don’t choose to do it our way, please take to heart what I have said here and at least take a different path than the one that keeps leading you back to where you started.
Go forth and be awesome.
He speaks on the subject of fat loss regularly, delivering his Sustainable Fat Loss Seminar around the US. Jason’s passion is guiding normal people to extraordinary levels of health and fitness and he has built his career by helping thousands of people change their perspective and find a healthy, sustainable path to their goals.