On Setting Fitness Goals
A few weeks ago, a client of mine—we’ll call her Jane—emailed me about a shoulder injury: a bad one. After struggling with chronic knee pain for months (which is what brought us together a few weeks ago), she had just started to experience some relief when the shoulder gave out.
Frustrated, scared and, she feared, out of options, her final question to me after detailing all the pain she was in was this:
“So, how the hell do I exercise/try to get weight off if I can’t do anything with my right arm?”
It wasn’t the question I was expecting. Months of chronic pain followed by what very well could turn into years more if not handled correctly and I thought for sure the only thing she’d want to know from me was how to ease the pain.
It occurred to me that, perhaps, this had been the problem all along. Here is my reply to her:
I’m so sorry you’ve got this to deal with now; it must feel like your body’s completely rebelling against you!
This is going to come, perhaps, as a bit of a surprise from a fitness person, but hear me out:
Weight loss isn’t a particularly healthy goal.
I know it matters to you, and that’s valid; I am in no way trying to belittle what you find important. Our culture favours thin, small and lithe and who among us hasn’t internalised that. Our biology, however, doesn’t always agree with our culture on what’s best for us.
With weight loss as a primary, stated goal, we start associating feelings like muscle burn, fatigue and strain favourably. It becomes the pursuit of a maximum: burn as many calories as possible, do as much as you can. The problem is that burn, fatigue and strain are never meant to be maximised. They are, in fact, specifically designed to be conserved.
Consider: crows can be observed picking up nuts and flying to a certain height before dropping them over concrete surfaces to crack the nut and exposes the good stuff inside. But think about it: flying up there requires energy—flying higher, more energy, lower, less. For the crow, a careful calculus must take place between the amount of energy used to crack the nut versus the amount of energy she stands to gain by eating it. And it’s true that we can observe crows flying to a very specific height to break very specific nuts because, after much trial and error, they “know”—meaning their somatic nervous system keeps careful track of calorie expenditure and muscular activation—when the balance of effort to reward has been tipped too far.
That is biology at work: the careful balance of intake and output in an effort to achieve a goal.
Now, when the goal is output, your ability to calculate when you’ve done too much is diminished. There’s no resistance, no push-back. Your somatic nervous system doesn’t know how to tell you when you’re doing well at a goal like that because the signal for “stop” isn’t that much different from the signal for “success.” It’s a nasty trick we play on ourselves. And, in my work, I deal with the resulting injuries every day.
If you want my advice it’s this: stop trying to lose weight. Try instead to do something with your body that you like doing. Build something. It’s summer time, go pick strawberries. Make it something repetitive and only mildly taxing so that your mind can wander while you do it. Give yourself lots of time to do it. In those long spaces of time while your mind is wandering and your breath is quicker, you will notice when it feels great and when it starts to feel less great (tired, achey, bored). When it starts to feel less great, stop.
Do this and you will weigh exactly what it makes sense for your body to weigh. You will get as strong as you need to be to do the thing that you are doing. That’s what your body wants.
In a way, your body is rebelling against you. Try capitulating; you mind find out it was right all along.