Each and every one of us, as a human being, is hardwired to choose the path of least resistance. We’re programmed to conserve energy for when we might need it and to avoid risk wherever possible, because that’s what it took for our ancestors to survive (and reproduce) in a world full of unknown dangers.
Today, it’s why the status quo — tested, predictable, familiar — is so comfortable. And it’s why we find change so difficult, even when our very lives depend on changing.
I’m referring, of course, to our health.
As Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin have so gracefully written, we procrastinate because somewhere deep down, we’re afraid to start. The resistance, or lizard brain, will fight tooth and nail to keep us right where we are. Because change is risky, and where we are is safe.
But when it comes to health, where we are isn’t safe. Known, sure. But not safe.
The excuses we use to justify one more pack of cigarettes, one more TV show, or another quick spin through the drive-through window (it’s convenient, and I had a rough day) are the tools of this fear. What we say to distract ourselves, to make it feel alright for now, is nothing more than a smokescreen.
It’s time to cut through the haze. What follows is a list of five of the most common, most debilitating excuses and fears that keep people unhealthy and powerless to change. Find the one that’s holding you back, and see it for the sham that it is.
1. “Before I can start, I’ve got to plan.”
Sure, planning is important. But right now, it’s just procrastination.
You know how it goes: “Before I start, I need to get workout clothes that fit. And shoes. And join a gym. And load some new songs on my iPod. Then I’ll get a meal plan and go shopping, and I’ll be ready to start!”
Maybe you do need all that stuff. But first, just start.
It’s easy: go outside and start walking or get on your bike. Go in one direction for just five minutes — fast when you want, slow when you want. Enjoy yourself — play — then turn around and come home. Do it again the next day, and the day after that, feeling free to gradually do more as your body allows you to.
Build some momentum by doing something small every day. Then, and only then, should you think about planning.
2. “I’m so out of shape, it’s overwhelming to think about getting healthy.”
Right now, don’t focus on getting in shape. The important thing is to take the first step.
Look at it as an experiment: commit to eating well or exercising for just one week, to see how it goes. Be curious and be playful, but really commit to it: set some ground rules, tell other people about it, and don’t cheat.
Forget any long-term health goals right now. Just take note of how you feel, paying particular attention to your mood and mindset — that’s where the changes will show up first.
When the time is up, congratulate yourself for sticking with it. If at this point you’re not excited to keep going, you can stop without feeling guilty and change your approach.
But maybe you feel lighter. More energetic. Happier. These incremental benefits are immediate, no matter how far away you are from whatever your ideal is.
So what would happen if you did this again for two weeks, or 30 days? Try it again, with the same strong commitment, and evaluate again when you reach the end.
The great thing about this approach is that it shifts the focus to the process, not the outcome, and at the same time prevents you from ever feeling like you’re locked into something that you don’t enjoy.
3. “I don’t know how to cook, nor do I have time for it.”
I believe you. You don’t have two hours each night to spend preparing a gourmet meal for your family, nor are you a master of matching flavors and textures to create beautiful, perfect dishes that are also healthy.
But I bet you can follow instructions. Find five minutes to search this site and others for simple recipes. Many won’t take you even half an hour to prepare.
Here are just a few examples of delicious, nutritious meals that don’t take much active time to make:
•Beans and rice
•A grain, a green, and a bean
•Slow cooker stews
Look at cooking as an opportunity to work with your hands and to be present in the moment, focusing on that one thing only.
Enjoy the smells, the textures, the process. The occasional Sunday when I spend three hours in the kitchen making pasta or vegetable lasagna from scratch is the most meditative time of my entire week.
4. “People will laugh at me when I exercise because I’m out of shape.”
A few might laugh. They’ll do so because of some insecurity of their own. But most people are so distracted and focused on their own lives that they won’t even notice you.
Of those who do pay attention to you, the vast majority will be inspired, and they will envy your determination. No joke.
Five-million-plus people watch The Biggest Loser each week. Are they doing it for laughs? No, they watch because it motivates them, even if they never take action.
When people see you working hard to get in shape, it reminds them that somewhere, they’ve got that fight in them too. Without realizing it, even if you’re doing this only for yourself, you become a leader by example. People are drawn to that.
I know, it feels like everyone’s watching you, judging you. But trust me: inside, they’re cheering for you.
5. “I’d like to exercise with a group or class, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up.”
The quickest way to get better at something is to hang around people who are getting the results that you want. (You’ve heard it before, right? If you want to know your weight, add up your five closest friends’ weights, divide by five, and you probably won’t be far off.)
But with groups comes the fear of being “the weak one.” The one who can’t keep up, the one holding everyone else back. Most of us have been there at some time, and it’s no fun.
So how do you get past this fear?
Accept it and face it. Let the group know, beforehand, that you think you might have trouble keeping up. Tell them that if they need to go ahead, you won’t be offended, you’re just thrilled to work out with them and learn from them.
With that, it’s out in the open, no longer something to be ashamed of. Gone are the pain and potential injury of pushing yourself too hard in attempt to avoid embarrassment. And it probably won’t be long until you’re helping someone else who is new and afraid.
The time to take that first step is today. If a flaw in your excuse has been exposed, take advantage of it now, before your fear can come up with a better one.
Getting yourself to start is the hardest part. As you begin to experience results and your new habits are reinforced, it becomes easy. You’ll discover that the more energy you use, the more you have, and being healthy is actually really fun.
Sure, it’s possible that you’ll stumble at first. Getting in shape isn’t as easy as watching TV, or eating whatever you want. But that’s okay.
The trick isn’t to never fall down, it’s to never stay down. When you mess up, use it as an opportunity to adapt and improve, not as a reason to quit.
And when the excuses crop up, step back, smile to yourself, and see them for what they are — a last-ditch effort by the old you, the comfortable, change-fearing you, to go back to the way things used to be.
Stop believing your excuses. Start.
Matt Frazier helps people discover their inner athlete and the simplicity of a plant-based diet. Get fitness tips and healthy recipes at his blog, No Meat Athlete, or sign up for his free series on getting started with plant-based fitness.