Among my clients, the concept of all-or-nothing behavior around fitness is all too common. You’re probably familiar with this concept, too, whether in fitness or in other parts of your life. In short, it’s the tendency to operate in extremes—sometimes you’re all in, pushing at 110 percent through a regimented workout routine, or you’re calling it quits before you’re even in your sneakers and out the door, deciding to not exercise at all. There’s no happy medium, no healthy in between.
This attitude often turns into a vicious cycle of starting and stopping fitness routines, making it basically impossible to reach any of the goals you set for yourself.
Can you relate? Well, I can reassure you, you’re not alone!
Since I see this all-or-nothing mind-set so often, I have spent a great deal of time studying why it is so prevalent and what small changes we can make to stop it. Here are four things you can do to start altering your mindset and reaching your goals.
1. Set small, realistic goals and expectations for yourself.
Let’s face it, when it comes to health and fitness, we live in an instant, results-driven world. We’re often presented with promises of six-pack abs, dramatic weight loss, and the perfectly pronounced butt, and all in just a few weeks or months. The truth is, these types of results take going to extreme lengths in both diet and fitness with very little room for error. When people inevitably don’t get the results they anticipate, or perhaps they get the results but have a nearly impossible timing holding onto them because of the extreme ways they changed their lives to get them, they understandably are disappointed and demoralized, and quit altogether until the next big promise comes along.
Remember that extreme results typically take extreme, often unhealthy measures. Long-term lifestyle changes happen when they are done gradually. To start, set small, realistic goals, such as “I will do 20 minutes of cardio two days this week,” or “I will take 15 minutes to work on my push-ups three times this week.” That consistent feeling of success is highly motivating and will keep you going for the long term.
2. Experiment with different forms of movement to find something you actually enjoy.
Not all exercise is a great match for all people and this plays a big role in long-term success and avoiding the all-or-nothing mind-set. You may find yourself at a high-intensity class that leaves you sore and drained for days, or you may join a run club only to find you actually hate running. If one form of exercise is too difficult or you don’t enjoy it, you won’t stick with it. When that happens, people often feel defeated, like they’ve failed, prompting them to give up on their routines.
I believe that human beings are built to move and it’s just a matter of finding what movement you enjoy. Experiment, find your thing, and it could end your all-or-nothing relationship with fitness for good!
3. Start with just two days a week and slowly increase that over time.
I can’t tell you how many times I've seen people go from nothing mode to working out five or six days a week, in just a week’s time. As you may have guessed, I’m not a huge fan of this approach. In my coaching practice, I advise my clients to work out only two days a week for the first couple of weeks to get conditioned both mentally and physically. Anything more than two to three days a week to start could be setting you up for a big nothing period soon to come.
Too much, too soon also increases your risk for injury, which is a good way to land in nothing territory very quickly. And even if doing too much too fast feels exciting at first, it will become unsustainable. It will be exhausting not only for your body but also your schedule and your mind.
Small steps equal big, sustainable change. There’s plenty of time to increase exercise frequency after you master two days a week!
4. Know that setbacks will happen, but setting a comeback date and leaning on your fitness community to get through them can help.
Whether it be illness, injury, or mental health challenges, there are plenty of things that can force you to take a break from exercising. I’ve struggled with my fair share of these sort of setbacks and know that making a comeback when you're ready can be difficult. It’s a time where we’re all at risk for all-or-nothing behavior.
When I have to take some time off from working out, I try to set a comeback date and stick to it. If that date comes and goes and injury or illness is still lingering, I set another date, always keeping my eye on my return to my fitness or training plan.
I also recommend staying close to your fitness community, even in times you are out of commission. Whether that’s your running group or students in your fitness class, still meet them for coffee after class or stay active in email chains or Facebook groups. Setbacks are all part of athleticism but it doesn’t have to knock you out of the game. Finding support from others in the fitness community is a great way to stay motivated to get started again as soon as you can.
Overall, keeping your expectations in check and resisting the allure of extreme results will help you avoid the all-or-nothing mind-set.
Always be cautious of anything that seems too good to be true. I know it’s tempting but it often ends up in Nothingville, keeping you in a cycle that is preventing you from living out your fitness goals and dreams.
Remember, good things take time (and consistency). You’ve got this!
Louise Green is a plus-size trainer and athlete, activist, and brand consultant working to change the narrative around body size and standards in the fitness industry. She is the founder of the fitness program Body Exchange, and author of Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have. Follow: Instagram @LouiseGreen_BigFitGirl, Twitter @Bigfitgirl, Facebook @louisegreen.bigfitgirl