We’ve all been there before. We get excited to change our lives in a positive way and follow a weight loss; fitness; transformation program only to get stuck again and fall off track.
I have heard this from multiple clients over the years and I’m sure we’ve all struggled with it at one time or another.
Stress kills results.
You can’t change a behavior consistently until you can not be stressed out consistently.
Here is an example conversation:
Client – “I was doing great with my workouts but then this thing happened and I got stressed out/overwhelmed/too busy and I stopped working out. A month ago.”
Coach – “Remember when we talked about this and you said that working out was really important to you and it was a big change you want to make in your life? You joined a gym, you blocked out time in your schedule, you found a program that worked for you…”
Client – “Right. It’s really important to me. Also I’m not doing it. Because busy. Much overwhelm. So stress.”
So what to do? Let’s explore what’s going on in the brain.
Imagine two decision making pathways in your brain.
The first one is a goal-oriented system that focuses on actions and results. This part of your mind gets the relationship between eating broccoli for dinner instead of french fries. It connects with your long term goal of losing weight and it takes action of choosing the broccoli.
This is the part that considers the goal and then taking action on said goal. It ties it together by the outcome that is produced when the action taken moves you toward a goal.
The second pathway is the habit system that learns stimulus response associations and does NOT connect them with the long term outcomes. This pathway doesn’t start with any knowledge of a goal somewhere in the future; it starts with whatever is happening in the present moment, like, “I’m hungry.” (stimulus) It then leads to the habit response of what we know from the past, “French fries are delicious and make me not hungry!” And that’s where it stops.
Problem, solved? Not so much.
We have to change the old habits into new ways of handling the current situation. You get stressed; you eat foods that make you not stressed. You don’t have time to plan your healthy meals; so you eat whatever you can find that makes you feel good. The interesting part about this is that when you find yourself locked into this habit mode response behavior, you stop connecting the results with the responses.
Your brain, in that specific moment, doesn’t link choosing french fries for dinner and gaining weight. It doesn’t even matter if you are troubled with your weight gains. You’ll keep doing the things that sabotage your long term goals, and you’ll continue to feel powerless to stop it.
AKA: Yo-yo cycles.
Now let’s see what makes our brain shift from the first system (I do this and I lose weight) to the second system (I’m hungry and I eat fries)?
Research has found that people are biased toward a habit behavior when they’re under stress. It’s a coping mechanism in how we respond to said stress. They can be shifted back towards goal-focused decision making if they’re given drugs that block the actions of stress hormones in the brain.
Stress literally changes the part of our brains that are involved in decision making. Can you believe that? What does this mean for someone who does well with workouts when everything is going smoothly but then diverts to binges and Netflix as soon as life piles up in a series of rush hour commutes, mortgage payments and sick children?
You’re not likely to break that cycle by thinking about how important working out is to your health, happiness or other long-term goals.
You already know that. The old behavior persists anyway.
When we’re in stress monkey mode, our brain just doesn’t connect those goals to our reflexive behavior.
The part of our brain that manages things like long term goals and impulses gets drowned out of the conversation. In many cases, it’s not about the goal. The monkey wrench in the gears of the system is the chronic stress. It makes the goal irrelevant.
Once you can clear that stress away and get out of your anxiety, you’ll have a clear path forward. You’ll have a brain that’s capable of running decisions through the goal focused pathway instead of the habit response pathway. (if you can do this long enough, the goal part of your brain that shapes the habit behaviors will change what you do even when you’re not thinking about it)
We become what we consistently do.
Until that happens, it’s not about the workouts. Rearranging sets and reps and exercises won’t matter. You won’t be able to do squats consistently until you’re able to not be stressed out consistently. Deal with the stress first.
*adapted from Precision Nutrition blog