We are constantly bombarded by bad fitness and diet information in the media and online. We are constantly sold absurd diet and fitness regimens to make money.
The reality is that very rarely do the people that we think have "made it" actually follow these plans, or if they do, they can't maintain it for very long.
The models you see in magazines are mostly a product of smoke and mirrors: these physiques are temporary, and these images of chiseled dudes with six pack abs don't accurately represent everything that goes into looking like that.
For the rest of us, slow and steady wins the race.
If you didn’t know much about diet, it would be easy to get misled by all the crappy info out there.
As one study showed, very little of the information available online is actually accurate. That means that, if you google some important dietary topic, there’s a vanishingly small chance that you’ll actually get any good information at all!
Meanwhile, it’s easy to get caught up in all the dietary dogma out there: Paleo. Low carb. Vegetarian and vegan. High fat. Bulletproof coffee. Superfoods. Raw food diets. High protein. Low protein. Low fat. High carb. “Color-based” diets. Blood type diets.
Eat potatoes. Don’t eat potatoes. Fruit is healthy for you! Oh wait, it’s not. Science says chocolate is healthy, but oh wait, it turns out that was a prank. You should drink wine for the antioxidants, but wait, antioxidants don’t matter. Cardio is good, but now it’s bad. You can “hack” your body with ketosis - or maybe you can’t. Intermittent fasting for a longer life! Or not. It goes on and on.
In the absence of any real alternative to most of this garbage, we might be led to think that it’s about somehow balancing all this misleading and conflicting information - finding the perfect arcane formula for health: 2 egg whites in the morning in an omelette with some kale, a certain supplement precisely twenty minutes later, a workout starting at 10:47am on the dot, making a deal with the devil for healthy skin at noon, another workout at 1:34pm, another regimen of supplements, a dinner of precisely five leaves of cabbage, waking up every hour during your sleep to have a protein shake so that you don’t immediately shrivel up and lose all your gains.
I’ve always had a pet theory: that people are really bad at actually describing themselves accurately. This is a combination of our own biases, designed to make ourselves seem better in our own eyes, and a little bit of wishful thinking.
We live in a world in which we want to provide the best possible face to the outside world: making ourselves look better and happier on social media than we really are. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it’s just a subtle consequence of the growth of social media and the exaggeration of certain existing human habits that we already had.
As a result, we tend to exaggerate our diet and exercise habits as well: “oh, I train six days a week” when you actually trained four or five, or maybe you got in six workouts but two of them were absolute crap. “Oh, I don’t know why I’m not losing weight, I’m working out constantly and eating nothing but vegetables,” when the reality is that you’re probably NOT working out constantly, and you’re probably eating a lot more than just vegetables.
It doesn’t help that there’s been such a bizarre moral obsession around diet and exercise in the US. The culture has made fitness to be about “crushing it” and “going to war against weakness” and constantly tells us that if we’re not 100% perfect like the models on television, we’re garbage and deserve to die.
None of that is even remotely true. Fitness has always been about consistency over perfection: a little bit of activity plus a bit of mindfulness around your diet, long term, leads to much better results than crash diets followed by binges or high activity levels followed by injuries and burnout.
Here’s the truth: those “perfect” people you see online? Chances are that they aren’t actually able to stick to the garbage fitness and diet plans they sell either. A lot of the physiques you see are smoke and mirrors: the product of secret steroids, photoshop, angles, superior genetics, and lighting. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t see: how these models suffer to look that good through their intense dieting, hire a person to handle their food full time so that they don’t have to, or don’t actually stick to restrictive diets for very long, just like the rest of us.
The typical path to fitness is simple: you start off strong, with a serious diet and exercise regimen, and then over time, you lose enthusiasm and your efforts get weaker. This is normal. This still happens to me. However, the trick is in getting back on the boat - engaging in a new regimen when you know that your effort is waning too much, or finding a baseline sustainable level of diet and fitness that you can use forever.
No one really wants to see how the meat is made. We like to be able to be fooled, to think that it can all be about hard work and willpower, to buy into the fantasy of magic hacks and secret pills. Some of us might trick ourselves into thinking that the fantasy is real.
But at the end of the day? Very few people really are getting a lot out of restrictive diet and exercise plans. For the rest of us? Slow and steady wins the race.
I've written quite a bit before about the science of good diets. The short and dirty version? A good diet has a lot of protein (0.8g/lb/day or so), a lot of fiber from fruits and veggies, and is one in which you manage to keep your overall calories in check via portion control or some other means. A good fitness regimen involves a kind of cardio and regular training of just five movements (the overhead press, bench press, row or pulldown, squat, and deadlift or hip hinge). That's about as quick as it gets.
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