I am the least athletic person you will ever meet.
From the time I was a child, I always dreaded fitness. In fact, some of my least favorite memories of elementary school are of "the run," the standard fitness test in which all of the children in any given grade would have to try to run a certain distance (determined by age) within a fixed amount of time.
I remember wanting so badly to beat whatever time was set as the "benchmark." Although not often, I would occasionally see this goal through - however, at a price. I remember, even at seven years old, my lungs would burn and my side would hurt when I ran. Although I was never technically diagnosed with asthma, for whatever reason, I visibly struggled more than most of my peers who were asthmatic.
Still, I was always a skinny child. And other than adopting a largely vegetarian diet at a very young age (the reasons why being a whole different story in and of itself), I never paid very much attention to what I ate. While compared to most children, my food intake was relatively good... I still ate a lot of junk. For example, despite having two medical professionals as parents, I was raised having sugary snacks every night before bedtime (such as two big chocolate chip cookies or a big slice of cheesecake).
One of my favorite transformation pictures, posing outside of the Hulk Roller Coaster at Universal Orlando, 4 months apart.
Yet, I was still thin when I hit puberty. I was thin when, for the first time in my life, my health became rocky.
One day in the ninth grade, I awoke to agonizing abdominal pain. Even though the pain was torturous, I didn't want to go to the Emergency Room, as my parents had both worked in ERs, and had told me stories of people who took advantage of using the ER when they really didn't have the need for it, and I was, consequently, scared of being "that person." A day later, the pain subsided. However, it came back the next month, before subsiding again... just to come back the month after that. Finally, during my third round of pain, my dad dragged me to the ER.
I had an ovarian torsion (three times around). Which, is basically as pleasant as it sounds. At the age of fifteen, I literally went into a form of organ failure. (Also - side note: if you EVER feel acute pain or if something doesn't seem right, please DO NOT hesitate to see a medical professional ASAP). I lost an ovary and a fallopian tube. Consequently, my OB-GYN immediately started me on hormonal birth control, as it can help prevent the ovarian cysts that often cause torsions (a preventative measure in order to keep the remaining side of my reproductive system healthy).
Being a late bloomer, I had only started puberty about a year and half prior to this occurrence, and now, in addition to puberty, my hormones were thrown out of whack. In the midst of this experience, I developed an unhealthy mindset - that my body, including my weight - was out of my control.
So, I continued to eat the way that I always had, ingesting cookies every night and eating at least two large portions at every. single. dinner. From my sophomore year through my senior year of high school, I steadily gained weight. And, just like with most people, the start of college certainly didn't make my eating habits any better.
I guess it's no shock that I eventually became overweight. I tried to ignore my weight gain until last spring break. Taking pictures with my friend, who had gotten into health and fitness a couple of years prior, I felt like the "fat friend," and even though now I am able to look back and see beauty in myself no matter my weight, and know that "fat" is FAR from synonymous with ugly, at the time - I felt ugly and gross.
That same spring break, I got my teeth whitened for the first time. Now, I know that you're probably thinking: what the heck does this have to do with health and fitness? Well - here's my answer; after getting my teeth whitened, I had to limit my diet to white, processed carbs for a couple of days so that I wouldn't stain my newly white teeth. While the food that I ate for these days was a far cry from health food, it was the first time that I came to the realization that I had the power to control what I ate.
After that spring break, for the first time in my life, I decided to make a change in my lifestyle. It started small, by simply not going up for seconds at dinner. I also downloaded an at-home workout app, working out only once every week or two.
Slowly, I started to workout more and more. After school let out, despite my continued hatred for cardio, I would spend 30 - 60 minutes a day on my mom's treadmill, trying to burn off calories. I didn't know how else to work out: as all my mom ever did was light cardio, my exchange sister also was a "cardio-bunny," and my dad had never been into fitness.
My transformation, from near the very start, to twenty pounds down!
I continued doing cardio and app-based workouts while on Walt's Pilgrimage this past spring, a Study in the States program through WMU's Lee Honors College that brings one to Chicago, Missouri, San Fransisco, and LA over the course of a single week in order to study the life of Walt Disney.
While the course was incredible, I felt so alone being the only one who headed to the hotel gym after long and intense days. Still, at this point I had shed upwards of ten pounds, and was determined to keep going.
After returning from the trip, I made a renewed effort to clean up my diet, focusing especially on protein intake, being a vegetarian. I began drinking protein shakes daily and eating protein bars consistently.
It was at this point in my journey that my friend told me about Grand Haven Fit Body Boot Camp (as GH is my hometown and was my summer residency last year). Still having very little clue what I was doing in the gym, I decided to give it a go. I still remember the first workout. It was HARD. But I came back, and kept coming back day after day. I had a "tribe" of workout friends to help get me through. We would joke around with the trainers about how much we "hated" the workouts, even though we all loved the way they made us feel afterwards. (Another quick side note to my current coaches: if I seem cynical, this is definitely why, I PROMISE that I am just being sarcastic!) And even though I was still an un-athletic, red, sweaty mess - by the time July rolled around, I was consistently doing two sessions a day at Boot Camp. I shed off the weight - twenty-five pounds by the time I left for summer school in the United Kingdom at the University of Cambridge at the beginning of August.
While I still occasionally worked out at Cambridge, I suspended my diet (with no regrets) in order to best experience my time abroad. (For me, personally, I want to experience the world through the food it has to offer, and sometimes this means giving up monitoring my diet for short periods of time. What I have found however, is that as long as I am consistent in my day to day life, it ultimately does not affect my progress, and helps me to maintain a healthy relationship with food.)
Coming back to Western in the fall, I was ready to get back into it. However, this time I didn't have my friends to workout with. Yet, I still had faith in the FBBC franchise, so I decided to sign up at the Kalamazoo location - alone. Even though I was intimidated, I walked into the building, signed up, and have attended regularly ever since.
By October, I had lost thirty pounds. I was back to being relatively thin. My confidence was up. Soon after, I began to try other fitness classes. And this past spring break, I began to finally workout using machines and weights. I am planning to start weight training more often. I also have an appointment with a nutritionist to revamp my diet, as now, after weight-loss, I am ready to see my body's full potential. What it is capable of. What I am capable of. (However, FBBC still holds a large place in my heart for the instrumental role that they played in my weight-loss, and I plan on continuing to attend sessions there.)
Despite my success, I would still get discouraged. Even though I had an overall trend of weight loss, I would occasionally gain a little weight instead of losing weight between individual weigh-ins. In addition to this, even as I did lose weight, like many girls, I began to see attributes that I liked about myself (to be blunt - such as my breasts and booty) shrink before my very eyes. To this day, I still get discouraged. Over spring break, I literally broke down crying because I haven't improved - only maintained, since October. Some days, my body confidence is through the roof and all I want to do is take bikini pictures on the beach. Other days, I still feel "blah" about my body, like it's not good enough and there's so much more that I can achieve. I still compare myself to others, even though I know that I shouldn't.
My one year transformation! March 2017 - March 2018! Thirty pounds down and determined to continue to tone up in the next several months!
My journey, just like anyone else who has had a journey in health and fitness - is ongoing. It's a constant process, full of failures successes, and, quite literally - sweat and tears.
Recently, after a Fit Body Boot Camp session, the coaches asked our group why we were there. I remember thinking "Man, I could write a book on why I'm here!" but I simply answered: "It improves my mental well-being and positive thoughts," which wasn't a lie. It does. After a workout, I am often feeling relatively confident and am less prone to the anxious and paranoid thoughts that often cloud my brain.
But it's so much more than that. I started to workout to lose weight that I put on due to both medical reasons that were out of my control and poor personal choices that were completely within my control. However, I now feel empowered by working out and eating healthy. I feel like, ultimately, I have taken back the power that I thought I lost when I started gaining weight.
After that session, being the emotional person I am, I went back to my car and cried. I cried for myself and the roller coaster of a journey that I have been on. I cried for everyone else in that building and how they found themselves there. I cried because I saw so many others who were taking back power that they once felt had been taken away from them.
I am still the least athletic person you will ever meet, but you know what? Now, I am proud of it. Because even though I am not a natural athlete, I make an effort, nearly every day, to be stronger, both physically and mentally, than the day before. To me, this is what matters the most.
My transformation from day 1 of my lifestyle change... to (roughly) day number 365!
I remember talking to a psychologist once about the difficulties of social science. She told me that the easy thing about being a physicist is that most people aren’t very familiar with physics—stars, quarks and gamma rays—so if you’ve done the research and have good reasons to believe something to be true, people will take you at your word.
In contrast, most people are incredibly familiar with the subject of social sciences: people. They already have many beliefs and intuitions about how people are. Therefore, when you do the research and find out something about how people behave that contradicts their intuitions, they won’t believe you.
There’s a similar phenomenon with self-knowledge. Knowing things about yourself should be the easiest thing in the world. After all, each of us has a lifetime of research on the subject of ourselves. We are our own experts.
But that expertise can also be misleading. Not only do human brains suffer from a wide variety of well-documented biases: overconfidence, placebo, loss-aversion and prototype effects, it may even be that we are hard-wired to be self-deceptive.
Built to Lie
A common problem in doing research via surveys is that people will lie to create a favorable impression of themselves. Social desirability bias is so widespread that it can suggest conclusions which are mathematically impossible.
A 1994 survey of men and women asked them to count the number of sexual partners they have had. In this survey, men were found to have 74% more sexual partners than women.
Counting only heterosexual partners, however, you can demonstrate mathematically that the average number of partners for men and women has to be exactly the same (assuming an equal gender ratio). It takes two to tango, and likewise, for every man who has had a female partner there must also be a woman who has had a male partner.
Here we don’t need sophisticated methods to show people are lying, the math does it for us.
Not convinced about the math? I explain a bit more detail the mathematical proof in this comment here. I’m grateful to MIT’s discrete mathematics course for the original idea.
People don’t just lie to experimenters however, we lie to ourselves. Being willfully deceptive is hard work. There’s a chance your story will crack and the lie will be discovered. Police interviewers have long known that talking to someone long enough will often lead to them incriminating themselves because they couldn’t sustain their lie.
Lying is a lot easier if you don’t know you’re doing it. Social desirability bias doesn’t just influence what we tell other people, but what we tell ourselves. After all, if we want to maintain a rosier picture of ourselves than we actually possess, it helps if we believe that rosier picture as well.
This results in absurd statistics, such as most drivers claiming to be above average in ability. If you believe you’re the best, it’s easier to get others to believe it too.
Self-Honesty is Hard
Because we’re designed to lie to ourselves, truly knowing oneself can often be difficult. Are the motivations you pursue the genuine logic behind your actions? Or are they self-deceptions, elaborately constructed to help you pursue different goals while you can honestly claim to be pursuing something else?
One common pattern of self-deception is claiming to pursue higher motivations, while actually being driven by baser ones.
Consider drinking wine. A high motivation for only wanting to drink the finest wine is that you have well-developed and discerning taste. You, as a sophisticated, cultured individual can readily tell the difference between a bottle which costs $100 and $10. The price may be higher, but with it, comes higher quality.
Except in random, blinded taste tests, many so-called wine experts couldn’t even tell the difference between red wine and white wine.
Maybe a more cynical story is that your love of fine wine is an elaborate self-deception. The intrinsic qualities of the wine aren’t what make it taste good, but the fact that it is rare and expensive. Your brain fakes discernment on flavor, when it really cares about boosting the image that you are cultured and sophisticated.
The simple view of this story is that the two wines have no difference, and therefore you’re a gullible fool for purchasing the expensive one.
But I don’t think the simple view is correct either. When you include knowledge about the vintage and price, people will actually enjoy the expensive one more. The deception isn’t that there is no difference between the quality of the two wines, because there is. Instead, the deception is that the quality of the two wines depends solely on the flavor, omitting the knowledge surrounding it.
Picking on wine lovers is an easy target, but I believe this kind of self-deception is commonplace. Why do people prefer books to blogs? Shakespeare to soap operas? Is it actually intrinsic differences in quality or is it hidden signalling?
My instinctual reaction to learning that there may be large patterns of self-deception is to correct it. After all, if we lie to ourselves constantly, how much better off would we be if we could just be honest with ourselves?
However, many of these self-deceptions are probably useful. They evolved because they were more adaptive than having to know the truth about yourself, and many of them likely remain adaptive to this day. Radical honesty is not the best policy.
Consider a friend of mine who enjoys drinking excellent wine. Does my careful explanation of the fact that his appreciation for good wine is heavily influenced by price and status help him enjoy the wine any more? It probably does the opposite, making him feel angry at me for revealing this truth or foolish for believing it. Both of us are worse off.
But even if a lot of self-deception probably is useful, an inconsistent theory of life makes decisions a lot harder. When you can’t be entirely sure of your own motivations for your behavior, its much harder to have a stable theory of how you should try to live in the world.
The constant popularity of life philosophy, from religion to self-help, shows that most of us grapple constantly with uncertainty over the best way to live our lives. The fact that we may be hardwired with built-in self-deception seems to make that path much foggier.
Conducting Experiments on Your Own Behavior
Science, of course, is a potent tool in helping us understand ourselves. But a science of human nature often only gives broad principles, and even those are often riddled with exceptions.
Instead, I think each of us needs to treat our own behavior and motivations as something worth investigating. Not merely through introspection, which runs the risk of bumping into the numerous hard-wired self-deceptions, but through observation.
One way to do that is to keep a journal of your thinking about things. Write down your supposed motivations, then ask what those motivations would actually predict. Then, when you’ve had more experience, look back and see whether those predictions are true.
Maybe you believe you fear switching your career because it might set you back financially. However, when you actually make the switch you are earning less money but it doesn’t bother you. Digging deeper, you realize that you were actually worried about being criticized by the people around you.
Journaling is probably one of the best tools for combating self-deception, since you aren’t able to creatively reinterpret past experiences with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, you can examine exactly what you were thinking at the time.
Getting this kind of self-understanding may be difficult, but I can’t think of a better subject to study.
Filed Under: Life Philosophy