Let’s say that the process of losing fat and getting in shape is an American football field. Your goal is to get to the end zone, and you’re starting from the 1 yard line.
First things first, eating fresh food in the right portions will get you 75 yards down that field.
This means “eating clean”, avoiding excess sugar, oils, dressings, cheeses, oils, and all processed food. It also means eating your macronutrients in the right proportions, with vegetables and fruit making up more than half your diet, and splitting the other half between carbs, protein, and dairy (if you like dairy). If you eat like this for 6-12 months, you’ll basically be finished with your project of getting in shape. That is literally all the advice you need.
Now, let’s add in exercise. A good mix of cardio and muscle building exercise will get you another 20 yards down the field. This means a consistent routine, at minimum 3 days a week and up to 7 days a week. We’re talking exercising smart, not hard. This means light cardio such as jumprope, walking, cycling, jogging, or swimming, and simple exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and some free weight or resistance band work. Throw in a weekly full body activity like basketball, soccer, yoga, martial arts, dancing, or rock climbing and you’ll be in an even better place!
The simple diet and exercise have now gotten you to the 95 yard line. You look great, you feel great, you have a career, social life, interests, and engaging projects that you work on in your free time. Life is awesome.
And here’s where things get strange. You’re in a great position with your body, but you’re still not at what you perceive to be the end zone. You don’t look like the fitness models on the cover of magazines. You can’t run a finger through every notched-out groove in your abs. You still have spots on your body that feel jiggly. You’re not the fittest person at the gym, you're just one of the top ten. You’ve still got 5 yards to go!
If you watch an American football game you’ll see that the offensive side employs a different strategy when they’re a few yards shy of the end zone. Instead of the elegant passes and running plays of the midfield, the players all bunch up and try to ram a single player through the scrum. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s minimal yardage for extreme amounts of effort.
Trying to go those last 5 yards to look like a fitness model is similarly difficult. Each subsequent percentage point of body fat you try to lose becomes an epic battle as you strain the limits of your body’s natural set points. You have to devote ever-increasing amounts of time and energy to your fitness efforts.
For a very small amount of people, the last 5 yards is a worthwhile pursuit. Professional athletes, models, and action-movie stars receive direct benefit from their high levels of fitness. But for a regular person going about your life, there’s little utility in throwing yourself into the dog pile at the end of the field.
Training in those last 5 yards means that your life becomes dominated by your fitness goals. It’s easy to become obsessive about your food and workouts. You spend a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror. You can’t help but spend most of your day comparing your physique with others. You’re spending so much time working out that you don’t cultivate other aspects of your life.
In short, you become a less interesting person.
What’s more, there’s absolutely no health advantage between the 95 yard line and the end zone. Your body doesn’t like to be constantly pushing the envelope like that. Your chance of injury goes way up as you attempt more and more intense exercise challenges. With extreme exertion the hormone levels can get out of whack, making you moody and off-kilter much of the time.
And yet the majority of fitness articles, websites, and forums are devoted to the last 5 yards. All the debates about which protein shake is most effective, which exercises access which tiny muscle group more efficiently, which variation on HIIT or Tabata or circuit training works best, all of this is the noise, jostle and confusion of that end zone dog pile. It intimidates new trainees and muddies the waters about what’s actually important; simple diet and simple exercise. If you're just looking to shape up, engaging in all that chatter is like a football team running an aggressive end zone rush-play at the 50 yard line. It’s a waste of energy.
This is where the sports analogy breaks down. In a football game, the intent of every play is to get to the end of the field. Staying fit has a much more subtle and profound purpose. It’s about becoming a more complete and happy person. But somewhere in those last 5 yards, you actually start bringing out the worst in yourself. Your vanity, pettiness, compulsion, and inability to be happy in the moment can start to dominate your personality.
All of this so that you can be fittest person on the beach, instead of the second fittest?
Guess what? Nobody cares! They’re learning to surf, playing volleyball, making sandcastles, and getting on with their lives.
What are you doing?