Today I want to tell you about an unhelpful pattern people get into with their fitness efforts. I think of it as the “switching trails on Mt. Fuji” problem.
There’s an old adage in Japan, “The person who climbs Mt. Fuji once is wise. The one who climbs it twice is a fool.” So far, I’ve only climbed Mt. Fuji once, so I’m on the right side of this phrase, but why do people say it in the first place?
If you see pictures of the top of Mt. Fuji, you’ll most likely see epic views of a sea of clouds stretching into a golden sunrise. This is really how it looks up there, it's pretty amazing.
Beautiful, right? Well, what most people don’t post a lot of pictures of is the reality of climbing Mt. Fuji, which is hours upon hours of this:
If you want to climb Fuji, you have a choice of four different trails. Some are well marked, with gentle switch backs but a longer total distance. Others are shorter, but steeper, requiring some climbing with your hands and feet at certain points. Some routes have lots of rest huts and aid stations, others you’re mostly on your own. So you think about what kind of climb you’d like to do, choose your trail, and you're off!
When you first start your hike of Fuji, you’re surrounded by beautiful temperate broadleaf forest. The air is wonderfully fresh, and you can see birds, squirrels, and even foxes darting amongst the trees. It’s wonderful. However, plant and animal life struggles at elevations higher than 1500 meters (5000 feet). Mt Fuji is 3775 meters (12,388 feet) tall, meaning that more than half of your climb is in a complete dead zone for life (except for the humans trudging up it).
It’s hard to describe how desolate the top half of Fuji is. It looks more like Mars than Earth. Every direction is brown rocks, boulders, and scree. And it’s dead silent. No birds, no insects, no rustling leaves. Your breath becomes the loudest sound you can hear -— that is, until the bitterly cold wind picks up and makes every step a challenge. This is why the adage says climbing this mountain more than once is for fools. It’s really quite unpleasant. It’s an extremely long walk, uphill the whole way, low on oxygen, freezing cold even in summer, with nothing to look at.
When I climbed Mt Fuji, I remember during a particularly tough section, coming to a ridge and being able to see one of the other routes. On our trail, we had just been doing hand over foot climbing on sharp, volcanic outcroppings. But the other trail in the distance was like a broad avenue of gentle undulations. That looked so much easier! Why didn’t we choose that way?
In fact, on the way back from the top of the mountain, we did choose that way, and, guess what? It was horrible! Walking downhill for hours on loose scree is tiring, and really hard on the knees. You constantly get little pebbles in your shoes, and it’s insanely boring. Why didn’t we take the steeper way down, it would have been faster and at least not been loose gravel the whole time!
Sometimes when I talk to people about their fitness efforts, I get flashbacks to my time on Mt. Fuji. If we think of the process of losing fat, gaining muscle tone, and getting in shape as being the “summit” of your fitness, there are many trails that will get you there. Just like Fuji, some paths are slower, gentler, but take more time. Others are steeper, more intense, but shorter. Some are hard on the knees. Others are hard on the spirit.
Some examples of the different paths available to summit Mt. Fitness.
I’ve seen people get in shape with all kinds of methods. Some people do it with daily walks around the neighborhood, fitness videos, a ballroom dancing hobby, dragon boat racing, or high intensity interval training.
When you start out on a new fitness path, it’s like being in that lively forest at the start of the trail. Everything is fresh and fun. You might get some nice early results as you pick the low hanging fruit of fitness, dropping a little weight and seeing some muscle tone around your body.
But soon you clear the tree line, and the going starts to get tough. If you want to keep making progress, you need to work harder, put in more time, and focus on the complete process; nutrition, sleep, and consistency. Things are pretty bleak, but you trudge on, upwards a little bit each day. This trail sure seems longer than you thought it’d be!
One day you notice, over a ridge, another trail. It looks so much more inviting. It’s got all the things you feel are lacking in your current activity. So you stop climbing and jump over to the other trail. It’s new, it’s fun, and you know this will be the thing that gets you to the top.
But after a few weeks, you’re in the same situation. It’s gotten tedious and difficult. It’s more than you bargained for. But wait, just in the distance, there’s yet another trail. Maybe that’s the path that will work for you. So you jump over again, and “start fresh.”
This story is analogous to the type of person who dives into new fitness pursuits with gusto, keeps at it for a few weeks, but when the novelty has worn off, starts casting around for the next thing. Maybe they start with exercise videos, but want more challenge, so start lifting weights, but find it too intense, so switch over to spin class, but find it tedious to be inside, so start jogging, but feel like they’re getting tight so start doing yoga. Each of these trail switches is marked by a few weeks of down time as the person looks around for the next new thing, and this down time ends up, at the end of the year, a significant amount of lost training days.
You can see that taking this approach to fitness will certainly give you variety, but if we think about the goal as getting in good shape, your path will end up looking something like this.
Instead of reaching the summit, you’re just walking in wide circles around the middle of the mountain, spending a lot of energy, but never getting to the top and feeling a sense of completion. This lack of results eventually wears a person out, and they drop the idea of getting in shape altogether. They end up saying something like:
“I tried everything, but nothing worked.”
No! You tried everything, SO nothing worked!
This is the critical point. Any of the trails will get you to the top, but you’ve got to keep going, past the new, fun part, into 3, 6, and 12 months of consistency. In my experience, it’s only after a full half year of doing something that your body deeply reflects the changes you're making, and a full year before everything settles and becomes a “new you.” But so few people give their fitness effort that kind of breathing room.
This doesn’t mean you have to suffer through an activity that you’re not enjoying anymore. It just means, before you jump trails, think about the pattern of your choices. Will you end up dissatisfied with your new activity in just a few weeks? Do you want to stick with what you’re doing just a bit longer to see if it’s just a temporary blip? Can you find an activity that isn’t so hot and cold for you, which more resembles fitness hygiene that gets done whether you’re excited to do it or not? When you start thinking like this, you’re on the right track.
Despite my griping, the view from the top of Mt. Fuji is one I’ll never forget, and was worth the uphill trudge through the bleak landscape. The feeling of looking in the mirror and seeing yourself lean, strong, and fit is also an unbeatable sensation, one we want everyone to experience, if you can just find a trail and stick with it!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder