Imagine you had the world’s best personal assistant.
They accompany you everywhere and attend to anything that you need. Chilly outside? A coat is given to you before you need to say a word. Need to reschedule a meeting? The assistant has already let everyone know and adjusted your calendar. Craving some Thai food for lunch? A hot take-out order is on your desk without you even needing to ask. The personal assistant knows you so well that they can predict your wants and needs, often before you even know them yourself. Sounds like an experience only a billionaire could have, right?
You do have a version of this personal assistant, in the form of your incredible endocrine system. This is the collection of glands throughout your body which squirt out doses of different hormones all day and night.
That warm fuzzy feeling you get watching a video of kittens? It comes from the pituitary gland in your brain secreting the hormone oxytocin, likely an evolutionary response that endeared our small, cute offspring to us. The tense, edgy sensation you get when under pressure to finish a project by the deadline? That’s your adrenal glands, located just on top of your kidneys, pumping adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream to keep you focused and alert.
Like a skilled personal assistant, the endocrine system doesn’t just react, it thinks ahead and anticipates what you need. If you have dinner every day at 6:30 pm, at 6:20 pm your pancreas will start secreting the hormone ghrelin, which will trigger the sensation of hunger. As you serve the meal, your salivary glands will fill the mouth with enzyme rich saliva ready to help deconstruct the food. And as you chew your first bite, a whole brew of hormones will be flooding the gut system in preparation for the digestion task ahead. At each step your hormones have been predicting your next move and preparing the way so that you can efficiently do what you want to do. It’s a powerful and efficient system.
Now let’s add a wrinkle to our personal assistant analogy.
Suppose you’ve decided you need to lose some fat and get fit. You vow to start making better food and exercise choices, and are looking forward to getting a fresh start. The problem is, you’re so used to your personal assistant reading your mind that you didn’t tell them about your plans.
Around midday they bring you your usual Monday snack, a chocolate croissant.
“Oh, ah… I’m trying to lose some weight… so perhaps you could fetch something healthier?”
“My apologies, I’ll get right on that. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the usual croissant?”
Next, it’s time to do some exercise in the afternoon. But your schedule hasn’t been cleared and your gym clothes haven’t been prepared for you.
“I need to do my workout, why hasn’t this been taken care of!?”
“My apologies, it’s just that I’ve never seen you exercise at this time of day. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay at your desk like usual?”
This pattern continues. Your personal assistant is incredibly good at making your life easier, but it turns out they’re really bad at knowing how to change things up when you want to shift your goals and get into a new routine. And each time they mess up and prepare the wrong thing, they ask you that same damned question —
“Wouldn’t you rather do things the way you used to?”
This is the frustrating situation you find yourself in when you want to get in shape after a period of poor food and exercise choices. Your endocrine system is constantly observing your behavior and working to accommodate your needs. If after lunch your habit is to slump back in your office chair and scroll social media for a half hour, believe it or not you’ll have an array of hormones that have learned to support that behavior. When you decide you’re going to get fit and go for a brisk half hour walk instead, you’re going to run straight into a wall of hormones that are mismatched for that activity. You need peppy adrenaline and cortisol, but your system is filled with sleepy dopamine and serotonin. The assistant hasn’t gotten the memo yet.
Most people can override the assistant’s mistakes and go for the walk… for the first few times. The trouble is it takes the endocrine system about 10 days to adapt to a new routine, and even longer to start anticipating your new needs. That means about two weeks of the assistant asking, “Wouldn’t you rather do it the way you used to? The simpler way? The easier way?” A lot of people, tired and exasperated, give in and say “Yes... you’ve talked me into it. Let’s go back to the old way.” When this happens it’s as if the endocrine system smugly says “Yes, I thought so”, and locks in your old hormonal routines stronger than ever.
There are a few things you can take away from this situation.
- If you find it hard to start eating right and exercise, you’re not a lazy or bad person.
There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re simply running into a completely normal and expected problem that comes from having a healthy endocrine system. Be patient and kind with yourself and your body. Your hormone system gets so many things right every single day, and it can get fitness right too if you give it a chance. Guilt, shame, and blame waste energy which is much better spent on making better choices.
When you’re in the first part of a fitness effort and finding it hard to get motivated, you know you’re in the prime zone of endocrine reeducation. Feeling resistance to eating right and exercising means that it’s working. Keep going.
- You can’t think your way into fitness.
It’s easy to change your mind. “I’m out of shape now, and I’ve decided that I don’t like it and would rather be fit.” There you go. You’ve just “decided” to get fit. It was easy. It only took a few seconds in fact! But even though your mind has changed, you have an entire body which hasn’t gotten the memo yet, and will be trailing the mind by several weeks. This drag will pull on the mind, and can convince you to change your pattern back to the old way.
Any effort which stresses intellectual change, positive thinking, or other mind-based interventions is going to run into this problem. At some point the body has to actually do the work. This is the only way the endocrine assistant can get the stimuli it needs to make a change.
In this sense, always opt for a “body first’ plan that gets you making better choices for food and exercise as the first and most important step. Ironically, you can eat right, workout, and the entire time be thinking, “This is dumb, it’ll never work” and it will STILL work!
- It’s especially important to stick with a new routine past the 10 day mark, and through the 30 day mark to truly train the endocrine assistant.
If you falter in the first 10 days you have a whole new issue to work out with your endocrine system. Going forward, you'll have to convince it that you’re not just changing your routine to get in shape, but that the act of changing your routine and then faltering ISN’T PART OF THE PATTERN! Does that make sense? The body can acclimate to anything, including the fact that every once in a while you make a fitness attempt and fail at it. This failure is seen as part of the pattern, and makes getting fitness right even harder.
The less you cheat and falter in the beginning of a fitness effort, the better the overall result will be.
- The endocrine assistant can become your best ally.
The good news is that with time and patience, you’ll get back the amazing personal assistant that you know and love, and it will strongly, deeply work towards your wellness benefit. If you go for a jog every morning for 30 days in a row, you can be sure that on day 31 you’re not going to suddenly feel like laying in bed and skipping all exercise. In fact, you’d find that if you skipped your jog you’d feel something was off all morning, and would be itchy to lace up your shoes and hit the road.
In the same way, if you’ve grown accustomed to a light, fresh fruit snack every midday for four weeks, in the fifth week you’re not going to randomly switch to eating donuts. It just won’t feel right. Your salivary glands and digestive hormones won’t be ready for such a heavy snack, and it becomes unappetizing. No willpower needed.
This is the endocrine system working to your advantage. When not eating well and exercising feels like the wrong, uncomfortable path, you’re locked-in for a long period of sustainable wellness. But you’ve got to work through those frustrating early weeks first.
- You won’t get results without consistency and a plan.
The endocrine system is looking for patterns in the complex context of your daily choices. The more consistent you are, the faster it can find the signal through the noise and snap into a helpful, supportive role.
Doing everything right 5 days a week, then getting everything wrong on the weekends will really confuse your endocrine assistant and prolong the adjustment period.
The best way to make sure you’re consistent is to have a plan. You don’t want to be spending mental energy each day figuring out what to do next. A good plan takes all that off your mind. All you need to do is check the plan and do what’s next. This is how we design programs at Kenzai, and why they work!
In real life, you could fire a personal assistant that wasn’t doing a good job helping you reach your goals. But you and your endocrine assistant have signed an unbreakable contract for life. You’re stuck with it, so why not learn to make the most of the situation and put your assistant to work? It starts with your next food or exercise choice. Make it a good one — the endocrine system is watching and taking notes!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder