Getting to the root of fitness issues: are we doing it right?

It’s a sad business, the way we treat fitness. We well-meaning enthusiasts chide those who’d rather stay on the couch, and tell them they’d be so much better off if they just go for a run. We’ve been taken in by “no pain, no gain” philosophy. We believe that it’s a matter of willpower, because hey, going out for a run is pretty tough.

And we did it ourselves.

But have we really thought about why someone else may still be sitting on that couch?

Let me present you with a possibility, best explained with a metaphor. Suppose that you go free climbing with a friend that’s much better than you. You get to the first pitch and just by eye-balling it, you know you can’t do it—or at least that you’d be much better off in a harness.

I submit to you that a very similar calculation is going on in the head of that person we’ve so dismissively labeled as lazy: faced with the prospect of a two-mile run—that’s just 15 minutes of running!—their brain analyzes their body’s motor and endurance capabilities, but has no words or protracted arguments to explain this calculation. So it acts in the only way it can, in the same way your brain acted faced with that rock wall: it speaks to their subconscious.

And how does this manifest? Your friend the couch potato becomes daunted, queasy, unsure, and discouraged.

This happened for a reason. Professor Tim Noakes, who I believe is a proponent of a solid 30% of today’s sensible nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise prescription ideas, proposed the central governor theory. The central governor is a predictive mechanism in the brain that analyzes the body’s athletic capabilities with regards to the expected performance requirements of the athletic event, in order to produce an optimum output—one which ensures that the event is completed, that the best performance is produced, and that the body is in a condition to perform again.

Your friend’s brain did this very calculation, and gave their subconscious the thumbs-down.

Guilt-tripping them into your chosen activity is doing them a disservice. Through sheer luck they might not get injured, and through even better luck they don’t completely hate running afterwards. But in terms of their health and bodily integrity, you effectively cornered them into rolling the dice.

So what? What now? We’re supposed to just let them sit on the couch for the rest of their life?

No. Absolutely not. Everyone should have a peer or mentor to pull them out of their comfort zone and propel them towards excellence in areas of life they couldn’t have believed possible. Just not that way.

The mentor or coach has to be wiser. They have to be willing to ask the question: Why?

They have to be willing to ask it again and again and again.

This reminds me of that show by Louis C.K., when he describes how his daughter just bombards him with questions that quickly veer towards the existential, until he explodes in frustration. Well, all respect to Mr. C.K.’s reaction, I believe that at the end of that long and agonizing chain of “why’s” is the answer to why someone is still on the couch while you and I have long since gotten up.

And here’s a clue: it wasn’t laziness. When you refuse to stop there, and ask “why” yet again, you’ll find an answer, if you look really hard. And if you’d looked really hard at your friend, you might have seen a frozen right gluteus medius, or a pair of shortened psoas that turns their hips into an unmoving mass of muscle instead of the well-oiled differential you were expecting.

Unfreeze that right gluteus medius. Help them lengthen those psoas. You might just see that their inexplicable reticence vanishes overnight.

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