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For the majority of my early adulthood, I was entirely consumed with how to change my body.
When I needed to make a decision relating to food, training, the gadgets I was going to buy, or the next book I was going to read, my thoughts were consumed with how to optimize the decision in order to change my appearance or performance abilities.
In between these decision-making times, I was usually researching and planning what I needed to do the next time I was presented with one of these decisions.
I’m sure you can guess, I had quite the social life.
With years of this kind of behavior under my belt, I’ve successfully made just about every mistake you could possibly make when trying to change your body.
Going through so many of these mistakes not only taught me about what not to do, it also helped me explore why I was willing to put so much time and effort into changing my body. As previously revealed in Why I Don’t Want Six-Pack Abs, understanding the why helped me realize the road I was on led to none of the changes I truly desired.
Before we get begin our special fireside chat, please note: If you choose to engage with certain behaviors I reference as “mistakes” for me, that is OK. We are different people, and I acknowledge that certain actions are not inherently “bad” or “wrong” for everyone at all times.
However, if you’re looking to make changes mistake-free, you’re pretty well set up if you start by not doing everything I did.
8 Mistakes I Made When Trying to Change My Body
1. Didn’t Eat Enough Food
After gaining some unwanted pounds as a teenager, I decided to reduce the amount of food I was eating. Unfortunately, instead of continuing to support my body with food, I took the standard conventional advice of eating a set number of calories for “weight loss” each day. Overtime, I lost the ability to eat intuitively, and instead, treated my body’s desires as something to be controlled through willpower and manipulation.
Because I was eating less food than my body needed, I eventually developed deficiencies in many key nutrients, and began struggling with adrenal dysfunction. I also lost my period, and my metabolism continued to downregulate to adapt to my lower energy intake, which required me to continually eat less food to see results. Any attempt to “unrestrict” my food intake resulted in my body immediately storing it as fat because it was under stress, and wanted to keep me alive.
What to do instead: Making changes to the food you eat is an incredibly effective way to improve the function and health of your body. Focus on consuming quality, nutrient-dense foods that work well for your body, which will help you naturally adjust the quantity you eat to what your body needs. Recognize that your food intake will vary each day, both in amount and composition. Avoid labeling foods with adjectives such as “bad” or “fattening,” which will give the power and control to that food, and will very likely lead to overeating or a binge.
2. Avoided Dietary Fat
In hopes of improving body composition, I put my trust in books, products, and internet experts who claimed to know all the secrets. In doing so, I disregarded the trust I once had in my own body, and allowed food “rules” to control my choices.
The most pervasive one, of course – was to avoid dietary fat because it had more energy than other organic compounds such as protein and carbohydrates. Instead of focusing on food quality, I loaded up on fat-free cream cheese and “no calorie” butter spray – not realizing that these foods were nutrient and energy void, and left me without any true feeling of satiation. Removing this important macronutrient from my diet eventually lead to deficiencies in fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, and resulted in hormonal imbalances and a weakened immune system.
What to do instead: While previously demonized in our modern society, for well over a decade, science has shown that fat intake has absolutely no correlation to long-term body fatness or heart disease. Stocking up on whole, nutrient-packed sources of fats like nuts and seeds, avocado, grass-fed beef, salmon, eggs, and yes, all the coconut things, will increase satiation and improve metabolic function. Dietary fat is also a fantastic fuel source, especially when it comes to training and proper recovery. Experiment with adjusting the percentage of calories you consume from fat to find what works best for you and your energy levels.
3. Prioritized Cardio
Initially, like many people, I started working out to lose weight. I defined fitness as going to the gym to “burn” calories instead of seeing it as an opportunity to enjoy movement, challenge myself, and improve the functioning of my body. As a result, I spent most of my time on cardio equipment, and only engaged with activities I thought allowed me to burn energy for an extended period of time.
Overtime, as my body adapted to the stimulus, I had to increase the amount of time I spent doing cardio to see results. I feared what would happen if I missed a day, and eventually struggled with high cortisol levels as a result of chronic exposure to long bouts of cardio.
What to do instead: To improve overall health, the best kind of movement is the kind you genuinely enjoy doing. Just like nutrition, taking an individualized approach to fitness will improve your chances of successfully making the changes you want. Experiment with different types of activities to find what works best for you, and try new things to keep your body and mind engaged and challenged.
While cardio activities can be beneficial for the body in appropriate doses, if you’d like to improve metabolic function, body composition, and cardiovascular fitness, and/or you’re limited on time, consider incorporating sprint training into your routine. Despite taking significantly less time and energy to complete, studies show sprint training results in significantly more fat loss in comparison to cardio, and improves insulin sensitivity, heart health, and anaerobic and aerobic work capacity. For additional guidance, check out this article, or try one of the sprint or functional fitness workouts on this site.
4. Focused on “Getting Toned”
Because my main source of education on how to accomplish change was the media at large, I thought “toning” was the best way to get stronger, without of course – getting “bulky.” This meant I did a whole lot of high repetitions with lower resistance.
The idea that you can “tone” or “firm-up” muscles from being “soft” is a pervasive myth that people who market fitness products like to perpetuate. Muscles do not magically become more “toned,” they either grow or shrink in size. What actually would have helped me accomplish the change I desired was lifting heavy things, which would have provided enough stress for my muscles to adapt and grow.
What to do instead: The best way to improve the performance capabilities of your body, and yes – build tight, dense muscle, is to stimulate muscle growth by exposing it to heavy loads. Strength training can be done through a number of different activities, including weight lifting, gymnastics, climbing, or kettlebell training. Experiment with different activities to find what works best for you. If you’re new to strength training and would like some guidance, I highly recommend this program. And if you still think lifting heavy will make you “bulky,” check out this article.
5. Let the Number on the Scale Define My Success
Instead of assessing my energy levels, how my clothes were fitting, or my mental and emotional well-being, I allowed the number on the scale to control how I felt about my body.
Being fixated on the number on the scale diverted my attention away from how I was feeling, both physically and mentally, and gave the power to a number that didn’t actually say anything about my health. Even though I was making progress, I allowed the daily “weighing” on the scale to override any positive feelings I had my body, and as a result – I added unnecessary stress and anxiety to my daily life.
What to do instead: Because the number on the scale doesn’t reveal things like changes in body composition, gut health, hormonal levels, or overall awesomeness, it’s a grossly inadequate way to assess the health of the body. Furthermore, because changes to muscle tissue, food metabolism, and overall hydration can affect weight, having a target number you expect your body to be at can lead to unnecessary obsession, discouragement, and stress. To better assess overall health, make a list of the things that are important to you that will allow you to measure progress and success.
6. Didn’t Allow My Body to Fully Rest and Recover
When I started to see results from the changes I made, I quickly fell into a trap of more is better. If I skipped a workout or wasn’t pushing myself each day, I felt I wasn’t making progress, and I perceived that I was only as good as my last workout.
As a result, I often went against my own intuition and forced myself into doing workouts, which eventually led to adrenal dysfunction, metabolic issues, and a long list of reoccurring injuries. I also started dreading my training each day because I didn’t give myself enough time to recharge, and I allowed my workouts to completely control my schedule.
What to do instead: For progression to occur, proper rest and recovery must be part of the equation. During training, muscle tissue is damaged, and stress is put on the metabolic and cardiovascular system. Growth and adaptation to this stress occurs during rest, and when not sufficient – the body isn’t able to fully recover. Because the appropriate amount of rest for each person can vary, finding what works best for you will take some experimentation. If you’re feeling fatigued, overly sore, or you’re experiencing additional life stress, error on the side of more rest than not.
7. Made Goals for Myself Based on Other People’s Bodies
Instead of looking to my own intuition to figure out what would be best for my body, I made aesthetic and performance goals for myself based on how other people looked and performed. I became so fixated on achieving a specific body shape and performance level that I completely ignored the warning signs that my health was being compromised, and the goals I had made for myself weren’t right for me.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, my goals were centered on the belief that if I achieved a specific body weight or shape, I would become more desirable, attractive, and healthy. I bought into the idea that certain body types were superior to others, and as a result, I began to judge myself and others more harshly.
What to do instead: When making goals for yourself, focus on what is best for you, and give yourself the flexibility to shift your goals based on the feedback your body is giving you. Recognize that health can absolutely be achieved at a variety of body shapes, weights, and sizes, and being overly critical of yourself or others based on appearance is a sign that deeper issues exist.
8. Let Negativity Drive My Actions
Ultimately, I pursued change because I felt like there was something wrong with certain parts of my body. Because I had associated thing about me as undesirable or inferior, I regularly used negative self-talk throughout my day to motivate behavior changes. Eventually, I started classifying actions as “good” or “bad” – and used food and fitness to manipulate my scorecard.
While this might come as a surprise, using negative self-talk didn’t actually lead to health, happiness, or satisfaction with my body – even when I had finally achieved my “target” weight. Instead, being fueled by negativity drove me into a deep dark hole of never good enough, and I ended up doing significant damage to my body that took me years to overcome.
What to do instead: When the desire for change is rooted in negativity, choices that provide short-term solutions are prioritized, and mental, emotional, and physical health can suffer. To start improving negative self-talk, write down positive words or phrases about yourself that you can use to replace negative thoughts when they come to mind. I also recommend removing yourself from situations or people that trigger negative self-talk, and asking for support from people you trust. Check out The Paleo Women Podcast Episode #003 for a more in-depth discussion on self-love strategies.
My Process for Pursing Change
So, what kind of things do I do now when pursuing change? Personally, I no longer have goals of changing my weight or appearance. I still pursue change – but instead of doing so to mold myself into a specific shape, I do so to honor my body, and facilitate a body that is capable, strong, and able to do the things I desire to do in life.
I operate from a place of knowing that I am whole, complete, and worthy, and I no longer feel pressure to pursue things that aren’t right for me. This doesn’t mean I no longer love the way pull-ups develop my upper back muscles, or the way hill sprints shape my glutes, it simply means I realize these visual changes don’t say anything about my mental and physical health, or my value as a human being.
Now, I prioritize eating the foods and doing the movements that I enjoy, and allow me to feel my best. The priority of being harder to kill is a close second, of course. Because that’s definitely important.
What mistakes have you made in the past when trying to change your body?