Why Your Brain Works Against Healthy Behaviors–[and how to get your butt in gear to make it behave]

You know to expect obstacles to your weight loss and fitness goals. Problem is, we mostly go about overcoming those obstacles in all the wrong ways. Keep reading to find out the best way to overcome obstacles to weight loss and fitness.

This is part four of a 5-part series on The Missing Ingredient in All Weight Loss Programs. We talked in part one about the missing ingredient; your core values.

Part Two explored why healthy habits are so hard to stick to. Part Three focused on linking those health behaviors to your values so you will do them even when you don’t want to.

In Part Four here, we’ll get to those obstacles mentioned at the end of Part Three.

Expect Obstacles To Weight Loss

Obstacles will get in your way on the road to weight loss and fitness. There’s no escaping that.

You’ve already encountered many of them.

For starters, food surrounds us all the time. And so much of it is not healthy.

Plus we don’t move as much, portion sizes are bigger, marketing is shoved down our throats.

Technology, food packaging, and then “food science” took it all to new levels. In 2018, the average woman in the US weighed more than the average man did in the early 1960s. Amazing, but not at all surprising.

While you likely know all of the above, and it is pervasive, the biggest obstacle to permanent weight loss and vibrant heath is your brain.

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Your Brain Works Against Healthy Behaviors

Your mind (your primitive, emotional mind) wants to keep you safe, and part of keeping you safe means taking the familiar, tried and true way.

This the biggest obstacle to change. Not being too tired, or too stubborn, or lacking enough “willpower.”

Not even because you don’t have the right system or diet. You know, the diet that, after you find it will solve all your weight and fitness issues, your procrastination, your sloth, etc.

Yeah, that system.

Also not because you “weren’t born that way.” Nonsense!

Because, barring the ridiculous or fantastical, you can be whoever you want to be.

What would you do if you knew you could not fail to overcome the obstacles to weight loss?

But your brain doesn’t like this kind of stuff.

Too much effort and energy get expended, and the emotional mind’s job is to keep you safe. Safe means the same.

No risks, thank you very much.

Change Is Rarely Easy

You may have been born into a family like mine from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” era.

You’ve tried and tried to do this yourself through sheer willpower, berating yourself, trying something new again and again. Giving up again. And then starting over.

Some things may work for a while, then you fall off the path. That’s your brain. Again. Trying to keep you safe.

And society bombards us with a million conflicting messages.

Buy this, try that, eat this, no that’s bad, something else, olive oil, no olive oil, coconut fat, bran, no grains, moderation.

You feel like your head’s gonna explode.

So you revert to the safe and easy. Going through the motions, not feeling, or even thinking much. Pretty much giving up.

Related post: Healthy Habits Are Hard To Stick To!

You don’t have to live like that. You can be fit, healthy, and strong (and even sexy), and accomplish things you never thought possible!

Change Doesn’t Come Naturally

Change just doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instant cures to cellulite are non-existent.

Effortless ways to melt fat off your body by eating grapefruit spread with avocado and dusted with cayenne are nonsense.

You have to think, plan, imagine, affirm, try, fail, and try again.

ANYTHING worthwhile in life is worth fighting for.

Sprout growing up through concrete showing that change is hard when overcoming obstacles

But not fighting with clenched teeth, trying to muster up just a little more willpower, barely making it to the finish line only to be so exhausted you go right back to your old default ways.

That’s what you’ve been doing all these years! You need and deserve a better way.

Just don’t kid yourself thinking there won’t be obstacles to anything worthwhile.

Don’t Give Up

So you don’t throw in the towel because “it’s hard.” Life is hard. Staying overweight and unhealthy is hard!

Unless you totally numb yourself to the pain and simply go through the motions, it’s damn hard!

Don’t fool yourself; choose your hard.

Choose the side of making new small habits, tying those health behaviors to your values so you have something to hang on to even when you don’t feel like it!

Healthy as fuck book relays obstacles to weight loss

Author and fitness trainer Oonagh Duncan writes in her book Healthy As F*ck, to think of it as searching for happiness.

So for example, ask yourself why you want a bikini body.

Well, you might say because you would feel sexy and proud of yourself.

Why do you want that? Because it would make you happy!

That’s another way to look at what I mean when I encourage you to tie your healthy behaviors to your values.

You have to find what works for you. Maybe being happy with the bikini body makes you feel more self-assured, and that makes you a better parent, partner, worker, or friend to yourself.

Hint: there’s one of those values hidden in the paragraph above…did you catch it?

The Obstacles to Weight Loss

Here are some of the obstacles to weight loss and fitness you may encounter.

Healthy Habits suck book showing obstacles to weight loss

Dana Lee-Baggley, PhD, author of Healthy Habits Suck, calls these things that get in the way of your healthy efforts passengers on the bus.

It’s like having some passengers who are pleasant, and others who are bossy and try to take the driver off her route.

Your obstacle passengers are the thoughts you have that derail you from your efforts. And they come up repeatedly.

For example, if every single time you decide you’re going to have a green smoothie for breakfast you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have time to make it this morning,” that’s one of your “passengers.”

Or, if you default to buying takeout on the way home from work because you forgot to plan your dinners for the week, as you had promised yourself (again).

Examples of thoughts you might default to are…

  • I don’t have enough time
  • I’m so bad at this
  • I’ve failed a zillion times, and I probably will again
  • I’m too tired
  • I deserve it
  • I’ll be better later
  • I’ll just fail again
  • I don’t have it in me

But here’s the thing! Just noticing that you have these thoughts is half…well, at least part of…the battle!

Those may be your default thoughts, but taking the time to kindly observe the thoughts your brain defaults to time and again is the first step to learning how to deal with them.

You may be fine with what I’m going to suggest, or you may resist, like I did (and sometimes still do) but mindfulness is key here. Lest you want to protest, let me assure you I don’t mean meditating.

middle-aged mindful woman contemplating obstacles to getting fit

At least, mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditating (I don’t meditate).

Mindfulness is simply observing your thoughts without judgment.

That’s all! It’s nothing scary or religious, or new age.

The thing with mindfulness is that it takes practice. I know, you want to start losing weight and get fit right now, and who wants to practice paying attention to your thoughts?

But bear with me here. Doing it your way all these years hasn’t gotten you the results you want, so a few weeks of learning to be mindful so you can finally reach your goals isn’t too much to ask. Of yourself…remember, you’re doing this for YOU!

So once you recognize these thoughts–and this will take some time and practice to begin observing–you need tools to help you counter them.

Tools Of The Trade

In truth, there are many ways to overcome your primitive emotional brain so that your wiser mind can be the decision maker.

Brooke Castillo uses what she calls “The Model” as a way to reprogram your negative or unhelpful thoughts.

I wrote about that in a post on how to change your thoughts.

This can be quite a helpful way to break free of the stories you constantly tell yourself. It’s partly based on Byron Katie’s “The Work.”

Other motivational and self-help authors like Tony Robbins, try to help you “awaken the giant within,” or “unleash your inner goddess,” using various stories of courage and bravery or repeated affirmations.

self help books to overcome obstacles

These can work for some people, but for many, myself included, these haven’t helped long term. I have read more than my share of self-help books over the years.

I read them, get ALL excited and decide that this time will be different! It makes SO MUCH SENSE! I’m all fired up, only to come crashing down after a few days because I revert to my old ways. Again.

What Works Best

The only thing that resonates, and more importantly, has actually worked for me, is mindfulness techniques based on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

A few years ago I read a fantastic book by Russ Harris called The Happiness Trap. It changed my life (thought admittedly it still took a while!).

The Happiness Trap is based on ACT (pronounced like the word act). ACT helps you learn to deal with negative feelings like anger, frustration, sadness and guilt.

Those feelings are all normal–everyone has them. In fact, according to Harris, negative thoughts are pretty much our default state.

Yep, you heard that right! And no amount of badgering yourself into “snapping out of it” will change that.

But, you CAN learn techniques to accept them, and commit to acting in ways that align with your values. This is why part 3 of this series stresses that your values are the missing key to losing weight.

They’re also the key to happiness in other areas of your life, such as overcoming fear and reducing stress.

But we’re focusing on fitness and health here, with an emphasis on weight loss.

Fortunately, these techniques align perfectly with health values (and in fact, Harris has also written a book with two other authors called The Weight Escape using these very methods).

What Are The ACT Methods?

I first want to point out that I am not a therapist. I am an interested person who has read and studied countless books on how to change habits or patterns by working on my thoughts.

This is simply what has worked for me, and again, it’s based MOSTLY around the principles of ACT. Not entirely, and probably not strictly.

After all, I’m just a layperson trying to show you what’s worked for me, and most importantly, worked long term.

With that out of the way, let me explain.

Acceptance

The whole concept behind ACT is learning to accept (hence the “A” of ACT) the negative thoughts you have (which remember, make up the bulk of your thoughts), as opposed to trying to get rid of them.

Through techniques of mindfulness, you make a place for these thoughts, acknowledging their presence but relating to them in such a way that they hold far less power over you.

And most importantly, much less influence over your behavior!

When I first read about this concept, I swear I nearly wet my pants.

My thoughts had haunted and limited me my whole life. I tried so hard to get rid of them!

And now someone was telling me I could live with the thoughts and learn a way to limit their influence over my behavior!

Halleluiah, this sounded like finding gold. Which of course meant it was probably bunk or wouldn’t work with me.

How’s that for positive thinking? ๐Ÿ˜‰

Commitment

The “C” part of ACT is commitment. Of course we all believe you need to commit to a new program or habit. But this is a little different (which is one of the reasons it works!).

It’s really committed action, in accordance with your values. Yep there are those values again!

As I’ve written and stressed repeatedly, it’s through commitment to your core values that you can finally reach your fitness (and other) goals.

As Harris states in his book, “A rich and meaningful life is created through taking action. But not just any action. It happens through effective action, guided by and motivated by your values. [Emphasis mine].

“A rich and meaningful life is created through taking action.

Russ Harris

The “committed” part of committed action means you are taking these actions again and again. Even when you fall off the track. You make them habits.

How do you make habits? By doing things again and again, forming new neural pathways in your brain to overlay the old ones that have kept you from realizing your goals.

And this, my friends, is the way–the only way that’s worked for me–to be finally fit, healthy, and happy.

Obstacles Are A Given

While obstacles to weight loss and fitness are a given, just as they are in all human endeavors, truthfully the biggest obstacle is your mind and thoughts.

Yes, we have other issues as well, such as family members, available food and exercise opportunities, time, jobs, and more.

But all of these can be overcome with the right mindset and tools.

And with the always important reminder to tie your behaviors to your core values. That, along with the tools laid out here from ACT will allow you to finally reach your health and fitness goals.

So, stay tuned for Part Five, where I’ll bring this all together and show how you can make this your new reality.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for your inspiring, encouraging words! Recently, I started playing a sport in order to exercise and I realised that discipline is key. Getting up and doing it when you don’t feel like it, really committing to it no matter what, will help you accomplish your fitness goals.