Have you ever wondered why you aren’t succeeding despite “knowing” what to do? Despite reading a nutrition textbook, following a variety of diets, watching your fair share of food documentaries, or subconsciously knowing you should eat more veggies, you still aren’t lean yet. The problem might not be how much you know… it might be what’s around you.
When it comes to making change, we hear a lot about the importance of “mindset”. How you look at the world can shape the way you approach problems and view your experiences. And this happens both consciously and unconsciously. Notice that last part—Many of our assumptions and worldviews are unconscious. We aren’t aware of them, even as we’re thinking them.
A perfect example of this is “zoning out” while driving. After 20 minutes, you realize you’re 10 miles down the road, and not sure how you got there. You must have been paying attention on one level, or you’d have got in an accident. And yet, most of your mind was elsewhere. Your unconscious brain was handling the job of driving while your conscious brain was focused on getting your errands done, what happened to you at work that day, that funny video that you saw on IG, what you are going to make for dinner, or whatever else you think about.
The way I approach fitness and nutrition is very similar. There are always ideas and thoughts that we’re aware of, and always ideas and thoughts that we’re not. We can dive down into our brains to scoop out our unconscious and subconscious thoughts and bring them to the surface, but, although essential, self-analysis takes a lot of time and effort. From my experience, it has taken me many months and years to untangle all of my thoughts and assumptions about health, food, and fitness.
But the big problem is still there: you want to start getting in shape NOW! So, what can you do in the meantime while you're digging around in your brain?
Change your environment.
How do we change our environment?
You can immediately change what’s around you including things like:
Your daily routine
What tools and services you have available to you
The people you interact with
The places you spend your time
What foods you have near you (or far away from you)
Having trouble making it to the gym? Get home equipment or hire a coach.
Can’t seem to kick the nighttime cookie routine? Don’t keep cookies in the house.
Having trouble getting enough whole fruits and veggies? Buy pre-cut fruits and veggies at the grocery store and keep them front n' center in your fridge and on the countertops.
Binging trail mix and Chewy bars at work? Buy pre-cut fruits and veggies, hummus, protein powder, and Greek yogurt and store it in your work fridge.
Surfing the internet keeping you up too late at night? Get rid of the internet at home.
Friends always taking you out for happy hour (or two, or three)? Talk to them about your goals. Have an open conversation about how you want them to support you. Explore other options and locations for socializing. And look for opportunities to develop new friends, too.
Struggle with overeating and controlling portions of certain foods? Most of us will eat all that we are served — no matter how big the portion is. If we are served a small bag of popcorn, we’ll eat that. If we are served a bucket of popcorn, we’ll eat that. Use smaller plates, bowls, and/or buy the smaller 'snack-sized' packaged goods.
Often times we convince ourselves that what we know (veggies are good) and what we plan for (our exercise and nutrition plan) will allow us to coast through any health and fitness obstacles that get in our way. But, (gentle) reality bomb...
Knowledge and planning don’t always translate into behavior changes.
Your environment is your foundation
If you think of body composition change as a pyramid, here’s what the pyramid should look like.
I use this helpful pyramid from Precision Nutrition that, more times than not, helps to produce lightbulb moments with my clients.
Notice that all the “expert” stuff — adjusting macronutrients, advanced nutrition strategies, advanced fitness programs, specific calorie ranges, etc. — is at the top. These are the smallest component, and the lasts aspects of focus in your health development. Sadly, these advanced strategies are usually the first things that people try to tackle—and the first thing the health and fitness industry pushes us to focus on.
Notice that the base of the pyramid is what surrounds you: your social environment, your friends, your kitchen, your grocery habits, your day-to-day routine.
Changing your thinking eventually is essential. But in the meantime, it is much easier to change your environment than it is to change your mind.
Strategies for Success
Many times our environments create the “norm.” As I mentioned in the previous examples, you need to set yourself up for success so it does all the hard work for you.
Here are some ideas:
Use smaller plates and cups. We’re often used to just filling the dish and eating till the food is done.
Make the kitchen a place where you want to spend time. Ensure it is clutter-free, smells good, and has some natural light. Put a Bluetooth speaker near your stove so you can jam out or listen to your favorite podcast while cooking—make cooking more enjoyable for you.
If there’s a food you don’t want to eat, get it away from you. Don’t keep it in the house and make it hard to get.
Conversely, if there’s a food you should be eating, make it easier to get.
Sign up for a CSA box so that fresh, healthy produce and/or organic meat is delivered to you.
Have fresh, healthy whole foods on hand and prepared. If necessary, buy pre-cut veggies and whole fruit or pre-made and package veggie medlies for stir-fry or fajitas.
If you have more money than time, consider signing up for a healthy meal delivery service or membership-based grocery service like Thrive Market.
Put the TV in an inconvenient place or make the seating in front of it uncomfortable. Cut your cable package down so you don’t have 200 channels of junk. Or better yet, get rid of the thing altogether and just stream your favorite shows.
Park your car farther away from where you’re going so you have to walk. Or get a bike.
Join a social group organized around activity: a class, club, or meetup group (hiking tours, run club, or group workouts).
Find a workout buddy. Surround yourself with people who are also working on their health, fitness, and nutrition.
Organize your social events around activity — get a bunch of friends together in the park for some Ultimate Frisbee or cornhole!
Get a dog that needs walking — one that will chew up your couch as punishment if you don’t take it for a daily visit to the dog park.
These tips all share two common features:
They make problem behaviors inconvenient.
They make healthy behaviors convenient.
Bottom Line: When it comes to the battle between knowledge and environment, environment will always win.