Last year I had two clients, a couple, that hired me to help them change their nutrition habits and hopefully lose some fat. They actually had ambitious goals (sub-10% body fat for a gentleman who could have voted for Hubert Humphrey is pretty ambitious), and I agreed to work with them. The reason why I was so confident they could meet their goals was that after meeting them, I could tell they had a great attitude. Of course, when I tell most people that attitude is important, I am pretty sure they get an image of a fire-breathing, 6AM client who is ready to deadlift until their spine bleeds in order to meet any fitness goal. That was certainly who I thought I wanted as clients when I first started coaching, but after a few years I realized that those clients showed up and breathed fire all over the gym for a few weeks, then never came back (maybe it was those bleeding spines…). This couple, however, said the magic words that I know will lead to successful working relationship: “we don’t want this to be a part time job.” There is a psychic cost to breathing fire; eventually you get burnt out. One of the biggest myths in the fitness industry is that you need to “work hard” to meet your fitness goals. Well, you will probably be uncomfortable, but not in the way that most people think. When most people think of “working hard,” they think they need to sweat and bleed and cry and suffer and starve and sweat some more. There might be a little bit of that every now and then (a very little bit), but most people’s fitness goals do not require intensity. They require consistency. And doing what it takes to be consistent might mean putting yourself in some uncomfortable positions, but nothing that hurts can be done consistently for very long.

Dan John once told me that the difference between an athlete and an amateur is knowing the difference between “discomfort,” “hurt,” and “injured.” I think the problem here is that we conflate, “you’re going to be uncomfortable” with “you’re going to suffer” and “it’s going to hurt.” I can tell you that you’re going to be uncomfortable, but if it “hurts” we’re going to stop and reassess. And when you tell me that you’re willing to work hard, I’m going to ask, “but how long can you endure not working hard?”

You’re going to be uncomfortable because I’m going to ask you questions that are going to make you a little uncomfortable. Like how much, what, when and why you eat the way that you eat. And I’m going to ask you to do things that might make you uncomfortable. Like asking your friends and workout partners for help keeping you focused. It doesn’t surprise me anymore when someone who does snatches until they have no more skin left on their hands will tell me they’re willing to workout harder, but balks at the idea of telling their coworkers that they don’t want to go out to happy hour every night. Change takes change; and some changes require no work but cause a lot of discomfort.

The sequence of a habit is context cue, automatic action, reward. Learning habits means putting in the reps in the context you want to do them automatically, then rewarding yourself. And you just have to do it enough times that it becomes automatic. Doing the reps harder doesn’t make you learn the habit sooner; it just means you’re going to suffer. If you’re suffering and don’t reward yourself for learning the new habit, you’re never going to learn how to do that habit automatically. So you not only have to make the habit easy, you have to make it pleasant; you might even have to make it fun. And last time I tried it, I found that banging my head against the wall was not actually fun.

Twelve weeks after I met them, my two clients got another body fat analysis and made their outcome goals. He was under 10% and she was under 20% BF. I congratulated them on all their hard work and they both laughed. “Hard? That was the easiest thing we’ve ever done!” Change doesn’t happen because we work hard at it. It happens when we ask ourselves hard questions, gain awareness of our underlying behaviors and environment, reward ourselves for the steps we’ve taken, and forgive ourselves for those that we have not. You might be uncomfortable from time-to-time, but you should never suffer, and you should never be hurt.