Some thoughts on exercise and willpower…

At the beginning of September, 2014, I hit a crossroads.  I was 105kg, unfit as hell, and worsening.  I decided that I wasn’t going to keep going down that route.  I had to improve my fitness and drop the weight – for myself and for my family.  A lifestyle change and a bunch of remedial work was required to fix up decades of sloth.

I’m not there yet.  But as of last week, I hit two of my major milestones I was aiming towards.  I ran 5km in one go without stopping, and I’ve lost a total of 20kgs of weight.

So, I thought I’d share some of my observations about willpower retention and how it relates to improving fitness.  This has been my experience – yours may be different.

Firstly, some dot points.  We’ll discuss these in more detail later.

  • There is no magic bullet.  Improving your fitness and losing weight is a simple equation – your calories in must be less than your calories out.  Fitness is improved by exercising.
  • You have limited willpower and decision-making reserves (link).  Every time you brute-force through something, or do something that causes you to make a decision, you are expending a limited resource you have, and weakening your resolve to continuing.
  • Meeting and reaching objectives provides motivation and replenishes willpower.  By setting yourself reachable objectives, you can measure improvement, which helps toughen your resolve.
  • Know when to stop pushing the envelope.  Over-exercise injuries can set you back significantly and greatly harm your resolve.  Aim for a fixed improvement value, and meet it.
  • Undereating is just as bad as overexercising.  Having too large a caloric deficit saps endurance, harms fitness, and drains willpower and resolve.
  • And lastly, your resolve is your most powerful tool.  Resolve will keep you going when you encounter setbacks and difficulties.  You should therefore keep it well-honed, and use it for the right tasks so it’s there when you really need it.



Willpower Capacity

It turns out that people have limited reserves of willpower (ego depletion and decision fatigue).  Expending willpower on even completely unrelated tasks impacts your ability for self-control and self-discipline later on.

As a result, if you know that you are going to need willpower reserves later in the day for a particular task, try and cut down the number of willpower-sapping decisions you need to make throughout the day.  Even things like picking out what clothes to wear, what lunch to pack, what to have for breakfast and so-on will sap your willpower for later.

Keep your willpower reserves full for the important stuff.

There’s a hard truth about exercise that I’m going to lay down now.  It never gets easier.  But, and this is important, with time you will go further, faster, be stronger, and recover quicker.  If it’s getting easier you’re not improving.  You’ll need that willpower to keep pushing that envelope.

Meeting Objectives

You’ve already presumably got a long-term objective.  But that’s a long way off, and (in my case) a 20km ride to work looks like a long way away when you can barely make it down the street without seeing stars.  Focusing only on long-term objectives destroys resolve.

Instead, select short-term objectives that you can meet, and focus on improving upon them.  Taking a leaf from Project Management is SMART.  We’ll take the letters as being;

  • Specific & Measurable.  Objectives should be specific – eg, run 1km at a pace better than 6:00/km.  Metrics are great to collect, they provide fixed yardsticks that you can measure your improvement against.  Not just ‘I feel better’, but specifics such as ‘I ran 1.1km today, last week I ran 1.0km, so I have met my 10% improvement goal!’
  • Achievable & Realistic.  Objectives should be meetable, and within safe bounds.  Most professionals recommend about a 10%/week improvement.  Therefore, don’t run 1km and declare you’re going to do 5km the next week – that’s an unachievable, unrealistic objective and you’re setting yourself up for failure and injury.  Pick objectives that exceed your current metrics by about 10%, and meet them.
  • Short-Term.  Objectives should be meetable in the short term – so not things like “lose 20kg by next year”.  Matter of fact, I’ll touch on what I think about using weight as metric at all in a minute.  Instead, something better like “improve running distance by 500 meters next week”.

Selecting goals that push you within safe boundaries and are achievable are important.  I’m a big fan of collecting metrics (speed, heart rate, pace, distance), since they provide measurable data to see your improvement.  And seeing improvements provides motivation.

Notice how I didn’t mention weight in those metrics?  There’s a good reason for that.  I’m not convinced that focusing on weight is a valid metric at all – it encourages shortcut-taking (ie, starving yourself), and weight in particular tends to swing around by a fairly large amount when you’re getting your diet under control, which leads to loss of confidence.  Weight loss will happen if you boost fitness and manage caloric intake/expenditure, but I consider it more a consequence of other factors that I do have control over, rather than something that I should be directly measuring performance against.

Another point comes from the Seinfeld Productivity Method (link).  The concept here is simple – don’t break the chain.  Establish a routine of some variety (build in a little flexibility), such as run twice a week, ride twice a week.  Stick to it, no matter what.  Don’t break the chain.  It doesn’t matter if you do your full run or ride each time.  It doesn’t matter if you have to vary the day you do it on.  Just stick to it.  Habits are built from repetition, and maintaining that chain provides a precedent for keeping it up even in the face of difficulties.

I’m also a big believer in not setting goals against other people.  You are not in control of another person’s achievements, and you are not them.  Doing so is either setting yourself up for hubris (you picked someone who you can achieve more than), or for disappointment (you picked someone who can achieve more than you).  Instead, set your goals against yourself.  Aim for improving you, not beating them.

Don’t push it too hard

When starting an exercise program, you tend to be full of willpower, but short on conditioning and fitness.  Therefore, it’s very easy to push yourself way too hard – resulting in injury or loss of resolve.

Most experts seem to indicate that an improvement rate of about 10% per week is safe and achievable.  So, my technique is simple.

  1. Set an objective that is 10% higher than the previous week.
  2. On the first session in the new week, reach that objective.
  3. If you feel fine upon reaching that objective, pass it by another 10%.  But, if during this extension you feel ANY discomfort or issues, stop immediately.  Don’t risk injury in an extension effort.
  4. If you pass that objective by the extension 10%, stop.
  5. On subsequent sessions in that week, aim to just meet what you did earlier in the week.  Do not try and exceed your earlier efforts.

The advantages I find in this technique is that you can still extend yourself, but you reduce your chance of hurting yourself by overextending.  And when you get to the following week, you can tell yourself that you met last week’s objectives at least twice, and so it wasn’t a fluke.  You can repeat that, and beat it again.

However, knowing just where you should set that benchmark to start off with is hard.  Look, here’s the thing.  It doesn’t matter if you start at walking 100 meters a few times a week.  Those 10% (20% with extension) improvements add up pretty fast.  What matters is that you set a starting point that extends yourself a little but doesn’t hurt you.

Don’t pick a starting point that makes you faint, see stars, or have chest pains.  You want a starting point before that level of effort.  Work up sensibly, and avoid injuries.

Caloric Intake vs. Expenditure

In spite of what weight loss business will try and tell you, weight loss is a pretty simple equation.  Your calorie expenditure needs to exceed your calorie intake.

But, there’s some important technicalities.  Trivially, your body’s mass is made up of fixed mass (organs, bones) and variable mass (water, muscle, fat).  Ideally, you want to be burning away fat but retaining muscle, fixed mass, and retaining the correct amount of water for the remaining mass.

When you run at a caloric deficit, your body has to derive its energy requirements from somewhere.  It doesn’t all come from fat – some muscle is burned as well.  In the case of extreme caloric deficits, you can actually lose significant amounts of muscle while also shedding fat. This is usually considered a bad thing.

There’s also other detrimental effects.  Running at a severe caloric deficit can cause lethargy and the hunger effects can sap willpower and resolve and lead to binging.

So, you want to run at a deficit, but not too severely.  Several guidelines I’ve come across indicate about 20% is safe.

Note that there’s a little catch here.  You can eat more if you exercise more, and indeed you should eat more.  By the same token, if you’re not exercising at all your caloric demands will be very low, and therefore your intake should be low too.

This is why a lot of diets fail – many diets are tuned assuming that the dieter will not be stepping up their caloric expenditure and so may be 1200 calories a day or something (my rough BMR is about 1900 kcal/day).  A 1200 calorie intake with a 1900 BMR would be somewhat OK although on the high end (0.7kg weight loss a week), if you did nothing except sit all day.  If you went onto that diet and also threw in two 1600 calorie rides and two 500 calorie runs per week, your total intake would be 8400 cal/week with an expenditure of 17500 calories.  This is a deficit of over 50%.  That’s likely not going to be sustainable in the long term.

It’s little wonder that many diets fail in the end – starving yourself doesn’t do you any good at all.

Maintaining your Resolve

So, the running thread throughout this whole lengthy post has been about maintaining your willpower, and keeping your resolve through measuring your efforts, noting improvements, and ensuring you’re doing things in a safe, sustainable fashion.  Measure your progress against you, not against others.  Improve yourself.

Building up a base of previous efforts, and gradually exceeding them gives you the grounding to be able to say to yourself “I can do this“.

Your starting point doesn’t matter.  For that matter, the final goal you’ve set for yourself doesn’t matter either.  What matters is the improvement.

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