Why People Suck at Getting Healthy and What to Do About It.

WALL-E looking at a puddle

We’re in trouble.

WALL-E knows it too, which is why he looks so sad.

Poor WALL-E ūüôĀ

We are spending more money on fitness quick-fixes, gym memberships, “health food”, personal trainers, and other ‘life improvement’ products than ever before. Thanks to the power of the Internet, we’re hit on a daily basis with “Top 10 healthy foods,” “foods to avoid for optimum health,” “6-pack abs in 15 minutes a day!,”¬†and millions upon million fitness sites extolling expert advice. ¬†Super markets like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even healthy “fast food” places are popping up everywhere that make it incredibly simple to eat healthy foods.

Despite ALL of this, we continue to get bigger, slower, and lazier.

More than 2/3rds of America is overweight, over 33% of us are considered obese, and the numbers continue to grow with each passing year.  At this rate, we could be headed for an actual WALL-E type future within a few decades.

Ruh roh, Shaggy.

I’ve been running Nerd Fitness for over three years now, and I can say without a doubt that the question I get asked above ALL else goes something like this:

“I know what I should do, I just can’t motivate myself to do it. Can you help?”

My answer has always been “I can’t give you motivation, only the tools to use once you FIND your motivation.”

However, I’ve come to a realization over the past few weeks – although I cannot provide you with motivation, there is another way I can help.

Today, you’re gonna learn why most people suck at getting in shape, and how to avoid that trap.

Admiral Akbar would be proud.  

Be More Like Yoda


Personal finance blogger Ramit Sethi (one of my blogging/finance Yodas, whose book completely changed how I looked at finances) talks extensively about the concept of “motivation” and “should” when it comes to self improvement.

Essentially, when you read an article about exercise and fitness and diet, if you say “man I really should do that,” you’ve already lost.

“Should” is a defeatist word.

And here’s why:

You are a smart person.

You know what needs to be done in order to get in shape.

You know that you should eat REAL food and stop eating junk food. You even know that a majority of “healthy” foods out there are crap. You know that your diet is 80% of your success or failure. You know HOW to build a workout, or you at least know that there are free workout¬†resources¬†available through the site. There are even products available through the Nerd Fitness Store that do everything short of holding your hand when getting started with exercise!

On top of all of that, we ALL know that eating better and exercising improves your life in about a MILLION ways, so I won’t even bother listing them. ¬†

And yet, people come to me every day and say “I know I should exercise, and I know I should eat better, but I just don’t have the motivation and don’t know where to find it.”

My goal with Nerd Fitness is to remove every single barrier and excuse you might have to level up your life.  I try to write motivating articles that inspire action and give you the desire to change, but I know their influence can fade as soon as the laptop closes and the Xbox/Netflix/Hulu beckons.

Today’s article is for the people who know they SHOULD change but don’t.

Yoda said it best: 

“Do or do not. ¬†There is no try.”

There is NO “should” either!¬†

It’s time to stop sucking, stop saying should, and start DOING it.

Start here: Every time you say “should,” drop and give me 10 push ups. ¬†I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing. ¬†Trust me, it’ll be funny.

Stop searching for motivation, start building systems

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • “Just one peanut M&M” or “Just one piece of cake” becomes the entire bag/plate.
  • “I skipped yesterday’s workout, why bother today? It’s useless.”
  • “Meh, next month is better for me anyways.”

Most out of shape folks have said at one point or another, “I should get in shape but I __________.” Whatever your excuse may be, we BOTH know that you’re the only person who believes it. ¬†We might tell ourselves that we don’t have time, or that we had a bad day at work, or that we just don’t feel like exercising or eating right for whatever reason.

It’s at this point we start to question our willpower, wondering how to get “motivation” or “inspiration.”

It’s not just a lack of willpower – it’s a lack of proper preparation and systems!

Although we can’t automate our workouts and our diets, we CAN automate our thinking to promote positive habit change.

As Leo will tell you, it takes around 30 days or so for a new habit to form.  By automating our thinking for the first few weeks, we can remove emotion from the equation until we start to see positive change and build momentum.

As we also know from Sir Isaac Newton (All praise his scientific name!), “an object at rest tends to stay at rest,” and “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.”

In our case “somebody who sucks at being in shape will continue to suck being in shape‚Ķ” until he/she becomes somebody who “is good at getting in shape will stay in shape.”

By automating your thinking, you can power through the slow, momentum-less weeks until you hit your stride.  

[side note: I’ve already covered¬†how to NOT suck at setting goals, so I’ll assume you already have that squared away. ¬†Today’s focus is on actually accomplishing those goals.]

Fix your diet

Banana boat rescuing a lego man

Your diet is 80-90% of your success when it comes to getting healthy and looking better.

Seriously, it’s that important. ¬†

We know from the Rules of the Rebellion that you can’t outrun your fork, and you can’t out train a poor diet.

And yet, we’ve all said at one point in our lives, “I should start eating better” while polishing off a bag of Doritos/popcorn/Skittles.


“I should (eat better)(eat less)(clean up my diet)” is a useless phrase that will result in no positive action.¬† So stop saying SHOULD.

Instead, put systems and practices in place that remove any thought or action from your decision-process until you’ve heard “hey, have you lost weight?” and “you look great.” ¬†Once momentum is on your side, nothing can stop you.

If you are reading this right now and thinking “I should start eating better tomorrow,” I will slap you in the mouth. ¬† ¬†

Not tomorrow.  Not tonight.  Now.  I can see that donut in your mouth, you know.


Build a system that removes emotion from the equation.  

Create a yes/no list

Darth vader eating a turkey leg

Create a list of foods right now that you have zero self control over and or foods that you know are bad for you.

If you know those foods are derailing your efforts, then remove temptation and emotion from the equation by making a rule that YOU CANNOT EAT THEM.  

Part of the reason the Paleo Diet is so successful for so many people is that it removes ALL of the guesswork! ¬†“No, I can’t eat that because it’s not paleo” makes everything incredibly simple! ¬†¬†People on the paleo diet know they can eat meat, fish, fowl, veggies, fruits, and nuts. That’s it. If it doesn’t fit into one of those categories, then they can’t eat it.

It’s no longer a question of willpower, it’s just what you are doing.

If you want to start eating better and you know certain foods are bad for you, build a list that says what you can and can’t eat. If you’re a person that struggles with self control when it comes to unhealthy food (and we all are, to an extent), then “just one” doesn’t work.

“But Steve, people will give me funny looks for not eating birthday cake at the office, and¬†I’ll get made fun for not eating the bun on my burger and replacing french fries with a salad.” A strong majority of this country is overweight, out of shape, in debt, and unhappy‚Ķdo you really care what they think about you? ¬†Do what you need to do to only eat the foods on your approved list. ¬†Staci told everyone at her office that she developed a food allergy to avoid all of the unhealthy temptations at work. ¬†While lying sucks, they never asked again, and it made it super easy to bring in whatever she wanted without getting weird looks.

“But Steve, I eat out all the time, mostly at American style places with big portions. How am I supposed to eat healthy there?” ¬† As soon as your food comes to you, set aside 1/2 or 1/3rd of it as “not touchable.” Ask for a to-go box right away and put that portion in there. ¬†Don’t feel like taking it home but know you’ll nibble at it? ¬†Dump a pound of salt on it after you’re done

“But Steve, people will think I’m weird!” EMBRACE THE WEIRD. Fitting in with everybody else got you where you are now. Maybe doing things that others think is weird is precisely what you need to get back on the right path.

“No thank you” is a freaking powerful combination of words – learn to use them.

Clean house

Lego men eating bread

Now that you have your list of “yes” and “no” foods, it’s time to remove temptation from the equation. ¬†

I know that if I’m in the same room as Goldfish crackers or Sourpatch Kids, I will not be able to focus on anything else until I have eaten every single one of them, so I make sure I’m not within a 500 foot radius of them. If you’re at your office and you can’t have just one peanut M&M, stop walking by the desk of the person who has a jumbo jar on their desk for the next two weeks! ¬†It doesn’t make you a bad person or weak if you can’t have just one; it makes you smart to avoid them.

“Just one” is no longer an option.

The same goes for unhealthy food that you can’t help but snack on in between healthy meals. ¬†So, go home today and throw out every single piece of unhealthy food from your house. If you can’t be in the same room as ice cream without eating an entire tub of it, DON’T be in the same room with ice cream!

I can already hear your excuses. ¬†Seriously, my hearing is that good. ¬†All the way from Ecuador. ¬†What’s up.

“But Steve, I already paid for it, I need to eat it.” At this point, it’s a sunk cost. ¬†Eating it because you already paid for it just compounds the unhealthy problem‚Ķif you’re truly serious about turning your life around, the few bucks you spent on this junk food is a small price to pay. Throw it away, give it to neighbors, donate it to a food shelter, whatever you need to do. ¬†Get rid of it, and maybe only go out ONCE this week, or bring your lunch in twice to make up for the extra money spent.

“But Steve, I can’t afford healthy food.” Really? Or is it just easier to say “I can’t afford it” than it would be calculate how much money is wasted on soda, chips, candy, coffee, drive-through meals, vending machine stops, etc. each week? HMMMMM!? ¬†Yes you can!

“But Steve, my family still eats these things, I can’t just throw them out.” Have you had a talk with your family about the NEW YOU yet? Have you proposed trying to get the whole family eating better yet? Maybe your family will be eating differently than you…work with them and have them help keep you accountable.

“But Steve, my roommates still eat these things!” Ask them to keep these foods in their rooms or in a cabinet that’s not yours. Create a rule that says “I will not eat anything that I did not pay for.”

Don’t leave exercise up to your brain

Exercising lego men

We nerds are smart, but we’re also quite imaginative – which means there’s no limit to the number of excuses we can create to justify not working out “just today.”¬†

First are foremost, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Yes, you do have time to work out.

Anybody who says they cannot find 30-45 minutes a day is full of crap. ¬†Your workout might have to be early in the morning, in the afternoon, during your lunch break, or at night after the kids have gone to bed, but I guarantee if you do a TRUE evaluation of where you’re spending your time, you can find 30-45 minutes.

That might mean one less episode of _______ each night on Netflix. Or, it might mean during every comercial break you have to do five pushup, three pullups, and ten squats.

Even if it’s spread out during the day, it is better than nothing!

Okay, so we know you HAVE time, but it’s still tough for you to get yourself off your butt and into workout mode, right?

Which means we need to remove the “yes/no” option from your brain. ¬†Instead of focusing on the misery of the workout until you start to see progress, put your focus on building good habits, not accepting ANY excuse, and just doing it. ¬†It’s what Joe did – 10 months and 128 pounds later, he’s a completely different person.

These are my suggestions:

Start small – Commit to five minutes of exercise a day. Five minutes of push ups, pull ups, and/or squats. That’s it! No matter what happens, every day, you need to do 5 minutes of exercise. You’ll quickly learn that getting started is the hardest part – once you finish your five minutes it’ll be easy to keep going.

Work out in the morning. ¬†Sleep with your running shoes next to your bed, and in your workout clothes. ¬†When you wake up, there is NO thought involved. ¬†You are going for a run/yoga/to the gym and that’s that. ¬†If you wait until the afternoon, life is bound to get in the way and excuses are easier to sink in.

Flip it. This is a trick I learned from Leo as well.  Right now, the pain associated with working out and the benefit of sitting on your couch is what keeps you sedentary.  Make a mental shift: focus on how GOOD a workout can make you feel, and how painful SKIPPING a workout can be.

“How can skipping a workout be painful?”¬† you’re wondering…¬†

Have an accountability system. ¬†Tell your friends that you are going to get in shape, start a blog and publicly declare your intentions. ¬†Send one of your friends $200 on PayPal. Every time you work out and check in with them, they will send you $10 back. Every time you skip a workout, he gets $10. Do you really want to fund your friend’s drinking money for the weekend? Do you want to see the smug “I told you so” look on his face a month from now when you’ve given up? ¬†Hell no!

My friend Saint said he would pay his friends $500 if he didn’t get to a certain body fat percentage by June. After two years of struggle and lack of results, Saint‚Ķfaced with the prospect of giving up $500 he didn’t have‚Ķ.realized that NOT working out was going to cost him a lot more than working out‚Ķ.so he sucked it up, started training with conviction, and¬†hit his goals weeks ahead of schedule. ¬†Now he’s a new man, in search of another dragon to slay.

Make it impossible to bail.  Sign up for a class with your friends and make sure they keep you accountable.  Sign up for personal trainer sessions and pay for them in advance.  Even if you have to scam and trick yourself into working out, get your butt off the couch and doing something productive.

Adjust your targets – “I want to lose weight” is useless…but “I want to lose 50 lbs” can be equally crushing. The scale lies, and it’s easy to freak out if the scale doesn’t change or (gasp!) moves in the wrong direction for a day or two. Rather than dealing with numbers that don’t tell the whole story, put your focus on healthy habit building then you will build momentum.

    • I will work out 3 times a week and walk 3 times a week.”
    • I will eat only foods on the YES list for every meal except two, every week.
    • I will check in at the gym 3 times a week on four square. For every missed check in, I will donate $20 to a local charity.

Bring it all together, you will

To recap:

  • Stop saying should. ¬†Penalize yourself with push ups every time you do.
  • Create rules for yourself about what you can eat and what you can’t eat.¬† Follow these rules without exception, and remove emotion from the equation.
  • Get rid of the foods that are holding you back. ¬†It’s really tough to eat something if it’s not in your cabinet.
  • Build in fail-safes and accountability systems that make it impossible to skip a workout. ¬†Make it suck more to skip than to not skip.

The first few weeks of getting in shape can be incredibly difficult.  By planning and building in proper systems to avoid the pitfalls that trip everybody up, you can power through the slow-roll stage until your momentum and positive behavior start to snowball into an avalanche of awesome.

Yes, you heard me. An avalanche of awesome. ¬†Feel free to use it wherever ūüôā

If you remember getting through the tough first few weeks, how did YOU succeed? What were your systems?

Help out your fellow rebels!

If you are stuck in the “I know what I should do, but I can’t do it” phase, what are you going to do RIGHT NOW to get started?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!



photo sources РWALL-E, X-Tyler , Schtumple, Robbie_V, icedsoul photography,  nettsu, lucidtech, e.r.w.i.n. 

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