#fitspiration #transformation – Do’s and don’ts for body image

First, I would like to state that the purpose of this piece is not to be a scrooge and ‘hate’ on people’s, achievements or positive lifestyle changes. I don’t want to stop people inspiring others or reflecting positively on all the hard work they have put in to achieve a goal. In fact, if the world had more of the above, it might well be a better place.

 

The real purpose of this post, is to help those that wish to tell their positive stories through the medium of ‘fitspiration’, to do so a little more safely. To do so with a little more consideration and in a bit more of a helpful way for those they are looking to inspire.

 

I get it, instagram is a really visual platform. Its great for demonstrating this type of thing. Transformations, inspirational slogans, etc etc.   The problem is, how YOU interpret your body is different from how others do. How OTHERS interpret images of you body, might also not be how you think they do. Body image, and body image development is a multifactorial and complex construct. To think that we have millions of people with no understanding of this sharing, posting and re-sharing images of themselves and others is as unusual as it is worrying. Part of the problem is, that many of those perusing these images will have poor self-esteem and with it, poor body image. Unfortunately they are searching for solutions in a dangerous place.

 

One of the key offenders are post (usually females) that have found the gym - #strongnotskinny #transformation hash tags in abundance. You know, those before and after images, not of people having lost weight, but of underweight people who have developed new musculature. The posts often come with a text below describing how they used to think it was all about being skinny, but now they have new found confidence and self-esteem in their physical ability and changed their lives.

 

Don’t get me wrong, the changes they have made are great. The boosts to the confidence, physicality and self-esteem should be applauded. Really, these changes are SO hard to make and the effort that must have gone in is truly remarkable. But when you are trying to demonstrate its NOT all about the way you look, don’t ruin it and use imagery of your popping abs to demonstrate this. The irony is just too much. To me, all these post suggests is that you have just swapped one body image ideal for another. It's very fashionable to be strong and ripped at the moment. It wasn’t so much the case 20, 30, 40 years ago. Are these people REALLY looking to only motivate, or are they just out looking for likes, shares, or approval?

 

Numerous studies have demonstrated the negative impact that looking at images of others can have on different people. So to layer further irony on this mess, it is actually likely the people you are seeking to inspire you might be doing most damage to.

How to help improve body image

So, what can we do about it? Well, a solid principle for anyone looking to inspire others on instagram about positive lifestyle changes is to DE-EMPHASISE body image. Instead of focusing on the aesthetic, promote the idea of body mastery.

 

What new functions or skills does your body have that it didn’t before? Skills and physical qualities are tangible, predictable, measurable and scalable. Subjective ratings of how what our body looks like in skimpy clothing on filter level 1 trillion are subjective, distortable, inconsistent and changeable. Emphasise the positive qualities, behaviours and skills that will help others on their journey. What lessons of hard work, persistence, creating new habits, learning from mistakes, getting back on track do you have to share? THESE are the things that will help your audience move on to better times. Not stimulating some short term drastic changes boosted only by a degree of self-hatred or dissatisfaction.

 

This has been a difficult post to write, and will likely be largely misinterpreted. So be it. Its out there now.

 

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Excuses can be frustrating. Working in a school, I hear some of the worst excuses out there, normally just before a PE lesson starts.  Excuses, if left unaddressed, can interfere with progress and are an untapped resource in coaching of any kind.

In particular, when it comes to working with people to improve their relationship with food, excuses tell a story.  Eliciting the hidden meaning behind these excuses can be a powerful tool in understanding an individual’s values, beliefs, personality and intentions.

Picture of excuses
What story do your excuses say about you, your values, beliefs and intentions?

3 classics to watch out for are ‘forgetting’ ‘not having time’ and ‘indulgence’. Lets explore these below.

“I just fancied it"

It might not seem like much, but people who feel the need to reward themselves with food might have quite a dichotomous and unhelpful relationship with it. If they treat themselves with food, do they punish themselves with other choices around food too? What does that say about us if we have to punish ourselves to get control of our eating? How sustainable is this?

“I didn’t have the time"

This one is one of my favourites, as it can be a real can of worms. Sometimes this can just mean, "I don’t see the purpose in this". The individual is not engaged enough with the idea to put in the effort to behave in a certain way. So they don’t. But instead of telling you this, ‘I didn’t have time’ is much easier to say, its far less personal.

If an issue is really important to someone, then they will be able to make time. They must make time. This type of excuse can be a signal of self-neglect, self-deception or just poor planning. Do they have too many priorities? (I always thought the plural of the word priority was oxymoronic). Do they have poor time-management skills? Or are their assertion skills poor - do they find it difficult to maintain boundaries and say ‘no’?

“I forgot"

Forgetting things might seem like a weak excuse, but can be a good example of an unconscious defence. The individual involved might not realise it, but it can sometimes be quite purposeful to forget to do something. To explore this one further, a good follow up question is ‘If you chose to forget, why might that be?'

So while excuses can feel frustrating, inviting them into the conversation and exploring their hidden meaning can help path the way for progress in a variety of contexts. When you know what to look for, there are plenty out there.

4 tips on how to prevent dietary lapses

Dietary lapses happen. Whether you are recovering from an eating disorder or trying to adhere to a healthier way of eating in order to lose weight, you will have probably noticed this by now.

What is a dietary lapse? A lapse is a just a bit of a slip-up. A divergence from the guidelines to which we were hoping to adhere. On its own, it will often do little harm. Without the correct skills and mindset however, a lapse can spiral into relapse (a string or collective succession of dietary/behavioural slip ups), or even total collapse. A collapse is fairly self-explanatory, and would represent an individual reverting entirely back to the way things used to be.

The mechanics of a dietary lapse

The key to dealing with dietary lapses, is understanding their mechanics. On any journey where an individual is looking to achieve sustainable behavioural change, we have a few key ingredients:

First, the individual’s motivation. Their commitment to the goal, and mixed up with that, their self-efficacy and belief that they are capable of achieving their goals. Can they follow the plan they have set out?

Next up are the ‘rules’. These are the processes by which the individual wants to adhere to achieve their goal. Along with these rules however is the dynamic they bring with them. These are the 'inner-rebel' and the sublet feelings of claustrophobia imposed upon us by removal of our autonomy. I’ve talked about the inner-rebel before, which in some individuals can even extend to unconscious setting up of risky situations (as far as your goals are concerned) that might be completely secret to their conscious self. If you’ve ever wondered how you keep ending up in certain situations and not behaving in the way you want, but can’t put your finger on what has happened or why, then this secretive self-sabotage might be happening with you!

When you combine these rules with an individual’s motivation and challenge them in a trigger situation (which could be emotional, physical, or social) a sense of conflict is created. The individual will either reduce the conflict by deploying problem solving skills to negotiate the issue, or reduce the conflict through denial and submission to the challenge.

dietary lapse
Understanding the mechanics of dietary lapses is crucial in negotiating them

If for example you were on an unrealistic diet plan where you were looking to avoid all carbs and sugar, and found yourself in a bakery without having planned your food for the day, just after a great workout session, this might be a trigger situation. You might either decide to order just a bottle of water and leave (a contingency plan you had created), or cave and buy yourself two…no, three of those delicious looking pastel de nata! If you followed the first option, you’ve helped yourself move towards your goal, great, lapse averted! If you followed the second option however, some arousal would be created by the digression (those cups of custardy delight tasted SO GOOD!) but it will also create dissonance. You can’t be the best low-carb clean-eater in town AND eat pastries. What would your paleo buddies think?!

picture of a pastel de nata
You can either chose to negotiate, or submit to trigger situations

Even after this lapse, how the individual responds to the cognitive dissonance is another opportunity to manage the lapse. All is not lost. If they are able to attribute it to an outside influence, (my boiler broke at home and I didn’t have time to plan my food this week, I was starving and stressed and I needed to eat something, it might as well have been something I enjoyed, I’ll remember that going to the bakery after the gym with no food and no plan might not be that helpful for me) then little damage is likely to have been done. If the individual blames themselves, and internalises and catasrophises the event (I’ve blown my diet, I’m a failure, I’ll never lose that weight now) then their self-efficacy will be dented, and by the time the next challenging trigger situation comes around, they will have less self-confidence to manage the scenario! Remember, with individuals with low self-esteem the negative self-evaluation and extreme thinking is completely normal, and expected.

So now I know what a dietary lapses are, what can I do about it?

There are 3 main strategies to help manage dietary lapses that can be deployed before, during or after the event has occurred.

  1. Prevention - we can work to prevent them from happening entirely
  2. During - we can learn to respond differently in situ to the event
  3. Recovery - we can learn to cope and deal with the dietary lapses more effectively The old adage 'prevention is better than cure’ certainly holds true here.

While the way we respond and evaluate dietary lapses is certainly important, to stop this post running away with itself, let’s focus on how we can better prevent dietary lapses in the first place. There are a range of strategies you can deploy here but some of the most effective long term methods will be:

Learn to relax your rules….

Dieters will have lots of rules. Things they shouldn’t or mustn’t do. This is not helpful. The more rules the more opportunity to break them. Relax or change your rules. ‘No food is off limits’ is a great principle to start to apply here. If its not ‘banned’ then it can’t create additional stress from eating it! This leaves time and resources to work on more important decisions.

Plan

Even I can feel myself rolling my eyes when I tell people to ‘plan' ahead. But you can’t underestimate how effective this can be. Strategy beats willpower especially when you are tired! Recording a food diary and understanding your own trigger situations will help you notice your behaviour chains, both helpful and unhelpful. Which ones can you strengthen, which ones do you want to break?

Recognise (and avoid) ‘set-ups'

Use a diary and a reflective process to understand and honestly appraise what are risky situations for you. Would you recommend a recovering alcoholic spends his/her evenings at a pub? Unlikely. It doesn’t mean you can never engage in these higher risk scenarios again, but perhaps it is better to do so when you have developed more robust skills to manage them. These can be really subtle situations, for example do you upset yourself when going clothes shopping and make poor decisions thereafter? Do find yourself purchasing foods at service stations by going into the kiosk when you could pay at the pump? Before you have planned and practiced strategies and contingencies to handle these environments, don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Be realistic

Perhaps most importantly, cravings and dietary lapses happen. They actually NEED to happen for you to learn new skills. Viewing dietary lapses as a necessary part of the process of improving your relationship with food is essential in remaining motivated. Each and every event, desirable or not, is an opportunity to learn and improve. No one gets everything right first time, and there is a reason that tales of the most successful people in all walks of life are underscored by repeated ‘failure’. In another blog I’ll write about how one can better manage lapse situations in situ and ‘recover’ from them more effectively. In the mean time, please do try and implement some of the above hints and tips. If you’ve found this article useful, please do share it with others who you feel might benefit. Any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me on twitter (@acbcoaching) or by email (andy@acbcoacing.com).

Thinking differently – Which wolf are you feeding?

I recently came across a T Nation article that made reference to the old Cherokee 'tale of two wolves'. This got me thinking, on 'thinking differently'.

A tale of two wolves - thinking differently
A tale of two wolves

I really liked the article which I would recommend you all read. While it applies to gym environment, the idea that we can learn to see obstacles in our life as a challenge or opportunity, is a crucial and transferable one. Importantly, it is also a simple idea that can have a profound influence on our relationship with food. It is an idea that falls under the umbrella I call 'thinking differently'.

What is thinking differently?

Many individuals who have an unhappy relationship with food often fall into the trap of seeing a momentary lapse or distraction from the dietary guidelines to which they are trying to adhere, as a failure. This type of 'all or nothing' thinking  is not helpful when it comes to fostering a sustainable and healthy relationship with food. Any self-perceived failure, can then result in negative thoughts and feelings that spiral into subsequent compensatory behaviours. These compensatory behaviours, such as eating a comfort food without awareness, again breach the guidelines the individual is trying to follow, and so the cycle continues. I talked a little about this cycle here, but one of the best ways to leverage as opposed to fall foul of this scenario is to shift our perspective.

A great way to do this, especially when it comes to food is to adopt the principle that nothing is off limits. This doesn't mean we should seek out junk food of high caloric density and scant nutritional value, but it appreciates variety and 'fancy' are a natural and healthy part of a balanced and sustainable way of eating. If it is not 'disallowed' it removes many of the habitual associations of failure with which many are familiar when attempting to adhere to a dietary protocol.

The author also explores how the tale of two wolves can teach us that we can all practice seeing and thinking about the world around us differently. In my the article linked above, I talk about a lot of the ways in which obese or overweight people tend to think. For many different and varied reasons, these ways of thinking have arisen and then become habitual. This is why I frequently encourage clients who complete a food diary with me to annotate their lapses or self-perceived 'dietary failures' as learning experiences (LE). So engrained are their responses that even recognising opportunities to note down LE can be tricky at first. But if they can habitually learn to seek out improvement as opposed to the self-defeating negative spiral of failure, then they are well on their way to creating a perpetually self-improving way of thinking. We can literally practise our way to a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food, by thinking differently. We just need to feed the right wolf.

Where I would disagree with the article is the author's assertion that those we see who tend not to 'feed the right wolf' are either pathetic and/or annoying. We all have been on our own individual journey to where we are now, and it is crucial that we do not rush to judge so readily anyone's behaviour. Thinking differently is something we can all learn to do, and just because someone isn't there yet, doesn't mean they can never be.

Image of a wolf eating the tale of two wolves helps remind us to think differently
Which wolf are you feeding? The tale of two wolves can be a great reminder about thinking differently

That said, the article, the transferable nature and the imagery of the 'tale of two wolves' is a great one to apply to the gym, our relationship with food, or life in general. Have a read of the T Nation article linked below and of course please do share this article if you enjoyed it. As ever, I'm always keen to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me andy@acbcoaching.com.

https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/which-wolf-are-you-feeding

Stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person

Stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person

Sorry if using the word fat offends you, but I needed your attention. By the end of this article, I want to try to convince you of something important. That is, if you are serious about wanting to lose weight and keep it off, you have to stop talking (and thinking) like a fat person. While you will have to do this as well as doing and eating all the right things, there is an upside to learning to think differently. It will make everything else much easier. It will boost your chances of maintaining change, something which is a far more challenging prospect than just losing weight in the first place. Many of the clients I work with have lost lots of weight. Lots of times. The issue is not so much weight loss, as it is maintenance of that loss. I believe that an absolutely key part to achieving ‘maintenance’ of a lower weight is learning to think, speak and feel differently about both food, exercise and yourself.

The context of Obesity

Obesity can technically be defined as a case of excess adipose (fatty) tissue. When it comes to the management of obesity however, it is not helpful to view it with such simplicity. This is the first trap that people might fall into. Losing and maintaining a lower weight should be considered as multifactorial issue. Obesity is caused and perpetuated by an interrelated and often complex combination of factors.

Image displaying the numerous factors involved in obesity. These complexities are why talking like a fat person can have adverse affects
The multifactorial nature of obesity

While it is generally accepted that in the the majority of cases, people get to this diagnosis of being ‘obese' from consuming more calories than they expend, there are plenty of different ways they achieve this. The contribution and salience of these factors above will also differ from person to person. All this means that when we want to manage or treat obesity in a given individual, we are not just dealing with one factor in isolation, but many, in a broader and often shifting landscape. People’s lifestyle circumstances change. Their friends change. Their jobs change. They move houses, have kids, get divorced etc. etc.  Suddenly, the simplicity of its ‘just a case of excess fatty tissue’ or ‘just a calorie balance problem’ starts to seem an inadequate explanation in the context of making a lasting change. Food is everywhere, everyday. What we eat and how we feel about it can be influenced by a thousand-and-one different things.

How not talking like a fat person can help

All hope is not lost however. Just because people become obese for a host of different reasons, and it can get really complicated, does not mean there are not similarities that we can leverage. One interesting thing is that a lot of these similarities are in the ways people think and feel (and subsequently talk). This is why ‘fat’ people, often talk in a certain way. They often over-generalise ‘I’ve always had a sweet-tooth', magnify problems and think in all-or-nothing and extreme ways ‘I had a chocolate pudding yesterday, I’ve blown my diet’. They are also often very judgemental and negative of their own past, current and even future behaviour. ‘I couldn’t resist that chocolate pudding, i’ve got no willpower’. Since our thoughts feelings and behaviours interact with one another (see video below) these ways of thinking can start to act as commands. In thinking and speaking in a certain way, obese individuals  fuel a pernicious cycle that can damage self-esteem and lead to increasingly unhelpful behaviours like emotional eating.

If we can help people to think differently we can start to interrupt the unhelpful ways of thinking that undermine an individual’s attempt achieve and maintain a lower weight. Talking like a fat person abdicates responsibility from their goals. It permits failure, again and again. The trouble is most people don’t even notice they do this.

Talking like a fat person can also sends mixed messages to those that might be able to help us. When we don’t give people a clear message about our behaviour and expectations, we often permit them to sabotage our attempts too.  This can be really subtle. Saying something as innocent as saying their is a certain type of food that you ‘shouldn’t’ eat or referring to food as a ‘treat’ are two classic examples. In creating these rules, we tempt our (and others’) inner rebels to break that rule. Tell a kid not to touch something, you know what will happen. How many times have you been cajoled into indulging in a ‘sneaky’ chocolate bar or bit of ice-cream by a a partner or friend when you are a diet. ‘One won’t hurt’ they say. You indulge, then guilt follows. These are the very real consequences thinking and speaking in a certain way. We must change them to change the dynamic they create.

The good news is that we can enter that cyclical process from a different angle. We have another way in which we can work towards our goals. Its not just about working harder, its about working smarter. Thinking differently. We can speak in a way that allows us to own our responsibilities as opposed to abdicating them to others. If you you don’t make a choice, someone or something will make it for you.

How do I do this?

To get you started, first just try to recognise these common examples in everyday language:

  • over-generalisations
  • exaggerations
  • all-or-nothing thoughts
  • should and shouldn’t (when it comes to food/exercise)
  • negative self-talk about the your current, past or future self.

Once you’ve noticed them, try to identify if it was either aligned with your goals, or potentially unhelpful. Remember, there is often very little remarkable about the way in which people have lost weight and maintained that weight loss. Despite the marketing and the AMAZING transformations, these changes normally happen gradually, through balanced and consistent decisions, without fanfare.

If you’d like to know more please don’t hesitate to contact me (on twitter @acbcoaching or by email - andy@acbcoaching.com) and of course if you enjoyed this article, please do share it with anyone you think it might be of use.