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The Bottom-Up Approach To Fitness

The single reason people fail at their fitness goals and how to fix it

GREY Journal

This is the year you get the body you’ve always wanted. The year you live your best life and adorn the walls of social media with the fruits of your hard labor at the gym. You’ve purchased several self-help books. You’re following every fitness influencer, listening to motivational podcasts, and reading every article on the best way to reach your goals. You’re so committed that you’ve decided to throw down your entire tax return on a personal trainer and a nutritionist.

Woman doing abs exercises upside down with personal trainer
Woman doing abs exercises upside down with personal trainer

Fast forward six months…You’re sitting on the couch smashing a pizza with a tub of ice cream waiting in the freezer and you haven’t been to the gym in over a month. You did everything you set out to do and got the exact opposite result.

Bizarro World (AKA The Fitness Industry)

In the Superman comic book series, Bizarro world is a place Superman becomes trapped. It’s a place where good is bad, bad is good, and nothing makes sense.  The world of the inverse. You might know it by its other name — the fitness industry.

According to Wellness Creative Co., an online fitness industry tracking company, the United States is the world’s largest health and wellness market, with 39,570 fitness clubs. More clubs per capita than anywhere else in the world. And yet, according to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), in 2008, the obesity rate among adult Americans was estimated at 35% for men and 40% for women; these rates were roughly confirmed by the CDC again for 2009–2010.

Fitness industry revenues in the last year were estimated at $30 billion. People all over are making the investment into themselves but according to the University of Scranton, only 20% or less of people ever achieve their fitness goals.The 400lb pink gorilla in the room is why?

Man in Superman shirt working out
Man in Superman shirt working out

Occam’s razor states that the simplest answer is usually the correct one. Where the mind goes, the body follows. Here in America, we start from the bottom up. We view people with Adonis-like bodies as strong and view people who go to psychologists or therapists as weak. We value aesthetics over intelligence.

Working on your body before understanding and working on your brain is like putting new rims and tires on your car when it doesn’t have a steering wheel. The car will drive down the road and make progress, but probably hit every parked car and tree along the way and never get to where it is you want it to go.

The Work

Here are three steps you can take to start down the road of rewiring and strengthening your brain:

Step 1: Know Thyself and Develop a Baseline

Dive into your past and look objectively at how you were raised. Ask your family questions. What was it like for your mother when she was pregnant? Was she stressed? What type of neighborhood did you grow up in? Was it quiet with a tight-knit community? Doing this will give insight into why and how your brain responds to certain situations.

Did you use drugs and alcohol when you were in your teens? The Prefrontal cortex is where judgment, forethought, planning, and impulse control are handled. This region of the brain doesn’t fully form until the mid–20’s. Alcohol and drugs have been directly shown to impede the development of PFC as well as emotional development and coping mechanisms.

Did you sustain any head injuries? The skull is very hard and does an amazing job of protecting the brain. However, the inside front of the skull is made of jagged sharp bone. When the head is hit, the brain can slam into this portion of the skull and damage the tissue. If there’s scar tissue in the area and blood flow is impeded, your brain isn’t performing optimally and can inhibit your abilities. Keep in mind (pun intended) this isn’t something you would feel or even know, especially if the injury happened years ago when you were a child.

Mother holding child in air against sunset
Mother holding child in air against sunset
Step 2: Work with Professionals

Remember that two grand you were going to drop on a personal trainer? Get a therapist. With a therapist you are bringing in a trained professional that understands how the brain works and has the capability to see behavioral and thought patterns that may be undermining you. They then can assist you in developing the ability to avoid those patterns and replace them with healthier ones more conducive to the type of life you want to live.

If you’re not ready for the therapist route you can always go the scientific route. Amen Clinics specializes in using Spect scans to evaluate, diagnose, and treat issues with the brain. According to Psychiatrist Daniel Amen, a Spect scan is like an MRI that looks at areas of the brain that work well, areas that don’t work hard enough, and areas of the brain that work too hard. SPECT images connect the dots between your brain function, behaviors, and symptoms, which enables the doctors to develop an individualized treatment plan that is effectively targeted to meet your needs. You can learn more at Amen Clinics.

Spect scans probably won’t be covered by most insurance plans and can range upwards of $3,000 dollars. For those that can’t afford this, there are other options.

Man sitting on couch speaking with psychologist
Man sitting on couch speaking with psychologist
Step 3: Develop a Brain Fitness Routine

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses emotional and behavioral problems by drawing attention to thinking patterns and moods. The book Teach Yourself Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by Christine Wilding and Aileen Milne teaches you the basics of CBT and walks you through a variety of exercises like “thought records” to identify poor thinking models and behavior patterns and replace them with more positive ones. A good companion book is Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, by Dr. Daniel Amen. This book can help identify trouble areas and offer supplements.

Start a mindfulness practice. “I can’t meditate, my mind goes crazy!” Good! Let it. Mindfulness is not clearing your mind of all thought. Mindfulness is an exercise for the brain. You literally do reps like any other exercise. A thought comes rushing in, you observe it then bring your focus back to your breath, 1 rep done. What you’re doing is training the mind to create space from your thoughts rather than reacting to them. This can be done lying, sitting, or walking.

By starting from the top down and working on your brain, it’s firing your behavior and you’re getting a solid foundation to stand on when chasing after your goals.

Close up of man meditating
Close up of man meditating

Getting a trainer or a nutritionist can be one of the best things you can do when it comes to attaining your fitness goals. However, by first getting your brain into top working order you’ll ensure that you’re getting the most out of your sessions. Also, you’ll be using your trainer for program design and motivation and not as a therapist.

Have anymore recommendations on how to attain your fitness goals? Let us know down in the comments.

This article was originally published on GREY Journal.

Paul Hennigan
P.J. Hennigan spent the last 15 years living in Los Angeles where he worked as a writer and a strength and conditioning coach. He currently lives in Bend Oregon where he's working on a novel and enjoying the outdoors.

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