Posted by on Mar 11, 2013


There exists a fitness spectrum.

We’ll qualify “0” as an individual who knows nothing about fitness and does not in any way, shape, or form live a healthy lifestyle. He is someone who is not only ignorant but also completely disinterested in proper eating and exercise. Picture a busy corporate employee who is consumed by his work; exercise consists of walking to and from meetings and he eats only what is readily available and convenient. Or perhaps you have an aspiring artist who spends the majority of the day lost in his in paintings. To him, food is an inconvenience, and working out merely detracts from the time he could be spent perfecting his masterpiece.

With zero fitness knowledge, you look at food for exactly what it is at face value: your favorite chips with queso, gummy bears as your go-to snack, heavily buttered popcorn for movie night. If you’re hungry or bored, you eat whatever it is you feel like eating at the moment. If the aroma of decadent chocolate chip cookies catches your attention as you walk by a bakery, you don’t hesitate to make a pitstop to bring home a bag of goodies. You don’t think twice about food, nor do you stress or worry about it. Ever.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have the classic orthorexic: obsessing over every morsel of food, anal about never missing a single workout, prioritizing fitness to the point at which mental and emotional health is compromised. Every decision made is contingent upon access to the gym and availability of physique-friendly foods. Someone who falls into this category will more than willingly dodge Friday night plans with friends in favor of squeezing in another cardio session at the gym. This kind of zealot will also turn down a vacation getaway with loved ones because the thought of frequent meals out and limited gym access causes extreme anxiety. He refuses to so much as entertain the risk of deviating from his militant eating and training regimen; absolutely nothing will get in the way.

What was previously viewed as drool-worthy thin-crust pizza is now nothing but carbs and fat. You’ve completely lost the ability to enjoy food and now see nothing but macronutrients. Chocolate-covered almonds? Fat with some carbs. Turkey thigh? Protein, but also high fat. When asked, “What are you eating?” “Protein and fibrous veggies” becomes the answer, instead of, “steak and steamed broccoli.” You refuse to consume any fluid save for water and the occasional diet soda, as you think of drinking your liquids as a waste of calories.

Where do you fall?

The Irony

The sad part is that the extremist (let’s called him Bob) never intended to be that way; in fact, he starts out with the best of intentions. His goal is initially to simply live a healthier life. Perhaps he’s slightly overweight and has attempted and failed a slew of the most popular diets. Or maybe he’s confused by all the contradicting information out there and decides to take matters into his own hands and educate himself.

So Bob reads up on macronutrients. He starts spending his evenings perusing this and that fitness article, combing through fitness writers’ blogs, lurking in numerous online forums. Nutrient timing, insulin sensitivity, the evils of processed sugar and alcohol. He’s intrigued and begins seeing the world and the food around him in a whole new way. He wants more. As he applies this newfound knowledge to his daily life, it doesn’t take long for him to begin to see tangible results: his jeans are fitting a little looser, his moobs no longer need their own sports bra, he can actually look down and see his man parts.

He’s feeling fantastic and his confidence is through the roof. Never has he felt so surefooted before. He’s turning heads as he walks down the street with his chest proudly puffed up, and he’s quick to change his wardrobe selection to muscle tees. Damn, he’s finally a real man. He doesn’t even need any Sex Panther Spray.

Caught up in all the hoopla, however, he fails to notice that fitness is becoming its own religion. Afraid to undo all of the progress he’s made, he holds an ever-tightening iron grip onto his workout schedule and never dares to go anywhere without his meals packed in Tupperware. He’s resorted to setting alarms to go off every 3 hours so he’ll remember when to eat, and he grows irritable if he misses his eating window by mere minutes. He’s become a fitness snob, judging any and all who don’t live the way that he does, and he stares aghast at anyone who would be so ignorant as to consume a lunch with less than 30 grams of protein. Don’t they know any better? How could they be so naive?

Through all of this, it never once dawns on Bob that he has let things get to the point where fitness is now crippling his life. It’s cost him his friends, it’s strained his relationships with his family, and he’s missed out on opportunities to meet new people and experience life’s greatest treasures.

The irony is killing him – quite literally.

The Tetris Effect

The phenomenon described above is what’s known as the Tetris Effect. This is a cognitive pattern in which new neural pathways are created and warp an individual’s interpretation of real-life situations. The term originates from people who would play the Tetris game for hours and hours, and then try to come back to the real world. They found that they couldn’t look at two objects without automatically thinking of ways in which the geometric shapes would fit perfectly into one another, much like the game.

You know your coworkers who never seem to have anything positive to say? They’re stuck in the negative Tetris effect. They’re become experts at spotting the negative aspects of their immediate environment and have actually lost the ability to see the positives. In the same way, Bob is suffering from inattentional blindness: he views a situation and, based on his expectations, he interprets it with a fitness twist. He has fitness goggles glued to his head, and he is unable to see anything any other way.

People aren’t necessarily intentionally trying to view things in this particular way; it just happens. If you spend enough time immersed in a particular perspective, it’s hard to compartmentalize that mindset and prevent it from affecting every other aspect of your life.

Finding Your Happy Place

What gives? How could something that started out so good turn out so bad?

Whether this fictional Bob realizes it or not, in order to rediscover health in his life – not just physical but also mental, emotional, and spiritual – he is going to have to break out of this mentality and find a happy medium. This means sometimes being able to eat a meal with minimal protein and not feeling like it’s the end of the world. It means chowing down on a slice of cheesecake every once in a while with the understanding that that does not make him a bad person. It means partaking in Christmas holiday treats and enjoying every single bite of his mom’s apple pie.

It means understanding that the point of living a sustainable fit lifestyle is to make healthy decisions that benefit not just your physical body but also your overall well-being.

Fitness is meant to enhance, not devastated, your life.

What About Me?

For me personally, I’ve fortunately made it out of the unhealthy extreme, and everyday I’m practicing the ability to break out of the fitness mentality. I can still look at a food item – say, candy corn – and identify its macronutrient content without a second thought. But I can also turn off that switch and think to myself hey, this is one of my favorite treats, and I’m going to savor every kernel of it. I don’t think about how it’s nothing but sugar and doesn’t help me achieve my physique goals. I’m not doomed for eating a chocolate chip cookie; I’m not cursed for slipping a pat of butter onto my steak.

Because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I still exercise regularly and keep junk food to a minimum. I’m still very much a “fitness buff.” But I’ve also learned that I need to be kind to myself and to my body and be flexible with my fitness.

The best part is that I’m in no worse shape than before and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. In fact, I’m probably in the best shape of my life.

Your Thoughts?

The fitness extremist mindset is unhealthy in many ways. My ramblings here are merely my attempt to articulate some thoughts that have troubled me for quite some time. Announcing to the world that you’ve gone 3 whole months eating nothing but “clean” food is nothing to brag about; I pity the fool who believes this somehow makes him a superior human being.

The fitness drama queens, I think, would benefit from shoving their judging fingers back into their pockets and receiving a healthy slap back to reality.

Agree or disagree? I welcome your thoughts.

Sohee Lee graduated from Stanford University in June 2012 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Human Biology (Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health).

Visit Sohee on her website, Twitter, Fitocracy or Google.

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