Getting fit, particularly to a basic level, is simultaneously frustratingly simple and incredibly complex.
It’s simplicity comes from the fact that there are really only two things you need to do once you boil it down. The first is to take in fewer calories than you burn or inversely to burn more calories than you take in. The second is to regularly move in some way that challenges your body. That’s it – and technically you could probably leave that second one off if you really wanted.
The problem is we’re not dealing with simple math or well-engineered machines here, we’re dealing with biology. Biology is messy. There are thousands of chemical processes going on all with their own variables and differing levels to which we even understand them. Compound that with psychological and sociological components that come with behavior modification, and what should be a simple process of just showing up and doing the work gets complicated.
That complexity can make it difficult to figure out what the problem is when you’re failing to make progress. Thankfully, I’ve found that it’s almost always something out of this handful of issues holding people back.
The Short 80/20 List of Fitness Progress Roadblocks
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what could be secretly sabotaging your efforts to lose weight and get fit, but these are absolutely the most common. Following the 80/20 pattern 80% (probably more actually) of people wind up being held back by 20% (probably less) of the potential problems. More likely than not if you have the basics in order and still aren’t seeing progress one or more of these is going to be the culprit.
- Lack of Sleep – Sleep is an essential part of fitness. Sleep deprivation cripples testosterone production (reducing it by up to 15% in one study), increases stress hormones like cortisol, and predisposes you to poor decision making which is likely to lead to poor dietary choices and skipped or half-assed workouts.
Don’t think that just because you’re not dozing off in the middle of the day it means you aren’t sleep deprived either. It only takes getting a little less than six hours of sleep on average to start accumulating the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Especially if you’re also putting additional demands on your system through activity and calorie deficit, you need to make sure your sleep is good enough.
- Snacking & Untracked or Poorly Tracked Calories – It’s extremely easy throughout the day to grab something little to eat without thinking about it. Maybe it’s because you still carry a habit of using food as a reward, maybe it’s because of social pressures like presence of that box of doughnuts in the break room. Whatever the reason, I frequently find people who are trying to watch their calorie intake who will snack on “little” things throughout the day and then not bother to track them in whatever system they’re using to monitor their calories.
Those little snacks add up though, and before long they’ve eaten a calorie surplus everyday for the past two weeks when MyFitnessPal or whatever says they’ve been in a deficit. It looks and feels to them like they should be losing because it’s so easy to forget all those little snacks when in reality they may even be putting on fat.
This sometimes also pops up with the “Well, fuck it” attitude people get when they make a small indiscretion. They have a minor slip, maybe one of those office doughnuts, and then don’t bother logging it and figure that since they already screwed that day up in regards to their diet they might as well have an entire pizza for dinner that night and just try again tomorrow.
If your tracking system says you’re in a calorie deficit but you’re still gaining weight, dial in and make absolutely certain there aren’t calories going unaccounted for.
- Overtraining – I strongly considered not including this one at all, but I recognize it probably ought to be included just in case with certain caveats. Those caveats tie in to the reason I thought about leaving it out, and that’s because I consistently see people getting so scared of overtaining (even when there is no real danger of it being a problem for them) that they severely undertrain.
Overtraining, or more accurately not allowing yourself adequate recovery, will impede your progress. For the large majority of people though their level of fitness won’t be high enough to be concerned about overtraining in the traditional sense until they’re at or nearly at their goals. Instead what I think most people should be watching out for is either their fear of overtaining causing them to not train hard enough, or that they’re currently putting themselves on a program they can’t handle long term, whether that’s physically or socially or whatever.
- Misjudged Activity Levels – Whenever I take on a personal training client they have to go through a number of assessments and discussions related not just to where they would like to get from a fitness standpoint but also where they are starting out from. One of the things I always ask, usually tied to the process of figuring out a starting point for calorie and macro goals, is for people to tell me how active they are on an average day not counting workouts.
On a scale of 1 to 5 with a 1 being completely sedentary and a 5 being extremely active a lot of people will place themselves at a moderate 3. Then when I start asking about their day they tell me something along the lines of they wake up and sit in the car for an hour on the way to work, then sit behind a desk for eight hours, then an hour sitting in the car heading home, then they sit and catch up on things in their home office, then sit down for dinner, then sit on the couch with the family to watch TV and relax until bed.
These people seem strangely shocked when I let them know that in reality, they are a 1 on the activity scale. It’s deceptively easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re more physically active on a day to day basis than you actually are. When you’re trying to get fit, even if you’ve developed and are sticking to a good workout habit, take the time to make sure you’re not then spending the entire rest of the day sitting. Upping the general amount of movement you do throughout the day can make a big difference.
- Poor Progress Tracking – This last one is maybe a little bit of a trick answer. Sometimes the problem that’s causing you to not be making progress is that you are making progress. You just don’t know it.
If you’re only tracking your weight in pounds and even that only sporadically than you might lose four pounds of fat and gain five pounds of muscle between weigh-ins and think you’re doing something wrong. If you only keep an eye on your lifts you might think you’ve stalled out when you can’t add more weight but don’t realize you’ve dropped 2% bodyfat in that time. Remember how biology is complex? Well that means that progress in something like fitness is rarely linear. Before you declare that you’re failing, make sure you’re tracking a range of different indicators of progress over an appropriate amount of time. You might be succeeding and not even know it.
If you feel like you’ve stalled out on your fitness goals, or just were never making progress to begin with, checking off each of these problems should remove whatever obstacle is stopping you. The key is to never stop testing, evaluating, implementing adjustments, re-evaluating, and then doing the whole thing over again. As long as you stick with it you’ll get there eventually.
Have any other common problems you’ve run into? Other helpful suggestions for people who feel like they’re stuck, or a question for everyone to help you get back to making progress toward your goals? Leave a comment!