Have you ever known someone who was seemingly very fit, had excellent health, looked fantastic, but was seemingly always unhappy about their physical status? The thin lady who thinks she’s overweight? The well-built male who is never happy with his physique? Perhaps you fit that description?
If not an actual clinical condition (at the extreme end of this spectrum lie several psychological conditions that often require treatment) this type of poisonous thinking and attitude is labeled as living in the Fitness Gap. The “gap” describes the perceived distance between The Actual and The Ideal. Those whose mind is always fixed in the “gap” (or the distance between where they actually are now and where they want to be) tend to be unhappy about their status and their progress and get very little enjoyment out of the process of exercise or living a healthier lifestyle. Often, their attitude is negatively infectious to those around them.
The gap exists in other areas of life outside of fitness. Finances and career achievement are very common areas where people live in the gap. No matter how much money or success someone achieves in their career, they can never seem to enjoy it or give themselves credit for their progress.
The problem is that they are measuring forward instead of backward – constantly measuring themselves against the successes or achievements of other people or against an Ideal that is neither realistic nor achievable. This makes for very unhappy people – often times in the face of what is seemingly profound progress.
The “gap” does not describe actual progress or lack thereof. The “gap” is simply one’s attitude about their own successes. Multi-millionaires as well as the impoverished can live in the gap. Swimsuit models and the morbidly obese can both be in the “gap.” The gap is internal, in our own heads. It makes us unhappy and negative about our activities and achievements.
Measuring success backwards requires you to judge your own present against your own past. This is the only true way to measure progress in our lives – be it with money, career success, or with our health and fitness.
Weight loss is an excellent example of where we see clients live in the gap. We’ll use a hypothetical trainee to illustrate gap-thinking. “Sue” is 45 years old and started her diet and exercise plan at 190 lbs. However, she has lost 35 lbs over the past 6 months! She looks better, has more energy, and is healthier overall at her new bodyweight of 155. However she is still depressed and down because she hasn’t reached her goal weight of 120 – what she weighed in college. Plus, another lady that she knows lost closer to 50 lbs following the same diet and exercise plan!
Instead of focusing on her positive achievement of a 35 lb weight loss – Sue is negatively fixated on the fact that she is still a good deal away from her goal weight of 120 lbs. And she is frustrated with the fact that her friend lost more weight than she did. The negativity and frustration causes a sense of despair and hopelessness about her weight and the way she looks. Her thoughts trend negative and she loses motivation to stick with her plan. After 6 months she is off the diet and exercise plan and back to bad habits. In half the time it took to lose the weight, she’s put it all back on.
Sue’s biggest mistake in the whole process was measuring her success against an unrealistic ideal. Sue was measuring herself at 45 years old (and after having 3 chidren) against her 20-year old former self who was actively involved in collegiate athletics. In doing so, she beat herself up for not living up to the ideal, rather than giving herself credit for moving closer to the ideal. Additionally she made the critical mistake of measuring against other people. When we do this, we are usually working without a lot of important information about their individual circumstances.
It’s like being jealous of the neighbor who has two new cars, a house full of brand new furniture, and just got back from a 2-week European vacation. “Must be nice to be them!” is what many would say. What you may not know is that the family is several hundred thousand in debt and on the verge of divorce.
Coming back to fitness – the ideal is not always a bad thing. It all depends on how you use it and how you measure progress against it. Having an ideal image of yourself, your health, or your weight is a necessary and useful thing for goal setting.
But goals have to be set in context, they must be realistic, and they must be achievable – or else they are called fantasies.
That doesn’t mean that goals cannot be big, bold, and audacious. But on your way there try and enjoy the process and progress a bit. Measure the progress you have made instead of the progress you haven’t made. Keep your eye focused on the prize at the end of the road (even if it’s a very long road), but don’t forget to enjoy all of the small successes along the way. This keeps you positive and motivated instead of depressed and frustrated.