If you are interested in developing fitness, you need to get comfortable with patience and the slow work of making incremental progress based on habits that are sustainable over the long haul. The fitness world is rife with quick-fix solutions and heightened expectations of immediate results.
Slow but steady progress is countercultural. I, for one, look at the fable of the tortoise and the hare and sympathize with the quick-paced hare. That’s because American culture, in particular, values instant gratification. The things we want? We want them now.
In 1970, Stanford researchers tested instant gratification in kids. The child had the option to eat a marshmallow now, or wait 10 minutes and be rewarded with an additional marshmallow. While it seems harmless to think about this with something as trivial as sugar, many of the kids who were able to wait for the higher reward had better life outcomes.
In the world of fitness, it’s tempting for many to leap into instant gratification mode. It’s great to make a goal to run a half marathon — but it may not be as great when you force yourself to achieve it in two weeks. It’s not hard to find one-week fitness fads that guarantee six-pack abs in no time at all. Not only is that unrealistic, but it is perpetuating the culture of instant gratification. A person will be much more likely to quit if, within days, they realize their goal cannot be hit.
So what do we do about facing discouragement on a fitness journey? Are there tangible ways to fight a world and culture of instant gratification? How can we cultivate patience and healthy attitudes toward our own transformation? Here are habits that have helped me in this area.
#1 — Find reasonable fitness programs
Choosing to enter into a program requires a higher level of intentionality — especially if you pay for it. This requires a vetting process where you slow down to stop and think about what you are looking for. Are these programs promising unrealistic goals? Are they starting right off the bat with an hour of intense practices?
While there are many problematic fitness plans, there are lots of programs that foster higher success by prioritizing slow and steady progress. I have participated in several short, six-week plans that don’t promise anything at the end except to leave you better than how you entered. Committing to a set program allows you to stop balancing your expectations with outcomes — you just show up regularly.
#2 — Accountability
When you have others going through the process with you, you are able to support each other. If you are getting antsy about wanting to move quicker, air out those frustrations with your network. On your good days, you can bring people up with you. On your bad days, you can let yourself accept a little extra motivation.
One of my favorite parts of connecting with others in fitness — whether that’s with people I already know, or with folks I meet at a gym or in a program — is the friendship that comes out of the process. Being vulnerable about our hopes and efforts and challenges paves the way for deeper friendships outside of the gym.
#3 — Celebrate small moments of progress
If fighting instant gratification is about resisting the temptation to set impractical goals, celebrate some practical milestones! Even though it may not seem like shaving one second off of a mile is a big deal, those little moments are something to be proud of.
For my friends and I who entered the six-week fitness program, we embraced celebrations as small as the fact that we got to the end of each week. Each Friday, we picked out something different to do together, ranging from drinks to putt putt. Not only did those celebrations get us through the program, but it gave us something to look forward to every week.
#4 — Keep showing up
Although it’s easier said than done, the ability to be consistent says so much more than the result itself. This requires changing our focus from outcomes to process. Depending on your personality, you can find ways to strategically sustain that effort — working out first thing because you have more energy in the morning, for example. When all else fails, just showing up makes a world of a difference.
Practicing delayed gratification is quiet, solitary work, but it leads to so many advantages in the long run. It takes discipline and intentional habits to keep up an effort over time, but developing those resources for fitness will serve you in other areas of your life. They are muscles of the will that grow every bit as much as muscles in your arms, and once we harness the power of our wills, we find a valuable tool to grow into the person we were created to be.