David Smith from Absolute Health and Performance joins Michael for another discussion around gaining confidence in your body so you can keep doing the things you love.
This episode delves into whether habits or goals are more impotant for exercise success. Setting achievable goals and engaging in consistent effort enables you to embed positive habits – which is the key to achieving sustainable health outcomes.
Michael and David share many practical tips to help you achieve lasting exercise outcomes that change not just your physical appearance, but your life.
David is a Accredited Exercise Scientist, as well as the Co-founder & Director of Absolute Health Performance.
CLICK HERE to read the full transcript from episode 14 of The Confident Body Show
Topics discussed in this episode:
- The difference between a goal and a habit
- System 1 (instinctive) v system 2 (conscious) thinking in setting habits
- The role of goal-setting in forming long-term healthy habits
- The importance of achievable goals and consistent effort in positive habit creation
- Goals are the conscious elements you rationally decide to achieve an outcome, but habit are the long term, unconscious actions you take to get there in the long term. (1:45)
- Goal-setting should start small (actionable tasks); but unless it’s directed to a higher purpose that’s identity-based, it’s hard to stay on track. (6:30)
- The most important habit in exercise success is consistency, with small incremental change over time. (9:00)
- Unrealistic, short term goals don’t work because they are often based on external pressures to change, rather than you real, internal reasons to make a difference in your life. (10:15)
- In addition, unrealistic goals don’t take into account the body’s natural rate of change, muscle growth and need for rest and recovery. (18:30)
- Losing weight takes time. If you lose 1kg every 2-4 weeks and in the long term 5-10kg over a 12 month period, this is an excellent outcome that is much more sustainable than short term and drastic weight loss. (15:00)
- There is nothing wrong with seeking advice from qualified and experienced exercise professional to really guide you in the right direction for long term change.
For practical articles to help you build a confident body, go to mdhealth.com.au/articles.
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Click on the Dash icon below to see the entire show transcript
Episode 14: Full Transcript
Welcome to the Confident Body, where experienced health professionals discuss how to get the most out of your body for the lifestyle you choose. We believe everyone can exercise and get the most out of life, regardless of your injuries or health issues. Now here’s your host, senior physiotherapist, Michael Dermansky.
Michael Dermansky (00:24):
Hi, everyone, and welcome to the show that helps you become more confident in your body so you can keep doing the things that you love. I’m Michael Dermansky, senior physiotherapist, MD Health. I’ve got a repeat guest today, David Smith from Absolute Health & Performance. Welcome to the show David.
David Smith (00:40):
Thanks for having me again, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be on here.
Michael Dermansky (00:43):
Great. Just before we start, I wanted to say you’re a exercise scientist performance coach. I get a lot of your stuff on LinkedIn. I think it’s fantastic: some of the information you put out to the public in terms of health and performance. It’s really good stuff. Is there anywhere else people can find your information as well?
David Smith (01:01):
Yeah. We release a lot of great content through the absolute health and performance Instagram page. But also, my personal Instagram is DaveSmithPC. That’s where I produce a lot of that same stuff that you also find on LinkedIn as well. We should be out there educating people as often as we can and in many mediums and forums as we can.
Michael Dermansky (01:23):
Well, I agree with you. The information you give out is just fantastic. That’s why I thought I’d bring it up at the start because people should really have a listen to it. It’s really good health information.
David Smith (01:32):
Thank you. Perfect.
Michael Dermansky (01:33):
Well, today’s topic is why habits are more important than for exercise success. I wanted to start with… the first question is, how do you define the difference between a goal and a habit?
David Smith (01:44):
I think, on the simplest terms, is it’s conscious versus unconscious. A goal is a conscious decision or an actionable task, whereas a habit is something that occurs unconsciously without any cognitive demand. Goals are external set outcomes or tasks. These are more subject to the environment around us: the fluctuations in our daily stresses, fatigue, and life.
If you have a goal without habits, success will not be achieved, as we’re relying on conscious motivation. That’s a finite resource. Habits, while they take an incredibly long time to develop, are stable, are unconscious. These are the true process that we need to create to not just achieve target goals that we set ourselves but to ensure that they’re stable across a lifetime.
An example of a really obvious one is a weight loss goal. It can be achieved through drastic approaches, really strict motivation, willpower, and restricted approaches in our goal setting. But ultimately, if the habit’s not formed, it’s not going to be long-lasting. Whereas with health habits that contribute to weight loss are achieved, cognitive demand is removed, and the results you achieve can be stable for a lifetime. Conscious versus unconscious. Goal versus habit.
Michael Dermansky (03:01):
Well, let’s go to the next step from there. With people who do achieve their goals, what kind of habits do they put in place?
David Smith (03:08):
I think reflecting on that, what I just previously said as well, is that… to clarify: that a habit is not something that we put in place, but rather it’s the results of well-planned and meaningful goal settings, skill development, and any environment that we shape for ourselves. Habits of the unconscious nature, good or bad… They are incredibly hard to change. They can take up to six months because we need to develop entirely distinct neural networks for habits to take place. Those that are most successful, particularly in the health and fitness space, develop habits that are… I use the term… you may have heard it before, system-one-focused. I can explain that a little bit more for the listeners.
System two thinking and system two with habits and goals is our rational thinking. It takes effort. It’s generally slow. It’s logical. It’s lazy, and it’s indecisive. It’s our conscious thought/rational side of things, whereas system one is our intuition and our instinct. It’s unconscious. It’s fast. It’s something that responds to external triggers. It’s us on autopilot, essentially.
System two is what most people do when it leads to goal setting. It leads to poor outcomes because they focus on just what to change and why. It’s typically short-lived when motivation, which is a finite resource, runs out. An example is I will eat less for weight loss, what to change and why, whereas system one is a longer-term approach. This is where habits truly are formed. We’re talking about the how-to-change, creating autonomic responses to external triggers. Reducing conscious attention leads to greater long-term success.
A habit, at the purest sense, is “repeat a chosen behavior in the same context over and over again until it becomes automated.” An example of this is that I might go away for a holiday for two or three weeks. I’ve had periods of time where I’ve done that. For two or three weeks in a row, some of my clients will still walk in the door at their same time on their same day, even though, the previous week, they did it before. They already said, admin, “Dave’s away. You know he’s not here.” They would simply just become so automated with “particular time/particular day.” Day goes on; they walk out the door; head straight down to Absolute for their training session. It became automated to have those positive habitual patterns.
A day-to-day life one: you get in a car. That’s your contextual cue. I bet you don’t even think about putting that seatbelt on anymore. It just happens. If we can get our health habits to follow the same system-one-type responses, you’re going to be more likely to be successful. If you’re stressed at work, we want to create that contextual cue that the thing you do is then go for a walk. It takes up to six months, as I said.
With regards to, then, the goals that people put in place that help them form long-term healthy habits… I think I mentioned this last time when we spoke, is that anything with regards to exercise and physical activity, strength training, we always need to make sure it’s attached to a deeper meaning for the individual. With goal setting, you might determine this as just seeking a superordinate purpose.
Goal setting should start quite small, really actionable tasks and be manageable. But unless they’re directed to a larger purpose, something that’s value-related/something that’s identity-based, it’s often hard to stay on track. You can establish what’s termed a goal hierarchy: picture three layers of a pyramid. Right at the top are four layers is your ideal self. Then, below that, we have our superordinate goal. This is the bigger concept picture of what your ideal self is. Then, there’s the intermediate level, which is the directions you want to take to reach that superordinate outcomes. Then, the subordinate is the how’s. That’s the actionable parts. That’s, unfortunately, where most goal setting starts and stops: whereas if we have all these different pyramids and superordinate and subordinate intermediate levels, you start to realize how goals and outcomes can be achieved in so many different ways. That helps to keep you on track and stay motivated. Goal setting that allows multiple directions to achieve the same outcome are generally going to be the most successful.
Michael Dermansky (07:41):
As you said, with habits as well, it’s an unconscious trigger as well. When you form a habit, either good or bad, your brain doesn’t care whether it’s a good or bad habit. It just knows it’s a habit. When that trigger is fired off, you automatically do that task. It’s a part of the brain that’s so fast you don’t even get a chance to react. Making something from a goal to an actionable habit is how you really achieve long-term goals, your subordinate goals, as you discussed, because it stops becoming something you think about. It’s just the trigger occurs. I put my bag on my shoulder, as you said. Get in the car. It’s first thing in the morning. You get in the car. You put your seatbelt on. You automatically drive to the gym and do your exercise program as opposed to… “Oh, I have to think about going to the gym and doing my exercise program.”
David Smith (08:27):
Yeah, that’s when you’ve really made that positive changes in habits, and you’ve done the right things with your goal setting and all the actionable tasks to help you develop that.
Michael Dermansky (08:39):
Going on to that next question from there, in terms of exercise success, are there one or two specific habits that stand out to you most that allow people great success?
David Smith (08:50):
Yeah. I think reflecting on what we just discussed is that exercise habits that lead to the greatest success are ones that allow many routes, many roads, many ways of getting there. If you’re very strict and rigid in your goal setting, it becomes incredibly challenging to form positive habits. Number two, exercise habits that focus on consistency versus extremes as priority one will always outperform in the long run. Just think about the old tortoise and the hare analogy to conceptualize it. We should think about our habit-forming and goal-setting in the same way.
Michael Dermansky (09:24):
I couldn’t agree with you more about the second one as well, in terms of consistency. The biggest key to any exercise habit, as well, is consistency as well. Luckily this year, because we haven’t had the lockdowns we had in previous years, we’ve seen the consistency with our clients, too, and them achieving now their goals because they’re consistent with their programs. When they break their consistency, as well, is related to fluctuations in results, where the slow and steady and steady and steady and steady and steady tends to win every single time. Then, you look at the outcome from one to six months/three months/nine months, depending on how long you’re training for. You just see the steady improvement. It’s just great to see those outcomes. But that consistency habit is probably the biggest one I ever see as being the most successful one over time with exercise.
David Smith (10:16):
I think all of it reflects on showing the levels of patience. People always have said, “Can we fix…” We’ll probably talk more about this. We have unrealistic elements. But people go over the top with what they think they can get achieved in a short term. It’s going to be damaging to long-term compliance. Taking any of these processes is a lifelong journey is important.
Michael Dermansky (10:39):
Well, let’s go to the flip side now too. What stories do you hear yourself, and you think, “This is not going to work, and we’re looking at disaster?”
David Smith (10:48):
Well, those extremes. It’s often, I think, number one and number two. These are always generally combined. It’s about setting unrealistic expectations on themselves, both in terms of what they can commit to on a week-to-week basis and how quickly they think that physical changes actually occur. Depending on training backgrounds, of course, but the person that comes in from a relatively sedentary base with a busy life, a busy worker, with some extreme composition change goals in very short periods of time, saying they’re there train for an hour a day… “I can commit to five days a week. Let’s do this. I’m ready to go. I’ve had this light bulb moment.” They ignore the fact that life happens: that they’re going to get sore. They’re going to get tired, particularly when they start. Work’s going to flow and get busy. The kids might get sick. Then, what happens is they miss one planned session, and then that becomes they miss three planned sessions. Then, it’s the whole week. Before you know it, the wheels just completely fall off.
Michael Dermansky (11:46):
Yep. Yep. I mean, in a similar light as well. What’s wrong with setting unrealistic goals? Aren’t they being resilient? Aren’t they going for it?
David Smith (11:57):
Yeah. Again, we talked about earlier that motivation is a bit of a finite resource. It’s not necessary a question of resilience or motivation but the fact that, just as humans, we have fragile egos and repeated failures in any task that we do, especially around health, which is so intimately linked to our confidence. It leads to reduction in our self-efficacy. This continues to impact all demands of our life. What we do there, with unrealistic goal setting, is we create a bit of a downward spiral. You’re unlikely to succeed the first time because, as I said, it’s just you’ve expected too much of yourself: too much, too early, too soon. Your likelihood of success is low.
Then, the next attempt to engage in exercise starts at a lower self-efficacy base, which leads to an even greater risk of falling off of the wagon again. That downward cycle continues. We actually can create a downward spiral until, ideally, it’s broken by seeing someone like yourself or myself. Goal setting, first and foremost, of course, must support that superordinate purpose, the ideal person. But then, you need to have a few very clearly defined characteristics when you go to a particular goal setting.
Michael Dermansky (13:16):
Let’s go back to this one as well in terms of unrealistic goals as well. I think we’re heading there. But we haven’t gone there fully yet. If someone does have a body composition goal or they have a fitness goal as well, and I know this is a very broad question, what’s a real timeframe? What’s a really expected number of sessions/times that’s realistic for someone to actually achieve a great goal? We’ll talk about my finding as well. But what are your thoughts on this?
David Smith (13:49):
Yeah, look. If we look at just pure energy expenditure concepts… That if you want to lose one kilogram of adipose tissue of fat… We’re talking seven to 8,000 calories or kilocalories of consumption for that to change. Now, if the average person eats around 2,500 calories a day and they are very controlled and able to sustain a 500-calorie deficit every single day of the week, where it’s going to take two weeks to lose one kilogram of adipose tissue. That ignores the fact that the body upregulates various satiety signals. We are designed to want to try to store energy based on old primal instincts. To roam the planes we need to store fat. In the purest sense, ignoring all those other outcomes, it’ll take you at least two weeks to lose a kilo of adipose tissue and, most likely, at least twice as long as that to make sure that it’s also then stable and sustainable: that you’re not just going to have a rebound effect.
You’re talking a weight loss goal. Look, if you’re able to drop a kilogram every two to four weeks and, obviously, depending on the size of the individual at where they start, that’s going to vary. But if you were to drop five to 10 kilos across an entire year but then be able to stably hold that for another five to 10 years, that is so much more effective than losing 15 to 20 kilos this year and being back where you started a year later.
Michael Dermansky (15:30):
Well, that’s an enormously important conversation there as well. 5% kilos over a 12-month period is sustainable because, as you said, it takes a long time to lose adipose tissue. When people go on the crash diets of… “I’ll cut my carbs down to nothing. They lose a lot of water. There’s not much body fat loss. Also, remember, they actually lose a lot of muscle mass, which means it’s very hard to sustain weight loss because your basal metabolic rate, the amount you actually burn doing nothing, just drops. You have to keep eating less and less and less and less to actually even maintain that weight without putting on weight. Then, if you do put on weight, you have to eat less. You put on more fat rather than muscle mass because you lost it. It’s too fast. It’s a downward spiral. It’s very, very hard to maintain in the long term.
David Smith (16:21):
Yeah. Obviously, trying for a rapid change there, either putting muscle mass on or reducing body fat levels, is that it takes a long time to do it sustainably and effectively. All of those discussions there, really, all just ignore the fact that we’re human. You want to have the flexibility to go out and have dinner with your friends and-
Michael Dermansky (16:41):
David Smith (16:41):
…have a beer on the weekend and things like that. If you’re really strict on those outcomes, you don’t allow it. What happens is it’s considered punishment to yourself. Internally, without consciously thinking about it, those extremes is determined as punishment. When we determine something is punishment, a natural human response is going to be a hedonistic response. There’s going to be that tipping point down the track where you’ll just have that complete blowout, those binges. You’ll either throw exercise out of your framework completely or you have those huge overeating binge patterns. Any extreme elements and high expectations will lead to that hedonistic response too.
Michael Dermansky (17:21):
The other thing about it in terms of muscle mass as well… It takes time to build that muscle mass. I mean, the first seven weeks of any exercise program… There’s no changes in muscle. It’s all patterning. It’s all improved-
David Smith (17:32):
Michael Dermansky (17:33):
…neurological changes. Then, you start to see changes after that too. If you get a reasonable strength change or a muscles [inaudible 00:17:39] change in your body composition in three months, that is a brilliant outcome.
David Smith (17:43):
Yeah. You should be celebrating.
Michael Dermansky (17:44):
You should be celebrating that. That’s a great response. That gives you a good base to build up strength over time. It’s amazing what you can achieve in 12 months, two years as well, compared to trying to rush it in a six-week program. It’s not going to happen.
David Smith (17:59):
But social media expectations, of course, scarred that a little bit for all of us.
Michael Dermansky (18:03):
Yes, and filters and all those things too. That make a difference too. Another really important topic… And I wrote about this a little while ago, is that… rest in recovery. Where does that fit in the goal and habit-setting process go? Because I know this is an extremely important topic.
David Smith (18:18):
Yeah. Look, I think if we go back to that little goal hierarchy we spoke about where you’ve got the superordinate goals, it makes it a much clearer, defined path or visual of understanding how taking a day off, going to bed earlier, reducing your training load from what is planned on a particular day if you’re feeling a bit more fatigued or you’re feeling off all fits into that overall goal setting and habit forming process. A bigger-picture focus helps with… Whereas if you’re really strict on being performance-focused or an outcome focus within your goal setting, and it’s a very short-term type of element, that you’ll then start to feel like a failure if you take that day off or you don’t do the 10K you planned, or you don’t do the seven sets of squats you’d planned.
You’re more likely to push yourself through, ignore rest and recovery, and then those body signals that might be sensing… “Hey, there could be some injuries or some illness coming if you keep pushing through. Whereas if you have that larger step back view, you can see how rest and recovery all still point to you helping get to that right direction you want to go. Well
Michael Dermansky (19:26):
The biggest thing about rest and recovery is that growth doesn’t happen when you exercise. It happens when you rest. If you’re ignoring that rest phase of the exercise program, you’re actually not giving your body a chance to actually grow and adapt. Your cortisone levels just remain elevated. They don’t have a chance to come down. That’s the exact opposite signals your hormones/your body needs to actually make change over time.
David Smith (19:51):
Yeah. We want to be anabolic versus catabolic. If you’re always stressed, always tired, and always fatigued, you’re not going to be able to create any physical change.
Michael Dermansky (20:02):
I mean, interestingly enough, when you see people overtrain, and we have a chat. They say, “Why am I not getting results?” Because you’re doing too much. You have to back it off. When they eventually listen to you and do that, it’s amazing how much faster the results actually are.
David Smith (20:13):
Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes doing less is more.
Michael Dermansky (20:14):
Doing less is more.
David Smith (20:17):
It’s not about the most you can do. It’s about what’s the most sustainable you can do.
Michael Dermansky (20:21):
Let’s finish off with the last one as well. I’ve put all the right habits in place. I’ve done the work. But I still haven’t achieved my goals. What next?
David Smith (20:32):
Well, starting off again, have you set realistic timeframes on that initial goal setting? Most likely, to really understand that, you would speak to someone like yourself and myself to understand what is the true timelines for human physiology change. Everyone overestimates what they actually do. Have you actually done enough work to achieve those desired outcomes?
I’d go through a checklist. Do my goals point to a higher reason? This might impact the other elements that I’ve just discussed. Do they truly matter to you, or are they just superficial external drive that has been pushed onto you by someone else, by social media, by TV? Do my goals meet the appropriate characteristics of effective goal setting? Are they approaching goals? Do they have flexibility? Are they process focus and seek mastery versus this defined, rigid outcome elements to it? Have I engaged support in the process? None of this should be a solo journey. It’s not easy. Friends, family, colleagues, and, obviously, particularly experts becomes important.
Michael Dermansky (21:40):
Yeah. My big one there as well… Have you had no rest recovery into your process too? If that’s missing too, that’s probably one of the major elements stopping you from achieving your goals.
David Smith (21:51):
Michael Dermansky (21:52):
Well, any last thoughts, David?
David Smith (21:55):
Yeah. Look, goal setting is easy. That’s just writing something down on a bit of paper. It’s a very lazy conscious thought. But meaningful goal setting is quite challenging. Forming exercise habits is a lifelong journey. We just need to make sure that people aren’t rushing it and understanding that failure’s going to happen and that it’s all just part of the learning process. Don’t let it knock you off your long-term journey.
Michael Dermansky (22:23):
Ultimately, time and consistency are probably the most important of those habits as well.
David Smith (22:28):
Michael Dermansky (22:29):
Well, thank you very much for your time, David. It’s been great having a chat as well. This has been really good information today. We’ll no doubt hear you on the podcast again in the future. Thanks again for your time. We’ll see you next time.
David Smith (22:42):
It’s been an absolute pleasure, Michael. Thanks for having me again.
Thank you for listening to The Confident Body. For practical articles to help you build a confident body, go to mdhealth.com.au/articles.