When Weight Loss Motivation & Inspiration—Aren’t

Weight loss motivation and “inspiration” are all over the media. It’s supposed to be helpful, right? Keep you on track. Give you direction. But look at this particular “motivational” image:

“Strive for progress, not perfection.” OK, good advice I’ll admit. In fact, it’s advice I’d share. But how about the image? Good grief, that woman has what bodybuilders call a “coconut delt” with a deep cut to her tricep and her legs and glutes are totally cut! How does an image like this compare with an image of a super-skinny model? They both represent unrealistic bodies that most people could never achieve. But we think this one is “positive.” We think it’s encouraging. Is it? If you hired a professional body-building trainer and worked out for hours every day, could you achieve a body like this? When you look at this image, are you really separating in your mind what’s expressed by the phrase from what’s being communicated by the photo?

So-called “motivation” and “inspiration” have the effect of making you compare yourself to others. Typical “motivational” memes and images use photographs of totally-ripped people. What these images communicate is really no different from the use of extremely hard-bodied people in advertising for weight-loss products and programs. For a lot of people, images of super-ripped bodies are just as unrealistic as skinny models and gorgeous celebrities. “Motivation” makes you focus on what you may or may not be doing and most people will start to be harder on themselves to do what they think would be “better.” They are being “motivated” by the image of a body that could be impossible for them to achieve with nearly any amount of work. Even without images, “motivation” forces us to a place where we inevitably judge ourselves for what we are or are not doing.

I honestly think “inspiration” is much worse. You’re touched by the inspirational story of someone who overcomes significant obstacles to accomplish something that perhaps you’ve been trying to do for a long time. Well aren’t you the big failure if they did it and you haven’t! What’s your problem? The most shame-inducing challenge anyone can level at another person is “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Do not confuse motivation and inspiration with good advice and mentoring. It’s the difference between cheerleading and strategy. Cheerleading may pump you up temporarily but strategy guides you how to make realistic choices. I was really struck by the image I’ve posted above because the advice it expresses is actually outstanding! “Progress” is relative. Progress for you may be literally adding 30 seconds to the time you’re able to lift yourself up on a stepper. Progress for you may be doing some form of exercise every single day for a whole week for the first time. Progress for you may be cooking full meals more often and finally letting go of cleanses and detoxes and crazy diets.

There’s nothing another person can do that will prove something about your own abilities. Only you can determine what will work because nothing works unless it works for you.


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    • Taunia on August 6, 2013 at 10:17 am

    I could work out a gazillion hours a day and the ONLY way I’d ever look like that woman is with MAJOR surgery and performance drugs. Even then, I doubt I’d look that good.

    Really perceptive, though, and odd that I haven’t seen this type of image issue talked about before now. Reposting, for sure! 🙂

    1. My three month “experiment” with the bodybuilding trainer was one of the most intense experiences in my entire life. I learned from it how much effort I would have to expend to achieve particular results. It was so stressful and difficult for me that today I’m able to be very realistic about what’s possible for me and what I can reasonably expect from myself.

      There is a well-known women’s bodybuilding trainer in my hometown. I’d be interested in trying an experiment with her on my next month-long trip home. She trains women for competition. I’d love to see what she’d put me through and what my mid-fifties body could handle!

    • Dee on August 6, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Uhm, she isn’t that muscular really. Thanks to a gentleman who helped me I went from 290 pounds to 145, and while I’m not as lean as she is, probably some photo shop, I’m pretty close.
    Anyone could achieve her level of fitness, her physique is not unattainable, and her drugs aren’t necessary for her level of development.
    Your comments about cuts, which she isn’t really that much, but everything else is also due to the postion, and her muscles are under strain so development the muscles show more definition because of that stress.
    I will take inspiration and motivation any day. I too was weak, and didn’t understand that those who overcome huge obstacles were meant to emulated not vilified.

    1. Well, “Dee,” there are two certified trainers who would disagree with your dismissive opinion of the woman’s muscularity, myself and Doug Robb. For a woman to achieve the level of deltoid development she has, she’d have to lift pretty heavy, be consuming the right diet for bodybuilding, and—especially for a woman—she’d need the genes for it. Muscle-building comes much easier for some people than others, a fact freely acknowledged by bodybuilders. Her bodyfat percentage must also be pretty low to be able to show muscularity in her quads and glutes which we all know are areas where women tend to maintain fat.

      I got the image from Doug Robb of HealthHabits.ca. Doug chose the image because it shows what he considered to be a body that is “inspiration” level. If you have a personal success story to share, by all means please direct us to a blog or website where we can get more information about you.

      And if you think my post vilified anyone, the point went right over your head.

      • Bebe on July 20, 2014 at 11:36 am

      Oh for fuck’s sake the woman DOES look like she’s got a goddammned coconut on her shoulder!

    • JoAnn on August 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    You hit all the highlights, including my particular pet peeve “If I could do it, anyone can.” So not true. I love my trainer and he really puts me through my paces. He’d be the first to say that not everyone can achieve the body builder body, no matter how hard he or she worked, short of using chemicals.

    I like the message of progress over perfection if you’re using yourself as the measuring stick, i.e. I doing better today than last week and last year. Sometimes the changes are small and you have to look through a really long lens to appreciate any noticeable progress.

    The inspirational can do the job when it provides a bit of hope. You have to see yourself in a similar situation. Sometimes it’s more about how someone says something than what they say that makes you sit up and take notice.

    Reading your book made me do that more than a few times. Even though I am officially on a commercial program, I’ve made so many adaptations that it is really “my” program. I hadn’t recognized that until I read that recommendation to create your own. It so had the ring of truth to it that I realized I’d always believed it, just hadn’t come to conclusion consciously.

    I think you have to find what works for you, not someone else. Comparisons end up being counterproductive. The problem is many people stick with something and never view it through the window of effectiveness.

    1. Thanks, JoAnn. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff was on the Today Show just this morning and he summed it up—if you can’t be on that diet for the rest of your life, it’s not going to work!!

      Keep livin’ it, JoAnn!!

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