I never finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. It was too depressing, and the vernacular Okie language gave me a migraine. Give me a break, I was 15 and my brain was 5% eat, 5% sleep, and 90% breasts.

So I Cliff Notes-ed the final and got a C. It wasn’t until decades later I learned how Steinbeck ended the story. If I’d known that …

Anyway, here is a quote that is commonly (but erroneously) attributed to the book’s author John Steinbeck that remains relevant: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” (It was actually Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress.)

That quote has the word “socialism” in it, which is certain to raise the ire of many, but my point in sharing “Steinbeck’s” quote is in reference to an all or none mentality. Many people don’t want a government that taxes the rich to raise the living standards of the poor, because multitudes of poor believe they’re going to strike it rich one day. Instead of pursuing a path that improves their station in life markedly, they’re chasing some almost unattainable dream, one that usually ends up taking them nowhere.

The fitness and weight loss industry is a lot like the failed American dream, and January always comes with the same promise of “New Year, new you.” But instead of dreams of rags to riches, it’s obese to fitness model. Many overweight people see those amazing before and after photos plastered across books, magazines and the Internet and believe they too are temporarily embarrassed fitness models. Sure, they’re fat now, but before long they’ll have rippling abs and bulging biceps. Flab to fab may not be as unrealistic as rags to riches, but it’s certainly not as easy as the purveyors of fad diets and abdominal exercising products would have you believe.

And these products and services promise fast results, of course. It doesn’t matter that the pounds came on over years, it needs to be gone in six weeks, tops. And so it’s pills, powders, pull-ups and exercise to puking. It’s extreme workouts and dangerous dietary practices. It’s all abs or nothing.

You’re not a failure if you never see your rectus abdominis. If you think losing 50 pounds will make you fitness-model lean, but instead manage to maintain 25 pounds of weight loss, is this not still awesome? You get leaner, healthier, have more energy and drive. You’ve adopted an improved lifestyle you can live with and sustain. Yes, still awesome.

But people often don’t want to hear about moderate improvement. They don’t care that regular movement integrated via things like walking meetings, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, standing more and sitting less, doing yard work, playing with their children, parking further away from the mall and cleaning their own house all coupled with eating sensibly (and not too much) leads to positive changes in health and well-being, and can even make them happier with what they see in the mirror. No gym membership or fad diet required.

And yet many wake up on New Year’s Day with their mouth tasting like they spent the previous evening making out with a diseased sasquatch and drag their hung over backside to some torture chamber to be yelled at by a sadist whose previous employment was Marine Corps drill instructor. The night before they had a blood-alcohol level that would have tranquilized Ted Kennedy and now they’re relying on pure willpower to suffer through sweat sessions because this is the year they finally get in shape.

Add in a highly restrictive diet and before long they’re ready to stab a cobra in the kidney with a salad fork. Such an approach to fitness and weight loss has a higher failure rate than a Taylor Swift relationship. It’s time to change the way people think about weight loss.

As a former overweight couch potato I understand how hard it is to make the transition to regular exerciser. When it comes to exercise amount I’m well into the top 5%. How do I know this? A 2008 study of over 6,000 people by researchers at the National Institute of Health published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise used accelerometers to determine that fewer than 5% of adult Americans got 30 minutes of physical activity at least five times a week.

What this means is that 95% of Americans don’t get enough exercise to make much of a contribution to either weight loss or weight maintenance. And they don’t want to change.

And the reason why they don’t want to change is twofold. The first is the continual promotion of a “go hard or go home” mentality that is appealing to only a small minority, and the second is the ridiculous weight loss claims perpetuated by the media that makes slow progress anathema. I’m not down on setting, chasing and achieving ambitious fitness goals. I’ve done it myself, and it’s pretty awesome, but it’s not for everyone.

For those who dramatic lifestyle change is not appealing, it’s important to just believe in the power of a little more walking, and a little less snacking on high calorie treats, and how such simple actions can improve their lives.

So for 2015, consider what changes you can reasonably make and stick to. You cannot sustain something you hate, so this year resolve to ditch the “I must endure this torture” mentality when it comes to fitness and weight loss, and instead pursue a lifestyle that involves moderate physical activity you enjoy, and eating behaviors that aren’t built around extreme restriction or some fad diet.

Focus on enjoying the fitness journey, and let the destination take care of itself.

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James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.

 

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