The fitness industry loves Challenges. And at this time of the year, they seem to be everywhere: “40-day build challenge” or “12 weeks to a bikini body.“
I’ve never been very fond of challenges because they tend to reinforce behavioural patterns and beliefs that are not beneficial.
For instance, most challenges are short-lived contributing to the erroneous belief that losing weight (or building muscle) is a fast process. To deliver results in such short period of time, most programs rely on endorsing extreme behaviours that are not realistic (or safe) for the average person. Those behaviours generate an enormous amount of deprivation which could potentially lead to unhealthy compensatory behaviours (binging, purging or over exercising). Besides, most programs don’t expand on how to maintain the results, so once the challenge is over you are on your own.
I’m not saying that challenges don’t work. They do. But only for a very specific type of people:
- Usually already fit
- Highly motivated
- Used to dieting and extreme exercise
- Hold certain values – health and fitness, appearance – as priority
- Enjoy being pushed to the limit
People who don’t fit this profile end up feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, discouraged, disappointed, ashamed, and powerless.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Since I don’t like jumping into conclusions, I decided to conduct a little research. I enrolled on a 40-day challenge.
I wanted to understand what drove people into these programs. And if they don’t work for most folks, why were they coming back? Is it some kind mass delusion or is there something I am missing?
So there I went with an open mind in search for answers. Much to my surprise, I was able to find quite a few positives which I am sharing with you now:
- Challenges are a group activity that happens inside a community of likeminded people. This creates a sense of belonging, of being understood, of not being alone which is fundamental for success. People in these communities are supportive and ready to cheer you up when you need it.
- The fact that you enrolled in something creates instant accountability. That’s because we tend to tell people around us about the challenge and they will want to know how you are progressing. In my experience, the more people you tell, the better your adherence will be. There is always someone who won’t let you off the hook if you slide.
- There is usually a willingness to play at 100%. You’ve made the commitment and you are going to give your best. (Even if it is temporary. In fact, knowing that the effort has a deadline increases ability to use willpower. “I just need to hang in there for a few more weeks.”)
- Strong commitment to a program contributes to consistent behaviours. And behaviours consistently repeated over time can turn into life-long habits.
- Momentaneous empowerment. Voluntary participation (it doesn’t count if you were forced into a program) on a challenge can shift your beliefs from “this is too hard” to “I can do this.”
- Those challenges are full of role models that post their struggles and how they overcame them. This can inspire a change in attitude when facing a roadblock. “What would so and so do?”
- Having structure inspire trust (after all, this program was carefully designed by an expert) which eliminates second-guessing (the root of negative self-talk).
The bottom line is that participating on a challenge can be very beneficial if it played right. That’s because these programs can generate loads of positive emotions (empowerment, enthusiasm, positive expectations, optimism and hopefulness) that are necessary to overcome potential roadblocks.
This means being able to use willpower to overcome cravings, looking for solutions rather than excuses, shutting down negative self-talk, prioritising based on your goal, making better choices and so on.
Hold your horses. Before you jump into this bandwagon, be aware that challenges are, as the name say, challenging. If your life is already full of stress, this is probably not the best time to start one.
However, it doesn’t mean that you need to wait for perfect conditions (by the way, there is no such thing as perfect conditions, life is imperfect by default) in order to do something.
What if we could create mini-challenges in our life? I mean, small manageable changes. Would that be helpful?
Bingo! My proposal is engaging in a behaviour-based challenge (rather than a full on all-or-nothing challenge). That means instead of trying to change a million different things at once (which can be overwhelming), we focus on installing one healthy habit at a time (or breaking an undesirable one). For example, a 30-day alcohol-free challenge or a 6-week Zumba challenge.
You will get all the benefits of participating on a challenge, minus the stress and overwhelm of trying to do too many changes at once. In addition, small changes may feel so easy to incorporate in your daily routine that you might be inclined to keep going even when the challenge is over.