Discipline Isn’t All That You Need

Discipline Isn’t All That You Need

As it pertains to the health and fitness industry, this seems to be one of the main messages being passed onto struggling clients. As long as someone is disciplined, they’ll reach their goal. Statistically speaking, we’re not doing a very good job at ‘instilling’ discipline into our clients. Despite possessing far more knowledge each passing year, we don’t seem to be having any dramatic effect on the  growing obesity problem in ‘developed’ countries.

Do you not find this a bit odd? How could it be that our knowledge (that which we think is supposed to help) continues to grow, and yet our impact, not? As much as this is just a thought piece, I do believe there is truth to it. With the direction our impact is tracking, I do not believe more information on what the individual can do to help themselves, is going to help. This is a very ‘individualistic’ approach, with the fallacy that the individual possesses enough willpower to say ‘no’ to temptations, but also ‘yes’ to things that are helpful.

Despite our best intentions, discipline or rather, ‘the harder choice’, is finite. As in, everyone only has a a finite number of hard choices in a day. And these can be influenced by factors like sleep quality, satiety, training, psychological disposition, and social forces. If you believe that all that’s required is for individuals to be more ‘disciplined’ in their choices, I daresay you will never be an effective coach.

In my coaching career, I have only met a handful of people who have this ability. It has at times made me wonder – perhaps ‘disciplined’ people are born with a certain disposition that protects them from making ‘bad’ choices. These are the iron-willed individuals who are impervious to any temptation. Unfortunately, these are rare – and you will find that they don’t try particularly hard to be that way. No matter what happens around them, they’ll find ways to stay the course.

However, if we accept that there are people born with a natural disposition towards being disciplined, then we must de facto accept that the opposite is also true. There will be people who are very influenced by their environment. These are the people who will mould to whatever occurs in their lives. If we think along these lines, then we have to ask the question – what is the environment currently… that might be influentially harmful to these people?

What immediately comes to mind (especially as it pertains to the obesity epidemic) is the availability of fast foods. Not only is it convenient, but it is also financially more viable than most ‘healthier’ options. Fast foods are also extremely palatable, which makes us feel good in the moment. However, palatability and satiety are not the same, so this has a tendency to cause overconsumption. Furthermore, stress is piling on top of people’s lives. You might argue that it is no more stressful than other decades, but technological advancement has made stable careers completely redundant. Look no further than the impact driverless cars will have on drivers as an occupation in the near future. As stress increases, our proclivity to make harder decisions decreases.

In addition, pertaining to movement, most of our main methods of transportation are very low in physical motion. We travel in cars and trains, vehicles that were designed to save us time and effort. Lifts exist to assist people who don’t want to take the stairs. Escalators are automated steps that do the walking for you. The intent was always good. But some of the consequences have been bad. If we were to modify the environment such that bikes were the preferred method of transport – perhaps we would see a spike in physical activity.

Make no mistake, I am not being an apologist for people who find it hard to make difficult decisions. I’m saying that pragmatically, there ARE people who will always struggle. Our role is to curate an environment that suits this individual as best we can. This could mean the home is void of junk food. It could mean introducing government policy that positions ‘unhealthier’ products less visibly. It could mean redesigning our roads so that it is inconvenient to not have a bike.

Telling struggling individuals that they need to be more ‘disciplined’ is probably going to fail us in the long term. We require a balance between individual discipline and collective thinking.