Punting the Pain Pendulum Pattern

Everything is “more” during the holidays. We eat more. We spend more. We stress more. We eggnog more. But there’s a “less” in the mix. We move less. Much less. But before you correct that with yet another New Year’s Resolution, be weary one punishing pattern: the Pain Pendulum.

Brace Yourself

You’re not alone if you’ve been on the fitness sidelines for awhile now. It’s a right of passage for New Years to be all about the New You and that New You comes at a cost. There’s a high-octane marketing engine out there that blasts that message hardcore. Invest in yourself because you’re worth it. So, we do.

But if you wait until you feel completely egg nogged on January 1st before you start up again, you might make some poor fitness decisions, like getting locked into an ironclad contract with a gym or fitness studio again. You know the kind. The ones that are famously difficult to get out of later after your interest wanes. We commit with coins, often with little resistance. This machine is so effective because it snags us when we’re at our weakest: the end of the holidays.

That’s no accident.

Thinking “I’ll work harder this year” or “No excuses this time” won’t work, at least not for long.

While it’s easy to sling shade at the gym industry, they do what works (for them): make us feel worse when we’re already down. That sells contracts that ensure that gyms make money whether you show up or not. That’s the standard business model, and it’s a cynical one because it literally banks on you failing.

Sure, things might turn out differently in 2020. But can I be brutally honest with you? Thinking “I’ll work harder this year” or “No excuses this time” won’t work, at least not for long. I mean, did it the last time?

Why not?

The Pain Pendulum

This annual right of passage–to boom into fitness then whimper out of it–is powered by a pattern.

At its core, this pendulum pattern is all about reaching critical mass, which millions of people will be experiencing soon. On one end, we have a painful psychological state characterized by feelings of failure, guilt, and shame about ourselves. In this state, we engage in painful self-talk about our health, even self-loathing. It’s common after a period of self-neglect. Eventually, this fire hose of negativity reaches a tipping point where something has to give.

The Pain Pendulum: Swinging between the pain of discipline or the pain of failure.

A lot of people feel like a failure at the end of the year. A big part of that is how we’re easily triggered by a sophisticated marketing engine primed to poke at our pain. In effect, the fitness industry leverages our mental anguish. We’re peppered with more images of fit bodies at year’s end than any other time. It’s easy to feel regretful about all that fruit cake and frivolity served over the holidays. On the daily, ads featuring perfect pecs and toned tummies wash over us online, on magazines, and on buses. By the time that New Year’s Eve hangover finally wears off, we’re VERY aware of how much we are not like these models.

Welcome to critical mass. With our activation energy bubbling over, we kick into action. Unfortunately, any action seems like good action.

But it isn’t. Why not?

It’s Not Me, It’s You

We make an unfavorable trade, swapping the pain of failure for painstaking fitness. That’s the physical piece of the pendulum pattern. We clasp fiercely to some goal, hoping to stay disciplined enough to make it a reality. You’re no longer feeling like a lumpy failure as much as a grumpy grinder, flailing away at exercise you really don’t really enjoy. It’s exercise that lacks any real motivating ingredients.

… the question isn’t if it will work for a while, but is it sustainable?

You grind it out for a while. You start reeling in that goal, but the question shouldn’t be if it will work for a few weeks, but whether this game will work in the long haul. As they say, “you have to be in it to win it”. No win (result) is attainable nor sustainable without a replenishing supply of self-motivation.

The Pain Pendulum pattern completes itself when that painstaking fitness routine stalls and you have to surrender. You can only drag yourself to that dreadful step aerobics class so many times before the mental effort becomes too much.

Critical mass achieved. Next stop? Failure town.

Don’t be fooled, no amount of willpower can divert you from this destination. Willpower simply cannot solve the one fundamental problem bleeding the motivation from your ambition: incompatibility. If there’s a misfit between who you are and the activities you’re choosing, and even how you’re performing them, you’re doomed.

3 Steps to Punting the Pattern

So how does one break up with this pesky pattern exactly? How does one ramp up the resonance? Start with these 3 steps.

Step 1 – Don’t Set Goals

Blasphemy, right? Goals are a distraction. They divert attention away from the relationship you’re building (or torching) with exercise and your body. Adherence and motivation stem from a positive bond with the act of moving. Goals can come later. After all, if goals were the answer, wouldn’t we all have solved our inactivity problem by now?

Step 2Play the Field

It sounds a bit absurd, but I love creating dating strategies for my clients. You read that right. We commit to trying new things, as if they’re looking for the future love of their life. What if you approached the New Year the same way? We say it’s important to try new things, and it’s as important to busting up old patterns as anything.

Step 3 – Change the Question

There’s a problem though. There are dozens and dozens of exercise options at our disposal. Did I say dozens? I meant hundreds when you consider all the stuff you can do for FREE. That’s daunting. So, where do my clients start? They build their compass, a personalized fitness filter to weed out the incompatibilities first. Like one would in dating fellow homo sapiens, they nail down their fitness “type”.

Setting goals doesn’t do that, which is why asking “What’s my goal?” must be replaced. With what you ask?

How do you want exercise to feel?

Change the Question, Change the Game

Your answer to this question is the kill switch for the pain game. That’s why I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to helping people pin one down. It’s why I wrote Feel Like It. When you change the question, you change the game. You choose activities more wisely. You do those activities in more enjoyable ways. You create more quality fitness experiences, and if you create quality, you’ll crave quantity.

As a former client perfectly put it, “Not only did my answer take the blindfold off, this question made me realize I was wearing one in the first place.” So, punt the pendulum this year by investing your focus in an answer, and hit the New Year with your eyes wide open.


Dr. Kelly Doell is a fitness writer and physical activity counselor. He’s the author of Feel Like It: Makeover Your Motivation to Move and hosts a weekly podcast on the mental side of active living called Happily Ever Active. Follow him on Instagram or Facebook.