8 min read

Fitness is a Learning Process

Fitness is a Learning Process
First Time Learning Process. Keep trying.
Embrace the Struggle

When I was in grade three I experienced my first notable learning process. A whopping eight years old. I set a provincial or area record in the standing long jump.

The following year is when you stopped competing in standing long jump and had to transition to triple jump or long jump.

You know, grown up field events.

I don’t know if that record is still standing, or if they even still do standing long jump in Elementary schools in Ontario (the should!). I don’t even remember what the record was.

I was eight. Does it matter?

What matters is the story behind that feat. I finished second or third the year before at my school. Not the area. Not the province. The school.

That didn’t sit well with me, so I set up a measuring tape in my parents living room during that winter.

My father would later build a sand pit (complete with wood board to jump off!) in our backyard for me that spring.

I’d set a measuring tape up outside and leave it there too, once the weather held up.

Every day, or nearly every day, I’d warm up a little and practice jumping. Either in the house or outside in the sandpit. I’d track my numbers.

Yes, slightly neurotic for a seven year old, going on eight.

The Only Goal?

Beat yesterday’s numbers.

So every day, I’d come home from school and I’d hit the tape. Do a little warm up. Jump.

Mark it as best I could (easier in sand), record it. Sweep the sand. Go again. Repeat the learning process until I noticed an improvement on old numbers.

Sometimes I’d try jumping off one leg or the other. Maybe sometimes a running long jump or triple jump if I was outside but I was always jumping.

Just to mix things up.

Keep in mind, I had no idea what I was doing. No one showed me the ideal jumping technique. I didn’t have a track coach at this point. I’m eight!

15 minutes. 30 minutes. Sometimes an hour straight. No coach. No parent. No friends looking on. Me, by myself, jumping in the backyard or next to my mother’s piano. I was just trying to figure it out.

Yes, I know. Weirdo!

A year later I finished first at the school and went to the district or area track and field competition for standing long jump.

And I won. By a lot. 30 cm or about a foot for my U.S readers. I had no idea what was good, so I just kept going and going as far as I could take it.

I just knew I didn’t want to finish second or third.

The Learning Process

I didn’t realize it at the time but I stumbled across a very simple life truth.

The simplest way to improve is to develop a learning process. A routine if you will. Do something regularly and just try to make little improvements consistently.

I didn’t see improvements every day. You won’t either. What really matters was the intent.

In fact, knowing what I know now, jumping like this every day likely impeded me in some way.

When it comes to power sports, most research shows maximum power training is best maybe 2-3x a week. I was doing it 5-6x a week.

Likely I should have trained every other day or something. I likely would have been less frustrated when every other day or for a couple of days straight I didn’t see any improvement.

By accident I probably built in some kind of recovery. I couldn’t exert myself maximally every day or physical improve every day because adaptations are relatively slow, but I’d still practice.

I’d still make the attempt and I learned something even when I didn’t achieve my daily training goal. Which is what often happened. Overtime though, you do start to notice improvement.

Had I given up after a week or two or three, I wouldn’t have seen the outcome.

Make no mistake about it, weight loss, muscle mass gain, athletic performance improvement are all a learning process, not an end result.

Step One – Change Your Approach

You can go to any trainer on earth and they can give you some superficial motivation. We can push you to do the things you hate doing. We can give you ultimatums, and we can play the role of military drill sergeant.

Even the army doesn’t do this anymore.

A different kind of trainer can help you discover your own motivation. Often turn what you hate doing into something you actually enjoy and show you the most effective ways to stay fit — this is my preferred model.

You can go to any trainer for a hard workout or you can go to a great trainer to develop your own learning process.

Beware of any trainer who refuses to teach you how to do things on your own.

The worry for these trainers is that people won’t return as steady business but I’ve found the opposite to be true in my own practice.

As the old saying goes:

‘Catch a fish for a man, he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he can feed himself for a lifetime.’

Taking an active interest in your own health is perhaps the biggest first step towards creating desirable automatic behaviour. You have to want to learn.

Just small daily improvements, every few days, or dare I say it, even a small weekly win will work.

You have to create an identity that embraces change and sometimes discomfort.

It’s Like Learning Math

For some reason people think fitness is different, but it’s exactly like learning math. Or any other skill like math.

It’s a continual learning process based on routine. You try slightly more and more challenging problems and try to solve them.

It’s how we get good at anything we do. Fitness is not a matter of willpower or hunkering down for the short-term.

We need view the process as we would the process of educating ourselves.

Ask yourself some of these questions as a starting point? Really dive deep and define them.

  • What does “being fit” really mean to me?
  • Does this fall in-line with my beliefs? Is that a good or bad thing?
  • Will pursuing this agree with or conflict with my values?
  • Can I live this way for an extended period of time?
  • Do I feel good or bad when following this methodology?
  • Can I sustain this intensity or routine for the rest of my life?
  • Do I enjoy doing this, or can I see myself enjoying this? What if I got better at it? Would it be more enjoyable then?
  • Does this make me feel good about myself?

There are numerous other questions you could ask along the way too.

Determine and clarify what you want out of the process. A goal if you will, but more like a broad desirable outcome.

Also determine how you will likely get to that point. What’s involved in achieving the broad desirable outcome and what possible hiccups will you encounter?

“Fitness” is a subjective term. No one can tell you what fitness is subjectively to you as a person.

Develop your plan. Then hit step two, hone your learning process.

Step Two – Develop Your Process

Rather than focusing all of your attention on outcome oriented goals. i.e. I will accomplish ‘X’ by ‘Y’ date.

Run personal mini-experiments.

Develop your process of personal experimentation.

My process for standing long jump was really simple. Beat the previous jump. Keep practicing if you see improvements. Discontinue practice if you see noticeable decreases in performance.

Would the same approach have worked for basketball? Just practice basketball every day?

Likely no.

The reason is complexity. Basketball as a sport requires many different sub-skills.

You have to shoot from a variety of places, pass, run, change direction, hit free throws, anticipate ball movement, etc…etc…

Life is a lot like that too.

It’s complex, but you can and should break down skills into their most simple practice elements.

Then run your experiments.

Jumping is an element of basketball. So I could have used standing long jump as an experiment.

Jump often, track the result, try to learn from the result.

After a few weeks or perhaps even a month or more; Did it result in being able to jump better for basketball? Yes/No?

Don’t stop being critical of the process, or continually improving the process. You can always get a little bit better.

A Weight Loss Example

Pick a mini-experiment.

Let’s say you’re going to practice eating vegetables one more serving of vegetables a day.

Track the result.

Do you see the changes you want to see?

If so, you can keep running the experiment, or you can make it slightly more challenging. Say, practice eating two more servings of vegetables a day.

In the process you get better at cooking, preparing and eating vegetables. These are nutrient dense foods that don’t contribute a lot of calories to your diet.

The mini-experiment yields that eating more vegetables per day helps you lose weight and likely also helps you keep any weight regain off.

What other mini-experiments could become a part of your learning process? Plan them out in advance.

Step Three – Make it a “Learning Process”

Goal Setting Process

No one can really learn how to fish overnight. Many of us get trapped into thinking we have to, or we need to, but we can’t.

We need to invest a certain amount of time working with a coach, getting feedback, practicing skills, changing habits, and altering behaviors.

Maybe reading books, talking to others who have been successful, or perhaps even reading good blogs. 😉

We need to gain some experience in fishing, or eating, or exercising.

Set a plan for how you’ll fish. i.e. I’m going to go to this spot and use this bait, with this hook, this rod and let’s see what happens today or this week.

Measure the result. i.e. how many fish did you catch with your experiment?

Learn from the little experiment.

If you didn’t catch any fish, do you just stop fishing? OR perhaps should you try:

  • A new spot?
  • Different bait in the same spot?
  • A different hook/line/reel?
  • A different rod?

It’s important when conducting mini-experiments that your follow up experiments don’t differ too wildly from the original experiment.

Don’t try a new spot, with different bait, a different hook, line, reel or rod.

Maybe just try a new spot. Or try the same spot with different bait or a different hook.

Keep Tweaking Your Experiments

Obviously I don’t fish but it conveys the premise I’m trying to convey. After each experiment, assess what you learned and how it impacted the long-term result you seek.

If it helped, try to keep doing it. If it didn’t, try a new experiment. If you want to try something similar, modify the experiment a little.

If one serving of vegetables wasn’t enough to make a difference, how about two servings? Or if two wasn’t enough, how about three?

The other possibility is to move on completely to something new. Perhaps eating more lean protein would be the difference maker for you instead.

There are many skills to learn at your disposal, our coaching program features 26 of them.

In our coaching programs we do 2 week experiments, but there is no specific reason for this time frame. Other than it’s very manageable and people don’t get too bored during a two week experiment.

It’s short enough that you can measure the result at the beginning of the two weeks and at the end without being neurotic about tracking/measuring.

Yet long enough that you can still notice and learn from the changes.

You don’t have to do that, it’s merely a suggestion. Remember this is about you figuring out your own approach. 😉