5 Fitness Mistakes Smart People Make

Getting fit, lean and healthy is no rocket science. Apply some simple principles, like eating real food, having a solid workout routine which you follow consistently and you will get results.

Yet many people struggle with reaching their fitness goals and it has nothing to do with their lack of wits. It’s quite the opposite: Because of their intelligence, people fail to follow simple principles. Principles that seem too simple to work.

Read on if you want to know how your smartness is getting in the way of your fitness goals and how to avoid these 5 common fitness mistakes.

The Numbers Game

Lots of smart people like to measure each and every detail of their fitness journey. They start counting their calories, tracking their weight on the scale, buy fancy equipment to measure body fat and are religious about keeping their workout log.

While recording your progress is generally a good idea, it’s easy to get carried away with this if you’re used to scientific work. You try to calculate your progress, fiddle with each variable until your mad-scientist-attitude spreads over to the dinner table.

The most important thing for everybody seems to be optimizing the process. While I’m a huge nerd when it comes to optimizing certain things like the setup of my computer, I found that this is not helpful with things like working out and dieting.

Or, put another way, the optimization process is much slower, which is why overmeasuring everything about losing weight/gaining muscle/getting stronger happens so quickly.

It’s as ridiculous as measuring the growth rate of your front lawn.

Sadly, this applies to many parts of biology. The human body is a very complex system, made up of many other complex systems. And the whole numbers game is just a desperate attempt of getting on top of this complex system.

Instead, I suggest you keep applying those simple principles and record your progress in a simpler fashion:

  • Instead of counting calories, keep a food log. Do this by taking a quick photo of EVERYTHING you eat (and drink, if the drink has calories). That way, you get all the important benefits of counting cals: You become hugely aware of the things you stuff your face with. And you don’t need to do this till the end of time. Try it for 1-2 weeks and you will be much more mindful about what passes your palate.
  • Ditch your scale. It’s useless. The number on the scale doesn’t tell you anything about your progress. Lost/gained weight can be either water, fat or muscle mass. Body fat measurements are also always inaccurate and not worth the hassle. Look in the mirror. Looking better than last month? Good, keep going. If you need to record something to keep you going, take a quick photo of yourself. Take the photo each week on the same day, same time and the same light. Mondays before breakfast is a good time.
  • Most importantly: How do you feel? Do you feel energized? Confident? Tired? Are you moving well? Fitness is more than just looking good. It’s about feeling good.

Putting All the Focus on the End Result

Smart people are oftentimes very goal-centered folks. And mostly, that’s how you get things done. But you have to learn that fitness is not something you put on your to-do list. Do you set a goal to brush your teeth everyday? To have breakfast in the morning?

You don’t, because these are habits. Exercising should become a habit, too. Eating healthy should gradually become natural to you.

Setting temporary goals is good because it can give you something to look forward to and give you focus if you’re just starting out with this. But ultimately, these are lifestyle adjustments that you should stick to no matter what your goals are.

Instead of asking “Am I there yet?”, get comfortable with where you are right now and try to embrace a healthy lifestyle rather than finding quick fixes.

The Eager Beaver Syndrome

The Eager Beaver Syndrome (EBS) is closely related to the goal-centric attitude I mentioned above. The problem here is that we often are heavily motivated in the beginning of a fitness journey.

People suffering from EBS wanna do everything at once: Eat healthy, strength train 4 times a week, sprinting once a week, do a yoga class, go rock climbing and have long, slow walks at the beach.

In the future, we’re all wonderful people who have strict discipline and recovery abilities like Wolverine.

In reality, though, this over-motivation is often the deal breaker. You set high expectations for yourself and get disappointed and discouraged if you fail to meet these high standards.

To overcome EBS, try to change small things one at a time. If you’re going from not doing anything at all to just working out for 5 minutes a day, that’s HUGE. You’ll be surprised by the results you’re going to get from just these tiny 5 minutes. Once the first little step becomes a habit, take the next step. Rinse and repeat.

Becoming an Expert in Fitness and Nutrition

In an attempt to optimize their fitness, lots of people get a kick out of reading publications and clinical studies. I’m an engineer myself and I have to read papers for a living. It’s rarely fun.

Oftentimes, studies that are cited by bloggers are not up-to-date, not thoroughly reviewed by the one who cites it and most readers don’t even care enough to actually read the cited publication. For most folks, it’s enough that there is a study and a link to it so that the blogger’s claims seem legit.

Citing clinical studies is very convincing, but it’s also very elusive. There are lots of studies claiming to proof one thing, while there are others claiming the exact opposite.

The problem with human biology is that we actually don’t know squat, because it’s just a pain in the keister to conduct clinical studies.

Clinical studies regarding nutrition are very hard to control. First, you need a big enough sample (read: many willing participants). This sample needs to be representative (old, young, male, female, sedentary, active, etc.). The participants need to actually do what you ask of them (e.g. eat certain foods and avoid others). Ideally, these are long-term studies (conducted over many years). Because these studies are very hard to conduct and very expensive, researchers often use rodents and other animals, which are, well, not humans.

For studies regarding exercise and fitness, there is one common problem. Take, for example, the question whether it’s more effective to use sprints or long, slow distance (LSD) running to improve endurance.

The researchers call for a group of about 20 to 30 volunteers. One half of the participants get an LSD running routine, the other half is advised to do a sprint session for a set number of times per week. Both groups do this for about 6 weeks. Because research institutes often belong to a university, students from age 20 to 25 make up the bulk of the volunteers.

The study’s findings: Sprints and LSD running have similar effects on the endurance of the participants. Isn’t that fascinating? Does this mean you can train for a marathon by sprinting, say, 3-4 times a week? Of course not. And that’s the catch. (Nevertheless, sprinting is a fantastic workout.)

These volunteers are usually nowhere near advanced athletes. They all benefit from newbie gains, meaning that every running related activity they do consistently over 1-2 months will have a significant impact on their running abilities. It’s therefore no surprise that sprints and LSD running improve your cardiovascular performance almost equally.

I don’t want to undermine clinical research here. There are lots of groundbreaking publications and progress is made in the field of human physiology. All I want you to do is to take those PubMed articles with a grain of salt and don’t believe everything just because a study supposedly proves it.

And the fact that something worked for 20 people doesn’t guarantee that it’ll work for you. My suggestion to you: Conduct an experiment of one, i.e. try if a certain routine, diet, etc. works for you. See if you make progress with it and adjust the variables as you go.

Program Hopping

I’ll admit it: Program hopping is something I am guilty of. I have a hard time staying focused with one specific program, because I tend to read a lot about strength training and different methods to improve my own routine.

Therefore, I have a kind of flexible routine. I have a basic set of exercises that I keep in my arsenal, while I shift my training focus to certain skills or body recompositioning.

I always have to remind myself that I must not shift too much and keep these training periods as long as possible. I’d advise you to do the same.

Especially if you’re a beginner, you should stick to a stricter routine for longer. You will most probably get results from this for a quite a long time (3-6 months is more than realistic).

Whatever your goals are, find a routine that makes sense to you in this context. Maybe find some tactics to design a program that suit your needs. After that, stop reading about workout routines (same applies to dieting, by the way) and cancel your fitness magazine subscriptions.

Most of the time, it’s not the program that’s not working. I often found that I am guilty of not following it correctly or that I hopped onto another program too soon.


Try to avoid these 5 common fitness mistakes by following the alternatives. Maybe this will help you bust some plateaus and simplify your overall approach to fitness and health.