Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Binary thinking is the human tendency to view our world as one of mutually exclusive opposites.
Examples of this way of thinking are everywhere and often found in our language. Examples are easy to come by, such as classifying things, or people, as either good or evil, light or dark, soft or hard, hot or cold, smrt or dumb.
Binary thinking makes the world easier to navigate, but it also tends to ignore, and even make us averse to, the grey area or middle-ground that exists between the two proposed opposites.
The middle is scary, uncertain, unclear, mysterious, contradictory, and ever changing, and that is perhaps why we prefer hanging out on the outsides, poles, or opposite ends.
But, the middle is the most real, honest, and also where growth happens.
Embrace the middle.
Us humans especially like to use binary thinking when it comes to how we view ourselves. We place ourselves on one of the poles and hold onto that identity because its easier than admitting that we are ever-changing, erratic, mood-swingy, and hard to predict. Furthermore it is frustrating when the answer to our problem(s), or lifestyle & fitness routine, is unclear, dynamic, multi-faceted, and at times even contradictory.
We like being able to fit things into boxes, even our own behaviour and personalities.
Yet, it turns out that we are a lot more like the weather than a mountain, and a lot more like a river than a pond.
But wait you say, “You just used binary language to illustrate the point that we should be wary of binary thinking”. You are correct. It is damn near impossible for us humans to get away from binary thinking. But, like with any tough habit to break, awareness is the first step, and cultivating awareness is my only purpose here. And in this case, it is not like binary thinking will ever go away, we are just looking to be aware of it, and notice when it is not useful to us.
When it comes to thinking about oneself, what is so wrong with binary thinking? Well, I believe it is reductionist, and does not give credit to the dynamic nature of ourselves. Furthermore, I believe that these identities, or ways of thinking, that we become attached to do us a disservice in the sense that they limit our experiences to the confines of the boxes we place ourselves in. This leads to missed opportunities for growth and a life less rich with experience.
Anyway, hopefully the table is now set, and I can bring out the full meal. That meal being five ways in which binary thinking is hurting your fitness. Enjoy
#1 -Nutrition - Keto or McDonald’s
A lot of people think that there is no in between when it comes to nutrition.
One one side there are the strict people who eat boiled chicken, broccoli, and plain almonds, and we also usually label these folks as taking things too seriously and not knowing how to enjoy themselves.
On the other side is Proverbial Pete who takes pride in his "dad bod" and justifies eating like a 12 year old who is staying at Grandma’s for the weekend, and we often attach labels to him like a "fun guy" and "lives life to the fullest".
Dealing in such extremes is not helpful, but still pervades the world of nutrition. What often happens is someone like Proverbial Pete decides he needs to eat healthy, so he googles “fastest way to lose weight”, or “what does <insert professional athlete or model here> eat?" And, since its 2019 he likely settles on the fad Keto diet, which is rather extreme, unsustainable, and complex.
In a couple weeks when he’s miserable eating that way, he slides back into a bag of Doritos and texts his friend to exclaim that, “Eating healthy is way too hard #dadbod4life".
Well Pete, you did the nutritional equivalent of making the jump from elementary school basketball (in Sk), to the NBA. No wonder it was difficult and didn't last.
Would it not be a better approach to start Pete off somewhere in the middle-ground? Pete has a much better chance of success starting off with some small changes, and incrementally moving away from his old diet, eventually ending up somewhere between his old ways and the extreme Keto diet.
#2 - Training - High Intensity or Lazy/Ineffective
There is a pervading thought in the world of fitness today that the only fitness that will change us has to be high intensity, suffering, loud, in a group-setting, vomit inducing, painful, etc.
Any other expression of fitness is lazy, weak, not effective, soft, or for non-athletes.
This leads to a lot of people performing training that they have no business doing (normal people emulating elite athletes). Also it may scare a lot of people away from fitness who may otherwise start, if they didn’t think the only way to be fit was doing burpees til they puke.
Being sedentary is not healthy, and if you want to improve your fitness you certainly need to challenge yourself multiple times throughout the week, but… that doesn’t mean we jump straight to high intensity training 5x/week with a coach yelling at you to go harder, whose breakfast was BCAA’S and 3 scoops of Pre-Workout.
Furthermore, even for the hardo’s, the softer side of fitness like yin yoga, meditation, breathing, and long walks are extremely beneficial. In many cases the soft-side may be more beneficial because it is the yin to the extremely yang world we live in.
Once again, most people don’t need the training program of an elite or professional athlete, nor should they accept a sedentary lifestyle for themselves. What they likely need is something in between Kara Webb doing Murph in 2015 and Jaba the Hut's sedentary lifestyle.
#3 - Training - Weightlifter vs Powerlifter vs Yogi vs Endurance Athlete vs Crossfitter
This is where binary thinking can be really strong and I believe limits people in a big way.
We tend to see people align themselves with one of the fitness camps out there, and then act as though they have the secret sauce, and all the others are mistakenly swimming in the wrong sauce.
You can’t really blame people for this because it is nice to be part of something bigger than yourself, and get that team feeling you miss from youth sports. However, if you align yourself with one view, only to become blind to all the others, then you are missing out on a lot that those other views may have to offer.
It is quite easy to pop up examples here....
I could speak at length about how each facet of fitness claims or feels that their way is the best, but I won’t even bother opening up that can of worms.
Unless you are a high level specialist who is trying to win something, then… why not allow some more variety? Imagine the opportunity for broadening your life experience if you spent 1 or 2 less days in the gym (speaking to the 5-6 day/week people here), and spent that extra time playing a recreational sport (new way to express and develop your fitness), or finding a fitness hobby that is married to mother nature like mountain biking, surfing, or hiking.
You may lose 10-15% off of your lifts (or actually recover from your training and increase), but trust me, you’ll be the only one who notices.
Would not a broader version of the constantly varied concept do wonders for the everyday person who wants varied experience in life and fitness and still look good naked? This broader version of constantly varied could be a training program which included yoga 2 days/week, lifting 2 days/week, and rec-hockey 1x/week, and a nice long hike 1x/week. You won’t win any medals this way, but who said medals are that great anyway when compared to a life rich with experience complimented by a balanced approach to fitness?
#4 - Lifestyle - This is fitness and this is not fitness
Another example of binary thinking that may be hurting your fitness is having the idea that the only things that “are fitness” occur in a gym, or things you do when you are wearing your fitness costume.
Having the idea that these few certain things are fitness while everything else is not, leads to you missing out on a lot of opportunities for growth.
If increased fitness is your goal, then you should consider not only the training you do as your fitness program, but place equal weight on your sleep practises, nutrition, and recovery strategies. If you are willing to suffer through tabata burpees, because "its fitness", but unwilling to approach your cooking & eating with the same level of focus and intent (and perhaps discomfort), then you are only working with one piece of the fitness puzzle.
Those who have a broader view of fitness which considers sleep, nutrition, mindfulness, mobility, strength & conditioning, relationships, and happiness as all part of the same thing are expressing and living fitness at its highest expression.
#5 - Conceptual - Mind vs Body
In our world we seem to have those who place a high value on mental/social output and on the other end those who place a high value on physical fitness.
Mental/socially focused people often times have high paying and demanding jobs and usually deal with high levels of stress and crazy work schedules. These folks push themselves to the limit to the point where they have to, or try to, ignore their body. They’re all like, “no time to eat, no time to exercise, no time to sleep, must drink coffee, etc.”
For the social output folks, you can just replace “work” with “going out”.
These folks put their physical body way back on the backest back burner, because in their world they have the belief that they don’t need their body. As long as their mind is going they’ll survive.
Physical athletes are what you would expect. These are folks who place a high value on their physical body because they are actual athletes, are simply deep in the athletic world out of interest, or just enjoy the work of being physically fit.
However, often times these folks neglect the mental and/or social side of things. As long as their body is fit, it doesn’t matter if they have no social life, financial instability, never read a book, etc.
What both of these camps are missing is a belief I have, and I hope I am not alone in this, that the mind and the body are really the same.
The mind controls the body and the body controls the mind.
With that in mind, the mentally focused folks would be able to greatly increase their mental output if they increased their physical fitness, and alternately the physically focused folks would be able to greatly increase their experience of physical fitness if they increased their mental & social fitness.
So, there you have it. Fives ways in which a completely normal way of thinking is hurting your fitness, and perhaps holding you back in life in other areas. If you enjoyed this blog, please let me know with a like or a comment. And if you'd like to stay up to date with my blogs as they come out, please subscribe to my mailing list.
☮︎This blog was partly inspired by a video blog by Sam Ovens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC4T3g7QP5w&t=5s)