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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Feedback-Loops' Effect on Mental & Physical Health






I think a lot about fitness influencers. 


They sell this message that the way they stay fit will work for anyone, and then hold themselves up as examples. “See, if it works for me, it will work for anyone!” That message sort of implies that if it DOESN’T work for you, then there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you're lazy or not trying hard enough, but the fault has to be yours because if it works for them, it should work for you. 


That isn’t fair, I don’t think. 


It ignores the impact of biology and temperament, as well as the patterns of reinforcement in early life. Like it or not, we’re not all born the same. We have different bodies, different brains, different metabolisms, different parents, different nutrition profiles early in life, and different paths of development. 


Some people metabolize food differently. Some people burn fat differently. Some people enjoy repetitive physical exertion. Some don’t.


So let’s say that you hit the genetic jackpot and you’ve got a body that just chews up calories and spits out energy. You start exercising and eating right, and it’s like magic for you. You see results right away. Those results reinforce the behavior–you get immediate positive reinforcement and it leaves you feeling awesome. You get a sense of autonomy, of power, of accomplishment, which drives you to find other fitness-related activities. Turns out, you’re good at those too, see quick results, and the positive feedback loop continues. The things you are doing aren’t easy, but they are relatively easy for YOU, and you are successful at them, so you’re more likely to do them. The more you do them, the better the results and easier the process, and before long you’re on Instagram. 


To be fair, those folks work hard. They may even really believe that they aren’t anything special and that anyone can achieve what they have accomplished. But they may be blind to the fact that they are as successful as they are because of certain advantages.  Others who see them may not consider that factors outside of each individual’s control may be contributing to outcomes being worse than as advertised on Instagram. 


If you’re born with a body that breaks down easily, then maybe exercise has more of a negative impact than a good one, or maybe you process food more slowly. You start exercising and eating right, and it’s a drag. It hurts, and you’re tired, and the results are minimal at best. You get frustrated by the lack of progress and your body hurts every day, which leads to you dreading exercising. It’s demoralizing and you feel defeated. Progress comes, but it’s a lot of work and discomfort for every gain, and you never feel really good about the results. You have to keep pushing yourself, all the while fighting negative thoughts. Instead of a positive feedback loop, you end up having to constantly fight a negative-feedback loop. You put in more effort, have more discomfort, and never end up having results that you feel belong on Instagram.


I think all this is important to keep in mind when considering mental health. We are not all born with the same brain. Maybe we have a tendency towards depression or anxiety, or maybe we won the jackpot and have a brain that is incredibly resilient. Maybe we can manage our mood with a deep breath and an “It is what it is,” or a “YOLO,” and bounce from stressor to stressor with a dashing grin. 


Or maybe we need to take more care of ourselves. Maybe we need therapy, or a rigorous self-care routine, or maybe even medication. Maybe the people we see on social media who say that, “A walk in nature is my antidepressant,” have a privilege the rest of us lack. Maybe all they need IS a brisk walk and to hug a tree. But maybe other people need antidepressants, and implying that it’s lazy or a failure to do so isn’t fair. 


Being healthy, physically and mentally, requires an individualized approach that starts with self-knowledge and self-acceptance.


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