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When 'The Usual' Won't Do

The Swimmer's Body Illusion and Other Brain Fails

Watch any international swimming competition and you’ll see toned, sleek men and women with great physiques. It is common for people who have watched the olympics, for example, to flock to their local swimming pool, determined to achieve that same result for themselves.

After all, if swimming makes a person look like that, then surely if I swim I will look like that too. It’ll be amazing.

Even as a comedy stage hypnotist people ask me to help them maintain that motivation through psychology even at a show.

It is a Fallacy

The swimmer’s body illusion (aka the swimmer’s body fallacy) arises from the commonly held belief that a person can obtain a great physique, like that of an elite swimmer, by training the same way that they do.

But this is not true. Certainly you can get fit by swimming, and exercise is generally beneficial. However the error here is to confuse the cause and the effect.

Elite swimmers do not only have great bodies because they swim, they are elite swimmers because they have great bodies for swimming, they have a genetically gifted physique.

Certainly the training they do to achieve elite level maximises their genetic potential, but this is true of more or less every sport.

The Basketball Player’s Body Illusion

A good way to understand the fallacy of the swimmer’s body is to imagine a parallel with basketball.

The basketball player’s body illusion would be to imagine that by playing basketball we’d all grow to 6’8” tall and would be rake thin.

But we all know that basketball players are chosen partly for their height, because it is a huge advantage. We can all play for fun or fitness. We just won’t look like Abdul Kareem Jabbar afterwards.

Similarly elite swimmers are chosen because they have the build to be great swimmers. We can all swim for fun or fitness. We just won’t look like Ian Thorpe afterwards.

This mistaken belief is reinforced by those who market fitness fads and diet products who want you to believe the impossible will be true for you.

Selection Bias - Looking Only at The Success Stories

The swimmers body illusion is variation on the theme of selection bias We see the results without making an allowance for the pre-selection that went on before those results were achieved, and ignore those people that were discarded leaving only the few we admire. For example, there are many successful musicians, but the overwhelming majority of musicians are not successful. They are not even recognised.

Selection Bias - Trust Your Instincts

Here’s another example. We are often told that successful business people and entrepreneurs trust their instincts. And we should trust our instincts if we too are to be successful in business.

But there is another group of people who trusted their instincts. This group is composed (or decomposed) of corpses. Trusting your instincts only makes sense if your instincts are good ones.

Cemeteries, bankrupcy courts and hospitals are full of people who trusted their instincts, and should not have.

Most of us don’t develop good instincts by magic. We develop them through learning and experience.

If someone tells me that Richard Branson trusts his instincts when viewing a business opportunity, they tell me nothing. Mr Branson has such a wealth of experience and practise that his instincts are well honed. And once he makes a choice he can back that with skills and resources I can only imagine.

swimmers body

Viewing that same information my instincts would likely lead me elsewhere. And even if I chose well; I still would probably not have the resources and skills necessary to succeed with that choice.

Fitness in General

The genuine pleasures of being your good fit self, and eating well, get lost in the inevitable disappointment experienced by those who sign up for an 8 week pool bootcamp, and yet still look like a regular person at the end of it.

Their original goal, fueled by the swimmers body fallacy, was doomed to failure.

Other Mistaken Beliefs and Fitness, Physique and Weight

As a comedy hypnotist people frequently come to me and ask if I can help them to lose weight.

Hypnosis can indeed help with weight loss. There are two ways this can be done.

The first is to improve the person’s motivation to adhere to the diet or plan that they have. That’s okay as far as it goes, but it often runs into the problem that weight loss through dieting and exercise is usually a bad way to go about it. The long term results are not good. In fact, they’re mostly very bad. 98% or people who diet will weigh 1kg (2lb) more 2 years later.

The second option, one that I prefer, is to dislodge a person’s beliefs about how one loses weight and maintains a good physique.

This starts from the perspective that most people don’t actually know how to do lose weight, and worse, what people think they do “know” just ain’t so.

Lose Weight: Exercise Less and Eat More (No Don’t)

When I ask people what they think they need to do to lose weight they invariably tell me some variation on “eat less, exercise more”.

The truth is: That’ll never work.

There’s many reasons why this advice fails. One good reason is that by just eating less your body will likely adapt and slow your metabolism. Afterwards, when you start eating “normally” again, you’ll gain back that weight and some extra too.

But the main reason I dislike this advice is that it requires sacrifice both in terms of the food “eat less”, and activity “exercise more”. And when we reach our goals what do we do? We reward ourselves with food and stopping the activities we dislike.

It is nearly impossible to continue to deny yourself for years on end. Everyone gives up eventually. So the solution must not involve a sacrifice. And yes, there are options.

Exercise and Lifestyle

Also when people suggest ‘exercise more’, the first thought many have is to go to the gym. But they don’t really like the gym. That’s a problem. Any weightloss or body shape plans you have that require you to do stuff you don’t enjoy for the rest of your life is doomed to fail.

If you don’t lose weight you’ll stop because it doesn’t work.

If you gain the body you want you’ll stop because the activity isn’t necessary any more and you don’t like it, and then you’ll regain the weight you lost, and lose the muscle you gained.

So when it comes to exercise it has to be an enjoyable fun activity that you’ll want to keep doing. Pretty much forever.

Finding The Fun

It can take time to find such an activity, and often you will have to persevere through weeks of not enjoying something to get fit enough to find out if you will enjoy it.

I enjoy running. After about 15 - 20 minutes of running I get happy. But from the sofa to being able to run easily for 20 minutes can take 4 - 6 weeks to build up to. However as I write this I am in Hobart Tasmania (Australia) for a fundraiser and I will go trail running the day after. I already know I’ll really enjoy the run. This makes travel for corporate events fun for me.

But for people just getting into it they need to invest 4 weeks just to find out if they’re actually going to enjoy it. That is four weeks of not enjoying it before you do enjoy it. And then again if you’ve never done it much before you won’t know if you will ever reach the point of enjoyment at all. Perhaps some other activity would be better - so now go and spend another 4 weeks getting in shape for that. And so on.

It is worth it though. In my life I’ve ben a runner, a gym class person, done martial arts, boxing, muay Thai, and CrossFit so far. These I have enjoyed. Swimming didn’t work out for me. Nor did water skiing or badminton.

A person might have to try several different activities to find one they like and then there’s the bad news . . .

Exercise is Nearly Useless for Weight Loss

In itself, exercise is not a great way to lose weight.

I’m not a fast runner. 60 minutes of running for me will use up about 600 more calories than if I sat on the couch instead. Thats about the same as a big piece of cake.

Which is easier for you? Not eating 1 piece of cake, or running for an hour. I think I know what your answer will be.

So How Do You Do It Then?

What it comes down to is that your body weight is determined almost entirely by what you eat. And the shape it is in (how it looks) is determined by your genetics and the exercise you do.

The trick - if there is a trick - is simply to find a lifestyle that makes you happy, one that somehow steers you to eat “well”, and some fun activities you enjoy and look forward to that keep you “in shape”.

Then make that the way you live.

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Author: Gerard V Comedy Hypnotist, MC and Corporate Entertainer
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