Carville:How to ride an elephant, Part I |

Carville:How to ride an elephant, Part I

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

Go to any gym or personal training studio, and you’ll find no shortage of advice on how to lose weight and get in shape. But the real issue isn’t how often we should exercise or which foods to eat but rather how to get ourselves to do these things that we know are so important to our health, longevity and ultimately our happiness.

At the South Yuba Club Training Center we’ve done away with the concept of a personal trainer and replaced it with a fitness and nutrition coach. The coach is there to help our clients focus not only on what to do but, even more importantly, how to do it. Much of our coaching program is based on the concepts from the book “SWITCH – How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. Over the course of my next two articles, I will cover these principles and several other strategies that you can use to make successful change in your life.

Self control is a limited resource

When we decide to spend less, get in shape or start a new diet, we have made a determination to change based on logic. A slimmer body equals no more ice cream. Or toss the Oreos from the pantry to avoid late-night snacking. But all too often by the end of the week, there’s a bowl of ice cream on the counter piled high with Oreos. What happened? It is like we have two brains — one that is logical and rational and the other that is emotional, lazy and self-defeating. Our brain’s built-in schizophrenia is a deeply weird thing.

In his wonderful book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” University of Virginia Psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to the emotional side of our brain as an elephant and the rational side of our brain as a rider. Sitting atop the elephant, the rider appears to be in control. But the rider’s control is precarious. Anytime the 10,000-pound elephant and rider disagree about which direction to go, the elephant is going to win. In other words, the elephant always gets the Oreo because the rider is simply overpowered.

The weakness of the elephant, our emotional side, is often lazy, skittish and looking for a quick payoff, the Oreo now versus being thin next year. When we fail, it is usually the elephant’s fault. The rider simply can’t keep the elephant on the path long enough to reach the destination.

But change is not impossible. In fact, people make big changes all the time: getting married, raising children and learning new technologies, hobbies and sports. In my next article, we’ll talk about how to get the elephant and the rider to work together to make lasting change.

Mike Carville is a NASM/RKC Certified Personal Trainer and co-owner of South Yuba Club with locations in both Nevada City and Grass Valley ( Mike specializes in programming for new exercisers, weight loss and athletic training, Mike is available for questions via email at:

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