Fitness is a numbers game: body weight, body-fat percentage, mile splits, dumbells, sets and reps, and even the number of days spent in the gym per week. And while figures can tell us a lot, we can sometimes get too obsessed with them.

Years ago, I worked at a health and fitness company that loved these numbers, and before I knew it, I became fixated too. It was an environment full of people who understood how to get into peak physical condition and would do whatever it took to get there. This included (but was not limited to): eating the same meals day in and day out, working out twice a day, drinking shakes during meetings, saying farewell to carbs, and having superhuman discipline to stick to this regimen.

What was “best” usually meant a "positive" change in your numbers—pounds lost, body-fat percentage dropped, strength gained.

In a lot of ways, it hurt my outlook on health. On the surface we all wanted what we thought was best for one another. What was “best” usually meant a "positive" change in your numbers—pounds lost, body-fat percentage dropped, strength gained, and so on. That makes sense, since numbers can quantifiably measure hard work and progress.

But here’s the catch: When you think numbers are the only way to measure progress, it can feel defeating when they don't add up. Rarely does the scale gleefully budge on a regular basis or does strength improve indefinitely just because you worked your ass off. Even then, each numeric milestone you hit doesn't seem good enough.

Peer Pressure Can Be a B*tch

I know firsthand about this trap.

You know the cliché “you are what you eat”? Well, here's my twist on that: You do what the people around you do—even if it can have a negative impact on you.

My work environment exposed me to chiseled bodies and amazingly fit individuals, as well as certain attitudes about health and fitness. Those things became my norm. In fact, I often forgot my friends and family weren’t interested in near-0 percent body fat, tree trunk-like arms and legs, or the idea of tracking meals.

Sun's out, guns out.

With most of my coworkers looking like they’d just walked out of a fitness magazine, it was hard not to think, "My arms could definitely be more sculpted." In hindsight, I suppose the kind of peer pressure that forces you to want better arms instead of two-for-one margaritas isn't so bad.

But it can be just as harmful to your motivation, mindset, and confidence. When I made my own numbers-related goals, I was careful not to obsess over hitting them. But as hard as I tried, the self-imposed pressure that spawned out of seeing everyone else work so damn hard and look so damn good hung over me.

How Getting Fit Can Backfire

Because everyone else seemed to be busting their rump with results to show for it, I often questioned my own hard work and commitment to the process. "Maybe I’m not doing things right," I’d say to myself.

I later realized the hidden stressor of wanting to keep up with everyone backfired on me and only added unnecessary stress. Objectively I had made substantial progress toward my goals, but when compared to everyone else’s more dramatic numbers, I couldn’t see it.

Stephanie Lee Before and After
Photos taken about four months apart, while I still worked at the company.

I even felt a bit embarrassed by how little I had to show for my work. I ignored the other equally-as-important forms of progress, like how much healthier my attitude was toward health and fitness. I no longer felt guilty about having a slice of pizza because I was working so hard. Later on, with the help of peers and a support network, I eventually came to understand that everyone needs to go at their own pace; no one else’s progress should impact what I do or expect. I have my own quirks and genetics, and sometimes numbers can't accurately sum up your total progress.

After all, who knows exactly what someone else is doing or sacrificing to meet their goals? Maybe they’re doing twice as many workouts, being very restrictive with food, or running themselves into the ground.

All of this isn’t unique to my former work environment. There are common threads that run through the fitness industry, including what models do to prep for photo shoots. Regardless, I’m grateful for my experiences, because now I have an improved outlook on my fitness journey. The most important thing that I learned?

Honor all forms of progress.

It’s easy to let numbers rule you and feel like nothing is working when, in reality, you’re just ignoring noteworthy accomplishments. While weight loss, mile times, and dumbbells are all attached to numbers, there are many other forms of progress: mental, emotional, behavioral, to name a few.

While weight loss, mile times, and dumbbells are all attached to numbers, there are many other forms of progress: mental, emotional, behavioral, to name a few.

We’re hardwired to not want to fail or struggle, to want to be perfect, but try as we might, those are simply impossible expectations. So if your numbers aren't adding up, it might be time to look a little deeper and appreciate other victories. Maybe you didn’t feel guilty for skipping a workout or eating a slice of cake, maybe you feel less anxious and shy in public, or maybe you’re able to perform the same workout in less time or with less effort—holy moly, those are all incredible steps forward!

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