How Language Affects Your Fitness and Weight Loss Practice

Words Have Power FinalEvery day we’re barraged by “good ideas”—all the things we should be doing with our lives and could start doing today if we really cared enough. Too much advice can overwhelm us, and, more importantly, it can inflate the power of “should.” It can cement an insidious (and, in my experience, ineffective) framework in our minds. We risk framing every choice—from work to pleasure—as an obligation. Doing so burdens life with a constant sense of onus, constraint and deprivation—not exactly the stuff of grand motivation. In my experience, we aren’t in for much fun or long-term success with that brand of approach. Luckily, there’s a better way to talk to ourselves.

I’m not oblivious to the apparent irony here. Here I am offering a blog all about living a healthy life, and each day I offer information and strategies to that end. But there’s something to my very nature that still resists the authority of “should” (or authority in general) and prefers a framework of option and example. It makes for some interesting creative tension every day.

I guess you could say it’s why I often write more casually than authors of other health blogs and why I’m so blunt about self-interest. It’s maybe why I prioritize publishing others’ stories that highlight their appropriation of Primal and why I couch my whole interpretation and experience of health within a loose blueprint that I flagrantly encourage people to make their own. And it’s perhaps why I spend ample time here deliberately ferreting out the slippery psychological forces and individual nuances at work behind any endeavor to change one’s life or lifestyle. At the end of the day, I don’t ever want to be a dictator of “shoulds.”

And here’s why.

In all my years, I’ve never found “should” to be a very effective way to talk myself (or anyone else) into much of anything. When we say “should,” we’ve immediately sidestepped ownership of our own motivation. “Should” declares that outside influences are more important than our own desires. As logical as this assertion might be at times, at others it can set up a conflicting division between what we want for ourselves and what we’ll do instead. While we may be willing to do what we feel is expected of us by that external code or logic, we retain the excuse to hold it at arm’s length like yesterday’s forgotten lunch—an unappetizing serving of pressure with a side of guilt and resentment.

Just how does this inspire or incentivize?

For my part, I prefer to frame my choices through self-determination rather than external prescription. I prefer to enlarge my understanding of and commitment to healthy self-interest rather than abdicate my personal will. Because the language we use with ourselves (like the stories we tell ourselves) matters. How we frame our health-related intentions (e.g. weight loss, fitness, stress reduction, etc.) can—and likely will—affect our follow through.

Shifting the language we use to describe our behavioral goals and healthy visions can reinstate that sense of ownership. When we let go of the “I should” and instead stake the claim of “I choose,” something happens. We’re no longer playing in the vague grounds of consideration and critique. We’re saying yes—or no. There’s no chasm to get lost or procrastinate in. We do it or we don’t.

Even better, we can further frame the choice not as avoidance of an unwanted result but within a concrete desire we’re aiming for. For example, instead of “I should do X because [insert negative blah, blah, blah],” we entrain our brain toward personal commitment by saying “I choose to do X because I want [this, that and the other awesome thing] for myself.”

Let’s do some more comparing and contrasting.

On Primal Eating

“I should eat better because I’ll continue exacerbating my thyroid issues/diabetes/autoimmune issues/etc.”


“I choose to eat better because I want to feel vibrant and energetic.”

“I should stop eating now, or it will just make me fatter.”


“I’m choosing to stop eating now because I’m full and satisfied.”

“I should stop being so careless with what I grab for lunch.”


“I choose to pack healthy lunches because being mindful of my food selection will help me reach my fat loss goal more quickly.”

On Getting Fit

“I should stop being so physically lazy.”


“I choose to fit in some kind of exercise each day because my mood is so much lighter/I sleep better/I have more energy when I do.”

“I should start lifting weights. I know I’m weaker than I should be.”


“I choose to lift heavy things three times a week because I enjoy challenging my limits and because I like feeling strong.”

On Embracing Other Elements of Primal Wellness

“I should take more breaks at work so I don’t screw up as much.”


“I choose to take regular breaks at work because I’m more productive when I do.”

“I should get outside more because I know I’m missing out on vitamin D.”


“I choose to spend an hour or more outside each day because I appreciate how it makes me feel relaxed and creative.”

“I should get myself to bed earlier and not deal with the chaotic mornings.”


“I choose to go to bed at 10:00pm because I enjoy being rested and focused the next day.”

Do any of these examples ring true? How do they compare with the way you talk to yourself about your Primal intentions?

Whatever the area you’re working on enhancing in your life (e.g. Primal eating, fitness, weight loss, healing a health condition, stress management, etc.), the takeaway here is this: there’s force in the language we use with ourselves. Our words can determine the real mindset we bring to our goals. Do we simply agree that a good idea is another “should” that we guilt ourselves over, or do we make a personal claim for our health and well-being by saying we choose to pursue what we want for ourselves today? Our words direct our thinking, which in subtle or dramatic ways influences the action we take—not to mention the attitude we bring to that effort. In the end, we do better for ourselves and our goals by empowering our intentions.

How can you take a concern or goal you have for your health, let go of the obligation, and frame it as a positive, purposeful intention? Consider it today’s Primal challenge, and share your newly fashioned aim with folks in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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34 thoughts on “How Language Affects Your Fitness and Weight Loss Practice”

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  1. Several of the examples ring true. For example, the word “love” can be a powerful word used sparingly (which was my initial thought and usage of the word) or tossed around casually with little regard. When I learned that love is a choice where one chooses to see the goodness in a person, place, thing, etc., using the word became more frequent without diminishing its meaning.

  2. Agreed, Mark! I’ve caught myself using language that makes it seem like I’m pulling teeth instead of doing whatever activity I’m actually doing. But using softer, less critical language definitely makes me feel differently (better) about what I’m doing.

    1. The book “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore dissects how our self-critical language creates procrastination and resistance even to tasks & actions that are beneficial for us.

      He points out that we’re taught humans are naturally kinda whiny baby-sloths who want to avoid tasks and need to be bullied and intimidated into them, and he lays out the reasons why this is completely FALSE – all humans want to be creative, to express themselves, and to excel and overcome challenges.

      But we’re usually raised with the belief that we need cattle-prodding to do anything, which sets up the simplest task as a kind of enemy, and then that even if we succeed in a task, we’re just setting ourselves up for increased demands to be made on us, with no recognition or rest, and that our self-worth rests entirely on living up to those standards forever, without end.

      Highly recommended for anyone who has an internal authoritarian guilt-tripping them, or a procrastination habit, there’s a summary linked in my name below (not my page, just a good outline I found).

      1. Thanks for mentioning this book: “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore. It seems to me that this blogpost is based on this book. The similarities in language to the book are too exact. I don’t understand why Mark does not give proper attribution to the book.

        1. It could be simple coincidence. I wrote a blog post years ago on this very subject (the blog is now gone), and a lot of this article is very similar to mine. I really doubt either of them cribbed from me, though.

        2. Yes, it is always possible that Mark is using the exact same language here as in Dr. Neil Fiore’s book. He came to it completely independently, and it’s a coincidence that it sounds virtually identical to the book. But given that Mark reads every comment in his blog, even if he came up with this without ever having seen or heard anything about Dr. Fiore’s work, I think he should now attribute credit to Dr. Fiore’s life work on this topic.

      2. “The book “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore dissects how our self-critical language creates procrastination and resistance even to tasks & actions that are beneficial for us.”

        Quoted for the truth. That passage really resonated with me as I struggle against procrastination, a lot of it due to perfectionist tendencies that are couched in self-critical language. Thank you for the link.

  3. Love this! Getting focused on the positive reasons why you do something, instead of the negative ones, is VERY helpful in motivating you to get it done. When I think about/phrase the positive outcome to my workouts, I’m a lot more inclined to get them done than if I talk about the task as a pain in the butt.

  4. Thoughts and language are so intimately connected, so this makes a whole lot of sense. If I’m using a bunch of negative, obligation-esque language to describe what I’m going to do, I can’t see how I wont feel bad/unmotivated to do it

  5. It’s the difference between “I want to” and “I should”. “I want to” is internal motivation whereas “I should” is external, someone has told me to. I also find the concept of baby steps helpful in changing habits, making small manageable steps and seeing benefit often helps you make the big changes too.

  6. I agree that words matter and if “should” is used in the manner indicated then replacing it with “choose” is a better choice. I guess it’s the engineer in me who is always dealing with causality, but I don’t personally have a conflict with “I should” versus “I choose”. If I want/choose to be healthy, fit, strong, resilient, etc, and only certain types of choices and actions cause those effects, then I should do those actions.

    Btw, a little off topic, but I really wish we would stop using “weight loss” when we really mean fat loss.

    1. I really don’t see the difference either. Obviously I see the difference between the examples given, but said difference doesn’t come from changing should to choose. It’s simply the difference between a positive, goal-oriented phrase and one that’s in negative avoidance of something. Or to put it another way, why would I ever choose to lift heavy things if not because I should, considering that “I enjoy challenging my limits and because I like feeling strong”? But I do agree that positive goals tend to work better than negative goals.

      1. To me, in the context of this article, the conditional tense always has an implied “but I won’t” going on in the background. Otherwise, why use it?

        e.g. “I want to get stronger so I should lift weights (but I’m not going to because [insert excuse here]).”


        “I want to get stronger so I lift weights.”


        “I want to get stronger so I do bodyweight exercises for now, and have a plan to [overcome legitimate obstacle] so I can join a gym.”

        Our brains can be weasel-y critters when it comes to getting out of things they don’t want to do. 🙂

  7. Excellent article! What has kept me coming back to this blog is that I want to wake up every morning feeling like a million bucks, eat delicious food and play. How I accomplish that has evolved since I started living primally and will probably continue to evolve, but that positive resolve is ensuring my long-term success.

  8. Oh love this so much!!! Even just switching to the word “could” instead of “should” can make such a difference, especially when talking about events that have already taken place. We all make choices every day. Our choice of words is so powerful and can make such a difference in our quality of life. Thanks for an awesome post Mark!!!

    1. Wow, that’s a great point! Thank you for sharing that insight.

  9. I’m a software developer so the concept of how important it is to choose the right language to program our brains resonates with me. 🙂

    Thanks for this important lesson Mark. I *choose* to implement your recommendation starting right now!

  10. Thanks Mark, great post. I think “Should” is a bit of a cop-out mechanism that I use when I really don’t want to do something. Kind of a sneaky way to not admit to myself that I am just not doing something. But your right it adds layered pressure on top of the inaction. Truth be told.

  11. Thank you so much for this article! It really hit home how negative I can talk to myself. I’ve been doing a lot of “shoulding”, now on to more “choosing”!

  12. Another thing I learned early on was instead of saying to someone or myself ” I can’t have that” , when it came to food was saying in my head, as not to be rude to anyone as I said no thank you, was I don’t want that because it really does not make me feel my best. There is a big difference between I can’t and I don’t want in the mind.

  13. Loved this post. I work with families with kids on the spectrum, and parents often get fixated on what behaviors “should” be occurring right now. I work hard to dislodge this word from their vocabulary.

    One of my favorite psychologists is a chain-smoking New Yorker named Albert Ellis. He was famous for telling people not to should on themselves. I believe he also coined the term musturbation.

    Of course should goes back to Freud and all that superego stuff. It typically signifies a parental voice telling us to do stuff, which is why it feels uncomfortable as an adult.

  14. Very powerful stuff here. I didn’t realize how I have fallen into this and can realize now why it has led to some of the choices I’ve made (or haven’t made). I should…uh, I mean, I choose to implement this strategy into my daily activities.

  15. This was an inspiring, positive post! My shoulds make me feel like I will never be good enough, whereas “I choose to” feels like a wonderful personal adventure.

    I can apply this to parenting, offering my instructions as choices to move toward positive results, rather than shoulds that avoid negative consequences.

  16. Thanks so much for this! Absolutely right. We ‘should’ stop saying should, and stop with shouldn’t too! Rather than saying “I shouldn’t eat this chocolate,” or “I shouldn’t drink this wine,” it’s so much better to disregard the guilt and just own it. I’m having wine and chocolate because it’s delicious and I feel like it 🙂

  17. Should abdicates the responsibility of choice, and victimizes us. Transitioning to could changes the thought pattern a bit by reminding us that the should situations are all choices in moments defined by us and us alone.

  18. I love the topic of “words are powerful”!!

    Years ago I removed the words “to die for” about anything that was actually a reason to live. When people say it now I say quietly to myself (or them depending on who it is) “I love you, please don’t die” (for this food, pair of shoes, shirt, etc)

    We seem to live in a negatively dominate world. It’s not always easy to make the changes in our speech to mirror our true meaning. “I love this” “I really don’t want to eat that” but being mindful of the negative or positive in what we say will help. I remember my little sister used to say “I hate green beans” (each time she repeated it – it seemed to make it even more intense) so I wonder if we instead said “I prefer broccoli instead of green beans” ……

    I like the idea of “choose” and if we are not ready to make that choice perhaps tell ourselves that we are “willing to choose” until we are ready to make those choices. “I am willing to choose…. I choose….. I feel myself making this choice….. I have made this choice”

  19. Such an important post and distinction, Mark.

    With self and clients, I emphasize choice and tradeoffs–not “should’s.” A key piece with this is getting really clear, with an abundance of compassion and honesty, where choice exists and what we are choosing.

    There is no one right answer for how to eat or how to live, and I love how you continue to recognize and celebrate that–even as you also model stellar, vitality-supporting choices.

    My biggest hope for my clients is that they make choices that, as a whole, support the fullest, most alive expression of who they are. As part of that, I ask them to see what they’re saying YES to, when they say no to something that’s not serving them.

  20. Hi Mark, so often we don’t realize how we sabotage ourselves by using the wrong words. We may realize this when we in our relationships (family, colleagues etc) but are so careless when it comes to ourselves.

    By just choosing the right words, we end up making much better choices and feel more empowered.

  21. Many years ago I enjoyed reading “Games Mother Never Taught You.” She wrote about mothers who teach their daughters to feel put-upon and aggrieved, and said, “I’d rather see a mother say, ‘Now that we’ve finished addressing all the invitations, I feel GREAT. Let’s go to ____ to celebrate.”