3 Fitness Principles Inspired by Economics

I wasted years of my fitness and exercise training toiling endlessly with dead-end diets and programs that lacked well thought out long-term goals because I lacked these three fitness principles. I did this until I was able to apply three well known economic principles to my training and nutrition. In this post, I’ll share what those principles are, how I used them, and how you can apply them to your fitness journey. The most significant limiting factor I’ve always had in my fitness decision making has been social & societal pressure. I’ve let those two pressures weigh in too heavy on my decision making in all aspects of my life including my own fitness journey.

For example, when I was 17 and finishing high school after 12 years of competitive soccer I weighed in at 120lb and was 5’8 in height. I used the societal pressure of wanting to be big and muscular and then started lifting weights and to grow to 200lb in a matter of 2.5 years.

I then decided I was too fat and started running marathons so that I could be leaner again. Again, societal pressure.

I then started doing Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing because young men need to feel like big men and fight other men. Again, societal pressure.

I then fell into a social group of Cross-Trainingters and spent thousands of hours of training over the course of 6 years so that I could fit into the community. I was one of the Cross-Training Games competitors so I felt the need to maintain a high-level of Cross-Training performance capacity in-order to sustain social acceptance as well.

Three economic principles have allowed me to break the shackles of social pressure and expectations that permeated my decision making on why and how I exercise and eat. Applying these principles ultimately has allowed me to be more authentic in my fitness journey and pursue a fitness-path that aligns with my own values more closely. Not the external values that were decided for me.

Without further preamble, here’s the first principle.

Principle One – Sunk Cost

A sunk cost is the first of three economic principles. Once I’ve gone through each principle, I’ll then share how I used them and how you can too.

A sunk cost is the time, money, energy, or resources that go into an outcome where the costs are in the past. For example, let’s consider the scenario where a student named Amy enters a Ph.D. program. She starts the program and then after a year she decides to drop out. Around the time when Amy is considering dropping out, that first year of education would be regarded as a sunk cost. It is a cost that was already incurred.

The resources that went into that year of doctoral work are now a sunk cost because Amy dedicated time and money towards a degree but didn’t get what she originally sought to achieve.

Principle Two – Sunk Cost Fallacy

The second economic principle is the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Put yourself in Amy’s shoes for a moment. Imagine the fear Amy may have felt with her decision to drop out. The fear could be debilitating when you consider the time spent to get into the program and the possible humiliation of having to tell her friends, classmates, colleagues, and family. It’s emotional and raw.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is the idea that Amy will use the resources already incurred in her decision to stay in the program or flunk out. She is weighing the loss of that first year of work on whether or not she should continue.

She understands that if she quits she has lost a year and that she is weighing that in her decision to stay or go. She will be committing the Sunk Cost Fallacy if she wrongly chooses to stay because of the money, time and energy she already invested.

Principle Three – Opportunity Cost

The problem with using Sunk Cost as part of your decision making is that you might stick to something not because of its future potential but because of attachment to that cause because of the effort that went into it.

In one of my favorite Freakonomics episodes, the sunk cost fallacy is explored in an exciting context. The thesis was that sunk cost shouldn’t be part of a decision making process. For example, when Amy was considering dropping out, she shouldn’t even think of the last year of work when deciding whether or not to quit.

What Amy should consider is the opportunity cost. If she stays in the program, is it a greater opportunity? Or is it a better opportunity if she quits and does something else?

The premise is that quitting can be a good thing.

That the idea of “never quit” is not always the best advice if we don’t consider the opportunity cost.

This also doesn’t mean we should just quit everything. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s about quitting the right things and doubling down on the right things. It’s about being smarter about resource allocation.

How I applied these three principles to my life

I remember it vividly. It was April 2013 and I was riding my bike on the Alameda Creek trail in Fremont, California, and listening to that Upside of Quitting Episode of Freakonomics.

I realized that there was a huge life decision made based on sunk cost — and that decision resulted in me severely limiting the quality and upward trajectory of my life.

I was 24 years old and I still lived in the town I grew up in. I stayed in Fremont for college and stayed there after college working as a Cross-Training trainer. I moved in-and-out of my parent’s house as I fell-in-and-out of love with girlfriends. I wasn’t growing. I was stuck. I was meandering. I was limiting myself.

The reason why I was stuck was that I was holding onto my time and dedication put in as a Cross-Training trainer and athlete. I had competed in the 2008 Cross-Training Games and 2009/2010 Cross-Training Regions. It was now 2013 and I was still doing the same old thing. Coaching and working out every day. Spending 10 hours in a gym. Not growing personally or professionally. I was holding onto what I created and not wanting to give it up. I had all this sunk cost that I was holding onto. I was being irrational, stubborn, and not considering the opportunity cost of pursuing this half-baked ambition making it back to the Cross-Training Games again.

So I quit. I quit Cross-Training in its entirety. I moved to San Francisco and got an MBA. I stopped coaching and started working in tech. There is a big story behind that transition but no need to go into those details for the purposes of this article.

Now, as I write this, it’s 2018. Five years since quitting cold turkey. I now live in NYC, have a nice career in tech, and I am writing this article from a little coffee shop in the West Village on a summer Saturday afternoon. Life is good. I’m still committed to fitness but purely in a writing capacity.

I’m a more evolved person because I quit. I now get to do what I love in fitness. Which was always writing. Better yet, since I have a full-time job, I don’t have to sleaze, market, and scheme my way to try and make money from fitness. Sure, I sell a few programs on this site but the monetary incentive isn’t set so that I need it to eat and pay rent.

Applying These Principles to Fitness

The sunk cost, the sunk cost fallacy, the upside of quitting, and opportunity cost are essential concepts that can be used in your decision-making process.

When people commit to a particular fitness routine or methodology sunk cost is a double-edged sword.

  • On one edge, the Sunk Cost Fallacy is a contributing factor to decreasing attrition rates. When we buy workout clothes, a gym membership, and form social groups around a methodology (for instance, yoga), they are less likely to quit and more likely to keep working out.
  • On the other edge of the sword, a sunk cost can keep you from not evolving. Think of those marathon runners who after decades keep pounding pavement despite arthritis, pain, and life-long orthopedic issues. They are holding onto running because of the attachments they have and not because it’s the best thing for them.

Over-time our needs change and it often behooves us to change our exercise/nutrition habits based on our current state. For example, let’s say George started doing long-distance running at age 35. Over the course of 10 years, George lost the initial weight he wanted to get rid of and now self-identifies as a marathon runner and does multiple races a year. Gradually George is succumbing to accumulated injuries due to having run hundreds of thousands of miles on pavement over the last decade. Yet he continues down this path because of his investment.

But George is a marathon runner. That’s who he is. He has established habits that worked for him in the past. He enjoys it because he’s good at it. He has running buddies. His family and co-workers know that that’s who he is and it’s often the root of many casual conversations.

Yes, George is in pain. He knows that what he is doing is taking a toll on his body and over the years it will continue to get worse, and he would be better off switching to a different exercise modality.

In this case, the Sunk Cost Fallacy in George’s situation likely a detriment to his health.

Your turn. Are you at peril due to the sunk cost fallacy?