Bringing Unsexy Back (trust me, it’s worth it)

by | Nov 5, 2014

Photo by Scott Ableman

I’ll admit it, I have a soft spot in my heart for Justin Timberlake (even if it isn’t the genre of music I typically identify with). Maybe it’s because he’s one of the few child celebrities who grew up without becoming a complete headcase. Or maybe it’s his sweet dance moves. Who knows?

In any case, I have massive respect for someone bold enough to claim to bring sexy back, since I can’t recall a time when sexy ever went out of style (except maybe a brief period from 1993-95). JT must have incredibly high standards. And I respect that.

At the end of the day though, getting people excited about what’s sexy is pretty damn easy. Tesla cars and gold iPhones can’t be made fast enough to meet demand. Even at insanely high price points in a struggling economy, sexy still sells.

Not that this is a bad thing. Sexy plays a fun and important role in our lives and I’m the last one who’d wish it to go away.

The hard part is remembering that in certain situations (specifically, long-term goals) sexy isn’t usually the best option. But BOY is it tempting.

For 15 years I was pulled in by the siren song of every new diet. The crazier and more dramatic the plan, the more I was sure that this one was special––that it was so crazy it had to work.

Had I still been on the dieting wagon when those 5am bootcamps in the park became popular, I would have been all over that action. Surely an early morning butt kicking was EXACTLY what I needed to lose those last 10 pounds.

Bootcamps, juice fasts and P90X are seductive because they promise, and occasionally even deliver, dramatic results in a short period of time. The problem is that because these sexy diets are discipline-based and not habit-based, the results do not last.

Working on building habits instead of juicing 8 magical superfoods is profoundly unsexy, but it works. The results may not be rapid and dramatic, but over time they are life-changing.

Why is it that small, consistent steps in the right direction are so much less appealing than a giant leap in the wrong direction? Why would we rather try to climb an unscalable mountain than spend a few months walking back the way we came then just going around it?

I once spoke to a friend who was trying to get into shape for her wedding and wanted to start running three times a week, but hadn’t been able to do it. Her coach asked her to try running once a week, but my friend was resistant because she didn’t think one run a week was significant enough––even though it was 100% more than she was currently running.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that habits build upon themselves. Small steps are OK, so long as they are consistent and continue to grow. In the end, the results are even more dramatic than the quick fix, since they can last a lifetime. They just sneak up on you so gradually that you hardly notice. And this is a good thing.

The little, unsexy things that seem insignificant like eating breakfast, walking 10K steps per day, and cooking healthy meals at home aren’t nearly as alluring as the dramatic acts of suffering that promise crazy results, like bootcamp or fasting. But the unsexy road to health is far less painful, and this is one of the main reasons it actually works.

By far the hardest part of getting healthy is getting started. To build healthy habits you first need to rid yourself of the illusion that small, unsexy actions are meaningless and that only dramatic actions bring dramatic results. In fact, the opposite is true. It was slow, incremental steps that got you out of shape in the first place. And it will only be slow, incremental steps that put you back on track.

Starting small isn’t just acceptable, it’s necessary. Habits only grow from things you can actually do consistently, not things you force yourself to do occasionally. Similarly, doing something small is infinitely more meaningful than doing nothing at all.

Have you ever accomplished something tremendous by starting with small, unsexy baby steps? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Originally published Nov 6, 2013.

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26 Responses to “Bringing Unsexy Back (trust me, it’s worth it)”

  1. Trish says:

    I Definitely identify with baby steps, before I lost 60 lbs I started working out 15 min-3x a week. Every other week I’d tack on 5 more minutes and now I’m at 45 minute workouts & 60lbs less! It took a year but I haven’t gained any weight after 3 years!

  2. Luke says:

    Hi Darya,

    I loved this post. I was actually just discussing this exact topic no more than an hour ago with a friend. He’s in better shape than myself and he only runs 3 times a week – and not even very far or fast!

    He keeps telling me to start running once a week and I always reply, “No no no, that won’t get me anywhere, I need to 30 miles a week to get results.” Well, I can never stick to that for more than the first week, so I give up.

    There’s a lot of sense in slowly building simple habits, but you’re right, it’s totally unsexy and unexciting. I know the alternative doesn’t work, though, so thank you for this post.

  3. Josh says:

    Great post, Dayra. Keep them coming!

  4. Laurie says:

    I started by getting up before the baby. I wanted to start working out again but couldn’t figure out when to do it. I’ve never been a morning person but the only time I could make for myself was before anyone else was awake. The baby is now six year-old and I wake up at 5:20 AM five days a week so I can get in a half hour workout before anyone else is up. It’s not boot camp in the park. It’s a pre-dawn walk around the neighborhood, a work-out DVD or some yoga off of YouTube in the basement. It’s not sexy but it works for me.

  5. Diane Leifer says:

    Smaller things are easier to accomplish and become bigger as you continue to do them. Habits are just repetitive actions. Easier to create with small steps.

  6. Jerry Robertson says:


    It’s funny you post this as my wife and I have often talked about just the things you mention. Specifically, we didn’t gain the 30 – 40 extra lbs in a week or a month. We did it over the course of 10+ years. So, why do we think we’ll be able to take the bulk off in 4 weeks or even 4 months. Sure, there are things we can do to make the weight come off in months, but where will we be in a year? Back where we started.

    To do get the extra bulk off, it has to be done as part of your lifestyle. Just as you say…little things that we can do every day and just keep building on them.

    As usual, great post. You nailed it again!

  7. Dee says:

    Great concept! Something to ponder
    Although I think eating breakfast, walking 10K steps per day, and cooking healthy at home IS sexy…. Whilst Bingeing, juice diets, Atkins or any ‘rediculous’ eating/dieting extreme is NOT ….

  8. anotherwise says:

    ‘Little unsexy ways’ reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water.

    But whoever said it and however it was said, it keeps sounding so wise and true. Perhaps there’s something about patience.

  9. Melissa says:

    Oh, thanks for posting this. I have a really hard time remembering this, so I really appreciate the reminder!

  10. Mike says:

    Great words of earned wisdom, Darya! This would be a very pertinent re-post around the beginning of the year when we’re all tempted to make unrealistic health resolutions.

  11. Melissa says:

    Last October I signed up for a family sized weekly delivery of local organic produce. My goal was to increase the amount of vegetables in my children’s diet. My husband also ate from the bin and adjusted his work space so that he would stand instead of sitting at his computer. The result, he slowly lost 12 pounds and is back to his college weight.
    Darya, I loved reading Foodist. It really does not have to be complicated or sexy.

  12. Chelsea says:

    Another great post, Darya. You keep pounding this wonderful practical advice into our heads, and one day, it’s going to sink in 🙂

    Systems over goals. Unsexy habits over dramatic actions. Persistence over perfection.

    Thank you for being a dischordant voice amidst the cacophonous clamor of the diet industry. We are lucky to have you!

  13. Darya, Glad you liked the photo, but please, per the creative commons license and the Flickr terms of service, include a link back to the photographer’s photostream, and not just to the hosted static photo. Many thanks.

  14. Flarkus says:

    I agree 1000% with the message in this post, Darya! Habits can only become long-term ones if they’re manageable and fit into our days. If we start with small, manageable steps, which are easier to commit ourselves to and keep on repeating, they become habits with far less struggle

  15. Natasha P says:

    I like the thought here on healthy habits but not sure I agree with lumping morning bootcamp in the same category as juice fasts and other diet fads. Group exercise is a known motivational strategy and by working out first thing in the morning and outdoors, bootcamp succeeds in getting you to start your day on a healthy note (and not make excuses later). Plus, high intensity short bursts of cardio combined with circuits of body weight evercises are proven to be more effective and “smarter” than e.g long periods of cardio (running, elliptical) in weight loss. Bootcamp has only made me stronger, leaner and fitter, besides being a great enabler for other sports and exercise.

    • Darya Rose says:

      It’s great that bootcamp works for you, but literally everyone I know who has tried it didn’t even finish all the sessions they paid for. My only point is that picking something way harder than you’re ready for isn’t an effective long-term health strategy. If it’s fun for you, on the other hand, you win!

  16. Natasha says:

    I like the thought here on starting small and healthy habits but I disagree with lumping bootcamp in the same category as juice fasts and other fad diets. Group exercise is widely recognized as a motivational and habit forming strategy and by working out first thing in the morning and outdoors, you start the day on a healthy note (vs. e.g. succumbing to excuses later). Plus, high intensity short bursts of cardio combined with body weight circuits are proven to be more effective (esp vs. “dumb” hours of running & elliptical) in weight loss. Bootcamp has only made me stronger, leaner, fitter and enabled me to amp up my workouts / sports activities elsewhere. And I’d argue that it’s a great way to both kickstart your weight loss program or take your fitness to the next level.

    “Bootcamps, juice fasts and P90X are seductive because they promise, and occasionally even deliver, dramatic results in a short period of time. The problem is that because these sexy diets are discipline-based and not habit-based, the results do not last.”

  17. Great post, Darya! And so true too! Perhaps the yearning for a quick fix lies behind these diets. You do a particular thing for this short amount of time, and you become slimmer/taller/sexier…But, cultivating healthy habits that you can do every day, instead of things you can only do for a short time while you’re dieting, is essential.

  18. Walt Cairel says:

    Great article. Good, healthy habits need to be formed over time. I agree that little steps help ease into lifestyle changes.

    I want to add setting small goals on the way to the big goals help. My wife and I are making healthy habits together. Without a support team it is very easy to not stay on track.

  19. foodgardenkitchen says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent but my husband and I found kicking off our weight loss goals and establishing better habits with a 10-day juice fast to be both motivational and a good break from prior habits. It’s nice to see the scale “reward” you very quickly and changing our palettes (“taste buds”) to not crave the types of foods that caused us to put the weight on was much easier with 10 days of juice only.

    We still do a monthly 5-day (Monday-Friday) juice fast just to kind of “reboot” (to quote Joe Cross) and keep us on the healthy eating track.

  20. Beverly says:

    Darya – Oh my, first I discovered your blog a couple weeks ago. I am 6 days into my “recalibration” (surprisingly easy), and into wearing a fitbit to monitor my 10,000 steps a day (surprisingly difficult). I have only managed it once! I am wondering if you have written or will write strategies for accomplishing that beyond, taking the stairs, parking across the parking lot. Those help, but whoa, I didn’t realize how many 10,000 was! The day I accomplished it I hiked most of them (in 2 hikes). Also, I was very tired at the end of the day. I am excited about figuring this out for myself! Do you have a philosophy regarding time of day, things you do that might give me some ideas? I have 100 lbs to lose, I am 60. I am actually in pretty good shape for being so heavy, I have always exercised – if not consistently – so I am physically able. I am retired so I have time, but I also do a lot of standing in my kitchen, lines etc. More than I realized. Those things take energy but don’t add to those steps. Thanks for your blog, book, etc. Like most overweight women my age, I KNOW how to lose weight, have done it MANY times! But it is harder now, and as you point out fruitless to diet because obviously it doesn’t work! I like the way you put things, it has gotten through to a jaded “been there done that” pursuant of a better way to live in a way that hasn’t in a while. I have hope at the moment that I will conquer the single most worrisome thing in my life. Anyway, about the 10,000 steps. Do you try to get most of them early in day? What is your strategy?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Most of my steps come from a commute I schedule into my day – the gym, and the dog walk. I also typically spend time on the elliptical or treadmill once at the gym.

      When I don’t do the gym I try to run errands on foot (grocery store, shopping, lunch, etc.). If I have a long phone call or a video or podcast I need to watch I sometimes walk circles around my dining room table. Once clocked 3,000 steps that way.

      Don’t feel like you need to hit 10K immediately. Identify your baseline then try to increase it by 1000 steps a day. Once that is easier, work to increase it further. Walking shouldn’t make you exhausted.

      • Beverly says:

        Thanks Darya. With concerted effort and attention I have made my 10,000 steps for the last 3 days. Super excited to have it done before 2 p.m. today. 10,000 steps, I was not aware of how sedentary I was. I have been doing a lot more yard work and house work and walking in my neighborhood. So good for me in so many ways, this practice has really has opened my eyes. It has made me tired but in the end, good tired.

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