Avoid this Dangerous Health Hazard!

Nah, I'm not talking about swine flu. I'm not a doctor or an epidemiologist and I know nothing about swine flu. Well, I do know that despite its name, it will probably not turn you into an actual swine.


Which is good! Because suddenly finding yourself with pig-brains instead of human-brains and hooves instead of hands? That might cause some pretty major lifestyle adjustments. Your boss might disapprove. And you wouldn't be able to visit your favorite blogs anymore. And your sex life? Well, let's hope your partner is very understanding and flexible.

So no, the health hazard I'm referring to is not swine flu. It's a common but insidious disorder that you've probably never heard of.

In the comments to Friday's post, reader Tina mentioned a scary bout with it. Fortunately she recovered.

So have you ever come down with a case of EVS?

That's short for Escalating Virtue Syndrome. And yeah, it's something I just made up.

It's just a subtype of perfectionism, a known motivation-killer that I've already blogged about many times. But it's such a sneaky type of perfectionism! It's so easy to get infected with it, and it's contagious, so I thought I'd do a brief public service announcement to warn you of its dangers.

What is Escalating Virtue Syndrome?

Basically, it's doing too much of a good thing until it backfires and forces you to be bad again. But here's a more technical definition:

EVS is the phenomenon that occurs after you discover that some sort of virtuous behavior is not nearly as bad as you thought it would be. Say you take up running, or you try to eat more whole foods. You hang in there for a few weeks; accomplish more than you thought; and you find out that the smug feeling you get is totally exhilarating!

But you're not content to leave it at that. You want more smugness! The next step, "escalation," involves incremental increases in the amount of virtue. You run longer and harder and more often, or you eat more and more healthy whole foods until they make up your entire diet.

If you pump up the virtue slowly and carefully, paying attention to your physical and psychological reactions and adjusting accordingly? No worries. You don't have EVS, you have Motivation and Determination and that's great!

But if all you're paying attention to is the lovely smugness, you're at serious risk for EVS. Because one day, you may suddenly wake up and realize that your virtuous behavior doesn't feel wonderful and rewarding and effortless like before. In fact, the whole routine kinda sucks!

Running 2 or 3 miles a couple of times a week was fun. Running 10 miles five times a week? Not nearly as much fun. Learning to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day? Not so bad! Eating 18 servings a day? Aaack!

Of course there's an easy cure for the problem of taking a smart behavior and doing to much of it. That would be: dial it back a few notches until it's not so burdensome anymore.

But what's the typical response? Quit completely because it's all too hard.

I have to confess: I struggle with EVS infections all the time.

For example, I've blogged before about adding vegetables to my fruit smoothies. And if I keep it to 2/3 of a cup or less of chopped cauliflower, or 2 cups or less of raw spinach leaves, the smoothie tastes great, and I get vegetable credit. Hooray!

But damned if the vegetable-induced smugness rush hasn't tempted me into adding more and more vegetables. What happens if I go overboard? The smoothie goes from a milkshake-like indulgence to a funky composty tasting medicine. And who looks forward to medicine for breakfast?

The other place where I'm struggling with a creeping case of EVS is when it comes to High Intensity Interval Training. I know from previous experience that if I try to do as often and as intensely as many experts recommend, I will stop entirely. That's the whole reason I frequently suggest that readers try the less hardcore SHIIT workout instead. And yet I read the blogs of people who are fitter than I am, and I feel like a slothful slacker, and I start trying to do more and more sprints, more often, like the fit people do.

I know better, damn it!

Because this escalation will work great and give me huge burst of delicious smugness at first... until one day I'll realize that I just don't want to drink smoothies or do intervals at all anymore.

So, I am going to actually pay attention to the little warning signs this time, and I am going to consciously STOP ESCALATING for now. In order to do so, I need to give myself lots of credit for what I already do, and savor the existing smugness I can get from that. Later, if I get a new burst of motivation and don't feel any tell-tale foot-dragging, I can always drink compost every morning for breakfast and sprint my ass off all week.

So here is your Cranky Fitness public service message for today: If anyone else has been ignoring signs of EVS, and you realize you're getting very tempted to skip your workouts or blow off your healthy eating plan because it's so miserable, then DIAL IT BACK, but DON'T QUIT ENTIRELY!

See if you can remember what you were doing before it all got to be too much, and ease off to that level. There's likely still plenty of smugness to be had if you compare yourself to where you started, and not to some hypothetical superhuman version of yourself. It's way more important to feel like you are still "on track," even if it means adjusting your goals downward a notch. Because what good are lofty goals if you are hiding from them instead of chasing them?


Ever come down with EVS yourself, or have any good tips for avoiding it?

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