When Team GB cyclists achieved their extraordinary medal haul last summer, there was one man they repeatedly credited as being crucial to their success – consultant psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters.
Dr Peters’ pioneering sports mind-management techniques, developed through years of working with elite athletes, such as Olympic cyclists Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, are designed to make your mind perform at its best and master what he calls your “inner chimp”. Pendleton calls Dr Peters “the most important person in my career”, and Hoy says, “without Steve, I don’t think I’d have won a gold medal”.
How does any of this help us? According to Dr Peters, even if you’re not aiming for Olympic gold, you can use the theory to lose weight and stay in shape. He says, “When you were in the womb, two different brains – the frontal [human] and the limbic [chimp] – developed independently. Effectively there are two beings in your head. It’s important to grasp that only one of these is you; the human.”
Who is the chimp?
This emotional sub-personality hails from the most primitive part of your brain, and is responsible for all those unwanted behaviours that scupper your desire to ‘be good’. According to Dr Peters, the chimp is constantly battling the real you, the human. This is the more advanced part of the brain that uses logic, gathers facts and is rational. The human loves being fit and eating sensibly. It is the you that should be in control.
But the human is easily defeated by the chimp – a primeval part of the brain that is designed to drive you towards food (to keep you alive) and sex (to ensure future generations). Your inner chimp is paranoid, irrational, emotional and reacts primitively with fight, flight or freeze responses. There’s no point trying to control it with willpower. Instead, you need to treat it like a boisterous puppy and learn to manage it.
Desire versus will
Most diets and fitness regimes demand willpower – to curb your food cravings or to overcome your reluctance to go out for a run. It all comes down to an out-and-out battle between your desire for the chocolate Hobnob that’s calling to you from the biscuit tin and your willpower.
But according to Dr Peters, this approach is doomed to fail because the chimp is much stronger than you and simply cannot be overcome with willpower. Take on your primeval food-seeking, survival-ensuring chimp with willpower alone and you are likely to fail – the desire for cake will usually win out. Dr Peters says, “The chimp is five times as strong as the human, so the human has no chance if it is just a battle of strength. Don’t try to control it, manage it. You’ll need a plan.”
Planet of the apes
So how do you manage this chimp who just wants to stuff her face full of calories in order to store enough fat to last her through spells of no food? The first step is getting to know your chimp and getting to know when she is hijacking you. Dr Peters even suggests giving your chimp a nickname. Every time you have thoughts, feelings and behaviours that you don’t want, such as missing the gym, having a second helping of pudding, smoking or partying too much, acknowledge that this is your chimp at work.
Dr Peters says, “By doing this, you’re learning to recognise the difference between yourself and your chimp, and who is in control at any point in time. Sometimes it is wise to go with the emotional chimp, but not always – not when it comes to eating cake when you are already full and trying to lose weight. Consider yourself as a child that has little staying power, gets easily distracted, is undisciplined, disorganised and constantly wants reward, then you won’t go far wrong.”
Taming the beast
Once you’ve recognised your chimp, you can set about managing it, listening to it and working around it rather than battling with it. “Use carrots rather than sticks on your chimp,” says Dr Peters. “Rewards, celebrations, recognition, support and encouragement are all carrots that can work.”
Reward your chimp with obvious things – such as clothes or a trip to the spa – anything that will make her happy. Also, have some heavy-duty rewards lined up for every few kilograms of weight you lose. To satisfy her need for recognition, ask for it. “Work out who you would welcome praise or recognition from and make sure they know this would mean a lot to you,” says Dr Peters. Ask friends and family to encourage you and keep them informed of what you are trying to achieve, because the chimp fears losing face by failing a goal.
Distract your chimp as often as you can – imagine it’s a toddler who wants sweets before supper. You’d entertain him with a walk or a game, until dinner time. Before your chimp has time to want junk food or skive off yoga, count to five and start making a healthy meal or getting your yoga gear on. Tell people about your health plans – before you go out for dinner, tell them you aren’t going to eat dessert.
Your chimp won’t want to look like she is caving in. Tell your fitness instructor how much you are looking forward to the next session – your chimp will think she’s looking forward to it and won’t want to deny herself the pleasure of another training session. Your chimp will also want to deceive you. It will want to fool you into thinking that your healthy eating and fitness plans are on track, even when they are slipping.
Manage your chimp by taking measurements of your progress – such as weigh-ins, food diaries and records of your fitness achievements each time you work out or train. Finally, don’t give your chimp any leeway. Prepare to keep your chimp as tightly managed as Victoria Pendleton’s, who loves nothing more than to tell her she’s not good enough for the top cycling squad and that she will let her team down. Victoria says, thanks to Dr Peters, her cheeky little chimp is firmly in the box. And yours can be too.