Q: I’ve been following your blog for a long time and I just…felt like I could ask you something.

For the last half of 2015 I was suffering from crippling depression. […]

Earlier in the year I knew something needed to change, so I’m trying. For the past month and a half I’ve made visits to Planet Fitness. I do cardio on the elliptical for 30 min to an hour.

I use the bench press (40 – 50lbs) I do the leg press. The thing is, I actually do feel different. I feel taller, I’m walking faster, feel like I can do more. But I don’t look any different. I still can’t identify my jawline, I don’t like going sleeveless. I can tell it’s working because I feel active….but how long does it take to start actually seeing a difference?

You must get hundreds of emails a day so I can understand if you’re unable to respond but I could really just use some reassurance that all this work will actually be for something.

tl;dr—Keep going.

I’m congratulating you on having your “come to fitness” moment, but I’m also empathizing with that feeling of crippling depression and the way it holds you back. I also recognize that one of these impacts your ability to fully realize the potential of the other.

One of the things I’m learning about depression is that it impacts your ability to connect with things that should be gratifying on their own in any meaningful way. It makes it difficult to see the things you’ve listed here—walking taller, being more proud, being more capable—as things to be proud of in their own right. Instead, you fixate on the things you’re missing in an irrational way that becomes a major barrier to you even continuing in your journey.

You see, we all like instant gratification. We all do. We all have gone into the gym or spin class or yoga, gave it all we had to give, then gone into the bathroom and lifted up our shirts when we looked in the mirror.

Stop looking at me funny. I ain’t ashamed to admit it.

But we’ve all done it, to some degree. We’ve all finished a killer workout, and rushed to jump on the scale to see if it has moved some. Or we do a grueling set in the weight room, then flex in the mirror. Like, it happens.

But what also happens is we look in the mirror and see what we’ve always seen, not because that’s what’s actually there but because we don’t actually see ourselves as we are… we see a representation of our expectations. We expect disappointment, so we look for it when we look in the mirror. As the saying goes… if you’re looking for it, you’ll damn sure find it and, when we do find it, it discourages us before we get to that magic moment when stuff really starts changing.

There is a condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) that impacts the way people see themselves when they look in the mirror, but that’s different from this phenomenon. My experiences in studying body image disorders has taught me that BDD impacts people who fixate on minor things that either aren’t the flaw they’re making it out to be, or are unnoticeable to the naked eye. That’s a serious issue, but that’s different from what we’re talking about here.

I believe that those of us who look in the mirror and see “the old me” in comparison to being able to recognize the benefits of being “the new me,” both in the mirror and in real life, struggle with both the expectation that the weight loss industry has set up for us for how to define success and the the way that the industry has told us to measure out success. No, the average person—overweight though they may be—cannot lose 7lbs in 7 days and, if they could, they likely wouldn’t see it in any valuable way because you cannot only lose weight in “a certain spot.” You can’t just go into the gym and do crunches, and then boom—flat tummy. (That literally never works like that.)

Because you don’t see what you want to see, you see what you’ve always seen—”a person who isn’t as fit as you want to be.” You see your arms, your tummy, your thighs. You might not notice that your back is getting leaner, your shoulders are getting more defined, your neck is leaning out, your ankles are shrinking, your thighs are shaping out a little more, your wrists are smaller, your collar bone is becoming more visible—all of these are signs of fat loss that come long before your tummy burns off or your upper arm/armpit thins out or your inner thigh or, or, or…

All this, coupled with the depression, makes it really hard to connect with the positive feelings you have about working out in any meaningful way—it’s hard to recognize the value of walking taller and feeling prouder. It’s hard to appreciate feeling more capable when you know that the prize you really want is farther away than you planned for. This is why, when I talk about measuring your progress, I encourage people to use a combination of hard data like body fat percentage and tape measurements and emotional measurements like how good I feel picking things up and putting them down.

It’s worth it because of the measured change in how you feel. It’s important to feel good about your capabilities, because it changes the way you approach other situations in life—you start to approach it from a position of “I can give this a shot, let’s do it” instead of fear, stagnation, or “screw it”ness. Get yourself a training plan with a little bit more guidance, and keep going so that you can have measurable achievements in not only your appearance, but your physical abilities, too, and use the measurements to help you make up for what you might not feel in gratification.

Most importantly, give yourself time. A month and a half is hardly enough time to see something remarkable take place, and it’s okay for ‘nothing’ to have obviously happened yet. It takes at least 90 days to see great progress, and even then, it’s hard fought. Appreciate the mental benefits of your exercise routine, and get yourself a progress dress so you can see something besides yourself to help you monitor your progress. Before long, this will all be behind you and you’ll be moving forward and killing the game… and your body will be thanking you for it.