September 21, 2009

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?


  1. My problem is I hit EVS real early. Let's just say my threshold is low.

  2. GREAT POST! I know this is very common! And Yes, I have been there! I still do too much but I do dial it back for me when I need to & that has been lately. I was doing too much HIIT & plyometrics & not only did I feel things that were not good, I was burning out so I did dial back but I still challenge myself.

    I think we all have to find what is right for us & not the crazy person nest to you at the gym.. that would be me! :-)

    It took me years to learn to take days off & even now I struggle with pulling back but the older I get, the more I try to understand my bodies needs. Even though I can do more now than when I was younger, I still know my bod can't take as much as when I was 45.

    I really liked this post & hope people pay attention to it!

    Oh & yes, I learned it is OK to treat myself or not be perfect with food all the time!

  3. Ah yes Crabby, she says, slipping into 'trust me, I'm a doctor' mode, I recognise the symptoms of this frightening, potentially debilitating, syndrome all too well. In my experience it usually presents with a closely related and worrying disorder, MAITBK (man, ain't I the bee's knees). This is a shortlived condition but one which, if untreated, can quickly develop into BTT (b***s to this). It goes without saying that BTT can prove fatal.

    But, your prescription is spot on. When you say you need to "give myself lots of credit for what I already do" you are so right. That's what we all need to do sometimes and often forget to do.

    For me, EVS usually hits me when I try to fit in one just one more gym session to an already overstuffed week, or try to cut out just a teensy bit more fat or carbs from my diet!

    I'm going to keep your post to remind myself to keep me moving in the right direction... at the right speed! Thanks for a great post Crabby.

  4. I guess the saying in surgery and art is,"Better is the enemy of good."

    Been there, done that. I'll do it again :-(

  5. I'm such a slacker that I can honestly, and with a straight face, say that I have never suffered from this disorder! :)

    Great post, Crabby - I will definitely watch out for this disease. (You say it's contagious - is there anything I can take to ward it off? Beer and potato chips, perhaps?)

  6. Can I get a dose of smugness to go with it? Because honestly, I keep dialing it up (and then falling over) because I NEVER feel like I'm doing enough, that I'm doing well AT ALL...


    My "cure" it to just do it.

    Sometimes I alternate weeks; I have a good week, I have a "bad" week. I strict up; I relax. Could be why my weight has been flicking back and forth over the same 5 pounds for about 4 months now.

  7. When I started losing my weight I hadn't exercised or done anything healthy in years. So just walking for a few minutes was hard.

    But, as I did progress, I resisted this urge because I knew myself well enough to know I'd fail if I rushed things. So even to this day, I try really hard to set realistic goals for myself.

    Now in other areas, like work, kids, etc - I definitely suffer from this disorder!! Taking on way more than I can handle!!

  8. Amen!

    I guess my "saving grace" when it comes to exercise is my arthritis. When I try to do the slightest bit too much or when I dial up the intensity past "just ever so slightly more", my body says no in no uncertain terms.

    I wonder if you couldn't call EVS the HH syndrome too? As in "high horse".

  9. I just found your blog. Great stuff!

    EVS is what keeps most gyms in business. You buy a 1 year gym membership and the staff gives you lots of encouragement and attention. They motivate you and you start to show results.

    They know you can't keep up the pace. One day you can't make it to the gym or you don't feel well. Before you know it you missed a week. Now you don't want to go back because you have regressed and you want to wait until you really feel good.

    Now it's a month later and you never go back. They get paid for a year and you go for 2 month.

    Karate schools do the same thing.

    Just business, nothing personal.

  10. So it really does have a name!!! I'm not just crazy...LOL I have suffered from this illness time and time again.

  11. Yes...I try really hard to find the line between pushing my self and nutter. Sometimes I'm a nutter...butmost times my husbands look of "what?" reminds me maybe I should ease up a bit...
    I know I'm finding it hard right now easing back into exercise after a forced hiatus. It's all I can do to not push myself righ into an injury...:)

  12. Oh, I'm good at dialing back. Takes me no real effort at all to tone down. Dialing it back up? Now there's a challenge.

  13. Dear Dr. Crabby,

    I don't know what initials apply to my condition, but I know it would make me feel better if I could put a label to it.

    Yesterday I went on a nice long hike, using up lots of calories. Today my scale tells me I've gained three pounds. What gives?

    (a.k.a. Merry)

  14. I'm not sure I ever felt smug. I think my problem is that my goals are too high.

  15. My two-a-day Dove dark chocolate Promises keep me from EVS regarding food - in fact, with a recent challenge at my gym, one choice was to give up "whites" and I thought "I already do that" subthought "I'm so awesome" and then I remembered the chocolate...crash, back down to earth, lol!

    I can see how this can happen with the workouts, especially reading how much other bloggers are doing - for me, there is a fine line between being inspired by them and wanting to outdo them...but luckily, my inner lazy person takes over rather quickly.

  16. I have to say that I rarely succumb to EVS - unfortunately I do just enough to get by, thereby avoiding the escalation part of the affliction.

    Well, except for daydreaming. Oh, and buying books. And drinking milk. And TV watching.

    Oh, dag-nab-it.

    Vee at

  17. This seems to be the message of the week. I do this all the time, and it's hard to go back to "normal" after a EVS burn out!
    Great post.

  18. I think I suffer from Reverse EVS - doing too much of the wrong thing. The good news is there is absolutely no smug aftertaste. However, the bad news is I'm an undisciplined slob.

  19. I call it my "all-or-nothing" mentality. Like running a marathon and in 2 months stopped running. Biking like a maniac (2500 miles in 7 months, including one century) and then not biking much at all since. Its that way of course with food too. Good or bad.

    Balance and Moderation;
    Balance and Moderation;
    Balance and Moderation.

    Great post

  20. This is possibly my favorite post of yours yet.
    I too suffer from EVS.

    Thank you for bringing this issue out in the open.

  21. This is a great post with some really wonderful advice that I am filing away for future use. Thank you!

  22. I am not susceptible to EVS, since my laziness protects me, but I do love the smug when I get some.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  23. I never had a name for this, but have gotten caught in this trap very often. Too lazy to do it with exercise, but I tried to get perfect with food much too often. Instead of making a reasonable sandwich or bringing leftover pasta, I'd try to eat something super-healthy that tastes like a*@. Of course I wouldn't eat it, with no fat, no sugar, no yumminess, and I'd end up going out for grilled cheese and fries. The middle ground works much better for me, and when I find myself trying to get too "healthy and perfect", I go eat a slice of cake, or pizza. May seem counterproductive, but it keeps me away from orthorexia.

  24. You have hit on a basic problem in training that people from newbies to athletes experience. It's called not having a plan. Continually escalating is a mistake and physical , mental burnout or injury are often the result. Good coached know when to plan in the stepping back phases. That means building and un-building throughout the week, and for periods of time...say a week of easier training. You want to make progress then this sort of "wave" style of exercise is the way to go. Make a plan damnit and base it on common , known principles of training!


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