What College Enrollment has in common with your Fitness Goals

Recently, I read an excellent article from Alvin Chang at Vox entitled Why so many poor kids who get into college don’t end up enrolling.”

The short version: every year, millions of kids in the U.S. graduate high school and intend to enroll in college, but don’t. They call it “summer melt.” The effect is more pronounced among lower-income (read: normal) students than among the more affluent, and even MORE pronounced for two-year community colleges, which predominantly serve lower-income (again, normal) students.

It’s a great article, and you should definitely read it.

What struck me, though, was how many parallels there are between the issues we face as a nation in College Enrollment and the issues we face in as a nation in Health and Fitness.

You could easily replace “enrolling in college” with “getting in shape” and get a decent feel for the stories we hear every day at Kai. Both are difficult life transitions, in neither case does success have much correlation to intelligence or effort, and both journeys have meaningfully better outcomes when a coach or “guide” is involved.

So, here we go: Why getting in shape is just like enrolling in college, in three points.

1) It’s way too easy to drift off the right path

Are  you  my future?

Are you my future?

One high school counselor compared it to the story of Hansel and Gretel. She told researchers that during the school year, the counselors set out bread crumbs for students to follow. But once high school ends, “all of a sudden, the bread crumbs are gone and they have no idea where to go.” And that leads them to drift off the college-bound path.

There is a lot of ground to cover between “I intend to do this” and “I am doing this.” Deciding to do something new may feel difficult, but it’s far more difficult to take daily steps towards actually do that thing.

The responsibility for helping students navigate college enrollment usually falls to the parent or the guidance counselor. But a student might only talk to their guidance counselor once a week, even at the height of application season. And when students graduate and summer hits, all bets are off.

Similarly, in fitness, the traditional model is “personal training,” a once-a-week in-person appointment. The problem with this model is that every significant barrier you will encounter on your fitness journey will happen outside that weekly appointment.

Uncertainty, fear, and doubt are the silent killers of all our dreams for personal growth, whether intellectual or physical.

Much like college enrollment, the “changing your shape” journey is very easily derailed. And the causes are less intellectual (in retrospect, applying for school, arranging aid, and matriculating are all fairly simple) than they are mental and emotional.

As usual, Shakespeare captures it best:

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” (from “Measure for Measure”)

Any high school guidance counselor will tell you that their job is about 20% providing information and 80% navigating emotions and coaching through behavior change.

Yet community colleges (and health & fitness brands) continue trying to fix an emotional problem with information — trying to educate people when what they should be doing is guiding them through their difficult journey into adulthood. And you just can’t do that with the occasional phone call or in-person appointment; true change requires a relationship.

2) Everything is harder when you don’t fit in

What most of us feel like in a gym

What most of us feel like in a gym


“These interventions work so well because the American education system isn’t designed for the disadvantaged. The default cultural environment… is not neutral, but instead the values reflect the perspective of certain groups…”

This was the big one for me. In the same way that the education system is not designed for the disadvantaged, the fitness industry is not designed for normal human beings.

The original report referenced in the Vox article found that while “summer melt” for kids applying to four-year schools is 18%, kids applying to two-year community colleges are twice as likely (36%) to fail.

Admit it, your first thought was “Well, they probably weren’t all that serious about applying…” I’ve heard that before in reference to friends and relatives. And it’s just wrong. I didn’t know it was wrong, though, until I got involved in the fitness world, where something very similar happens:

  • We think people who succeed at getting ripped are just more “disciplined,” that they succeed because they “never quit” (indeed, the fitness fortunate often post pictures of their lean muscular forms with phrases like these overlaid)
  • But in reality, the “fitness fortunate” may simply have un-earned advantages: better genes, better habits formed in childhood, more disposable time and money to focus on health (or just plain more and better help)
  • Meanwhile, we judge those who struggle: instinctively, deep down, we all think people who just can’t seem to shed that weight or pack on some muscle must somehow be lazy or stupid (and worse, we often think these things about ourselves)

This paradigm creates a world in which fitness inspiration is synonymous with “tell me to work harder and be less lazy.” The prevailing sentiment is that if people just had better information and more discipline, they would succeed.

I just want to be clear: this is bullshit. We shame the struggling to heap praise on the already successful.

In education and in fitness, our culture has a bad habit of celebrating the successful while we scorn the struggling. And those who struggle most are those in the minority — or who are made to feel they are in the minority by a small but vocal group of gatekeepers who celebrate the extreme while downplaying the needs and struggles of people like you and me.

3) A journey demands a guide

Who’s your Mr. Miyagi?

Who’s your Mr. Miyagi?

“Page and Castleman found that one huge factor is that some students have a guide: their own parents. If their parents attended college, they can help figure out the difference between, say, a loan and free money. They can tell them what to expect, and answer questions about the experience to come.

Full disclosure: I am very fortunate. I attended an excellent four-year school. And my acceptance into Vanderbilt was mostly a result of my privileged upbringing, not my discipline or intellect. And I managed to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, which I do not take for granted. I received all the benefits of an excellent education with none of the costs.

But, when I decided to try and use my intellectual capital to change my physical shape, I found myself at an extreme disadvantage. People would frequently tell me how smart and hard-working I was (which, don’t get me wrong, feels pretty great), and yet I failed, and I kept failing, over and over and over again, at the exact same goal.

Failing in fitness is not like being up a creek without a paddle, it’s like being up a creek without any water — you just can’t get anywhere. Worse, the doubt I began to feel in my capacity for physical change took root and spread. You can’t compartmentalize a feeling of personal failure. It’s infectious and virulent.

The turning point for me, the moment when my true journey of physical transformation began, was when a “guide” appeared to help me on my journey. (You can read all about the role of a guide here.)

And here’s the one point where I differ pretty strongly with the conclusions of the author:

These findings were used by a company called AdmitHub in the development of a chatbot that text messages students with reminders about deadlines or required forms, automation that doesn’t drain the limited resources of college financial aid offices. If students needed help, they could interact with an artificially intelligent chatbot rather than a human.

Is it just me, or is our cultural discussion of the role of AI entirely FUBAR?

Everybody is trying to replace human effort when we should be trying toaugment it. If college financial aid offices have limited resources (spoiler alert: they really do), then why aren’t we trying to empower these people to do the job they signed up to do: help kids complete their college journey and get ahead in life? Why are we trying to replace a human’s capacity to listen, to communicate empathy, to truly care — with a soulless chatbot?

Real talk: Nobody wants to talk to a chatbot. Nobody.

The only replacement for a missing human relationship, like a parent who cares knows the way, is another human relationship. That’s why at Kai, we’re not trying to give people on difficult fitness journeys an AI coach, we’re trying to use AI to give more people better access to great human coaching.

Part of the problem at a startup is that when you spend all day building a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But I am starting to see parallels between thorny social problems like “summer melt” for community colleges and the obesity / fitness failure epidemic. Failure is pervasive, the underprivileged and disconnected suffer the most, and there is a massive hole in our lives where the guide (the coach, the mentor, the trusted advisor) should be.

Thanks for reading. I’m pretty new at this medium thing. So if you have any thoughts or feedback to what you read, let me know at j@kai.coach. I really do want to hear from you.

Jonathan Smith