Biased Optimism: Why We Overestimate Our Health & Fitness Habits

Overestimating our abilities

Have you ever piled your plate high at a buffet, convinced you could devour everything, only to find yourself unable to finish? Or you've committed to numerous tasks, confident you could juggle them all, but soon became swamped and stressed.

We've all been there - our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and our belief we can handle it all runs high with many people. This article examines why we tend to have a biased optimism which leads to an overestimation of our abilities, the consequences, and how to learn to be more realistic in our expectations.

Are we born to be more optimistic than realistic?

As a certified personal trainer and master health coach I have noticed this pattern. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Tali Sharot’s TED Talk on The Optimism Bias that I started to wonder, how this concept applies to setting unrealistically high fitness and health goals, and the risk we place ourselves in when we can’t do all that we think we can. It’s a bewildering cycle of overestimating what you can do with feeling like a failure because you weren’t able to make it happen.

Biased Optimism Quiz

Are you ready to see how you measure up? Answer a few questions using a percentage scale from

0% (below average)    -------    to 100% (above average).


Rate how well you get along with people

(below average)


(above average)

Rate your driving ability

(below average)


(above average)

Rate how interesting you are

(below average)


(above average)

Rate how attractive you are

(below average)


(above average)

Rate how honest you are

(below average)


(above average)

Rate how modest you are

(below average)


(above average)

Not everyone can be above average in everything, yet most of us think we are above average– yet that’s a statistical improbability.

We are not as rational as we think

People often undervalue the likelihood of themselves experiencing divorce, car accidents, or cancer. As a result, we expect that our own lifespan will exceed what objective measures imply, overestimate our work achievements, and maintain that our children will be extraordinarily talented.

Optimism bias is one of the most consistent and common biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.

Having biased optimism causes you to see things through rose-colored glasses. The optimism is about you. It's called private optimism. You don't think that things will magically happen. Instead, you believe you have the unique ability to make this happen. This can lead to an inflated sense of your abilities or the accuracy of your statements.

Side note, you don't have the same optimism for the person standing beside you in line at the grocery store.

Unrealistic expectations around fitness

How does optimism bias relate to health and fitness?

How often have you decided it's time to get in shape, and suddenly your mind fills with grand visions of chiseled abs, toned legs, and record-breaking athletic feats? Of course, aiming high is natural, but there's a catch. Your rose-colored glasses can be downright misleading. That's right – biased optimism creates unrealistic expectations, even around your fitness expectation. It's a genuine phenomenon, and it's tripping you up time and time again.

However, reality tends to be much different. Staying consistent with your fitness regimen and pushing yourself to new limits requires a great deal of time and effort, something that you might not always consider when creating your fitness goals.

When creating a healthy goal biased optimism can get in your way of setting realistic and doable habits and practices.

One way biased optimism creates unrealistic expectations around fitness is by making you overestimate your abilities and willpower. You often convince yourself that you'll stick to a new exercise routine, hit the gym daily, or run a marathon without much need for long-term training.

The Downward Spiral of Unmet Expectations around Health Goals

Getting Discouraged

When your lofty fitness and health goals don't come to fruition as quickly as you'd hoped, disappointment sets in. You feel disheartened and lose motivation, questioning whether any of the work you put in was good enough or even worth it. As a result, you're more likely to give up on your healthy goal, pushing you further away from your desired fitness achievements.
It’s a vicious cycle of failure and frustration.

Unfortunately, your discouragement often leads to a vicious cycle. As you get caught in a gamut of unmet expectations and frustration, you start to doubt your abilities to get things done. The negative self-talk and the belief that you're not cut out for a fit lifestyle may eventually become your self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to further disappointment and unwillingness to pursue more health and fitness desires.

Overloading your to-do list

When was the last time you made a to-do list with a million things on it and firmly believed you could complete it?

Did optimism bias have a role in believing you could do it all?

You added many items to the to-do list, and then your frustration grew because you couldn't complete even one-third of them.

Okay, I exaggerated about a million items.

The struggle is real

I don't want to turn down your enthusiasm. Instead, I want to explain why you may overstate your abilities and fill your plate so full in a buffet line.

Become aware of your biased optimism tendencies.

Once you know what may drive you to overexaggerate, you can decide what you want to do about it. Awareness and giving the thing a name are very beneficial to helping you move forward with things you want to change.

Embracing the middle ground

Instead of aiming for the stars, find your sweet spot between challenging and doable. The middle ground will help to keep you motivated and on track and will still provide you with a sense of accomplishment as you consistently are able to make steady progress.

Striking a Balance

Engage realistic optimism, and acknowledge the pros and cons of your decisions. You could use a coaching tool called two crazy questions to evaluate if what you are asking of yourself is doable.

I want to ask you “Two Crazy Questions” Hear me out…

What is good about this?
What is bad about this?

As a health coach, I like to ask the two crazy questions this way.

What is GOOD about NOT changing?

Or How does staying the same benefit you?

What might be BAD about changing?

Things like,

  • What might you have to stop doing or give up?
  • Which things might you have to confront and start dealing with?
  • What might you lose?

Realistic Goals: Breaking tasks into smaller, doable steps

An easy way to begin creating doable tasks for yourself is to break things down into small steps.

For example, when thinking about your to-do list, break it down into what am I able to do in one hour, or make it smaller, what am I able to do in 20 minutes, or even try 5 minutes? A 5-minute action is very doable and will not lead to over-exaggeration.

How would you use this idea the next time you eat at a buffet? Or better yet, when you create your next task to be done or healthy habit to obtain.

Understanding the role optimism bias may play in your life can help you make better decisions and set more realistic goals. By being aware of your natural tendency to overestimate your abilities, you can create strategies to counteract it and lead a more fulfilling life. As you learn to embrace realistic optimism and use thought prompts like the "two crazy questions," you can strike a healthy balance between expectations and doability.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Optimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to be overly positive about themselves and thier abilities, leading to overestimating their chances of success and underestimating potential risks.

Optimism bias can impact various aspects of our lives, from health and fitness goals to relationships and work performance. It can lead to overconfidence and unrealistic expectations.

The "two crazy questions" exercise is a thought experiment designed to help individuals evaluate the feasibility of their expectations by considering both the positive and negative aspects of a decision or goal. As a result, you can gain a more balanced perspective and make more informed decisions by asking yourself what's good and bad about a particular choice or change.

Optimism bias can be helpful in fitness pursuits because it encourages you to set high goals and believe in your ability to achieve them. This optimistic mindset can be motivating and inspire you to push your limits. However, when your expectations are too lofty, optimism bias can also be harmful by leading to disappointment, loss of motivation, and ultimately, the feeling of failure.

While both optimism bias and overconfidence involve an overly positive perception of oneself, optimism bias specifically refers to the tendency to underestimate risks and overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes. Overconfidence, on the other hand, is an exaggerated belief in one's abilities or skills.

Some ways to stay motivated despite setbacks in fitness goals include setting realistic and achievable objectives, focusing on progress instead of perfection, celebrating small wins, seeking support from friends, family, or fitness professionals, and maintaining a positive mindset that views setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning.

Ready to find out more?

Like this article? Would you like more? Sign up for our monthly newsletter and we will make sure you never miss an article.

Did you like any of these ideas? Let us know. If you want more information like this follow us on Facebook or Instagram.

Michelle Johnson Jerome is an expert on busting through perfectionism. She is passionate about helping others live life with purpose and joy. By drawing on her extensive experience as a nutrition coach, personal trainer, and yoga instructor she helps develop a realistic approach to goal setting that allows you to make progress and stop obsessing over mistakes.

Find other articles written by Michelle on her coach profile. Discover your "easy button": learn how to manage life's unpleasant parts so you can move forward, reach your goals, and live your best life.

  • Michelle Jerome says:

    The TED talk I mentioned while writing this article is here,

    Since writing this article, I’ve realized that I’ve started living my life more realistically, without any illusions. I have put away the rose-colored glasses for simpler expectations of what I am capable of doing. This doesn’t mean that I squash my dreams because they seem too lofty. Rather, I pace myself in a way that doesn’t stress me out or give me unnecessary anxiety. I still want what I want and expect that I will figure out a way to accomplish my goals. I don’t drive myself crazy to reach them because I am “more special or can handle more than any other human on the planet.” It was time to give myself a break and get grounded in the thinking that it’s okay that it takes longer. It’s okay that it’s not 100% perfect.

    Being aware and giving what I was doing a name – called optimism bias helped me to decide how I was going to deal with it. And as of right now – I feel pretty good about keeping things in balance.

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts – – –