People often assume that fitness is easy for me: that I’m some kind of unbreakable Superman who can do everything. In fact, a lot of people assume fitness is easy for anyone who is fit. The workouts look effortless, we always seem to be on point with our eating, and temptations don’t seem to faze us. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, I have developed habits that make eating healthy much easier than it used to be. It’s also true that my workouts are better (although not easier) than when I first began my fitness journey. However, what many people forget, or don’t realize, is that it’s taken me almost a decade of “practice” to reach the point where I am today. Not only almost ten years of practice, developing the habits I have today or accomplishing all of the fitness goals I’ve set, but almost ten years of daily effort.
9 years of daily effort; 2007-2016.
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell discussed the 10,000-hour rule, which says that it requires about 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice to become world-class at anything. You can see it in athletes, musicians, painters, and just about any other field you could possibly think of. Why does it take so long to become an expert? Not only does this amount of time allow you to learn the ins-and-outs of every facet of your craft, but it also ensures you’ve gained enough experience to have truly mastered the material.
Let’s think about this for a moment. It’s true you can learn the fundamentals of an activity fairly early on. Take the sport of football, for example. You can learn the rules of the game (without any prior knowledge) in a couple of hours, or maybe even less. However, just knowing the rules gives you only a basic understanding of the game—you can play, and do well, in a finite set of circumstances. Once complicating factors are presented, such as a player or team’s particular style of play, you won’t have the experience or knowledge of strategy to be able to adjust and perform accordingly. Simply put, beginners can do well against other beginners (because they have similar levels of understanding and practice), but a beginner against someone more experienced will most likely lose.
In another example, most people know how to apply paint to a canvas. Most even have a basic understanding of how to draw a variety of shapes and patterns to create a picture. However, it is only after the deliberate practice that Gladwell mentions, as part of the 10,000-hour rule, that a novice painter can learn the more subtle brush stroke techniques and be able to create truly masterful works of art.
How does this translate to fitness? Learning the fundamentals of exercise and nutrition isn’t very difficult. You can read a few articles to know that you need a calorie deficit and enough protein daily to lose weight while preserving muscle, or that you need to lift heavy weights to build muscle mass. What that basic understanding won’t get you is the experience and know-how to apply that knowledge in a variety of situations—often manipulating or customizing what you already to know to fit your unique situation at any given time.
Take, for example, the situation where you’ve created a meal plan for your week. You’ve already laid out what you are going to eat, and in many cases, have even prepped these meals ahead of time. If you have one of these meals with you, or are eating at home, you should be set. What happens when you forget your lunch at home or a friend invites you out to dinner? Suddenly, you are forced to make choices on the fly, choices that are all too often influenced by a variety of uncontrollable factors. If you are unable to deviate from your plan, unable to identify some of these influencing variables, or unable to create a custom healthy meal on the fly with limited choices, then surely you will have a tough time sticking to your meal plan.
This is why fitness seems so easy for fitness professionals like myself and other serious fitness enthusiasts. It’s not that it naturally comes easy, but it’s because they’ve (usually) had more experience to know how to stick to their fitness plan even given all of life’s surprises. Not only that, but in having more experience they have created the necessary habits to make these processes almost automatic. Do you need 10,000 hours to finally get a handle on your nutrition and exercise? Absolutely not; you don’t need to be world-class in order to see results. You just have to be good enough. Yet, it’s important to recognize that while it may seem difficult now, you will learn, gain more experience, and be able to improve your ability to make better choices and stick to your fitness plan later.
All of this begs the question: since fitness seems easier for some people, that means it must seem more difficult for others. Why is that? Truth be told, the basic concepts of fitness are simple to understand. If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn. If you want to gain muscle, eat more calories than you burn and lift heavy weights. While the fundamental concepts behind a fitness program may be simple, implementing those concepts is extremely difficult.
What does that mean in practice? We learn the basics of fitness, we try to apply these concepts, and it’s a major struggle. All too often, once we realize implementation is actually pretty hard, we convince ourselves that the concepts we understood must not be all there is to it, and we over-complicate things by adding extraneous variables: supplements, special dieting protocols, and anything else we can think of as the next big “secret” to fitness success grab our attention as being the solution to our “this is actually pretty hard” problem. When seeing progress proves to be harder than expected, we turn to finding the thing we must be “missing” in our program.
We are missing something, indeed: we are missing something huge. Again, you don’t have to be a world-class fitness expert for the basics to work. You just have to be good enough. However, the one variable that is often missing for many fitness programs, the one true “secret” that most people are missing, is consistency. The one thing any successful gym-goer has in common, which is almost certainly not their diet or workout program, is that they have been consistent with their program for an extended period. Most weight-loss diets are fundamentally the same—they create a calorie deficit. Some accomplish this by limiting how many hours a day you eat (intermittent fasting), others may limit your food choices (paleo), and others still may manipulate the timing of certain nutrients (carb-cycling). However, they all are designed to get you to eat less.
There are certainly some individual preferences here, but all diets work if you follow them. Again, most people try, realize it’s hard, then start introducing additional variables because “it can’t possibly be this simple.” We all too often shoot ourselves in the foot by not being consistent.
My own personal diet and workouts are constantly evolving. I try a new diet, take the aspects I found useful for me, and reapply them into a hybrid diet that is constantly being improved. I add new exercises and training protocols to my workouts as I discover them. This isn’t necessary, but it’s my job to know these things. When you break it down there are three things that always remain the same about my program: I do some form of exercise daily, I consume protein at every meal, and I adjust and stick to my calories based on my goals at the time (whether I’m trying to lose or gain weight). Everything else is just extra.
What can you do to avoid over-complicating things and help ensure consistency? Start by learning the basics of nutrition. Know how many calories you need daily. Click here to utilize an online BMR calculator, which will tell you how many calories your body needs to maintain physiological processes, and click here to find your activity multiplier to find the calories you need to maintain your current bodyweight (given various activity levels). If you want to lose weight, subtract about 250 calories from this number, and if you want to gain weight do the opposite and add that amount. Know how much protein your body needs. Generally, about 30% of total calories from protein is more than sufficient in either a muscle-gain or weight-loss scenario.
Once you have your calorie and protein allotments, do some sort of physical activity every day. It could be a combination of weightlifting two to three times per week, and walking 20 minutes a day the rest of the week. Maybe you want to take up running, cycling, or swimming. It doesn’t really matter—whatever floats your boat. Just find a physical activity you enjoy and do it often.
Lastly, hit your daily calorie, protein, and exercise goals with at least 70- to 80-percent compliance. This means you are being consistent with your program about 70-80 percent of the time, while only deviating and giving in to indulgences or laziness occasionally. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough. As you become more consistent you will begin to see results, and the longer you follow this plan the easier it will be to be compliant. These activities will turn into habits—thoughtless and automatic. At that point, you might decide to bump up your efforts and start getting more serious, or not, and whatever you decide is fine.
Here’s what I hope you take away from this article: 1) fitness is simple but it’s not easy; 2) consistency is the most underrated success secret; and 3) the longer you engage yourself in fitness the better you will get at it.
If you find yourself getting consistently bogged down by extraneous details or unmotivated to keep any kind of consistency, then finding a fitness professional in your area could be a great fit for you. It is the job of a fitness professional to clear away extraneous details and find strategies to keep you consistent and motivated. Visit www.ateamfit.com to see how A-Team Fitness can help. We even offer online fitness coaching for individuals not local to the Ann Arbor, MI area!