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One of the biggest keys in my quest for optimizing health and fitness is consistency. This applies to both the food I eat, exercising my body, as well as other behaviors I believe are keys to health, like sleep and fasting. Throughout my life I go through cycles where I am consistent when it comes to practicing one or more of these behaviors and then, sometimes by choice or sometimes by circumstance, I lose discipline and stray. Sleep is a good example (as I outlined in this post)–when I don’t focus on getting the proper amount of sleep, bad things usually happen, including getting sick, poor gym performance, and being grumpy to name a few. Eating poorly, especially sugar and wheat (because they are remarkably addictive to me), can be a serious problem–if I allow these things into my diet, even a little bit, on a regular basis, I can find myself doing very destructive things, like gobbling a box of donuts to combat stress. My goal is to consistently practice all of these critical behaviors at the same time: good diet, exercise, sleep, intermittent fasting. When I’m hitting on all cylinders, my mental, emotional, and physical optimization skyrockets resulting in:
- better mood
- increased performance
- less illness
- reduced mental and physical stress
- a stronger and leaner body
As a result of much self experimentation, here are some of my “hows” and “whys” on consistency…
Turn Key Behaviors into Habits
When I was a kid, my parents stressed the importance of dental hygiene and, for as far back as I can remember, I had to brush my teeth, at minimum, once in the morning and again before bed (if not after every meal if possible). This behavior, now a habit, is so ingrained in my being that, at the advanced age of 50 , I don’t consciously think about brushing my teeth twice a day, it just happens. Consistency. I’ve tried to make the following key behaviors habits, just like brushing my teeth:
- exercising – weight lifting three times a week and walking 10,000 steps per day
- healthy eating – maintain a Primal/Paleo, low-carb, ketogenic diet including high-quality, daily vitamin supplements
- intermittent fasting – keep an eight-hour eating window whenever possible
- sleep – strive to get the right amount and quality my body requires
I’ve found a few tricks that have helped me turn the above behaviors into habits:
- follow a program or framework
- do things at a consistent or set time
- track or document progress toward goals
My history clearly shows that following a program or framework helps me convert a behavior into a habit and, when there’s a lack of structure, habits don’t form and consistency drops. Let’s look at my weight lifting past as an example. Before following the StrongLifts 5×5 (and now the StrongLifts Advanced) program, I thought I had structured approach to lifting weights. In reality though, I was the guy wandering around the gym hitting the chest, shoulders and triceps six different ways on “chest day” and then back and biceps on “back day” and twice a year I would throw in a “leg day.”
The problem for me with a very loose approach like the above is there are too many decision points. Lack of strict structure meant I was “allowed” to make make decisions on the fly and a decision might be, “I’m too tired this morning, so I’ll just skip ‘chest day’ and make it up tomorrow.” Having this kind of built in “opt out” mechanism constantly forced me think and make participation a choice and that’s not a habit. A habit is something I just do without thinking about it.
With my current approach, each workout, exercise, weight and rep is mapped out. If I skip a workout, the program gets messed up. Of course there are days when I skip workouts, but when this occurs, I work very hard to get back on schedule because the program builds on itself and I hate getting out of rhythm. Since moving to this very structured program about three-and-a-half years ago, my workout consistency has been remarkable (injuries aside)–so I know this is a key to consistency for me.
This applies to my current preferred eating pattern as well, which is my implementation of Primal/Paleo eating. By following my personal version of this eating framework, where I concentrate on eliminating refined sugar, grains, and processed food from my diet, the decision points about what to eat drop dramatically and eating the right stuff becomes a habit instead of a series of agonizing decisions. When the waiter brings bread to the table now I don’t even think twice about if I should eat it…I just don’t out of habit…simple.
Another trick I have successfully used to turn these behaviors into habits is making a huge effort to execute the behaviors at relatively the same time of the day. I like to work out in the morning and I know my if I wait until the evening the chances of my skipping the workout increase dramatically. So just focusing on scheduling my workouts first thing is a simple way for me to make working out a habit and increasing consistency. The same thing applies to eating for me. It didn’t take long for me to turn my intermittent fasting behavior, trying to only eat in a set eight hour window, into a habit because I set the fasting time each day to start an noon and end at 8pm. Again, no decision points, just wait until noon to eat when possible.
Lastly, I have found documenting goals and performance against those goals to be a important factor in turning behaviors into habits. I am a results oriented person and I like to challenge myself on many fronts. From a weight lifting perspective, when I did not have a specific, documented goal and, just as important, tracking my progress toward that goal, I never made significant progress in actually getting stronger. I can remember lifting about the same weight on bench press for years, give or take 10 lb. Once I set a goal and began tracking my progress toward the goal (using a structured program), my bench press performance has increased dramatically. The same thing applies to other behaviors, like sticking to my desired eating and sleeping patterns. Until I started tracking my actual sleep times (using my FitBit One tracker) I had no idea how bad my sleep habits were. So, setting goals and tracking progress toward these goals is key for me.
Keep It Fun and Interesting
Whether it’s exercise or a specific diet strategy, if it’s not enjoyable, it most certainly won’t become sustainable activity in my life. For instance, I have never really enjoyed running, yet many times over the years I’ve attempted to incorporate running into my fitness regime. I’ve tried all kinds of tricks and distractions to make running enjoyable (listening to music, varying the distances, etc.), but have never been able to force myself to like it. I have finally learned, running is not my thing so I no longer fight it and just concentrate on physical exercise that I enjoy. This has resulted in enjoyable, consistent, long-term participation in these activities.
I’ve also tried to make the implementation of my eating strategy fun and interesting through cooking. This isn’t a stretch for me I have always liked to experiment in the kitchen and cook. Some folks hate to cook and that is probably going to make an eating scenario like mine, avoiding processed foods, sugar, and grains, hard to sustain since most packaged and restaurant meals don’t really work. There are so many great cookbooks and web sites with recipes out there for creative, healthy dishes, that when I have the time I like to get my hands dirty (okay, probably a better way to make this point ) and try new things in the kitchen and this helps me stay consistent with my dietary goals.
Avoid Injury and Illness
Nothing is more frustrating to me and can derail my health and fitness goals than injury and illness. It’s almost guaranteed that athletes that challenge themselves and push for aggressive fitness goals are going to suffer injury–at least that’s been my experience. I hate working so hard to hit the next personal record on a lift and then get injured or sick, and have to recover and start the process over again. Similarly, on the rare occasions I get the flu or am sick enough to miss work, I tend to temporarily discard my preferred eating pattern and default to comfort food which often times is not the most healthy option. There are a few things that have helped me to avoid the dreaded injuries and illnesses:
- start slow, it’s a marathon not a sprint
- listen to my body and understand my limitations
- don’t ignore mobility
- get enough sleep
One of the great things about a beginner weight lifting program, like StrongLifts 5×5, is, if you follow the program as documented, you start with incredibly light weights and then progressively add a small amount of weight each workout until you fail. In fact, the programs starts each exercise with an empty barbell (45 lb.). When I first started the program I was tempted to “cheat” and add additional weight because the exercises were too easy. DON’T DO IT! Trust me, the weights get heavy soon enough so take the time, when the weight is light, to concentrate on form. Proper form in any exercise is what prevents those injuries. It doesn’t matter if I am walking, lifting, swimming or doing sprints, starting slow and concentrating on form is key to avoiding injury and promotes consistency.
Using the same “start slow” technique for diet and intermittent fasting was key as well. When I first decided to go Primal/Paleo, I did it in stages and made liberal use of the 80/20 technique–I tried to eliminate sugar, grains, and processed food 80% of the time and allowed leeway the other 20%. I knew from others’ experiences that changing cold turkey would be too difficult and my chances of consistency and long-term success would be slim. Same thing with fasting–I tried the eight hour eating window a couple of times a week in the beginning and in no time at all, with minimal struggle, intermittent fasting became a consistent way of life.
It is critical for me to listen to my body and know my limitations when it comes to working out and eating. I have preached quite a bit about how I follow a strict weight lifting program which progressively adds weight to each workout, but eventually everyone hits a wall and can no longer add weight. Over the three plus years I’ve been doing this style of program, there have been plenty of times where I just know to back off from a particular attempt because my body is just not ready to endure the stress at that moment. There is fine line between pushing past a mental obstacle and just going for it and understanding when to stop and not risk injury. I would much rather avoid an injury and be able to come back in two days to try again than to have to wait two or three months to heal and start over with very light weight.
I also have to listen to my body when it comes to eating. Some days my body craves more carbohydrate than other days and some days my body needs red meat. Once in a while my body feels like a complete cheat meal, so, with prudence, I’ll eat things that are far from my preferred foods. I’ve found it critically important to listen to my body in order to keep a long-term consistent diet strategy in tact and when I do my chances for success are greatly improved.
For years I ignored stretching and mobility and, in so doing, I’m sure I’ve suffered needless injury and certainly have hurt my performance. It wasn’t until I read the book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, and began using a foam roller and proper stretching on a consistent basis was I able to get rid of the pain and tight muscles that made doing compound barbell lifts unbearable for me.
Just adding a five minutes of foam rollling and stretching before and after each workout has done wonders and the result is better consistency because of reduced injury and minimal aches and pains (DOMS).
Sleep in general is such an important aspect of my health, but even more important as a weapon against illness and injury. In the short few months I’ve been tracking my sleep habits with my FitBit One, I have already observed a correlation between lack of sleep and getting sick. I also know that, due to the stress of heavy weightlifting, my body requires quality sleep in order to recover and rebuild. For me, not focusing on getting the proper amount and quality of sleep is simply inviting illness and injury which, in turn, negatively affects my consistency in all aspects of health and fitness.
Being consistent in all aspects of health and fitness isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s certainly a key factor in my goal to optimize my life as I age. These aspects include exercising, eating properly, and getting quality sleep. My consistency in these areas increase dramatically when behaviors become habits, I keep it fun and interesting, and when I avoid injury and illness. If I can use these techniques to be consistent, the benefits are amazing!
How do you manage consistency in your quest for health and fitness? Please leave a comment and, as always…
Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!