The Art of Moderate Consistency

Practicing the art of moderate consistency is a topic that I have written and spoken about previously. It is indeed a concept worth revisiting frequently so that we may remind ourselves of the most efficient ways to utilize our habits and behaviors to effect optimal outcomes. This applies to many parts of life but it is nowhere more true than in our exercise patterns.

In 1896, Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, came up with what is known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. In his work, he noted that approximately 20% of the world’s population had 80% of the continent’s wealth. Followers of Pareto’s work went on to adapt the principle to other topics, such as in business where roughly 20% of a company’s efforts can yield 80% of their total sales.  

However, when we look closely at exercise, there appears to be much validity in using the Pareto Principle in reverse. Decades ago, I began to notice a distinct pattern in dealing with clients regarding their fitness and rehab programs.  Exercisers tended to fall into three distinct groups:  those that strived for absolute perfection in consistency, those who probably got about 80% of their goal activities in (around 80% of the time), and those that did practically nothing.  It seems obvious that the “do-nothing” group would get no results, and this was indeed the case. What really surprised me was that the “80%” group far outperformed the “100%” group, and did this consistently over time, across all ages, and goal/activity levels.  

In trying to analyze this phenomenon, I began to realize that the way some things look “on paper” is not always directly correlative with the realities of life. While we must recognize and respect our individual differences and personalities, we must also appreciate that perfection, while sometimes reasonable to strive for, is neither necessary nor optimal in exercise behaviors. Simply put, the person that always hits every workout, exactly as planned or written (another topic for another time but I’m in favor of very flexible structure in workout planning), is probably not adapting to the varying nature of the human experience. Changes in sleep patterns, stress, recovery, job demands, and myriad other issues directly impact our ability to put forth effort, and absorb training on a daily basis. The individual that “bulls through” and never listens to their bodies often gets injured, exhausted, or frustrated with lack of progress. He/she ends up experiencing an “exercise-induced reduced quality of life”.

On the other hand, the practitioners of “moderate consistency”, again doing about 80% of their “stuff”, about 80% of the time, reported that they were primarily fluctuating around all those aforementioned life factors that came up.  In the end, they were consistent enough to get almost all of the potential results, but not so much so that they redlined to the inevitable breakdown.  

In summary, my advice for all of us is to make a concerted effort to get in our exercise movements as often and thoroughly as our body (and mind) needs, but to be comfortable and even instinctive about occasionally falling a little short.  This may actually have a more positive effect on our health and fitness in the long run.

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