Friday, June 11, 2010

Tweak your way to fitness

I was listening to an interview with John Berardi of Precision Nutrition fame in a FitCast episode and he said something I found very interesting.  He sells a system of lifestyle changes that lead to body recomposition (fat loss) and health improvements and so forth.  When he puts clients through the system he only has them make one change at a time, week by week, rather than implementing many changes at once.  He feels that this improves client compliance - people can stick to one change at a time more easily than to a whole raft of changes implemented at once.
I don't necessarily agree with everything Berardi says but I will say that I think he's onto something here.  Think of your life now as a baseline - think about what you eat, how you sleep, how you train, what you wear, everything.  Now imagine the lifestyle of somebody who is going to get absolutely optimal outcomes in their life - be the best martial artist, the happiest person, the healthiest or longest lived person, whatever.  There are probably ways in which your lifestyle falls short of that in almost every area of your life.  Maybe your diet is crap.  Maybe you don't floss.  Maybe your shoes are bad for your posture. 
You could spend months researching all the ways to improve your habits, then try to change them all at once.  You could consult some guru (even me!) and adopt our recommendations wholesale, again trying to do these things all at once.
The problem is that most people cannot make drastic changes in every area of their life all at once and stick to it.  Change is itself a stress, and stress is bad, so too much change, even changes that reduce stress and improve health longterm, can cause excess short term stress. Plus, willpower is not an infinite commodity for most people.  I know that there are some people who can change everything around all at once, and if you're one of them, fantastic for you.  But most of us will fail if we try to take on too many things in too short a period of time.
Take me as an example.  Since I embarked on this weird adventure (of getting fit) I've drastically altered my diet - I eat none of the same foods I used to eat, and I eat with drastically different timing than I used to.  I wear different shoes than I used to.  I shower differently.  I sleep differently.  My work habits are different.  I've totally revamped my life. 
But I didn't come close to doing all these things over a week - it's been years.  I made changes to my diet in small incremental steps.  Not necessarily because I planned it that way, but when I tried to make big changes I'd find myself cheating and backtracking a lot.
If you read this blog you'll see a lot of recommendations from me.  Add this one to the list: don't try to adopt them all at once.  Make small changes - tweaks.  Maybe drop the jogging from your program this week and run a handful of sprints instead.  Pass up the bread with dinner next week.  Start taking a multivitamin.
Two more quick points:
  1. Some tweaks are harder than others.  Doing some dynamic stretching every morning is relatively easy and pain free.  Giving up grains is going to make much greater inroads into your willpower.  If you're having a relatiavely stressful time (for example, a busy period at work, relationship difficulties, allergy season, whatever), put off the harder tweaks in favor of some simpler ones.  If you just had a baby, now's not the time to make huge changes.  But maybe you can start taking a multivitamin every day.
  2. Some tweaks are more important than others.  Don't think you're going to radically improve your fitness by wearing minimalist shoes.  Will they help?  Yes, but only marginally.  On the other hand, trading long slow cardio for high intensity interval training?  That can make drastic short term improvements in your fitness.  Don't get bogged down with the minor tweaks while leaving off the major stuff - the bread and butter changes.  We see this a lot in bodybuilders.  They'll take creatine like clockwork while eating at McDonald's every day.  Or people will obsess over using a 20s/10s intervals vs. a 30s/15s interval.  Those kind of changes may matter to an elite athlete, but to most of us cleaning up our diets, sleeping enough, and training hard but briefly will make much more difference than most other specific changes.
Another advantage of making small changes is that it's easier to see their individual effects.  If you change 10 things at once, then feel better, you won't necessarily know which changes mattered.  That might make you more tempted to falter later on - "it wasn't the fish oil that helped my joints, it was the fact that I stopped jogging, so I can start skipping the fish oil now."  Every day of life should be a little science experiment for you.

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