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How Important Is Consistency in Fitness?

Time to take an informal poll. Who here fits in two strength training sessions, 1-2 sprint/interval sessions and 3-5 hours of walking [1] or low level cardio on top of ample play time [2] – every single week? I’m betting there’s still a lot of hands raised in this crowd, but I’m going to wager I lost quite a number as the list went on. In an ideal world with a perfect schedule, we’d all consistently reach these goals [3]. The best results come from this general protocol. That said, this level of regularity is probably the exception rather than the rule if you’re talking about the long-term – month after month, year after year. And, yet, plenty of us are in great shape – even if we didn’t always fit in the above full regimen. Hmm… Maybe the concept of consistency is more nuanced than we normally give it credit for.

The fact is, there are a lot of legitimate reasons to skip workouts now and then [4]. You’re sick. Your kids are sick (and it’s the kind where there’s really no getting away). A minor catastrophe at work keeps you (long) after hours. You overdid it during your last workout or are paying for a weekend warrior stint that pushed you far beyond your comfort zone. You spent weeks dedicated to P90X or some other high octane routine, and now you’re totally burned out on it. You joined a gym and became a regular in a couple of classes, but now you’re not feeling it [5] anymore. Maybe you tend to jump from thing to thing, experimenting with equipments and trends here and there. Like most people, you go through periods of consistency, even intense dedication, [6] and then you settle out into phases of rest or even brief recess.

However erratic this might sound to some people, I’d venture to say our ancestors lived similarly changeable patterns of activity [7]. There were in many regions, after all, seasons of migration for humans and for animals. With those migrations came hunting spurts as well as times of intense work on new shelters or winter preparations. A hundred different factors might have slanted Grok’s activity from one end of the spectrum to the other. Yet, it all evened out at some point.

Whatever the varied reasons behind our missed workouts in the present day, there’s this essential truth. The body requires adequate recovery [8] from physical exertion to maximize its gains. Heavy exertion, after all, creates muscle damage, and the body then needs to repair that damage. Fitness, as it happens, accrues during recovery [9] – not during the workout. Generally speaking, the harder you worked out, the longer you need to recover.

Working out manically – whether it’s spending hours every day on chronic cardio [10] or not observing smart recovery time [11] between lifting or other strength training sessions – won’t give you the results you deserve, and it’s frankly a waste of time and effort.

The fact is, life happens and sometimes the body is just tired. Pushing it isn’t going to help – especially if you’re low on mental or physical reserves [12].

If you’ve had poor sleep lately, for example, you’ll almost inevitably have a less productive workout. While light to moderate activity may help you modulate your energy and even support better sleep, intensive exercise probably won’t do you any favors. Not only are you more prone to injuries, but the added strain on an already off-kilter system may worsen the stress of sleep deprivation [13].

Even excessive mental stress can likewise alter your body’s response to exercise. Subjects in one study [14] who were undergoing significant life stress events or perceived emotional stress showed impaired recovery following a heavy resistance training protocol. Their actual recovery of both muscular function as well as their recovery from fatigue and soreness took a hit for 96 hours (nearly 4 days) following their heavy exertion compared to those without measures of significant perceived or life stress events. This likely isn’t news to anyone who’s experience in the gym shifted in the face of personal crisis [15] or even considerable work or family related stress.

Sure, the fitter you are, the more you have before you’re truly out of basic shape, but those working at a high maintenance performance level [16] will see dips in those performance measures pretty quickly. For most people, however, two to four weeks is enough for losses to begin accumulating, and VO2 max (a key measure for cardiovascular fitness) tends to recede first with muscle mass losses on the heels. In one small study [17], non-exercising but otherwise “healthy” young men reduced activity from roughly 10,500 steps to around 1300. Two weeks later, their VO2 max had declined by 7% as did their insulin sensitivity and lean leg mass.

When we’re talking about consistency, however, we’re not talking about long hiatuses. We’re talking days here and there – with more workouts made than missed. Sometimes, we curtail rather than abandon our efforts as we navigate a gap in motivation [18] or look for a new interest that will renew our dedication. And yet we’re still soundly on the fitness path.

Perhaps the most illuminating point about consistency can be found in looking more closely at the word itself. Consistency doesn’t just suggest a regular frequency per se but a general steadiness, an unfluctuating focus.

Consistency is an aspect – and tool – of discipline, but it’s not the core feature. Some people can stick to a routine [19] like nobody’s business. Others would be rebelling outright [20] if told they had to “do” their fitness in any kind of uniform way – whether it be the schedule or type of exercise they pursue. Nonetheless, over the course of a given time, they end up exercising a lot – as much or maybe even more than someone who makes a formula out of it. One way isn’t necessarily better than another.

In keeping with that, let’s pull back in our wordsmithing for the day and look at the concept of “consistent with.” Synonymous with it are phrases like “compatible with,” “congruent with,” “in tune with.” Here’s where we get to the meat of the matter.

Commitment is the real center here. If we’re committed, we’ll do what’s necessary to maintain if not progress our fitness [21] – however loosely (and sometimes inconsistently) that actually happens. The heart of commitment is a steady focus. Workout inconsistencies aren’t necessarily undermining to that principle – or how strongly it operates in our fitness.

How about leaving some room for recalibration as well as real life? What would happen if we give up the pursuit-withdrawal chase of perfection and settle into the experience of self-trust – a value put into practice with the likes of daily or weekly minimums [22], self-care [23], health integrity [24], etc.?

How many of us then would be raising our hands – and feeling better about our fitness commitment? Maybe the outcomes tell us more than our schedules ever could.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How does “consistency” operate in your fitness. Offer your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

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