The Power of Gradual and Consistent

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

When I had just turned 18 my grandfather gave me some advice. He had lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II and the Korean War. He managed to raise a family of five, get a bachelor’s, two masters’, and later a doctorate. He spent 40 years in the same career, and when he retired he refused to claim social security or any other government “handouts” as he called them. He also refused to take any money from the US military for his service in two wars. As he put it, he was lucky to live and not be injured and that money needed to go to those who deserved it. He had a pension from a 40 year career and his investments, but he started life on his own and alone at 14, yet managed to succeed in what he did with almost no help from anyone. He wasn’t rich when he retired, but he had plenty to live on and some to give away as well. He was also married to the same woman for almost 60 years. When my grandfather offered advice, you listened. I still remember his words clearly, “Son, you’re an adult now. You’re out of school and about to start working. People are going to tell you to do this and to do that. Listen to their words, but be careful what you apply. A lot of people’s advice is only worth half considering. My advice is simply this: be consistent and be gradual, but always do more.”

At 18 years of age I found myself with no options for going to college and only able to find part-time work earning minimum wage. One of my buddies was insistent that I immediately start saving 10% of my income. Good advice, granted, but not exactly realistic at the time. But I remembered my grandfather’s words: consistent and gradual. So I applied my friend’s advice, but in a way that was consistent and gradual. I saved 1% of all income and purposed to add an additional 1% each year until I retired. There were some months where I only took home $160 a week after taxes. But I saved $1.60. I continued this for 10 years and at age 28 I was saving 10% of my income and I’ve continued this practice. I don’t worry about inflation or if my benefits cost me more this year or if I get a raise or not. In a month I’ll be 38 and as of Jan 1, 2014 I’m saving 20% of my income. There’ve been rough spots and layoffs and medical bills and an ever growing family, but I’ve managed to adjust our income/savings by 1% each year and we never notice a loss. The only thing I noticed is that I managed to put away 19.5K last year and 20 years later I’m already seeing the benefits of compound interest.

Right about now you might be asking what this has to do with Mark’s Daily Apple? Well, in my case it took me until I was 35 to realize that “be consistent and be gradual, but always do more” applied to more than just savings. It also applies to time with family, learning, and especially physical health.

Here we are in the third week of January. Statistically speaking, this is the week where 90% of New Year’s resolutions will fail. This is the week when the gym memberships go unused and the ellipticals don’t see any use before they’re eventually covered in “things” and eventually sold at a yard sale a few years later. Ask most gyms and they’ll tell you that the third week of January is their slowest week of the year. This is true for the 24-hour, exercise-in-the-windows-with-the-world-watching gyms as well as the local CrossFit boxes. Sadly, this is failure week for the vast majority of people that want change in their physical well-being. And the reason why is simple: most people bit off more than they could handle. They weren’t consistent and gradual. They were full of gusto and then fizzled.

I remember it clearly. I was 25 years old and in my mind high school was just a couple of years past, not 7. I decided I needed to get into shape again. I still had fond memories of running cross country in high school and setting three state CIF records (1 of which still remains unbroken). Surely I couldn’t have deteriorated that much! I used to walk with my girls to the playground at their school. I knew it was about one mile away. One night I decided I’d stretch and jog there and back. There were two minor hills involved, but what did that matter? So I did and at the half-way point I had so much energy I thought I’d go a bit further. I ended up doing about three miles with some minor hills. Mind you, I hadn’t run more than a 100M sprint in over six years. The next day I was definitely sore. The day after that was unbearable. I couldn’t walk without limping. My thighs hurt to the touch and I couldn’t fully extend my legs. I almost fell down our stairs because I couldn’t walk right. Pushing the gas pedal felt like someone was stabbing my calf muscle with a knife. The only time it didn’t hurt was sitting at my desk, but if I had to eat or urinate I could barely stand. It took a full six days before it didn’t hurt and another four before I wasn’t sore anymore. No more running for me…

Five years or so later I again realized I needed to get into shape. I was 30 and my gut was having an impact on my ability to view my feet. Sure, it was only 20 or 25 lbs, but it seemed that all of it had coagulated onto my waistline, and besides, I needed to deal with it before it became 30 or 40 lbs. So I got up early and decided to do three sets of as many pushups and situps as I could, just like in my high school days. Sixty pushups and seventy-five situps later I started my day. By that night I had tendinitis in my elbows and my abs hurt. By the next morning I couldn’t straighten either arm all the way and I could barely stand up straight. My arms recovered in a day or two, but my abs were even more painful on the third and fourth days. It took a full week before I was normal again. Well, no more situps or pushups for me…

Three years ago my wife decided to join the local gym. They had a special of getting a free personal trainer for 12 sessions… basically three times a week for the first month to show you how to use the equipment, proper technique, etc. On day number one the PT decided to start with an evaluation. My wife did squats, lunges, crunches, knee pushups, bench presses, burpees, and numerous other exercises all to exhaustion. She came home tired, but energized and ready “to hit it”. But the next morning she could barely move. Literally every muscle and joint in her body hurt. She tried ice. She tried heat. She tried stretching. On the second day, she called to cancel her PT session saying she was in too much pain. She cancelled again the third day. Eventually, the membership was abandoned.

I remember another time where I had quickly worked up to running three miles, in part because I’d been challenged to join a friend in a 5K. I went from nothing to running three miles straight in about six weeks. Once I hit three miles, I decided I need to do five miles and started pushing it. Within two weeks I had an inflamed Achilles. It took 10 weeks to heal, during which time I could do no running and even some walking hurt. When I tried to run just a mile 10 weeks later, I was limping home after about 100 yards.

All of these situations lacked two things: gradual changes and consistency. Ironically, the lack of consistency was actually hampered by the lack of gradual change. It turns out the order of my grandfather’s words were important. Being gradual allows for consistency. Here I had mastered this concept financially… and even in regards to our family time and other things, but when it came to physical health, I missed it completely.

Around the time of my wife’s failed gym evaluation, we stumbled across paleo/Primal. We knew we were eating crap and one day we noticed our girls were a bit heavier than they should be… at the higher end of the “normal” range. Despite a summer of playing outside from sunup to sundown, they were still a bit too pudgy. We committed to making a change for the whole family and decided to cut out all fast food and soda and later all processed foods. We were on the road to Primal without realizing it. While looking for recipes, we found Mark’s Daily Apple and refined our eating even more. But I couldn’t escape the fact that while we were eating better, we weren’t being active. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in our subconscious we were afraid of the pain of activity. The phrase may be “no pain, no gain”, but our past pain simply hadn’t been worth it.

I knew I had to do something, though, but all at once it hit me… grandpa’s words apply to all areas of life. Up to this point, I was walking about two to three miles a day, but that was it. I knew I needed to do a bit more. Heck, I wanted to do more. But I didn’t want the pain. And truth be told, I was in my mid-30s and didn’t want to risk injury either. So I tried the gradual and consistent approach. The first step was to stay consistent. So I kept eating whole, unprocessed foods and continued walking two to three miles a day. But for anything new, I knew it had to be gradual.

That evening I stretched and went out for a run. I know I could have run at least a half mile. I probably could’ve run a mile. I would’ve been sweaty and out of breath, but I know I could’ve done it. But I also knew that if I overdid it, I wouldn’t do it again. So I jogged one quarter of a mile and walked back. I was gone for all of maybe seven minutes and didn’t even break a sweat. My family was like “um, I thought you were going to go running”. 🙂 It was only one quarter mile, but it was a start. Guess what? I didn’t have any pain the next day or the following day. So two days later I did it again. Exactly one more quarter mile jog and a quarter mile walk back. I did this three times a week that first week, every other day. I never felt any pain or soreness. The next week, I added another quarter mile… one half mile jog out and a half mile walk back… three times, every other day. Week three was three-quarters of a mile. After a month I ran my first mile. I’m sure I could have done this on day one or even on week two, but I decided to be gradual and consistent. In hindsight, I realize that not only did my muscles need to build up gradually, but so did the connective structure of tendons and ligaments and bones and joints. My body needed time to adjust to the new stress.

I continued to add one quarter mile a week each week for five months. After five months, I was running five miles, three times a week, every other day. Of course, at this distance I felt soreness from time to time. But I never felt pain. And best of all, I never had any injury setbacks. Once I hit the five mile point, I made a slight adjustment. I now ran five miles or 45 minutes, whichever came first. I didn’t want to get into chronic cardio and I wasn’t looking to race, but over time, I got down from my first 11 minute mile to averaging 9:15-9:30 min/miles. Besides, I had read that with cardio anything more than about 45 minutes and you’re looking at diminishing returns. I also didn’t feel like overworking my heart. I figured a 9 min/mile was sufficient. To do this day, I have no desire to run marathons or to complete my runs under seven minutes a mile. I still run 45 minutes or five miles, whichever comes first and I’ve been doing this for over a year now.

A year later I was still eating better, walking two miles, six mornings a week and running five miles or 45 minutes, three times a week. All this work had helped strengthen my core and built endurance and brought my weight down about 27 lbs. Seeing the success of applying “gradual and consistent” to my running, I decided to start doing core bodyweight exercises the same way. I knew I could do 20-25 pushups and 3-5 pullups and 7-10 dips and probably 30 crunches. But I didn’t. Instead I did one set of 10 pushups, 2 pullups, 3 dips, and 10 crunches. Two days later I did two sets of the same. Two days later it was three sets of the same. And then I increased each slightly every week. I added two pushups, one pullup, one dip, and three crunches each week. Within a few months I was doing three sets of 25 pushups, 10 pullups, 15 dips, and 25 crunches. And again, I had no injury setbacks. In fact, the combination of eating better, cardio, and exercise all improved my immune system so much that I had zero sickness setbacks in the last calendar year.

Fast forward to today. I only run 5 miles/45 minutes twice a week now. One other day of the week I do about a quarter mile’s worth of sprints followed by a shorter two mile run. I’ve added more bodyweight exercises that I do twice a week and one day a week I do resistance work (lifting heavy things besides my own body). I’m 6’ 2’’, 178 lbs, about to be 38 years old, and for the first time since my senior year of high school I can see definition in my stomach area. I’m no six pack wielding underwear model, but I don’t care to be either. I look good with a shirt off at the beach in summer and that’s really all I care about.

But this brings about another aspect on “be consistent and be gradual, but always do more”. There comes a point where you need to enjoy what you have. You can still do more, but maybe that “more” is a new thing. My grandfather eventually retired and enjoyed not having to work and save. But he was still “doing more” as after retirement he started getting into photography. For me, I had to learn to be content with a 5 mile or 45 minute run… with having stomach definition. For me, “doing more” wasn’t more miles or more crunches. For me it was dropping a day of distance running and doing sprints instead. I was gradual and consistent and doing more, but now more meant new. It’s good to allow our motivations and desires to push us, but it’s equally good to learn to be content where you’re at or with what you have.

I know this is long, but I want to encourage others that it’s not just about good intentions. As my grandfather would say “it’s about being gradual and consistent”. It’s about sticking it out. It’s about the long haul. But it’s also about knowing your limits and being willing to start below your limits. It seems counter-intuitive to start below your limits if you want to surpass them, but the end results show themselves. Maybe you skipped the gym today after your first two weeks. Maybe you were in pain but decided to push through but now the pain is worse. My advice is simple: stop, rest and recover, and then start over. But scale it back. Do less than you know you can in the beginning. You can make bigger strides later. Skip the pain. Skip the injury setbacks. Let your body adjust gradually. Start small, start with less, and than gradually add more. No baby walks out of the womb. It crawls before it toddles before it walks before it runs. Maybe you want a six pack stomach. Does it really matter if you have it in three months or in six? How will you feel if you never have it at all because you did too much at the beginning and ended up failing? How will you feel when you realize you’ve had the same New Year’s resolution for 10 years in a row and have never seen success in completing it? Don’t give up, but do scale back in the beginning. Knowing your limits is awesome. But if you’re just starting out and if you’re about to become a statistic, then STOP. Scale it back and start small. Let your body gradually build up.


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