Progress, Not Perfection in Fitness & Weight Loss

At this time of year, everyone is already bemoaning their weight gain over the holidays and either dreading making their New Year’s Resolutions or gearing up to go hard in 2018!  I know that fitness equipment and gadgets will be under a lot of families’ Christmas trees no doubt with a variety of books on nutrition, diet and working out.  Remember, it’s the thought that counts!

Actually, the thought is nice, but that’s not what counts when it comes to fitness and weight loss.  What counts is action.  Buying or receiving the diet book, kettlebells and Fitbit show your intent to work out, but how many of those kettlebells, step trackers and diet books are going to be gathering dust by March?  Did you actually make it past the first two chapters in that diet book? That Fitbit might be handy, especially if it doubles as your watch.

I’m not trying to be snippy here because I know in college my stationary bike made a great clothes rack and I’ve lost count of the diet books I’ve been given that ended up in the garage never having been opened.  This is what happens with most of us: we have great intent, but massively poor execution.  We know what we want, but we either don’t know how to get there or we’ve convinced ourselves it’s going to be really hard, painful or both, so do we really want to do that?

No matter if we plot out a day by day approach for our fitness or weight loss goals or if we just decide we’re going to ‘play it by ear,’ none of it matters without execution.  This is the fancy way of saying ‘just do the dang work!’  Plans or no plans, we need to get our hands dirty to reach our goals, or even make progress.  Unfortunately, when it comes to doing the work, most of us chicken out.  We use any excuse we can find to put it off, no matter if we roll our eyes when we say it, even to ourselves. Excuses aren’t going to move us forward but ‘we’ve got plans!’

The truth is that fear of doing the work is usually inflated, meaning we make it out to be some horrible, awful, painful task that’s going to cause all kinds of hassle for us and results in our dreading it. It can be that way, if we try implementing a major master plan all at once.  These are things like cleaning out all the sugar in the house, or starting a ketogenic diet on Monday after eating the Standard American Diet on Sunday. Going from a plate of fettucine alfredo with garlic bread on Sunday night to a super low carb diet the next day can be beyond tough, especially if your normal breakfast is a breakfast sandwich and venti latte! “You mean three ounces of cheese is my entire breakfast?”

This is why we need to focus on making progress rather than trying to execute the Master Plan all at once (perfection).  When we look at our nutrition books and diet plans, most of them give you a step by step approach, but who wants to wait? That takes too long! Let’s skip to the end and bypass the ‘busy work!’ That usually ends up being the fatal flaw in our Master Plan: our haste to avoid all the intervening steps and ‘just get it done and over’ makes it too hard to execute! The plan generally isn’t a bad one, whether you designed it or you are following something from a book. We are usually the problem because of our poor execution of that plan.

When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students “when all else fails, read the directions!” I find that motto works pretty good out of school as well, because we like to take shortcuts, and we do it with everything! Most of the time, we can get away with it: we bring home a microwave, plug it in, set the time and we’re done! No need to read that manual- microwaves are pretty self-explanatory! We’ve gotten used to it in other areas of our lives, so why not fitness and nutrition?

Because fitness, nutrition and our health aren’t an appliance! We may think that eating Paleo and working out five times a week is a great plan for us, but if you’ve never done anything like those things, it’s too hard to start all at once.  The plan is great one, but we get lost in the execution. After a couple of work out sessions, our muscles are not going to be happy with us and if we’ve eaten bread at every meal, our cravings are going to be out of control! After a week or so of no bread, no grains and back-to-back work outs, we’re going to be very grumpy and probably pretty miserable, and the obvious response will be “this is too hard! If being healthy means being miserable, I don’t want to do it!”

Another important technique I learned as a teacher is that any new habit or activity needs practice. I taught Basic English Skills at college and many of my students weren’t avid readers. These are people who don’t read books for pleasure: they read because they have to, so they were pretty out of practice.  The books I assigned to them were generally short (200 pages or so).  For me, given a quiet afternoon, I’d kill that book and move on to the next one, but I’m pretty much a professional reader (I get giddy over history books that would make my students groan!) So I told my students to read for at least five minutes every night. If you aren’t a reader, it takes practice to focus and to sit still.  It also takes a little time to get pulled into the subject.

When we begin making changes to our eating plan or begin working out, we need to do the equivalent of five minutes of reading a night, because- like my students- eventually that five minutes turns into ten then fifteen and then they want to read for as long as they can.  When we get used to eating more veggies, or eating less sugar or less bread, we start looking for other changes we can make, because we aren’t fighting the cravings for the foods we stopped eating days ago and for most of us, we feel better overall too.  We start looking for opportunities to go to the gym or other activities we can do, because our bodies want to move more. It’s a natural progression.  We’ve mastered the basics and are ready for the next step. We trip ourselves up when we try to bypass those basic steps and go right for perfection.  We miss the importance of progress because our eyes are on the end goal.

One of the things I really enjoyed about teaching was seeing how many of my students learned that they liked reading. I’d see them in class or on the campus and they’d be much farther along in the book than just the chapters I’d assigned, and the look on their faces plainly showed they were into the story.  If they’d tried to read the whole book at once, they’d likely never finish it and think that reading was just too hard, but taking it five minutes at a time, they’d built the skills it takes to read and for a lot of them, the skills to read well. We can do the same thing with fitness and healthy eating habits, but first we have to learn to take it five minutes at a time.

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