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  • Chris Mullins

In any exercise program, consistency is key

What's the first step towards acquiring new skills, improving your health and fitness, and performing at your best over the long-term? Be consistent.



Ask any high performer and they will agree. Whether it be sports, music, business, cooking, carpentry, or whatever field you can think of, anyone at the peak of their profession has repeated a routine ad nauseam until they have achieved mastery. What’s more, these high performers rarely settle, as most of them continue to refine these routines throughout their careers.


Think about any skill where you excel. How did you get there? Through focused, consistent effort over time.


Notice I didn’t say consistency is THE key to long-term success. It is possible to perform consistently poorly over the long-term. We all know someone who has been in their field for a long time but never seem to get any better at what they do.


However, without consistency, at best all we have is random practice in fits and starts. We may see short term improvement, but a plateau quickly follows.


With consistency as the base, there are a few key ingredients for improvement over time:


A predictable environment: If our environment is too distracting, we’ll lose focus, maybe get frustrated, and ultimately struggle to be consistent.


Practice through repetition: Practice may not make perfect, but our brains thrive through repetition over time. Consistent practice makes neurological connections much more efficient, efficiency leads to automation, automation leads to consolidation, and consolidation allows us to layer on new and/or more complex tasks (a.k.a. improve!).


Immediate, clear feedback about the success or failure of the outcome: We can be consistent, but if we don’t know if what we’re doing is having the desired effect or not, then all that practice may not lead us down the desired path.


The cool thing is that these concepts apply to any area in which we’d like to improve, including any and all fitness qualities (i.e. endurance, strength, mobility, flexibility, etc.). Here are a few tips to encourage consistency, build movement skills, and get the most out of your exercise routine.


Be consistently active



I think of exercise as falling under the umbrella of physical activity. Whereas physical activity can be anything that’s not sedentary (i.e. going for a walk, gardening, household chores, playing with the kids, etc.), to me exercise is a type of physical activity with a specific physical purpose in mind (i.e. training for a marathon, doing a pull-up, lifting a specific amount of weight, fitting into those old jeans, etc.). Being specific is—or should be—at the heart of exercise.


If you are someone who is looking to get back into an exercise routine, the first thing I would suggest is simply making physical activity just something you do, much like other ingrained habits and routines such as brushing your teeth, or tying your shoes before you go out the door, or making your morning coffee. In this era of unprecedented convenience, a little inconvenience can go a long way. In this case when I say inconvenience, I mean anything that makes us a little more physically active than we already are. After all, we're not designed to be sedentary. We're designed to move.


Make physical activity just something you do

What if your job requires you to be in front of a computer all day and you have a lot of work to do? When can you find time for any kind of physical activity?


Research has shown that frequent, short physical activity breaks throughout the day actually improve productivity via enhanced mental clarity and reductions in the dreaded “brain fog.” To use one specific example, take Josh Waitzkin, on which the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” was based (and who later shifted gears entirely to become a high-level martial arts competitor). Although Josh was deemed a chess prodigy at a young age he was not immune to fatigue and loss of focus. To combat that, he would take short movement breaks when he felt his focus waning while playing multiple chess matches simultaneously. [1]


While there is more than enough research supporting the many health benefits of an appropriate amount of physical activity, the “appropriate amount” varies widely based on the individual. A good place to start is to do an honest physical activity audit—how much are you getting on a daily basis? Figure that out, then add a little bit at a time to establish a baseline level of physical activity.


So for example, if you’re in front of a computer all day every day and aren’t consistently active, it’s probably not wise to go for a 10 mile run just yet. Instead, set yourself up for success by taking short movement breaks regularly and build slowly over time.


Bottom line: A consistent exercise routine begins by making physical activity just something you do.



Check the box, put in the effort



This may seem obvious, but you can’t get better at something you don’t do. So yea, just showing up is a big deal, especially in the beginning as you are establishing a habit.


For many people, there’s a sense of satisfaction from checking the box or crossing something off a list. There was something you needed to do, you did it, and now it’s done and on to the next thing. Simple concept.


But now that you’ve shown up, don’t just go through the motions. If your goal is to get better, put in the focused effort to improve at whatever you’re working on.


Bottom line: If consistency is one key to long-term success, showing up and putting in the effort is a pretty big prerequisite.

While these first 2 points are important, there are 2 big potential obstacles that can sabotage any effort to be consistent: schedule and environment. However, they don’t have to be obstacles if we know how to manage them.



Schedule it



If you have a busy schedule, whether it be work, family, or social obligations (or all of the above), it might be worthwhile to do a schedule audit. Track your day-to-day activities, figure out what can be automated or delegated, and identify “time sucks”—you know, those things (like social media) that pull you in and distract you from either getting stuff done or truly resting.


Once you’ve done your time audit, plug your physical activity of choice into your calendar like you would a meeting or appointment. And better yet, schedule it with someone else. This is why training with a group and/or trainer is so effective—the accountability factor.


Of course, sometimes life just gets crazy and your schedule is just packed. If that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t fit in your 1-hour exercise sesh. Be creative. Just do what you can to get a little bit of dedicated “movement skill” practice. Split it up if you need to. Even 20 minutes at a time is fine in the beginning. Just make those 20 minutes count. Focus on executing your exercises to the best of your ability. Remember, the objective is to establish the habit of consistent physical activity.


Bottom line: Prioritize physical activity and schedule it like you would any other important appointment.



Minimize distractions



Before I get into this one, here are some interesting stats from the NBA to illustrate how environment impacts task—or how removing distractions have a positive impact on performance. In this example, we'll use league-wide shooting percentages:


In the 2020-2021 season during the height of the pandemic, the NBA created a “bubble” in Orlando where they could practice and play the season on the same courts without travel or crowds. During this time:


  • League-wide 3-point percentage was tied for the highest in history.

  • Effective field goal percentage (a more accurate measure of FG% that takes the value of 3-pointers over 2-pointers into account) was the highest in history.

  • Free throw percentage was highest in history. [2]


That last stat is particularly notable, because what's normally going on when a player is just standing at the line trying to make a free throw? Crowd noise, movements, and distractions. Put the best basketball players in the world at the free throw line without distraction or a hand in their face, and they’re going to make a lot more shots. (Even Dwight Howard, whose career free throw percentage is a paltry 56.7%, shot 65.8% from the line in the bubble, a number he only eclipsed in his rookie season, way back in ’04-’05.)


To get to the NBA, you have to consistently produce, and even at the highest level these athletes are adversely impacted by distracting environments.


In the bubble their environment was more predictable, they could focus better, so they were more accurate.


So, all this is to say that trying to do anything well in a distracting environment is more challenging, even for elite performers. And by their nature, distractions (phone, notifications, messages, etc.) compete for our attention, which can sabotage consistency by making things more frustrating (“why can’t I do this?”) and discouraging (“I’m just not making progress”).


Now, what I am not saying is to avoid distractions at all costs. Clearly that's impossible. I'm simply saying that distractions add complexity, and if the objective is consistency, then we want to keep things as simple as possible in the beginning to establish that habit. Once a habit is established, then we can layer in complexity, and one way to do this is by adding distractions to test our ability to focus on the task at hand.


Bottom line: When learning a new movement skill—or any skill for that matter—give yourself a predictable environment that allows you to focus, receive feedback and interpret that feedback (i.e. fail or succeed), and you stand a better chance at learning and improving.




So there you have it—4 tips for fostering consistency with your exercise routine. I hope you’ve found this information helpful. Thanks for reading!


 

Footnotes:

[1] To read more stories like this and learn more about the research behind physical activity and mental focus, check out the book Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg.


[2] https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_stats_per_game.html



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