You Might Be Wasting Your Time With Diet and Exercise

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There are many things you could try if you want to be healthier. You could decide to eat a salad every day, drink more water, get to bed earlier or take a fitness class. Given 5 minutes, you could list dozens of possibilities.

But too many options cause a kind of paralysis.  There is always a “latest and greatest” thing to try. Diet crazes, supplements and workout fads are vying for your attention at every turn. Sometimes doing nothing at all is easier than choosing what to do.

Even if you do take action, how to you know you are making any difference? Do you stick with that path long enough to see a result, or jump to the latest and greatest thing before you even have a chance to assess whether your plan was working?

Maybe one day, you are including whole foods in your diet and drinking more water. The next day you join the cult of “bulletproof coffee” and are literally drinking butter because someone on Dr. Oz said it’s a superfood!

Put simply, we need to ensure two things:

  •  We must choose which actions are going to have the biggest impact in reaching our goals.
  • We need to stick with these actions long enough long enough to see the results.

According to the Pareto principle, 80 percent of desired results stem from 20 percent of the work. The majority of possible options may not be getting you any further along. Some of them, like the butter-coffee example, may hurt your progress! With a little healthy analysis, can reduce our options by 80 percent.

Most fancy solutions are a waste of time that should not make your short-list. Toward your health goals, there really are only a few things worth spending your time and energy on. These are usually so fundamental, you probably already know that you need to focus on them!

Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”.  Proficiency in the basics trumps broad and shallow focus. Depth trumps breadth.

It’s not about learning more, applying more and doing more. Nor is it about giving up and walking away from it all. To make the most of our time, we need to understand what’s essential and what’s distracting. If you had to narrow your practice down to one kick, what would it be?

Want to eat healthier? Should you go Paleo or Gluten free? Low glycemic, high protein, low fat, or all organic? Sugar-free, or non-GMO? Should you buy all the expensive superfoods? None of them will make a big impact on your health – at least not a positive one.

You could simply eat more whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes at every meal. There is no dispute of their place in a healthy diet.

Look, I’m not saying not to eat organic food. But you can have “organic” diet full of meat, dairy, and processed foods. The benefit is questionable.  Whole plant foods, on the other hand, are going to benefit your health whether they are organic or not. It’s a broad pattern of healthy eating that will make a monumental difference to your health. Whether you eat organic or not is just a minor detail. Which kick are you going to hone to perfection?

You might say, “I’ve tried eating a plant-based diet and it didn’t work!” Sure, but were you consistent? You’ve got to make a change and stick with it.  Stay with it when you see a million other shiny options. Stay with is when your colleague loses 10 pounds overnight on some fantastic butter-in-your coffee diet. She’ll gain it all back anyway. Stay with the simple whole-food diet until you see results, then stay with it still.

Sure, all the silly fads and scams work. I mean, they part you from your time and hard earned money, which is exactly what they are designed to do. Ignore the fads. Don’t let them dull your focus. Stay the course and you’ll see the benefits.

Okay, I’ve made nutrition sound so simple. So what about exercise?

The first rule of exercise is that you’ve got to do it! The best-laid fitness plan in the world won’t do anything if you hate doing it. At the very least, find an activity you enjoy or a coach or trainer that gets you excited to work out. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. If you don’t like being punched in the gut by Rabdo the clown at your local Crossfit Box, then don’t do it!

So pick something you can imagine doing day after day and consistently do it in a way that is most effective. All forms of exercise will benefit you if you don’t overcomplicate it and you challenge yourself to do better over time.

In the gym, I witness all kinds of wasted energy. People do the same ineffective, isolated exercises day after day and see no benefit. They do the leg machines, the peck deck and the biceps curl machine perhaps. Meanwhile, the squat rack collects dust.

The squat is a fundamental exercise. It works all the muscles that people spend hours working in isolation. These include the quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, abductors, calves, abdominals and spinal extensors. In fact, it works almost every muscle in the human frame.

The squat even teaches your body to move better in daily activities. You’ll get better at lifting up your kids. You’ll jump higher in pickup basketball and get off the couch pain-free when you are 95. Those finicky, joint crushing isolation exercises won’t help you with those things!

One of the best fitness programs I’ve ever done has only two exercises and takes 20 minutes to perform. Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister centers on the kettlebell swing and the Turkish get up. Together, they train the entire body in a functional way. In three months, it helped me heal a debilitating back injury. It’s improved my trail running, mobilized my shoulders, and straightened my posture. It enhanced my leg power, core stability, and upper body strength.

Now that’s a huge return on investment! Could it be even better if it included barbell squats, pull-ups, and cable chops? Maybe. But then I would need a gym, instead of one kettlebell and my basement. The results are fantastic without all the needless complications. I have no excuse not to perform the workout 4 times a week despite a very busy schedule.

You don’t need to do everything. You just need to focus on the few things that will make the biggest difference. Focussing on everything is the best way to ensure you don’t improve at anything.

This doesn’t mean that the details are never necessary. High-Level athletes, who have maximized their potential in the basics sometimes need a competitive edge. This is the one percent. We’ll often train more specific movements and minor accessory exercises. We’ll tweak minor aspects of their nutrition to improve performance. But even at that level, the details come after the fundamentals are long established.

The details never come before or replace the fundamentals. Nor do we ever outgrow the basics. In fact, what separates high-level performers and the rest of us is that they are better at the basics. They’ve put in the time and stayed narrowly focussed on what works.

Like them, you can get closer to your goals by focussing on less. Avoid distraction and practice that one kick 10,000 times. Without remorse, discard the things that aren’t moving you forward. Do what’s important and do it better.

Three Steps to Simplifying

1. Look at your options. What would make the biggest impact in reaching your goals? If you could only do one thing to move forward, what would it be? Do that thing!

2. Eventually, usually well before you’ve maxed it out, you’ll start to think that one thing isn’t enough. Before you know it, you are complicating the picture with all kinds of fancy things that all the coolest kids are doing!

But you need to stick with the chosen path until you really start seeing results. Pick a timeframe before you choose a different path, say 3 months. If it’s still not working, look at other options. Until then, be unwavering. Stick with it!

3. Only when your path stops producing results should you choose another one. If squats are still making your legs stronger, keep doing them. Even when they stop working, keep doing them but change your rep scheme, change the tempo, change the implement, change your stance. Forget about the fancy one leg Bosu ball pistol-squats. Stick with the simplest version and simple variations.

There are lots of ways to put new wine into old bottles. Sure, those dusty bottles don’t look too exciting on Instagram, but there’s some damn good stuff in there! It’s not what the cool kids are doing, but guess who’s got the best-tasting wine? You do!

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