This article is from our friends over at Precision Nutrition and is republished here with their permission. Check out the Precision Nutrition course!
There is no perfect person (No matter how awesome you are.)
Yet when many of us contemplate a health plan, weight-loss program or other lifestyle change, we start with the expectation that we need to be perfect.
But how could you be?
You have stress, and feelings, and previous habits, and maybe a job or school or kids or a pet, and days when you feel like crap. Plus, Netflix.
If perfection is required, then most of us might as well not even bother.
But what if changing your body isn’t a pass/fail scenario?
What if almost any effort—no matter how imperfect—could result in real, measurable progress?
Turns out, that’s not just a nice idea: It’s the truth.
Changing your Body doesn’t Require 100% Consistency
We’ve got the data to prove it.
Our team just finished crunching an insane amount of data from our nutrition coaching program where clients give us daily feedback.
- 12 months
- 1,000 clients
- Nearly 1 MILLION data points
All to better understand how much effort it takes to make meaningful change.
Now, if you’re not familiar with our year-long coaching program for both men and women, here’s a snapshot of how it works: Clients check in every day and tell us whether or not they completed a workout (or other activity) and did “their habits.”
We looked at changes in our clients’ bodies and compared it with how often they said they did their habits..
We focused on those who said losing weight was their top priority and looked at how much weight (or body girth) they lost after a year. And we asked:
How consistent do you have to be to make “good progress”?
What we discovered didn’t surprise us, but it might surprise your clients.
It could even inspire your clients to embrace their “imperfect” selves and make the (surprisingly small) changes that can transform their bodies and their lives.
Surprise #1: Just putting in some effort—no matter how small—changes things
What happens when people stick to their habits less than half of the time?
People lost weight anyway
Clients who are less than 50% consistent—but stay in the program for the full year—wind up losing 5-6% of their total body weight.
Now, 5-6% loss of body weight might not sound like much, but you can see the average weight loss for both men and women was 11 pounds.
And people did it by practicing some small healthy habits as opposed to following rigid meal plans or extreme diets that eliminate entire food groups.
People also got healthier
That’s because research suggests a 5-6% decrease in body weight can lead to:
- better cardiovascular health
- decreased cancer and diabetes risk
- better sleep (with less apnea)
- better mood
- less inflammation
- better immunity
- enhanced sex drive
What does less-than-half consistency look like?
Let’s think about how this might play out in real life.
Maybe your client eats a lot of fast food and packaged snacks, and their assigned habit is “eat more whole foods.”
If they eat four times per day—say, three meals and one snack—that means they’re eating 28 times a week. If just 12 of those meals or snacks were made of fresh, minimally processed foods, they’d be about 40% consistent.
This would be the equivalent of swapping out a fast food lunch for a green salad topped with lean protein every day, along with having a piece of fruit for a snack most days, but then changing nothing else.
Although we’re using 40% as our example here, there were certainly people who were 30%, 20% and even just 10% consistent that achieved similar results, on average. Almost any consistent effort, applied over time, seems to be enough to move you forward.
Here’s another way to look at it.
Let’s say your client wants to eat more fruits and vegetables (another assigned habit in the PN Coaching program). If 100% consistency means they eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, that would be 35 servings per week.
If they were aiming for 40% consistency, they’d need to consume just 14 servings of produce in one week, or an average of two servings per day.
What about workouts?
If doing something active every day means a person is being 100% consistent, then doing something active 40% of the time would require 2.8 activities. In real life, that might translate to two intense workouts, plus two long walks per week.
But remember, these are just examples. Each client’s goals will be relative to their starting point.
For instance, if a new client hasn’t exercised in a year, 100% consistency might mean being active just three days a week. And as a result, 40% consistency would be just 1.2 weekly workouts.
If all of this sounds realistic and manageable, you’re right.
It’s about learning to accept that better is better, and even a little effort can translate into real weight loss and health benefits.
Surprise #2: Showing up 50-79% of the time actually makes a big difference
50-79%: The beautiful balance between putting in less-than-terrific effort and getting results.
The magic zone between “not too difficult” and “making real progress” is somewhere between 50 and 79% consistent.
Our data showed no statistical difference between groups that hit this level of consistency, whether it was 50-59%, 60-69% or 70-79%.
Not only is it not necessary to be “perfect” to get results, even “pretty good” is not a requirement.
For example, by doing their habit practice and workouts at least half the time:
- Men lost an average of 6 pounds more than the guys who did their habits and workouts less often.
- Women dropped just 1 more pound (they weighed less to begin with), but they lost 4 more total inches.
A “habits at least half the time” approach also burned through belly fat, as both men and women shrunk their waists, moving them out of the high-risk categories (35 inches of circumference for women; 40 inches for men) for heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic health problems.
Surprise #3: Being at least 50% consistent with health and lifestyle improvements might be easier than one might think
You can reassure your clients that they don’t need to subscribe to all or nothing thinking.
With some small, manageable changes yes, your clients can achieve measurable progress if they reach even minimal levels of consistency. Most of our clients end up in the 50-79% consistent group (even though they often felt like they were “not doing enough”).
Once again, think about what this might mean in the context of your clients’ lives.
Maybe dinner in the evenings is nuts. Families are scrambling to get homework done, or get to extra-curricular activities; teenagers or toddlers are complaining about the food; someone brought home greasy takeout, and it’s a whirlwind.
Right now, eating “whole foods” mindfully and slowly with the right portion size is nearly impossible.
But… what if you could help your clients figure out how to organize their breakfasts and lunches a little better—without a lot of life disruption?
If they nail a healthy breakfast and lunch, plus the occasional snack, they could hit the mark of eating nutritious foods at 17 out of 28 weekly meals—which is 60% of the time.
Or perhaps your client wants to control their portions. At Precision Nutrition, one of our core habits is called “eating to 80% full.” This helps them naturally reduce their intake by learning to tune into hunger and fullness cues and getting used to stopping when they’re satisfied, but not stuffed.
If a client’s goal was to eat to 80% full at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day (21 meals per week), they’d be 60% consistent if they did that at only 13 meals.
Here’s another example: Let’s say your client loves wine but wants to drink less.
And let’s say that “100% consistent” is never drinking. If they normally have three glasses of wine each night, and they cut that down to one, they still get a daily Chardonnay, and they’ve knocked out two-thirds of their regular habit.
Perfect? No, but definitely better. And better is the goal.
In all these cases, there is lots of wiggle room. And as the data shows, they’ll still come out ahead.
Surprise #4. Even super-dramatic changes don’t require 100% consistency
As you may know, some PN clients achieve incredible body transformations.
Of course, if your clients are after big changes, they’ll have to be more consistent, and make more tradeoffs or adjustments to their lifestyles. But even so, they still don’t have to be perfect.
Our data show that being 80%-89% consistent with nutrition and lifestyle habits can result in significant—and, more importantly, sustained—losses in body weight and waist size.
How does this level of consistency take shape in real life?
Let’s go back to our practice of eating nutritious meals, made of mostly whole, fresh, minimally processed foods with lots of good stuff in them (what we call “PN-friendly"). If a client eats four meals a day, that’s 28 meals a week. Achieving 80% consistency means about 22-23 meals are “PN-friendly,” and that means five to six meals might be “less optimal.”
Now suppose a client is trying to cut out desserts. If they’re used to eating dessert every evening, then 80% consistent would mean skipping dessert about five or six times over the course of the week. That’s a big change, but it doesn’t mean total dessert deprivation. They’d still have one or two desserts to enjoy each week, and the rest of the week is highly consistent. Double win!
Surprise #5: People’s actual circumstances didn’t determine what they were able to do
You’d think having particular demands on you would make it harder to stick to your habits. That’s why we ask our clients about things like their work schedule, whether they have kids, whether they travel a lot and/or how much stress they feel.
Interestingly, there was no correlation between how much stress people felt at home or at work, or how well they said they were coping with that stress, and the results they got.
In other words, no matter how challenging people’s lives were, if they were able to figure out how to take small, meaningful actions day to day, they were able to be consistent anyway.
This often meant having creative solutions, like:
- Eating the same meal for breakfast and lunch, rather than prepping two separate ones
- Getting meal or grocery delivery, if they could afford it
- Enlisting older kids into shopping and meal prep help
And so on.
It also meant knowing how to scale back a little—rather than completely shutting down—whenever things didn’t go as scheduled.
For example, imagine your client sleeps through their alarm, or drops a carton of eggs on the floor at breakfast. Suddenly, they have no time to get to the gym. Instead of skipping their workout altogether, they can turn a walk with the baby in the stroller or a trip to the playground into the “workout.” It may not have been what they planned, but they still got some physical activity.
This is called adjusting the dial, and it helps people stay consistent, even when life gets messy.
You can help your clients apply this concept to not only their exercise habits (shown in the “dial” illustration below), but also to their eating and overall wellness habits. (Learn more about the “dial method.”)
As you help your clients devise these workarounds, their consistency is sure to improve, as will their results. In fact, some of our clients became so good at this they were able to achieve an astounding 90-100% consistency.
And again, their increased effort paid off, with more weight and inches lost.
To be sure, this level of consistency isn’t doable for everyone. And that’s O.K.
Not everyone wants to work this hard or live with all the tradeoffs it requires—or even care about such dramatic physique changes. (For more, see The Cost of Getting Lean.)
But even so, 17% of our clients were able to hit this mark. And they did it by adding one habit at a time and building from there. Just like everyone else.
Now, have a look at the results from all groups together and take note. It provides a nice visual of how improvements in consistency truly drive change.
Surprise #6: Just making some effort—however inconsistent and imperfect—can make people feel better about how their body looks, feels and moves
Consistency creates confidence.
Many forms of progress are invisible to the bathroom scale. That’s why we include a 13-question “resilience index” in our PN Coaching program. We ask clients to tell us how they feel, by indicating how strongly they agree or disagree with statements like:
- I’m the person I want to be.
- I lead a meaningful and purposeful life.
- I feel good about how my body looks.
- I feel healthy and physically thriving.
- I feel confident in my ability to take charge of my life.
We found that the more consistent people were, the better they felt about life in general.
In part, this happens because people feel good about the changes they see in their bodies, such as less pain, more fitness and the ability to do more movements, more easily. But it also happens because people are acting on their own behalf. We gain positive energy, confidence, and resilience after and because we act, not the other way around.
Even a small boost in confidence might mean a person:
- Walks into a gym for the first time.
- Tries a new exercise.
- Says hi to that attractive person.
- Dresses better.
- Takes on a physical challenge, like a race.
- Considers a more active vacation, like a hiking trip.
Finally wears that bathing suit, or takes off their shirt, at the beach.
- Asks for what they need and want, or says no to what they don’t want.
- Takes better care of themselves.
And each action creates more action. No perfection required.
Your clients can become, at last, the healthy, thriving, confident people they’ve wanted to be—just by putting in whatever effort they’ve got. Whether that’s 40%, 60% or 80%, their best really is good enough.