Consistency Is Key...Until It's Not
Written by Fiona Thomas
Fiona Thomas is a freelance writer with work published on Metro, Healthline, Heads Together, Mind and Happiful magazine. Her book Depression in a Digital Age: The Highs and Lows of Perfectionism is an extension of her work around mental health, and a celebration of all that's possible through the power of social media.
The fitness world loves numbers. Whether it’s the number of sets we do on the squat rack, the number of kilos balancing on the bar or more worryingly, the number we see when we step on the scales. This is how we measure our success.
But even more important than numbers is consistency. We’re told that consistency is key. It’s bad form to smash out a five mile run one week and do nothing the next. They say we’ve got to ‘show up’ every day and ‘do the work’ to see results. Go hard or go home.
I see the same faces at my local gym no matter what time of day I decide to wander in. They go hard and apparently very rarely go home. These people are ‘consistent’.
Most trainers will encourage you to workout five times a week for optimal results, and anything less than three visits is considered pointless by some. In an article for The Independent personal trainer, Tom Mans, said ‘training only once or twice a week won’t give you more than a low level of fitness.’
Urgh. Hands up if you feel like a failure before you’ve even started?
Here’s the thing. Consistency is unforgiving. It doesn’t listen when you explain that your alarm didn’t go off on time. It doesn’t believe you when I say that your bones are aching too badly to move. It doesn’t sympathise when a depressive episode knocks you out for the count.
It’s not that I haven’t ever maintained consistency in the past. Oh no. I’ve been consistent to a fault. I religiously logged my food intake on My Fitness Pal every day for three years. I followed the Whole 30 eating plan which instructed me to eat within strict guidelines (demonising innocent foods like sweetcorn, rice and honey) with ‘no cheats, slips, or “special occasions.”’
I attended a slimming club in a grim community hall every Tuesday night for over a year. I tracked my food intake diligently and under their ‘expert’ guidance, planned to fail. I stockpiled my daily calories for wine at the weekend or having pizza on my birthday. There was no room for error or inconsistency. No flexibility for a late night cheese toastie or a box of doughnuts laid out in the office. Life’s little surprises could no longer enjoyed in edible form.
This need for consistency was apparent in my exercise routine too. In a moment of madness, I spent three weeks training to be a fitness instructor. During that time I learned that in order to see the effect of physical movement in the body two things were important. The first was consistency. The second was a gradual increase in intensity over time.
I soon realised that my body had become accustomed to my regular routine and to see a marked improvement in my body shape (which was annoyingly, my main objective at the time) I would need to up my game by working out more often, lifting heavier or moving faster. Ideally all three.
For most people, this is actually good news. If you sit at a desk for work all you need to do to increase the intensity of your exercise routine is do something small, like walk around the office for ten minutes. If you run twice a week maybe add in a sprint session or a yoga class.
But back then, I was already balls to the wall in terms of intensity. I was hitting the gym seven days a week, doing two — sometimes three — classes in a row and lifting weights so heavy that the instructor was struggling match by numbers. I was maxed out, but I worried if I slowed down my progress would halt. So I kept on pushing.
Then life happened. I got married, moved to a new city, found a new job and had to start over making new friends. I stopped going to the gym and I stopped counting calories.
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for seven years now, something which I thought I was keeping in check with the daily endorphin boost of physical exercise. Secretly, I hoped that I could cure my mental illness permanently if I just stayed consistent with exercise. I was trying to fight off the black dog with high-intensity workouts, but it wasn’t working.
Mental illness won’t ever leave me. In fact, it’s probably the only thing in my life that I can rely on until the day I die. It’s relentless and unpredictable in equal measure. I’ve accepted that I need to work my lifestyle around my symptoms and not the other way around. If I wake up anxious then putting pressure on myself to make it to a spin class isn’t helpful. In the past, powering though like this has felt like a form of self-abuse. It might help me physically in the long term, but my immediate concern has now become wholly internal.
I’m not saying that exercise doesn’t have a profound impact on my mental health. If I wake up with a shred of positivity then I grasp onto that momentum and swing by the gym or take a long, therapeutic walk along the canal. Because that why I move now. I move as a form of therapy, to heal myself from the inside out.
I move to hear the birds singing in the trees, a reminder that the universe is bigger than me. I move to feel my muscles ache, a reminder that I can be both strong and vulnerable and that’s OK. I move to sweat and feel my heart pounding in my chest, a reminder that I am surviving.
But I don’t exercise consistently anymore. Because do you know what else is really good for your mental health? Rest. Lots of lovely rest. Sleeping until you naturally wake up instead of stumbling into a 5am HIIT class. Face-planting the sofa after a hellish day at work instead of pounding the treadmill for the third night in a row. Having ludicrously over-priced pizza delivered to your door instead of walking two minutes to the local supermarket.
For me, exercise is just one piece of a very complicated and impossible to complete jigsaw puzzle. Exercise isn’t the answer to all your problems. Sure, it helps, but too much of anything will ultimately come back to bite you in the ass. Take a day off. Take a month off. The gym will still be there when you’re ready.