If you’re like me, you’re getting chunky.

And, if you’re like me, you might blame your dad-bod on your lack of ownership of a specific training program, meal plan, and/or piece of fitness equipment. Especially the one invented by that Navy S.E.A.L.

It’s a tempting thought and one that I indulge in too. The belief that we’re missing the perfect workout, or right diet, that one fat loss secret that will unlock everything for us, is appealing. It absolves us of responsibility. And absolution sounds pretty damn good sometimes, especially when it involves something we’re embarrassed about.

But it’s bullshit. Decent fitness and nutrition information is plentiful and always in our faces. We may not know the very best ways to eat and train, but we know enough to be in better shape than we are.

Consistency is what counts

We fail to get results, not because we don’t have the perfect workout or diet, but because we don’t follow through.

The formula for a great body is simple:

  • Train smart and in a way that supports your goals
  • Eat a reasonable diet
  • Do both of the above consistently, for a long time

Almost every fitness article on the internet focuses on those first two points: what’s the best way to train for your goals? what’s the most effective diet?

Nobody pays much attention to the third bullet.

How to miss the point in training and nutrition

There is certainly room for debate about the “best” workouts or diets, but the debate misses the point for a few reasons.

First, you’ll never know what the best training or nutrition protocol is for your goals and your unique biochemistry. Although genetic testing is starting to lead to more specificity, most of what we know about fitness comes from studies done on college students. College students who don’t have 45 minute commutes, stressful 55 hour workweeks, and young kids at home. Maybe those subjects adequately represent the population as a whole, maybe they don’t. Either way, there is no certainty in fitness and nutrition.

More importantly, the results you’d glean from a “perfect” or “ideal” program would only be marginally better than a generic one; IF both of those programs were done consistently.

Shift your focus

Instead of wasting time and mental horsepower on finding the perfect program (and then switching to the next perfect one, and then next), we’d be better served by focusing on how to do the damn thing consistently and stick with it for the long haul.

Here’s the problem with that approach: it doesn’t get clicks on the internet (you’re still here?), it doesn’t sell books on Amazon, and it doesn’t sell late-night 90-day infomercial workouts. It’s so boring it makes me want to jam a pen in my eye.

But I’m going to focus on the boring, because attempting to find the optimal diet or workout is a fool’s errand unless we’ve first built consistency in basic behaviors.

An imperfect program, followed consistently, will deliver much better results than a perfect one followed half-heartedly.

My friend who didn’t get fat

I once spent the weekend at a college friend’s house. At one point in the middle of the day, while we were watching TV, he mentioned he was hungry and went to the kitchen. Fully expecting him to come back to the living room with a bag of chips like I would have done, I was surprised to see him holding a Tupperware full of raw green beans that he proceeded to eat like French fries.

It wasn’t just that he picked raw veggies that struck me; it was that he didn’t think anything of it. He ate vegetables with the same mindlessness that I eat Oreos. It wasn’t drudgery to sit down with healthy food; it was just what he did.

While everyone else from college started to look like bee-stung, swollen versions of themselves as they approached their thirties, my friend was still trim and youthful. He still occasionally drank beer and ate burgers like everyone else, but his habits around food served him well.

He never dieted or paid attention to his weight. He never put much effort into staying in shape. He worked out regularly and ate well most of the time without thinking much about it. Instead of looking for the best possible program or meal plan, he simply established good habits early on and sustained them.

Compare my friend with what most of do.

We gain weight. Something triggers us: struggling with stairs, an offhand remark by our wife or girlfriend about our love handles, bumping into a friend from high school who seems surprised by our double chin. We get motivated. We do our research and talk to our friends about the workout or keto diet they did last year. We spend some money. We’re gonna kick ass this time.

And we do. For two or three weeks.

Our massive, I’m really gonna do it this time, efforts rarely succeed. After a few weeks we feel crushed by the weight of change required to sustain our new lifestyle and, little by little, we slide back into our old routines.

Why habits work

The difference between my friend and us is that instead of making a Herculean effort to turn his life around, he maintained simple behaviors. Instead of finding the optimal workout and diet, he made sure he got to the gym and ate well consistently. He built habits.

Habits represent the best hope we have for getting in shape and building the body we want.

What is fitness if not a collection of habits? Try these for example:

Train smart 3-5 times per week, get plenty of sleep, drink enough water, eat five servings of veggies, have protein at every meal, eat healthy fats on a daily basis.

If we performed the above behaviors every day we’d be in better shape. But knowing that those behaviors are helpful and actually doing them are two different things.

While consistently fail when we try to make huge changes overnight, building habits offers us hope where ‘all or nothing’ approaches break down.

This is because habits are characterized by the lack of willpower required to perform them. They’re mindless, done on autopilot, with no thinking required.

If we could perform all of those behaviors, and maybe some others, with the same absent mindedness with which my friend grabbed his green bean snack, we might push aside the compulsion to eat a whole bag of popcorn. We might feel a little disgusted when drive by the Golden Arches.

Just as importantly, we might see popular fitness and nutrition marketing for what it is: not messages for products that will help us look and feel better, but distractions that appeal to the part of us that doesn’t want to acknowledge that we’ve never tried an effective approach.

If we can do that, we might stop hopping from one diet or workout to the next, always blaming someone or something outside of us for our lack of progress, believing that we’re hopeless, and get serious about making a real change.