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Consistency Breeds Progress

Updated: Jul 5

Progress can be a sneaky thing. You can keeping chipping and chipping and chipping away at something, feeling like you're about to bang your head against the wall, and then you come up for air and notice something has changed. So you get back to it. Progress is made from the consistency of putting the work in often. To borrow from Ram Dass, it's a bird holding a scarf and brushing it across a large mountain over and over again until the mountain is worn away.

Bodies adapt in amazing ways with consistency and repetition. Doing something many times signals to the body, "Hey, this is most be important so we should get better at doing it." With appropriate intensity overload and good nutrition, our bodies create more muscle fibers, grow more blood vessels to support those muscle fibers, and supply more nerves to make engaging that muscle a little easier. In fact, did you know that our initial improvement from exercise comes from our nerves, not our muscles (3)? Our tendons become stiffer and our bones become more dense to withstand heavier loads. Our heart becomes stronger, our body sweats sooner for better temperature regulation, and the lining of our blood vessels become more efficient with dropping off oxygen and taking away waste. With repeated thoughts and actions, our brain make those neural circuits to complete that thought or task more efficient. This happens through many processes. One is called "pruning", where the "use it or lose it" idea is in full force. Neural connections that are not used whither away and the ones that are used often get stronger (1). In another process, an insulating substance called myelin is produced to support the stronger neural connections. Would you believe exercise improves myelin production?? (2)

Our expectations of what progress looks like can cause us to miss the small glimmers that are signs of improvement. Patients are often disappointed when their pain remains despite the changes they are making. Resolved pain is often the final sign of progress. There are smaller gains along the way. It is so importance to notice these small milestones because they help fuel our desire to keep going. Our biology has us wired to notice and fixate on negative experiences more than positive ones because that once helped us survive the wild. With our higher processing centers in our brain, we can learn to notice the good too. Read more about that with Dr. Rick Hanson here. He talks about this concept quite regularly and he teaches us how to expand our view of what we notice through mindfulness.

Proof of progress can look like...

  • I slept for 30 minutes longer last night.

  • I chose not to eat dessert after my meal for 2 meals today.

  • I learned more about how to take care of myself.

  • I went for a walk 3 mornings this week.

  • I meditated for 5 minutes daily this week.

  • I took regularly scheduled movement breaks yesterday.

  • I was able to do 5 more repetitions this week compared to 2 weeks ago.

  • I can stand on my right leg without falling.

As you've probably heard, progress isn't linear. There are times when we will fall off the wagon; putting in the work just doesn't happen. It's so important to be kind to ourselves in these situations, trusting in yourself to continue the journey when you are able, in whatever small action that may be. Remember all the things you can control, starting with taking some deep slow breaths.

Another misleading idea is waiting for inspiration or motivation to strike before getting started. Often times, we are inspired or motivated as a result of doing something. Proving to ourselves that we can do it is a great way help us keep doing it! Other tricks of inspiration is keeping a log or a quick daily journal to track your work. A check mark on the calendar can do wonders. Signing up for something or making an ongoing date with a walking buddy where you are expected to be there regularly is another great one. Personally, I'm a fan of mantras. Ones I have used before are, "If I do this today, I will be that much stronger tomorrow." or "Future me will be so grateful that I did this today." or "I'm doing the best I can with what I've got today."

Remember, the big picture is consistency. Sticking with it little by little can do amazing things. This stuff takes time. They've shown in the research it can take 10-12 weeks to be able to measure larger muscle mass. Active recovery from surgery can take a year or longer. Hang in there. You can do it.


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