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last updated March 3, 2021

Consistency, perfection, and the area under the curve

by Rob Arthur

If you’ll recall from our discussion on homeostasis, our bodies are dynamic systems – constantly responding and adapting to their environments in an effort to maintain the conditions necessary for survival.

Let’s take a look at how this “dynamic system” concept applies to two of the more popular desired physical outcomes – fat loss and muscle growth – in an attempt to explore the concept of “consistency” in a bit more tangible terms.

Oh, and you’ll get to see my sick illustration skills 🙂

Dials, not switches

At any given time, our bodies might be both liberating and storing fat, as well as breaking down and building muscle.

The specific hormonal signals that result in each of these four processes – fat loss, fat storage, muscle break down, and muscle growth – are more like dials than switches.

We’re constantly turning these dials one way or the other through factors like nutrition, training, sleep, and stress.

When we eat a meal, for example, we might dial up the muscle growth and fat storage signals while dialing down the muscle breakdown and fat loss signals.

However, none of these processes are ever really “turned off” or “turned on”.

What ultimately dictates long-term appreciable physical change is the relative amplitude and frequency of each of these signals over a given period of time.

Calculus and physical transformation

To better illustrate this point, let’s explore a concept known as “area under the curve”, starting with the process of fat loss.

At any given time, there may be fatty acids entering and exiting a fat cell.

If we were to look at a (grossly simplified) graph showing the net difference in the rate of fatty acids entering that cell and the rate of fatty acids leaving that cell over the course of the day – or “fat flux” – we’d probably see peaks and valleys representing shifts from net fat storage and net fat liberation.

 

In this example, the area above the line – representing fat storage – and the area below the line – representing fat utilization – cancel each other out, indicating that over the course of this particular day there was no net gain or loss in body fat.

Let’s pretend, now, that everything stays the same with this individual’s life – physical activity, sleep, stress, sunlight – but now they eat a bit less at each meal.

Our new fat flux curve might look like this:

What we see now is that the area contained by the “fat storage” line is smaller, while the area under the “fat utilization” line is a bit larger (more energy used from fat and less from food), indicating a net loss of fat for that day (6 arbitrary fat units).

Of course, this curve might shift towards “storage” had the individual started eating more at each meal, rather than less.

This concept applies not only to fat loss, but also to muscle growth.

Let’s look at an individual who is just going about their day, not really training in any specific way such as to increase muscle mass.

Similar to our fat flux example, we might see peaks of muscle synthesis and valleys of muscle breakdown.

As you can see, this dude – or dudette – isn’t seeing any appreciable change in muscle mass.

Now, let’s play make-believe again, and see what this graph might look like if this individual starts weight training and eating more.

What we see now is that there is a slight elevation in the “muscle synthesis” peak, resulting in net muscle growth for that day (6 arbitrary muscle units).

On the other hand, if this dude started running every day and eating less, they might start to see more valleys than peaks, and lose a bit of muscle mass (a subject for a different post).

Seeing the forest and the trees

It’s important to note that long-term, noticeable fat loss is freaking slow, and muscle gain is even slower.

Also, we don’t live in bubbles perfectly curated for pursuing body composition goals, and some days will yield more or less progress than others.

So what we need to do is shift our perspective away from looking at these curves over the course of meals or days, and rather over the course of weeks…

…months…

…or even years…

Consistency over perfection

Often, thinking about these long-term processes might be discouraging, but really, this is great news.

True, this demonstrates that every single meal, every single training session, and every single day matters.

However, it also demonstrates that no single meal, no single training session, and no single day, matters that much.

When we take a step back to consider the total area under our body re-composition curve, we realize that we don’t have to be perfect, which doesn’t exist anyway, every single meal or every single day.

Rather, we just have to be consistent enough with your habits so that over time the area under the curve reflects progress towards our goal.

Go out for drinks one night, have a few too many stouts, and smash a few too many bacon cheese fries?

How many more meals do we have over the next week, month, and year to shift that curve back in our favor?

Unforeseen circumstances necessitate replacing a planned training session with other commitments?

How many more training sessions do we have over the course of the month to shift that curve back in our favor?

Of course, if weekend blow outs and missed training sessions happen more frequently, or if a few too many cheese fries become a few too many plates of cheese fries (not that I know anything about this…), then we might see their effects on our “area under the curve” to be a bit pronounced.

Consistency is key, after all.

But being consistent does not necessitate being perfect.

Let go of perfection – focus only on this next meal, this next training session, this next night of sleep, and then repeat the process.

Closing points

So, to wrap this thing up, you might ask yourself a few questions:

“Am I prioritizing consistency or perfection?”

“Is the idea of perfection keeping me from being consistent?”

“What habits do I have that might be shifting my curve away from the outcome I’m looking for?”

“What small change to these habits to shift my curve just a little bit more towards my goals?”

Until next time, have a most excellent day!

Rob


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