What is Balance Anyway?
Easily the most common piece of advice I hear well-meaning health and fitness people give is for people to find balance or something to that effect. This may relate to exercise, nutrition or any number of other things and the intended message is great – but it’s not all that well defined. The idea of balance in terms of nutrition and exercise is a pretty complex one that is rarely really unpacked and made explicit, meaning that when us well-meaning fitness people recommend it, it can often be little more than a nice sounding platitude that is open to interpretation. What happens, therefore, is entirely up to the person that hears the word and their understanding of what was meant, which will be dictated more by their own personality than the intended message of the speaker.
It’s my hope that in this blog I’ll be able to unpick what we mean when we talk about balance, and better help you actually find it.
I’m going to start by going over what balance absolutely doesn’t mean. When people talk about balance, they tend to throw it into a conversation where someone is or appears to be, doing too much. This may mean that they are exercising too often, eating with too much rigidity, working too much and avoiding sleep, or something similar. “You need to find balance” in this context, is therefore believed to mean “you need to do less of the thing you’re doing” but that’s not quite right, and the distinction matters. It matters because people will often get to the point of doing too much because they want results and are either getting them too slowly or not at all, and so they ramp up the effort. This is completely understandable and even commendable, and as soon as they hear someone say what amounts to “you need to stop trying so hard” they will switch off.
If you’re not getting the outcomes you want, trying less isn’t exactly the way to start getting there, is it?
But that’s not what balance means. Balance isn’t a reduction in effort, it’s a redistribution of effort over a wider range of potential areas of focus. You don’t balance a scale by putting less stuff on it, you balance it by spreading the load more evenly, and an unbalanced approach to health and fitness isn’t an issue because you’re using too much energy, far from it, it’s an issue because a lack of balance leads to certain areas being ignored to the point that they eventually break down. While this is obviously bad because the things you neglect matter, it’s also bad because the collapse of these other areas seeps into the area into which you were putting all of your effort in the first place. This means that sacrificing everything to reach a goal doesn’t just screw up everything you’re sacrificing, it also simply doesn’t work.
In short, an unbalanced approach leads to failure not because you’re trying too hard, but because you’re not putting some of your effort into the things that are necessary to keep the whole thing going.
So what is balance in exercise and nutrition? I’ll start with exercise.
Finding balance in exercise doesn’t mean you stop training so hard, it means that you place a good amount of your energy into:
- Without adequate recovery, your body is unable to super-compensate from the stress under which you have placed it. Yes, sure, you might be recovering well enough to get back in the gym tomorrow, but that’s not supposed to be the goal. If you start at a 5 then exercise until you’re at a 3, the idea isn’t to recover until you’re back at 5, it’s to recover until you’re at 5.1. Being able to repeat a workout shouldn’t be the aim, it should be to beat your last effort, and if you don’t put some energy into recovery you will never manage that.
- Doing other stuff you enjoy. Exercise can make you feel great, is great for you, and of course, it helps you towards a goal – but it’s only in exceptional circumstances that it’s genuinely fun at the time (especially if you train alone). Whenever you spend time doing one thing, you are simultaneously deciding not to spend that same amount of time doing something else, and in this case, you’re sacrificing time you could spend doing something more enjoyable – some other thing that you value – for additional time in the gym. This can be OK for a few weeks, months, or even years, but eventually you will start to resent your time in the gym because it’s taking away from time with loved ones, from time doing other hobbies, or even from other sports or activities. Upon reading this some readers will think “well yes, but I need to spend that time in the gym to get to where I need to be” but I would really challenge that. Most people can achieve their health, fitness and body composition goals with less than 4 hours in the gym per week. 2-4 focused and high effort sessions of 45-60 minutes is more than enough for basically anyone to achieve basically anything, so if you don’t have extremely athletic goals in mind, doing any more than this is just time spent fannying about.
The problem comes when you eventually realise this – you’re sacrificing time that could be spent with loved ones or time doing other things for literally no reason – because you will start going through the motions in the gym or simply quit altogether. Putting energy into things that you enjoy outside of the gym will allow you to bring energy to your training sessions, and allow you to still want to be doing it in 30 years’ time. Use your energy more wisely and you’ll get better results for a longer time – and you’ll also get to do more fun stuff.
- Doing the other stuff you HAVE to do. You need to work, to sleep, to take care of your loved ones, to keep your house tidy and to do a ton of other things. If you don’t put energy into that it will start to fall apart, and at that point, your stress levels will rise. That stress can screw up your eating habits (more on this in the coming weeks), can detract from your desire to exercise, and can ultimately screw up a LOT of things. One hour less in the gym is one hour more arranging things in your life so that you don’t sit awake at night due to anxiety – and that’s important.
Similarly with nutrition, finding balance doesn’t mean that you stop eating towards your goals, it means that you stop eating towards your goals to the exclusion of eating for pleasure and social interaction, which are both completely valid reasons to eat.
If your dieting approach forces you to avoid foods that you enjoy, or to miss out on social situations in which you’d usually participate then you will start to resent it.
That’s going to mean that you eventually cave in and binge or you are going to gradually find your adherence worsens until you’re just not sticking to the plan at all 2-3 times per week and wondering why you can’t do it anymore. Finding balance isn’t about trying less hard with your nutrition, it’s about putting as much effort into long term adherence as you put into a short term ‘strictness’, because the latter can definitely impair the former, and it’s the former that actually gets you results.
If you aren’t in the shape you want to be in 18 months time it won’t be because you ate pizza on the day you read this blog, it’ll be because of the cumulative effect of every action you take between now and then, and if eating pizza today means that you wake up tomorrow happy, able to eat a diet of whole foods without thinking and stay active, then the pizza was the good choice. If, however, you don’t eat the thing you want to eat today and that (as well as many other similar choices) erodes your adherence over the next year and a half, that’s not going to end well. Balance – eating the pizza today – may feel like not sticking to your intended approach but actually, it can lead to longer-term overall dietary satisfaction. This means that putting energy into short-term enjoyment can actually lead to better overall adherence over the next 18 months, and it’s that which matters.
Ultimately balance isn’t about trying less hard, it’s about distributing your energy more evenly so that you’re able to put some time and effort into every area that matters to you, rather than being so hyper-focused on one area that you let everything else slip. Sure, there may be some times where you need to put more effort into one area, then calm down with that and focus on something else – that’s just life – but at some point you need to have a plan in place so you don’t end up neglecting what’s important in order to really drive towards one thing.
Success built on unbalanced foundations doesn’t tend to stay around for long.