The Power of Less in Health and Fitness

Have you ever felt like you have so many things to do and there’s never enough time to get them all done? Yeah, me too. Until I read the book that sparked the idea for this week’s post. Not only is it extremely helpful in everyday life, but I found a lot of ways in which it applies to health and fitness too…Read on for more!


As 2016 began, I found myself re-reading one of my favorite books, “The Power of Less” by Leo Babauta. I don’t often re-read books because there are so many others out there to get to. But I decided to go through this one again for three reasons:

  1. It is a very easy read.

  2. I got so much out of it the first time through (about a year ago).

  3. I felt that as 2015 came to a close, I had allowed my life to get bogged down with too many things!

“If I only had more hours in the day, I could get all these other things done! I have so many things to get to; there’s just never enough time!!” I would find myself saying. I trust I’m not the only one who has experienced this dilemma.

In the book, Babauta addresses this common problem head on. He states that in this modern age of technology and information abundance, “We’re drinking from a fire hose of information, with no idea of how to reduce the flow.”

In this day and time, we have been conditioned to think that more is always better. If only I had more time…more information…more money…more, more, more.

Seemingly every aspect of our lives has been touched by this desire. A quarter pounder isn’t enough. I need a double, triple, Big Mac! My phone isn’t fast enough and doesn’t have enough storage. I need more speed and space!

The problem with this mindset is that the desire is endless. However, the space we have in our day and in our lives for all these things is not endless. We will eventually run out of time and become overwhelmed.

The other problem with this is the fact that doing more stuff doesn’t equate to doing important stuff. Sure, you may have done more than yesterday, but did you do anything that was more meaningful than yesterday?

The main concept that Babauta is trying to convey is this: More is not better. What’s important, what’s essential, what’s meaningful, that is better.

His solution to the problem: Identify the ESSENTIAL. Eliminate the rest.

Until we can learn to identify what is truly important in our lives, and simply get rid of the rest, we will always be chasing more.

Now, the reason I’m writing this post isn’t just to highlight how the power of less can affect our daily lives (although I encourage you to give it a try). Instead, I want to take a look at how these same concepts relate to health and fitness. The power of less in your health and fitness routine can make all the difference in your success.

I believe there are several different ways in which the power of less can be applied to health and fitness. The three that I want to hone in on are:

  1. Information overload. Consuming too much information about health and fitness without applying the basic, essential principles.

  2. Excessively long workouts. More time spent exercising is not always better, especially if it is filled with exercises that are non-essential and inefficient.

  3. Not subtracting unhealthy habits. Addition by subtraction works. Don’t just add new healthy habits; get rid of unhealthy ones.

The Power of Less: Fitness Information

The first area of health and fitness to which we can apply the power of less is information.

Information in and of itself is not a bad thing. Information can change situations. But the problem comes when you get so caught up in information that there is no resulting action. Ever hear of paralysis by analysis?

I have certainly fallen prey to this myself, especially when it comes to health and fitness information. There is so much out there to consume that I sometimes find myself chasing more and more information, rather than action.

I also see this problem in clients I work with from time to time. They may be well intentioned and very interested in knowing more about health and fitness, but they get caught on the merry go round of new information that is constantly coming out.

Again, new information can be a great thing. But more often than not, this new information comes from incomplete or non-credible sources. For example, the media hypes up a new research study by quoting the results of that study out of context.

This usually looks something like the following:

A media source puts out a headline which takes a correlation between two things in a research study (e.g. excessive consumption of red meat being correlated with cancer), turning it into a causation (e.g. eating red meat causes cancer), and making a firm assertion intended to sway the readers.

People then build their entire diet and lifestyle around something they heard on the news, without reading the original research study or consulting a professional who can steer them in the right direction.

I am not proposing that we should ignore all new information about health and fitness. However, I do think that many would be better off if they did two things:

  1. Examined new information in its context and with a grain of salt.

  2. Stuck with the established basics of health and fitness.

What are the “established basics of health and fitness?” A safe place to look is established organizations that put out sound information about nutrition, exercise, and health. For example, the CDC’s recommendation for how much exercise to get per week. Or the USDA’s website ChooseMyPlate.gov for the recommended daily food intake.

Once you know the basics and (here’s the key) have implemented them into your lifestyle, then you can start looking at what else is out there. But if you don’t get at least 150 minutes per week of exercise, or 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day then that’s where you need to start!

80% of U.S. adults don’t achieve this amount of exercise according to the CDC. Who knows how many achieve this amount of fruit and vegetable intake? In my opinion, that’s the information that folks should be chasing after and implementing in their lives. Those are the ESSENTIALS.

The Power of Less: Exercise

The next area has to do with the amount of time it takes you to get through your workout in the gym. Again, more does not always equal better.

This may sound strange coming from someone who writes exercise programs, trains people in the gym, and blogs about fitness, but sometimes you just need to do less exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I love being in the gym as much as the next guy, but there comes a point when you need to go home and rest.

A workout should not last longer than 60-90 minutes, unless you’re a professional athlete or you’re training for a competition. But all too often, I see people who are so bent on reaching their goals that they want to add as many exercises as they can to their workout, because they’re not seeing fast enough progress.

While it may seem logical that the more you exercise, the faster you will reach your exercise goals, there are some problems with this approach.

First of all, you don’t get stronger by working out, you get stronger by recovering from working out. This is a principle that gets overlooked many times, but it is essential if you want to see fast progress towards your goals.

When you work out in the gym, you are creating a stimulus for your body to respond to. However, it doesn’t adapt to this stimulus while you’re still in the gym. It adapts during the days following your workout when you are eating, sleeping, and recovering from the stress you imposed on your body.

This doesn’t just apply to strength training. Whatever your goal is, the workout imposes the stress, and then it is your job to allow your body to recover properly.

Unfortunately, when you are in the gym working on your 3rd hour of exercises, your body is under a lot of stress. It is very difficult to recover from this unless you sleep 10 hours per night and eat protein and carbs like it’s your job. And unless you’re a professional athlete, you likely have another job outside of working out and recovering from workouts.

The solution: take out a few of the excess exercises in your program, and spend that time focusing on the quality of your recovery. The better quality sleep and nutrition you are getting, the faster you will reach your goals.

Another problem with the excessively long workout is that it’s almost always inefficient. Even if you do have unlimited time to exercise, your workout will be subpar because you are spreading yourself too thin.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that you are wasting time performing exercises that are inefficient and unnecessary. Instead of using your limited resources of time and energy to work hard on the most important exercises (e.g. squat, deadlift, push, pull, etc.), you are wasting time and energy doing exercises that have less return on investment (e.g. biceps curls, leg extensions, hamstring curls, etc.).

I would argue that, no matter what your goal is, you would be better off spending time on a maximum of 5-8 exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck, instead of performing 10-20 inefficient exercises.

Less is definitely more here, if you choose the right exercises.

The Power of Less: Addition by Subtraction

The last piece I want to talk about is addition by subtraction when it comes to health and fitness. Everybody wants to add something to their routine, but have you ever just tried taking something away.

For example, just adding exercise to your lifestyle can’t make up for a poor diet. Adding vegetables to your diet won’t take away the 5 cans of soda you drink per day. Exercising for 30 minutes won’t fix your posture if you sit at a desk for 8-10 hours every day.

In all of these examples, you must take away the source of the problem before you add the fix. Otherwise, you’ll only see marginal benefits, if any.

There may be times when adding something healthy to your lifestyle will help, but there are surely things that you could take away right now that would make a bigger impact.

People will gladly go to a healthcare professional to get their problem fixed. They might get a new drug or exercise added that will resolve their problem. But the difficulty comes when they are asked to take something away from their lifestyle to fix the problem.

The answer might not be a new exercise, medication, or treatment. The answer might be to stop eating the wrong foods, sitting and standing in the wrong postures, and other unhealthy activities.

Taking away habits that have built up for years is hard. But taking away something unhealthy is often twice as effective as adding something healthy.

Dr. Lee Burton from Functional Movement Systems wrote a nice article on Addition by Subtraction. In the article he references the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And it’s true. If we can remove some behaviors that are causing the problem, we don’t need an elaborate fix for the problem.

The Power of Less in Health and Fitness: Wrapping it up

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This guy is advocating “The Power of Less,” but he just wrote a 2000 word article on the subject! You’re right, and I’m sorry. But I do feel like this is a loaded topic, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

Fortunately, Leo Babauta has already written a 170 page book on the subject. He even includes a chapter on “Simple Health and Fitness” where he talks about a simple way to get yourself into a healthy exercise and eating routine that you can sustain.

The key to reaching your health and fitness goals many times is not adding a bunch of new things. Rather, it is important to choose what is essential to reach your goal and get rid of the rest.

But remember, this isn’t going to happen overnight. If you start by trying to change your entire lifestyle in one week, it will backfire on you. That isn’t sustainable. Instead, focus on one change at a time.

Ask yourself what is the one thing that you could change in your current lifestyle that would have the biggest impact, and then focus all of your energy on that for a month. Then move to the next thing. This will ensure that the changes you make become habits that you will carry with you for the long term.

Best of luck with your journey, and remember, more is not better. What is essential to your long term health is better. Choose to simplify and narrow your focus. Try out the power of less in your health and fitness routine, and let me know how you do!

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