The 80/20 Rule in Fitness and Nutrition
9/13/2011 12:00:00 AM
In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto developed a mathematical formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country, observing that 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. He began to apply this equation to various parts of his life and discovered it to be valid in many. For example, he noticed that 80% of his garden peas were produced by 20% of the peapods. This came to be known as Pareto's Principle, or the 80/20 Rule.
The 80/20 Rule has since been applied to all kinds of things, with fairly accurate results. The 80/20 Rule basically means that roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the activities that cause them. The reason this rule is so useful is that it encourages us to focus on the 20% of what we are doing that actually works, and stop doing anything that isn't directly and effectively delivering the results we want. So when we apply this to our daily lives, we need to focus 80% of our time and energy on the 20% of what is most important. We still have to do the other 80%, but we need to focus on and accomplish the most valuable 20% first.
Nutrition & Fitness
I once worked for a woman who, in my opinion, was nearly perfect with her nutrition and fitness: she ate perfectly, was disciplined, worked out every day, and really had the perfect body because of it. At the time I was struggling with my weight and doing whatever fad diet was popular at the time, with few results. I asked her what she thought mattered more when it came to weight loss and management: what you eat or what you do. She said without hesitation that her weight was 100% dependent on 80% of what she ate and 20% on working out. I have since put this to the test over the past several years and agree with it absolutely.
Consider that an average runner completing a marathon in 5 hours only burns 2750 calories for the rigorous and prolonged effort that would take. On Super Bowl Sunday alone, many of us consume a marathon's worth of calories in a single sitting! The caloric values of typical restaurant food (not to mention pub food and fast food--yikes) is shocking to most people when they first see it. That cup of New England clam chowder you ate at the restaurant before your entrée was a whopping 330 calories and 21 grams of fat, and you were just getting warmed up. Add the pre-dinner rolls, an entrée, dessert and drinks and you just ate well over a half marathon. It’s crazy how easy it is for the calories to add up, and how hard it is (and long it takes) to drop the weight they put on us. But—nothing a little conscientiousness can’t help with.
How to Apply the 80/20 Rule
Applying the 80/20 Rule is simple: your weight will depend on 80% of what you eat, so make sure you that at least 80% of what you're eating is good, solid nutrition and in moderate portions. More specifically, this 80% should be balanced at 40% protein, 30% carbs, 30% fat for most people. The 80% should consist of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, eggs, fish, oatmeal, yogurt, whole grains, water, lean meat, chicken, nuts, etc. The remaining 20% doesn't matter, as long as you limit it to no more than 20%. The 20% (or less if you can) is alcohol, sugar, fatty and/or processed meats, anything with heavy sauces, chips, pastries, any fast food, pizza, fried foods, etc.
As long as you commit to the 80%, the 20% won't have as much of an impact and you will still achieve solid nutrition. If you break this down to actual meals, if you eat 3 meals a day, then 4 of those meals per week can be whatever you want (with moderate portion control). That's fair, right? So watching your weight isn't about depriving yourself or focusing on what you can't eat, it's about making sure that you eat well 80% of the time, and then thoroughly enjoy whatever treats you want beyond that. Remember, 80% of your weight gain will come from 20% of your food choices.
Applied to fitness it is also simple. For most of us, 20% of our weight is related to our exercise and activities, so make sure that 80% of the exercise you're doing is the most effective for your specific fitness goals. 80% of the results you will see and feel will come from 20% of what you do. If you want to lose weight, then focus 80% of your efforts on aerobic exercise (treadmill, elliptical, spinning, walking, running, swimming, etc.) and 20% on weight training (squats, lunges, dumbbells, etc.). If you want to build muscle, focus 80% of your efforts on weight training and strength training, and 20% on aerobic exercise. Depending on your goals, you need to choose your activities based on what you want to achieve.
I have always thought the 80/20 Rule was an awesome guide, and was particularly psyched when my new license plates came preassigned with the number 8020, a daily reminder to prioritize my energy where it will be most productive. But does the 80/20 Rule apply accurately to everything? In both my opinion, no. But it is a pretty consistent gauge in the areas where it does apply, which are many, and I see its validity on a regular and consistent basis.
So when it comes to your nutrition and fitness goals, remember the 80/20 Rule. Test it out for yourself by focusing 20% of your actions on the most important and effective activities and food choices. This 20% should result in 80% of the results you see. Let me know if it works as well for you as it does for me. And don’t get discouraged: maintaining a healthy lifestyle of nutrition and fitness takes constant discipline, but we’re all very human. Just do your best to make choices where your actions will count the most to deliver the optimal results for your effort. Good luck!