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  • Writer's pictureAnna Buchanan

The 80/20 Principle. What it is and why it matters

It’s a sure sign that fall is around the corner when it’s time to tidy up and put away the outside things. I spent one dark and drizzly afternoon doing just that and rolled most of the bikes inside and downstairs to my basement of forlorn boxes and other stuff. During each shoulder season I’m reminded of the need to sift through and clear out the boxes, etc. to make space. The thing is, rolling the bikes upstairs means it’s warm weather and outside time and I easily forget about this task for a while, only to have a smack of reality when the cooler season returns. This year, I really questioned how many times I’ve gone through — and will continue to repeat — this sequence of shifting rooms around, getting frustrated with how many spiders live in the corners and really not enjoying the process that reaps the same results and the same, “Ugh, one day I’ll get to it” dialogue.

This is a perfect example of the 80/20 rule, or officially called the Pareto Principle. Named after an economist from the 1800s, the concept theorizes an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs — namely, that 20% of the invested input is responsible for 80% of the results obtained. In this example of my bi-annual job of re-stacking tippy piles of boxes, this is how the 80/20 rule can be understood: 80% of my frustration is the result of my 20% (or lack of) effort to sift through them. This concept extends past my basement and into science, economics, daily life and, yes, fitness!

Interesting, on average:

  • 20% of planted seeds produce 80% flowers

  • 80% of the world’s wealth is held by 20% of the population

  • We typically wear 20% of our clothing 80% of the time

  • 80% of our fitness outcomes are the result of 20% of our efforts

The 80/20 Principle is a reliable analysis that reveals the approximate relationship between success and effort. It’s not intended to add up to 100%, but, rather, to illustrate the result and distribution of our efforts.

Now I’m not an expert in Economics (tried twice in university, but flopped hard, lol), but I am a fitness professional and this makes a whole lot of sense to me. I can attest to this with how my summer of activities and movement has added up to how I presently feel. The combination of prolonged computer work and beach-sitting was offset with a lot of running. My hips and low back are telling me this was not a healthy combo-pack I bought into, yet it’s my default fitness choice and, as a result, my current routine had to be adjusted to make up for this choice. Adding strength and recovery back into the mix is now a priority to bring balance back into my body. No biggie, but it means more time is spent trying to get back to where I feel my best. That time could have been spent doing other things, like emptying boxes from 10 years ago... Nah, I’ll get to it next spring… Promise.

In this context and in hindsight, I could have carried out my summer exercise routine with far less intensity and still come out winning. It's funny how humans are hard-wired to familiarity and expecting the same reliable outcome every time. (Nope. Sore hips, sore back and dead shoes and headphones from being attacked by driving rain… )The silver lining is awareness and I’ve been reminded that what works for me isn’t repetition, but holistic fitness that covers all of my body’s needs for strength, cardio and flexibility. And maybe for you, too? Read the two statements below and reflect on how they differ for you:

80% of my desired fitness/movement results occur from 20% of my effort.

80% of my fitness/movement effort yields 20% of my desired outcome.

Does one resonate with you more truthfully, more so than the other?

The first statement is representative of the Pareto Principle. If the second statement feels more accurate, you may have hit a fitness plateau or need to adjust your game plan, especially if your body is nudging you with aches and discomfort.

Great news! We can use this theory to our advantage.

When distilled, the 80/20 Principle is a concept not only of distribution, but also of efficiency and awareness. It’s a concept that affects us daily, because every day we’re making decisions based on the desired outcome from our efforts. Just as I default to a quick run for exercise, unconscious patterns, if left unchecked, have us chasing our tails, hoping for the same or better results. And, from the results of my example, I have now an added a 30-minute recovery or strength routine tacked onto my day. No biggie, but time is time and you can’t get that back.

In practice, this theory isn’t a shortcut to success, but rather an interesting way to become more aware of the combination of our time, effort and desired outcomes. From this fitness perspective, try to have a curious attitude, heightened awareness and observe how you feel as you are achieving your desired movement and fitness goals. Reflect if the quality of your movement is serving you. If something isn’t hitting the mark and you aren’t getting you to where you want to be, make a change and see what happens. Or, if you have a plan that is working for you, notice if you are doing too much of it and your body is giving you a message that is worth listening to.

A strong, flexible body that feels energetic and ready for action at any stage of life is what we’re all striving for. Let’s work the 80/20 Principle to our advantage in fitness and towards all goals in life and make all movement count — mindfully and efficiently towards our goals.

If you’re stuck, I can help! Reach out and be sure to check out my short recovery routine to help muscles feel released and ready for more movement.

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