luck and fitness


A new book examines the role chance plays in our everyday lives.

In today’s world, we like to think we can control every aspect of our fitness. We can track every morsel consumed, monitor every heartbeat, and record every pound of weight lifted (and mile logged). By doing so, we know what to expect of our performance moving forward. Or do we?

According to Gary Smith, Ph.D., and author of the new book What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives, by tracking every bit of exercise, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We’re not taking into account the effects of luck and chance in our lives.

Statisticians call this ‘regression to the mean,’ which holds that extraordinary performances—good or bad—seem to be drawn toward mediocrity like a magnet. That means that, over time, everything evens out. So according to this theory if you run a race in an outstanding time one day, for example, you’ll probably finish slower the next race.

It’s a simple idea, but we tend to misunderstand this natural cycle. We overreact to both good and bad news and fitness gains and losses.

But you don’t need to feel helpless in the hands of fate. Let luck in and you’ll be better equipped to reach your goals. Here's how:

We see examples of chance at work in our lives every day. It’s just that few of us recognize it for what it is. Instead, we panic if our blood pressure or weight is too high or low, which throws us off course. But maybe your blood pressure is high because you didn’t sleep much; or maybe you splurged on dessert. “We often fail to take into account our bodies’ natural capacity to heal or regulate,” says Smith.

The reality is that it’s natural for our bodies to cycle. No matter how you’re measuring progress, your numbers will fluctuate, Smith says.

If you excel (or struggle) in one session, it’s all-too-easy to extrapolate, Smith says. Putting too much stock in one good or poor performance can set you up for failure.

Instead, think about what you can do consistently. Maybe it’s ten push-ups with perfect form every session, week after week. “That’s probably a good indicator of your ability,” he says. “One workout on one day is not definitive evidence that you’re getting better or worse. Things average out over time in fitness.”

If you’re not progressing, it makes sense to think that something you’re doing isn’t working. But cherry-picking information that confirms our beliefs—eating carrots helps us run faster or wearing a lucky wristband ensures a personal best—can sideline success, Smith says.

“If you run five miles in 35 minutes one day, but your time was 37 minutes the next day, you might think, ‘I should’ve eaten more carrots,’” he notes. “It’s more comforting to think that these things control performance and that chance has nothing to do with it.”

But your better bet is to see how you perform over several workouts before ditching or adopting something as a sacred element of your performance, suggests Smith.

We have a tendency to assume success is due to effective planning on our part. When things out of our control go wrong (bad weather, sore muscles), we fear we’ll do poorly. And when we do, we blame ourselves, thinking we psyched ourselves out and that’s why our performance suffered. It’s likely that neither is true.

“The mental part of anything is important; attitude makes a big difference,” Smith says. But some setbacks or losses are just because of luck, he says. You might think you choked, or maybe your opponent just got lucky. “If you don’t perform well one time, it’s probably a mistake to think you did yourself in,” he says.

Good news for the weekend warrior: Fluctuations in performance tend to hit those at the top of the fitness chain harder than those closer to the middle, says Smith. That’s because if most of your performances are close to the average, regression to the mean won’t hurt you too much. Skill will help you stand out. “If you picked a few amateur tennis players at random, one will be more skilled than the others, so that person is likely to win,” Smith says. “In a group of elite players of similar skill levels, luck will matter much more in determining the winner.”