stepping stones

In our last blog post – Finding your feet – we talked about how the simple act of paying attention to your feet can benefit you biologically, psychologically and socially. If you haven’t read it yet, please do as it’s a really nice precursor to today’s post on marginal gains.

The bottom line is that paying just a little bit of attention to your feet is a simple act of self-care which can afford much wider health boosts – and small but steady improvements is what marginal gains are all about when it comes to health recovery.

It’s all in the detail. By looking after a detail like paying attention to your feet you are improving your experience by a significant but albeit small margin. One of the aspects we support that many people initially struggle to accept and value is just how important those ‘marginal’ details are.

Look after the detail and recovery will look after itself

You just want to get better, right?

We know how frustrating it can be when you’re experiencing poor health. When symptoms leave you limping through your day or even unable to do the most basic tasks, it feels like it will take something momentous to shift such a debilitating experience and create a radical change.

You’ll also have a feeling of urgency, you want this change not only to be radical but also to happen now. Not in some days, weeks or even months. You just want to get better and start leading a “normal” life once more.

When it comes to conditions like ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia, IBS and Burnout, there are no silver bullets, no overnight ‘fixes’ or ‘cures’. These tend to be multi systemic conditions which means that sustainable improvements and recoveries are usually slow (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

For the Helpful Clinic’s founder, Thor, it took nearly seven years to fully recover from their ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia diagnoses. That’s how long it took to ensure a full recovery and the clincher was using marginal gains. It’s a sustainable approach and one that significantly reduces a person’s risk of relapsing.

Now it may not take you that long. The ‘quickest’ recovery that we’ve supported was about nine months, but for many it can take somewhat longer to reach full recovery. Also, for some, full recovery is not possible and so it’s about reaching the greatest level of health sustainable to that person.

How marginal gains transformed British Cycling

people cycling
By making marginal gains, the British Cycling team (not pictured) were able to transform their levels of success. Image credit: Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

But don’t just take our word for it. The marginal gains approach helped the British Cycling Team go from being an “also ran” to winning seven out of 10 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a feat the team repeated at the London Olympics four years later.

Sir Dave Brailsford, head of British Cycling since 2002, used the marginal gains approach to significantly boost the performance of the entire team. And you’d be surprised how much of a difference the small changes made.

For example, the team discovered that dust accumulating on the floor of the team’s truck was undermining bike maintenance. To combat this, they had the floor painted white so they could better identify when cleaning was needed.

Another simple introduction was to adopt better hand-washing techniques. For this, Sir Dave hired a surgeon to show the team exactly how they should wash their hands. The theory was that it would help them avoid illnesses during competitions – and it did!

The British Cycling Team also took their own mattresses and pillows to competitions. This allowed them to sleep in the same posture every night, thus improving the chances of them getting high quality sleep.

Focus on marginal gains

The same applies to this type of health improvement and recovery. While it would obviously be alluring to make a substantial gain of say 30% in one area, doing so is unlikely and sustaining such a gain is less likely still. That’s why it’s better to focus on making a few gains of 5% across several areas. You’ll have still made a 30% gain overall, but it will be not only easier to achiever but also easier to sustain.

The problem is people often dismiss actions that make small gains. But they really shouldn’t! For example, while a 5% reduction in pain might not sound a lot, the reality is that it’s pretty significant. Fast forward some weeks or months of sustained reduction of 5% each time and you’ll really notice a big difference in your pain levels. It’s a bit like compound interest.

Because pain and fatigue are such uncomfortable experience to stay with, we have this sense of urgency and wanting to fix it now. This focus on ‘now’ means that we dismiss what we can achieve over a longer period of time. Bill Gates is quoted to have said “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” 

You may be so focused on merely surviving your symptoms today that you’re not able to see how you can gradually shift your experience to how you can improve your symptoms over time.

It's a question of time
It’s a question of time. Image credit: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay 

Here at The Helpful Clinic, we focus on making marginal gains in six key areas: food, mood, relationships, symptoms, activities and sleep. By improving each of these areas by just 5%, your overall experience will benefit from a 30% improvement overall.

You can find out more about our six key areas of focus by downloading our free Information Pack.

Don’t chase the silver bullet

So how can you start making marginal gains right away? Well, a great start would be to pay your feet some attention (as outlined in our previous blog post). It sounds simple, but you’ll be surprised at the benefits it can afford.

Here are some other easy actions you can take to kick-start a marginal gains approach to health recovery:

  • Drink more water – the health benefits are plentiful. You can boost your chances of doing this by always having a bottle of water close by (in sight – in mind).
  • Get into a routine of performing daily stretches. A great way to encourage yourself to do this is by tagging your stretches to an activity that you already do in the morning or evening. You can also ‘build’ stretching into your everyday for example by placing your breakfast bowl on a higher shelf so you need to stretch to get it.
  • If you can (pain and fatigue permitting), take the stairs instead of the lift. Walking up and down stairs helps in a number of ways, for example to stimulate your lymph system. If you’ve got stairs in your house, take an extra trip up and down your stairs for extra gain.
  • Pause throughout your day and think “is it helpful?” Then, say no to stuff/tasks/people that’s not beneficial to you and your health. Use an app like HiFutureSelf or similar to ping yourself a message at certain times of the day to prompt this very question. After all, you’re unlikely to pause and ask it without a prompt.
  • Make it your aim to laugh at least once a day. Improve your chances of achieving this by dedicating a couple of minutes each day to laughing. Think of it as laughter supplements. It helps regulate oxygen levels, strengthens your intercostal muscles, improves your posture and releases replenishing chemicals.

All of the steps outlined above are achievable. Make them daily habits and you’ll soon start seeing the associated health benefits – plus you’ll have made a great start on your journey to recovery.

Furthermore, by building habits of small changes in these more easily addressed areas, you will also build the power and confidence to make the changes necessary to get curious about, address and shift the more fundamental stuff.

Here’s a free laughter supplement to get you started. It’s less than 2 minutes long and will definitely put a smile on your face: