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  • Writer's pictureJason Burtchell, PT, Cred. MDT

It's always a good time to check your baseline (not just at New Year's)

As 2020 comes to a close, many of us pause to take stock in our year and how we, as individuals, have performed over the year. Most often we are asking ourselves a question about our current baseline and how we arrived at our current state. What decisions led us to how we feel about ourselves right now?

Often this is the basis for a resolution for improvement (“New year, new me!”) which is admirable and well intentioned. Unfortunately it’s often the case that these resolutions fizzle as the actions needed for success are either unsustainable, not realistic, or more involved than we’ve thought they would be. So we end up back at our old baseline. Except not really, as over time that baseline we had 5 years ago is actually not our current baseline. We’re a bit less functional, ache a bit more, and are able to do less. It’s often minor, almost small enough that we can blow it off- the stiff knees going up and down the stairs, the ability to play catch with your kid being a little more difficult, just feeling tired more than we can remember.

We have the capacity to check on many personal performance points so regularly that it’s not difficult to quickly cull data that can help us drive meaningful change- just look at your smart watch and you will often be able to tell how much sleep you had last night and the quality of it, how many steps you took over the last week, and how many calories are in that chalupa you scarfed down for lunch. Of course our technology doesn’t always give us all the information we need: things like taking stock of your relationships or your mindset (how your inner narrator is telling the story of what you experience).

When we actually really look at all that, and see where we have been, are we better than we were a year ago, worse, or really the same (probably the least likely case)? Assessing your baseline should take some quiet reflection. Changing your baseline is hard work, but there are ways to be more successful here as well.

Baseline is a tricky word in the medical world, with physical therapy being no exception. Often the goal that is set for a patient is based around returning as close to a baseline as possible after an injury. In the case of chronic conditions we are often trying to improve a baseline that has gradually declined over time. In either situation, the question that begs to be answered is: how good was that baseline? When there is an injury involved, the patient’s baseline may have made them more prone to the injury. In the case of chronic conditions, it’s been usually a gradual decline from bad to worse to risk for rapid decline in status. In all cases, though, the baseline you start with will impact your recovery: how quick, how much, and how sustainable over time. If you have good sleep habits, get regular exercise, have good nutritional habits, have a growth mindset and work to have healthy relationships you will fare better against almost any adversity than someone who is struggling in any or all of these areas.

When working with patients, it’s important to address the factors that have influence over the baseline. I once had a patient who was progressing very slowly until we identified that she was so chronically underslept that her body could not heal. Once educated about this and getting better sleep, the recovery was remarkable in both scope and rapidity.

So check your baseline. Be honest with yourself, and once you’ve identified your gaps it’s time to get to work. Here’s the secret to success: there is no “there,” it’s a lifelong process. This is good news as it means we can take the time to cultivate the habits which will drive success over the long term so as you look back, year over year, you’ll be able to see that baseline moving the direction you want.

This year we’ll lean into better understanding the five interlocking areas that will have massive impact on our health and well being that are within our realm of influence and/or control: sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindset, and relationships.

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