We all start an exercise program with the best intentions. Sadly, too many people “fall off” their program before they ever achieve success. One of the simplest ways to greatly increase the chances of attaining your goal is to set goals. As adults we often discard the need for setting goals, assuming that self-reasoning will help us stay on track. If that were the case, then America wouldn’t have an obesity problem! No matter what your age, setting goals keeps us focused and motivates us to keep moving forward. It is also best to set both short and long term goals. Goals are most useful when they are “SMART,” which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Tracked over time.
A specific short-term goal may be to start strength training; the long-term goal may be to ease the symptoms of arthritis, improve balance, or control your weight. These types of goals are easily measurable. For example, have you or have you not begun the program? Indeed, this is an attainable goal, as long as your doctor approves, and this goal is certainly relevant to living a long, healthy life. Your goal should be able to be tracked over time. For example, you should read this book within 5 days, get what you need to start exercising, and set your exercise schedule within the next 5 days. Start the program within the following 2 to 3 days.
The goals and the time frame are entirely up to you. Your success depends on setting goals that are truly important to you, and possessing a strong desire to achieve them. In addition, write down your goals, put them where you can see them, and review them regularly.
Knowing Where You Are
One thing to consider is having some sort of fitness assessment done prior to beginning your program. Many people avoid doing this because they know they are not fit and don’t want to actually know how poor their level of fitness really is. However, knowing your baseline – even if it is very low – allows you to see the progress you’re making, and that is exciting and motivating!
Several simple assessments can help you see how fit you are right now.
- Body Composition Assessment. This uses a height to waist ratio to determine how lean your body is. Your waist circumference should be less than half of your height. Therefore, if you are 72 inches tall, your waist should ideally be less than 36 inches. Studies have shown that keeping your height to waist ratio within these parameters can increase your life expectancy. This assessment is different than the popular Body Mass Index (BMI) assessment, which is a height to weight comparison. Fitness professionals prefer body composition over BMI because the latter does not take into consideration weight distribution.
- Cardiovascular Endurance Assessment (also called a Harvard Step Test). Step-up and down for 3 minutes at a steady pace, then see how long it takes for your heart rate to normalize after you stop stepping. The shorter the interval, the better one’s cardiovascular condition.
- Bend and Reach Assessment. Your level of flexibility is measured by sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out straight and you reach towards your toes. The farther past your toes you can reach, the greater your flexibility.
Although most people don’t like fitness assessments, the results can help you set realistic goals. They also will be useful later on to measure your progress, thereby giving you positive reinforcement.
If you’re already active, think of short-term goals to increase your level of physical activity. For example, over the next week or two, you may want to move gradually from walking to jogging, increase the amount of weight you lift, or try a new kind of physical activity. No matter your starting point, reaching your short-term goals will make you feel good and give you confidence to progress toward your long-term goals.
After you write down your short-term goals, you can go on to identify your long-term goals. Focus on where you want to be in 6 months, one year, or 2 years from now. Long-term goals should also be realistic, personal, and important to you. Studies consistently show that individuals who have long-term goals related to their life are more apt to make exercise a lifestyle habit.
Put it in Writing
It sounds so simple (and unnecessary), but writing goals down on paper has historically proven to be very powerful. Perhaps you have heard of the 1953 research study done with the graduating class of Yale University. Each of the graduates was polled and asked, “Do you have written goals?” Only 3% of the graduates, in fact, had written goals. Twenty years later, in 1973, the researchers reviewed the life of each of the graduates still living and found that the 3% that had written goals had amassed a net worth greater than the other 97% combined!
Certainly I am not saying that money is an indication of one’s success in life (and certainly it does not indicate their level of health), but it makes a very strong case for the power of goal setting.
For some people, the act of writing an exercise and physical activity plan helps them keep their promise to be active. See if this works for you. Purchase a small composition book and use it to write down your goals as well as keep track of your participation and progress. Be sure the plan is realistic, basing it on your current fitness and activity level. Don’t expect to go from couch potato to super athlete right away, if ever. Regularly review and update your plan and long-term goals so that you can build on your success.
When it comes to motivation, the first few months are crucial. If you plan on exercising with a good friend or family member, consider actually making a written contract with them to carry out your plan. As silly as it seems, involving another person in your vision magnifies the power of written goals. The goal is to stick with your exercise until you make it a regular part of your everyday life!
Identify what aspects of a regular exercise program get you excited and keep you motivated. Everyone is different, but understanding the emotional reasons as to why you are exercising is typically more motivating than the logical reasons. For example:
- Confidence. Strength training increases muscle mass and bone density. It makes you feel strong and energized, alleviates stress and depression, and gives you a better night of sleep. And, it can help prevent the onset of certain chronic diseases or ease their symptoms.
- Appearance. Lifting weights firms the body, trims fat, and can boost metabolism by as much as 15%, which helps with weight control.
- Social opportunities. Exercising with friends or family gives you a chance to visit and chat while you work out.
- Thrills. People who start strength training later in life often find that they are willing and able to try new, exciting activities, such as parasailing, windsurfing, or kayaking.
Celebrating your Success
Finally, don’t forget to build rewards into your plan. Making any major lifestyle change can be trying. A great way to motivate yourself to keep with the program is to properly celebrate your achievements. This may be as important as setting goals and visualizing success. When you accomplish one of your short-term or long-term goals, make sure that you reward yourself well!
- Buy yourself new workout clothes or shoes.
- Make plans with good friends to see a movie or go hiking.
- Go on a weekend getaway.
- Treat yourself to a new piece of exercise equipment.
- Get tickets to your favorite theater production or athletic event.
- Pamper yourself with a massage, manicure, or pedicure.
- Enroll in a class, such as ballroom dancing, yoga, or pottery making.
As human beings we tend to work harder when we are striving for something we want. If these suggestions don’t resonate with you, find something that does. An important distinction, though, is to not make the reward food related. In a society where we already attach food to most celebratory events, it is best to reward your physical activity with non-food items.
Just Do It!
Yes, a cliché, I know; but when it comes to starting a regular exercise program, nothing is as appropriate as the Nike slogan. All too often we create future intentions regarding behavioral change. “I’ll start on Monday,” “After I lose 20 pounds I will feel comfortable going to the gym,” or “Once things slow down at work I’ll have the time.”
Establishing an exercise habit has to start with the first day and there is no time like the present. The one thing that will dictate whether you start sooner rather than later is simply a matter of priority. Too many people only make lifestyle changes when a health issue has created a trigger. I hope that isn’t the case for you, but if it is, the chapters that follow will give you additional education and inspiration on how and why an exercise program can help you manage your health issue(s). Of course, if you don’t have any health issues, then kudos to you; starting an exercise program now is going to help you maintain and/or improve your level of health and fitness.
The best news is that no matter where you are starting from, a regular exercise program is going to help you put the spunk back into your life!
Bernie Caplan is the President and founder of Spunk Fitness, a chain of health clubs headquartered in Maryland; a no frills/low cost club model that offers an exceptionally high value to its members.