Each year, around the New Year, my social media accounts are inundated with posts from friends and family about their new fitness goals. Although it seems like each person made almost an identical post the previous year, they list the number of reasons why this year is the year when they will finally make a change and reach their goals. Unfortunately, only a few of them are able to make any lasting changes.
Though many people are eager to attain new fitness goals, they fail for a variety of different reasons, which leaves them feeling defeated and disappointed. I have learned over the years that having a strong motivation is not enough to help you reach your fitness goal.
I have witnessed similar trends in my own gym. For the first two weeks of January, there is always a line for the cardio machines. Fast forward two months later, the gym is almost empty. Now, with the summer Olympics in Rio, the same group of people who came to the gym earlier this year and then disappeared are coming back again. But on the other hand, there is another group that has successfully stuck with their exercise routine and that has come to the gym consistently throughout the years. Have you ever thought what the difference might be between those who try and fail to achieve a fitness goal and those who have been successful in achieving their fitness goals throughout their lives?
Vicious Cycle of Failure
As a therapist, I have heard hundreds of stories of my current and past clients’ successes and triumphs. Based on these stories, I have learned that being able to set effective, realistic goals is the key to success. A study conducted by the psychologist Lewin Terman at Stanford University supports the same hypothesis.
In this study, The Genetic Studies of Geniuses, Dr. Terman examined 1,528 children with IQ levels within the genius range. He followed their lives for 35 years to identify the relationship between human intelligence and achievement. In the result of his study, Dr. Terman concluded that intelligence is not the most important factor in one’s success. Instead, self-confidence, perseverance, and the tendency to set goals are far more important sheer intelligence.
Many of my clients never learned the skill of effectively setting goals, which leads them to choose unrealistic, unattainable goals that are destined to fail. These failures reduce their self-confidence, which prevents them from setting goals in the future and impacts their quality of life. I firmly believe that setting effective goals is similar to any other skill and can be learned. By learning effective tools for setting goals, you can achieve the fitness goals that you always dreamed of.
Setting Yourself up for Success
Choosing a Specific Goal
The first step is making a specific plan for your fitness goals. I often hear my patients talking of the numerous benefits of engaging in routine physical activity followed by them expressing interest in increasing their level of physical activity. When I ask how they are planning to incorporate exercise into their lives, they often say “I will do my best to go the gym more often.”
In my experience, having a vague fitness goal is even worse than not having a goal, since it often does not lead to results and it reduces your confidence that you can achieve future goals. Examples of specific goals are:
- I make a commitment to take a 20-minute walk every Monday and Wednesday during the next four weeks before work at 7 am.
- I will take the stairs instead of the elevator every day at work next week.
- I will take the dance class that is offered on Tuesday afternoons at my gym.
Avoid Black-and-White Thinking
Black-and-white thinking, also called all-or-nothing thinking, is an error that we all make from time to time; however, black-and-white thinking is highly correlated with depression, anxiety, and helplessness. No one can achieve their goals 100% of the time. By thinking in absolute terms, people create unnecessary pressure for themselves, which can cause them to give up much more quickly, since they perceive setbacks as failures.
I often encourage my clients who are struggling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, and substance use to increase their levels of physical activity. There have been numerous studies providing evidence that physical activity decreases stress and increases mental health and well-being. In the video below, Dr. John Ratey, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discuss the role of exercise in managing mental health issues:
When I talk to my clients about these benefits, most of them become motivated to be more active. However, when I ask about their action plans, even clients that have not been active for years say, “I am going to start going to the gym every day” or “ I am planning to go for a run next week every day for an hour.” I have learned over the years that if I don’t intervene, people often come back the following week frustrated and disappointed. They cannot stick to their action plan and give up after two or three days. They immediately conclude that they have failed.
If your goal is to achieve and maintain a fitness goal, start by increasing your activity level no more than 20% every two to three weeks. If you are someone for whom small wins aren’t exciting, don’t panic! You will still be able to achieve your goal, but remember, slow and steady is the key for achieving your long-term goal.
Accountability and Goal Setting
After identifying the specific goal that fits your lifestyle and long-term goals, try to create various ways you can be helped with consistency. We all have hard days at work and home. During those days, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym. In particular, if you struggle with depression and anxiety, you may feel that you are carrying the world on your back; just getting out of the bed may seem like a challenge. For days like these, having a built-in accountability system will give you the extra push that you might need. Below you will find few tips that I find helpful in helping people stay on track:
- Find an exercise buddy: Studies have shown that signing up with a friend or family member will increase your chance of staying focused and remaining consistent. A study conducted by Wallace and Raglin at University of Indiana showed that couples who joined the gym with their significant other attended 54 percent more often than individuals who went to the gym alone. Additionally, the drop-out rate was significantly lower for the second group.
- Do it for a cause: Sometimes being self-motivated can be challenging, but by signing up for a charity and getting donations from friends and family may be a strong motivation that will prevent you from giving up on your goal. In most cities around the world, there are several organizations that hold charity walks, runs, or hikes. The way this works is that you sign up to participate in a race and make a commitment to raise money for that race by a certain day. This way, not only you are helping yourself achieve your fitness goals, but you are making the world a better place. I myself did training and fundraising with Team in Training for several seasons, which helped me to stay active during the most difficult time of my life.
- Anti-charity system: This system takes advantage of our psychological aversion to loss. You choose a charity, organization, or political party that you are strongly against. Then choose a specific amount of money that you will donate to that cause whenever you fail to follow your action plan. There is a website that can help you automate this process. This is a powerful tool that kept me in shape the past few months. I set my account up so that every week that I fall short of completing 60 percent of my fitness goal, I donate 5 dollars to the presidential campaign of the opposite party. Given my aversion to this candidate, thoughts of donating to that campaign motivates me to stay on track even on my worst days!
The Importance of Having Fun
As a psychologist specializing in the field of eating disorders, I have many clients who have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. On one end of the spectrum, I work with individuals with anorexia and bulimia, and to them exercise can be a deadly weapon and a harmful obsession. On the other hand, many of my patients with binge eating disorder have had negative experiences early in life, either due to stigma against their weight or their disappointment with weight loss, which turned into an aversion to exercise.
Although individuals with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder may appear different on the surface, they all share a common dislike of exercise. One primary reason for this is that when we turn exercise into a chore, we take the pleasure out of doing it, which makes it harder to engage over the long term.
When choosing an exercise, it is important to find something that you enjoy. I always tell my patients to think about the last time they had fun being active. Many of them tell me about their childhood and how much they enjoyed being active then, which helps them to identify an activity that gives them pleasure but also facilitates the achievement of their fitness goals.
One barrier to accomplishing fitness goals is how exercise is defined. We are all bombarded by media showing attractive individuals doing weightlifting or running, which narrows our definition of exercise. Let’s be realistic, we all have different capabilities and resources, and I witness good results with my clients doing exercises that they love and enjoy, such as dancing, walking, and swimming.
Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and eating disorder therapist with a private practice in Torrance (in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County). Dr. Moali has extensive experience and training in supporting her clients achieving their lifetime goals and making the meaningful lifestyle changes that they always dreamed of. She is provides counseling in person and online. She lives in Rancho Palos Verdes with her family.