Whether it’s losing weight, building muscle or preparing for a marathon, few people exercise without some sort of goal in mind. While we’re all familiar with stories of those who set and achieved their goals, you’re less likely to read about the fact that for some people, setting goals may actually prove to be a barrier to success. Here are four reasons why setting an ambitious goal might not be the best idea for you.

1.Having an unrealistic goal creates unnecessary stress

Do you really want to add one more stressful thing to your life? Until you’ve achieved your goal, you may find it consuming you to the extent that it’s a constant source of self-imposed stress. The potentially harmful effect of having an unrealistic fitness goal looming over you each waking minute can have a negative effect on your productivity, your sleep, and your general mood. Instead of focusing on, say,  a target weight at which you’ll finally be ‘happy’, try to focus on enjoying the process, and see the benefits as a welcome side effect, rather than the whole point, of exercise.

2. Strict goals can create negativity about exercise and food

When you have a goal like ‘lose 10kg by December’, it can potentially create a vicious cycle. Strict, time-sensitive targets can diminish the joy of the things you do to accomplish that goal. You’ll focus less on your eating habits or improving your form, technique and strength, and more on the number on the scale or stopwatch. And when that number isn’t where you want it to be, you may find yourself deviating from your diet/workout plan, leading you to make unsustainable decisions to overtrain or starve yourself. Needless to say, this won’t help you in the long term and may even end up setting you back. Furthermore, a strict goal leaves no room for life to get in the way – if your goal is to avoid chocolate entirely, succumbing to the temptation of cake at a friend’s birthday instantly means you’ve failed, which makes it all too easy to justify letting go entirely.

3. Goals are usually ‘short-term’

Most fitness goals are typically short-term in nature, which means that there’s a defined end point after which it’s all too easy to just go back to doing what you did before you set the goal. In that respect, a goal of ‘maintaining a healthy weight’ is more sustainable than ‘lose 20 pounds in 3 months’ – because the chances are that you’ll reward yourself for hitting your target weight with cake. If staying in shape is the long-term goal, why are we setting short-term targets? Too many of us will eat well or training hard ahead of an event like a wedding, a boxing match or a marathon, and then stop training after it is over. Trying to get fit only when you ‘need to’ isn’t a route to sustainable health and fitness in the long run.  Learning to incorporate healthy fitness habits efficiently into your lifestyle is a far more effective way of achieving long-term benefits.

4. The goal becomes the goal, and not your own physical improvement

Those who exercise regularly will usually end up enjoying the process. It quickly becomes part of their routine and without it they feel like there’s something missing in their day. These people have achieved a connection with their own physical well-being and are able to understand themselves and the exercises better. On the flipside, someone who is purely chasing a goal develops ‘tunnel vision’, where the process is simply a means to an end and not something to be enjoyed for its own sake – and failing to find pleasure in the process isn’t a recipe to keep doing something.  

So what should you do instead?

  • Keep your goals realistic. If your goal is to run a sub-three hour marathon and you’ve never owned running shoes, you’ll likely give up long before you get anywhere close to achieving your aim. If you start with something achievable like ‘run 5km at least 3 times a week’, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding.
  • Avoid short-term goals. Instead of setting goals with a defined endpoint (e.g. ‘lose 10 kg’), aim for something sustainable over the long term. You’ll likely be far better off after one year if your goal is to go to the gym three times a week than you would be if your goal was to lose 10 kg.
  • Enjoy the process. Try to think of fat loss or muscle gain as a welcome byproduct, rather than the point, of exercise. Whether it’s the activity itself or the endorphin rush afterwards, there will be something to take pleasure in beyond the number on the scale.
  • Form healthy habits. The easiest way to do this is to either do an activity you enjoy (whether that’s rock climbing, soccer or walking the dog), or accepting that you don’t like being active but, knowing you need to exercise, getting it done in the most convenient and efficient way possible (e.g. a gym like Ritual where you can get in and out within half an hour).

While none of the above should stop you from aiming high (if you really want to run that sub-3 minute marathon, go for it!), for most of us an appreciation of the pitfalls of goal setting can help us to form sustainable long-term habits that become a valued part of our routine. In this way, personal bests, or looking better naked will follow naturally, as a byproduct of the healthy habits we form.


Be Brave,

The Ritual Team