Goal setting is really common in fitness. It makes sense I guess. Personal trainers want to help clients get results, so they help set goals to ‘keep clients on track’. Make sure it’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound, and we’re set, right? Maybe. There’s no question about it – a lot of people have managed to get in shape by using goals to keep them on track and to motivate them.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who haven’t been able to stay on track. There are also a lot of people who’ve had some success with goal setting, but who lose focus once they achieve that goal, and end up back at square one a few months later.
Again, goal setting can definitely work, but from our experience we also know that it can create a pretty negative experience for people trying to get in shape. Let me explain.
1) Having a goal is stressful.
Until you achieve your goal, you feel like an underachiever. You think about it in the morning, you think about it before bed, and every missed, incomplete, or non-maximal-effort workout frustrates you. You’re on a strict schedule because you’ve got a ‘completion date’, and if you mess up at lunch, you feel like you’ve messed everything up. You’re a busy person with a lot on your plate, with a lot to do in life. Is one more stressor really what you need in your life?
2) Strict goals can cause you to develop a negative relationship with exercise and food.
“Lose 20 pounds by December”. Yes, it’s probably possible, and, yes, I’ve heard the success stories, too. In fact, I probably know some of those people. But I also know people who feel they have to ‘punish’ themselves with exercise because they ate too much over the weekend, and a few people who are literally afraid of carbohydrates. I’m not saying that their goals caused this sort of thinking – it’s just that the restrictive, time-sensitive, balls-to-the-wall, all-or-nothing, no-pain-no-gain nature of a lot of fitness related goals is a conducive environment for such thoughts to develop.
3) The focus is on the short term.
Even if you’ve got a 6-month goal, it’s still short term compared to the rest of your life. And if you’re trying to get back in shape, or stay in shape, your intention really should be to get and stay fit for the rest of your life, don’t you think? Unfortunately, it’s so common to see people train really hard and get great results for an event like a wedding, photoshoot, boxing match or half marathon, and then fall off the wagon once the event is over. “Lose 5 kilos by August”. And then what? Beer and donuts to celebrate, obviously.
4) The connection is with the goal, not your physicality.
Every person who has figured out how to sustain a reasonable level of fitness throughout adult life will tell you that they not only enjoy exercise, but that they need it to function at their best. They appreciate the gifts of health, resilience and sharpness, and are willing to keep working for it. Why? Because they’ve developed a positive relationship with their physicality. They like to sweat. They have a connection with exertion and movement, and aren’t afraid to work hard. The trick is to figure out how to keep wanting to do it. This relationship with your body is what will keep you away from jumping from fad to fad every few weeks, chasing down that magic pill that will help you lose your love handles.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not bashing the practice of goal setting. I’ve actually had a good amount of goal setting success with myself and with clients in the past. However, I don’t believe it’s the only way to ‘get there’, and I’m not sure it’s the healthiest way, either. So, what’s your alternative? What might work better? What’s the long term solution?
Like we talked about in You Got This! – 8 Tips on How To Make Your Exercise Habits Last, All Or Nothing?, and 10 Tips on How Not To Fall Off The Gym Wagon This Year the key to sustainable, enjoyable, life-changing fitness is habits. Keep them simple, take small, gradual steps, and embrace the journey.
Deciding you’re going to make regular exercise a habit (and committing to a habit-forming goal of, say, making it to the gym 3 times per week) will allow you to focus on something simple, like making that first step. Just show up. When you’re in the gym, you aren’t distracted or stressed out about a time-bound “lose 10 pounds” type goal. You just have to focus on great technique and the advice from the coaches during the workout. When you’re done with a session, you actually get to appreciate the effort you’ve put in, and the gradual improvement you’ve been making. Before long, you’ll be able to enjoy the whole process, too. Soon after that, you’ll have your habit formed. You can start enjoying that habit.
With a habit-based approach, you get to focus on things that are important for long term health, like learning to prioritize eating nutrient-dense whole foods and exercising with good technique. You learn patience. The best part? At some point, you’ll truly realize that there is no end goal. There’s no finish line to fitness. And that’s a beautiful thing.