Starting Exercise? Start Small. Take the Long View. Set Micro Interim Goals.

Goal setting for those new to exercise.


Developing and maintaining your fitness level is about resolving to keep a set of habits that will produce the desired result over "the long haul." Developing and keeping your physical strength is not actually that different than maintaining your lawn mower or a set of good friends. If you decide that you want your body to be strong then it will require consistent attention over a long period of time.


When I say "a long period of time," I'm speaking in leagues. Lifetimes. Fitness is a lifetime project. Your lifetime goal: You want to have a strong body that can do the things you want it to, ideally minimizing the risk of many serious health problems related to inactivity. Keeping your body as strong and healthy as possible is your big, lifetime goal.


People will tell you that fitness is about staying sexually attractive but that's actually incredibly unhelpful and possibly even damaging approach. If you're new to exercise I suggest you agree to set "attractiveness" aside for a minimum of one year. (Women may find Fat is a Feminist Issue a very good book to read on this topic!) For the next year, just focus on one word: STRONGER and leave sex completely out of it.


Your fitness falls, right now, somewhere on a "strength continuum." For the rest of your life you will be moving back and forth on the continuum but always trying to be STRONGER. The trick to achieving lifetime health and fitness is to micro goals appropriate for where you are right now. When you see micro progress on your micro goals, you will then reevaluate and give your body and mind new micro challenges on the fitness floor. Set aside the unrealistic expectations of your elementary school gym class. You will not walk into a gym "good at" everything and walk out with buns of steel.


What do I mean when I say "micro" fitness goals? I'm talking about measuring your achievements in minutes and seconds. This is how athletes measure their progress and this is what you should do. Click around on the Internet and you will see: world-class marathon runners are trying to shave minutes --possibly even just a few seconds-- off their finish times. It's the same for you. One additional pound of weight. Two or three more reps that you couldn't have completed last week.


When I joined my current gym a trainer introduced my to the Stair Mill. It's a tough machine! I started with 12 minutes at Level One. Two years later, I can use the Stair Mill for 30 minutes at Level Nine. I did this by adding one minute to each workout over a long period of time. When I started running I used the Jeff Galloway program app that built up my running ability literally one minute at a time. I ran one minute; walked one minute. Now I run nine minutes; walk one minute. I've never been "a runner" and I'm still not a speedy one - but today, aged 42, I can finish a 10K. When I complained about doing the Half Turkish Get-up, my trainer responded by saying that some of his elderly clients were one Half Get-up away from being able to call 911 if they fell and injured themselves. I HATED this exercise because it made me feel so weak. The motion reminded me of trying (and being unable) to get out of a hospital bed a few years back. When I started, I could do five Half Get-ups. Today I can do 15 Half Get-ups with an 8 lb. weight in one hand.


I'm not just talking about starting small; I'm talking about staying small and reviewing your progress on a month-to-month basis. It's difficult to do review your progress without starting some kind of record keeping. You could kick it Old School and make notes about your workouts on a spiral pad. Online tools like MyFitnessPal or DailyMile track your progress and send encouraging reports at the end of the week. It's tough to feel bad about yourself when you open an email that tells you you've spent 8 hours (or whatever) that week working on your fitness.


I would suggest that you leave your weight out of it, for now. Focus on finding exercise you enjoy and establishing healthy eating habits and check back in with the scale later in the year. I did a popular 30 Day vegan diet challenge and was so disappointed when I didn't have the same dramatic results as others in my group at the end of the month. Two years later, I'm down 20 pounds, significantly stronger, and I haven't counted a single calorie. I'm not a perfect vegan; I'm not a perfect exerciser; I still have weight to lose - I've simply been consistent enough in my movement on the fitness continuum for it to make a difference to my body. Obviously, it's possible to accelerate weight loss but I would argue that it's much more difficult to maintain long-haul. And it's all about the long haul.


And like any other long-term project, fitness will require some emotional flexibility on your part. There will be "skinny" people who tell you what to do - but it's best to ignore them. A good fitness friend is one that makes a commitment to join you at the gym - and then goes off and does their own thing. But that's an upcoming blog post so I won't go into that just yet.


Back to emotional flexibility. If you zoom out and approach your fitness as a lifetime project then there will be months when your job or parenting makes exercise a difficult commitment to keep. There will be years when injury or illness keeps your body from being able to do what you want it to. As you age you will have to alter your workouts to accommodate aches and pains that never go away. During these down times you may have to walk each day instead of run. You may exercise with a DVD before the kids get up for school. Perhaps you can only work your core and upper body while a painful foot injury heals.


There's so much freedom in that. Arthur Ashe had it so right: Start where you are; use what you have; do what you can.


So...where are you? And what tiny goal can you set this week to move your fitness forward? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this blog post. I always need encouragement at the gym as well! Check out the previous posts on What to Wear and How to Choose a Gym!



P.S. - Consider buying some Anti-Bad-Mood Sprays to freshen your gym bag and locker! :)




Comments (1 Comment)

I completely agree. It’s really difficult to divorce fitness from the ideas of “pretty” and “skinny” and many women give up because their goals are not realistic.

I started working with a trainer a year ago and her advice was to ignore the scale, the tape measure and even the mirror and just to focus on how I feel. After a year of consistent workouts I feel stronger – physically and mentally. My body has changed too. I’m not skinny but I have better muscle tone and my posture has improved dramatically which gives me more confidence. Fitness and healthier eating has become part of my life now and my body will continue to change and become stronger.

It’s been hard to let go of some imaginary ideal body goal, but focusing on the circumference of my thighs instead of how many squats I can do just causes frustration and drains my energy or – worst of all – makes me want to just give up.

Focusing on how much stronger and better I feel is what keeps me going and keeping going is what makes all the difference.

Posted by Esther on January 31, 2014

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