Friday, June 17, 2011

About Health and Fitness - What's Your Goal?

Disclaimer: I am an expert on nothing. I'm not a health and fitness guru. I don't have a background in exercise science or nutrition or anything health related - I'm a sociologist who enjoys exercising and eating real food. People have asked me about various exercise programs and other health-related topics, and I like to hear myself talk, so this is just me, speaking from my own experiences.

Deciding to live a healthy lifestyle isn't just about waking up one morning and saying "Ok! Today is the day that I'm going to start being healthy!" Sure, there's a certain component of self-awareness that's necessary for the journey to even begin, but you're not going to get very far unless you set some (manageable) goals for yourself. Changing aspects of your lifestyle is a very hard thing to do. People are habitual creatures - we become stuck in our ways and like our routines. Human nature, itself, creates an obstacle to making significant changes in our lives. This is why so many well-intentioned New Year's diet and exercise programs fail miserably. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota showed that about 80 percent of people who make New Year's resolutions will fall off the wagon by Valentine’s Day. I'm sure we've all been there before.

So, rather than just making a vague declaration that your new mantra will be "Health and Wellness," think about what you really want to accomplish. Setting up a few very specific goals and coming up with a plan to reach those goals might make it more likely that you will be successful. There's plenty of evidence to back that up in the social psychology literature (Locke's "Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance" is one of the big ones - guess that psychology class I took on motivation didn't go to waste, after all).

Much of the research of Locke and his peeps has been taken over to the business world, but that doesn't mean that it's irrelevant for personal goals, as well. In their discussions, they lay out five characteristics of effective goal setting - Clarity, Challenge, Commitment, Feedback, and Task Complexity.

Clarity - your goals should be clearly defined. Rather than saying "I want to be healthy!" or "I want to lose weight!" say, "I want to lower my cholesterol to under 200" or "I want to be able to run for a mile without stopping" or "I want to lose 25 pounds by July 1."

Challenge - your goals should be reasonably obtainable, but still somewhat challenging. This sets you up for a bigger sense of accomplishment when you reach those goals and will also help to build confidence. For example, when I decided that I wanted to run a marathon, I broke it up into smaller goals along the way. My first goal was to reach 10 miles, then to run 1/2 marathon, then 15 miles, then 20, and then the whole distance. Each goal required me to put forth a good deal of effort, but wasn't so huge that they were insurmountable. I felt like a superstar every time I passed a goal distance.

Commitment - you need to make a commitment to your goals. You need to be in it with all of your heart and soul, ready and willing to make changes to meet your objectives, and ready to follow through.

Feedback - it's important to know how you're progressing toward your goal. If your goal is weight loss, weekly weigh-ins might help to keep you on tract. If your goal is fitness, monthly fit tests or challenges will help you to know how much strength or cardio endurance you've gained. Can you run a mile faster this month than you did last month? Can you do more push-ups this week than you did last week?

Task Complexity - I'll admit that when I studied these concepts in undergrad, I had a hard time telling this one apart from the "Challenge" criteria. I still do, but we'll give it a shot, anyway. You need to set a realistic timeline for meeting your goals, and make sure that you have the resources available to help you get there. This is where the good old cliche of "it's a marathon, not a sprint" comes into play. Make sure you're giving yourself enough time - it's unrealistic (and unhealthy, in most cases) to expect to drop 25 pounds in a month. You don't want to end up overwhelmed and discouraged, so take things as slowly as you need to.

So there you have it - Locke's framework for setting healthy goals. Of course, someone came along later with a fancy goal-setting acronym (SMART), but I prefer the social psychologists :)

What are you hoping to accomplish?


  1. I have learned to make SMART goals through work. I have to admit I try to do it at home too because it really helps.

  2. accomplish - I just finished my beer and I don't think I used SMART but I know if I have too many I'll be dumb (and have a big spinning head)
    whatever works for you - you have run marathons - how many people can say that?



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