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Setting Your Exercise Goals

Posted Apr 24 2009 7:22am

Before you embark on a new exercise program — or attempt to invigorate your existing one — clarify why you want to get fit. Maybe heart disease runs in your family, and you want to avoid carrying on that tradition. Maybe you can't keep up with your grandkids. Maybe your pants split as you got up to greet your blind date, and you thought, "I really ought to do something about this." Whatever the reason, make sure you're doing this for yourself — not simply to please your doctor or to lure back the spouse who left you for someone much younger.

Then, after you evaluate your current fitness level, start setting specific goals. Research shows that goal-setting works. In typical studies, scientists give one group of exercisers a specific goal, such as doing 60 sit-ups. Meanwhile, they tell a second group of exercisers simply, "Do your best." The exercisers with specific goals tend to have significantly more success than the comparison groups. This approach can work for you, too.

When you start an exercise program, you need to set a few different types of goals. Look at the big picture while giving yourself stepping stones to get there. Having mini-goals makes your long-term goals seem more feasible. Here's a look at the different types of goals you should set.

Long-term exercise goals

Give yourself a goal for the next three to six months. Some people get really creative with their long-term goals. One Ohio woman set a long-term goal to walk to a friend's house — in Birmingham, Alabama. No, she didn't literally hoof it 697 miles. She charted the route on an auto-club map, and for every 20 minutes that she spent doing an aerobic exercise video, she gave herself credit for 1 mile. At the end of each week, she added up her "mileage" and used a yellow highlighter to mark the ground she covered on the map.

Make sure your long-term goals are realistic. If you start your swimming program today, jumping into the frigid waters of the English Channel and swimming all the way to France is not exactly what we recommend for a six-month goal. On the other hand, don't be afraid to dream. Choose a goal that really sparks you — something that may be out of reach at the moment but is not out of the realm of possibility. People are often surprised by what they can accomplish. One personal trainer had a client who was 60 years old when he started training for a trek up Alaska's Mount McKinley. After six months of training, the man successfully completed his trek. He was the oldest one on the trip, but he wasn't the slowest. His success inspired him to train for many other hiking events.

Judge for yourself what's realistic. Some people rise to the occasion when they set goals that seem virtually impossible. Other people get discouraged by setting extremely high expectations. If you're a beginner, set moderately challenging goals. If you reach your goals earlier than you expect, that's the time to choose more ambitious ones. Here are some concrete examples of long-term goals that may spark your imagination:

  • Complete a 50-mile bike ride that's four months away.
  • Drop 3 percent body fat in 10 weeks.
  • Do one full pull-up.
  • Drop 20 points from cholesterol count.
  • Fit into that pair of jeans.
  • Walk 1 mile in under 15 minutes.

Short-term exercise goals

Six months is a long time to wait for feelings of success. In order to stay motivated, you need to feel a sense of accomplishment along the way. If you're bicycling from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast, don't dream about the Atlantic Ocean every day; focus on a goal that seemed more manageable, like getting across North Dakota. Set short-term goals for one week to one month. Here are some examples:

  • Take two step aerobics classes a week for one month.
  • Improve your 1-mile walk time by 20 seconds.
  • Use the stair-climber four times this week for 30 minutes each time.
  • Bicycle 60 miles a week for the next four weeks.

Exercise goals for each workout

Immediate goals refer to goals for each week, day, or workout. This way, when you walk into the gym, you don't waste any time figuring out which exercises to do. Here are examples of immediate goals:

  • Spend a full ten minutes stretching at the end of a workout.
  • Do upper-body weight exercises and 20 minutes on the stair-climber.
  • Run 2 miles.
  • Bike a hilly 20-mile course.

Having a backup exercise goal

You always need a Plan B, in case something happens and you're not able to reach your primary goal as soon as you want to. By setting backup goals, you have a better chance of achieving something, and you don't feel like a failure if your long-term goal doesn't work out. Suppose your long-term goal is to lose 10 pounds by eating healthier and walking 3 miles a day. Your backup goal could be increasing your stamina enough to walk 3 miles in less than an hour. Or say that you're training for a 10K run in the spring, but you sprain an ankle and have to stop running. If one of your backup goals is to strengthen your upper body, you can still keep on track while your ankle heals.

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