Reaching a particular fitness goal can be an amazing feeling. Whether it’s completing a 5 km race or maybe even a marathon, being able to do a push up or lift a certain amount of weight at the gym, goal setting can be motivating and can also help us reach performance levels we might otherwise have not thought possible. The coaching and personal development world is rife with support and promotion of goal setting information and exercises as a way to get ahead in life and it’s an extremely common tool used everywhere from corporate boardrooms to your local fitness centre. Seriously, Google “goal setting”, you’ll find thousands of articles and book titles on the subject. Finding clarity around where you want to go in a particular area of life and subsequently spelling out the steps on how you are going to get there can be an extremely helpful tool. I know from my own experience that training for specific athletic events (aka setting a goal) often adds a certain amount of structure to my fitness life that feels welcome and can also be highly enjoyable. So just to be clear, though the title of this article, “The Trouble with Fitness Goals” might suggest otherwise, I am not indiscriminately opposed to goal setting when it comes to movement and exercise. If you guessed, however, that I may have some caveats to share when it comes to creating healthy fitness goals that don’t blindly feed into the problematic ideologies of fitness culture, you are correct! I hope you find a few of these ideas helpful.
1. A healthy mindset before goal setting is key.
During the years that I was working toward healing from my disordered exercise behaviours, my mental health required that I let go of all structured workout programs in order to create more connection with my body. In order to learn how to trust the signals and desires of my body with regard to movement, and subsequently begin following its lead, fitness goals needed to be put aside in favour of a deeper purpose and connection to movement and my body. This was a more difficult feat than you might think given the fact that so many of us are typically striving toward some sort of body or “health” related goal at any given time. Intending to get to the gym more, attempting to lose that “extra15 lbs”, working toward completing a 30 day challenge; it’s all such normative behaviour that you actually feel odd and somewhat radical choosing NOT to be pulled along by some kind of goal or imagined end point. Tough as it was, this was one of the healthiest things I could have done for myself during that time. It allowed me to create the movement practice I now enjoy which is body and soul driven as well as punishment and shame free. Setting fitness goals if you are in a disordered mind set with your body, food and/or exercise is not a good idea. Get free first, then set goals from a place of freedom.
2. Be prepared for the “what now?” feeling that happens when we complete or reach a goal.
So many of us have been conditioned to push and drive continuously. And it’s no wonder as we live in a culture that aggressively celebrates the energy of doing over simply being. The “sleep when you’re dead” message is exalted as one of human success and our culture rarely elevates or promotes the concepts of rest and recovery the way it does striving to get more done. So if you are working toward a goal or an event, know that its ok to allow yourself some time (possibly even a really long time) to just bask in the accomplishment of that goal. Know that you don’t ever have to set another goddamned goal again if you don’t want to. There doesn’t always have to be another physical accomplishment on the horizon. In my interactions with patients and clients over the years, I’ve seen many people realize great physical achievements in their life only to follow that up with admonishing themselves and their bodies for requiring a period of slowing down afterward. Goal setting and the high of achievement has the ability to lead us into a continuous quest for and focus on that “next thing “and a life always lived in the future rather than being able to enjoy the present. It’s helpful to understand that an appropriate answer to the “What now? Or what’s next?” question can be simply be just to enjoy the pause that comes after your hard work.
3. Happily release a goal that is no longer serving you.
Sometimes a goal that sounds absolutely stellar at the beginning can dramatically lose it’s lustre along the way. Do NOT be afraid to abandon said goal. Ignore the memes that say quitting is for losers and Bill Gates never gave up a day in his life, blah blah blah. If you are not feeling the event or the training anymore, if it feels like a chore every single time and there is little to no joy in it, this is a great time to check in and ask yourself if it all still makes sense. Guess what? You’re allowed to change your mind at any time and I give you ALL the permissions to decide that this goal doesn’t serve you as you first thought it might. This does not make you a failure in fact the decision to let go is often a decision that deeply honours body and soul and any time we make decisions from that honourable space, we help facilitate the shift in a toxic culture that is continually encouraging us not to trust our own instincts and desires.
4. “I was not put on this earth to be fit”. Return to my mantra as needed when you get caught up in the rushing river of fitness culture.
There is more to you than how fit you are or what you decide to accomplish physically however the messages coming out of the fitness world can often make it seem otherwise. It can be very easy when you are immersed in a training schedule to slide into the dominant mind set of fitness culture which attempts to convince us that there is nothing more important in life than being as fit and healthy as you can possibly be. We know that this culture of fitness is broken, that exercise can be used in obsessive, self punishing and addictive ways, and that fitness is almost exclusively misconstrued with weight loss, thinness and ableism. Please do not forget that there is more to life and more to you as a human being than your fitness, the aesthetics of your body or any physical feat you may achieve. Use my favourite mantra above or choose one of your own as a reminder for when you need a healthier perspective. (You can read a poem I wrote about my personal fitness mantra here.)
5. Bring as much consciousness as you can muster to your fitness goal setting .
Ask yourself the following questions:
A) Why am I doing this? What am hoping to get out of this goal?
B) How much of this desired goal is coming from within me vs. some kind of external pressure or perceived reward?
C) How will I feel if I abandon the goal before I reach or or if I simply fail? Will I make that mean anything about me or my worth as a person?
D) How will I deal with a possible change in my fitness level after reaching my goal? Am I expecting myself to maintain that level of fitness or the changes to my body that may have accompanied my training?
E) How will I stay embodied and connected to myself while I set out achieving my goal?
6. Hold goals loosely so as to avoid negative emotional consequences if something unforeseen ends up derailing your goal.
Life happens. Injuries happen. And priorities have the ability to pivot both quickly and dramatically. I’ve seen clients and friends experience severe anxiety and depression when unforeseen obstacles interrupt their exercise or training routines. I know myself that in my disordered past I chose training over my bodily health, over family and social events and even skipped out on work and school. When physical training becomes your everything in life, not only does your life have the tendency to become one dimensional and small but you also set yourself up for the possibility of disastrous emotional and mental health consequences if you lose the ability to keep training. Pushing your body to the point of serious physical injury and/or ignoring all other areas of life in blind pursuit of a physical goal is not healthy behaviour. So when you decide on an event or training related goal, hold it’s achievement loosely rather than with an iron grip. Allow your mind to entertain the idea that it’s possible (not probable but possible) you may get sidelined along the way and reassure yourself that if you do, you will be ok. No missed Tough Mudder race is worth spending months in the depths of a depression over so I highly encourage you to do as much as you can to safe guard yourself. You can do this by not allowing your mind to get overly attached to a specific experience or outcome and by reminding yourself that your goal and you as a person are not the same thing.
7. Goals associated with weight loss or the aesthetics of your body are ones that are built on oppressive and unhealthy diet and fitness culture concepts. Avoid them.
If the main thrust of your goal setting is based around weight loss or body changes, I gently suggest here that you re-assess. Exercise motivation research supports the notion that “extrinsic” or externally motivated engagement in physical activity typically leads to more negative mental/emotional consequences than intrinsic motivation and also does not lend itself to the creation of any longterm commitment to physical activity. In other words besides there being negative mental health consequences to focusing solely on changing your body, there will also be no creation of lasting connection to movement. Divorcing physical activity from weight loss is the absolute best thing you can do to support consistency with movement and support your own bodily and mental health. Exercising to lose weight or shape your body leads straight to the front seat of the damn rollercoaster that many of us know so well. Fit then sedentary, weight loss then weight gain, then rinse and repeat all over again. If there is no alignment whatsoever with your goal and your own internal sense of joy or pleasure, if your goal doesn’t somehow nourish your soul, support your world view or contribute to the overall vitality of your life, maybe it’s a goal that’s better to say “pass” to.