Despite the overwhelming body of scientific research that clearly demonstrates the importance of regular exercise, humans as a species, especially those of us in developed nations, have never been more sedentary (the word sedentary comes from the Latin word sedentarius, which means ‘one who sits’).
Many people who live sedentary lifestyles understand and acknowledge the advantages of being physically fit. They often set goals to improve their fitness and, just as often, they fail to reach them.
But a person’s failure to achieve their fitness goals usually has little to do with how lazy they are, or how much willpower they possess. More often than not it’s because they’re not pursuing these goals in the most effective way.
That’s why I’ve written this article: To show how anyone can use some psychological principles to give themselves the very best chance of successfully achieving their fitness goals.
But, please don’t mistake the intent of this article. I’m not offering a magic formula for becoming a great athlete or achieving the body of your dreams.
Reaching the goals you set for yourself takes hard work and discipline; there’s simply no getting around that.
There are, however, some straightforward things you can do to ensure that the hard work and discipline you apply is used to good effect. By understanding how your brain works in relation to pursuing goals, you can put strategies in place that make it work for you and not against you.
How to achieve your fitness goals
Attaining your fitness goals (or any goal for that matter) is made easier by putting some structure around them.
You can think of successfully achieving any goal as being the culmination of 3 activities❄:
- Goal setting
- Goal striving
- Goal maintaining
1. Goal setting
Effective goal setting is fairly easy, once you know what an effective goal looks like.
A very general goal like “start exercising” or “get fit” is not particularly useful. Your brain can’t really do anything with these goals because they’re much too broad and vague to be able to visualize what they actually look like. You need to get clear on what, specifically, your fitness goal is. Is it having greater cardiorespiratory fitness? Or being stronger and more muscular? Or having greater flexibility? Or some combination of these?
Once clear on that, you then need to know what kinds of exercise will accomplish the goal you set. For example, aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) like jogging or cycling is good for building cardiorespiratory fitness, weight training will help make you stronger and more muscular, and stretching and activities like Yoga can help increase your flexibility.
Once you’re clear on what you specifically want to accomplish, you need to create a SMART goal around it. SMART goals are very ‘brain-friendly’ because, when done well, they’re easy to visualize. That is, you can see, in your mind’s eye, exactly what it looks like when you’ve achieved a SMART goal.
SMART goals are:
|Specific||What specifically do you want to achieve? Vague goals lead to vague, half-hearted attempts to reach them|
|Measurable||How will you measure your progress and know when you’ve achieved the goal?|
|Attainable||Is the goal something that a person is physically capable of achieving?|
|Realistic||Can you achieve it given the other things going on in your life?|
|Time-bound||What is the time-limit for achieving the goal?|
For example, if your goal is to increase your cardiorespiratory fitness, and you think jogging is the right kind of cardio exercise for you, then a SMART goal might be something like
“To be able to jog for 45 minutes non-stop, within the next 6 months”
This goal is:
But, this is not where effective goal setting ends. SMART goals are missing something: Heat.
Setting SMART goals is a ‘cold’ process because it doesn’t include anything to do with motivation. Motivation is what adds heat to a goal, and gets you fired up and working hard to achieve it.
Motivation to achieve goals
All humans have two motivational systems: An approach system and an avoidance system❄. The approach system is sensitive to reward. It motivates you to pursue a goal when there is something to be gained that you value. The avoidance system, on the other hand, is sensitive to loss. It motivates you to pursue a goal when there is a threat of losing something you value❄.
Both systems are present in our brains and necessary for our survival, but recent research has shown that we differ in the degree to which we favor each one❄. That is, some people are more motivated to pursue rewards (the approach system is favored), while others are more motivated to avoid losses (the avoidance system is favored).
For example, with regard to a fitness goal, someone who favors the approach system might find the prospect of feeling great immediately after a good workout, and/or the idea of being fit, strong, and healthy to be strong motivators to attain the SMART goal above. That is, feeling great and/or overall fitness, strength, and health are the things of value that would be gained.
Alternatively, someone who favors the avoidance system might find the idea of avoiding the negative consequences of being physically inactive to be the strong motivator for attaining our SMART goal. Reduced self-esteem for being overweight or out of shape and/or the risk to long-term health would be the losses to be avoided.
An important point to note is that the immediacy of reward or loss matters a great deal. That is, how soon after completing your goal you’re likely to get your reward or avoid losing something strongly influences your levels of motivation.
Immediate rewards and punishments are more motivating than delayed rewards and punishments. Therefore, in the examples above the immediate rewards and punishments (feeling great straight after a workout / reduced self-esteem) are likely to be more motivating than the delayed rewards or punishments (being more fit, strong and healthy / risk to long-term health).
This explains why many people continue to lead sedentary lives and struggle to find the motivation to workout, despite knowing that they’re risking their health later in life. This is a loss (loss of health), and is not going to be motivating to people who favor the approach system. Losing good health as a result of a sedentary lifestyle is also a delayed punishment – it doesn’t happen immediately. And so even for people who favor the avoidance system, the prospect of losing their good health is still not likely to be particularly motivating.
Understanding which system you personally favor, and that immediate consequences (rewards or losses) are more motivating than delayed consequences is important because 1) you can give yourself continual reminders that keep the fire lit, and 2) you can align your actions to this motivation.
Good goal setting is just the first step.
In order to achieve your long-term fitness goals, you need to actually take actions, day-to-day, that get you to where you want to be. That is, you need to decide what concrete behaviors you’re going to complete on a consistent basis in order to attain your fitness goal(s). Completing these concrete behaviors is what we call goal striving.
2. Goal striving
Fortunately, understanding what goal striving actually looks like isn’t difficult.
To get the set of concrete behaviors you’re going to do regularly in order to achieve a fitness goal (or any goal), you first take your SMART goal and ask “how?”. Next, you take your answer and again ask “how?”. Rinse and repeat until there are no useful answers left to give.
If we use our earlier example, then the process might look something like this:
Be warned, you may need to have a few goes at this process before you really get the hang of it.
The point is to end up with a number of specific behaviors that will help you achieve your goal. Not all of your answers will make the cut, but you want to have at least 2 or 3 behaviors that, if you do consistently (i.e., every day if possible), will eventually lead to attaining your goal.
Let’s go through our list and see what we have:
- Starting out small and gradually building up my endurance and fitness – Not concrete enough to be actionable
- Jogging for five minutes a day for the first week, and then 7 minutes a day for the next week, and then 9 minutes a day for next week, and so on – Yes, concrete and actionable, but need a time to implement
- Going for jogs at times when I have at least 45 minutes free – Not concrete enough (need to be more specific)
- Going for a jog during my lunch break on weekdays (when I’m at work), and in the morning on weekends – Yes, concrete and actionable, and the time that I can implement my jogging plan
- By putting on my jogging gear at lunch time (work) / in the morning (weekend) – Yes, concrete and actionable
- Taking my jogging gear with me to work and having it prepared to use on weekends – Yes, concrete and actionable
- Packing or preparing my jogging gear each night – Yes, concrete and actionable
Something you may have noticed is that as we get further into the process—or further down the list—the more concrete and small-scale our behaviors become. This is exactly what we want; concrete and small-scale are the easiest things to put into practice.
Essentially what we’ve done is taken our SMART goal and turned it into a number of sub-goals.
Now if we arrange our concrete actions (or sub-goals) appropriately, we have the makings of a good plan:
Great, now that we have some sub-goals arranged into a plan, all that’s left to do is put the plan into action, right?
Yes and no.
If you’re anything like me, then in your lifetime you’ve probably come up with lots of great plans to do lots of great things. You’ve probably also started putting them into action. And again, if you’re anything like me, then, unfortunately, you’ve probably also abandoned your plans before they were complete.
You see, the thing about sticking to plans is that it often requires you to change your behavior. You have to stop doing what you used to do, and start doing something different.
For example, sticking to the plan above means packing your jogging gear each night when previously you didn’t – maybe you usually just go and sit on the couch and watch tv. It means taking your jogging gear with you to work each day when previously you probably didn’t. And it means going for a jog during your lunch break when previously you may have just sat and relaxed after eating.
Changing your behavior can be difficult. To do it, we need self-control (aka willpower). But self-control is finite, and sometimes we run out.
When we run out of self-control, we usually slip back into our old behaviors. Therefore, we need a way to preserve our self-control, so that we can actually stick to our plans long-term.
And that’s where the third and final step comes into it.
3. Goal maintenance
Goal maintenance is all about forming good habits. It’s about turning those sub-goals into things we hardly even have to think about doing. That’s what habits are: Routine behaviours that are done regularly and automatically.
The automatically bit is the key to solving the problem of self-control (or the problem of running out of it), because when behaviors are automatic they don’t require self-control. Therefore, if we turn the concrete behavior sub-goals in our action plan into habits, then we’ll be regularly doing the things that’ll help us achieve our SMART fitness goal, without thinking about them too much, or using a lot of self-control on them.
But, how do we turn these sub-goals into good habits?
The ROUTINE is the behavior you want to turn into a habit; the CUE is the context that triggers the behavior; and the REWARD is what you’ll get once the behavior is completed.
If you think about any habitual behavior—your own or someone else’s—You should be able to identify all three elements. Let’s take cigarette smoking as an example:
When people begin smoking cigarettes, they usually do it when they’re with friends. That’s the CUE:When friends are around
The ROUTINE is easy: Light and smoke cigarette
The REWARD is usually different for different people, but it could be something like: Feel cool or feel part of the group.
So the neurological loop goes:
“When I’m with my friends, if I light and smoke cigarettes, I get to feel cool and / or part of the group.”
When that loop is completed enough times, the smoking behavior becomes habitual.
It just so happens that the nicotine in cigarette smoke is also chemically addictive, so a new neurological loop will generally form around cravings. It looks something like this:
“When I feel a craving for nicotine (CUE), I light and smoke a cigarette (ROUTINE), and I get relief from the craving (REWARD).”
This is a very powerful neurological loop, which is why smoking (and, in fact, all addictive behaviors) often goes from something people do with others, to something they do alone. It’s also why addictive behaviors are so hard to change.
By understanding how habits form, we can take control and create good habits by defining each of the elements, and completing the neurological loop:
Routines are behaviors that can be either simple or complex. Simple behaviors, such as eating or drinking certain foods, or biting your fingernails, take less time to become habitual, and once they do can be completed entirely automatically (i.e., without thinking about doing them). Complex behaviors, such as exercising or driving a vehicle, take longer to become habitual, and may never become truly automatic (i.e., you always have to put some thought into them).
Almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories❄:
- Preceding action
- Emotional state
- The people around us
So to define our cues we ask:
- Where am I going to be?
- What time is it likely to be?
- What will I have done immediately before?
- How will I be feeling?
- Who else might be around?
Now, although we don’t have to answer all of these questions – we only need one cue to base a habit around – they can help us determine what the most effective cue will be.
As it happens, time and preceding action tend to be the best cues around which to base fitness-related habits.
Rewards come in two varieties:
- Intrinsic rewards are intangible things that come from within you, and provide a sense of personal satisfaction❄. That feeling of accomplishment you get when you work really hard on something you care about, and do a great job is an example of an intrinsic reward.
- Extrinsic rewards are tangible things that don’t originate within yourself, but which you still value❄. Financial incentives and prizes are examples of extrinsic rewards.
When it comes to forming habits, intrinsic rewards tend to be the more powerful variety. If some behavior produces a sense of accomplishment or some other form of personal satisfaction, then it will be relatively easy to turn it into a habit. That said, external rewards work just fine and can be used to great effect with routines that don’t necessarily produce personal satisfaction.
As far as extrinsic rewards go, you may have to experiment with them to see which is right for the habit you’re trying to form. Rewards don’t have to be elaborate either. Anything you value will do; a cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate, an episode of your favorite TV show, etc.
Completing the loop with our sub-goals
Once you have an understanding of the elements of a habit, and what they may be for the specific habits you’re trying to create, all that’s left is to complete the loop.
We’ve already defined the behaviors (routines) we want to turn into habits – the concrete behaviors or sub-goals from our action plan – so we just need to decide what our cues and rewards are going to be.
So, if we take our first sub-goal, ‘Pack / prepare jogging gear each night’, then a CUE may be ‘after dinner’ (preceding action) or ‘at 9 pm’ (time). Let’s go with ‘after dinner’.
The reward can be anything you enjoy. Maybe you like watching certain TV shows in the evening. In this case, the REWARD is ‘watch an episode of my favorite show’.
Thus, completing the loop would look like this:
“Every night after dinner (CUE), I’m going to pack / prepare my jogging gear (ROUTINE), so that I can watch an episode of my favorite show (REWARD)”
Then you would do the same thing for the next sub-goal, ‘put my jogging gear on at lunchtime (work) / in the morning (weekend)’
The CUE may be ‘when at work, at 12.30 pm / on weekends, at 8.30 am’ (time). The REWARD again needs to be something you enjoy – perhaps a piece of fruit?
Thus, completing the loop would look like this:
“When at work, at 12.30pm / on weekends, at 8.30 am (CUE), I’m going to put my jogging gear on (ROUTINE), so that I can have a piece of fruit (REWARD)”
And so it goes with the next sub-goal, ‘go for a jog during lunch (work) / in the morning (weekends)’
The CUE is ready-made: ‘After I’ve put on my jogging gear’ (preceding action)
The REWARD is obvious: ‘Have lunch (work), / breakfast (weekends)’
And thus completing the loop will be:
“After I’ve put my jogging gear on (CUE), I’m going to go for a jog (ROUTINE), so that I can have lunch / breakfast (REWARD)”
The final sub-goal is not one you would build a habit around. Jogging for 5 minutes a day for the first week, then moving up to 7 minutes a day in the next week, and so on is just a formula to help you get to 45 minutes of non-stop jogging by the end of the 6 month time period.
I included it because it’s a pragmatic way of gradually increasing the amount of time one can jog non-stop for, but also because it segues into a key point you need to understand about getting into fitness-related habits: Start easy!
Way too often when people decide to start exercising, they begin by doing too much. They often work up the motivation, do a long and difficult training session, their unconditioned body punishes them for it over the next few days, they can’t stand the thought of going through that over and over again, and they subsequently give up long before exercising can become a habit for them. Fitness myths like “no pain, no gain” are idiotic, and should be ignored. It’s extremely important to start easy. Aim to do just a little bit in the beginning.
Fitness and exercise should be viewed as a lifelong endeavor, not a short-term project. The point is to get into the habit of doing exercise (any at all), not to try and do as much as you can as quickly as you can. Progress takes time. Start easy.
Ultimately, forming habits is about consistently pairing your cues with your routines and your routines with your rewards. Complete the neurological loop enough times, and the routine becomes a habit. There’s no hard and fast rule about how long a routine takes to become a habit, and it will usually depend on the complexity of the behavior and the strength of the reward, but generally, it will take at least 8 weeks of completing the loop almost every day.
Utilizing the power of habit is an amazing brain hack because once you have turned your subgoals into habits, you can effectively set your brain to autopilot, and will it go about doing the things you need to achieve your overarching fitness goal.
Achieving fitness goals is something a lot of people struggle with, usually because they don’t understand how the brain goes about goal pursuit.
But, when you gain this understanding, you can hack into your brain and pursue your fitness goals more effectively.
The first brain hack is to set a good SMART goal and align it to the things that motivate you most strongly.
The next brain hack is to break your SMART goal down into a number of sub-goals. These sub-goals are concrete behaviors that, if done consistently, will lead you to achieve your SMART goal.
The final brain hack is to use the power of habits to ensure that you actually complete your sub-goals consistently.
It still takes hard work and discipline, but using these brain hacks will make it much more likely that you’ll be able to achieve not only your fitness goals but any goals you set for yourself.
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As always, best of luck with your home workouts. Remember: when it comes to our health and fitness, we can make the effort or make excuses, but we can’t make both.
THFF (The Home Fit Freak)