Why we need to rethink our approach to fitness goals

    Women Swimming
    Published: 21 July 2021. Written by: Howard Calvert. 

    From working out mindfully to beating your own gym records, here are 11 expert-led ways to smash your next workout and keep your fitness goals aligned. 

    We all have different fitness goals. For some, it’s dropping a few pounds before that summer (OK, autumn) holiday, for others it’s aiming towards a 100km ultramarathon.

    While these targets help to motivate us, it’s important to keep track of your progress to ensure your interest doesn’t waver and your workouts stay on track.

    However, training for certain goals based around your appearance or calorie burn can have a negative effect on mental health. Focusing on building muscle, say, or losing a certain amount of weight has been shown to lead to feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. A study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal found that putting an emphasis on health over appearance as a motivation to exercise is ultimately also beneficial for those who are concerned about their appearance (as you’re more likely to stick to it).

    Personal trainer Samuel Marland agrees that focusing on physical appearance can be an unhealthy approach to fitness. ‘Many clients come to me struggling after following a “10-week smash programme”, because they haven’t been able to maintain their fitness and results. There are multiple long-term effects, the main concern being a negative impact on mental health due to people never being satisfied.’

    Marland believes that performance-led goals and focusing on a skill often lead to better results as they keep you engaged with a healthier physical and mental state for longer.

    ‘It’s important for people to start seeing the benefits of performance-led goals instead of common aesthetic-focused goals,’ he says. ‘The latter are usually unattainable or the benefits will disappear shortly afterwards if the individual stops training with intent.’

    With that in mind, here are 11 suggestions for ways to refocus your reasons for working out:

    1. Learn a new skill

    Women boxing

    Taking up a fresh sporting challenge is a great way to find an activity that will reignite your levels of motivation and, most importantly, inject some fun into your training. There are many new outdoor fitness activities you can try – Marland suggests skipping as a good place to start.

    ‘Skipping is a performance-led skill that will vastly improve cardiovascular fitness through its peripheral heart action,’ he says. This means it encourages blood flow between different areas, as you work both your upper and lower body. ‘You do this all while learning something new, which is particularly important for people who have reached a plateau in their training.’

    Start with three sets of 25 single-unders (where your rope passes your feet once with every jump), then aim to build up to a longer duration and higher rep range – for example, two sets of 25 single-unders, eventually working up to longer durations such as two sets of 50 single-unders.


    2. Keep a fitness journal

    women journaling

    Writing down your training performance and seeing your results on paper on a weekly basis helps to keep you on track and remind you of your end goals as well as your short-term goals, such as increasing rep volume by a certain amount each week.

    ‘There’s nothing more motivating than being able to revisit a session from three months ago and seeing proof of how much you’ve progressed,’ says Marland. ‘As well as performance tracking, you can also use journaling to keep your mental motivation in check – for example, writing down an inspiring quote to kickstart the week.’


    3. Run 5km without stopping

    woman running in park

    Setting a distance target instead of a calorie-burn target can help your progression in sports such as running.

    ‘New runners should aim to build up their distance and speed gradually each week, with a first main goal of running 5km without stopping to walk,’ advises Marland. ‘As well as building up physical and mental endurance, running can also be a sociable form of exercise if you choose to run with a friend who is at a similar fitness level to you, or join a running club.’


    4. Listen to a new wellbeing podcast every week

    woman with headphones on phone

    In 2020, 15 million of us tuned into podcasts. And with something for every ear – and many of them free to download – Marland recommends listening to a different one on a weekly basis.

    ‘Consuming a variety of opinions on nutrition and exercise helps to keep your training and approach to fitness current by providing easy access to the latest information and tips.’

    By listening to podcasts such as Another Mother Runner, Wheel Suckers or The Way of the Runner you’ll learn more about different sports and ways of training while keeping up-to-date on the latest news and trends.


    5. Skip the gym and learn handstands

    man doing yoga

    Being flexible in your training is crucial to success, both physically and mentally. So if the gym is full or closed, or you don’t have time, Marland recommends building something like a gymnastics-based skill into your training, which will help if you can’t get to your usual session.

    ‘Handstand practise is an impressive way to test the body outside of weight training,’ he says.

    If you haven’t done a handstand since you were at primary school, or feel too intimidated during your usual yoga class, then try following a YouTube tutorial. And take your time getting there. ‘Beginners should build up to a handstand by strengthening their wrists, shoulders and core before attempting the full move,’ says Marland, adding: ‘Most gymnastics movements are adaptable, which makes them perfect for targets, as progression is always possible.’


    6. Increase the number of lengths you swim each week

    women swimming

    In a similar vein to running 5km non-stop, another way of setting a target is to build up the number of lengths you swim on a weekly basis.

    ‘Swimming is a holistic form of exercise, proven to be relaxing and a good way to unwind after a long day,’ explains Marland. ‘At a beginner’s level, swimmers should look to add an extra two to three lengths a week to their session. Swimming improves cardiovascular fitness while being a low-impact exercise, resulting in minimal risk of injury despite providing a full-body workout.’


    7. Make targets small and achievable

    mother and daughter dancing

    Setting yourself realistic targets means you’re more likely to succeed. ‘There’s no point in trying to lose 100lb in a month or aiming to become a bodybuilder overnight,’ says Nuffield Health’s Fitness Lead for Flagship Programmes, Stephen Macconville. ‘If you set unrealistic goals, you’ll become disheartened and likely give up.’

    A 2020 study published in Health Psychology Review showed that setting goals that were too challenging can have detrimental effects on your long-term participation in the sport, due to feelings of failure. ‘It takes 21 days to form a habit, so making small exercise goals repeatable will encourage forming a new habit that you’ll easily implement,’ says Macconville. ‘The simpler your goal is, such as going to the gym every Monday and Wednesday, the more likely you are to form the habit and stick to it. If you’re struggling, speak to one of Nuffield Health’s Wellbeing Personal Trainers who can help you set realistic targets.’


    8. Work out by time

    women working out

    For many of us, the thought of spending an hour in the gym is off-putting, and ultimately unrealistic. ‘I’d recommend aiming for 30 minutes a day, five times a week, with two of those days being resistance or weight training,’ says Macconville. ‘It has to be sustainable long-term. Eventually, making exercise a part of your routine will be as normal as having breakfast.’


    9. Revolutionise your breakfast

    women eating breakfast

    Targeting the right nutrition can also play an important role in achieving your goals – if you don’t fuel right, your energy levels and motivation will plummet.

    ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing hours of exercise – if you’re filling your body with the wrong foods, you’ll likely gain body fat, have little energy and feel sluggish, which won’t help your motivation,’ explains Macconville.

    Aim to have a healthy breakfast every morning to fuel your body to keep going the rest of the day: think porridge, overnight oats, an omelette, a breakfast burrito or a smoothie. Plan ahead so that you have healthy snacks on hand to curb unhealthy cravings. Here are tips on what to eat before and after working out.


    10. Aim to break your own records

    man and woman on exercise bikes

    Penny Weston, wellness guru and fitness and nutrition expert, says that setting incremental targets to beat can give you something to aim for every time you work out.

    ‘I keep a note on my phone of how I’ve performed at my training session and then try to beat that next time I do that exercise,’ she says. ‘For example, how far I can run without stopping, how fast I can go or the highest wattage I can reach on my indoor bike, the heaviest bicep curl or deadlift weight I can lift, and so on. I don’t always manage to beat them, but it gives me something to aspire to, rather than just thinking about weight.’


    11. Work out more mindfully

    woman meditating

    ‘You can work out your mind just like a muscle,’ says Dr Marsha Chinichian, clinical psychologist and Chief Science Officer at the happiness app Mindshine. ‘Get that bit right and your physical workout will be better as well.’

    Dr Chinichian recommends introducing two mindful methods to your workout: an affirmation with every lift and practising gratitude with every set.

    ‘For your affirmation, come up with a short phrase that speaks to you and your situation. For example, “I am powerful” – make it in the first person, and positive, and repeat it with every lift until you start to feel it, and your mind begins to believe it.’

    Also, think about the things you’re grateful for. ‘Working out is a privilege. Be thankful for the time and the ability. Your body works. Thank your body for what it’s able to do. Feel the gratitude deeply and it will increase your levels of day-to-day happiness.’

    Discover how to make fitness fun with the whole family – whatever their age.

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