The start of a new year is a natural time to take stock of your health and fitness goals and to chart a clear course toward meeting them. It’s also a natural time to retire self-sabotaging habits and to launch better ones.
But too often, in our enthusiasm for reforming our fitness – or any aspect of our lives – we latch onto vague, half-formed ideas of what we want to change, and why. On New Year’s Day (or in some other bold moment of fortitude, disgust or self-loathing), we yank out our mighty List of Things To Do. We write: “Get in shape; eat better; exercise; lose 20 pounds,” or what-ever we feel is standing between us and the body we’d like to have and the life we’d like to live.
Maybe we sign up for a class, or we buy running shoes, or we post threatening messages on the refrigerator and throw out every cheese curl in the house. Our intentions are good. But inevitably, our list of resolutions begins to feel more like a lecture and a life sentence than a pep talk and a life plan. And before long, we start caving into weakness and unconsciousness. We may give up hope in one desperate moment of self-sabotage, or we may start breaking our promises to ourselves so gradually (and so subtly) that we don’t even realize what’s happening.
The net effect is pretty much the same: We lose our vision and momentum toward our ideal life, and once again find ourselves adrift without oars – just a little boat bobbing helplessly on the immense sea of our own dissatisfaction. Okay, we’ve been there. We’ve done that. In the past.
YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY: Do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. So clear your mind of disappointments, judgments and self- recriminations, and prepare for new territory. This year, instead of making the same old tired vows, we invite you to try something a little different. In fact, we challenge you – to choose a deeper, more creative, more empowered approach, one that asks a little more of you at the outset, but pays you back in satisfying spades, quite possibly for the rest of your life. You’ve got nothing to lose but the weight of past failures. And think of what you stand to gain: clarity, insight, success, a huge sense of accomplishment, and a healthy, happy, beautiful body!
Less than delighted with your current physique? By all means, resolve to remake it! But before you start jotting down a long list of “shoulds,” keep this in mind: Resolutions tend to work best—and have the most staying power—when they are driven by personal values and developed with care.
In this workshop, you’ll find some ingenious suggestions—gathered from a wide variety of disciplines and experts—for designing meaningful, lasting resolutions and making them stick.
A word of caution for the emotionally squeamish: This is a mind-body-soul approach. If you’re in the habit of avoiding self-examination, introspection and other touchy-feely stuff, some of these exercises may make you feel a little uncomfortable. You may want to skip ahead to the more familiar “goal-setting part.” That’s perfectly normal. And probably precisely what you’ve done up ’til now that’s gotten you where you are today. So suck it up and do all the exercises anyway.
Do them in private, and don’t tell anybody if you don’t want to. But remember—you have to live in your body, and you need your body on your side. Building your consciousness about your body, therefore, is a very good and practical idea, and it can change your whole life for the better, if you let it.
Right then. Stop your squirming. Turn off the phone. Take a deep breath. Take another. Here we go …
PART 1: Choose Your Focus
When designing resolutions, it’s a good idea to concentrate on just one or two big things at a time. In The Art of the Fresh Start: How to Make and Keep Your Resolutions for a Lifetime, author Glenna Salsbury instructs us to begin our resolution exercises by considering what part(s) of our lives are the most frustrating or dissatisfying to us. (Note: This is the first step in many resolution-crafting exercises, but too often it’s also the last. Don’t make the mistake of getting stuck here, or you’ll miss out on the really good stuff.)
A. Think about your body and your relationship with your body. Isolate two or three areas (choose from the list below or jot down what comes to mind) that cause you the greatest amount of anxiety, annoyance, dissatisfaction, limitation, pain or disgust:
- My weight/size
- My fitness/muscle tone
- My body’s appearance or shape
- My level of energy/vitality/mobility
- My general health
- My activity level
- My sex life
- My athletic confidence
Next, prioritize these areas. Which one is driving you the most crazy, has been bugging you the longest, has the biggest repercussions or limits your happiness the most?
B. Hold that thought. Now try to associate it with a particular image—a real or imagined moment of anxiety, embarrassment, self-loathing or defeat. Maybe it’s picturing yourself in a swimsuit; maybe it’s a traumatic experience or a big fear; maybe it is the image of you camped out on the couch, snarfing down fast food in front of the TV. Make the image as big and real in your mind as you can stand it. Make it visceral. Feel in your body how much anxiety, fear, shame, dread, sadness, frustration or exhaustion is tied up with it.
Try to discern where in your body you feel tense or sick when you think about this image or experience: Is there a knot in your stomach; tension in your shoulders; a lump in your throat; a sinking in your gut; a flushing in your face; or just a low-energy drained feeling? Make note of your physical sensations.
C. Now listen with your inner ear. Do you hear any voices (such as fear, anger, shame) in your head when you think about this issue? What are they saying? Try giving each of your emotions a voice. Cat Thompson, Experience Life’s resident emotional-fitness expert, suggests the following exercise:
Thinking about the aspect of your body or body image that upsets you most, complete the following (using as much extra space and as many sheets of paper as you need in order to hear from all of the individual voices).
- I’m unhappy/upset/dissatisfied about:
- My fear says:
- My anger says:
- My grief says:
- My guilt/shame says:
- My hope says:
Write down any phrases, thoughts or beliefs that come to mind. You might hear some fairly disturbing stuff here, so be prepared. Certain voices may seem like cruel tormentors. (“You are so fat and ugly. You’re just lazy. You have no discipline. You’re an embarrassment to your partner/ kids/friends/self.) Some voices may seem sad and defeated. (“I’m so tired of this. I try so hard and I never seem to make any progress. It’s impossible for me to find any time to work out. I’m doomed to looking/feeling this way.”) Still others may seem apathetic and discouraging. (“This is stupid. You’re just putting off the inevitable like you always do, and it won’t do any good anyway. You’ve got the body you deserve. Get over it.”)
Of course, if you’re lucky, you may also hear a bright voice of hope and encouragement. (“I’m ready to change things. I like my body fine, but what I’d really like is )
Going through these voices, you may suddenly feel like you have a split personality or that you are a total whiner. Don’t freak out. Write quickly and automatically—as though you are taking dictation—and don’t worry about whether you really agree with what the voices are saying.
Getting these things out on paper may seem a little weird or psycho, but hearing what these splinter personalities have to say is actually the best way of ensuring they don’t keep running the show inside you. They may also have a lot to teach you about why things are the way they are for you, and what kinds of beliefs might be anchoring you to your current body.
D. When you’re sure you’ve heard from every voice that has something to say (and that you’ve heard everything they have to say), put your pen and paper aside. Take a five- or 10-minute break. Go outside and get some air. Walk around the block. Then come back for Part 2.
PART 2: Visualize Change
A. Sit in a comfortable chair with your legs un-crossed and your feet on the floor. Take several deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
If you think you can deal with a little holistic imagery (aw c’mon, you’re in for a dime, in for a dollar, eh?), imagine a stream of golden light pouring over you. Picture it coming in through your head, flooding out through your entire body and washing away both your physical tensions and any images, ideas, experiences or limiting beliefs that have caused them. (Or you can just breathe, focusing on breathing all the way in and all the way out.)
By the way, if you’re sitting there thinking this is a flaky thing to do, remember that Bruce Lee (the world-renowned martial artist who could kick pretty much anybody’s butt, and whose amazing abs men everywhere are still trying to emulate) made mental visualizations and breathing exercises a regular part of his training routine. So there.
If during the course of the last two exercises you find yourself getting stuck or clenching around any particularly disheartening images or beliefs, go ahead and focus on them. Ask yourself what they are really about. Acknowledge where they’ve likely come from (could be a childhood experience, or your family, religion or culture of origin) and consider what holding those mistaken or outdated beliefs has cost you. How might you be different without them? How might your body be different without them? Mull it over. Offer yourself permission to change your beliefs, and forgiveness for having believed them for so long.
B. If you feel a rising surge of energy, rage or sadness, by all means express it (in privacy). Feel free to get up and pound around the house. Go to a safe, private place and throw or punch something until you feel calm again. Then return to your seated position and repeat step A. Reward yourself for being a passionate person. Hello! You’re alive!
When you feel like you have a clean internal slate, it’s time to begin building a mental picture of your ideal body and most-hoped-for physical life. What does your dream body look and feel like?
C. In his best-selling book, Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters, Dr. Phillip McGraw suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- What is the “it” (in this case, the body) that you want?
- What will it look like when you have it?
- What will you be doing behaviorally when you have it?
- Who are you doing (um, let’s just say “enjoying”) it with?
- How will your life be different from the way it is now when you have it?
Dr. McGraw also encourages you to ask yourself what aspects of your life you will have to overcome or change in order to achieve this “it.” If you have never had your ideal body before, this may take some imagination: Where do you picture your fabulous new body going? How are you treating it—feeding it, dressing it, moving it and otherwise caring for it? How are your activities and experiences, your personality and your life different because of it? Spend some time visualizing your body and your life this way.
D. Write a brief paragraph or list some adjectives to describe your dream body. If you are a visual person, you may also want to cut some photos out of magazines or draw some pictures that express the images and feelings you have in mind. Make a collage or scrapbook. Include any words and pictures that help crystallize your notion of what your ideal body and your ideal physical life are like. Then move on to Part 3.
PART 3: Engage Your Values
In Parts 1 and 2, we’ve been focusing on what you want to achieve. In this section, we focus on the why.
Most often, underlying our specific, named desires, there are layers of deeper, more vague and unnamed desires—unspoken dreams and unexamined personal values that give those desires life. Many of our conscious goals, it turns out, are a means to an end. We may know we want washboard abs, or 6 percent body fat, or that we want to be strong and healthy and beautiful, but we aren’t often inclined to ask ourselves why. And those whys can make a big difference both in how meaningful our goals are to us and in how committed and effective we are in achieving them.
Whatever things you want, Dr. McGraw suggests, “The answer is very likely that you want them because of how you think you will feel when you have them.” Perhaps we want to feel masterful, or successful, or sexy, or confident or loved. Perhaps we want to feel capable of participating fully in certain relationships or areas of our life. Perhaps we just want to feel totally excited about life and that we are fulfilling our greatest personal potential.
That’s all good, the experts agree. But what if acknowledging and committing to those bigger values demands that you step out of your “normal” mode of thought, attitude and behavior? What if it means you have to change your life in a deeper, bigger way or make some hard choices? Ah, that’s the trick. And that’s also the key—to making your goals work for you and to having not just the fabulous body you want, but the whole fabulous existence that goes with it!
A. Here are the questions Dr. McGraw suggests you ask yourself in order to get down to the core reasons and motivations for what you want and why. On a separate piece of paper, write down honest, clear answers to the following questions:
- What do you want?
- What must you do to have it?
- How will you feel when you have it?
- So what you really want is … (feelings you described in question 3).
- What must you do to have that?
- How would it make you feel?
- So, what you really want is … (what you described in question 6).
B. Complete this cycle of questions as many times as it takes for you to define and understand your goal(s) intimately. You may discover answers that have little or nothing to do with physical fitness. You may discover life priorities you didn’t know you had, or you may just come away with a deeper sense of purpose and comfort with physical goals you might have otherwise written off as silly, narcissistic or superficial.
That’s important, because it is a whole lot easier to blow off a trip to the gym, or to give into your urge for junk food when all that’s at stake is some flimsy resolution to lose 10 pounds. It’s a bigger deal when that commitment is tied to your commitment to yourself, your chosen life experience and the core values that you’ve decided will define it.
“Once you have strength and resolve enough to believe that you deserve what it is that you want,” writes Dr. McGraw, “then and only then will you be bold enough to say, ‘It is my time, it is my turn; this is for me, and I claim it, here and now.'”
Remember, this exercise is about designing and claiming YOU—your body, your physical life. So don’t skimp and don’t rush through it. Getting this part right is essential to moving on successfully to Part 4.
PART 4: Define Your Action Plan
If you’ve actually completed (and not just read) the above exercises, by now you should have a collection of words and images that tell the “what and why” part of what you are choosing to achieve. Next it is time to tackle the “how.”
PUT IT IN WRITING. If you don’t already have a compact description of your supercharged dream-body goal, commit it to paper now. Hint: Avoid using words like “try,” “want” or “work toward,” in expressing your goals – they tend to weaken the power of your resolve. Choose “I will” and other positive statements instead. Be as specific and operational in your description as possible. Say exactly what you will do and how you will do it. Start with the biggest, most important things and work your way down to the details.
ESTABLISH A TIMELINE. Assign a due date for your goal. Try to assign no more and no less time than you think is necessary. (For weight-loss and other fitness-oriented goals, you may want to consult a trainer to help establish a realistic timeline that takes into consideration your current state of fitness.) Next, working backward from your due date, establish a mid-point and as many interim checkpoints as you feel are necessary to gauge your progress. Mark these landmark dates on a calendar.
BREAK YOUR GOAL into specific actionable, measureable pieces. What specific activities and behaviors will be required of you? What logical steps will you need to take? Do you need to acquire any new skills or knowledge to proceed effectively?
ALLOCATE RESOURCES. Most goals take time, focus and energy. Some also take money, space and other resources. Decide how much of each you wish to allot toward reaching your goal based on its relative importance in your life. Also determine where these resources will come from. Are there any time-wasters or relatively unimportant, unsatisfying activities you can eliminate from your life to make room for this new priority?
ANTICIPATE OBSTACLES. When you make a commitment to yourself, it often seems that unseen forces immediately conspire to test your resolve. Expect to be thrown some curve balls – your own (procrastination, fear, excuses) and others’ (temptation, distraction, sabotage). Write down the factors most likely to keep you from completing the various steps toward your goal, then devise some proactive strategies for responding to and overcoming them. If some serious, unforeseen obstacles arise along the way, revisit your plan and adjust it (rather than abandon it).
HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE. Decide in advance how you will amend or accelerate your plan if you hit a checkpoint and aren’t where you should be. These responses should be designed as safeguards to your plan, not punishments. If you have a weight-loss goal, you may decide that if you aren’t down to a certain weight by a particular landmark date, you will up the intensity of your workouts, or enlist the help of a trainer. Also remember to celebrate your successes. Decide how you will reward yourself – at successful interim checkpoints and when you achieve your big goal.
REVISIT YOUR GOALS REGULARLY. As you begin to make notable progress toward your dream body, you may find your goals and priorities shifting. As you get leaner and stronger, you may suddenly discover a new, burning desire to become a competitive athlete. As you get more comfortable and confident in your body, you may find that your athletic goals are carrying over into other areas of your life, or that goals relating to your appearance no longer seem as relevant. Express your goals in the terms that are most energizing and meaningful to you now.
Go for the Goal
Even if goal-setting doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s a habit worth cultivating. Here are some suggestions to get you on the right track:
SIGN UP. Register for an athletic event – it might be a 5k walk-run, a 10k bike race or even a triathlon. Devise a training schedule and benchmark your progress leading up to the event.
PUSH AHEAD. If you are taking beginning group fitness classes now, plan to graduate to the intermediate or advanced level within a set amount of time. If you can do three pull-ups right now, make doing five your goal for the spring.
COLLECT COMPETENCIES. Consider a sport, physical skill or other healthy pursuit that’s always intrigued you, but that you’ve never tried – salsa dancing, rock climbing, martial arts, sushi making? – and make it your goal to learn at least the basics.
BUDDY UP. If you can’t swing a personal trainer, you can still share your plan with a supportive friend who is also working toward personal goals of some kind. Report to each other daily or weekly, sharing your respective setbacks as well as your successes.
THINK LONG TERM. Where do you want to be physically six months from now? A year? Five years? Unless you envision your destination, your course will be forever unclear.
GET GOAL SMART. Self-assessment and goal-setting are acquired skills that very few people ever learn to do well. There are lots of books, Web sites and seminars that can teach you simple but effective approaches for managing your time and resources, and for achieving the things that matter most to you. Check them out!