Experts share mental strategies for achieving your fitness goals

A psychologist and an Olympic coach on how to connect to your goals emotionally in order to achieve them.

A psychologist and an Olympic coach on how to connect to your goals emotionally in order to achieve them

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"Whoever wills the end wills the […] necessary means to it." Thus argued Immanuel Kant, proving that he was a better philosopher than psychologist. When it comes to fitness, it's very easy to wish for fitness and yet shun the sweaty means necessary to achieve it.

A lot of fitness advice tells us what we must do (run, swim, flip tires, whatever) without motivating us to stop whatever else we're doing and do it. For many of us, the challenge isn't knowledge but motivation, not discovering the optimal exercise program but tying on our trainers and doing any exercise at all. 

Exercise can be hard. It can be hard to get started, to stick to a routine and to push ourselves to the next level. That's why we talked to two experts to help us understand how to stay motivated when it comes to training. Carol Lane has coached figure-skaters from novices to Olympians, and thus has decades of experience coaxing the best out of athletes of all levels. Mike Dow is a psychotherapist and bestselling author. His most recent book Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life explores how we can tap into our subconscious minds to help us address our waking challenges. We asked both of them how we can will the means to our fitness ends.

Set long-term and short-term goals

Effective goal-setting is essential to any training program. Lane says that long-term goals should be challenging but realistic: "I don't believe in encouraging people to do things they have no chance of doing. I believe in encouraging people to go for goals that they can achieve and feel good about." Of course, what's "realistic" will depend on who we're talking about:  "When Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier were 14 and 12, they were novice champions. But I took a look at their competition in Canada and told them 'I truly believe you can go to the 2010 Olympics' and they laughed at me, but they went." For others, perhaps skating in their first competition would be an appropriate and inspiring long-term goal.

But big dreams aren't enough. To stay motivated every day, Lane says that we must break long-term goals into small incremental tasks. At her skating club, Lane requires all of her skaters to post their weekly and daily training goals on a big board visible to all. This technique is easily adaptable to a personal workout program: write out your long-term fitness goal, and then create small concrete goals at the weekly and daily level. Put these goals up somewhere where you can see them. Having a clear picture of the peak that we're aiming for as well as the individual steps on the path to reaching it is essential for effective training.

Connect with your 'why' through visualization

Dow says it's important to imagine your long-term goals as clearly and concretely as you can. "Rational facts rarely motivate people profoundly, but feelings almost always do." Setting long-term goals isn't just about knowing where we're headed, it's about developing the right kind of emotional relationship to our destination. He calls this "connecting with your 'why.'"

That's why Dow encourages his patients and readers to envision how they'll look after a year of regular exercise and to imagine how they'll feel running up a hill or playing hockey with their kids or whatever they're training to do. Imagining these things as vividly as possible helps us feel the emotions required to keep us engaged on the long path to our fitness goals.

Dow often uses hypnosis to get his patients to picture their happiest healthiest selves. His aim is to help them begin to reap the positive emotional rewards of achieving their fitness goals and quickly build motivating associations in the brain. "Suppose you are very overweight and are trying to get healthy. When you start, you might only get negative feedback. You go to the gym, and it's hard. You feel like there's nothing good about this. But through hypnosis and visualization, you can trick your brain into feeling something good, feeling like 'we got this', and connecting to hope." Like Lane, Dow believes that it's also important to link the feelings associated with our long-term goals with the concrete small-scale steps that we will take to get there.

Dow offered a short self-hypnosis exercise that he says anyone can use to create useful associations in the brain:

  1. Close your eyes and take a deep breath and roll your eyes back in your head. Then exhale, leveling your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself stepping into an old-fashioned elevator. Take the elevator down five floors. When the door opens, step into a room with a crystal ball or television screen. Picture the version of yourself you are trying to achieve and think about how it'll feel to be your happiest healthiest self. Also, think about the incremental daily and weekly steps that will move you toward that goal.
  3. Say a mantra to yourself five times. It should be something like "exercise will be fun and easy for me" or "I am healthy and strong."
  4. Return to the elevator and ride it back up to where you started, and open your eyes.

Fill your environment with more carrots than sticks

Lane and Dow agree that while negative feedback can sometimes be helpful, it's ultimately positive emotions that provide the most lasting motivation. However, whereas Dow taps into these emotions by delving into the subconscious mind, Lane achieves similar effects by manipulating the environment in which her athletes train. The board where her athletes post their goals isn't just a to-do list, it's also a device for positive reinforcement. As they meet their daily and weekly goals, Lane checks them off and provides them with a printed record of their achievements so they can see what they've done and what they still need to work on. Lane says that just reminding skaters of what they've done so far and offering recognition of incremental progress is a powerful motivator. In addition to these behavioural rewards, Lane also just does her best to foster a friendly environment where skaters encourage each other, and also treats everyone to an occasional doughnut breakfast.

Not everyone has the resources to hire an Olympic-level coach to help them stick to their workout plan. But if you write down your long-term and short-term goals as we recommended above, this can have a similar effect. Check off all the goals you accomplish and take the time to congratulate yourself and to be aware that you are moving toward your long-term goal. It can work even better if you post your goals and achievements publicly, on social media.

While Dow and Lane come at the problem from different directions, they agree that long-term motivation isn't just a matter of "willpower." Sticking to it becomes a whole lot easier when we set clear long-term and short-term goals and find ways of connecting to them emotionally.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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