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How to Create Fitness Resolutions that will Actually Stick

A staggering number of highly-inspired people will choose to set lofty goals come January 1, despite the universal knowledge that resolutions aren't easy to stick to. We need all the help we can get. One trick? Framing and stating goals a particular way. Here are six examples of resolutions that can lead to real athletic and personal growth – and why they work: 

1. Focus on the process.  

Example: Spend 20 more minutes shooting jump shots after practice every day. 

Rather than focusing on the end result (an outcome goal), try setting your sights on what you need to do to reach that result (a process goal). In the case of our basketball player, that might mean committing to practicing jump shots, rather than simply aiming to win more games. In the case of someone looking to drop pounds, "lose weight" is an outcome goal, while "cut my dinner portions in half and walk briskly every day during my break between Zoom calls" is a process goal that will likely aid weight-loss efforts. 

Process goals give you a sense of control and power in the present moment; outcome goals are largely beyond the power of our full control. After all, can we really control winning a game or losing a precise amount of weight? Plus, outcome goals are so future-oriented that they don't always seem real or graspable. 

2. Create short-term goals that build to long-term goals.

Example: "Sign up for one 10K each month and run a marathon by November." 

Setting a combination of resolutions – some that focus on a shorter period of time, like a month, and some that focus on a longer period of time, like a full year – is typically more performance-enhancing than just relying on one type of goal. Signing up for a certain number of smaller races each month, for example, is going to better lead you to run that marathon than resolving only to run that marathon. 

You could also commit each month to a different part of the race preparation. For example, plan to find an ideal training partner by February, start a new eating program by March, pick out race-day gear by April and experiment with different energy gels by May. When we feel like we've left no stone unturned as far as how we've prepared, we enter the event with confidence. Breaking this preparation into short-term segments may be helpful. 

3. Be intrinsically motivated. 

Example: "Be fit enough to play with my grandchildren outdoors all afternoon without having to take a break." 

This goal is intrinsically motivated, meaning it's driven by an inherent desire rather than an external force. People who begin exercising for intrinsic reasons recognize the pleasure of doing so, or appreciate the positive feelings and heightened energy workouts bring. They're performing a task for themselves, which makes the decision to exercise and follow through self-determined. 

On the other hand, people who are only motivated extrinsically – driven to exercise by a desire to gain attention from a coworker, receive material rewards or incentives, or appease their spouse – engage in the activity as a means to an end, often to obtain something they want or to avoid something they don't want. "I'd like to turn my health around" is an intrinsically-oriented statement; "I'd like to turn some heads" is not. Research suggests people who adopt intrinsic motivators better maintain and adhere to exercise regimens. 

A fine example of intrinsic motivation at play: a former client of mine, a young father, claimed he wanted to be an involved and active parent. One example of this, for him, was throwing his kids in the air and watching them shriek in delight on their way back into his arms. This moment led to a heightened motivation at the gym: more strength meant higher throws, which meant more joy on his children’s faces. When we’re clear on our purpose (or purposes, as it needn't be just one thing), it energizes us to place a premium on our personal health. 

4. Set goals that are measurable. 

Example: "Be able to do 20 pushups in a row." 

Avoid the temptation to set a goal simply because it sounds good. "I finally want to get in good shape this year" sounds positive – and is surely set with the best intentions – but contains no guidance, no direction. "I want to finally be able to do 20 pushups continuously, do five pullups in a row and run the 3-mile loop around the lake without having to pause," on the other hand, is clear, focused, and measurable. 

To see why that works, consider a shopping list. One that contains "pretzels, granola bars, chicken breast and flank steak" gives more direction in the grocery store than a list that reads, "snacks and meat." You're more time-efficient and confident in your movements down each aisle when the list tells you precisely what to buy. Specific goals provide a path, narrowing your focus to only the most important things. 

5. Think about your impact on others. 

Example: "Find a way to contribute to the world.” 

What typically proves most satisfying are goals that involve giving to others. If we can set goals that aim to help others, research is clear in its effect on our own well-being. Acts of willingly helping others satisfy all three of the basic psychological needs identified in self-determination research: the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy in this context means that you can engage in activities in which you feel true volition and find personal value. Competence means feeling effective and having a sense of accomplishment. And relatedness means working with and feeling connected to others. 

6. Be realistic. 

Example: "Run a mile." 

Start with an attainable, realistic goal. No need to impatiently expect getting into elite Ironman shape by next month if you've never run more than a block's length. Achieving a smaller goal will motivate you to set a higher, more challenging one. Give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished at the start of your process. 

This isn't to say we shouldn't push ourselves; we should – occasionally even to the point of discomfort. Athletes with the most impressive mental fortitude will regularly embrace challenges: They actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – such as difficult fitness regimens and intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that tough goals force them to stretch, reach, put forth more effort and display determination – all of which ultimately lead to improved performance. 

Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CMPC, is head player development consultant for Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York, and has over a decade of experience counseling and developing mental toughness training programs for athletes and coaches of all levels, including youths, professionals and Olympians. He is a member of ACSM's Consumer Outreach Committee.