'Addicted' to being healthy: Setting SMART goals makes for longer-lasting results

By Michael Stack - Applied Fitness Solutions

Credit: Applied Fitness Solutions

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Worst fitness goal of all time: “I want to lose 20 pounds.”

Another really bad one: “I want to run a marathon.”

How about this one? “I want to lower my blood pressure.” Yup, you guessed it, crappy goal.

I could go on and on about the fitness goals people decide on and how they set themselves up for failure nearly every time (before they’ve even begun) by setting a goal that works against the wiring of our brains.

Losing 20 pounds, running a marathon, and lowering blood pressure are all great things to accomplish. In fact, I highly recommend achieving an appropriate weight, getting in better cardiovascular shape and having healthy blood pressure! My issue is not with what’s trying to be achieved; my issue is with how we set out to achieve it.

With New Year’s Day right around the corner and a number of you looking to set goals to improve your fitness, weight or health, I want to take this opportunity to set you up for success just by making a subtle tweak to the way you approach goal setting.

Credit: Applied Fitness Solutions

Goals, goals, goals

We’ve all heard of the SMART goal setting format: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound. This is a great way to construct a goal, but before we use this format we have to discuss what type of goal we’re setting. 

There are two types of goals: outcome and process. Outcome goals are your destination. They’re the place you want to get to or thing you want to achieve (losing 20 pounds, running the marathon, lowering your blood pressure). 

Process goals are the things you need to do to achieve the outcome goal. Think of them as your roadmap or the GPS in your car. You put in a destination and your GPS calculates the directions and focuses you on the next most important thing to do. 

Example: Destination – Chicago. GPS: turn right on State Street, turn right on 94 West, etc. 

If your GPS started telling you what to do once you get to Illinois while you’re still in Ann Arbor, you’d probably lose your way pretty quick.

OK, that might have been a roundabout way to make the point that process goals are important, but for whatever reason, people seem to miss their significance. Process goals keep you focused on the things you need to do to reach the outcome goal. They also work in tandem with how our brain operates (instead of against it, like outcome goals).

Credit: Applied Fitness Solutions

Evolutionary “wiring”

As human beings, we are “wired” for instant gratification. This was a life-sustaining trait back in prehistoric times where we had to forage for high-energy food and complete a series of tasks just to survive the day. What would happen three days from now didn’t matter because, if you weren’t careful, you’d be eaten by a tiger that afternoon. Although the tigers are gone (at least the ones that could readily snack on us), the brain still behaves in this very innate, subconscious way.

One of the most powerful chemicals in the brain drives our desire to seek instant gratification. Dopamine regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and spikes of dopamine can be highly addicting. Dopamine effects are strong enough that it can cause us to eat eight cookies (for an instant reward) rather than stick to our diet and delay gratification (even though we’re smart enough to know we will benefit significantly from our healthy eating). Our society only exacerbates this desire for instant gratification with the ability to buy anything, at any time, or connect with anyone in the world at any time via the internet. It’s why we’ll sign up for a “lose 20 pounds in 20 days” plan even when we know it won’t work. The chemical pull in the brain is just too strong.

So what are our choices? Fighting brain biochemistry seems hard, and it is. Rather than fight against it, how about we use it to our advantage? How about we set goals properly to keep us focused on the here and now (process goals), and then go one step further. What if we can connect exercise and eating healthy with some degree of immediate gratification, as something essential we can’t live without (like oxygen, food or water), then channel that dopamine response to reinforce (and even crave) healthy behaviors. Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not! 

Setting goals

Don’t get me wrong, you absolutely should have your outcome goal, for sure. You do need to have your destination to measure your progress toward it. Set the goal, make it SMART, and then forget about it. I mean that. Lock it away and bring it out once every few months to see how you’re doing against it, but that’s all. If you put any more attention on it than that, you’ll basically turn into the 10-year-old version of me on our family vacation to Washington, D.C. (“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaad, are we thereeeee yet?!?!”).

Focus on setting your process goals. What are things you need to do TODAY to achieve your outcome goal? Write it down and be as specific as you possibly can be. It’s beyond the scope of a goal setting article to tell you specifically WHAT to do, but in general, that tends to not be an issue. Most of us know what to do when it comes to losing weight, getting fit or becoming healthier. We just struggle with how to do it.

Write down your process goals and post them in a highly visible place. I love the bathroom mirror as a place for this, as it’s the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you see before you go to bed. That constant reinforcement is critical to implementation. 

Make your brain work for you

We’re not done yet. Now that we’ve set good process goals we have to attach a source of instant gratification to these healthy behaviors. If you don’t, your ability to stay motivated to implement them will fade quickly. We’ll do this in the chart below. List all the healthy behaviors you’re engaging in as a part of your progress goals. Once you’ve done that, take the time to consider the immediate benefit you derive from that healthy behavior and list it as well. Then the important part comes in: every time you do that health behavior, stop (for at least 10 seconds) and acknowledge the immediate benefit it provides you. After doing that for a while, your dopamine levels will start to naturally rise in response to your healthy behaviors and then you’re hooked, maybe even “addicted” to being healthy.

Understanding how S.M.A.R.T goals help in the short-term results in better long-term healthy behaviors. Photo credit | Michael Stack, Applied Fitness Solutions.

Michael Stack is an exercise physiologist, founder and CEO of Applied Fitness Solutions with locations in Ann Arbor, Plymouth and Rochester Hills. 

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