When it comes to fitness, skip 'go-big-or-go-home' mentality

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

I believe in setting big goals. Studies show those who set big goals have more motivation to continually work toward their goals because there is a big payoff in the end, making the hard work worth it.

The key to success is in the strategic planning of how that goal will be reached. This is where many people go wrong, particularly when it comes to diet and fitness goals.

woman working hard on stationary bikeMany people completely beat themselves up ... for about a week. For example, they go from being a couch potato to trying to do a plan of 30-45 minutes of intense aerobic exercise and 30-45 minutes of weight-lifting daily. Then they realize this is difficult, not fun, and hard to fit into their busy schedule, and they stop doing it altogether.

I have certainly been guilty of this.

For example, when my son was an infant and my daughter was 2, I recall taking on a couple of intense home workout programs which only lasted for a few sessions. They were simply unrealistic for the stage of life I was in. Yet instead of doing a modified, shortened version of them, I gave them up altogether.

Having an all-or-nothing approach is detrimental to many things in life, particularly your physical health. It leads to problems such as yo-yo dieting, injury and decreased confidence.

If a goal of yours is to lose fat and increase muscle tone, it is important to set up a sustainable diet and fitness regimen that you can achieve and maintain for life. After all, good health is not something that you work hard to achieve, and then you're done. It must be continually maintained.

Ask yourself, "Can I keep this up for the rest of my life?"

If the answer is no, then your plan lacks sustainability. 

When planning out how to work toward your health goals on a daily basis, keep the following rule in mind: Consistency over intensity. Instead of Go big or go home, think, Go consistently.

Going back to the example above (the couch potato undertaking a rigorous fitness program), a more sustainable plan would be to commit to a minimum of 15 minutes of aerobic exercise daily (for example, ride 3-4 miles on an exercise bike each morning before taking a shower) and a minimum of two lifts daily. If done quickly, this could be done in 20 minutes a day.

At first glance, this might seem too basic or easy.

Keep in mind though, that these are minimums, so if you are feeling good and motivated on a particular day, you can always do extra. On those days, pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a mental A+ or bonus points for your efforts. It's motivating to be exceeding your daily goals.

  • Let's do some basic math. In the first example, let's say patient #1 decides on a plan to ride 8 miles on the stationary bike daily and perform four lifts daily. He keeps it up for six days, then quits. He tries again a month later, but the same thing happens. 
  • Patient #2, on the other hand, consistently rides four miles on the bike six days a week and performs two lifts daily, six days per week.

After two months (nine weeks), patient #1 will have performed a total of 64 miles on the bike and 48 lifts. Patient #2 will have performed 216 miles on the bike and 108 lifts.

two weight lifters with reasonable weightsTo take it a step further, let's say patient #2 feels extra motivated and energetic once a week (perhaps on a Saturday morning when he is not working and has more time to devote to fitness), and on those days he doubles his ride and weight-lifting. In this case, he will have performed 234 miles on the bike and 126 lifts in nine weeks.

Now let's look at an entire year for our two patients.

Let's say patient #1 restarts (and stops) the cycle a couple more times during the year. Patient #2, on the other hand, has successfully created a long-term healthy habit, and is consistent throughout the year.

At the end of the year, these are the results:

  • Patient #1 = 128 miles on the bike and 96 lifts
  • Patient #2 = 1,456 miles on the bike and 728 lifts

In addition to performing more and thus seeing bigger results in terms of fat loss and muscle tone, patient #2 will enjoy other benefits, as well.

Patient #2 will have more energy each day, enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving goals, and gain more confidence in continuing to make other positive health changes, such as eating a healthy diet (recall the ripple effect).

It becomes an upward spiral of success. He is sure to see amazing differences in his health and overall well-being over the course of a year. He will look and feel much better, and he will have a significantly improved quality of life.

Patient #1, on the other hand, experiences failure, disappointment, lack of confidence, and is more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as choosing junk food and overeating.

He, unfortunately, finds himself in a downward spiral of failure. It's not that patient #1's intentions weren't good; they were. The problem was that his plan was not sustainable.

If you've found yourself unable to reach your health goals, consider trying a more moderate but consistent plan. I like this quote by Charles Staley, who is a fitness educator, coach and author: 

"If you still think that moderation isn’t exciting, I’d fully agree. However, the results of a moderate approach are pretty exciting, and after all, that’s what really matters."

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.