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Blog: Keeping health and fitness goals 'on track'

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Read Paul Hough's latest blog on keeping fit in the new year here... Most people will recognise statistics such as ‘only one in eight people actually maintain a New Year’s resolution for an entire year’ (Shapiro, et al. 2014). This is the case with health and fitness resolutions whether it be exercising more or improving diet, a new year’s resolution rarely lasts beyond the end of January. One of the reasons for poor adherence to health and fitness resolutions is the ‘all or nothing’ approach. Many people choose the ‘all or nothing’ approach, whereby they invest as much time, effort and (in some cases) expense in achieving their health/fitness goals. Recent diet programmes ‘How to lose weight well’ (Channel 4) and ‘Save money: good health’ (ITV) involved participants undertaking various diets to lose weight, which epitomises the ‘all or nothing’ approach. Both programmes demonstrated that the (insert name of diet here) indisputably works in the short-term. However, as with all lifestyle changes, the change is only as permanent as the behaviour i.e. the participants in those programmes lost weight through changing their diets, but they will put the weight back on (possibly even more than they lost) if they return to the behaviours that caused the weight gain in the first place (Fothergill et al., 2016). Human behaviour is a complex and nuanced subject, which is why it is difficult to recommend a single behaviour change strategy for everyone. Most individuals who start a diet/exercise programme improve their health and fitness. However, maintaining the positive behaviours (e.g. regular exercise, good quality diet) permanently is more challenging. Nevertheless, there are strategies that can help people maintain their positive lifestyle behaviours: Goals Most people are aware of the importance of setting goals, but adopting some sort of strategy to achieve a goal can be beneficial. When I worked in the fitness industry, I was often surprised how many clients joined the gym in January without having any a specific goal for staring an exercise regimen. This is akin to going into a shop without having anything specific in mind to purchase. Whilst you might buy something you like, there is also the possibility you could buy something you didn’t want/need, or not buy anything at all. The later possibility is the typical outcome of exercise programmes that have no goal… nothing. One of the most recognised goal setting systems is the SMART strategy, which is designed to increase focus, motivation and resilience (Greaves et al., 2011). The acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Centred. Example of applying the SMART principle John (age 40, currently sedentary) has set a new year’s resolution to ‘improve fitness’. Specific: The goal should be as specific as possible. John’s goal to ‘improve fitness’ is admirable, but it lacks focus and is too ambiguous. Therefore, it is important to consider what type of fitness John would like to improve and also if this goal is dependent on achieving other goals, such as decreasing body fat. For example, if John cites that he would like to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath, then he needs to improve his cardiorespiratory fitness. Measureable: Once a specific goal has been identified, an objective method or test to measure the goal should be identified. This enables the goal setter to regularly monitor his/her progress, which can enhance motivation. Ideally, the testing method should be reliable and objective. In the example above, John could time how long it takes him to walk a set distance (e.g. 1 mile). He could monitor this on a monthly basis to establish if he was able to walk the distance in less time than before, which would indicate an improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness. Tests do not have to be complicated or involve expensive equipment. An individual with a goal to ‘lose body fat’ could, instead, set a goal to decrease waist circumference by 2 inches, as a decrease in waist circumference is a fairly reliable method to indicate a reduction in abdominal body fat. The individual could monitor progress by measuring his/her waist circumference on a monthly basis using a simple tape measure. Achievable: It is important to set practical goals that you can realistically achieve. Many goals, particularly New Year resolutions are not achieved because they are impractical and/or unrealistic. It is important to ask yourself ‘can I sustain this (diet, exercise regimen etc.) permanently?’ If you are unsure, it is a good idea to reassess your goal. In the example above, John wants to improve his cardiorespiratory fitness. However, setting a goal to exercise everyday might be difficult for him to achieve initially. Therefore, breaking the long-term goal into more manageable, short-term goals is wise. Relevant: It is important to adopt behaviours that are relevant to your goal. In order for John to achieve his fitness goal, he needs to increase his levels of physical activity, particularly endurance type activities (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling etc.). A common reason why New Year’s resolutions fail is because people have too many! In general, it is a good idea to focus on a minimal amount of behaviours to modify at one time until the behaviour becomes a habit. Time Centred: A timeframe should be set to achieve and regularly monitor the goal (see measureable discussion above). For instance, John could set a 2 month time frame to achieve his goal and then modify the goal using the same SMART process. Sharing In addition to using the SMART framework above, sharing goals can also be an effective strategy for some individuals. For example, letting family and friends know about your goal can be motivating and may also encourage others to support you or even join you in the process. Indeed, trying to change habits independently can be difficult. For instance, if you wish to decrease sugar intake, it becomes more challenging if a partner or work colleague eats sweets and cakes in front of you! Accept relapses Positive behavioural habits can take a long time to achieve. Therefore, an occasional lapse is inevitable and should be accepted as part of the behaviour change process. It is important to remember that positive lifestyle changes, such as exercising and eating well, should be permanent changes, not just for January. References Fothergill, E., Guo, J., Howard, L., Kerns, J. C., Knuth, N. D., Brychta, R., Chen, K. Y., Skarulis, M. C., Walter, M., Walter, P. J. & Hall, K. D. (2016), Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity, 24, 1612–1619. Greaves, C. J., Sheppard, K. E., Abraham, C., Hardeman, W., Roden, M., Evans, P. H., & Schwarz, P. (2011). Systematic review of reviews of intervention components associated with increased effectiveness in dietary and physical activity interventions. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 1. Shapiro, A., Campbell, L., & Wright, W. (2014). The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life. New York: Harper Collins.
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