While you're working on your fitness plan, let's clear up a few misconceptions:
• Your weight will fluctuate, even after hitting that feel-good goal. It happens to everyone, even elite athletes.
• At some point, you will hit a plateau.
• Your running pace will regress after initial gains.
• You will get stuck on a weight-lifting benchmark.
None of this means your work is done and you should quit. In fact, it means the work is just beginning.
Many people who accomplish short-term goals get a rush of achievement in the moment but don't create the behavioral changes needed to maintain and improve, said Tom Raedeke, a professor of kinesiology at East Carolina University who specializes in exercise psychology. "Somehow, we have to help people go beyond . . . just accomplishing this goal," Raedeke said.
Raedeke wants people to envision a journey to good health, one with peaks and valleys. That means being mentally and emotionally prepared and having behaviors in place to deal with the myriad changes and challenges that come even after the finish line. It's not about goals or measurements but rather establishing the right mind-set to change your life for the better.
The main difference between an average adult and a high-level athlete isn't a lack of talent or willpower but rather a lack of a system.
Sam Zizzi, professor of exercise and sports psychology at West Virginia University, points out that athletes succeed because of the infrastructure created for them: coaches, set practice times, a methodical approach to nutrition.
All that's left for them is to, well, just do it.
The vast majority of adults, however, do not have that in place.
"We're competing with a wide variety of priorities, and things kind of get lost in the mix," Zizzi said. People have to make their fitness goals a top priority and pivot their life to accommodate that goal, or merge a goal with something or someone that already is a top priority.
"There's not this coherent goal where everyone is on board with you walking 10,000 steps a day," Zizzi said. "You have to put the structure in place. You have to hold yourself accountable."
Creating that structure takes accountability and support, something Evan Hakalir, 35, is working on. Hakalir, a New Yorker, lost 70 pounds in his early 20s and was physically active. During the Great Recession, he lost his job and decided to start a children's clothing line.
In the midst of traveling and working 20-hour days, Hakalir gained back about 40 pounds. The seesaw of losing and regaining weight continued until a year ago.
"With a baby on the way, I felt, 'Oh my God, this has gotten out of control,' " Hakalir said. "So instead of buying the larger suit size, I decided to recommit myself to being fit."
To keep himself accountable, Hakalir joined Weight Watchers, primarily for the in-person weigh-ins.
"What I actually found were nice, like-minded people of all shapes and sizes who were on this journey. Some were much thinner than I ever was, and some were heavier. They all were on this lifelong struggle of staying healthy and fit," Hakalir said.
Zizzi said making a plan is key. He encourages his clients to have a Plan A and a Plan B so they are prepared when life intervenes.
Raedeke recommends that individuals focus on planning an activity with details a reporter wants to know: the who, what, when, where and how. Instead of saying, "I want to walk more," make a plan: "I will walk 1 mile every Monday and Wednesday."
An action plan shifts the "Why?" from the outcome to the process.
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Just as in other areas of life, competency is a key marker when it comes to long-term health. "People are very good at their jobs and feel good and competent as a parent, but they don't feel competent as a healthy person," Zizzi said. "We invest and take time to do things we are good at."
With his clients, Raedeke starts by finding out whether they have been successful in making a change in the past. "If you have, what things helped? Then, I know right away I can build on what's worked for them in the past. It can be something unrelated to diet, but what worked for them may work for diet and exercise," Raedeke said.
To keep the momentum going, you have to be dedicated to educating yourself and to experimenting.
Alice Williams, a Salt Lake City-based communications professional, said she feels confident in her ability to live healthfully in large part because of her self-education on what fitness activities and nutrition work best for her. She documents what she has learned on her blog, honestlyfitness.com.
"Even when I first started out in my journey, I've had confidence to try things. I started out with workout videos, and now I have more of an idea about what I can do," Williams said. "And I had a personal trainer a few years ago, and it was extremely helpful to get me comfortable with the gym."
When the weight fluctuates or the running pace slows, people often get discouraged and give up or overcompensate in training, which can lead to burnout and injury. Self-sabotage is the pathway to undercutting confidence. Raedeke said individuals start viewing the regression "as a failure and also a reflection of their underlying ability versus it's just a process."
Understanding the science and psychology behind fitness regression and plateaus can reduce frustration.
And experimentation combats boredom and allows short-term goals to grow into long-term behavior.
But how do you stay motivated for the long haul?
A sense of enjoyment is key, Raedeke said.
Ultimately, the goal of living healthfully is to find meaning and to embrace, rather than fight, all the peaks and valleys.
"In the process, there's going to be natural fluctuations, and it's part of the journey," Raedeke said. "And the delicate nature is how to help people find meaning in the process of change, not just the outcome."