Expert Solutions: Motivating Goals

TODAY’S TOPIC: How much should you challenge yourself and how high should you set the bar? Some believe that building confidence by reaching any goal is most important. Others feel that being inspired by high standards or a lofty goal is what will get you up in the morning. Let's talk about some of the pros and cons of challenging yourself vs. taking it easy and aiming low.

NICOLE (SparkPeople Fitness Expert): I think it's important to have both broad and specific goals. A broad goal would be: I want to be healthier. From there, you add specific goals: "I want to lose weight. I want to eat healthier foods. I want to exercise, etc. Within that, I think small and attainable goals are the way to go. If you are a less-than-healthy person, a little overweight, eating a poor diet, maybe even a couch potato, I don't think it's reasonable or motivational to set high goals like: I will run 3 miles 5 days a week.

When it comes to seeing results and meeting goals, I think small goals are best. Setting small goals and continuously improving is going to be great for your self-esteem and it’ll keep you motivated. Small goals would be: eating one piece of fruit each day, trying a new vegetable dish, exercising for 10 minutes 2-3 days per week. Meeting these goals—and keeping track of them in a journal or an online format—is very motivating. Once they're met, set your standards a little higher, and you're always achieving something, and all of these small "somethings" are helping you toward your broader goal of "getting healthier."

JEN (SparkPeople Community Leader): I think people need to place a lot more emphasis on small goals than they do. Time after time I see people who just say, "I want to lose 50 lbs." Then they are discouraged 2 weeks later because they've only lost 2 lbs and think "All that hard work and I'm still 48 lbs away from my goal." They figure it's not worth the effort, so they quit. That's why I think small goals are so important. If you are constantly taking small steps- developing a plan for how you are going to reach each one and maybe a reward when you do- you'll eventually get to the same place, without all the pressure and stress.

I also think too much emphasis is placed on reaching a certain number on the scale. There are so many other awesome benefits that come from eating healthy and exercising regularly. Better sleep, less stress, lower BP and cholesterol, just to name a few. Yet people think if the scale doesn't say that exact number, they have failed. So when people think about results, I think they need to take the whole picture into account.

BECKY (SparkPeople Dietitian): I always try to use both approaches together. The lofty goal is often set (or planted in your head) by those in the ivory tower: Your blood pressure should be…Your HDL should be…Your weight should be…Your % body fat should be…You should exercise…Your fat intake should be…The list goes on and on.

Since everyone enters the race at a different spot and in a different condition, the playing field is vast. One cannot compare their race to others. But this is so difficult in our competitive, cutthroat society. This is why it is important to design and stick to your own race, with your own goals and expectations. Then true success and accomplishment, can occur.

I am currently working with a woman who, because of a complex medical history, weight and depression, was not ever leaving her house. Nine months later, she walks to her volunteer job four mornings a week, lost 20 pounds, and has lunch with two new friends in our hospital café. She may be crawling to most…but she is winning HER race!!!

NICOLE: Jen- I DO think that most people have unrealistic expectations...but can you blame them? We live in an instant gratification, speed-hungry society, so it's no wonder that even if it took you 20 years to gain 20 pounds, you want to get rid of it for your vacation next month.

And that also goes along with Becky's point about comparing oneself to others. If your friend did it, you should be able to also, right? And if the experts say that you should lose an average of 2 lbs a week, and you only lose 1, you think something is wrong with you. That's why I think small and attainable goals are so important. Even my own fitness goals are small. When I increase my time by 5 minutes a week, or increase my running speed by even .2 mph for a whole workout, I feel good! And that motivates me to keep going.

I never used to be very healthy. Fast food and Oreos made up the bulk of my diet and I never even touched a fruit or vegetable. I had a New Year's Resolution one year to be healthier. And although I consider myself to be a VERY ambitious person, my goals were small (just TRYING different fruits and vegetables was part of my plan!). You can't expect to change a lifetime of bad habits overnight.

JOE (SparkPeople Fitness Coach): Having hope that you can attain your goal is so important, and small achievements can go a long way in creating more hope. I think the combination of the lofty goal and the small achievements is what keeps you moving forward.

As far as aiming low or challenging yourself, I think it all depends on your priorities. If you’re going to aim for something big, realize that it will take a lifestyle change. If you’re not willing to make a major change right away, it may be best to aim a little lower and work your way into it.

Everything should be based on results. Why else would you work so hard? The key is realizing there may be more ways to measure results (like Jen mentioned) than you initially thought of. Emphasis on the outcome is a tricky one, because so many things can happen between the time you start and the time it ultimately takes to reach a goal.

JEN: Nicole- I agree about comparing oneself to others. People think there is something wrong with them because they can't lose the weight, when our society has set people up to fail! Super-sized meals, video games, etc. -- all of it has become the unhealthy norm in our society! Then people see pictures of skinny girls in magazines and think that is reality and there is no reason they shouldn't look like that, so they become even more depressed. Again, I think the focus is on the wrong thing - the number on the scale. So many people think that if only they were skinny, they would be happy and healthy. I've known a lot of depressed and unhealthy skinny people.

BECKY: Small Goals = BINGO! Recently I worked with a woman who went from eating 5 Danishes at night, down to 3 and lost 1-2 pounds a week. Small but effective...slow and steady wins the race.