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Fitness Goal Setting and Body Positivity

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

In my last blog I started to explore how as a personal trainer, myself and my clients can develop body positivity. I listed the five steps that regularly work effectivity:

1) Identify the statement or goal that you have made and ask WHY;

2) Identify steps and activities that will have benefit to you;

3) Know your barriers;

4) Start in a place of safety;

5) Stretch physically and mentally.

In this post I will be looking at step 1. Identify the statement or goal that you have made and ask WHY.

How many times do we hear?

"I want to lose weight"

"I want to lose inches to fit into those jeans"

"I want to get bigger"

"I wish I was stronger"

"I want to get back to how I was before"

Personal training focuses on goals. In nearly every conversation I have with a potential client I hear one the above statements being uttered. Time and time again I hear of people unhappy with how they are in the here and now. We often have a perception - “When I reach a goal it will bring happiness”; "When I lose a stone I will be happy"; When I look good in these clothes I will feel great"; “When I have overcome this illness I will flourish"; "When I get that job... live in that house... have that relationship". We place happiness in an unobtainable position of the future. (Speaking of which, if you like a good Ted Talk, watch Shawn Anchor). When our goals can be based on fear or shame - "I need to do this to avoid a consequence"; “I need to do this so people will not judge me”; “This will prevent people disliking me”; “This will keep me safe” - these too prevent us being body positive as they move us away from the idea that we are enough just as we are. A group of researchers in 2017 found that women who exercised through guilt had higher levels of stress and anxiety post exercise. Finding ways of letting go of the guilt will enable us to get more stress reducing benefits from our workouts.

Positive psychologist Kristen Neff identified that “Ultimate health and well-being are achieved by people feeling kindness and compassion for themselves because they are human beings, not because they have some particular trait such as being physically fit,”.

Back in 2008 Bruce Headly published a study that showed us individual and material goals do not improve life satisfaction. We know that goals are addictive and when we achieve them we get a hit of that lovely hormone dopamine that is there to reward the behaviour to make us repeat the action (Mehta, 2013).

I am not against goal setting, in fact it is one of the most important tools as both a therapist and a personal trainer, but we often fall into a goal setting trap. To avoid this I use an adaptation of the SMART model of goal setting (There is a wealth of information about SMART goals online if you are not familiar with the concept).

1) Identify the statement or goal that you have made - be really clear.

2) Is it realistic? Our own perception will give a subjective biased view – check out if you would apply the same standard to a friend, run it past me or a friend.

3) Is there accountability, and is there a time frame?

4) Does it have a desirable outcome.

5) Is it compassionate? – Does the goal expect you to be flawless or is it allowing for the fact you are human being. Will the outcome be an outcome that is kind for you.

6) Ask why.

Reviewing how the session plan is aligned with the bigger goal

This is the very first thing I do with my client once they have told me their goal; the goal set may not be as relevant as you first assume. I explore "What are the values driving the desire to change your body?” Is the goal coming from a place of criticism, judgment or even habit? Have the images of perceived perfection that we are bombarded with in society influenced? The validation others give us is also powerful. The feedback of someone saying “you’re looking good"; "have you lost weight"; "I love you hair, nails, clothes".

Low self-esteem and self-worth, make us want to do something that makes us feel better, feel worth more or even make us want to be smaller and be invisible.

All too often we set a goal which will not achieve our desired aim or our aim is misplaced, eg I set a goal to lose weight and exercise more so that I can have a body I feel confident in. The actions we take e.g. limit calories and exercise more do not equate to the desired end result of I want to feel confident. Also don't strive for happiness, when we make happiness our fundamental goal we start benchmarking and judging every time we feel a different emotion.

Once we understand why we want the goal, we can evaluate if it will be helpful in building body acceptance and positivity. Striving for acceptance, compassion and contentment can have a more powerful and have sustainable impact.

What does a compassionate goal look like?

A compassionate goal may be one in which the outcome is self-compassion or it may be a goal in which the outcome will be nourishing.

Examples of goals that create self-compassion and nourishment:

“I will foster an understanding of my motivation for exercise by monitoring over my next three workouts the intention for the exercise and what I noticed after exercising.”
“I will record three things that I am proud of after each activity for the next month.”
“When I have a day which feels like a “bad day” or an “off day” I will notice any resistance to feeling this and allow it to not be easy but will make a commitment to do insert activity that you have identified that is helpful in these situations.”
“I will develop liking my body by using a loving kindness mindfulness exercise two times a week for the next 3 weeks.”
“In one month’s time, I will have identified an exercise in my routine that I enjoy doing and will be in a routine of doing this two times a week. But I will be kind if this is not possible.”
“I will set an intention each day to not avoid feelings of shame.”
“I will trial 5 activities that I anticipate may increase my energy level over the next two weeks and then evaluate this. “
“For the next goal I set I will not use the scales as an outcome measure” (that’s a bit of a meta goal within a goal).

Within these goals it is ok for the need to go back and reevaluate it, to break it down into something that is obtainable, for you to experience feeling like you have failed. The knowledge about what value shaped that goal will allow you to accept this and, by accepting it, will enable you to work out a goal that is right for you.

It’s not easy to set a compassionate goal so if you would like a compassionate perspective do message me your questions or get in touch with me to book in a personalised assessment and goal setting session.

In my next blog I will be exploring how to break goals down into manageable steps and identifying activities that will help you flourish.

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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