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November 18, 2021

Setting goals is the foundation of a successful fitness regimen

Establishing achievable benchmarks and tracking your progress can be a great motivator

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Run the Bridge Bezich Courtesy/Louis Bezich

Louis Bezich smiles after completing the 2021 Run the Bridge 10K in Camden, New Jersey.

It had been several years since I last ran the Run the Bridge 10K, the race anchored by crossing back and forth over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The COVID-19 pandemic scratched 2020’s in-person event, and in 2019 I was recovering from a leg injury. So, when the opportunity presented itself this year, I went for it. Several years older, but feeling good, and ready to give it a go.

Now, normally a 5K is my sweet spot. Hills, or any type of incline, are not typically part of my South Jersey and treadmill experience. Those who have run the Ben know that that the mild incline you feel crossing in the car seems like Mt. Everest on foot – not to mention a couple of grade changes in the final mile back on the Camden side. Still, I had to know if I had the stuff to compete after the long layoff.

Even more significant is the meaning of the race in my annual workout plan. Since I started running the bridge about 10 years ago, it always represented a "push" for me, a challenge that became a core goal in my yearly regimen. Getting out of my comfort zone and completing the course is a marquee goal and a measure of my success in fighting the aging process. In short, it's a big motivator.

Competing in the bridge run and the inspiration it provides me is a classic illustration of how goal-setting is a driver for healthy living. Whether you are an avid exerciser or just trying to develop a routine, having goals that provide structure and a measure of your progress is the foundation of your fitness journey.

The fundamentals

Harvard Medical School says the best approach to sticking with an exercise program is to break up your long-term goals into monthly targets. For example, if your goal is to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week, start with 10 minutes, three days a week for the first month. Then go to four days in your second month, and add another day in the third month. This gradual approach is much more reasonable and will avoid the frustration and ultimate failure of unrealistic goals. Slow and steady with modest increases is the way to go.

The Mayo Clinic emphasizes that exercise doesn't have to be boring, and that fun is a key ingredient to sustainability. The clinic recommends participating in sports or activities that you enjoy, and suggests sampling a variety of exercise opportunities to find what works for you. Volleyball, softball, martial arts, yoga, a health club or a simple walk or jog in the park are among the choices cited. When you do find your niche, Mayo suggests that you write down your goals and record your progress. Your ability to track and see your advancements is a great motivator.

The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine speaks of applying the SMART criteria of goal specification. Pulled from the business world, it can serve as a great framework for your fitness goals. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. By using this approach, you will bring discipline to your goal-planning. Combined with activities that you like, SMART goals will give you an organized method that can enhance your outcomes.  

Finally, reminds us that goal-setting has benefits beyond diet and exercise. Not only can they help you develop and sustain your healthy behaviors, but also improve your mental health and even help ensure personal and professional success.

Anticipate roadblocks

Taking a closer look, The College for Adult Learning offers some complementary strategies that I find highly effective. They emphasize the importance of having absolute faith in the goal-setting process and confidence in your ability to achieve the goals, no matter what roadblocks get in your way.

The College also highlights the value of a time frame and a sense of urgency. You want to give yourself a degree of flexibility and the freedom to adjust your schedule when life gets in the way. But without a clear schedule and some self-imposed deadlines, you are diminishing your chances for success. That leads to two other recommendations I like – holding yourself accountable and asking for help.

A great way to create accountability is to share your goals with family or friends. Bringing others into your world creates a sense of added responsibility to make good on your plans. This also ties to the tactic of asking for help. Finding a mentor, no matter your age, can go a long way to locking into a sustainable routine.

Reaching your goals

The Cleveland Clinic offers a sobering statistic that will come as no surprise to anyone who has committed to diet or exercise goals. Between 50% and 75% of people who set fitness-related goals give up before reaching them. To combat this failure-curve, the clinic prescribes a basic approach to fitness. Rather than jump into the trendy classes getting all the buzz, they suggest a basic cardio and strength training regimen that can ease you into some good habits that will increase the potential to maintain the behavior over the long run.

A real goals nerd

For exercise and everything else in my life, I am a total goal nerd, and a compulsive list maker. I've got my daily to-do list, which I keep on my iPhone, and annual goals which I review periodically. Yes, it's nerdy, but I enjoy the discipline list-making imposes and the good feeling of striking items as they are accomplished.

When it comes to healthy behaviors, my ability to run with the pack, just a few times a year, is yet another installment toward the overall goal of staying active and holding off the aging process. No matter the time, or where I come in, it's about competing. This fall, besides the bridge run, my goal is to run in two local 5K races. If I can accomplish that, then I'll feel good as I approach yet another birthday in late December.

Find your goals and use these tips to make the most out of them.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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