Believing your wimpy body can grow strong is easier with achievable goals

When people begin an exercise program, they face the challenge of envisioning a future self. Seeing oneself healthy, energetic and free of lifestyle-related afflictions can be incredibly daunting.

Self-confidence and self-belief often elude new exercisers. Even if they are generally confident in other areas, personal wellness can feel overwhelming and uncontrollable.

Having spent many years in a direct support role, I can attest that such psychological barriers are far more difficult to overcome than any sort of physical exercise.

Coaching like “tough it out” or “suck it up” might work well for network television weight-loss programs, but you have to get far more creative when working with different personality types in the real world. One strategy that I have found helpful is short-term goal setting.

It’s not particularly helpful to envision oneself as a shredded fitness competitor on Day One. Fitness improvements happen incrementally, one tiny percentage at a time. If people set their goals too high, they become impatient and frustrated at the pace of progress. And after a few months of effort, they are at high risk for dropout.

To avoid this situation, I found it helpful to set smaller, more realistic goals that we could establish, achieve and celebrate. These little “wins” help to instill self-confidence and self-belief, two key factors that serve to sustain effort over the long haul.

The artistic part of the effort is knowing what kind of goal to set for the individual. Some are motivated by physical attributes (waist circumference, body composition, etc.) while others focus more on quality of life (higher energy levels, better sleep quality, etc.).

As part of my “onboarding process” I always challenged each client to list reasons they wanted to start an exercise program. I recommend everyone take this important step. The reasons listed on Day One are not likely to change even after significant progress has been made.

So, align short-term goals with those reasons. Then, find ways to measure each attribute.

Sleep quality can be measured with many wearable activity trackers. Energy levels can be monitored, as well. The key is to track and document them to get a baseline, and then set small, achievable goals. Using this strategy, a long-term exercise program feels more like a series of eight-week programs with little victories along the way.

This week’s exercise is a perfect addition for those with upper body strength goals. The Diagonal Pushup requires no equipment and is appropriate for those who can perform at least 20 normal pushups.

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1. Get into the “up” phase of a pushup with your arms and legs fully extended.

2. Slowly lower your torso as you would during a normal pushup, but move the center of your chest toward your right hand a few inches.

3. As you get close to the floor, press back up into the starting position.

4. Slowly lower the torso again, but this time move the center of your chest toward your left hand.

5. Again return to the starting position.

6. Continue this alternating pattern of “diagonal” pushups until you’ve done 12.

Take this one slowly, because moving the chest over the hand position will place additional stress on the shoulders. Always work within a pain-free range of motion and remember: You are strong.

Director of business development and population health solutions for Quest Diagnostics, Matt Parrott began this column 20 years ago at Little Rock. He has a doctorate in education (sport studies), a master’s in kinesiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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