A few months ago I was invited to present a health and lifestyle talk, the subject of which was my move from finance to fitness. The purpose of the talk was partly to share my story and also to take a look at some aspects of the health, wellness and fitness worlds that I thought merited a closer inspection. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of those worlds. It was a great talk to prepare and present. Rather than take a normal Q&A session at the end, I had asked members of the club for whom I was giving the talk to submit questions in advance. The idea being two-fold; anyone that entered a question had an opportunity to win a coaching session with me, and also it meant that the questions could be handed out to the audience members to ask me. I was unaware of what might come up so it was a fun way to end the evening. One of the questions that was submitted, that I decided to make the topic for this post, was:
‘I’m interested to know, what is your top tip for staying focussed on the benefit of exercise?’
I thought this was a great question, as the person asking the question was already of the opinion that exercise was beneficial to them. I wasn’t being asked about the numerous benefits of exercise. Instead I was being asked about how to stay focussed on the benefit. For that person, staying focussed was the challenge. Not to ignore the context of the question and to touch briefly on exercise, my viewpoint is that all movement is exercise. I appreciate though that exercise tends to be associated with going to a gym or fitness centre and working out. So I chose to answer the question from that perspective, and below I’ve retained that example for illustrative purposes, though the principles outlined could be applied to any situation where adherence to a goal is challenging.
Essentially, my answer centres on identifying and understanding the underlying values that drive the behaviour. This can be done by using a series of questions to ask yourself. They are:
- What is the reason why you are exercising?
- What is the benefit you believe exercise is providing you?
- Why is that important to you?
These questions can be reduced to one question:
Why are you doing what you are doing?
However, in order to arrive at that question it’s worthwhile going through the other three questions and providing some colour to them. After all, things are rarely black and white!
What Is The Reason Why You Are Exercising?
There could be a whole host of reasons as to why a person chooses to begin or to resume exercise. Weight loss, overcoming an injury, increasing lean body mass, training for a race and general improved health and well-being are just some examples. It’ll be different for each person, and could be a combination of factors. The important part is to identify the reason(s) or goal(s) for the action.
When it comes to goals, where possible and appropriate I like to help my clients set goals which are behaviour-based goals as opposed to being outcome-based goals. An example of an outcome-based goal would be to reduce blood pressure by 20 points in 3 months. An example of a behaviour-based goal would be to drink two cups of coffee a day instead of four. The key difference between an outcome-based goal and a behaviour-based goal is the element of choice and control you have. The decision as to whether to drink two or four cups of coffee is down to the choices made by the individual. The ability to reduce blood pressure levels could be at the mercy of a host of factors, some of which a person may be able to exert some control and choice over (eg: making nutritional adjustments) but also may be at the whim of external matters that there is seemingly little or no control over (eg: work-related stress).
Also, with behaviour-based goals it’s easier to identify obstacles and overcome challenges. If the daily coffee intake has gone down to three cups then first of all it is a step in the right direction and, through determining how that was made possible, finding the cause of the success, strategies for further success (in this case, reducing consumption down by a further cup per day) can be planned and put into practice. The behaviour is the process through which the (outcome) goal can be reached.
What Is The Benefit You Believe Exercise Is Providing You?
Now things get more interesting. The benefits of exercise are certainly numerous, but the perceived benefits of exercise that an individual expresses may be few. It may be that by exercising a person believes they will be better able to play with their children or grandchildren. It may be that the person believes that by exercising it will help them drop a dress size for an upcoming important event. It could be that a person considers exercise as a good way to socialise. The list goes on and on. Whatever the belief may be, being aware of it is to be aware of that person’s needs and wants when it comes to exercise.
From my coaching experience, I don’t look at a person’s perception of the benefits they are deriving from exercise through merely a professional or scientific point of view. For example, a person may be spending a lot of time in the gym on cardio machines with the aim of losing weight. If I approached the scenario simply from the basis of showing (off) how much knowledge I may have on the subject it’s not going to help. Unless they’re doing something I consider unsafe I’m not about to start correcting someone for whom maybe even just coming to the gym is a challenge, let alone exercising. For I’d be invalidating that person’s beliefs. I’d be, on some level, telling that person that they were wrong. I’m not going to ‘correct’ anyone. Rather, over time, new coaching concepts and tools can be introduced and integrated to further guide the person towards their goal in an empowering way. They can take in new information and with it be in a position to make better decisions. At the outset I want to listen and understand. To get to know the person, their obstacles and their abilities, not just the problem.
Why Is That Important To You?
‘Why?’ is such a powerful question. It really gets to the heart of the matter. In goal setting or adherence it speaks beyond our needs and reaches out to uncover our values. Our core beliefs. From moving through the process, identifying the reason and determining the perceived benefits of exercise now is when the driver of the action can be discovered. The why.
To illustrate the point from another angle, a dental appointment is something few of us look forward to. We know it could involve some level of discomfort. It may, depending on where we live, be quite expensive to receive dental treatment. It may be an inconvenience. But nevertheless we go to the dentist. Why? Because we acknowledge that it is important to have healthy teeth and gums – we place a value on it – and are prepared offset other values we may have around pain, money and time in order to ensure that the value we place highest (our health) is met. Our values and actions are in alignment.
As with the benefits, the rationale as to why exercising is important could be any number of things, but will most likely come down to one or two reasons for each person. It may be that a person wants to have fun when they exercise, or that they want to inspire their loved ones, or that their doctor has indicated they need to take action to offset the risk of a certain condition and they want to achieve something for themselves. In coaching, this is where I’ve found the greatest connection can be made and I look to facilitate an understanding for a client as to whether there is good alignment between their goals and their values, especially if staying focussed is challenging.
Staying Focussed – Will Tracking Progress Help?
Another possible option is to track your progress towards a goal. This can be helpful insofar as it can help you see how far you have come in respect to that goal, to see and recognise what you have achieved already. It can also help in terms of a ‘course-correct’. If by tracking you can see that progress is deviating from where you would wish to be then remedial action can be taken. Personally, I would look at resetting the goal, perhaps breaking the goal down into smaller goals with a greater chance of achievement, rather than be in a potential situation where you may be debating taking drastic, unsustainable or unhealthy action to meet a target.
If you find you are off course it’s important to remember two things: 1. you have taken positive action towards achieving something, you are doing it, and 2. be kind to yourself. Appreciate the efforts you have taken in making a positive change.
Staying focussed on your goals doesn’t have to involve super-human feats of mind-control, or require some secret skill possessed by the few. By going through the questions above, thinking about your answers and taking a few minutes to write them down may prove to be an extremely useful exercise. Read them out loud to yourself, or keep them in a prominent place if that helps you. Refer back to them as, over time, circumstances and values can change. Through being aware of your values and ensuring that your actions are in line with those values you can then move towards your goals with greater ease.
Give it a try, especially with a goal or behaviour that has proved challenging in the past. By doing so, you may even find that there is no need to focus at all.