Exercise for Life: Setting Fitness Goals and Benefits for the Mind, Body and Spirit
January is a time for making (and breaking) new year’s resolutions, many of which are fitness and weight-loss related. However, there is a better way to ensure you not only set reasonable goals but achieve them in a timely manner as well.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, gyms and studios around the country and world remain closed or have modified capacities, procedures and rules. Previously, I wrote about how to create a workout routine at home by using common household items such as cans, bottles and towels. Using these types of items makes it easy to get started with an exercise regimen while staying safe at home. I also wrote about how using digital tools and social media can help us stay on track with our fitness goals.
In this article, I will explain how to set realistic fitness goals in lieu of making unattainable ones, how to sustain motivation to reach these goals, and how staying active has multiple benefits for the body, mind and spirit.
Getting SMART about your Fitness Goals
When setting fitness goals, many people make the mistake of being too lofty, which can set them up for subsequent failure. Failure in the early stages of goal setting can make us feel demotivated and less likely to strive for the things we want. Setting realistic goals is just part of the process.
If you want to learn how to set goals effectively, start by finding a piece of paper and a pen. It may sound “old school,” but research shows that jotting down your goals on an actual piece of paper makes you more likely to meet them. One study looked at this very issue by dividing 149 participants into five groups. Participants in the first group had a goal in mind but didn’t write it down. Participants in the second group wrote their goal down. For the third group, participants had a written goal and commitments to acting toward the goal. In the fourth group, participants had a written goal and communicated their planned actions to a friend. In the fifth and final group, participants had a written goal, commitments to acting toward the goal and gave regular status updates to a friend. After four weeks, the researchers found that the participants who wrote down their goals achieved significantly more than those who did not write down their goals. In addition, having a specific action plan helped them achieve their goals. The researchers also found out that the participants who sent the commitments and status updates to a friend led to them achieving significantly more (Matthews, n.d.). To get the maximum benefit from your goal-setting activities, you should write down your goals and what steps you need to take to reach the goal to start off. Then, you should find a friend or accountability partner to give updates to and/or undertake the goal together. For example, if you’re trying to reach 10,000 steps per day, consider recruiting a neighbor, coworker or friend to join you in your wellness journey.
In addition to putting pen to paper and finding an accountability partner, goal-setters are more likely to achieve their goals by using the SMART method. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. George Doran came up with the SMART method in the 1980s as a response to writing objectives and mapping out deliverables in the context of executive-level management. At the time, he noted that most corporations in the United States didn’t have an effective way of writing objectives and planning to meet them. Thus, he suggests employing the SMART method to make the process of identifying, planning and implementing the steps needed to meet these goals more achievable. Additionally, research indicates that the SMART method works – and not just for fitness goals (Bowman, Mogensen, Marsland, & Lannin, 2015). It is a simple and effective method for setting any type of goal in your life.
Turning Goals into Action
Turn your goals into something actionable involves careful planning. Thinking of your goals as something you would plan out in a school or work setting can help normalize this approach. As such, you’ll want to get out a physical calendar or one you use on your smartphone. Identify reasonable dates in which you’ll check in with yourself and/or your accountability partner and assess your progress.
For example, if your goal is to be able to do 50 pushups, you will want to break that into “bite sized” pieces. You can write down that you will start with doing five pushups during the first week and work your way up, adding five more pushups each week until you reach 50. At that pace, it will take you 10 weeks to get to 50 pushups. You can plan to check in with yourself or your accountability partner at the halfway point, about five weeks in, and at the end of the 10 weeks. You can even keep a diary or write short notes into your phone’s Notes app about how you’re feeling, what has been easy, what has been challenging, and any motivational tips to read over when you feel less motivated.
Benefits for the Body
Now that you have learned about how to set your intentions and goals, it’s important to understand what regular exercise can do for your body, mind and spirit. Knowing how impactful it can be will keep you motivated when your morale is low or other life events seem to get in the way.
First off, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that Americans move their bodies in two ways – through aerobic exercise and strength training. Aerobic exercise refers to any type of activity that gets your heart rate up, such as running, brisk walking, jumping rope, and more. The HHS recommends you get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (or a combination of both). Even being active for short bursts of time throughout your day can help you reach this goal. Strength training refers to activities that engage your muscles, such as lifting weights in a gym or doing bodyweight exercises at home. You should strength train for each major muscle group at least two times a week (United States Health and Human Services, 2015).
What exactly does engaging in regular movement do for your body? Firstly, it gets your blood flowing and decreases your risk of developing heart disease (Mayo Clinic, 2020a). In addition, working out increases your energy levels. When we work out, it releases hormones called epinephrine and norepinephrine in our body. Although these hormones are typically associated with stress, they are triggered in small amounts when you exercise and provide a perk of energy.
“Regular exercise can improve many aspects of your life. Depression and anxiety are common problems in our world today and working out can help manage these issues,” said Allison Rohrer, owner of Haute House Fitness in Lexington, Kentucky. “When you increase physical activity, you increase blood flow to the brain, helping boost serotonin levels, which helps lift your mood. Interacting with people in a local studio gives you a sense of community where you will be encouraged by staff and clients to participate in life and stay healthy. At Haute House Fitness, we watch people daily improve their confidence levels and mood by exercising regularly.”
If you don’t work out, you put yourself at risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease to name a few. If you currently have a chronic disease, exercise can help you improve it and better manage it by lowering your triglycerides, which are fats called lipids that swim around in our bodies. Having a high level of triglycerides can contribute to the hardening of your arteries, and that can lead to strokes, heart attacks and heart disease (Mayo Clinic, 2020b). “Good” cholesterol is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and exercise helps you maintain an optimal level of good cholesterol.
In addition to reducing risk for chronic disease, working out regularly can also help improve your sex life. When you feel better in your body, which happens when you are active and engaging in activities that make you happy, it can lead to better sex and physical intimacy. Regular exercise may enhance arousal for women and reduce erectile dysfunction for men (Mayo Clinic 2020a).
This pandemic has made it hard for people to sleep, but regular exercise can also help with that.
“Typically, regular exercise will help with sleep quality. There are studies that show that certain types of physical activity improve sleep quality and duration,” said Meeta Singh, MD, board-certified physician focusing on the applied science of sleep. “Regular moderate exercise will help you fall asleep faster and sleep longer, as well as improve quality of sleep – in fact, there is even some data to show it helps with people who have poor sleep.”
However, type of exercise, when you do it and for how long can make a difference.
“For example, aerobic workouts in the mornings help with better sleep. Yoga and stretching exercises in the evening will help the winding down process to help you sleep,” Singh said. “If you do a strenuous workout closer to your bedtime (within 2 or 3 hours), that may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Again, this is different for different people.”
Benefits for the Mood and Mind
If better sex, sleep and mood hasn’t made you want to plan a workout routine, maybe learning about the relationship between exercise and mental health may convince you. Mental health is a general term referring to our mood, ability to cope and connect with others – and how that can influence our feelings, like happiness. Mental illness is a condition that is diagnosed by a medical professional. Treatments for mental illness include prescription medication, talk therapy, and other modalities. However, exercise can benefit people’s mental health and how they manage their mental illness.
If you suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental illness, exercise can help release some mood-boosting hormones like serotonin and dopamine. When exercise is used as part of clinical treatment of mental illness, people experience reduction in psychiatric symptoms, better quality of life and health outcomes (like biomarkers for cardiovascular and metabolic health). For example, if you have depression and/or schizophrenia, you can reduce current depressive symptoms by integrating exercise into your routine or increasing your level of exercise (Stubbs & Rosenbaum, 2018). But how long do you have to work out to reap the benefits? These studies used the exercise guidelines for exercise type (cardio, weight training) and duration mentioned earlier in this article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
An additional thing to note is that it’s important to find a type of exercise, format and pace that works for you. Some people like slower-paced workouts like yoga and tai chi that allow them to connect with their breath and nature – whereas some people want their workouts to energize and pump them up.
“I personally enjoy studio classes where I am instructed to work out with fun choreography and music,” Rohrer said. “The time goes by so fast; I get to work out with energetic people, and it’s one hour out of my day. I feel so much better after a workout mentally.”
Benefits for the Spirit
Grounding yourself has become more important than ever it seems, especially during a global pandemic where tensions and stressors are running high. Establishing a routine that you can go back to during tough times will help alleviate some stress and help you better manage strong emotions.
Working out early in the morning can help you set the tone for a productive day. For many people, they have found that working out in the mornings means less distractions from work, children or pets. If you have a hard time waking up early, setting out your gym clothes and necessary equipment the night before can help make things easy. If you like to exercise after work or in the evening, make sure you to do so about 90 minutes after eating – glucose levels in the blood reach their peak around this time (Cleveland Clinic, 2018). If you are planning to exercise before bedtime, make sure you do so 90 minutes before you drift off to sleep (Nunez, 2020). Working out too close to bedtime can leave you feeling energized and make it hard to sleep. Regardless of the time of day you like to work out, scheduling a workout like you would a doctor’s appointment or meeting can help you stick with your goals.
Regular exercise can benefit your body, mind, spirit, sex life, sleep and mood. Setting concrete goals with a deadline attached to each goal can help keep you organized and accountable. During the pandemic, many things have felt out of our control. However, one thing you’ll always have control over is using physical activity to pursue a healthier lifestyle.
Author Bio: Nicki Karimpour, PHD
Contributor and Health Advisor
Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and almost a decade of experience in teaching health writing, public health, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California as a director of communications and clinical research. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD
Bowman, J., Mogensen, L., Marsland, E., & Hons, N.L. (2015). The development, content validity and inter‐rater reliability of the SMART‐Goal Evaluation Method: A standardised method for evaluating clinical goals. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 62(6), 420-427.
Cleveland Clinic (2018). Glucose Control: Why Timing Your Exercise After Meals Matters. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/exercise-and-your-glucose-levels-does-timing-make-a-difference/
Matthews, G. (2020). Goals Research Summary. Retrieved from https://www.dominican.edu/sites/default/files/2020-02/gailmatthews-harvard-goals-researchsummary.pdf
Mayo Clinic (2020a). Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389
Mayo Clinic (2020b). Triglycerides: Why do they matter? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/triglycerides/art-20048186
Nunez, K. (2020). Can Exercising Before Bed Affect Your Sleep? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/working-out-before-bed#research-findings
Stubbs, B. and Rosenbaum, S. (2018). Exercise-Based Interventions for Mental Illness: Physical Activity As Part Of Clinical Treatment. San Diego: Elsevier.
United States Department of Health & Human Services (2015). Nutrition & Fitness. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/programs/prevention-and-wellness/nutrition-and-fitness/index.html