Fitness resolutions are fraught with mistakes that cause many of us to ‘fall off the wagon’ or declare failure by February. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Hit your new year fitness goals with these science-based hacks.
If you’ve ever set a new year fitness goal and fallen off the wagon by February, you’re in good company. Failure rates for new year’s health resolutions are estimated to be as high as 80 per cent. In fact, it’s a wonder any of us continue to make them. Yet somehow many of us manage to conveniently forget what happened last time and set ourselves up to repeat the cycle. Foolish? It depends whether you reflect on factors involved in past failures and incorporate your learning into your new attempt (you know the quote, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’?). If you’re ready to change your relationship with new year’s fitness resolutions, keep reading.
Why fitness resolutions fail
There are myriad physical, psychological and practical reasons why fitness resolutions fail – from flagging motivation to lack of time and pain, discomfort or injury. However, broadly, failure factors tend to fall into two categories: planning and execution. The former relates to setting goals and strategically planning to achieve them. The latter pertains to the implementation. Each of these stages can be a minefield of common mistakes that catch many of us off guard or leave us baffled as to what went wrong.
So what DID go wrong (or might go wrong)?
Your goals were out of synch with your true desires (for instance, you felt obligated to lose weight but weren’t intrinsically motivated). Your goals were disconnected from your physical abilities or strengths (if you’re a sprinter with fast-twitch muscle fibres, endurance running or marathons mightn’t be much fun). Your goals were unrealistic, setting you up for disappointment at your lack of progress or accomplishment (cue throwing in the towel). Your goals disagreed with your lifestyle, making it difficult to maintain your regimen. You overlooked the mechanisms of motivation, which inevitably involves periods of returning to earlier stages (two steps forward, one step back), causing you to confuse a setback with terminal failure and quit. These and other missteps can largely be prevented by setting SMART goals, as discussed in our psychology post on making resolutions that stick.
You went too hard, too fast and incurred pain or injury. You did the same workout every day, leading to boredom, lack of progress or both. You made mistakes with technique or form and failed to progress as expected. You started out well but hit a plateau, causing you to push yourself too hard and burn out physically or mentally, or prompting you to simply give up (what’s the point?). You bypassed preparation such as investing in suitable apparel and equipment. You failed to make sessions a priority by scheduling them (so you ‘forgot’ to wash your workout clothes or take your gear to work and couldn’t work out, leading to an inconsistent exercise schedule). You decided to ‘wing it’ and design your own workouts without consulting a sports physiotherapist, exercise physiologist or personal trainer, who could tailor your activity to your goals. Familiar?
Keep it simple
If the interplay of physical and mental factors sounds complex, it is. Paradoxically, it’s simpler than it might seem. Basically, many ‘mistakes’ in both planning and implementation create a negative Domino effect. For instance, setting overly ambitious goals pretty well guarantees that you will soon confront your own failure, which may cause you to train harder or more frequently in an attempt to ‘fix it’. This may lead to physical and/or psychological burnout. Bye bye, resolution. Which is good news, because the flip side is that you can create a positive Domino effect that promotes factors towards success (without applying overt effort to each factor). If you’re ready to set in motion a cascade of success, consider these ‘hacks’.
1. Vary your routine
Once you’re in a routine, it can be tempting to cling to the same workout. After all, you’ve mastered this machine and that technique. Plus, it makes sense that the more you do the same thing, the better you’ll get at it, right? Not quite. Doing the same workout day in, day out is likely to result in slowed or stalled progress or a ‘plateau’ (that is, you’ll stop seeing results, which may undermine motivation or cause you to push beyond your limits, resulting in over-training and inadequate recovery that further impede progress). Why does this happen? Adaptation. That is, your body adapts to certain activities or movements, becoming more efficient, which means the processes that enabled gains in strength or speed or endurance are dialled down. Depending on your fitness goals, a rule of thumb is to change up your workout routine every two to five weeks. As a positive knock-on effect, this also prevents boredom and apathy and promotes sustained motivation. Between ‘change-ups’, incorporate variety by adding different techniques to your workout program – think supersets, circuit training and HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
2. Go easy
Fitness is often associated with a gung-ho ‘go hard or go home’ mentality. However, this is actually self-defeating. Doing too much in a bid to attain faster results is often false economy. In fact, over-training is one of the main enemies of successful fitness resolutions. Why? The effects of over-training make it difficult or impossible to maintain optimal training. Form is compromised, which means exercises fail to achieve what they should when performed correctly. Other effects such as joint and muscle pain, fatigue and depleted energy may force time-outs or reduced training that effectively delay results. Along with regulating training frequency and demands, it is important to factor in recovery periods (or rest days). Without this, your body can’t rebuild and repair muscle tissue, which is a key factor in achieving optimal results. Relatedly, to work optimally, your fitness resolution needs to be supported by adequate, good-quality sleep. Sleep enables the body to dedicate resources to repair and recovery and growth. (Yes, some of your ‘progress’ may occur while you’re snoozing.)
3. Track yourself
What’s the point of setting goals if you’re not keeping tabs on whether your workout program is advancing you towards achieving them? Regular evaluation can reveal what is working as well as what isn’t, providing opportunities to tweak your routine early (rather than blindly continuing with something that isn’t working or isn’t working as expected). Of course, evaluation requires data. To capture the interplay of success factors we’ve discussed, make a habit of keeping a fitness diary, not only to record how many sets and reps you did on Wednesday, but to document associated factors such as nutrition and sleep and the effects of specific conditions (for instance, a workout in which you became fatigued earlier than expected may be explained by missing lunch or a poor night’s sleep). As far as monitoring exercise, for cardio, record intensity, distance and duration. For strength work, record the exercise performed, the weight load and your sets, repetitions and periods. In addition, make a note of how you felt after each workout. Review your fitness log weekly and try to identify both positive and negative patterns or links and make adjustments accordingly.
This is just a snapshot of considerations we recommend taking into account when embarking on a fitness regimen. Remember to jump over to our how-to for ‘oops-proof’ goal-setting. If you are embarking on a new year fitness blitz, consider consulting a physiotherapist, who can provide personally tailored advice for fitness goal-setting and implementation.