She looked at me and said, “I know I need to work on my abs. And my arms, they’re so flabby. Look at this. (Jiggles arms.) And my inner thighs. Actually, just all of it. My whole body needs to change, I’m not even close to where I know I should be. (Awkward laugh.)”
I had just started with a new private training client. Sitting in her living room, I had asked, “What are your goals as we work together?” Her answer wasn’t an uncommon one. As a fitness trainer, when I ask about my clients’ goals, they usually go straight to telling me the places on their bodies they hate.
I was tired of hearing people list everything they hated about their bodies. But I wasn’t just tired of it, I felt like asking the question this way was actually harming my clients’ self-image and ability to achieve results. So when I recently started with a different client, I asked this instead,
“What’s the strongest part of your body?”
She opened her mouth to tell me. Then stopped. Then laughed and, after a few considered moments, said, “You know I guess my legs? Yeah, I think my legs are pretty strong.”
“Great!” I said. “Let’s start there.”
In the wellness space, we are often looking at our goals as ways to fix a broken, unideal body. But, as any trainer or coach will tell you, focusing on what you hate is a never-ending and ineffective spiral. Our brains are wired to take the easiest neural pathway from point A to point B, so the more we reiterate what we hate about our bodies, the more that becomes our brain’s default setting, the less inspired we are to endure, take risks and stay committed. And naturally, the less change we see in our bodies.
So when it comes to goal-setting for our health, how can we switch up the neural pathway to support a more possibility-centered plan?
1. Start with your strengths.
Our bodies are incredible contraptions. So often we’re fixated on what they don’t do well that we forget they’re mostly nailing it. Pick out a few strengths in your body and start working there. For my client who said her legs were her strongest part of her body, we could use lunges or plyometrics (which require leg strength and power) to connect to her core. Maybe her core is weak, but creating the connection between her weaker and stronger muscles will not only functionally help her, it’ll remind her that her goals are not as out of reach as she thinks.
2. Focus on alignment, not speed.
When we are physically aligned, our bodies can avoid injury and they’re able to function at their highest capacity. And everyone knows it’s better to be aligned in the right form and go slow than to hustle through movements, wrenching your body around, just to get through exercises faster. So take that principle all the way through your wellness plan. Your health is not a race to a finish line, but a daily commitment to a lifestyle of vitality and happiness. When you create goals, align them with what feels right. Instead of starving yourself to drop water weight fast and see the scale go down, nourish yourself with the energy your body naturally wants. Give up metrics like your overall weight for metrics like, do I feel good when I eat this? Am I fueling myself with energy or depleting my ability to stay energized? Would it feel good for my body to move right now?
3. Practice presence through discomfort.
It seems counterintuitive because goal-setting is about the future, but huge changes always happen in the present. Whether it’s staying in your plank for four extra counts or choosing a breakfast that fuels your day, your ability to make the best choice is grounded by your presence. Creating fitness goals means you’re actively choosing a state of discomfort from time to time. Discomfort isn’t a bad thing. It’s the springboard for every change you make. So when you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable in your workout, instead of running from it, could you attend to it with your presence? Could you think about its qualities—where do I feel discomfort, what’s the sensation, is it burning, could I stay here a few more moments? Your ability to stay is your ability to change.
When we come at our goals this way, our sense of possibility opens up. And when that happens, we are much more likely to stick to our plan. There’s nothing to glorify about berating our bodies and ourselves. To truly make the changes we want, in mind, body and spirit, let’s start with what’s working and build the possibilities from there.