Stepping stones to summer, lifetime of fitness

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Editor's note: "Focus on Fitness" is a new feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

T Department of Health and Human Services recently issued a report recommending that adults do muscle-strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week. That's on top of at least 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of vigorous) aerobic activity per week, as well as balance and flexibility exercises.

Easier recommended than done. The warmer weather may draw out your inner athlete, but staying motivated day in and day out can be tough. When your motivation dries up, one small and surprisingly mundane change can work wonders: setting incremental goals.

Exercise ambitions can be very compelling -- when, say, you want to get back into your favorite jeans after having a baby, or you aim to lose that midlife spare tire before your class reunion. Big aspirations can be big motivators. But I'm talking about the power of miniscule goals, goals that serve as stepping stones to ensure you are making progress toward your overarching goal.

The key is to choose targets that will elucidate any tiny increments of improved fitness you may not otherwise notice. Also, avoid goals having to do with competing with someone else, at least in the beginning and intermediate phases of your fitness experience. Losing more weight than your neighbor, for example, or trying to run more stadium bleachers than your training buddy might be very motivating, but scientifically you cannot gauge your improvement by pitting yourself against someone else. And because competitive goals can't effectively measure your progress, they won't give you the same bump you'll derive from goals that are mileposts along the road to your major goal. With competitive goals, you may also fail to notice (and adjust) things that aren't working for you, or you may not push yourself to new limits.

Here are some incremental goals that may propel you toward your big goals down the road:

* If you're a beginner, pace yourself during each phase of your workout so that you can finish or feel good at the end of each workout.

* If you're of mid-range fitness, focus on you competing with yourself. For example, you might want to choose a workout that is now difficult for you and work toward the goal of being able to do it with ease.

As a beginning or an intermediate athlete, you may find yourself getting discouraged because you do not have a sense of your limits. You may expend too much energy at the beginning of your workout and then hit a barrier later, because you don't quite know when you're going to run out of gas.

If you concentrate on pacing yourself, after a few workouts you'll know how far to go in the first 5, 10, 15 minutes, and throughout your workout so that you will be able to make it to the end. You will be able to ascertain your level of fatigue within the workout and gain control over it. Before long, you'll be able to say, "I can do it anytime I want -- I own that workout."

If you are advanced, participate in a specific event. To continue your development as an athlete, the logical progression is to feel comfortable putting yourself with a group of people who exercise and feel good about it. One of the best ways to do that is to participate in an event. The event need not be competitive. It can be a local 5K or 10K walk, a fund-raising ride or a community team. Participating in an event is an important step in your physical improvement, a true leap to feeling even more comfortable in your role as athlete.

Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit www.fasterbetterstronger.com .



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