We’re huge fans of health goals such as running a marathon or losing 50 pounds, especially when those milestones are achieved healthfully. And because a humongous goal is, well, so humongous, it probably will trigger a cascade of other healthy habits. When people feel the effects of a significant health change, they typically don’t want to return to an unhealthy state. So we say think big!
It helps to have a strategy for any sweeping goal. No matter what yours is, this seven-step plan will help you stay on track.
Step 1: Identify why you really want to achieve this goal and home in on the benefits.
Knowing all of your whys will help you tap a powerful well of motivation. Let’s say you want to run a marathon. Maybe the impetus is to cross it off your bucket list. Great, but dig a little deeper: Maybe you’ve reached middle age and want to prove you’ve still got it; that’s a stronger motivator than just crossing something off a list, right?
Now go further. Being in shape to run a marathon means you will lower your blood pressure so you can possibly get off of (or reduce) the BP meds that tire you. Or let’s say you need to lose 50 pounds. You may initially want to lighten up so you feel confident enough to attract a mate. That’s a concrete, important reason, but keep going. You also won’t have as much joint pain, you’ll be able to play tennis again, and so on.
And most important, you’ll have more energy. We can’t emphasize this enough: A boost in energy is the mother of all motivators. Ask folks who have run marathons, lost a load of weight or attained any life-altering health goal, and they usually say they have more of that pep-in-your-step zip—translating into confidence and a love of life. Yes, some may say that their clothes fit better. Some may say that their sex life is hotter. But most rave about feeling better, plus having a greater passion for life as well as the fuel and spark to act on that passion.
So let all your whys—the low-hanging-fruit reasons like bragging rights (they’re very important), the concrete ones (fitting into your clothes better), the ineffable ones (confidence) and especially the lure of energy with a capital E—serve as your caffeine to keep you going. Drink up.
Step 2: Do an honest risk assessment.
Ask yourself: Is the goal achievable? What are the risks? Are the risks worth it? How do I minimize them? This step isn’t about being pessimistic. It’s about being realistic and anticipating the pitfalls so you can tweak your goal to avoid those pitfalls.
Let’s take the marathon example again. It’s a fact that continuously doing physical exercise for more than two hours harms you—the constant pounding of the pavement with your feet, knees, hips and back takes its toll on your muscles, joints and immune system. But even if the marathon itself is unhealthy, training for it can be healthy if you’re smart: For example, vow to jog on a padded track and to keep training runs at two hours or less. If you want to run longer, break for an hour or more between the runs. Or let’s say you’re aiming for double-digit weight loss: You don’t want to hit your goal weight with an extreme, get-slim-quick plan that isn’t sustainable or nutritious. You want to follow a plan that teaches you to shed pounds in healthy, gradual ways that you can maintain for life and that incorporate exercise.
Step 3: Find a trusted source and plot out a plan.
This step holds hands with the previous: Avoiding the risks is easier when you have a pro at your side, and you’ll have a higher chance of achieving your goal if you follow a plan that’s proved successful for others. If you’re seeking a trusted source to prep for a marathon, consult someone such as exercise physiologist Tracy Hafen, whose private practice is New Jersey-based Affirmative Fitness. Her choice: HalHigdon.com, where you can find training advice and planning apps for everything from a 5K race to a full marathon for novices or experts. For weight loss, we’re biased of course, but we’d recommend YOU: On a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management.
Step 4: Plan for lapses.
Lapse is not a dirty word. If you don’t have lapses, you may not be challenging yourself enough. Here’s what Hafen says about marathon training and weight-loss plans: Build in lapse days the way school districts allow snow days. In other words, plan on having a few. Even if you don’t use them, at least you have ’em if you need ’em.
Building in downtime also encourages you to take care of yourself as you work toward your goal. If your body begs for a recovery day, heed the warning and rest. Symptoms include chronic pain that continues the day after you train, chronic fatigue, insomnia, a racing heart, or an increase in your resting heart rate—it should decrease during training. And don’t overtrain the next time to make up for a lapse.
Think of exercise lapses (or weight-loss plateaus) as planned pauses or detours. You’ll reach your goal if you resume your habits again. It’s just like brushing your teeth—you might miss one night, but you resume the next morning (we certainly hope so, anyway).
Step 5: Create a mantra that fits your goal.
Remember that all-important motivation from Step 1? Devise a mantra that encapsulates your most important why, and repeat it or view it daily. If you’re trying to quit smoking, maybe you can place a photo of your kids on your coffee mug to remind you that you want to be around for them. Or as inspiration to get up early and exercise, place a motto (“I deserve to feel good” or “If it challenges me, it changes me”) on your nightstand so you see it when you reach for the snooze button.
Step 6: Enlist your friends and family.
Any goal is easier to achieve when the whole team is on board, meaning co-workers, family and friends. Studies find that when people have social support, they stick with healthy habits longer than those who don’t have help. But your social circle can back you up only if you share your goal; otherwise, they could unknowingly sabotage you.
Trying to lose weight? Ask family members and co-workers not to offer you treats or snacks. If they want to celebrate a 10-pound loss, suggest new running shoes in lieu of dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. Recruit a friend to text you daily to keep you on track with your training, or ask your spouse to be that person you lean on when you crave a cigarette. If you’re trying to cut back on alcohol, ask friends and co-workers to swap happy hour at the bar for a movie or a hike.
Step 7: Get started.
You’ve done the planning, which will stack the deck in your favor, but you have to be in it to win it. So consider this your starting gun—see you at the finish line!
This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.