I get worried, however, when I hear about the money, sweat and enthusiasm people are investing in outsized fitness goals—say, a marathon veteran working to trim two hours off her marathon time, or someone trying to go from couch-condition to super athlete in a few weeks. Many people are led to believe that they can succeed at anything they put their mind to, if only they want it badly enough.
Goals are key. They can play a significant role in your getting out the door every day to exercise. You need to harness that motivation in your quest for fitness. Your brain holds a great deal of power over exaggerating or minimizing the way you experience training. You often see this in top athletes: At the end of a grueling event, when everyone is exhausted, something happens that motivates them, and they are suddenly fresh and able to take off with renewed power. This shows how dramatically your brain can modulate the way you feel fatigue and other sensations. But it's crucial that your goals work in tandem with reality and that they do not inadvertently thwart your efforts by handing you disappointments instead. Here are some guidelines.
- If your purpose is to excel at a certain sport, and you have been at it for some time with little improvement, you may have already topped out. If so, concentrate on sharpening components of your performance—your muscular endurance, skills, flexibility, nutrition and mental focus; carefully plot your training and tapering; or work on achieving a personal best.
- If you're new to exercise this summer, you may discover steady improvement, but if your improvement isn't as fast or dramatic as you hope, don't give up. People often stop exercising even when they do improve or lose weight because they were hoping they would get even faster or lose even more weight. In other words, they cease their quest for fitness not because they aren't achieving it, but because they aren't achieving some unrealistic ideal of it. So along the way, remember that any improvement is improvement.
- Likewise, keep a clear head about what to expect regarding physical changes to your body. A person who gets fit does not look like the people in the "after" pictures in the fitness advertisements so ubiquitous this time of year. Many people who have never been exposed to the science of fitness expect real fitness to look like the images used in the marketing of fitness. Models used to market fitness products look that good only with the benefit of special lighting, makeup, airbrushing and other effects.
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.