Sport and Exercise Psychology is often at the forefront of cutting edge elite sport, helping athletes create a personal tool box and skill set to enable them to unlock their individual physical and psychological potential within their specific sport and in their daily life facing the pressure that is a part of being an elite athlete. However, with the focus on elite or high level sporting achievements, the ‘exercise’ category often gets left behind in the wake. Sport and Exercise Psychologists may assist amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts with unlocking their physical and psychological potential. This article aims to address the issues associated with New Year’s fitness resolutions and why, in most cases, they are setting up for failure before they have even started. Using concepts commonly used in Sport Psychology and straight forward thinking (which is sometimes not so common), the article aims to assist the ‘average Joe’ with setting effective fitness resolutions that avoid the common mistakes most people make through looking at the issue through the eyes of  Sport and Exercise Psychology.

TIME magazine named the joint goals of losing weight and getting fit as the most commonly broken New Year’s resolution (TIME.com, 2011). New Year ’s Day comes and goes and unfortunately, so does your enthusiasm for the ‘new you’. Adherence to such programs is challenging to maintain and comes with an associative success of 64% past one month (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2012). However, this reaches a substantial drop off when we reach the spring milestone with approximately 50% dropping out by the 6 month milestone (Tudor-Locke & Chan, 2006). Furthermore research has shown that adherence to such programs at the 12 month milestone is approximately 8% (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2012). This substantial drop-out rate may be attributable to a variety of reasons including unrealistic goals, trying to accomplish the goal to fast, a lack of measuring or monitoring the goal, lack of celebrating milestones, not having fun a lack of time and other pre-existing commitments such as social or work related events.

Getting motivation and keeping it!

Most people view lack of exercise as a motivational problem, therefore the issue needs to addressed is to create and facilitate that ‘missing’ motivation.  However, research has shown that it is not the lack of motivation that acts as a deterrent to exercise, but rather counter-motivations that prevent an individual from exercise participation (Richetin, Conner & Perugini, 2011). These may include such excuses as trying to get more done at work, avoiding anticipated pain or fatigue and wanting to spend more time with friends and/or family, the same excuses that appear time and time again. When people are asked to predict how much exercise they will do in the next month, they automatically base their answers on an idea world (Tanner & Carlson, 2009) and when researchers followed up with would-be exercisers to find out how much they actually worked out, the reality was far less than predicted. Therefore thinking about you goal and planning how you are going to do it is just as important as thinking of the obstacles that will prevent you from pursuing your goal. Try to make your gym plans fit around your social, work and life commitments, not the other way around. If you have a very limited time for the gym on one day than you would have on a normal day you should still make the effort to go to the gym, remember 30 minutes is better than not going at all.

 5 stages of change

Commencing a new lifestyle choice is not just about making plans, having the intentions and telling people that you are going to change. You have lived the lifestyle and made the plans you made in the previous year due to your behaviour “We are creatures of habit”. Habits are powerful with approximately 40% of daily actions being habits, not decisions (Wood, Quinn & Kashy, 200). Therefore if you are to have a good chance of success with your new found motivation and resolution, you need to change your behaviour towards how you actually want to behave and be consciously aware of avoiding slipping into these ‘old habits’. Readiness to change is a predictable process that happens in five interactive stages, known as the Transtheoretical Model of behaviour change (Norcross, Krebs & Prochaska, 2011). Each stage reflects a person’s perceptions of his or her current health behaviours and the person’s motivations to change in the future (Ashworth, 1997). The Transtheoretical Model of behaviour change (Norcross, Krebs & Prochaska, 2011) explicitly outlines these five stages demonstrated in the bullet points below:

  1. Precontemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

Chances are that you are able to identify your current stage from the description and the fact that you are reading this article with the hope of application to your own goals suggests that you are in the precontemplation or action stage, or maybe even in transition or regression between these two stages. The most successful new year’s resolution makers will begin January in Stage 4 (Action), therefore already actively changing their behaviour. But in most cases, individuals start the year in stages 2 (Contemplation) or 3 (Preparation) (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys, 2002). Thus, identifying the stage that you are at when you begin to think of your resolution mid-December, may give you an action plan to work towards and you may wish to start planning and writing down a regimen (using the guidelines in goal setting discussed below) that will allow you to successfully begin the new year in stage 4. The same process may actually be useful with a new found fitness motivation within the year. Set yourself a date that you will start, and work through the stages in order to be fully prepared to begin your exercise program on this specified date.

Goal Setting: Why intentions aren’t enough

When the 1st of January or the day you have set to begin your new resolution hits, simply having the intention to start with the idea that “I want to get fit” or “I will exercise more” is not enough. Research shows that setting action intentions (saying exactly what you are going to do to meet you goals) increases peoples success rate (Sheeran, 2002). Thus, you should break this overall goal down into smaller, more manageable goals and counterparts that are specific to how you are going to get fit. These counterparts may include:

Specific:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Specific reasons, purpose of benefits of accomplishing the goal
  • What is involved?
  • Identify requirements and constraints

Measureable:

  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How will I know when it is accomplished?

If the goal is not measureable, it is not possible to know whether you are making progress towards a successful completion. Measuring aids staying on track, reaching target dates and increases motivation through knowledge of achieving your smaller goals.

Attainable: Is this goal realistic to what you can actually achieve in the set time frame? Goals that are extreme or out of reach may be considered meaningless as you work towards them. Attainable goals will usually answer the question ‘How can the goal be accomplished?’

Relevant: Are your smaller more manageable goals going to contribute to your overall goal? Is the training you are doing this week/month setting you up for meeting your goals for next week/month?

Time: What is the exact time frame that you will complete these smaller goals and the exact time that you want to reach your outcome goal?

This method is known as the SMART principle (Doran, 1981), you may also wish to include evaluation of your fitness program by looking at how you have improved and maybe increasing the intensity or frequency when you feel it is suitable to do so. In Sport and Exercise Psychology, goal setting is one of the most frequently used methods with athletes to break down large goals such as ‘Winning a gold medal at the next Olympic Games’ into smaller, much more manageable and measureable chunks. Sport and Exercise Psychologists break down goals into three distinct categories. These are as follows:

  1. Outcome goals: The overall, long term goal E.g. “Win a gold medal at the next Olympics” or “I want to lose weight and get fit this year”.
  2. Performance goals: Specify a level of achievement against a measureable standard rather than other competitors (Shaw et al, 2005) allowing an individual to see recorded objective improvements in weight, time/distance etc.
  3. Process goals: How we are going to get there (how it will be carried out). Specific processes that will aid the goal E.g. “Today I will cycle for 40 minutes at level 5 on the exercise bike”, “This week I will run 20 miles in total over 4 running sessions”, “I will go to the gym 4 times per week”.
Just as a note, with performance and process goals it is important that we remain focused on our own performance, also known as task orientated, opposed to ego orientated. Task orientated means that we are purely focused on the task that we are performing without comparison to others performance. An individual that is task orientated is solely focused on task mastery (purely focused on performing the technique to perfection) without comparison of their normative performance (1st, 2nd in the competition) to others, however individuals in this stage may compare their own personal bests (times or weight lifts) to their current performance with disregard to competitive placement (1st, 2nd or 3rd). Ego orientated individuals however are not focused on task mastery, but purely beating their competitors (with disregard to their own time or weight as long as they come first in the competition) and comparison of performance in relation to others. With reference to fitness resolutions, you may not be lifting the same weights or running as far as other gym members (especially if you are a beginner) but it is important that you stay task orientated with focus on your own performances and improvement without comparison to others. Ego orientation is associated with a lack of intrinsic (internal) motivation, therefore leading to larger motivational drop-out rate in sport. In relation to fitness resolutions, comparison to others through a state of ego orientation may be damaging to ones self-efficacy (self-confidence) when comparing new personal bests or improvements that you were initially pleased with.

Reward yourself!

Celebrating the milestones that you successfully meet is also an important factor in maintaining and staying on track. Positive reinforcement of a behaviour has shown to be beneficial in research exploring behaviour change time and time again (Skinner, 1948). A goal that is all work and no play is not going to be fun for you to work at and may actually increase the risk of relapse or throwing in the towel. Therefore when you hit a goal successfully, reward yourself! However, remember that this reward will be more beneficial and will keep you on track if it fits with your now found healthy lifestyle. E.g. If you have finally reached your goal of jogging 10 miles per week, reward yourself with a new pair of running trainers. If food rewards is more your style, make it a healthy snack instead of a Big Mac or overindulgent piece of chocolate fudge cake.

Flex your will power muscle!

One of the cornerstones for successful behaviour change is willpower, a learnable skill (Cartwright, 2012). Self-regulation or the ability to resist temptation such as skipping the gym or an exercise can be strengthened. However, like any muscle willpower requires energy to sustain its activity (Hoffman et al., 2012). Drastic changes such as an intense exercise regimen causes willpower fatigue. You may reserve your willpower by making small changes, so that maintenance of your exercise program and temptation to skip a day is easier to resist (Cartwright, 2012).

Be prepared for relapses!

Resolutions normally meet their demise with the first relapse. Drastic changes and life events decrease will power, therefore facilitating drop-out from your resolution. Be prepared for relapses, they happen! It’s how you deal with them that counts. The way to proactively deal with this issue is firstly not to start too severely, ease into your resolution and increase the intensity with time and progress. Secondly, when you reach a relapse stage, instead of throwing in the towel, look at the reasons for the relapse. Did you start too severely? Did you set unachievable goals? Did barriers that you did not anticipate when formulating your plans stop you from achieving your goal? Knowledge of why you relapsed if the key to driving forward and starting again, planning for the problems that you encountered first time. Remember, slow progress is still progress!

Tips for a successful change

  • Social Aids: Exercise with a training partner. Use friend groups to let them know about your success or use them for support when you didn’t meet a goal.
  • Self-Monitor- Use a training diary to write down your progress, accomplishments and even thoughts and emotions that you can revisit for support, or compare your performances to your past ones.
  • Write it down! Write down your long term (outcome), mid-term and short term (process) goals. This will make them concrete and less likely to change as times get hard. You may wish to put them on the fridge to make them visible or tick them off as you complete them.
  • Use reminders- Simple things such as placing your running trainers near the door can act as cues to remind you to exercise.
  • Use the SMART principle- Remember Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant/Realistic and Time.
  • Use effective goal setting- Remember Process, Performance and Outcome goals.
  • Reward yourself- But remember to be healthy
  • Prepare for relapses- Think why you didn’t achieve your goal and amend your regimen.
  • Give it time, it’s not going to happen overnight! Most resolution makers give up too early, persistence is crucial (Duhigg, 2012). When times get hard, you may wish to refer to emotions or performances recorded in your training diary or talk about it with a training partner or friend for support.