By: Bruce Burke

Why do so many people struggle to exercise regularly? My 30 years in the fitness industry have taught me that many people struggle because they don’t have a long-term focus. Short-term goals help you start exercise programs and cross specific hurdles, but to make fitness a part of your lifestyle you need to focus on the long-term goal of health.

Often, we come to exercise with short-term goals in mind. For example, losing weight is a popular fitness objective, and it’s a totally appropriate goal if you are overweight. But weight loss is a short-term goal: it has an endpoint. After all, sooner or later you will hit your predetermined goal weight or lose all the body fat there is to lose. Then what? Psychologically, you have “arrived,” and your motivation is likely to fade. We have seen this scenario play out many times over the years. People often regain the weight they lost initially, and they lose the other benefits that regular exercise had offered.

Another problem with using only short-term motivation is that slow progress may feel discouraging. If you are not losing weight as quickly as you had hoped, for example, you might lose your motivation and stop trying altogether. Relying solely on short-term motivation will not work forever.

The answer to these problems is to incorporate long-term motivation into your fitness practices. Specifically, we recommend focusing on the long-term health benefits of exercise. This focus is not only healthy and motivating, it also makes it easier to achieve your short-term goals along the way. Here are just a few of the reasons we recommend focusing on the long-term goal of health:

  •  It has no endpoint. Proactively managing your health is an ongoing process. You will enjoy results along the way as a positive consequence of this process, but you are never “done” being healthy.
  •  It is hard to fail. Even though you are never done, it is also difficult to fail at being healthy. When you are focused on the process (rather than the outcome), issues such as not losing weight quickly disappear. We all experience setbacks and stumbling blocks, but with your long-term goal in mind those discouragements don’t need to end your healthy living.
  • It is motivating! For most of us, healthy long-term objectives like staying fit and being good role models for those we love have more staying power than short-term objectives. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight for your high school reunion, or to fit into a pair of old jeans—but those motivations pale in comparison to the lifelong health benefits offered by staying fit, active, and healthy.

Short-term goals are not “bad” at all; in fact, they’re important ways to help us overcome boredom, challenge ourselves, and introduce new practices. I am simply suggesting that your main objective should be the most important and have the most staying power. It’s easy to confuse short-term motivation with long-term motivation, but the distinction is important. Re-focusing on main objectives will put the short-term goals in perspective: if you are healthy, most of them will take care of themselves over time.

This week, think about your answer to the question “Why do you exercise?” And make sure that your answers line up with reasonable, healthy, long-term goals, as well as short-term ones.

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