The Real Reason Why Fitness Goals Are So Hard (And It's Not What You Think It Is)

A lot of us have a habit we want to change; a goal we want to accomplish.

And, there isn’t a shortage of positive thinking, quotes, and ra-ra motivational resources available to you today.

But we all know from experience that there is no shortcut, instant download or immediate solution to achieving a goal. This is especially true when it comes to fitness goals.

If you’ve struggled to make a fitness goal a reality, the song on loop in your mind probably hums to the beat of “Why is it that I can’t follow through on a goal that I feel like I want to accomplish?” 

If you can relate to that, you’re not alone in the conflict.

In fact, research suggest that 73% of all people who set fitness goals during the beginning of the year soon jump ship and abandon them all together.

Conventional advice gets tossed around and sounds like “Stop being lazy and get a trainer,” or “cut out all sugar and don’t even think about pizza, ice cream or pancakes for the next eight weeks.”

While the intentions are probably good, the advice is sterile at best and damaging at worst.

The statistics tell us that people have a goal (at least an intention) of making fitness a habit they practice regularly. About 131,700,000 people invest in gym memberships, but 67% of that group don’t actually go to the gym.

So if the goal of wanting to make fitness is a habit isn’t the issue, what’s the bottleneck?

Here’s the problem: A health and fitness goal is a prevention goal. But society has framed it as a promotion goal. 

You know you should workout. And you have always had a goal of doing so. But some reason, for the majority of your life, you haven’t been able to make exercising a regular habit.

You’ve probably left a wake of unused gym passes in your past, spent more money than you’d like to admit on exercise books, accumulated home-gym equipment that now serves as a tool to hang clothes on, and have piled up a nice collection of DVD’s that collect dust under your entertainment center.

If that sounds like you, the focus of your goal doesn’t fit the kind of goal you’re pursuing. Let’s look at why this is and provide you with a few simple strategies to get you on track and finally make fitness a part of your daily routine.



Promotion Goals vs. Prevention Goals

With a promotion goal – you are aiming for achievement – your main goal is to gain something. With a prevention goal – you are searching for safety – your main goal is to prevent negative things from happening.

While both types of goals serve us well for different situations, here’s why it makes fitness goals so hard to keep and actually follow through on.

Most of the advertising and marketing surrounding the fitness industry chokes you into a promotion goal. Meaning, you set your eyes on gaining something if you do this training program or follow this diet.

For example, you’ve probably bought a program, hired a trainer, or paid a nutritionist with a hope that if you followed the program or ate what they diet instructed you to eat, you would get six pack abs, your deadlift would increase by 20% or those size 31 jeans would fit again.

Immediately, you’ve been sucked into a promotion goal.

Your paramount desire is to gain something from the actions you take. But the problem with this strategy is one that you’ve have probably overlooked too many times (I’ve been guilty too).

In her book Succeed, psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson demonstrates that promotion goals are best leveraged when the task before you is easy and familiar.

The statistics tell us that easy and familiar are hardly the terms used for people who struggle to make fitness a part of their daily routine.

But the focus of a promotion goal (which is the one most often used in fitness) fosters a mindset that assumes that the process is easy and familiar, when clearly, it isn’t.

This is where discouragement makes a home for itself. And it’s also the beginning of a lot of frustration, and often times leads you to quit all together.

Using a promotion goal mindset to achieve a fitness goal also relies on emotional motivation. You’re likely to take action only when you’re energized and excited. Eagerness drives your behavior.

But how many days in a row can you be fired up about going to the gym? What happens when you have to work late? What happens when the kid stays home from school sick? What do you do when #Netflixandchill sounds a lot better than doing burpees?

It leaves you vulnerable in the times when you need to do the things you should do, but fail to because you don’t feel like doing them.

With prevention goals, the driving force is seeking safety and security. In the pursuit, your aim is to stay clear of danger. In the context of health and fitness, prevention goals are far more powerful for establishing a behavior and achieving a goal.

For example, you may notice that a man turns into a monument of physical excellence (by changing his behavior with working out and eating well) after the doctors told him that his type 2 diabetes has caused him to be impotent – in other words, figuratively castrated.

It’s the same reason why a women will never drive through Wendy’s again after she’s had triple bypass surgery.

It’s what drives the overweight kid who has weathered the jokes and humiliation all his life and then becomes a personal trainer to help others prevent the same struggle.

All of these situations were grounded in prevention goals – they all were driven to steer clear of danger – thus, the goal had a much more powerful meaning. They were compelled, not pushed.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to advertise and market harsh, or even life or death situations in the fitness industry. It’s a lot easier to sell the “bomb and blitz” training program with the “shredded in 10 days” diet than it is to convince someone that in 10 years they might need heart surgery.


Understanding Failure

The reason why fitness goals are so hard is because we often don’t understand how failing impacts our behavior.

When you fail at a promotion goal, you feel unhappy. You might even feel a little despondent. It’s like when a kid doesn’t sink any basketball shots at the carnival – and thus, he doesn’t get his prize – then walks around the whole day hanging his head. It’s discomforting for sure, but it’s a low-energy inconvenience.

However when you fail at a prevention goal, it means danger. Something is seriously not right. It’s like when you find an unconditional quit notice on your front door.  It’s when your left arm goes numb and you have to call 911. Like the failure of a promotion goal, it’s discomforting, but this is a high-stress, anxiety filled problem.

When you fail at a promotion goal, you’ll bounce back. It may take a few weekends of staying in your pajamas all day while ordering pizza for sustenance, but you’ll be fine.

When you fail at a prevention goal, some serious consequences are at stake. In some cases, it’s life or death.

In regards to a fitness goal, it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much if you achieve it or not. So what if you miss a workout or eat the whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s? You’re not going to die and you probably won’t get fired from your job.

The consequences of failing to do what you should do to achieve your fitness goals are likely not life or death.

When you pair this reality with the fact that the focus of your goal is grounded in promotion (to gain something), it makes a fitness goal even less powerful.

This is why a fitness goal feels like paddling a rowboat upstream of a flooding river. They are extremely hard to stick to because there isn’t much at stake in the immediate term.

So if you have intentions of sticking to your fitness goals this leaves you with two options:

  1. Put yourself in a life or death situation
  2. Use the fitness goals made simple template below


How To Make Fitness Goals Simple (Even If You’re Not in a Life or Death Situation)

The issue is that most people aren’t or won’t be in a life or death situation when it comes to health and fitness.

Even though being in that situation offers the highest probability of behavior change, it’s simply absurd to tell someone to intentionally eat themselves into type 2 diabetes.

I don’t predict that the media will be shifting the focus on their marketing anytime soon either. Meaning, fitness goals will largely be promotion based forever.

So instead of voluntarily putting yourself in a dangerous situation or wrestling with the idea of turning a promotion goal into a prevention goal, it’s far more practical and less mentally taxing doing it this way:


Master the “What” Goal First

I’ll admit, I use to be a fan of knowing your why goals first. Meaning, establishing the reasons why you are pursuing the goal anyway.

Tapping into your why goal influences thoughts like:

  • By getting into shape, I can finally feel confident when I look in the mirror.
  • By making fitness a part of my daily routine, I’ll have the energy to play with my kids when I get home from work.
  • By accomplishing my fitness goal, I’ll have the endurance to do my best work and contribute to my project at work.

These are good intentions and they usually energize you. However, even though these are all good intentions, they cause you to fantasize about the future, paying little attention to what you actually need to do to make those things happen.

Ruminating on your why causes you to fantasize to much.

Jeremy Dean, a psychological researcher at UCL London and the owner of PsyBlog says this:

The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However, they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation—after all, it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.

It’s one way in which our minds own brilliance lets us down. Because it’s so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events, it can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality.

So what should you do instead?

Be relentlessly focused on executing your what goals. What goals are the nuts and bolts of what you actually need to do. Here’s how you do it in three steps:

  • Determine what kind of training or exercise you need to do.
    • For most people, body transformation is the goal. And a strength based training program is the best way to do that. Find a strength coach who can teach you how to move well and design a training program that fits your needs.
  • Determine when you do your what goals.
    • Set specific days and times when you preform your strength training (more on this in a minute).
  • Determine how much training you need to do
    • Research suggest that those who accumulate five hours of exercise a week tend to get the best results and are thus happier with their fitness progression.


Internalize the “Why” Goal Second

Once you’ve mastered the what goal and you clearly understand what you need to do and you execute consistently, you can then internalize your why goal.

When you’re learning how to develop a new skill like eating well and moving properly in the gym, your physical, mental and emotional energy are all invested in learning the skill – and not on why eating well and moving properly are important to your lifestyle.

For example, if someone is trying to eat Cheerios with chopsticks for first time, they won’t be concentrating on how eating whole grain Cheerios is probably better than having a bear claw doughnut and a carpi-sun for breakfast.

They’re just focused on learning what they need to do in order to eat the cheerios most efficiently. Once they master the what goal (learning how to eat Cheerios with chopsticks) it becomes a lot easier to internalize the why goal (eating healthy will allow me to live longer and spend more time with my family).

Internalizing your why goal is tied to intrinsic motivation which is grounded in three aspects:

  • Relatedness Once you follow through on your what goals long enough, understanding your why goals make you feel connected. For instance, after you’ve spent time learning how to exercise (the what goal), you no longer have to invest mental energy into that skill- your movement pattern runs on autopilot. You then can focus on why it’s important that you exercise daily. Things like staying healthy so you can practice running routes with your son, being able to stay romantically involved with your spouse, and being a high performer at your job all become things that make you feel connected socially.
  • Competence Once you spend the time learning how to do anything, you feel more competent. It’s a universal desire among all of us. None of us want to feel or look stupid. Additionally, when you put the effort into becoming competent with your fitness, it fuels the fire to stay consistent with the habit. When you know what you’re doing, you’re far more likely to do it.
  • Autonomy When you’re given a choice to pursue your fitness goal, it proves to be much more effective. You see this concept with kids all the time. One minute they are completely enthralled with an activity, but once you tell them to do it, it’s comparable to pulling a wisdom tooth out. As adults, instead of yelling or breaking down into tears, we just harbor the resentment inside and dish out passive aggressive behavior. When it comes to fitness, it’s important that you protect your autonomy. Meaning, if you’re forced to do a certain program or routine and your freedom to choose is stripped away, you probably won’t last long. Even if you hire a trainer, make it a point that you want a few choices to choose from when it comes to program design.

Internalizing your why goal is no doubt very important. It’s the connective tissue that allows you to keep going when things get tough. But internalizing your why usually happens after you’ve mastered the what goal.



Set Fast Goals and Slow Goals

We live in a world where we want everything like yesterday. And when it comes to fitness, this couldn’t be truer, right?

I mean, people get frustrated and lose hope after 29 days when they’re trying to reverse nearly a decade of damage. The bottom line is that one workout or one meal isn’t going to change much. Hearing that is as inspiring as watching the grass grow.

But by having promotion goals be the guiding force in pursuing fitness goals, we become exclusively focused on a slow goal – one that takes time to mature – but expect it to happen quickly (a fast goal).

After repeated bouts against a false reality (the slow goal not happening quickly) you start to lose interest and enthusiasm fades like a Southwest sunset.

To be sure, slow goals are necessary. It’s the end destination of where you want to end up. Here are a few examples of slow goals:

  • Losing 40 pounds
  • Increasing my bench press by 60 pounds
  • Fitting into size 31 jeans (when you’re currently have a 38 inch waist)

We all know that slow goals can’t happen overnight or even quickly. By setting things that take time as a slow goal, you create some head-space – some breathing room mentally.

But it’s equally important to set some fast goals for two reasons. One, it satiates our hunger for immediate results. Two, it shifts the focus from the outcome (slow goal) to the behavior (fast goal). So instead of obsessing about your weight, you become obsessed about not missing a day at the gym.

Here are a few examples of fast goals:

  • I will workout Monday-Thursday at 5 p.m.
  • I will do 100 leg raises at the end of each workout.
  • I will hire a trainer tomorrow and have him keep me accountable at the end of each day by having me check in with him via email.

Fast goals allow you to complete and conquer tasks quickly. This builds confidence and momentum which is vital with fitness goals.

Set your slow goals and then put them on a shelf. After that, invest your energy into your fast goals, things you can do daily with measurable progress, that if done consistently over time, will put you in the best position to achieve your slow goal.



Automate Your Fitness

If you’re like most people, you probably want to know the one thing that has the biggest impact on your pull through rate of making fitness a habit.

Here it is:

In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers took 248 adults and measured how frequently people exercised over a 2–week period.

The first group was asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Before they left the instruction period, they were asked to read material that had nothing to do with fitness.

The second group were given the same instructions to keep track of their activity over the next two weeks. Then, they were given material to read that emphasized the benefits of exercise. In addition they were told that adults who make fitness a regular part of their daily routines have a lower risk of developing heart disease.

The third group was instructed in the same fashion; track their activity, and read material on the benefits of exercise. But they were also directed to develop a plan for when and where they would exercise. More specifically, they used this template:

During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

After two weeks the researchers found:

  1. The first group reported that they 38% exercised one time per week.
  2. The second group reported that 35% exercised one time per week.
  3. The third group reported that 91% exercised one time per week.

Simply by planning when and where you exercise skyrockets your pull through rate on actually exercising. You may have the best intentions, but without a specific plan, the statistics tell us you’re bound for failure. Automate your fitness and write down when and where you will exercise.

Here is an example you can fashion to fit your own needs:

Every week for the next three months, I will perform my strength training workouts on Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. at the Laguna Strength Lab.


Draft a Contingency Plan if Things Fall Apart

When life delivers a storm, the first thing to get trashed is your fitness habit.

But instead of writing off exercising all together when the babysitter can’t make it or when work keeps you late, you need to find a way to deal with the distractions and interruptions effectively.

Drafting a contingency plan is your shield against missed workouts.

Your ideal fitness routine will always be there when everything goes smoothly. But how often does everything go smoothly?


Let’s draft an example so you can plug it into your own life.

Your ideal fitness routine is going to the gym Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m., for 6o minutes at the Laguna Strength Lab.

But today, traffic is horrific, clients are breathing down your neck, you’ve put out more fires than you’d like to admit at work and little Cooper stayed home from school today because of the sniffles. And, you’ve got to get home and make dinner for everyone. That ideal option is out of the question.

However, by having a contingency plan, you can revert to the plan b workout. If you’re into templates (like I am), then this is what the contingency plan looks like:

If I can’t do X, then I will do Y.

Here’s what that looks like in our current example:

If can’t make it to the Laguna Strength Lab at 7 p.m., on any of my scheduled workout days, I will do a 10 minute circuit workout I can do from home or at the office.

By drafting a contingency plan, you’re protected from missing your scheduled workouts. And, since it’s pre-planned you don’t have to invest the mental energy into thinking about when and where you will do the plan b workout.

*Make sure you’re plan b workout is laid out. Hop on to the Google and find yourself a quick body-weight workout and have it handy.


Wrapping Up

Take your desire to do better and put a plan behind it.

Your failed attempts probably have nothing to do with your intentions, but rather the focus of your goal is what is holding you back. Take a breath, and evaluate your process.

Then, plug in the strategies that we went over that you feel best fits your needs.

You’ve got what it takes to win this battle. With a few tweaks to your process, I really believe you’ll be on your way to finally accomplishing your fitness goal.

Question: Have you been wrestling with a fitness goal? Which strategy do you plan on using to finally breakthrough? Share your answer on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

End Notes:

Thanks to Heidi Grant Halvorson and Daniel Pink for prompting this piece.

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

73% Of People Who Set Fitness Goals As New Year’s Resolutions Give Them Up

Why Planning When and Where Improves Your Pull Through Rate On Exercising

People Who Exercise At Least Five Hours A Week Are Happiest With Their Bodies