The Why Versus the What of Fitness Goals

Over the summer, my friend Naomi traveled to Europe and wrote an e-mail to a large group of her friends about her experiences. After describing the beauty and tranquility of Copenhagen and the gritty seriousness of Berlin, she hit upon a contrast that she’d noticed between European and American values, one that struck me deeply. She said that she felt like Americans are obsessed with achievements and milestones, “quantities” of things, while Europeans take time to reflect and enjoy individual moments and experiences, the “quality” of things. Americans focus on the “quantified self,” not the “qualified self.”

At the time I read this, I was starting to conceive 99% Fit, and I realized that this fixation on the quantified self was another component of fitness culture that frustrated me. The fitness industry is littered with apps that track every conceivable unit of measurement associated with physical fitness – minutes, pounds, steps, miles, calories. There are at least 100,000 apps in the app store dedicated to health and fitness, according to a report from 2014, and the health and fitness app industry itself is worth $4 billion. We’re more than spoiled for choice when it comes to tools to help us get fitter, and we’re clearly spending a lot of money on them. Yet, establishing long-term fitness habits remains elusive for many people.

I can’t help but believe that technology is not the complete answer to our struggles with consistency. Feelings of intimidation, insecurity and disenfranchisement drive many people’s inability to fully engage with fitness culture. These are also feelings that require reflection and thoughtfulness to overcome; behaviors that aren’t easily conjured by entering data into an iPhone. In our rush to run the most miles in our friend group or lose the most weight in our office pool, we often don't stop to think about why we’re pursuing those goals in the first place. That’s not to say that quantifying our progress isn’t helpful. Plenty of experts have studied the power of being able to monitor your progress and see the fruits of your labors played back in tangible data. But sustainable, long term success starts with a compelling reason for wanting that success.

Fitness culture touts plenty of reasons to be more active – to look great in a swimsuit, to “get your body back” after having a baby, to wear the size you’ve always dreamed of wearing.  The behavioral scientist Dr. Heidi Grant Halverson examines goal setting at length in her book Success, and dedicates some prose to the idea of “be good” goals – which sounded to me eerily like many of the goals offered up by fitness culture. “Be good” goals are largely about proving our worth and superiority in a group – having the best grade on the test, scoring the most points, or being the skinniest. They’re often about measuring up to the expectations of others. They’re also the ones that put us most at risk of descending into spirals of depression and despair if we don’t meet them.

The other category of goals Dr. Halverson describes, “get better” goals, are about individual progression and progress. A “get better” goal doesn’t set “being the best in the group” as the achievement to work toward, it sets “beating my own personal best” as the target. In some ways, it sounds like the embodiment of one of the most prevalent pieces of self-help advice: focus on being the best version of yourself. Dr. Halverson’s research has shown that people tend to be more resilient in the face of setbacks on the path to meeting these goals because they’re directed inwardly, not outwardly.

The stories and content housed within 99% Fit are in many ways presented with the aim of helping people who want to develop consistent fitness routines do so by setting “get better goals.” All of my original ten interviewees, consciously or not, ended up setting those goals for themselves when they embarked on their activities, and this has undoubtedly been a large part of why they’ve maintained their lifestyles even through difficulties and setbacks.

So if you’re trying to work out more, try not to just think about what you want to do – go to the gym more often, lose 10 lbs, eat less – think about why you want to do it. In fact, try asking yourself the following questions:

“Do I want to do this because I want to learn something new?”

“Do I want to do this because I think it’s something I could grow to enjoy?”

“Do I want to do this because I’ll feel better mentally and physically – I’ll have more energy, more vibrancy, and more positivity?”

“Do I want to do this because I’ll gain greater peace of mind?”

I suspect that if you answer yes to any of those questions, you’ll find that the road to building healthier habits is not quite so hard. You’ll be motivated by a larger internal purpose, not just the reward of external validation. By qualifying our actions and not just quantifying them, we might be able to create better fitness habits to last an entire lifetime.