Find your own way to increased movement: SMART steady steps

“Set goals not for the outcome itself, but for who you get to become in the process.”–Jim Rohn

My husband and daughter recently gifted me with a popular, updated fitness watch to replace the one that I have worn for over ten years. The new watch has numerous bells and whistles that can be quite motivational to encourage movement, healthy sleep, heart health, and so forth.  However, the updated icon, consistent with the former version, tends to focus on unrealistic, outcome-based goals that are not necessarily appropriate for my unique age, gender, body type, and fitness level.  

The gadget, and its programmers, don’t know ME, the individual.  And therein lies the problem in these well-intended gadgets as well as the thousands of fitness plans found, not only on fitness watches, but also found on-line and in-print.  Therefore, in this seventh installment of my “Move into Health” series, my focus is about setting SMART movement goals that focus on your unique health needs and lifestyle.

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It is so easy and tempting to be swept away by programs with tantalizing titles such as, “9-weeks to a bikini bod,” or “8-weeks to your fastest 5-K,” or “Walk your way into a new jeans size,” and so forth, often made popular in January.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these types of plans, I have personally found they tend to set us up for failure when our bodies don’t look like the 19-year old willowy model used in the workout plan, our running pace doesn’t match the 5-K plan designed by a former professional runner, or our jeans still fit the same in spite of all of our best efforts.  

Instead, there needs to be a way to personalize plans in order to adapt to individual health goals, interests, schedule, lifestyle, body type, age, and current health circumstances.  Thankfully, there is! 

This year, consider setting SMART goals that focus on the process of promoting your distinct health needs as a way to focus your movement/exercise habit, rather than predetermined outcomes. There’s no need to make outlandish New Year’s resolutions, despite what the exercise industry would have you believe.  We simply need to take steady, SMART steps.

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SMART stands for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound processes.  

This acronym has been used for years across a wide array of disciplines and settings.  However, I find it just as useful as a tool for leaning into personal movement and health processes. Personally, I find far more joy, and little to no guilt-ridden feelings of failure, when I focus on the process of a goal, rather than a specific outcome of that goal. 

For example, I am currently training for a half-marathon in March; however, this year, I’ve adopted a SMART approach.  Completing the half-marathon in March is specific, measurable, and based on my own current level of fitness, is achievable within the 16-weeks for which I have been using to prepare for it.  What my plan is NOT attached to is a specific finish time or whether I will run, walk, skip, or even crawl across the finish line.  Instead, my focus is about the measure of fitness I will gain in the process.  

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I am no longer worrying about the pace of my jogging or walking; instead, the focus is how I FEEL before, during, and after each workout with a close eye on how my heart rate is responding.  If it takes me twice as long as it takes others to complete a certain mileage, I am absolutely ok with that.  This journey is about the scenery along my path as well as improved cardiovascular health, better sleep, reduced anxiety/stress, and the gift of time to listen to great playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks.

Your goal may not look like mine, but that is not the point.  Rather, think about what process you want to embrace?  Increased movement throughout your day? Improved cardiovascular health? Increased flexibility and range of motion?  Maybe a little bit of all three, or maybe something completely different.  Once you have decided, work through the SMART process to develop your approach.  Take time to write it down or type it up.  There is something about the power of slowing down your thinking, and then putting your thoughts down in some form of print that brings clarity to your ideas.

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Begin first by simply reflecting on your current health status as well as current lifestyle.  What could YOU realistically do to move the needle towards a gentle process of increased health.  Be honest in your self assessment, but NOT judgemental.  Once your idea is clear, write/type your thoughts using the SMART steps:

  • Be specific:  Is your goal clear and defined?  For example, the ability to walk for ____ minutes without stopping, or increased stamina to finish a 5K, or the strength to carry ____ grocery bags into the house independently.
  • Measurable: Can it be tracked or measured? How do you know if you are making progress? If your goal is to walk without stopping for a certain amount of time, perhaps each week you dedicate three days per week to walking, starting with the length of time you can comfortably walk now, and increasing that time by one minute each successive week as long as your body is comfortably recovering.
  • Achievable: Will the process be challenging but attainable?  This is the sweet spot that only you can determine.  For example, given your age and health status, walking a 5K may not be realistic, but perhaps focusing on the process of walking 15-20 minutes may be attainable with small incremental increases in walking time over several weeks or months.
  • Realistic: Is your goal relevant to your life purpose?  For example, my life purpose is to remain mobile, heart healthy, and mentally agile in order to make a positive contribution to others for as long as I possibly can. Therefore, challenging myself with a process of increased cardiovascular health is one of a handful of processes I can realistically develop.
  • Timely: Can you set a date in order to hold yourself accountable to the process? This is why the process of training for half-marathons works for me.  I can choose an event that fits my schedule, and gradually build towards that goal.  Plus, I make a monetary commitment, which I know will hold me accountable.  Along the way, I find ways to celebrate, enjoy, and embrace each little step in the process.  Once the date has come and gone, I will consider my next SMART process that will further my health and ultimately, life purpose.

You do not have to run/walk a half-marathon like me to embrace the process of SMART goals.  The point is to let go of certain outcomes established by others who don’t know you nor have your same values.  Rather, get clear on your life purpose, then ask yourself what you can do to improve your own health towards achieving that goal.  Don’t beat yourself up with unrealistic expectations of others.  Get quiet, get honest, and get “smart.”  With this clarity, you will be able to come up with the best approach for you.

Here’s to your smart version of healthy in 2023.  May you continue to fulfill your own life purpose with vitality!  And, don’t hesitate to reach out, and let me know how it’s going!  I am cheering for you!

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Exercise your right to JOY

“Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives.”–Kelly McGonigal

“Movement awakes and activates many of our mental capacities.”–Carla Hannaford

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I was going through the movements of getting ready for my work day half-heartedly listening to a podcast whose title had promised much.  Unfortunately, like many podcasts, it ended up being another interview designed to promote the sale of a book. My phone was off to the side, away from my point of focus, so I didn’t immediately stop the interview.  

Despite my lack of focus/interest, my ears perked up when I overhead a nugget of an idea.  Unfortunately, I cannot quote the idea precisely since I wasn’t fully focused.  However, the kernel of its intent resonated with me.  It was the idea that the main focus of exercise should not necessarily be to get “fit,” to maintain or lose weight, sleep better, or any of the other valid reasons.  Instead, the main goal of all exercise/movement should be to increase joy.

This was such an interesting thesis that I had to dive more into the topic, and it turns out science has quite a bit to say about this.  Of course, I nearly always feel better when I can integrate movement into my day.  Plus, I typically felt better after more “formal” exercise sessions.  However, this was all anecdotal.  

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Before diving into the research a few days later, my mind kept going back to the notion of reframing our relationship with exercise.  Dropping the typical exercise narratives–weight management, fitness goals, therapeutic/emotional release, better sleep and so forth was fascinating. Of course, exercise provides all of those goals and more, but the idea of letting those be the side dishes, and allowing joy to be the main course was intriguing.

After perusing numerous articles, I became super excited; I knew this information needed to be shared with my local community and beyond.  This felt especially important since I have previously written pieces fostering the notion that movement is for every unique body–even those with limitations, and it can be incorporated into daily life even on the busiest of days.  Armed with this information, I was ready to spread the word: More Movement = More Joy!  

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Exercise, even in short bursts of time, improves one mood. A study conducted by West Virginia University found that middle school students who regularly exercise feel overall happier.  This was a no brainer! Ask any educator what their students’ behavior and mood is like on days they don’t have recess versus days they get it, and you’ll most likely get an earful.  Kids instinctively know they need movement, and if they can’t get it via the playground, athletics, dance, etc.–they are going to find ways to move more animatedly in the classroom.  Otherwise, if kept from moving, they become sullen, whiney, moody, or even combative/confrontational. And, this is also true for adults.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers determined specific movements that not only are associated with the feeling of joy, but also enhance the joy when completed.  These include: reaching, swaying, bouncing, shaking, jumping, and an action called, “celebration,” an action that mimics tossing confetti overhead with both hands. One researcher, Kelly McGonigal, writing for the New York Times, created, shared, and posted a video in the article, “The Joy Workout”, based upon these specific movements.  The video is approximately eight minutes long, and can be easily accessed through a quick click of keys.  (It is important to note, after giving it a try myself, not all movements are appropriate for those with limited mobility or injuries; however, movements could be modified or even completed while sitting.)  

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Another interesting study I ran across stated that simply standing, sitting, or moving with a more open posture, as opposed to a closed posture, can likewise increase positive feelings.  Moreover, a smaller 2021 study focused on participants who were asked to go through a series of movements similar to those McGonigal studied.  Once more, movement, even those completed in a seated posture, increased feelings of happiness. Clearly, exercising with the goal of joy in mind is not a crazy notion.

My research continued, including studies from the University of Michigan, University of Iowa, University of Texas, and Northeastern University, just to name a few.  What I found was that scientists tended to agree that all forms of exercise/movement are beneficial when performed safely.  That said, aerobic exercise currently seems to have a slight edge overall in brain boosting potential, but that may be because it appears to be the most researched. However, all conclude that exercise and movement benefit the young, seniors, and all ages in between.  Whether a short burst of activity or a more formal workout, movement ameliorates the effects of depression and anxiety by boosting the production of serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals and decreasing stress-inducing hormones. 

Exercise your right to enJOY movement with friends and family.

When we move, we increase our heart rate, which, in turn, moves more oxygen to the brain. As numerous studies indicate, increased oxygen to the brain mitigates symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, movement/exercise, when repeated frequently enough, can give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for not only emotions, but also memory and learning!  This means that movement/exercise not only affects your brain in the moment in which you are participating, but it also makes positive structural changes over time.

So back to “The Joy Workout.” Does it work?  Well, only you can decide that. I will say that I found it clever, cute, and definitely made me smile.  However, you do not have to do “The Joy Workout” in order to feel joy in movement.  I found multiple, what I like to call, “movement-snacks,” videos and apps that offer 10-minute or less movement breaks if that’s your thing, such as the 7-minute workout, available on-line and in app version.  

Joy can be increased through movement, step-by-step.

Of course, there are so many other ways to increase movement from taking short walk breaks, to parking farther away from your destination, from walking to another floor for a restroom break to simply stretching or walking/marching in place on commercial or pop-up breaks, and so much more. The important thing, researchers noted, is that you find ways to move and/or exercise that you enjoy, that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine, so that you will do them on a regular basis in order to reap all those joyful benefits.

Ultimately, who doesn’t want to feel more joy moving into the new year?  Help boost yourself towards that goal by determining ways you like to move.  The worst movement mistakes you can make are inactivity or repeatedly moving/exercise in a way in which you dread it.  Let’s keep it simple.  Focus on moving more, smiling more, and feeling more joy overall.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Take a leap of faith, move for joy!