Posted by on Jun 23, 2014

Anna McDougall is a certified trainer working in Australia. Anna manages one of the largest online fitness forums for women ( Want to train with Anna? Join the new team Achieve Your First Fitness Goal

We’ve all heard that changing things too fast (for example rapid weight loss) often results in reversion. In other words, after a few months of success you slowly fall back into old habits and end up right back where you started, if not worse. My training philosophy is all about what you know you can achieve and sustain, and it’s all based on creating goals and slowly changing your habits. In this post, I’ll share three of my tips for how to start doing this. Different strategies work for different personality types, so even though these are all great ideas for everybody, I’ll also explain which personality types tend to do better with each strategy I outline.

Strategy #1: Whoa tiger: One thing at a time!

For: Those who tend to bite off more than they can chew; People who are often overly ambitious; People who want it all.

Woah there...

Whoa there…

Why: The tendency for people of this personality type is that they want to achieve their goals yesterday. The idea of waiting a year to see progress is mortifying and the idea of everyone else doing better than they are is disheartening. What this personality type needs is the reminder that a year is simply the culmination of 365 days. If you make one small improvement or healthier choice every day, that will add up to success.

How: The key to this strategy is splitting a year into smaller, more manageable chunks which allow you to see improvements constantly. This provides the constant positive feedback and award mechanisms necessary to feel positive about your fitness journey.

  • Make a list of 5-10 habits you want to have in your life.
  • Categorize them: Which of these habits will be big changes and which will be small? Remember that this is what is big or small to you. For me, getting more protein in my diet is easy, but for a vegan that could be a big challenge.
  • Prioritize them: In the big/small categories, rank the habits according to which will have the biggest single impact on your health or fitness.
  • Now re-write the goals, starting from the ‘#1 Small Goal’, and then alternate down the list between big and small. So it ends up: #1 Small; #1 Big; #2 Small; #2 Big; and so on.
  • Optional for the artistic/visual types: Create a poster with your final list and collage around the list with photos associated with those changes.
  • For the first month, try to only implement the first goal on your list. It should be something small but important to your health. If you lapse during that first month, don’t sweat it, just get back on board and keep going. Move onto the next goal once you’ve kept up the first non-stop for four weeks.
  • By this stage, you already know you can change your habits (you just did it!) so you can move on to the #1 Big Goal.
  • Continue in this way for a year and you’ll find a lot has changed and you’ll be a lot closer to whatever your long-term goal is!

Anecdote: Although I was a sporty kid, I was never good with nutrition. In particular, I was absolutely addicted to Coca Cola. I would use my lunch money to drink anywhere between 1.5-3 litres of Coke a day. I never drank water and the only other things I would drink would be skim milk or English Breakfast tea. Well into my 20s, I was still drinking it constantly. The first time I decided to quit, I went cold turkey: within 3 days I was craving it constantly and having splitting headaches from the caffeine withdrawal. A few years later, I decided to try again. This time, I went one month drinking about 1L a day (that’s one bottle and one can). To most people, this was a lot of Coke. To me, this was a tough change but one that I could deal with because I was still getting my fix. After a month, I started drinking a bottle of water every day. After another month, I cut down to 600mL a day (one bottle). I then added in green tea to help with cravings. After another month I went to just 1 can a day, then one can every two days, and so on. Now 4 years later, the occasional can of Coke Zero is as bad as it gets – and if someone said I could never drink that again, I would be A-OK.


Strategy #2: Go in with a Plan, Stan: Follow a Program!

For: Detail-oriented people, often driven by statistics and facts.  Disorganised people often struggle with following programs, but making a commitment to one can often help give these same people focus and teach them how to overcome an obsession with ‘motivation.’

Why: There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but sticking with one is key. Are you familiar with “f***arounditis”? People go to the gym, do whatever they feel like, and then leave. There’s no structure, no progression plan, and no understanding of why they might do certain movements, nor how to balance their workout. This makes it hard to gauge your progress and hard to know whether or not you’re getting closer to your goal. This is what most fitness newbies do, and it’s understandable: certainly being at the gym is better than nothing! However, the problem is that without knowing whether you’re moving closer to your goal, motivation is likely to drop away and since most newbies don’t have fitness as a habit, the lack of motivation is what will stop them going. This is exactly why so many gym memberships end up going unused, and why those with programs end up doing a lot better (be they from a book, a personal trainer, or a Fitocracy Team Fitness group about achieving your goals *coughshamelessplugcough*)


  • Find a program that aligns with your goals. Wanting to jump higher for basketball is different from wanting to lose 50lbs, which is different to those wanting to bulk up, which is different again to those wanting to compete in a powerlifting competition. Certified trainers will give you the most personalized program for you (get referrals or look at their online profile to make sure they know their stuff and don’t just prescribe the same thing to everyone), however there are plenty of standardized programs you can follow that will move you a lot closer to your goals.
  • Create a spreadsheet or print off a form to track your progress: Sites like Fitocracy are great for seeing your progress, but if you’re a bit of a data nerd like me then you love the raw power of the spreadsheet. Many programs come with spreadsheets you can print off and take to the gym with you, or you can just transfer the info from Fitocracy into a spreadsheet on your computer at home.
  • Plan your progress: For work with weights in particular, you should be aiming to make certain weight increases every week. For something like running, you could set distance or time goals. Whatever the activity, try to achieve a new milestone every week, even if it’s only an improvement of 2lbs, 10 meters, or 10 seconds.
  • Track it, celebrate it! Post to Fitocracy groups about your successes. Celebrate them and know that whatever your fitness goals, you’re making progress.

The DANGER ZONE: There are two dangers for program-followers:

  • The first is “analysis paralysis”: spending so much time planning what you’re going to do, hemming and hawing between two programmes that you never choose one, or tweaking a programme so much that you just give up on it. Don’t let this stop you: choose something and start! If it’s not right for you, you can always change it later.
  • The second danger is to “collapse from the lapse”: You miss a workout, or two, or ten, and then you think “Well my whole spreadsheet is ruined, I can’t do what I could 4 weeks ago, and I’ve eaten all the boysenberry ice cream… what now?” It’s easy to just give up because you messed up. But here’s a news flash Gordon: Nobody’s perfect. You know you won’t be perfect 100% of the time, I know it, your gym knows it, your trainer knows it, your parents know, your friends know it. So let’s just get over it. You messed up, but what happens when you fall overboard? Do you say “Oh well I’m off the ship now, I might as well drown!”? Golly-gosh no! You climb back on board. Just keep on keepin’ on at whatever level you can. Feeling guilty about it isn’t going to improve your fitness: getting back in the gym will.

Strategy #3: Excuses, Excuses: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Well-being

Who: People who can find any excuse not to eat well or work out; People who often think they’re just “too tired” to work out; People who think it’s “just easier” to eat junk food.

overcome obstacles

The climb may be hard, but it’s worth it.

Why: We all have things in our life which can stop us from making good choices. It’s really very easy to find excuses to behave badly (and not just in the exercise world – *ahem*). This strategy involves identifying real obstacles to your health and fitness so that you end up knowing when something is “just an excuse.”


  • Think about the last time you tried to change a habit. What went wrong? Write a list of things that get in the way: work drinks, bad food around the house, eating out with friends, family emergencies, feeling too tired after work to go to the gym etc.
  • Look at your list and think about which of these are things you can do something about. For example, family emergencies are unlikely to be preventable or foreseeable, so cross it out. For the others, think about different strategies you can use (e.g. put all junk food into one cupboard in your house; suggest restaurants with healthy alternatives for when you go out with friends; limit your alcohol consumption on nights off to two drinks; go for a run on your lunch break; etc.)
  • If you can’t think of a strategy, you can try trusty old Google, post in WTF – Welcome to Fitocracy, or you can ask a trainer (we usually hear all the excuses you can think of and have good retorts for them all!).
  • For any things that aren’t easy to do straight away, have a look back at Strategy #1 and start implementing your strategies as habit changes slowly over time. Eventually, you’ll start noticing you have fewer excuses for not doing what you know you should.

Pep talk/reality check: If you find new excuses cropping up, then you know there’s probably more going on than life just being difficult – in the end, your excuses are what stops you from being the best you can be. I and the people who love you want you to do well: but in the end you’re giving excuses to yourself. Are you bullshitting yourself? Do you believe your own excuses? If it were your friend or partner saying these excuses to you, would you think it was OK? Often, our excuses are just that. See the list of health and fitness goal ideas below to see just how easy creating a fitter lifestyle can be: It is achievable and it is within your reach, if you just take the time and effort to work towards it, extend your life, give yourself more energy, and give you more time to be with those you love.


Images: “Jogging Around the Reservoir”  by Ed Yourdon; “Tiger” by terykats; “Obstacles” by U.S. Army. All images used under Creative Commons.

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