Over the summer, my dad was involved in a serious accident in which he broke many of his ribs and punctured a lung. He had fallen in the lake by our house and, despite being injured, was able to pull himself up onto the ladder and the dock.
As I reflected on the experience, I wondered how I would fare if I wound up in the same position as my dad. Like many during the pandemic, fitness shifted to the back of my priorities as I learned to adjust to this new world of social distancing and teleconferencing. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to save myself if, somehow, my life depended on me hoisting myself out of a body of water.
That was in July of 2020. At that point in my life, I could only do one pushup — and that was being generous. I set a goal for myself: by the end of the year, I would be able to do 10 pushups.
Before this endeavor, I had been one to fall into the traps of fad diets and short-term boot camps. All of them were centered around one goal: to lose weight in order to look good. If we’re not careful, it’s very easy to craft our fitness dreams and desires around self-image. An image-based goal wants to lose 10 pounds to fit into those jeans or look “better” as summer approaches. An image-based goal focuses on what a person dislikes about how he or she looks and vows to change it.
The trouble with an image-based mindset is that it concerns a lot of things you can’t control. As someone with a more athletic build, there were things about my body I couldn’t change without putting myself in a dangerous situation. It was focusing on what I wanted to lose instead of focusing on what I could gain by working out more or eating healthy.
Quite bluntly, with image-based goals, it’s easy to be disappointed looking in the mirror. It’s much more likely that you won’t feel like you’ve done enough — even if you hit the number on the scale that you had hoped for.
As I worked toward my goal of 10 pushups, I realized I had rarely set a fitness goal based on my abilities. Although I certainly couldn’t go from ½ of a pushup (I said I was being generous) to 10 overnight, it was something I could change over time. By showing up each day, even if it was for just one pushup, I was exercising autonomy over my own capacity.
My most productive fitness experiences came focusing on what I wanted for myself in terms of capacity, instead of reaching for social standards (which are largely outside of my control). The motivation to get in shape to change how I would look paled in comparison to growing in fitness and capacity (or the ability to save myself in a worst-case scenario). I also found myself gravitating toward gratitude as well — I was thankful to still have my dad in my life, but working on my fitness is also a way to appreciate the body I was created with.
Adopting an “ability-mindset” keeps you focused on the things you can control. Instead of losing 10 pounds, try doing 10 push ups or running a 10K. Here are three tips to get started on a fitness journey that focuses on process and input, rather than socially informed outcomes.
#1 — Ask and answer the question, “What do you want to be able to do?”
I grew up as a runner. By no means was I fast, but I could run distance. Running was easier for me, so I stick with it as a fitness activity. One of my first goals became to run a half marathon. It was something to work toward that came more naturally to me than benching some number of pounds.
It’s so important to invest in what you want to do — and that’s a process that begins with some self-reflection. Create something similar to a “SMART” goal, where you make a plan that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. But also make it something you are actually excited about trying.
Despite being a runner, I have no desire at all to run a full marathon. And that’s okay! Get excited about the idea of trying something new, but don’t feel like you have to overdo it.
#2 — Find a ‘why’ that resonates
This was much more important to me than I realized. After years of getting on random health kicks (and falling off them), the one that stuck was the wake-up call of witnessing my dad’s accident. But you do not need a life-changing experience to kick this “why” into gear — it just takes some digging to find something that connects to a deep value. Perhaps it’s longevity, or improving performance in a rec league, or maybe training for a race can help raise money for a charity you care about. Maybe you just want to be able to climb a flight of stairs without getting short of breath.
For me, change came when the “why” wasn’t based in the approval or acceptance of anything or anyone outside of myself.
#3 — Reevaluate, and have patience
You will be surprised that the changes you make over time happen almost accidentally. While I’ve always been drawn to the idea of pushups or other arm exercises, my shaking arms made me feel daunted. How was I ever going to get to 10 when I couldn’t do even one? Starting with one pushup seemed ridiculous to me.
But I kept showing up, and wouldn’t you know: after one pushup came two. And then three. And four. Suddenly, I was shocked that I could hit seven.
And then I hit 10 — and immediately began to wonder, What’s next?
Once you hit your goal, reevaluate your goals and begin again. Maybe that means continued progress in your current effort, or maybe that means pivoting to a different activity altogether. Just keep moving forward.
Next on my docket: a pullup. One single pullup. That’s not a lot of pullups. But soon, I’ll be able to do more.