The health benefits of adhering to an organic fitness program are multitudinous. By regularly performing heavy resistance training, high-intensity interval training, and plenty of low-moderate intensity activities, you’ll not only look better naked, but you’ll also increase your protection against a wide range of chronic diseases and enhance your brain function, energy levels, and mood, among other things.
Some people rely on these general health benefits as their sole source of exercise motivation. However, others write down specific and time-bound fitness goals, often as a way to give their workout motivation a boost. Is this something we all should be doing, or are we better off just focusing on the immediate benefits and enjoyment we get from exercise?
Goal setting: Is it as important as we’ve been led to believe?
In the health & fitness community at large, fitness goals – such as rowing 500 meter in under 2 minutes, lifting 400 pounds in the deadlift, losing 6 pounds in 3 weeks, or completing a marathon – tend to be viewed as an essential component of an exercise plan. People who join a gym are often reminded by the receptionists how important goal setting is for staying motivated over the long-term, a message that is strengthened by personal trainers and gym instructors who emphasize that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
However, not everyone places so much emphasis on goal setting. In the ancestral health community, physical activity is often performed as a way to have fun, spend more time outdoors, and play. Of course, there are also many Paleo followers and ancestral health enthusiasts who follow a strict plan and train heavy in the pursuit of time-specific goals. But if we look at a “hunter-gatherer fitness regimen“, it’s clear that it is more directed towards achieving multifaceted fitness and enjoying fresh air, social interactions, and movement, than it is directed towards progressive overload and goal achievement.
This primal approach to training is rooted in the physical activity patterns of hunter-gatherers and healthy traditional people, who clearly didn’t exercise because they were trying to reach long-term fitness goals, but rather because they had to move their bodies to procure food, build shelter, and escape predators. In other words, they only had goals with each specific physical activity session, and no incentive to focus on gradually increasing the stress placed upon the body (progressive overload) or to keep a training journal.
I believe we can learn a lot from our Paleo ancestors about how we should design our fitness plan/program. That being said, we have to keep in mind that the reasons people have for exercising today are very different from the ones Paleolithic humans had. Also, perhaps more importantly, we have to remember that our environment has changed dramatically in the last 10.000 years…
“Lazy genes” in an obesogenic environment
The physical activity levels (PALs) of hunter-gatherers are much higher than that of 21st century office workers, but that’s clearly not because hunter-gatherers run and lift things in an attempt to improve their physique or fitness levels, but rather because they have to move their bodies to survive.
In other words, hunter-gatherers rarely move their bodies to any significant extent unless they “must”, because expending more energy than necessary would negatively impact survival in an ancestral natural environment, where food is not conveniently found at a grocery store nearby.
Heritable biological traits that confer a survival advantage in a specific environment are positively selected for through natural selection. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that humans have evolved a tendency to take it easy and relax when possible.
These “lazy genes” were adaptive in a Paleolithic milieu, but in the modern, industrialized world – where food is easily accessible and most of us don’t have to move our bodies to any significant extent to survive – they set us up for chronic inactivity and fat accumulation. It’s therefore important that we take our current living conditions into account when we discuss the necessity of goal setting.
When goal setting is important
Some people find that the immediate benefits of exercise, as well as the general health benefits associated with regular physical activity, are all the motivation they need to go for regular walks in nature, lift heavy things at the gym a couple of times a week, and do some sprinting every now and then. However, others find that more specific and measurable results are needed to really peak their motivation. This is something that becomes especially apparent when you coach people who have trouble staying motivated over the long-term and/or work out because they want to look better, lift heavier, or run faster.
During the years I’ve worked as a personal trainer, I’ve really learned how effective small progressive steps forward can be for a clients’ motivation. Simply hitting the same rep target in the deadlift as the last workout, but this time with some added weight to the bar, gives a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That’s not to say that relying on this type of gradual progressive overload as the sole source of motivation is a good thing, as there are clearly days when you won’t outrun your previous record, and as we all know, you won’t be able to add extra load to the deadlift bar each workout indefinitely.
That being said, there is no doubt that setting performance goals and focusing on progressive overload should be done by more people. This is especially true for gym members who keep paying the membership fee, but rarely get in the door, those people who feel that they never manage to stick to their exercise plan for more than a couple of weeks before they ease back into old sedentary habits, and of course, those who go through a workout without really breaking a sweat.
Many gym goers have never gotten around to make a plan or steer out a direction for their efforts in the weight room, and they therefore feel no real obligation to work out. When there are no SMART goals to be reached or incremental increases to be made, the cost/reward ratio of going to the gym can quickly end up seeming very high…
So, goal setting can be valuable for someone who finds it hard to consistently stick to an exercise plan and/or has trouble getting off the couch and into the gym altogether. Another group that obviously benefits from writing down goals and keeping a workout journal are those who actually have specific goals with their physical activities, such as the long-distance runners preparing for a race, lifters who are serious about building muscle and strength, and athletes with a specific performance objective in mind.
That doesn’t mean that these individuals should never add an unplanned exercise session to their routine or that the training journal has to be followed to the letter, but there’s little doubt that planning and progressive overload are important to create a gradual specific adaptation to one type of activity.
Play, fun, and immediate physical benefits
Up until this point, you might have gotten the impression that goal setting is essential for virtually everyone. However, that’s not really the case. Some people manage to stick with an exercise regimen without bothering with goal setting and training journals. These are often the people who have established healthy routines and find that the immediate benefits of exercise – such as the good feeling of being outdoors, the mental boost, and the joy of “playing” – outweigh the perceived cost of getting off the couch.
To get to this point, it’s clearly important to find forms of exercise one enjoys. Those of us who have played sports, spent hours dancing, or participated in group training sessions know how much “easier” and more fun it can be to exercise when there is something more than a treadmill or rowing machine involved.
The difficulty for a lot of people is to really get to a point where the aforementioned immediate benefits of exercise are sufficient motivation to work out as often as one should. This is especially true for adults, who often live hectic lives, have “forgotten” how to play, and focus on achieving measurable results from the time put into something.
Trying to bring the child in us to the surface can definitely be worth it though, as there is something special about exercising just for the fun of it. The upside of not having a strict plan to follow or any SMART goals that you’re striving to achieve is that you get to be a lot more spontaneous about your workouts. You don’t need to worry so much about exactly how many reps you do or how long the breaks between each exercise are. Also, having a bad workout doesn’t get to you in the same way as it would have done if you were training with specific goals in mind. That being said, as previously mentioned, not everyone manages to find the motivation to train hard when there are no goals to be reached or specific purpose with each workout.
The bottom line
So, should you set goals with your training? As discussed, it depends on many factors, such as the reason you exercise, your motivation, and your current lifestyle habits. For most people, a mix between relatively strict, goal-oriented training that focuses on progressive overload and more loosely planned exercise sessions that revolve around play, fun, and experimentation is a good way to go.
Personally, I used to adhere to a very strict training program. I didn’t always set up specific goals with my training, but I kept a training journal, wrote down pretty much everything I did in the gym, and placed a lot of emphasis on progressive overload. Today, I still focus on progressive overload, but my training program is less strict in the sense that I no longer go into the gym with a detailed plan of exactly what I’m going to do. This way I manage to have some sense of what my progress is like, but I don’t get so obsessed with workout planning, rep counting, and goal achievement that I end going through every workout following a strict, detailed plan. In other words, I try to mix things up occasionally so I don’t lose the enjoyment that comes from being spontaneous and trying new exercises and routines.
What about you? What are your motivations for working out? Do you have specific goals with your training?