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Setting Realistic Workout Goals That Won’t Lead to Disordered Behaviors

Setting exercise goals is great for getting in shape and improving athletic ability — but when taken too far, these innocent attempts to tone up can turn into unhealthy obsessions.
July 14, 2020
9 mins read

The summer months are officially in full swing and beaches, lakes and pools are filling up with eager people looking to kick off their shoes and relax — while maintaining social distancing guidelines, of course.

But those who suffer with eating disorders or disordered behaviors surrounding food and exercise know that with the summer months come new and overwhelming expectations surrounding how a person should look in a bathing suit. In the winter months, it’s easy enough to bundle up under three layers of sweaters and try hard to forget that you have a body under there at all, but the heat of the summer forces all of us warm-blooded humans to face our biggest insecurities head-on.

One of the most popular routes people take to chisel and tone their bodies is exercise: developing new workout regimens and fitness goals to whip our bodies into shape. We join gyms, buy new workout clothes and promise ourselves that if we stick to our new schedule, we will look the way we’ve always wanted in no time.

Oftentimes, this simply fails, but other times, it takes a more dangerous route and leads to disordered behaviors.

For women and young girls especially, the pressure to conform to society’s standards of beauty is overwhelming enough to drive them down the dangerous path of disordered eating and exercise. One’s color-coded workout schedule and fitness goal tracker may seem harmless at first, but have the potential to lead to obsessing over weight loss and eventual negative health side effects.

While there is no cure-all for disordered behaviors and thoughts like these, there are some ways to avoid the classic pitfalls.

Set Goals That Have Nothing To Do With Looks

“I want to get a six-pack in two weeks.” “I want to get a thigh gap in one month.” “I want to tone my arms before August.”

None of these seem like particularly sinister goals at first glance — they are just specific, realistic goals, aren’t they? For lots of people, sure. But for anyone who may be prone to obsessive thoughts or behaviors, these goals can begin to snowball, as they have no real quantitative measurement and focus on altering one’s body to fit a standard of beauty that has nothing to do with athletic ability.

Instead of creating a goal that’s going to force you to look in the mirror and judge yourself after every workout, try setting yourself a goal that’s measurable by an objective standard. For instance, if you’re looking to get a “flatter stomach” (whatever that means), try setting a goal to lower your mile time by one minute.

Running is a great cardiovascular workout that is both physically and mentally beneficial — plus, it can be done virtually anywhere with pretty much no equipment.

The goal to run a faster mile (or two miles, or 5k or marathon) will make you a better overall athlete, give you something motivating to work toward and it doesn’t rely on you staring at yourself in the mirror, trying to alter some part of your body.

Some goals not based on looks:

— Run a faster mile (or be able to run one mile without stopping)

— Reach a full split

Learn a dance 

— Compete in an upcoming race (5k, half-marathon, marathon, etc.)

Set Goals That Force You To Eat

If you are someone who has been lured into weight loss fads and extreme dieting in the past, then setting workout goals instead of goals that have to do with your diet might be a great step forward in your recovery.

Still, it is important to remember that when you start to exercise, if you are not actively trying to lose weight, it is vital that you consume more calories during the day to make up for the extra energy you’re burning during your workout.

A lot of exercise goals will actually force you to eat more calories than you burn — I know, sounds too good to be true. Goals that center around muscle-building especially will require you to eat more in order to build and tone muscle.

If you make a goal to complete one unassisted pullup by the end of the month, that may mean needing to gain a pound of muscle. If you make a goal to complete a bodyweight squat in six weeks, you will need to maximize gains in your legs and butt.

Contrary to what diet culture will have you believe, weight gain is not something scary and shameful to be avoided at all costs. Some weight gain, especially in the interest of reaching a tangible athletic goal, is completely normal and something to be proud of.

Some exercises that may require muscle-building:

— Pullups

— Squats

— Deadlifts

— Sprints

Enlist Friends To Hold You Accountable 

Having a support system around you that is ready to jump in and help out if you’re sliding down a dangerous path can be lifesaving. While more serious disordered behaviors should be dealt with by medical professionals, if you’re worried that beginning a fitness journey might nudge you in the direction of toxic diet culture, let a friend know about your concerns and continue to check in with them throughout the duration of your exercise journey.

Sometimes, just putting a voice to the things you are constantly worrying about can make the biggest problems somehow become manageable. If you’re new to exercise and find that you are obsessing or resorting to disordered behaviors, for example, regarding the size of your thighs, tell a friend how you’re feeling. Any good friend will be quick to tell you you’re being ridiculous and bring you back down to earth.

Plus, commiserating with friends about how awful it can feel to be immersed in a society that puts so much value on the shape and size of our bodies can be extremely therapeutic — trust me.

If It Feels Wrong, It Probably Is

A good, simple rule to go by: You know yourself and your body better than anyone. If you feel like you are slipping into negative habits and thought patterns, you probably are. If you feel like exercising has become burdensome and stressful, that’s okay. Working out is supposed to be a beneficial, positive thing. It’s not supposed to eclipse every other responsibility in your life or make you miserable.

As always, if you’re worried about your habits leading to disordered behaviors, talk to your doctor or healthcare professional to make sure you are making the right decision for you.

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