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6 Questions to Answer Before Starting a Fitness Program

Why is it so many people fail at their health and fitness goals? Is it that it's just too hard? Did they get bad advice? Or is there something more? In my experience, the chance of achieving success is much higher in those who prepare for the journey before getting started. The following are six questions worth answering before your journey begins. With the right amount of thought, you'll set yourself up for success before you take your first step.

1. What is your primary goal?

I’m not sure about you, but I’d love to maintain the physique of the cast of 300, the fitness level of an Olympic decathlete and live well past 100 years old, while still maintaining a normal work schedule and having time to do what’s important with my family. Advertising woos us into thinking you have it all. The truth is, going after all of it can keep us from attaining any of it.

When our Health & Fitness Professionals meet with someone to create a nutrition, exercise and lifestyle program, one of the first things we discuss is an individual’s primary goal. Most people have a general idea of what they’d like to accomplish, which leads down one of three paths: vitality and health (V+H), weight management (WM) or performance enhancement (PE).


As you can see from the graphic above, each of the three primary paths overlaps with the other two. If an individual’s primary goal is to lose weight, performance and health often improve, but the strategy is to focus on weight reduction. When performance enhancement is the goal, weight management and health often (though not always) improve as well.

All too often, people attempt to do all three which diminishes how effective a program may be. They try to improve performance while following a weight loss nutrition plan. Or even worse, they try to lose weight by following the training and nutrition advice of a high-performance athlete. For example, someone may sign up for a marathon as a goal in order to lose weight, and have 30 pounds of excess weight. In this example, signing up for a 5K race and focusing more on a nutrition and exercise program for weight loss would be more appropriate; the marathon training may actually be counterproductive to weight loss efforts.

Improving health should be a primary goal over weight management and performance for many people. Often, the nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategies that improve one’s health also support improved performance and healthy body fat maintenance.

Why is it so important to focus on a single path? The clearer you are about your goals, the more targeted your program can be. Understanding your primary goal also ensures you don’t get swayed by someone else with different goals than yours. Post-workout carbohydrate consumption has been shown to be beneficial for optimizing recovery and allowing individuals to train more often. For those who are in great condition and focused on performing at their best, post-workout carbs along with protein might be helpful. However, if an overweight individual talks to a performance-minded athlete about what they eat after a workout, the athlete may recommend post-workout carbs which could work against the overweight individual’s goals. If you know your main goal is weight loss, you won’t follow the advice of someone whose goal is performance enhancement.

If you had to pick one path only, which one would it be? That’s the one that should define your nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategy.

2. Are you mentally ready for the program?

Contrary to what ads on TV might have you believe, a lean, muscular, toned physique doesn’t come from an 8-minute abs (or 7-minute abs) video. It doesn’t come from buying prepared meals. It doesn’t come from eating dark chocolate or just from getting eight hours of sleep every night. It requires the combination of many healthy habits every day.

Whatever your primary goal is, there will be many obstacles along the way. Your nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategy won’t roll out just as you have planned. You’ll get caught up at work and miss workouts. You’ll have family get-togethers with foods you didn’t plan to eat. You’ll have unexpected emergencies and will go through periods of lost motivation.

Before you start your program, you should understand the potential obstacles you’ll face, and prepare in advance to work through them. The success of an athlete or a weight loss hopeful often depends more on mental fortitude than anything else. Knowing that up front prepares you for when times get difficult.

3. Are you physically ready for the program?

Being physically ready to start a program means you have a solid baseline of health. About a quarter of adult men have low testosterone levels. Testosterone is critical to muscle recovery from workouts and maintenance of healthy body fat levels. It also affects mental health. A male with low testosterone may struggle to lower body fat levels, gain muscle or even have the energy for a good workout.

Many people have chronically high levels of inflammation, which can disrupt one’s ability to recover from workouts. If you have chronic inflammation, and proper steps aren’t taken to reduce it, adding more stress on the body through exercise could be detrimental.

About 20 million Americans have some type of thyroid disorder, with most having reduced thyroid function. There are a variety of causes for low thyroid levels, but if a thyroid problem is ignored, it will be difficult to maintain a healthy weight. It could be difficult to even have the energy to get a workout in.

These are just a few examples of an imbalanced metabolism. If it’s been a while since you last had your blood drawn, it’s important to know if you’re healthy and physically ready before you get started with your program. Talk to your physician, or consider ordering a complete lab test package like the Premium Longevity & Vitality.

4. How much additional time can you commit each week?

It may sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Adopting a new exercise program or taking additional time each week to prepare healthy meals rather than eating out takes additional time. For people who are already burning the candle at both ends, it’s virtually impossible to add more time to their schedule. They often have the best of intentions of starting their program, but since they never considered the time it would take, they become frustrated that things aren’t working out the way they wish they would.

Think about it. How much time can you carve out for exercise? If your schedule is full, what are you going to take out of it to make room for exercise and meal preparation? Before you get started, spend some time planning so you know how you’ll fit everything in.

5. Do you have a support structure?

Even with the best laid plans, life happens. You will get sidetracked. You will hit a plateau at some point and get frustrated. When that happens, who will you lean on for support? If you have a like-minded support network, you’ll likely get the kind of advice you need to stay on track. If you look to friends who don’t care as much about their health to motivate you, you will likely be disappointed. Studies have consistently shown the significant role your support network plays in your health. When unhealthy people hang out with healthy people, they tend to become healthier and start losing weight. The cool thing is, those people who start becoming healthier can rub off on their spouses as well, and make the rest of their family healthier.

Your support structure could be one or two close, like-minded friends. It could also be a group of people like those in a program such as TEAM Weight Loss or in a run club. The value of a real, live support person or support group is that they’ll notice when you start getting off course.

6. What will you do once you achieve your goal?

One last question you should strongly consider from the beginning is, “what are you going to do once you achieve your goal?” Many people spend months dedicated to losing weight to fit in a swimsuit or look good in a wedding. The day or event comes, and the habits that got them ready for the day are all but forgotten. The problem is, they never had a plan that went past the event. The plan was to prepare for the day and celebrate. A month or two later, the weight is back on.

Others spend 12 to 16 weeks following a training program to get them ready for a triathlon or marathon. They complete the event and lose all their motivation for exercise. Without a goal in front of them, the motivation is gone for exercising.

As a general rule, your program should be planned out for three months past the date you reach your goal. If you’re planning to complete a triathlon, your program should be designed to take you three months past your triathlon to keep you focused. If your goal is to lose 30 pounds, you should plan to stay with your program for three months past the date you’ve lost the weight. Not only will it help you reset your body’s set point, but it will also keep you from slacking off once you achieve your goal.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your goal once you achieve it, but the celebration shouldn’t lead to a lack of motivation. When I first started as a trainer, I often designed my clients’ programs to get them to a specific goal. I had a lot of clients who achieved their goal, but I was naive. I assumed that once we got to their goal, they’d be able to maintain the shape they were in. After a couple years, I started realizing how many people ended back where they started months after we finished training. It was discouraging. Once I realized this, I started setting the expectation for most people that they keep working with me for at least a few months after they achieved their goal. My rule of thumb was, if it was going to take us less than three months to get to their goal, I’d have them work with me for the same amount of time after they got to their goal. In other words, if it took eight weeks to hit their goal, I expected them to work with me for at least another eight weeks after achieving their goal. If it took six months to achieve their goal, I expected them to work with me for at least three extra months to make sure they could maintain their fitness level and hopefully get them comfortable with a lower body fat level.

The point is, you must have a plan and vision for more than the goal that got you started on your program. You have a lot of life to live once you achieve your goal. It’ll be a lot more fun if you maintain your fitness level for the rest of it.

Share your thoughts and experiences below.

Written by Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (2)

Great article!! I'm sharing this with all of my friends, family & clients!!

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel Weldon

This blog is really a great source of information for me. Thank you for giving me such important information.

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