Motivating Yourself for Exercise Goals in the New Year

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
January 10, 2019
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

The day after Christmas I walked into the exercise studio and spent the next hour jogging, rowing, and doing exactly what that morning’s coach instructed the 20 or so participants of the class to do next. The hour passed quickly, and I had little or no time to think about anything other than the assigned task. We watched our heart rates, the number of calories burned, and individual performance “units” flash on large screens surrounding the exercise equipment. Seeing these numbers constantly being updated provided a little extra motivation, a feeling that reminded me of the glow of getting a good grade in school.

The New Year is a time for making resolutions and setting goals, often for self-improvement. There are plenty of tips out there about how to achieve goals: take small steps, find an internal source of motivation, and set achievable targets. Although these seem like simple tips, don’t underestimate their value, because they help us make important behavioral changes.share on twitter

Let’s consider exercise. Finding a way to make exercise enjoyable is the key to avoiding making excuses for never starting or for quitting. Coaches often say it is best to start by doing 5 minutes of something we like rather than planning to do 20 minutes of something we hate. We are much more likely to continue doing an activity that makes us feel confident and, if possible, also gives us pleasure.

Another important factor is to use your environment and your friends to support you. Putting sticky notes on your computer screen or the fridge or keeping entries in your calendar may help remind you and keep you on track. As a medical oncologist working with cancer survivors, I know that providing encouragement and advice may also help. A recent research study published in Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that when oncologists advise their patients to exercise that it actually works. The challenge oncologists face during an office visit is to help customize the exercise recommendations and provide guidance that is tailored to an individual’s needs. This requires working through the many challenges of turning a goal into a plan of action and is difficult to complete in a single office visit. But this shouldn’t discourage you from talking with your oncologist or another member of the health care team about how to develop an exercise plan that’s right for you.

One approach I have found useful is to focus on the positive feelings that accompany making a good decision. Behavioral scientists remind us that these feelings can contribute to a frame of mind that allows a person to worry less and be more productive. This applies to all of us and especially to cancer survivors. Experiencing success and regaining control over the body and its performance is at often a top desire for many who have undergone treatment for cancer.

As we start a New Year, let us think of creative ways to tackle health and fitness goals. Setting realistic and flexible goals, finding support from friends, and, most importantly, finding the inner source of motivation that will help us stay resolute in the face of challenges.

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