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Shape Your Life

Whether it's our physical well-being, our relationships, our emotional health or our careers, it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, demanding details of our lives, without ever pausing to consider what it is we're working toward. We all want more for ourselves, and our intentions are always there: We join the gym, vow to find more free time for ourselves or our families, keep the novel with the uncracked spine on our bedside table, plan and plan to update our dusty resumes -- but more often than not, our overcrammed lives derail us. We want to be healthier, happier and more in control, but we all take wrong turns trying to get there.

But one step at a time, we can find better balance in many areas of our full lives. In fact, fitness is not just your workout. Modern times call for an updated definition of fitness. Fitness is shaping your life, not just your body, because research shows a lot more than your workouts affects your health and well-being. The health of your relationships, career satisfaction, stress management, whether you get the necessary health screening tests -- all affect your health. The purpose of this column will be to address all of these elements that affect your fitness -- according to the modern definition. Each month, Shape will aim to bring you a little closer to that balance, whether it's finding a way to eat healthfully and nutritiously; getting more satisfaction from a relationship; retaking the temperature of your career; or making your valuable workout time work better for you. Our first month's topic: identifying your fitness goals, and learning how to better work toward them.

Your exercise goals, defined

When you ask many women their fitness goals, a funny thing happens. For a few seconds, they're stumped. "My exercise goals?" they say. Sure, most of us can tick off what we'd like to lose: weight, saddlebags, bra bulge, cellulite (we'll pray for a cure until they find one). But ask women what they'd like to gain, and how many can tell you for sure?

Blame it on our culture. Almost from high school (and sadly, often even earlier), bemoaning our perceived body flaws is practically an initiation rite into womanhood, and a ritual many of us unfortunately continue for life. We dangle our arm flab before friends as evidence of creeping weight gain; we pinch our thighs in private for signs of fresh cellulite; we tap our baby bellies to show others the truth: We're not fit, our bodies are not developed. "If you went to any street corner in any city in the country and asked 100 women, 'How do you feel about your body?' how many women will say 'I love it?'" asks Dan Baker, Ph.D., program director of life enhancement at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. "Our language is deficit-based, and many women live in the tyranny of that."

When we set ourselves up with such negatives, we can't think positively. We eye our full-length mirrors and see how our flesh must appear to others, instead of considering what our bodies can do for us. We find flaws where instead we might see potential. Where once we had impossibly thin models with adolescent frames splashed everywhere, now we also have celebrities with juicy stories about how they used to be 20 pounds "overweight" -- just like you and me! -- until they whittled their waists, through diet and determination, into size-2 jeans. If they can do it, so will we, we think.

The losing battle

For most women, the primary goal is the same: to lose weight. In an effort to recruit overweight college students for her weight-control courses, Carol Kennedy, M.S., now program director of fitness/wellness at Indiana University in Bloomington, offered a free body-fat percentage test to students as an incentive. But what she found shocked her. "Seventy percent of the women who came in were in the normal range (20-30 percent body fat) but 56 percent perceived themselves as overweight," says Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy and her colleagues added a body-image class just for these women.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it's young women who are most likely to want to be thin. Kennedy, who has published research on the subject, says women under 30 are most concerned with the concept of body image; women 30-50 are somewhat more likely to make health a primary reason for exercise. (Interestingly, women become more obsessed with their appearance again after age 50, when more noticeable changes to the body start taking place, Kennedy says.)

Being good students of our culture, one of the main reasons we work out is to look good, instead of focusing on feeling good and more alive in our bodies. Too often we force near-impossible expectations upon ourselves: to look like a certain television star, squeeze into a high-school size, or get six-pack abs. "Many women may hold themselves up to an imagined ideal that their genetics can't accommodate, and set themselves up for failure," says James Loehr, Ed.D., president of LGE Performance Systems in Orlando, Fla. And in doing so, we deny ourselves the pleasures of appreciating our developing bodies.

The ultimate sign that our goals are unhealthy is when we stop enjoying life to attain them. "If you go on a diet that you know you can't sustain for a long time or an exercise program you don't like, eventually, that's going to break you down," says Loehr. "The journey to a goal is as important as anything." But how do we change?

The route to success

It's futile to tell a woman who wants to shed pounds to forget about weight loss as a goal. But ironically, that may be just what she needs to succeed. "Professional athletes approach goals from a performance angle, focusing on what they need to do," says Loehr. They don't judge effectiveness by standing in front of a mirror. "They set long-term goals, but also set intermediate goals: what they're going to do by the end of the month, this week or even today," he adds. When you're focused on achievement, and measure and meet performance-based goals in increments (such as walking an extra half-mile, or increasing weight on your lat pull-downs), weight loss will take care of itself.

As you set specific, concrete performance goals you can measure (maybe eventually you'd like to run a 10k, but today need to accomplish a mile, for example) you also learn to give your body what it needs to attain them. When you're building a body that's getting faster, stronger and fitter, that feels good. It's freeing. And with all the training, a skimpy green salad for dinner won't do. "Health and nutrition are very much connected to performance," says Loehr. "If you do anything that jeopardizes your health, the whole thing comes apart."

So as you use this section to define your personal exercise and fitness goals, keep the lessons learned here in mind: achieving what you want with your body begins with the first simple act of respecting it. Treat it well, mentally and physically, and it'll reward you right back.

Physical success at a glance

Quick tips to keep on track toward your fitness goals:

* Think differently: Don't visualize yourself as a sitting person, see yourself as a moving person.

* Set smaller performance goals that you can measure, such as increasing your mileage when you get closer to bigger, harder benchmarks, like completing a first race.

* Define success in terms of what you accomplish daily. Is even climbing the stairs easier?

* Avoid the scale, especially if you've started weight training. It may lie about your success.

* Don't measure success by looking in the mirror. (Can you imagine Mia Hamm doing that?)

* Allow yourself setbacks. They're inevitable. Remember: You're in it for the long haul.

 

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