What Does Your New Year’s Resolution Mean to You?


Here we are again! The early weeks of the year are a time for high aspirations and lofty plans to reinvent ourselves by way of time in the gym. Everywhere we look we see exciting ads on social media, print media and TV for all sorts of diets and workout plans. These products are pitched with soaring rhetoric delivered by beautiful people to those who likely perceive themselves as being less-than-beautiful—but they have hope! (Or maybe they’re desperate.)

What will all this look like by, say, April? A lot of those ambitious plans will be tossed aside, buried and forgotten. Multitudes will give up entirely and blame themselves. It’ll all start again next year…

The M-word

The title of this post asks a question—and it’s a crucial question!—because your Big Resolution depends on the answer. Do you have an emotional connection to your New Year health & fitness goal? If so, is it positive or negative? Does your goal have meaning to you? How do you feel about your resolution?

The big word here is motivation. There are several types and the one that’s driving a new year’s resolution can make it or break it.

I found an excellent three-part series from Psychology Today called Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track (Part I, Part II, Part III.) The article does an excellent job of discussing several different flavors of motivation. Two types of motivation will get you where you want to be. The other two… aren’t so helpful.

Identified and intrinsic motivation

Part I of the article describes these two types of motivation as follows:

“Identified motivation is when you have a positive view of losing weight or it is a behavior that you value. Maybe you want to be healthy for a loved one and your future together. For identified motivation there is a strong sense of personal importance and meaningfulness in the task.

Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of self-determination because the behavior is engaged for its own sake, for the simple pleasure and interest in the activity. This motivation involves a focus on the task and produces energizing emotions such as interest, enjoyment, and challenge.”

An example of identified motivation might be a grandparent or parent who recognizes the value of being healthy, strong, and able so he or she can keep up with the kids and grandkids. These people value a high quality of life and they see that a vigorous exercise and healthy eating is the way to get there.

I’ve met a lot of people in the gym like this. Exercise may not be their first love but a positive sense of purpose drives their actions.

I’ll use myself as someone who is intrinsically motivated to exercise and eat right. Essentially I love to pick up heavy things and sweat a lot. I love the process of training for a race or a bike tour. I love being in the gym with the weights. Skiing, cycling, and hiking are pure fun. I do these things for the sake of doing them. They are a reward in themselves.

Both types of motivation involve high degrees of autonomy. An individual motivated in such a way makes a conscious choice to engage in exercise, healthy eating and the like. His or her values and identity align closely with their healthy lifestyle and action. His or her efforts toward fitness occupies a significant and positive place in his or her life. Thus a trip to the gym, a run, a bike ride a swim or a healthy meal is motivated from within.

Part II of the article discusses two studies (here and here) that looked at long-lasting weight-loss management to understand why some people are successful while so many others are not. Regarding the findings the article says:

“These groundbreaking findings have shown that what plays a central role in the maintenance of exercise and physical activity behaviors are:

  • Enjoyment
  • Perception of competence
  • And intrinsic reasons for weight loss”

External and introjected motivation

External and introjected motivation are a stark contrast to identified and intrinsic motivation. The article describes these motivations:

“External motivation works on external demands and operates on the contingency of if/then:

‘If I lose 10 pounds, then I will go to my 15 year high school reunion.’

This motivation is purely external to your interest in losing weight. It is done in order to obtain a reward or avoid a negative consequence.

Introjected motivation is also motivated by external reasons to change. But it differs from external motivation in that it is done for somewhat internal reasons as well.

The problem, however, is that these internal reasons are negatively focused. They come from feelings of guilt or shame.”

It’s clear that these types of motivation involve doing something the individual would rather not do. Negativity is at the core. There’s far less autonomy, less control by the individual in their choice and probably no fun at all. External forces are largely in charge here. We are rarely happy when we perceive that something is forced on us.

If someone is extrinsically motivated he or she isn’t necessarily doomed. The article says:

“In one study conducted in England on 425 government employees, researchers found that extrinsic motives such as appearance and weight management dominated in the early stages while reasons related to intrinsic motivation such as for enjoyment or revitalization were stronger in the maintenance stage.

Studies such as this show that external or introjected motivation can produce results but only in the short term, and as we know, weight-loss is a long term problem.

It’s okay to have extrinsic motivation as long as you are not operating only on extrinsic motivation.”

The F-word and the S-word

I’m not talking about those F- and S-words. I’m talking about feeling and should. In reality we pursue all of our fitness endeavors because we want to feel a certain way. We may want to feel strong, healthy, sexy, or confident. Maybe we feel exhilaration or feel a sense of accomplishment at the achievement of a challenging goal. These are positive fuel sources for our efforts.

On the other hand, we may pursue a fitness goal because we feel we should. We feel we should look better because we feel external pressure from popular images, peers and/or family.

My guess is that what drives these negative shoulds are hopes of alleviating lots of negative feelings. We may not feel loved or worthwhile. Maybe we feel guilt, shame, rejection or intense social pressure to look a certain way. Whether we fully know it or not, we may believe that being thin or muscular will give us a feeling of peace, love and acceptance.

The problem here is we are basing our happiness on how others perceive us. Chances are that if these negative motivations are driving us then even if we become muscular and thin—then all we are is muscular and thin… But we’re still miserable. Who wants that?

Finding positive motivation

There are some strategies that may help. I won’t reprint everything on the subject, but Part III of the article discusses something the writer calls the Foundational Why. This goes to the real reason(s) why you’re working out, dieting, etc.:

“Start by sitting down with paper and pencil and write down why you want to lose weight or get in shape. Write down every reason that you can think of.

After you have gotten all of your thoughts down, go over your responses.

What are the reasons? Do they come from outside yourself or from within? If they come from within, how much are they integrated with your sense of self?

For example, let’s say one of your responses is similar to one of the following:

  • Because I should
  • Because I am ashamed of my weight
  • Because I want to look good for summer

If any of these sounds close to your answers, it means that you are working from extrinsic motivation.”

Following this Foundational Why process, the article discusses the You-at-Your-Best Exercise. It goes like this:

“Think of a time where you felt you were at your personal best. What were you doing? Who were you with?

This event is like a snapshot of you in your finest hour and something that you feel most proud of. It could be a really big action or it could be a small action but it exemplifies you and your character.

Write down this event in detail and then go over it. What does this event say about what you value in life, about what individual strengths you already possess, about what you enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did you choose this event?
  • Why is it meaningful to you?
  • What does it symbolize or represent?

The You at Your Best Exercise will help you connect improving your health to things that you really care about, to things that mean something to you, by showing you what your personal drivers are. 

For example, perhaps this exercise reveals that you are someone for whom family is really important. In which case, think of your foundational why in terms of your loved ones or connect them with your health goals. It could be exercising with your partner, or perhaps going on walks with your parents.

It may reveal that you get energy from your sense of ambition. In which case, setting ambitious goals is something that you value and drives you to succeed. Maybe then sign up for an upcoming marathon?

Perhaps it reveals that when you are at your best you are using your humor and sense of play. If so, consider how to tap into that energy when deciding what fitness classes or activities to join. For some people, the addition of wearing silly socks to the gym can change their attitude to working out. 

The idea behind this exercise is to understand what naturally interests you in order to draw upon that to create lifestyle changes that you will enjoy.”

It’s sort of in the touchy-feely realm but I like these ideas a lot. If someone has any negative emotions around fitness, exercise and new year’s resolutions then this type of work should be mandatory for achieving those gleaming goals. (Never mind exercise and fitness, understanding our motives is crucial for achievement in any discipline.) Through it we gain valuable awareness of ourselves, what drives us and what’s most important to us. There is simply nothing more important for success.

Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)


I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the Running-physio.com article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.


Practice Makes Perfect: An Analysis


We know that skill building and retention of skills involves practice.   We practice swimming, typing, putting, free throws, dance moves–all with the expectation that we’ll improve those skills.  I think most of us would agree that swimming probably won’t do much to improve our putting.  Nor will practicing our cursive handwriting improve our soccer skills.  In other words, we need to practice specifically those skills and tasks that want to improve.

To that point, we in the exercise field are familiar with the SAID Principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.  It means we adapt to the stresses and stimulation which we’re subjected to.  It’s the SAID principle at work when a swimmer swims and thus gets better at swimming.  Or why a boxer improves his skill through boxing.  In order to improve a skill then we’d better practice that skill.  A new study however tells us that if we’re willing to deviate just a bit during our practice sessions then we’ll probably learn better.

Why (Smart) Practice Makes Perfect comes from Science Daily and Athletic Edge: Does Practice Really Make Perfect comes from Time Magazine.  Both pieces profile research done by USC and UCLA neuroscientists.  The study featured six groups who practiced an arm movement pattern that mimicked a pattern on a computer screen.  The more accurate the subjects’ arm movements the better they scored.   Three of the groups practiced the arm movement only while three other groups practiced the arm movement plus other arm movements that were similar to the target movement.  The groups were then tested 24 hours after their practice sessions.  The variable practice group scored significantly better than the rote practice group.  Why?

“In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply,” said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC.

“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said.

“While it may be harder during practice to switch between tasks … you end up remembering the tasks better later than you do if you engage in this drill-like practice,” Winstein said.

This research is particularly fascinating as it coincides very much with a book I’m reading,  Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. In it, Doidge profiles various individuals with brain injuries and diseases and describes their efforts at rehabilitation.  Often these people have lost use of language skills, thinking or cognitive skills, and/or their ability to move or their motor skills.  They must focus to learn anew skills that are common to most of us.  It is through intense concentration and focus that these individuals are able to regain these damaged brain functions.  It seems a key aspect of this process isn’t just the learning of new skills–but it’s the very act of concentrating that brings success.

What might this mean for fitness enthusiasts and athletes?  It means that if you’ve tuned out during your workout then you’re probably not getting all that you could be getting out of your effort.  It means that doing the same workout over and over will yield fewer benefits than adding challenging variety to your routine.

In gyms, I see a lot of people who tuned out long ago.  They sit on the same bicep curl machine and curl the same weight the same way they did the last 1000 times they came in to workout.  Or they’re on the same elliptical machine going at the same pace for the same amount of time as they’ve always done.

Clients often struggle with new exercises.  They may be very comfortable with certain movements but try and add something new and it can be a bit of a battle sometimes.  Our brains aren’t always happy about making our limbs move in new ways! Kettlebell and Olympic lifts for instance, require more skill and coordination than calf raises or pec deck flyes.  But if we look to this latest research it may make sense that just as lifting the barbell is healthy for our bones and muscles, the challenge of learning these new complicated tasks is in fact just as healthy for our brains.