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How To Create Health & Fitness Goals That Bring You Joy, Not Stress

Helen Phelan
January 7, 2021
Helen Phelan
Certified Pilates Instructor
By Helen Phelan
Certified Pilates Instructor
Helen Phelan is body neutral pilates instructor, intuitive eating coach, reiki practitioner, prenatal/postpartum corrective exercise specialist.
(Last Used: 1/5/21) Woman Checking Her Fitness Tracker at the Gym
Image by Mihajlo Ckovric / Stocksy
January 7, 2021

Resolution and intention setting is an incredible way to set yourself up for success. By getting clear about what you want and creating a detailed plan to get there, you're much more likely to accomplish your goals.

Knowing this, resolving to "get healthy" in January of each year might sound like a positive action—but when your reasoning is rooted in diet culture and aesthetic aspirations, New Year's resolutions can sometimes do more harm than good. 

What is "diet culture"?

Diet culture is a value system rooted in thinness as worthiness, health, and beauty. It dictates that certain ways of eating—and the people who eat that way—are "bad" and others "good." Diet culture and the wellness industry are inextricably linked because we as a society associate thinness with health. The problem with this is that health looks different on different bodies—your friend or favorite influencer's healthiest weight may not be yours. 

In truth, most diets are unsustainable and can even lead to weight gain in the future. This cycle is what makes the diet industry thrive because we keep coming back for more. When society conditions us to be perpetually unhappy with our bodies and disconnected from our own physiological cues, we look to diets for guidance. We are especially primed for this at the beginning of a new year.

When fitness goals are bad for your health.

Every year, my Pilates students inevitably have the same resolutions. They bring up eliminating food groups, getting on a disciplined exercise schedule, and finally sticking to a strict diet. Those all sound like the keys to being healthy, right? Not to mention, they also sound really virtuous. Therein lies the issue: Diet culture often perpetuates these idealized ways of "promoting health," which are really code for weight loss. The issue with this is that not all bodies are healthier smaller. And for some people, repeatedly engaging with a diet cycle may actually be worse for health than simply being in a larger body.

Even if we ate and moved exactly alike, we’d still all look different.

We also shouldn't equate health with morality in the first place, because it has nothing to do with how good of a person you are—not to mention, access to wellness is often a bigger determining factor of your health than self-discipline.

Setting fitness goals can be an incredible way of caring for your body and nurturing your overall health—but it's important to examine the real "why" behind each intention. You're perfectly entitled to aesthetic goals, but when we confuse beauty with health, things can get dangerous.

How to set healthy, happy goals—and stick to them.

If your goal is to "get healthy" in 2021, I encourage you to think deeper about what that means to you. To be successful with your goal setting, you need clarity to start.

If health means exercising regularly, I agree! However, if it means exercising with the sole intent of weight loss, you'll probably start to dread it and see it as punishment. That means, you likely won't stick to your goal long term, and your mental health may suffer as a result of daily body-shaming and disordered exercise habits.

Rather, I suggest finding an exercise modality that brings you joy and paying attention to how your body feels when you're moving (this is a practice I call intuitive exercise). Using that mood, energy, and confidence boost as your motivation will help foster a much longer-lasting habit.

If "being healthy" means sticking to a strict diet, again, I ask why you feel that way. If you're eliminating major food groups—without an allergy or medical reason—it may not actually be in service of your health. Of course, organic, nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods are certainly good for the body. However, if you don't enjoy anything you eat or you don't eat large enough portions to fuel your body, you could end up injured and depleted—the exact opposite of healthy.

I recommend reframing this goal to thinking about how often can you add in nutritious ingredients rather than focusing on removing foods from your diet. This takes you out of a scarcity mindset and encourages a stronger bodily intuition. Plus, being satisfied by your meals means it won't take effort to continue eating in a beneficial way. 

We've been sold by diet culture that if we diet and exercise a specific way, we'll look a specific way, which couldn't be more wrong. Even if we ate and moved exactly alike, we'd still all look different—and this diversity is a good thing. Instead of focusing on aesthetics, I encourage you to try making specific functional bench marks that demonstrate meaningful improvements to your fitness. For instance, being able to make it through the day energetically (without four lattes) or feel strong enough to carry your baby without back pain.

Bottom line.

When translating these ideas to your own specific health and wellness goals, remember to pay attention to what you actually want to achieve. If you truly want to improve your health, it's important to consider your mental health and real-life needs; otherwise, you'll be missing a huge piece of the puzzle.  

Helen Phelan author page.
Helen Phelan
Certified Pilates Instructor

Helen Phelan is body neutral pilates instructor, intuitive eating coach, reiki practitioner, prenatal/postpartum corrective exercise specialist, and creator of Helen Phelan Studio, a virtual pilates studio app and community for womxn craving movement that feels amazing, minus the body shaming.