The gym is always packed at the beginning of January, but come February, the numbers inevitably fall off. Why do we start out with the best of intentions to get into shape, only to scrap the whole plan when something good comes on Netflix?

This week, we chatted with Kathleen Trotter (MSc, CSN) about how we self-sabotage our own progress, and how we can harness a growth mindset to reach our goals. “My mission is to inspire as many people as possible to adopt (in an intelligent way) a healthier lifestyle and to make healthier choices because they love themselves,” she notes, “not because they hate themselves.”

SDTC: Why do you think people start out a fitness/healthy eating regimen all gung-ho and then give up when they don’t see immediate results?

KT: We all have a unique “recipe” of self-sabotage—no two people derail their progress in exactly the same way.

Common ingredients include the following:

  • Unrealistic expectations: Most of us want change yesterday.
  • A lack of clear goals or a concrete, meaningful “why.”
  • Unrealistic (or non-existent) planning: If you don’t take the time to “set yourself up for success,” you are setting yourself up for failure. (I am sure you have heard the platitude “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” Well, when it comes to your health this adage is absolutely true.)
  • Perfectionism: The opposite of getting sh*t done, a poison capable of eroding any goal. Too many of us buy into the mindset of “If I can’t do a perfect workout or eat a perfect diet, I might as well not even try.” Wrong, something is ALWAYS better than nothing. A twenty-minute workout is better than no workout. One cookie is not the same as five cookies and wine.

My tagline to sum up waning motivation and derailed progress is that we typically “make fitness wishes not fitness goals.” The road to success is paved with realistic, meaningful goals. Sure, start with a “fitness wish,” but turn the wish into a reality by establishing realistic, safe, meaningful, and sustainable long- and short-term goals.

Here are a few tips for making “goals not wishes”:

– Stop using the “I am too busy” excuse; it is too often used as a dismissive catch-all for abandoning health goals. You may be too busy to get to the gym, but you can always find ways to be active. Something is always better than nothing. Go for a walk, take the stairs, or do some calisthenics as you watch your child play their sport.

– On a connected note, embrace that YOU have to make and set your own priorities and boundaries. If you don’t, someone else will.

– Don’t aim to change all your health habits at once. Establish two or three realistic goal—write them down. Make sure your goals reflect how much time and energy you actually have (not how much you want to have), your finances, and your equipment. Make a plan of action; figure out in advance the WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW of your workout plan. Establish a detailed plan of action. WHERE and WHEN will you work out? Will you join a gym and go before work, join a running group, set up a home gym, or play a sport? WHAT exercise will you do? Plan to do something you actually enjoy, or at least something you don’t hate. If you love being outside, research the local ravine system or find a nature-walking group. If you love group sports, find a convenient team to join. If you know you need help being accountable, get a fitness buddy. WHEN do you want to accomplish your goal by? Be specific. If you want to lose weight, how much and by when? Break the goal down—how much per week? If you want to get stronger, what exactly does that mean? HOW will you fit in your training? What accommodations do you need to make? Do you need to rearrange who will drive the kids to school? Do you need to block off time during your work day? Do you need to download fitness podcasts so you can train in your living room? Do you need to arrange daycare so you can train after work?

– Establish both long- and short-term goals. Breaking goals down into smaller, more manageable pieces can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

– Set specific, individually tailored goals. Don’t waste your life wanting to look like a celebrity or to be a waif if you don’t have that physique. Aim to be the best and healthiest version of you that you can be. Factors that will influence how much weight you can and should lose are your age, gender, metabolism, and past weight-loss history.

– Don’t just exercise because your doctor or spouse tells you it is healthy; form goals that are relevant and important to YOU. Find your WHY. I strength train so I can run injury-free for life. My dad stays fit so he can play hockey. Do YOU. Be YOU.

– Learn from yourself and others. Learn from your successes, as well as your less-than-ideal choices. Learn from others, then implement any strategies that speak to you and your lifestyle.

How can we change our mindset to focus on long-term fitness goals?

Embrace the “process.” Adopt a growth mindset.

Focus on the health journey, not just the end result. I know it sounds corny, but “health” really is a journey with no end date or finish line. Adopting and maintaining a healthier lifestyle is a life-long process. Diets have completion dates. A lifestyle is just that, a life. Healthy people don’t reach a set date and stop being mindful about their health. Sure, you might find it motivating to establish small goals along the way—week- or month-long challenges—but the shorter challenges have to be understood as part of a grander long-term process.

Not only is health a process, it is a privilege. “Having” to eat well and move is not something being “done to you.” Making healthy choices is something you are doing FOR YOURSELF. You are not five. You are an adult. Stop rebelling with the “I deserve” mentality. You know what I am talking about…“I deserve this cake or to skip a workout.” Embrace that you are choosing to make a change—that you have the privilege of doing something for yourself and your family.

Inherent to the process is developing a growth mindset. What exactly is a growth mindset? It is the skill set to look at every experience as “data” and to think of your health process as a giant feedback loop so you can non-judgmentally learn from every experience. Instead of berating yourself over a regrettable choice, note what you learned from the experience. Did you overeat at a party because you felt out of place? Because you stood next to the food table? Because you were too tired? Learn from these experiences and then set up systems to save yourself from making that identical choice in the future. Set up systems to save yourself from your future self.

Put another way, when you fall of your fitness horse (which you will, because you are human), you get back on as soon as possible, and—more critically—get on as a more informed rider. Correct your course quickly and learn from everything.

What is the most common issue you hear from women who want to get in shape but are struggling?

“My husband (boyfriend, partner, etc.) is reaching his goals faster than I am—even though we started at the same time and I am working harder than he is.”

I joke…but not really.

I get it. I have been there. The trick is to stay in your own health lane. Women—especially as we get older—have to fight an uphill battle. When we unproductively compare ourselves to others (especially the men in our life), it can feel like a ridiculously steep hill. A few variables that affect weight loss are muscle mass, hormones, sleep, metabolism, age, and gender. The older you are, the more female you are (i.e., the less testosterone and growth hormone you have), the less muscle mass you have, the less sleep you get, the harder it will be to lose weight.

So, instead of comparing yourself to others (as Theodore Roosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy”) and unproductively focusing on the elements of life you can’t control, focus on what you CAN control. Sleep, eat well, do intervals, and strength train (muscle mass is key—it will help increase your lean muscle). Work to understand your genetics, your lifestyle realities, and YOUR personal concept of fit. Work within those realistic parameters and, as my dad would say, “Hit YOUR genetics out of the park.”

Have you ever faltered in your fitness journey? 

Have I faltered? OF COURSE! We all falter. Falling is not only part of the process, it is a key component of the process. Falling gives one the opportunity to learn.

My initial sixteen years of life was one big “falter.” I started trending positively when my mom bought the teenage me a membership to the YMCA. That said, the trend absolutely included many a wobble.

Quick backstory: I was a chubby and awkward adolescent. I was taller and larger than everyone, including all the boys. I hated my body and had microscopic levels of self-esteem. I would do anything to get out of gym class. I often cried or faked being sick in an attempt to get to go home. I snuck food. I used to tell my mom I wanted to walk home from school to get fresh air, when really I just wanted to stop and buy fries at the chip wagon. Not my proudest moments.

My life began to change when my mom bought me the YMCA membership. The experience was really the nascence of the cornerstone of my fitness philosophy: “Frame daily motion as a non-negotiable. How you are active is up to you. Match your health plan to your personality and life realities.” I hated being active with my peers, but the demographic at the Y was mostly people under five and over forty, so I felt comfortable enough to at least go and walk on the treadmill. Walking snowballed into weights and running, which snowballed into exercise classes, which snowballed into teaching fitness classes, running marathons, and a desire to make health and wellness a life passion and career.

Sure, I have phases where I pay less attention to my diet, but I have never reverted back to the girl who would lie to the clerk at Subway about “buying a foot-long sub to share with a friend” when really she had every intention of consuming the entire thing. I try not to feel guilt or let one chocolate snowball into turn chocolates; I have one treat, not ten. When I do end up having ten of something, I work to understand why. Then I set up systems to save myself from my future lesser self so I don’t make the same mistake next time. For example, I have learned I LOVE fudge ice-cream bars too much to have them in my house—I eat the entire box. So, I store a stash at my mom’s. When I want one I go there, have a visit, and enjoy one (or two), not the entire box.

We ALL slip sometimes. Adopting a healthier lifestyle is not about “never falling.” It is about learning to fall less intensely and course correcting faster.

Replace the goal of “health perfection” (which simply sets you up for failure, because perfection is not possible) with the goal of “trending positively.” Gradually change your health norms so you have more healthy habits this week/month/year than you did last week/month/year.

What is your best piece of advice for those just starting out? 

The small act you do NOW is much more effective than the grand gesture you put off ‘til tomorrow. Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today. Just start. Have a glass of water. Go for a walk. Act now. Set your “health bar” low enough that you can actually reach it. Accumulate as many “little wins” as possible. Celebrate every little win. Use those little wins to spiral you in the right direction so you can raise the bar.

The good program that you do consistently is better than the perfect program you never do. Consistency is key. Stop trying to find the “perfect” program. Just do something. Start your fitness ball rolling. Go for a walk. Do five minutes of yoga. Create the habit of daily motion. You can always tweak as you go, but if you never start you will never have anything to tweak.

Start. Just START. The journey of a thousand steps starts with a first step. The coin that makes you a millionaire only makes you a millionaire built on the backs of the other coins. To climb a mountain, you have to start at the bottom. Pick any sappy motivational platitude you want; they all mean the same thing—START! Stop thinking and just do.

Don’t focus on the health mountain—it’s too overwhelming! Instead, decide on your first few steps. Embrace that when it comes to your health, working and learning is winning. The only failure is not trying. If you are working, you can always recalibrate and learn from your experience. If you fall, fall from action not inaction. The only true failure is not trying.

Kathleen Trotter is a fitness expert, media personality, personal trainer, writer, life coach, certified Pilates and ELDOA instructor, and overall health enthusiast. Her passion is motivating others to “find their fit” and works with clients ranging from endurance athletes to individuals living with Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis. Her new book, YOUR FITTEST FUTURE SELF: Making Choices Today for a Happier, Healthier, Fitter Future You, takes a functional approach to personal fitness and helps readers learn how to effectively factor their OWN personal health, work/home schedule, and overall lifestyle into their overall fitness plan and goals in order to achieve their “fittest future self.”