11/06/2013 10:43 EST | Updated 11/21/2013 02:33 EST

Know Your Limits: Setting Fitness Expectations

In the movies, an average Joe can turn into a ripped body builder after only a few brief scenes of them slugging a punching bag. In reality, getting into shape looks a lot different. Building up your endurance and strength takes months at best and sometimes years. If you’re looking to run a marathon, get a six pack, or even just be able to ride your bike around the neighbourhood with your kids, we’ll tell you why you should pace yourself and prepare for a long, rewarding experience.

Goals are important for success

Countless studies have found that setting goals is crucial to achieving success, particularly when it comes to fitness; the Government of Canada recommends that you make an action plan before embarking on a new healthy lifestyle. But don’t set your sights too high; when you’re choosing a path, they suggest you set S.M.A.R.T. goals -- that is, goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Small goals keep you motivated

Setting fitness goals for yourself is crucial to success -- after all, you can’t achieve anything if you don’t have a plan. But don’t try to plan to get into Olympiad-shape within weeks. Have a big picture goal on the horizon -- being able to run a half marathon, for instance -- but keep the milestones small so you don’t get frustrated by the amount of time it’s taking to get there. Start with a goal of running a few kilometres at a time and work up from there.

Goals give you an action plan

Making a goal for yourself to achieve in six months is fine and dandy, but how are you going to know where to start? And how will you know if you’re on track? Set small milestones along the way and specific dates for you to achieve. It will help keep you on track and help you understand if you need to adjust your end result.

Give your body time to improve

If you try to do too much too quickly, you’re making yourself prone to painful and frustrating injuries that can set you back weeks or even months in your fitness routine. Recovery time is important -- give your body time to adjust to your new active lifestyle by taking a couple of days off a week to let your body rest. You don’t have to be a slug on those days -- just do something gentle and restorative like yoga or walking.

Write it down

Having a goal in your head is a start, but it’s not enough to keep you going each day. As the Mayo Clinic suggests, write down your specific goals and outline a plan to get there. Fill your calendar with individual milestones to keep you on track and remind you to keep going.

Reduce stress by planning ahead

Setting small, achievable steps will reduce the stress of trying to achieve something with no action plan. Not only will goals help you reduce stress by allowing you to feel like you’re in control, they’ll also help you manage your time better because you’ll have a specific schedule that you can stick to each week.

Share your success

You may be annoyed by that facebook friend who always posts about their workout, but they may be onto something -- a study from North Carolina shows that people who share their fitness and weight loss goals and everyday successes on social networking sites are more likely to actually achieve their long-term goals than those who don’t.

Don’t go at it alone

Research shows that women who regularly work out with an exercise buddy are more likely to train harder and more consistently than those who do it alone. If you’re serious about getting into shape, find a friend who will join you on the journey and set goals together.

Give yourself some motivation

Losing weight and getting fit are great benefits of an active lifestyle, but they might not be enough motivation to keep you going over the next few months. For instance, studies show that people do better with healthy changes when there’s some sort of monetary payoff at stake. Reward yourself along the way with something small -- a new pair of runners or a massage, for example -- for your small achievements, and something big -- such as a trip or a big shopping spree -- when you meet your ultimate goal.

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