Resolved to get fit? Be SMART about it

Free workout machines are a rare find at fitness centres these days, including the one in McGill’s Sports Complex. But the crowds will thin out before long, gym vets say. / Photo: Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Free workout machines are a rare find at fitness centres these days, including the one in McGill’s Sports Complex. But the crowds will thin out before long, gym vets say. / Photo: Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Makers of New Year’s resolutions need a plan, prof says

By Jim Hynes

Regular gym or fitness club goers will tell you, January is hell. The exercise machines and classes have been taken over by the “resolutioners,” those well-meaning but ultimately hopeless makers of vague plans to “lose weight” or “get in shape.” The only thing to do, gym veterans will say, is to wait them out. Things usually get back to normal by February when most of the newbies have thrown in their barely used towel.

So why do most people end up giving up on their health-motivated New Year’s resolutions? It’s because they’re not being SMART about it, says Ross Andersen, a professor in the department of Kinesiology and Education and a Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Physical Activity and Health.

“In my business we talk about SMART goals, SMART as in Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely,” said Andersen, an exercise physiology expert with research interests in obesity treatment, physical activity interventions, epidemiology, aging, public health surveillance and health disparities, and physical activity policy.

“‘I want to lose weight’ is not a measurable thing,” Andersen said. “How do you define ‘losing weight?’ Is losing a pound good enough? Is losing 30 pounds realistic? I think people need to be thinking about a concrete measurement process so that they can say at some point, ‘I have attained my goal. I’ve succeeded at my resolution.'”

“The problem with resolutions is that they are faint. They’re really not all that well thought out. Most people who need to lose weight know it, but they don’t know how to go about it,” said Andersen. “What are you going to do to lose weight? Who can help you? Where are you going to do this? When are you going to do this? Have you established a time frame? Can you afford a gym membership right now?”

These are the questions people need to consider before diving into a fitness program, Andersen said, and being realistic about them and oneself is one of the keys to success.

“Someone who wants to lose 30 pounds in six months needs to break it down, understand that they are talking about losing almost a pound every week, and then ask themselves if they’re being realistic, if their goal is attainable,” Andersen said. “The same goes for dieters. They read about diets where you can lose eight pounds a week. But for most people, when you do the metabolic arithmetic, that’s just not possible. We need to help people with realistic goal setting and making changes that will be permanent.”

Timing is everything, too.

“It’s really important for people to look at the timing of things, and say ‘yes I’d like to lose weight, but I’ve got a really stressful month ahead of me at work, or ‘I’m going through something very difficult in my personal life’, so the timing is not right. For someone like that we might put them into a weight maintenance program and tell them to wait until the timing is better. To be successful with a resolution people have to be ready and able to do the work that’s necessary,” Andersen said. “Because the last thing we want to do is have somebody start and fail at it within a couple of weeks. Then they just feel like another dieting failure. People need to have a really good plan.”

Andersen, whose CRC research involves physical activity in the treatment of obesity and novel strategies to promote active living and weight management, came to McGill from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2007. He and the members of his current work group run clinical trials and undertake exercise interventions looking at how people can lose weight and keep it off. They’ll soon be conducting their research in a state-of-the-art lab/gym. Later this month, work will begin on a 7500 ßsquare-foot health promotion centre in the Currie Gymnasium. The finished centre will be one of the biggest and best of its kind in Canada, complete with dedicated exercise equipment, resistance and aerobic training equipment, an aerobic dance studio, and special measuring and monitoring equipment, all dedicated to health research for overweight people.