The Principles of Sustainable Fitness How to increase your chances of sticking with a fitness regimen over the long haul

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Once we move into the post-holiday period, extremes in fitness and eating behaviours start to emerge. The indulgences at family gatherings catapult into strict, rigid eating routines after Christmas. We fall into the commercialization of “New Year’s resolutions” where we’re sold aspirational “wellness” goals by the fitness industry—promising that this year is going to be your best one yet if you can cut back on the sugar, get a gratitude journal, invest your life savings into quinoa, and swap your coffee for a new matcha addiction.

While there is nothing wrong with wanting to become healthier in the New Year and focus on our physical health, oftentimes, the goals we set run counter to sustainability. They are not set-up to be maintained over the long haul. Designating a number to your weight loss goals, focusing on intensity of our workouts over consistency (making them hard most of the time), and enforcing rigid eating behaviors can hinder your ability to stick with it. 

It’s become ubiquitous at this point that most New Year fitness resolutions tied to your physical appearance alone fail. While the exact dropout rate varies, most point to a success rate of less than 10% over a 12-mo period. In this post, I’ll outline some common pitfalls to look out for, while also offering some alternative advice on how we can set health-related goals in the upcoming year; goals that we can actually obtain, but also habits we can form that can be upheld over the long haul.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

If your only goal for adopting a new fitness regimen is aesthetics alone, meaning to get lean, jacked, or obtain an overall more ‘toned’ appearance, then you chances of success are slim. External rewards, like validation from others or seeking social approval are all part of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation, while strong at the start, is ephemeral, meaning it ain’t gonna last. While we’re all human with egos, and can succumb to our vain instincts from time-to-time, in order to succeed and be consistent in not only fitness, but any of our endeavours, motivation needs to be a bit deeper rooted. Intrinsic means we are motivated by internal rewards like self-growth, developing competency, more connection and community, having autonomy or taking control of our own lives. Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan deduced that the keys to motivation can be broken down to these intrinsic factors:

    1. Competency: Watching ourselves progress, develop skills, and get better at something is highly motivating and gratifying.
    2. Autonomy: Taking the reins of our lives and making decisions for ourselves is also motivating. We don’t like being told what to do by friends, family, our partners, the media, or society at large. Deciding what we want for us, and us alone (for our own well-being and health) is highly motivating.
    3. Relatedness: Community involvement, developing relationships with others, and connecting on a related activity or hobby is another form of intrinsic motivation. Going for a run with a group or friend(s), joining fitness classes or a sports team, or even holding friendly push-up competitions with colleagues, are all forms of relatedness. 

While none of us are completely devoid of extrinsic—we all want external rewards like compliments on our efforts, social validation, and the likewe’ll want to emphasize the intrinsic, if we want to make fitness part of our lives over the long term. 

Replace the “All-or-Nothing” attitude with “Everything Counts”

I’m guilty of harboring this all-or-nothing or ‘go big or go home’ attitude when it comes to fitness and nutrition. This pre-dispositioned belief that if I didn’t hit a certain amount of mileage it wouldn’t count, or if I’m not profusely sweating after exercising then I didn’t work hard enough. I’ve fallen prey to this mentality and still do at times. I was operating under the notion that I needed to run 5 miles minimum every day—nothing less would suffice. I need to be sweating and getting my glazed donut skin on, breathing heavy with my heart rate elevated or else it ain’t a workout. It’s taken a lot of work, but what’s helped me uphold a consistent regimen over the last 14 years and a run streak now surpassing 5.5 years, is shifting my mentality from “all-or-nothing” to “everything counts.” Everything. 

Harnessing the perspective that everything counts, helped me feel content with my workout even if I wasn’t able to clock as much mileage as normal. I allowed myself to take it easy more often, do low intensity, and run at a slower pace.  I felt a sense of accomplishment for just showing up and doing something—especially on the days where I had zero energy and felt like shit.

It’s this all-or-nothing mentality that had prevented me from taking incremental steps each day to improvenot just with running, but with every skill I wanted to develop. This attitude kills progress—impeding the material gains that crystallize from the compounding of small efforts over time. In the book The Passion Paradox, authors Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg write,  “those who go big or go home often end up going home. Those who go incrementally over a long period of time often end up with something big.” Lacing up your shoes and running for 5 minutes counts. Running a mile counts. Running half a mile counts. Remember, everything counts.

Consistency Trumps Intensity. Period.

In a similar vein, many people approach their workouts with the mentality that workouts should be intense and challenge you. If our workouts aren’t hard, are we really even working out? No pain, no gain. Isn’t that the motto that we all need to follow? I would say, the more pain, the less gain for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the most obvious result of going hard each workout is burnout over the long term. It’s not sustainable to be pushing 100% every time we show up to our workout (unless we workout sporadically and inconsistently). Secondly, recovery time is going to be much longer. Overtraining syndrome (OTS) can cause some serious consequences not only to our physical bodies, but also our mental health; it can cause lethargy, low energy, bad moods, and even depression.

While we all have different limits in terms of how much intensity we can endure (and sustain) based on experience, genetics, and how much we love working out more generally, a good rule of thumb for what we can consider “easy” vs. “hard” is the Pareto principle, aka the 80/20 rule. 80% of our workouts should feel easy (and most importantly, enjoyable!) and only 20% should feel hard. Of course if we want to build muscle in the gym, we need to apply the principles of progressive overload and get close to hitting technical muscle failure (RIR < 3)*, we need to subjectively determine when workouts are becoming too much of a chore. If you’re feeling procrastination creep in more often, increased soreness and recovery time needed in-between workouts, or straight up dread, it may be time to pump the brakes a bit. The goal, remember, is to enjoy your workouts, and they should in fact feel easy most of the time. Intensity runs counter to consistency. Keep this in mind.

*Muscle failure defined here as not being able to perform any more reps in a given set; we physically cannot lift any more. The intensity scale used is either rate-of-perceived exertion (RPE) or reps-in-reserve (RIR). In the bodybuilding world, the term used most commonly is RIR; and RIR of 3 means we have 3 reps left in the tank in a given set before we hit muscle failure.

Be Wary of the Stats

There’s has been no bigger catalyst in the stripping of motivation and meaning from my running/training than obsessing over the stats. Time and time again, I used to find myself getting hung up on the number on the scale, my pace, or personal bests on lifts. None of these numbers are truly representative of the progress I’ve made and the truth is, they’re going to fluctuate a lot. Think of it this way: say you want to build a portfolio of index funds and bonds with the goal of retiring in 20 years. You know the principle of investing and that is, the stock market always goes up over the long-term.

If you keep putting your money in consistently, every month, you’re going to have major gains at the end of the 20 years. But if you check-in on your investments every day, you’re going to be subject to the many swings and fluctuations of the stock market. Your emotions are going to be wrapped in short-term fluctuationsyou may panic and sell everything because of how much you lost in a single day or resolve to quit the stock market for good. Our emotions in the short-term will blind us from the rational principle that is, the stock market will go up–despite all the short-term ups and downs. 

We can draw the same parallels with fitness. The number on the scale moves constantly. You could be 5 lbs lighter this morning and 5 lbs heavier in the afternoon. In fact, the scale is oftentimes a deceptive liar, but we’ll save my gripes on that subject for another day. Same with pace. We’re not going to improve our running times every single workout, so don’t expect hitting that PB every type you lace up your shoes. In fact, it’s the easy runs that will help us get faster. 

Making progress in our fitness goals is never a straight, upward line. We need to always remind ourselves of the big picture and the long term goal of incorporating fitness into our lives. Throughout our journey, we’ll move backwards, sideways, downwards, stay at a standstill for a while before finally moving up. The short term fluctuations in our fitness doesn’t matter. We’re in it for the long game.

Reframing Exercise as a Gift vs. a Chore

In Michelle Segar’s incredible book No Sweat, she elucidates how many of her clients struggle with including exercise because they frame their workouts as a should, a must, or a chore. If we approach fitness as something we should be doing or have to be doing, it’s going to feel like a burdenour minds are powerful instruments.  If our doctor tells us we need to lose weight for our health, it’s going to go back to SDT and autonomy. Someone else telling us we need to do something is not very motivating. We like our independence and to make choices independently. The alternative is to reframe exercise and movement as a giftsomething that truly enriches our livesespecially if we hold able-bodied privilege. The benefits of exercise gifts us improved physical and mental health, more productivity, a calmer state of mind, and can be a coping mechanism to help with anxiety. Reminding ourselves that our workouts, our own little time for us, are indeed a gift. Keeping this top of mind will help us not only appreciate but also look forward to our workouts.

Build Your Mental Toolbox

In my book, Find Your Stride, I present the idea of a mental toolbox; comprised of collecting sources of inspiration, anecdotes, fitness advice, and jotting down some positives you gained from your workouts, and storing these in a physical place that you can refer back to when motivation is down. It’s easy to go back to old behaviors and forget the fact that you enjoy the activity for the sake of the activity itself; not as a means to an endwhatever that final “goal” is for you. For me, it’s the constant reminder that my daily runs are not a matter of calories in vs. calories out, but rather, it’s a time to let go of the day and disconnect, jam out to some music, listen to a course or audiobook, immerse myself in nature and reap the cathartic benefits of being outdoors. Think of the toolbox as a place to grab motivation on the gosimilar to a gel or chew on your long runs that will provide you with the glycogen spike and increased energy, your toolbox is accessible to you always. You can always grab that intrinsic energy when you need it.

Choose a Range of Success 

An alternative to this counterproductive attitude of “all-or-nothing” is to create what Michelle Segar calls, “a continuum of success”—that is, choosing a low-end and high-end range of what you consider a successful workout vs. a specific goal. The low-end range, for example, could be running a mile or going for a 20 minute walk. The high end could be a 10K run. “Anywhere you land on that continuum,” Michelle writes, “is a success.”

A 2013 study in the Journal of Consumer Research titled The Effect of Goal Specificity on Consumer Goal Reengagement supports this idea by deducing that people are more likely to re-engage with a goal when it’s in a range vs. a fixed valuehelping it feel more attainable. Researchers Scott and Nowlis write, “This effect is driven by the greater attainability and greater challenge of the high-low range goal, which then leads to a greater feeling of accomplishment.” 

By creating a range vs. a specific goal, we’re more likely to celebrate the little win of merely showing up and doing something—creating positive associations with the experience, and thus increasing our likelihood of consistent repeated action—the impetus behind the attainment of our bigger, long term endeavours. 

Practice Self-Compassion

When we fail to show up for our workouts repeatedly, stick with a nutrition plan for any period of time, or fail repeatedly to hit our body recomposition goals, we often turn this problem inwards on ourselves. We resolve that it is an “us” problem—that we lack self-discipline, that we’re lazy, unmotivated, human sloths. The mind is creative with its insults. What we don’t realize is that it is not us per se that is the problem, but it is the framing of how we perceive exercise and nutrition. The main thesis of my book Find Your Stride is that there is no one-size-fits-all universal, dogmatic plan that will work for everyone, but rather, fitness needs to be framed as a lifelong experiment. That we need to position ourselves as an explorer or scientist who does not just accept what we hear and read in the fitness industry as gospel, but rather, as information to test out—to see if it is a fit for our own individual selves. By adopting this perspective, we can be kinder to ourselves and practice self-compassion. I’d be remiss without mentioning the incredible work by Dr. Kristen Neff who incorporates Buddhist psychology into her definition of self-compassion. Neff writes in a paper titled Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being, “Self-compassion entails three main components which overlap and mutually interact: Self-kindness versus self-judgment, feelings of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification.” In sum, being kinder to ourselves, realizing that we’re all human with flaws, prone to many errors, and learning to deal with those mean voices can only aid us in our fitness journey—which is not a linear battle. We can learn to step outside of outcomes, escape perfectionism, and be more malleable in how we approach our goals.

A Call-to-Action

If you’re going to take anything from the article, it’s this: be very wary of setting any sort of metric-focused fitness goals in the New Year. Instead, focus on the process, on developing lifelong habits, and uncovering the intrinsic motivation to keep you going. I hope these principles of sustainability in fitness help you in what matters: uncovering the many ongoing gifts of exercise, and to help you be consistent over the course of your lifetime. I wish you all the happiness and success in 2023! 🙂



  1. This resonates with me so much. Consistency of movement is so important. I always have to remind myself that like all things, physical fitness requires consistency. There are no shortcuts or overnight miracles. It’s about forming lifestyle habits more than anything. I fell off my routine over the last 1.5 years with an extremely stressful job that left me so mentally exhausted everyday. I’m no longer at that job though and starting to rebuild my routine!

    • So happy to hear that, Sarah! Thank you for the feedback 🙂 x

  2. What a great post. I’m all about that sustainability. I’ve worked out every day (mostly, at least), and the only reason I’ve been able to maintain that pace is because I listen to my body and move accordingly.

    I’m not bound by yesterday’s numbers or PRs. I just do what I need to do till I get that endorphin buzz and I’m all good. Some days that means a 10km run. Some days it’s a 5km walk-run.

    Anyway, great message to put out there!

    • Love this, Stuart – such a great perspective! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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