Targets: Why some are better than others

First thing I want to say is, targets are good.  They help people reach goals.  If nothing else, they can be used as stepping stones towards an ultimate goal.  They can show the direction to go, your rate of progress in that direction, and they are a good psychological tool making the whole journey more “do-able”.  Some examples of these targets include:

  • Run a certain number of minutes without a break.
  • Cover a certain distance in a certain time.
  • Maintain a certain speed for a certain time.
  • Move a certain weight a specified number or reps.

Exactly what these targets are, and how they are measured is not that important.  And they tend to be different for different people.  All that really matters is that the person knows how to recognise the target, and how to beat it and progress. 

Concept 2 Rowing Machine

One of my favorite bits of kit is the Concept 2 rower.  And one of the reasons I like it, is that you can set many different targets in many different ways.  At the simplest level, you can assess your progress using units of metres, calories or watts. I usually ask what unit the person understands/likes the most, then give them a target using those units.  And because a lot of people want to lose weight, a lot of people choose to measure themselves using calories (they recognise the unit and it is relevant to their goal)…and I have always been fine about that and let them party on.   But recently I found a person where this would be a bad move.  They were setting themselves targets (which is good), but had become obsessed with the calorie display.  They were now judging everything by the number of calories the machines were saying they were burning.  She now knows which machines give the highest calorie counts (regardless of the work done) and only uses them….a lot!  And now, exercise has become only one thing…a way to burn calories.  She warms up by clocking up as many calories as possible, she chooses specific machines to clock up as many calories as possible and she even cools down by clocking up as many calories as possible.  She even shuns exercises that “don’t burn as many calories”.  In other words, it has changed from being a simple target (which is good), to an obsession (which is bad).  And this has got me thinking.  Should I be a bit careful about using calories as a target?  Because I recognise  the calorie counter for what it is…an arbitrary number on a display.  And I recognise how totally and utterly pointless it is trying to compare calorie displays between different equipment.  And maybe because I recognise the huge limitations to the calorie counters, I don’t believe in them.  They don’t mean anything to me other than a number that I can aim for and try to beat each time.  But it obviously means a great deal more to other people.  It means an exact measure of how slim they are getting.  It can become the be-all and end-all of weight control.  Nothing is as important as that glowing little number on the machine.  And maybe letting people use calories as a target can help build an unhealthy obsession in some people.  Maybe it can reinforce the thought that exercise is only about directly burning calories.  Which is such a wrong thought!  I don’t think I have ever done any kind of exercise to simply “burn calories”.  I’ve done it for many other reasons, including: 

  • Because a brain-dead PE teacher was grunting at me.
  • Because I got such a buzz by doing things that other people couldn’t.
  • Because it got me more attention from certain members of the opposite sex.

And sometimes all three reasons within the same training session!  So now I am finding that I am trying to “vet” peoples attitudes before letting them choose targets.  And I am finding yet again that physical exercise has such a huge psychological aspect to it.  So I am tagging my articles that are linked to psychology in some way.  If you want to know which ones they are, just click here. And I suppose the moral to this story is:

Pick targets that do you good.  And happily drop them for better ones when they stop doing you good.