When Jen Jacobsen started her first job at a North Carolina college, she was eager to maintain a regular workout schedule. But she knew that she might need a boost to get her to the gym each day. So she sought out a coworker, Matt, who shared her fitness goals, and together they agreed on a workout plan.
The colleagues posted a giant calendar in Matt’s office and made a pact to get in a workout each day during the entire semester — lifting together three times a week and working out on their own the other four days. “We bought smiley-face stickers and put one on for each of us each day we worked out,” says Jacobsen, 36, a wellness coordinator for Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. “It helped keep both of us accountable, and it was a great visual record of our habits.”
A fitness pact — a formal agreement between two or more people to take part in specific behaviors over time — can be a powerful way to achieve a fitness goal. While pacts can take many different forms, their inherent emphasis on structure, accountability and social connection gives weight to what might otherwise be ephemeral goals.
“A pact responds to real human needs for empowerment, belonging and fun,” says Cris Kessler, MSW, coauthor with Marla Fields of Fresh Off the Couch (Bennett & Hastings, 2008). “You realize you’re doing something you wouldn’t have done without the help of another person.”
Find a Partner
Finding the right individual (or group) with whom to create a strong fitness pact is a delicate task, says Shawn Phillips, a Colorado-based fitness entrepreneur and author of Strength for Life (Ballantine, 2008). You want to choose someone who brings energy and enthusiasm — someone you can comfortably spend time with, but who will not go easy on you if you bail on a workout, says Phillips. “The key is to find someone who helps you keep your own promises.”
For Valerie Bennis, 56, president of an aromatherapy company in New York City, that meant finding someone she didn’t know well — and to whom she wouldn’t feel comfortable making excuses. Bennis started working out with a woman at her gym after they had discussed their common concerns about osteoporosis. “We meet every Monday night and do a weight routine for an hour,” she says. “We inspire each other and push each other.”
It helps to be specific when asking someone to be a partner. For instance, you might ask a friend to go cycling with you once a week to train for a century ride three months from now. From that baseline, you can negotiate everything from the number of times you meet to the event you do — but that initial request should convey the scope you’re considering.
Set a Goal
A fitness pact can encompass almost anything you can dream up, but you will probably want to start with an achievable goal — perhaps completing a 5K race a few months from now, or sticking to your twice-weekly yoga class for a month straight. “Indefinite goals can feel meaningless,” says Phillips. “I think most people see the best success with goals no longer than 12 weeks.”
Though it makes sense to share activities, it’s not necessary that you and your workout partner share the same fitness level. “If you both have a heart-rate monitor, you can both work at 70 percent of your maximum, for example,” says Marla Fields. “Each person gets the workout that they need, but they don’t have to compare themselves.” In weight training, partners can spot each other even if one is stronger than the other.
Be sure whatever goal you set or agreement you make is tangible in some way: Write it down, define it in terms of hours or workouts, pay for the class, or send in the entry form. Also define a reward for achieving your goals. “Try to create a reward that has a mutual benefit,” says Phillips. “You’re doing it for the greater good: If I achieve my goals, you receive some benefit.”
It’s important to document your pact and keep visual evidence of it on hand. Jacobsen and her coworker made their workout-progress chart on a big piece of posterboard, but you could just as easily outline your pact on a legal tablet or via email. Having some visible reminder of your pact is important, though, so be sure to keep a hard copy of your agreement on hand and posted. Ideally, you should be prompted to review and interact with it (checking off workouts as you go, for example) on a regular basis.
Track Your Progress
Even if you have no trouble taking the many small steps required to achieve a goal, it’s a good idea to check in weekly or monthly to make sure you’re staying on track. Establish interim goals and check-in dates from the outset — then be sure you’re getting closer to your destination with regular meetings or phone updates.
Charting your progress also helps you make small adjustments in serving the larger goal. If Jacobsen saw a smiley-face-free day on the calendar on the back of her colleague’s door, she was instantly reminded that she had to get back to the gym.
Fitness pacts require some dedication, but they can inject new life into old routines — or kick-start new ones. “It helps you get active, and it lets you spend time with friends,” says Fields. “You’re doing it for the long-term goals, but [fitness pacts] can also help you get the most out of your life right now.”
With a Little Help From Your Friends
Considering a fitness pact? Here are a few tips for making the best of your bargain.
Share Your Knowledge (and Stuff) Victoria Hurley, 43, a public-relations and marketing consultant, meets twice a week with several other moms at a park in Beverlywood, Calif., for an hourlong workout they call a “mommy boot camp.” “Everyone brings a piece of equipment and two exercise ideas,” she says. “It was easy to find simple exercises online, and we use easily transportable equipment like weights, mats, bands and exercise balls.” Participants keep track of their own progress, and every so often they get together to reward themselves for their hard work with a glass of sangria.
Start a long-distance relationship Jen Jacobsen started a second workout pact with a friend who lived more than 1,000 miles away — but who kept a similarly busy schedule during the spring months. “We both usually fell out of shape at that time of year,” she says. “We emailed our body-weight numbers to each other each morning, and that daily [check-in] actually did a great job of reinforcing good habits.” Interested in doing the same with a faraway pal? Consider agreeing to visit one another after you’ve achieved your goals.
Set a goal When Jess Milcetich, 22, registered to run the 2006 Baltimore Marathon, her mom, Elizabeth Milcetich, 52, was inspired to compete in the corresponding half-marathon. “We didn’t set specific training terms other than we would both follow the training plan that worked best for us. We kept each other accountable through phone calls and emails, checking in on each other to make sure we were doing what we needed,” says Jess, who lives in Silver Spring, Md. (her mom lives in Allentown, Penn.). Plunking down the race entry fee formalized their commitment. “Paying money is certainly good motivation to stick with training,” adds Jess. Now the mother-daughter team is hooked: They ran a half-marathon the following year and are currently training for another. “Having a training partner, even if she’s a couple hundred miles away, helps keep me accountable,” says Jess. “I know she’s going to call and ask how my run went. If I didn’t do it, what am I going to tell her?”
Create a powerful incentive Bets, rewards and similar incentives can keep you committed when the going gets tough. Last year, Angela Moore, 41, owner of a PR firm in Redondo Beach, Calif., joined a group of 10 friends to lose weight and get in shape over the course of four months. They stayed motivated by the promise of a planned weekend trip to sunny Scottsdale, Ariz., where they could show off their hard work at a poolside cabana.
For a fitness-pact template that you can customize and print out, see the “Related Content” below.