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Explore the four phases of developing a successful fitness plan:

1) Assessment  2) Commitment  3) Feedback   4) Follow-through

If you’d like to launch a fitness program – or step up your current one – it’s a great time of year to do it. But deciding is the easy part. From there, you need a solid plan, focus and a healthy frame of mind.

The most daunting barriers to beginning or upgrading a fitness program rarely concern the body. Instead, they typically involve things like time, motivation and focus. Identifying and addressing these barriers requires some forethought. But with a little bit of planning and introspection, you can launch an enjoyable, sustainable program – one that not only supports your current health and fitness goals, but puts you on a path toward a healthier future.

From Choice to Challenge

It’s one thing to say, “I want to get in shape.” It’s quite another to determine what exactly to change, why you’re making the change and how you’ll overcome inevitable obstacles.

“I genuinely think people want to do their best, but their belief systems, lack of clarity or lack of support get in the way,” says Kate Larsen, author of Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters, and a professionally certified life, executive and wellness coach based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Coaches like Larsen help clients address such issues directly, and then help them brainstorm plans and solutions. But if you’re not quite ready to work with a coach, says Larsen, you can still benefit from working through a self-coaching process.

Creating a successful fitness plan (like any successful plan) involves four basic phases:

  1. Assessment
  2. Commitment
  3. Feedback
  4. Follow-through

Below, we’ll help you establish a personalized strategy that offers you both immediate motivation and lasting support for your goals.

Don’t rush the process – take time to reflect on the questions presented and determine what feels true and right for you. “Trust your instincts,” advises Larsen. “Slow down enough to listen to what you already know.”

But before you begin planning in earnest, take out a notepad or journal to document your thoughts and answers. Your notes will become the basis for your plan and a powerful resource during times of flagging motivation or focus. After all, preparing for challenges is what successful fitness planning is all about.

1) Starting Off: Assessment

The objective of the assessment phase is for you to figure out what you want, what’s driving your desire and where you stand today.

First question: What’s motivating you to improve your fitness? “Get beyond the vague ‘I want to look better’ or ‘I want to feel better,'” advises Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, a sports performance coach based in Darien, Conn., and author of The Truth About How to Get in Shape. “That’s a great start, but then do some exploring to make it more concrete and specific.” (See suggestions provided below.)

Imagine the payoffs of exercise, and take your vision beyond improved physical appearance. In a perfect world, how would becoming more active improve your life? What values would you be honoring in the process?

Now, consider your current health and fitness status. How much territory will you need to cover? How many years of neglect are you looking to reverse? Don’t be overwhelmed by the gaps you perceive. Remember, that’s why you’re developing a fitness plan! Besides, there’s no rush to the finish: The goal is simply to make steady and sustainable progress, and you can count on making improvements from the moment you kick your new plan into action.

In developing the assessment portion of your fitness plan, consider these areas of inquiry:

Where are you now?

What health and fitness blessings can you count today? What, if anything, is bringing you down? Are you satisfied with the way your body feels and performs? Or are you longing to improve your energy and strength, to become more flexible, to upgrade your sports performance, to improve your posture, or to increase your stamina for daily living?

How do you feel about your body and how it represents you? If you’re unhappy, embarrassed or frustrated with it, consider how actively addressing (versus just worrying about) these concerns could help you feel better about yourself – and perhaps transform your relationship with others.

What objective information do you have about your current state of health? If you’re coming off an exercise lapse, get a checkup to make sure you’re healthy enough for regular exercise. This will give you an opportunity to take some “benchmark” measurements, too, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, blood sugar, and weight.

You can also go a step further and get fitness testing (metabolic assessment, body composition, and so on) completed at your local health club or sports clinic (see the “Fitness Testing 1, 2, 3” series). Or conduct your own basic fitness assessment by counting how many pushups and crunches you can complete, and timing yourself walking or jogging a mile so that you will have numbers to compare with later.

What do you desire?

What larger benefits would you like to achieve by becoming more fit? Is being healthy and fit one of your core values, or primarily a means for supporting a core value? Make a list of the personal values driving your fitness endeavors.

What are the priorities in your life? How will becoming more fit affect them? (Note those priorities that may take a back seat, as well as those likely to climb in importance.)

Six months from now, what do you want to be different or true about your health and your lifestyle? How about one year from now? Write down your fitness vision in the present tense: “It’s one year from now, and I am. …” Talk about what you are doing and experiencing, as well as how you are feeling.

What is the best outcome you can imagine? Do you believe you can achieve this outcome? What would it be like if you did? Consider whether you are nervous or ambivalent about any of the life adjustments you can envision as potential results of your improved fitness status (career or relationship changes, for example).

What are the forces at play?

Give some thought to the life circumstances and contexts that are likely to influence your fitness efforts and ambitions now. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How do your fitness priorities fit into the rest of your life – in relation to work, family and other commitments? (See “Where Fitness Fits In“.)
  • When in your life were you at your healthiest and most fit? What were the factors at work then, and how might you employ some of them to your benefit now?
  • Which of your habits or beliefs contribute to poor fitness? Which do you feel motivated to change?
  • Who or what in your life will encourage you to become more fit? What support systems do you have or can you easily cultivate?
  • Who or what may be an obstacle or limitation toward becoming more fit? Consider both external and internal obstacles. Do you have any fears or concerns about becoming more fit? What can you do to work around any potentially negative influences?
  • What necessary skills, strengths or resources might you be lacking that you’ll need to cultivate? What skills or resources do you currently enjoy in other areas of your life that you can apply to this effort?

Assessment Question: What’s the best use of my energy now?

2) Making The Decision: Commitment

Now it’s time to outline an action plan that will bring your desires within reach. Commitment is the stage at which you define your current goals and drill down to the specifics of your program.

“There is no one-size-fits-all program,” says Jana Beutler Holland, life coach and co-owner and director of SWAT (Strength Wellness Athletic Training) Personal Training in Tucson, Ariz. “Every program has to fit the individual person’s lifestyle, as well as their personality and values.”

By now, if you’ve worked through the questions in the assessment section, you probably have a pretty good sense of the commitment you’re energized to make, whether it’s a gradual increase in daily activity levels or a full-fledged, aggressive fitness-training program. You also have a sense of the actions you’ll need to take in addressing potential obstacles. Take a moment to articulate your fitness commitment on paper (just a simple sentence or two will do), then sign your name beneath it. Let this represent your contract with yourself.

Your next step is to express that commitment in the language of action. Essentially, you must consider: What will be required of me in order to fulfill this commitment? Most goal-setting experts advise creating SMART goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time-Oriented. While this is a good and informative exercise, it can also bog down some people in details they aren’t quite ready to address. If you’re motivated to define your goals in SMART language, go right ahead. If not, you can simply keep your commitment firmly in mind while developing an action plan that includes many SMART components.

To help make their plans take concrete shape, Beutler Holland recommends that her clients address five key questions: What? Who? When? Where? and How?


This is the broadest question to consider. What are you willing and able to do in order for your life to reflect health and fitness as a priority? What types of changes are most energizing and appealing to you now? What time and resources can you commit?

If you already have an idea of what you’d like to do, that’s fine. If not, consider your options (see Web Extra! for suggestions). If you have a specific fitness goal, such as losing weight, overcoming a health challenge or improving your athletic performance, make sure that you pursue your chosen activities at an intensity level appropriate for your objectives (for example, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat“).

Next, what specific actions will you take? Consider first what you’ll cut out of your schedule in order to make space for fitness. What are you willing to give up or scale back on (say, television or excess work hours) to increase your commitment to your health and fitness?

Second, consider what kinds of activity you’ve enjoyed in the past. You may want to ease into a routine by performing an activity you’ve done before, or you might be energized by starting off with something completely new.

Take stock of your available fitness resources: If you belong to a gym, what classes does it offer? Does the idea of a power Pilates class entice you, or would you prefer to get started with cardio sessions on the bike or treadmill? If you aren’t a health-club member, find out what options you have in your community – look into classes through a local community center, for example, or consider hooking up with a friend or neighbor to exercise outdoors.


Consider, in broad terms, who will be involved in supporting your fitness program. You, certainly. But you may also want to draw on some additional support, whether it’s an exercise buddy, a personal trainer or a life coach.

When it comes to working out, would you prefer to do it alone, or do you like a group atmosphere? Whom do you know (or have access to) that could serve as a skill-and-knowledge resource for you?

In what ways can you ask your spouse, family members, friends or coworkers to support you? What will you do to request and encourage their support?

Do you have a fitness role model? If so, what characteristics and accomplishments inspire you the most?


Saying you’ll exercise isn’t as powerful as committing to specific days and times. How often will you be active, for how long at a stretch, and over what period of weeks or months will you extend your initial commitment?

Commit to a specific number of workouts – even if it’s just one small walk each day for the next month. Planning when you’ll exercise – and writing it on your calendar – makes you far more likely to do it.

In scheduling your workouts, consider your natural energy cycles, as well as your other schedule obligations. Be on the lookout for the times of day when physical activity most appeals to you – or when it most pays off.


Where will you be working out? At the club, outdoors, at home, or another location? Make a list of the places where you can incorporate activity near your home and work, as well as locations (a park, a dance hall, a skating rink) that you’d like to visit on occasion.

The exercise environments you’ll be frequenting most often should be appealing, comfortable, convenient and well equipped, suggests Beutler Holland. The more enticing the environment (or environments – a mixture is best for many folks), the more likely you are to keep up your program.

Consider, too, what changes you can make to your home or office environments to make them more conducive to activity and more supportive of your healthy choices.


Once you’ve decided what kind of workout program you’ll follow, decide on how you’ll track your progress and support your success. Consider these questions:

  • How will you stay motivated to stick with your plan? For some people, hiring a personal trainer or joining a weight-loss group is the answer. For others, it’s regular check-ins with a fitness buddy or tangible rewards for meeting small goals along the way.
  • How will you track your achievements? Set some check-in dates now and decide in advance what markers you’ll assess. Focus on a system that emphasizes performance (say, getting in four workouts this week) rather than results (losing 3 pounds). You have much more control over the former.
  • How will you respond if you run into unexpected or apparently insurmountable obstacles? What are your next steps or sources of support if things don’t go as planned? Take note of your answers to these questions: They’ll prove important as you progress through the feedback and follow-through phases of your plan.
  • How will you celebrate your successes – not just for achieving your defined goals, but also for reaching key points along the way?

Commitment Question: How will I act on and support my choices?

3) Work the Plan, Observe the Results: Feedback

From the moment you begin your program, you’ll immediately begin receiving feedback. No matter how solid your strategy seemed when you set it, once you put your plan in motion, you’ll inevitably learn that some aspects of your planning were better than others. And you may encounter some challenging or uplifting factors that you never planned for at all. That’s why monitoring your progress – and being willing to adapt and change your program – is essential.

“People who are successful in setting and reaching and following through with their goals have a certain degree of resiliency,” says Beutler Holland. “And one of the components of being resilient is noticing that a challenge or obstacle is only that – a bump in the road.”

“Life gets in the way,” agrees Tom Holland. “As your own coach, you need to stay focused on the big picture and on achieving your goal, not worrying about one day’s failure or success.” To that end, focus on observing, not obsessing; responding, not reacting. Where you’re tempted to see failure, see feedback instead.

You skipped a workout? OK. So how, exactly, did that happen? What were the circumstances that contributed? What precautions or adjustments can you make going forward?

The feedback phase of your planning is when you ask:

What’s working, and what’s not?

  • How realistic is your plan turning out to be? How satisfying? What parts are you enjoying most? Least?
  • Where are you running into trouble or losing motivation? Under what circumstances (physical, mental, emotional, schedule-related) do you tend to lose steam or get discouraged, and under what circumstances do you get revved up?
  • Are there other life demands (sick kids, a looming deadline, work travel) affecting your fitness progress? How can you modify your program rather than ditch it entirely? How can you call on your core values to help you manage your personal health and fitness as central priorities that support these other important areas?
  • What obstacles popped up? Would developing certain skills (time management, boundary setting, healthy cooking, positive thinking) help you overcome them?
  • What types of support – whether from family, workout buddies, personal trainers, coaches, nutritionists or other resources – would help you make better progress or enjoy the process more?

What could be working better?

  • How balanced is your program (cardio, strength, flexibility, stress reduction, nutritional support, recovery)? Are you feeling built up or torn down by your current program? Are you seeing or feeling some encouraging results?
  • Are you getting the kind of nutrition you need to support your fitness goals? Are your eating habits limiting your energy and vitality or fighting your weight-management efforts?
  • Are you able to adequately benchmark your progress and patterns? What tools could you use to get better feedback? A few options: weekly calendar referencing (did you work out when you said you would?); journaling (writing down the details of your workouts, how you performed and how you felt afterward); workout-buddy check-ins; and monitoring your progress through heart-rate tracking and fitness testing.

What next?

  • Are things getting easier? Are you getting bored? Are you ready to progress or try something new?
  • Are you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted? Injured? Do you need to take a step back? Ask for help?

As you pursue the program you’ve designed, keep watching and asking: What has happened – and what’s happening now? Without judgment, learn from your experiences and improve your plan as you go. And remember to celebrate the small wins along the way!

Feedback Question: How am I doing – and what am I learning – so far?

4) Midcourse Corrections: Follow-Through

In the follow-through stage, you’ll be fine-tuning your program in response to day-to-day discoveries and challenges.

Ideally, feedback and follow-though are continuous and interconnecting processes that are going on all the time. But you may want to establish some formal check-in dates (say, every two weeks) when you sit down to evaluate feedback and then build the resultant follow-through steps into your plan.

How can you make use of the feedback you’ve gathered in order to facilitate further success? Have you discovered that it’s easier to work out mornings than evenings? Are you more motivated when you’re exercising with a partner? Are your energy drinks giving you indigestion? Are some parts of your program going better than others? Is your original goal ripe for some refinement?

The follow-through phase is where you incorporate learning from your mistakes, as well as your successes, and where you make adjustments that improve both the effectiveness and sustainability of your plan.

Based on the feedback you’ve observed, identify some priority areas for adjustment. Look back on the notes you gathered during the feedback phase, then identify at least three “follow-through” adjustments that deserve action. Consider likely candidates from the following areas:

1) Scheduling, and time and energy management
2) Soundness of plan and available resources
3) Mental and emotional attitude, focus
4) Nutritional support and eating habits
5) Nature of fitness activities (frequency, variety, intensity, fun, challenge, etc.)

Document key changes in your workbook or journal, and make any necessary alterations to your schedule.

Follow-through question: What’s the best thing to do now?

The Cycle Begins Anew

Once you’ve incorporated your follow-through adjustments and had a chance to observe the results, you effectively begin the assessment phase all over again. This is a good time to analyze your overall effort and results. How on-target and realistic were your original goals, and should they stand or evolve? How well did you treat yourself as your plan progressed? Did you adopt an all-or-nothing mindset, letting one missed workout turn into a week (or more) of no exercise? Or did you manage to take even challenging “feedback” in stride?

Success or failure against the original goals isn’t the issue here. The biggest potential jackpot lies in creating success by harvesting the learning available from the process. It’s about implementing what you’ve learned in a way that respects your highest choices, now. It’s about celebrating your fitness gains and your personal insights in a way that inspires you to continue your forward momentum.

Nobody knows the real you – your hopes, your dreams, your values – better than you know yourself. And when you act as your own fitness coach, you learn even more. You discover how you’re wired and what makes you tick. You become the architect of your own success, the holder of the blueprints for the fitness future that excites you most of all.

Got 60 Minutes?

Try this “perfect hour” from sports performance coach and author Tom Holland, MS, CSCS:

  1. 30 minutes of cardio
  2. followed by 20 minutes of strength training (see “The Easy-Strength Workout” to get started)
  3. then five minutes of abdominal/core exercises (here are five core moves to start with)
  4. ending with five minutes of stretching (try these four cool-down stretches)

It’s an easy, flexible way to include all the fitness components in the space of a single hour!

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