Drop the numbers: A mindful approach to fitness

What if we measured fitness not by numbers, but by feeling well?

Last week I was at the grocery store when someone next to me looking at her Fitbit® shouted, “10,000 steps!” Later in the evening someone else I crossed paths with on the sidewalk yelled out the same thing. That night a friend on the phone walking her dog exclaimed it. A chorus of “10,000 steps”, marching toward fitness. And it got me thinking about this number-crunching approach.

Weight, level of activity, heart rate, calories consumed, calories burned, stress level, hours of sleep, repeat — we put all the pieces that make up fitness into SMART goals on our smart phones and watches, hoping that doing so will give us the freedom to achieve it.

If you’ve never heard of it, “SMART” is an acronym used to measure goals. If 10,000 steps is our goal, we can ask the following questions:

Is it —

Specific? Yes.

Measurable? Heck yeah!

Attainable? You betcha.

Realistic? I’ll make it so!

Time-bound? Yes, I’ll achieve it today! And each and every day!

We march on in this way, turning each part of fitness into a metric-oriented goal. 

And you know what, for some people, this disciplined number crunching and goal setting really works. But if you’re like me, this pursuit of fitness driven by data crunching, regimented routine and strict goals can become exhausting, adding to stress rather than reducing it like food and exercise should.

Instead of measuring weight, level of activity, heart rate, calories consumed, calories burned, stress level and hours of sleep, what if we dropped the numbers and practiced really listening to our bodies’ needs and responding to them? What might this look like?

Rethinking the SMART goals model

Well first, I think it means rethinking the SMART goals model a bit. If our goal is to feel good, our answers to the acronym’s questions look a little bit different.

Is it —

Specific? Specific to me.

Measurable? Only by my standards.

Attainable? Yes, if I believe it is.

Realistic? See above.

Time-bound? No, not really. It’s an ongoing, mindful practice.

The ultimate goal of feeling good is highly subjective — it is entirely dependent upon our personal experience and our ability to tune into our bodies’ needs and respond. Rather than eating well to lose weight or working our every day to achieve a certain number of pushups, we eat well and exercise because it feels so good. By dropping the numbers, we come to understand what it’s like to feel good and how to get there in ways that are unique to us. 

Slowing down to listen

Without the numbers on our devices calculating our every move, we have to get in tune with our bodies’ needs. This means really paying close attention to when we’re hungry, satisfied, in need of exercise or tired. It means realizing when something becomes painful or requires too much exertion. It means understanding how to distinguish pain from positive perseverance. In my experience, pushing through the sweat and an increased heart rate when I go for a long run ultimately feels good. But continuing to run when my body is hurting or I’m feeling exhausted is not good. 

Responding to our bodies

When we understand how to listen, the next step to thinking about fitness in terms of feeling good is knowing how to respond. Once I recognize that I’m hungry, I should choose what to eat based on how it will make me feel. I should eat until I’m satisfied, not stuffed. This means giving into cravings that we know are not extremely healthy, but that satisfy us every now and then. It also means having the ability to recognize the difference between a craving that can be satisfied and one that’s insatiable or simply rides on the memory of how satisfying something was last time we had it.

When I’ve been sitting all day, it means recognizing a need for exercise. It means working in rigorous exercise when I can and it feels good, but stopping if it becomes painful. If I’m exhausted, it means making getting extra sleep a priority. 

Making it a practice

This approach to fitness isn’t easy. It poses a very different kind of challenge than the strict numbers-oriented approach. It doesn’t come with a list of SMART goals that involve pushing ourselves to achieve certain numbers by following strict routines and tracking all the pieces that make up fitness. But it does require slowing down and engaging in steady, mindful practice. It involves trying new things to understand your body’s cues and learning how to respond accordingly. It might get easier or it might always be a challenge, but hopefully the ongoing journey will be satisfying in a way that’s unique to you.

Listen. Take the first step and see where it leads. Maybe it will lead you to 10,000 more steps, but maybe it will take your somewhere else. Just listen.  

Maia Pugh
Contributor & Founding Member

I manage digital content for Frontier Co-op, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia. I feel very lucky to work with a team of such talented, down to earth, inspiring people and love to roll up my sleeves and make a story come together. In my free time, you can find me running, biking, skiing, making a big mess in the kitchen, drinking coffee or working with one of the great non-profit organizations in the Iowa City area. I am so excited to connect with you all!

Share Your Thoughts

Jule Mae

May 23, 2017 - 10:41am

This is a great read. I’m guilty of number crunching being the owner of a Fitbit, but I am learning to celebrate those more as little victories along my health journey, and not to obsess over them as my progress. Learning to be more mindful of how I feel rather than what I see.

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