An Existentialist Approach to Reviving Your Fitness Goals

Feeling defeated because your fitness goals have gone by the wayside? Here’s how to get back on track.

Off-Track Resolutions

In January, I shared an approach to New Year’s resolutions based on the philosophy of existentialism. In short, whatever fitness goals you pursue won’t matter much in the long run. Unless you’re a world-class athlete, no one else will remember your first marathon or the year you lost twenty pounds. 

But instead of despairing at such meaninglessness, existentialist philosophers found reason for hope. If the universe doesn’t ascribe meaning to your actions, you remain free to choose your own path according to your own values. 

In terms of setting fitness goals, that means setting targets that have significance to you. It doesn’t matter what those targets mean (or don’t mean) to anyone else. And if you set goals you really care about, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them. 

Yet, as the proverb warns, even the best-laid plans often go awry. If past statistics are any indication, many once-committed resolvers have let their goals fall by the wayside ten months into the year. And as you begin to lose your carefully cultivated good habits, it becomes easier to let bad habits take their place. 

How to get back on track with your fitness goals

Instead of going for a run three times a week, it gets easier to sit on the couch and play with your phone. Instead of making your lunch the night before, it gets easier to hit the drive-through. How do you stop this slide?

Your Next Last Performance

There is a common saying that “you’re only as good as your last performance.” In one sense, this statement rings true. We judge people based on their past actions. What a person has done in the past indicates the kind of person she is and suggests how she will act in the future. And more recent events tend to weigh more heavily in our assessments of others.

But there is another side to this saying. There will always be a next “last performance.” We continually face opportunities for action. We continually get chances to reshape the people we are, to reverse poor choices and reinforce strong ones.

This second side represents a core tenet of existentialism. Recall Albert Camus’ comparison of the meaninglessness of existence with the Greek myth of Sisyphus condemned to push a boulder up a mountain over and over again for all eternity. As Sisyphus prepares anew for his task, Camus insists, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” If Sisyphus let his thoughts dwell on the difficulty of his previous ascent, he would be miserable. Instead, each new ascent is a fresh opportunity for Sisyphus. Each climb offers another chance to overcome a challenge and laugh in the faces of the gods. 

Instead of defining ourselves by our last performance, we ought to emulate Sisyphus and recognize the opportunity for our next performance. This attitude applies to any waylaid goal as much as it does to pushing rocks up a hill. 

Runner kneeling in exhaustion

It is easy to dwell on your missteps (“I was doing great at running every day until that two-week vacation this summer,” “I was really sticking to my new diet until my birthday,” etc.). Yet you only need a slight shift in perspective to see how to apply your past experiences toward a brighter future (“I built up my endurance for months, then took a little break, but I can build it up again,” “I found a diet I can stick with and that gives me results—now I just have to plan around special occasions,” etc.).

In the words of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” We exist, and that is all. We don’t have some intangible essence that defines us. We must create the lives we want according to the qualities we value. This attitude applies to starting over just as it does to starting the first time. We must work constantly to create and shape our lives.

Reviving Your Fitness Goals

When it comes to reviving lapsed fitness goals, go back to what worked the first time. Find a physical activity you enjoy. Set short-term goals. And look at how you got off track in order to avoid the same pitfalls the next time around.

If your fitness goals have gone off track, there’s no need to despair. While past missteps are part of who you are, they do not define you by themselves. You always have another chance to shape the body, achievements and healthy life you want.