When you go through the process of becoming a certified trainer, one of the first things they emphasize is the importance of setting S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results Based, Time Bound) goals. They harp on how important goals are in determining efficacy of programming and delivering something specific to a client. And to be honest, most people hire trainers because they have specific fitness goals and they want help getting there. Whether it is to lift heavier or, most commonly, lose weight, those concrete and measurable goals help justify the money and work the client is paying and give a focus to the program in general.
I think goals are important. I could go on and on about the goals I have more myself and clients, and I have a lot of theories about goal setting, but I wanted to write about the problem with goals. Goals establish an end point. Of course, when you reach a goal, you can always establish more, but either way, they give the impression that fitness is a linear path that you advance along in a really scientific and calculated way. And if you are an athlete or someone who devotes the bulk of their energy to training, that MIGHT be true, but it is even more likely that you will take a side step due to an injury or unexplained lack of response in the body. At some point.
But if you are someone who trains hard, but also happens to have many other focuses in your life, this picture of fitness as a linear progression with defined landmarks is, I think, really not helpful. First of all, including movement is always important, but there are going to be many times when it's not the most important thing happening in your life. If you have something pressing at work, or have kids, or have a death in your family, fitness can and should take a back burner. But that doesn't mean you've "failed," it just means life is different at that given moment. Because (and this is important) you aren't really "falling off the wagon." the reality is that you are going to have a body for your whole life, and you are going to have to move as long as you have it. So it's not like you are ever going to "win" or "finish" fitness, you have to do it forever. There is no end point. So you haven't failed to advance along the path leading you to some final destination. You've just shifted attention away from training for the moment. It will still be there when you are ready to get back.
This might seem like a really zen approach to training, especially since we know that smart programming leads to results. But I sometimes think that sticking to something really strict and confining, like specific goals or specific programs, leads to huge problems. If something is too strenuous, for example, and you don't listen to your body and you insist on doing what you usually do, that can knock you on your butt for a while. Or, on the flip side, when people have one minor slip up, they send to become discouraged by their failure. But if you break one dish while washing dishes, you don't say, "Screw it!" and smash all the other dishes! You clean up the dish that's broken and move on with your life. Because life isn't about having a complete set of dishes. You need dishes, but there's no prescribed amount. Okay. I'll stop with the dish analogy.
Training and goals are important motivators, but I generally think of fitness like showering: I am going to have to do it for the rest of my life, and I succeed at it by doing it. Yes, I have things I would like to be able to do, but I am also aware that, overall, I am winning fitness by doing it, not by hitting any one goal.