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Seven is my new favourite number.

During my fourth core workout with my personal trainer, I managed to thrash my way through seven pass-backs, an abdominal exercise with a Swiss ball. When I started four weeks earlier, I couldn't even do half a pass-back.

I've noticed many small improvements. When I bike to work, my legs feel like pistons not limp noodles. Carrying overloaded bags of groceries home no longer requires multiple stops to massage my arms. My posture at my desk feels better. My sleep is sounder. Generally, I am making healthier dietary decisions.

For the most part, I felt like I was on the right track but after hitting the halfway mark, I decided to reassess my goals. That's when I realized I didn't really have any. All I wanted was to "get fitter," which is probably the vaguest goal I could have picked.

I spoke with my good friend Jenny O, who is an assistant professor in kinesiology at California State University, East Bay. Her research focuses on performance psychology, which includes goal-setting, motivation and self-talk.

"Effective goal-setting programs produce significant effects 80 per cent of the time," she said. "Meaning, if you have goals and are committing to the [exercise] program and do it consistently, the research shows goal-setting to be highly effective."

When Jenny works with clients, she has them define success and failure. And unless that's personalized, you can fall into the trap of approaching exercise in an all-or-nothing way. After that, she works with them to set large goals. Then it's a process of defining "mini-goals" that are specific, measurable and attainable. These help people stay on track and focused on the larger goal, on their definition of success.

"The smaller the goal, the more tightly you want to structure it," said Jenny.

For my workout regime, I've chosen the mini-goal of working for at least seven hours a week, spread out over five days. I've also set an even mini-er goal of getting up for one workout every week that begins at 6 a.m. And to ensure I don't just cop out of my original mini-goal by biking around the city for seven collective hours in a week, I've also set the goal of making sure at least one hour of my seven is for core work, two is for strength training, one is for flexibility and the rest is for cardio. I'm hoping this kind of measurable specificity gives my exercising routines some built-in balance.

It's only through these mini-goals that people actually see exercise becoming a part of their routine, said Jenny. She also noted that they influence motivation and self-talk.

I have a very bad habit of negative self-talk during workouts. If I start to struggle physically, it sets off a cascade of "you can't do this, but you used to be able, you used to be stronger, you're so out of shape now" comments in my mind.

"What you say to yourself is what you're going to believe at the end of the day," Jenny said.

Which doesn't bode well for me. But Jenny did have some advice on how to stop that negative feedback loop. Start by asking yourself why you're thinking these things. In my case, I expect myself to be at a different level of fitness because I used to be healthier. That's the crucial problem, Jenny pointed out. I'm basing my definition of success on an outdated version of me.

After speaking with Jenny, I understood that I'm never going to really accept any of the progress I'm making if I don't stop chasing the ghost of a fitter, younger me. That Maddie is long gone. And that's okay so long as I stop comparing this Maddie to her.

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