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Doctor’s note: Goal setting and your health

Photo: Anne Fabiny/Chicago Marathon

Dear Readers,

Last winter, my sister sent me an email asking whether I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon with her in October 2013. My initial response was, “Oh my gosh, no.” I am a committed exerciser and runner, but the thought of tackling such an ambitious goal made me feel anxious and insecure. I hesitated for a long time, but after much deliberation decided that I would register for the race.

I am 53 years old and I want to keep myself as mentally and physically flexible as I can be, for as long as I can. Training for a marathon would certainly serve that purpose! I wondered whether I could set three goals for myself: train without injury, run the Chicago Marathon in under four hours, and qualify for the Boston Marathon.

When I reflect back on how I finally came to say “yes” to my sister, I think it was about having high expectations for myself. Even if I did not achieve my goals, I would have at least tried and learned something in the attempt. My unexpected discovery through this process was the power of setting smaller, incremental goals.

I started taking small steps toward my goal in June, when a friend invited me to run the Harvard Stadium bleachers. In retrospect, it was the perfect venue for measuring my progress. The stadium has 37 sections, each with 32 bleachers and a set of stairs. On that first day, I figured I would run up and down each section. Well, I ran up the first two sections and realized there was no way I was going to be able to run more than that. It was incredibly hard, and I almost couldn’t get to the top the second time I went up. So I walked up and down the remaining 35 sections. The next day my calves hurt so much that I couldn’t walk normally! It took me three days to recover.

I decided that a more graduated approach might be best. Over the next three months, I slowly progressed from walking all the sections to running all the sections. By September, I was able to run the entire four miles from my house to the stadium, run all 37 bleachers, and then run home. It was hard to believe that I had made so much progress in such a gradual way. My real thrill came from watching and feeling myself gain strength and confidence throughout those weeks of training.

When the marathon finally rolled around, I ran it in 3:57:40 and qualified for the Boston Marathon—without injury. I tell you this story not in an attempt to exhort you to run a marathon. Rather, I wanted to describe my experience of setting small, incremental goals and how that can lead to big changes. The experience has really transformed the way I think about myself and my abilities.

Stephanie Watson, Executive Editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, and I would like to invite you to send us your thoughts and experiences about goal setting in your own lives. Contact us at and let us know what goals you have set and whether you’ve achieved them.

— Anne Fabiny, MD
Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch

Posted by: Dr.Health

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