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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 mwomens_health@hms.harvard.edu 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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