Maureen Pratt

Maureen Pratt

Like millions of others, I cheered as American Pharoah, with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, raced to the finish line at Belmont Park and became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. American Pharoah is an amazing horse who provided an amazing time in the horse racing world.

But a few weeks later, an even more amazing aspect of the race came to light in a newspaper article by Los Angeles Daily News reporter Courtney Tompkins.

Tompkins wrote that Espinoza revealed two things that were constants for him in his approach to racing: good sleep and prayer. As for his life philosophy, he said, “I always have goals in life. I never have dreams because dreams sometimes don’t come true. But goals — I always pretty much get them done.”

Often, when we hear high-achievers talk about their approach to accomplishment, they will talk about having dreams or envisioning major wins, records or other feats. Espinoza’s remark about emphasizing goals was refreshing and, as it turns out, perhaps most effective in ways other than winning in competition.

Shortly after I read Tompkins’ article, I came across a recent study conducted by several medical schools and health organizations in the United Kingdom. The AgeWell study, named after The AgeWell Centre, where it took place, set out to determine whether goal-setting might help promote healthy aging and reduce the risk of dementia later in life.

Researchers started by selecting 75 participants over the age of 50 who were divided into three groups: a control group that received information about their current activities and the health implications, a group that set goals designed to change their behavior (adopt more healthful physical, cognitive, nutritional and social habits) and a group that also set behavioral goals and received individual mentoring throughout the study.

At the end of 12 months, a follow-up revealed that the two groups that set goals showed the greatest increases in physical and cognitive activity and gained additional benefits in other areas, including memory, cholesterol levels, aerobic capacity, flexibility, balance, grip strength and agility.

There can be many reasons why setting goals is more effective than merely obtaining information or holding onto a dream.

When we set goals, we are more apt to understand whatever it is we wish to accomplish. We know our resources and what it might take to be successful. We can focus on strengthening the things that will help us accomplish our goals.

Setting goals can help us break down a large task into manageable segments. We are less likely to feel overwhelmed if we have benchmarks along the way.

Also, these smaller segments can help us find encouragement when we backslide (as with a diet) or life detours us momentarily — if we misstep, we haven’t failed and can more easily get back on track. And if we have a mentor or coach, we can benefit from their encouragement, too, as we refocus our efforts.

A close-held dream can fire our imagination and propel us to action. Goals can help us put our dreams, however nebulous they might seem, into a practical life context and make it much more likely that someday we too can raise our hands to heaven in thanks and praise and say, “I did it!”