How to Set Health and Fitness Goals—and Reach Them

Have you decided you’d like to start a fitness routine or improve your health, but don’t know where to begin? Or perhaps you’ve made this decision countless times before, but your motivation always seems to fizzle out?


It’s time for a new way of thinking. SMART goals.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART goals are everywhere, and for good reason—they work. Read on for a step-by-step guide to creating goals you’ll actually reach.


SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Let’s dig in.

Specific

“I want to get healthy.” “I want to feel better.” “I want to look good in my bathing suit next summer.” These are all fine goals to have, but they’re way too vague.


When your goals are vague, how do you know how to reach them? What does “look good” mean to you? How will you know if you feel better? And what in the world does “get healthy” mean?


You have to drill down. How will you get healthy/feel better/look good? Is it to cut back on your drinking? Lose weight? Build muscle? Improve cardiovascular health? Choose a more specific goal to begin with.

Measurable

Now that you’re a bit more specific, it’s time to add some kind of data or measurement you can track. Otherwise, how will you know you’re making progress or what will tell you when you reach your goal?


Let’s take the easiest measurement: weight. Saying, “I want to lose weight” isn’t measurable. How much weight? Choose a number of desired pounds, body fat percentage, etc. and add that to your SMART goal.


Cutting down on your drinking? Note how many glasses of wine you have or draw lines on the bottle to mark how much you’re sipping. Building cardiovascular health? Grab a heart rate monitor to wear during your workouts. Whatever you’re tracking, there’s a number to follow, and it’s essential to include that in your goal.

Attainable

You can’t go from couch potato to running a 5K in one week. However, you also don’t want to make your goals too easy or you won’t strive to reach them. The key is to make them a challenge, but an attainable challenge.


Continuing with weight loss as an example, your number should be something you can achieve. Average healthy weight loss is approximately two pounds per week. Or, if you prefer percentages, frame it as, “I will lose 5% of my bodyweight.”


If your goal is to improve cardiovascular health, try, “I will lower my resting heart rate to 60 beats per minute.” (The lower your resting heart rate, generally speaking, the better your heart is functioning, thus equaling improved cardiovascular health.)


Whatever number that will motivate you to do the work but is also a healthy, reasonable goal is ideal.

Relevant

Don’t choose a goal because someone or something else is pressuring you. If your friends are all training for a triathlon but you hate running and can barely swim, it doesn’t make sense for you to follow the same goal. You won’t reach what you don’t want.


Similarly, if your media feeds are all touting weight loss as the most important part of “getting healthy,” but you really want to adjust your diet, do that. So your SMART goal so far might be, “I will replace 1 meal each week with a vegetarian dish” or “I will add 1 serving of vegetables to my dinner 3x per week.”

Time-Bound

Having a deadline will motivate you to keep up with your goal. “Attainable” fits here too, however. Choose a deadline that will light a fire under you but that you can also reasonably reach.


“I will lose 15 pounds in 10 days” is not going to work. “I will lose 5% of my body weight in two months” is a little more do-able. Or, “I will eat a vegetarian meal once per week, and increase it to three times within six weeks.”


Now you have a SMART goal! Other examples include:


  • I will get up from my desk every hour and do 10 squats for one month.
  • I will reduce my alcohol intake to one glass of wine per night within 20 days.
  • I will journal for at least 10 minutes once per week.
  • I will walk for 30 minutes three days each week.
  • I will start meditating for 5 minutes two times per week.

Taking SMART Goals to the Next Level

Once you have a SMART goal, it’s time to start implementing it. Set yourself up for success as best you can. If you struggle to work out in the mornings, lay out your clothes the night before so you can slide right into them and get going with less mental effort. Or, if you work out better in the evening, adjust your schedule to accommodate that.


If you know you mindlessly snack on crackers as you watch TV, try not having them in the house or going for a walk instead. If you know having wine around will derail you, ask your partner or housemate to hold on to it, or don’t buy it the next time you’re shopping.


Then, reevaluate your goal as you progress. If you find yourself consistently falling short, it may be time to examine the goal and adjust it. Yes, your SMART goals are flexible!

It’s All About Consistency

If you set a SMART goal and then fail to reach it over and over, you’re going to get discouraged and want to quit. Your SMART goal isn’t set in stone. If your plan was to walk for 30 minutes five days a week and you find you’re only able to make it happen three times, adjust your goal down to three.


Then, once you’re consistently walking three times a week, try adding a fourth day. Once you’re doing that, add the fifth one back in. If it’s too much again, go back down. The key is to keep going. Consistency is what gets you results.


Once you’re solidly and consistently hitting your first SMART goal, it’s time to add a second one. Again, the consistency is key here. If you add your second SMART goal and your first one lags, back off the second one a little bit.


For example, if you’re walking four days a week no problem, and your second goal was to add three days per week of 90-minute strength training sessions, but then you realize you’re only walking two days per week, it’s time for an adjustment.


Try shorter strength training sessions or drop the goal down to once per week to start. Get your first SMART goal back on track, and then increase your second one. Eventually, you’ll find the balance your routine needs and you’ll be amazed at your progress.

Don’t Discount the Little Victories

Trying to make sweeping, giant life changes will probably overwhelm you, and that’s what contributes to fatigue and not reaching your goals. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: take your health and fitness journey one tiny step at a time.


People are more motivated when they feel like they’re succeeding. Set your SMART goals and adjust them as you go so you celebrate the little wins. Those “little” wins are the stepping stones to big changes. There’s no fizzling when you’re constantly adding fuel to your fire.


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