One of the most important aspects of a successful journey toward improving your health and fitness is to set goals. You need to have something you are trying to achieve in order to be able to determine if you are making progress. This does not need to be a specific number on the scale or size of clothing, but rather, it can be fitness or lifestyle related. Some examples might be to run a 5k, walk a mile without getting winded, hike a particular trail, or even things like walking the dog for 20 minutes or grocery shopping without the use of a scooter.
One of the most common approaches is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals. The acronym makes it easier to remember each key point: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.
What Is Not S.M.A.R.T.?
Sometimes it can be helpful to begin by giving examples of goals that would not follow the principle we’re trying to understand. Here are several examples of goals that do not meet our criteria for S.M.A.R.T.:
- I want to lose weight.
- I want to tone up.
- I want to improve my blood markers of health.
- I want to improve my nutrition.
While there is nothing wrong with any of these goals, notice that there is no timeframe for accomplishing these goals and no way of assessing whether we’ve achieved the goal. What does it mean to “lose weight” or “tone up” or “improve nutrition?” How do we know when we’ve arrived at these very subjective destinations?
Learn From An Example
Rather than simply explaining the concepts, I always find examples to be extremely helpful when trying to understand something new. So, let’s take a look at how we could take the common goal, “I want to lose weight” and transform it into a S.M.A.R.T. goal step-by-step.
Try to avoid setting goals that are too broad in scope. The first step in this process should be to refine your goal into a specific accomplishment or milestone. In our weight loss example, if you have a significant amount to lose, it is probably best to set intermediate goals rather than a long-term destination. For example, you may think you want to lose 80 lbs to reach a goal weight of 130 lbs but after reaching 160 lbs you realize you love that weight because you feel strong, healthy, and enjoy the way you are able to eat to maintain that body weight. Also, setting intermediate goals makes the goal seem less daunting.
Adjusted Goal: “I want to lose 20 lbs of body fat.”
Now that you have a specific goal, you need to decide how you would measure or track your progress. Measuring weight loss progress may seem obvious at first, however, there may be some additional considerations. Not only might you want to include how you will measure (the scale), but how often and if you will use any other methods in addition to the scale. For example, will you weigh daily and take an average for the week, weekly, monthly, etc. The method you choose depends on the individual.
You may also decide at this point that you want to change the goal a little. Rather than setting a scale weight goal, you may decide to set a goal for a specific dress size, waist measurement, or hip measurement. These would still be fat loss goals but you would be using a different method for measuring progress.
Adjusted Goal: “I want to lose 20 lbs of body fat. I will measure my progress by weighing daily and comparing the weekly average of my daily body weight.”
In this stage you want to make sure your goal is attainable. Keeping with our fat loss example, you would consider factors such as your past dieting history, any health-related issues that might impact rate of loss, individual differences in body types, your age and lifestyle, etc. For example, it may not be reasonable or desirable to set a goal of reaching the size 4 body you had in high school as an elite high school athlete.
Setting yourself up for success is a key factor. This is where setting intermediate goals can be extremely helpful. Intermediate goals help us to keep things realistic. You think you want to lose 50 lbs. Maybe that is attainable and reasonable. However, setting an initial goal of 20 lbs, reevaluating when you arrive at that goal, and the setting the next intermediate goal may be a better approach to ensure goals stay realistic and attainable.
Adjusted Goal: “I want to lose 20 lbs of body fat. I will measure my progress by weighing daily and comparing the weekly average of my daily body weight. Once I reach 20 lbs of fat loss, I will reevaluate and set a new goal for myself.”
Your goal should matter to YOU as an individual, not what you think people expect of you. Your goal should also fit within your lifestyle and contribute in some way to your overall plan for your life. This will bring your “why” into play. Why are you wanting to accomplish this goal? If it’s not relevant to you then it may not be worth spending time trying to achieve it.
Adjusted Goal: “I want to lose 20 lbs of body fat. I will measure my progress by weighing daily and comparing the weekly average of my daily body weight. Once I reach 20 lbs of fat loss, I will reevaluate and set a new goal for myself. Reaching this goal may help improve my prediabetes and enable me to better enjoy long bike rides.”
Finally, we should make an effort to specify a reasonable timeframe for accomplishing our goal. Without a time limit or target date, it’s easy to find ourselves on a perpetual journey toward this destination, never actually reaching it. While health and fitness should not be considered a destination but rather, a journey and lifestyle, setting a time limit on specific goals is extremely helpful to keep us on target.
A good example of a time target for fat loss is 1-2 lbs per week. It is still highly individual as the more weight you have to lose the easier it is to be closer to that 2 lb per week mark whereas when you start to get leaner, it is generally more realistic to expect closer to the lower end of that range. That said, weight loss is not a linear progression so if this is your goal just keep in mind that there will be fluctuations and plateaus and that this is completely normal.
Adjusted Final Goal: “I want to lose 20 lbs of body fat over the next 90 days which averages out to about 1.5 lbs per week. I will measure my progress by weighing daily and comparing the weekly average of my daily body weight. Once I reach 20 lbs of fat loss, I will reevaluate and set a new goal for myself. Reaching this goal may help improve my prediabetes and enable me to better enjoy long bike rides.”
As I’ve pointed out, setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound goals is an extremely effective way to help keep you on track with your health and fitness journey. There will always be ups and downs along the way but having clear goals laid out for yourself is one excellent way to set yourself up for success.
You may also find this worksheet helpful for creating your S.M.A.R.T. goals. The link takes you to a Google Doc. You won’t be able to edit this, but you can print it or make a copy to your own Google Drive using the “File” menu and choosing “Make a copy”. This will allow you to fill it out and save it in your Google Drive for future reference.