If January 1 is the only day you vow to improve your health, you're not alone. This once-a-year promise to stick to your exercise goals is what motivates millions of people to get moving.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and stamina that seem to kick off the new year often run dry just a few short months later. That's why setting realistic expectations for your exercise goals is one of the best ways to ensure that you will follow through and maintain the changes you've made.
Main Objectives of Physical Fitness
If you think back to your days in elementary school, there were always fitness tests you had to pass. What you may not have realized at age 10 is that those same objectives of physical exercise, such as running a certain distance, participating in relay races, climbing a rope or grinding out a certain number of sit-ups, that your PE teacher graded you on, are similar to the current physical activity guidelines that are recommended for adults.
In reality, what your elementary school PE class was preparing you for directly relates to the goals of physical activity set by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: to improve health, fitness, and quality of life through daily physical activity.
To accomplish this, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established physical activity guidelines recommending that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Plus, two or more days of muscle-strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups.
Aim of Physical Fitness
It's no secret that the benefits of exercise are far-reaching. The Mayo Clinic points out that on the physical side, some of the most important reasons to get up and get moving include weight loss and maintenance, better sleep and a decrease in the risk of certain conditions, such as stroke, heart disease and type II diabetes.
But it's not just the physical benefits that make exercise such a powerful tool in the quest to stay healthy. It's also the pros on the mental and emotional side that should inspire you to set exercise goals. The experts at Harvard Health Publishing say that regular physical activity can improve mood, reduce stress, boost confidence levels and help manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
"The overarching aim of physical fitness is the ability to perform the necessary aspects of your sport, job or daily activities and withstand the demands those put on you physically, physiologically and mentally," Mental Performance Consultant Eric Bean, PhD, CMPC and e-board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
For most people, Bean says this overarching aim isn't inspiring or motivating enough to overcome the draw off the couch after a long day. That's why it's important to consider the many benefits of good physical fitness and identify which ones will motivate you enough to choose health and exercise over relaxing on the sofa.
Read more: Advantages and Disadvantages of Exercise
Find Your "Why"
When it comes to setting fitness goals, finding your "why" is at the core of being successful. So, what exactly is your "why?" Well, that depends on each person, but for the most part, it is a deeper motivation for why you want to do something such as lose weight, run a 5k or gain muscle.
Certified personal trainer Shannon Roentved, CSCS, director of education at POUND, tells LIVESTRONG.com that relevance (part of SMART goals) is the most essential criterion in goal achievement for people new to exercise.
She also points out that athletes and people with advanced exercise levels experiencing burnout or lack of purpose in their regular workout routines can also benefit from defining their "why" within their exercise goals.
This is the opposite of a lot of goals that only focus on the what or the outcome of the goal. "SMART goals challenge people to think deeply about their workout aspirations by identifying the purpose and outlining a plan with measurable steps," explains Roentved.
What Are SMART Goals?
The concept of SMART goals dates back to the early 1980s when a business consultant used the acronym to explain how to write management goals and objectives. While the initial success of this goal-setting method took place in the business world, it quickly traveled to the fitness industry where it is now one of the most commonly used tools by trainers when working with clients.
There is some variance in the exact definition of a few letters, but in general, SMART stands for:
- Specific: What do you want to accomplish?
- Measurable: How are you going to determine if you meet your goal?
- Achievable or actionable: Do you have the tools to make this happen? Also, is the goal written in a way that requires you to take action?
- Relevant or realistic: Does the goal focus on something that's important to you?
- Time-bound: Do you have a realistic timeline for achieving your goal?
When it comes to exercise, SMART goals show you how each training session nests into your overall goal. Not only does this help keep you focused and motivated on your overarching aim, but Bean says it also allows you to get more out of your workouts.
Read more: 9 Essential Strength Benchmarks for Men
SMART Exercise Goals
Specific. "Your goals should correlate to your unique aim," says Bean. For example, you wouldn't want your goal to be "get in shape" because "in-shape" is vague. A more targeted goal might be to lose 10 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle. "The more specific and connected to your personal mission the goals are, the better," he adds.
Measurable. Broad, sweeping goals like those above "get in shape" aren't effective, says Bean because they don't provide clarity on the target. Instead, he points out that you want a goal that is measurable and objective. For example, you might say, "I will walk the dogs for 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday."
Action-oriented. "A goal without clear direction on the action you're going to take may leave too much room for interpretation," explains Bean. For example, a goal of getting a few training runs in this week is admirable, but it isn't clear on the actions necessary to be successful.
Instead, Bean says to set a goal to run for 3 miles at an average of an eight-minute mile, three times this week before Saturday. That is action-oriented.
Realistic. "A goal that is not possible or requires too much sacrifice to achieve will likely decrease motivation and result in inaction," says Bean. Realistic goals should be challenging enough that they require effort and focus, suggests Bean, but not outside of the realm of possibility.
Time-bound. Bean says goals that have a set time limit for their achievement will increase motivation, generate some positive pressure and provide clarity on your target deadline.
For example, your goal is to lose 10 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle by doing 20 minutes of interval training three times a week and 60 minutes of strength training three days a week every week for the next two months.
"SMART goals show you how each training session nests into your overall goal, which keeps you focused and motivated on your overarching aim, and helps you get more out of your workouts," says Bean.
Examples of Fitness Goals
"Fitness goals are attainable and sustainable," Dempsey Marks, AFAA certified fitness trainer and creator of Peak Physique, tells LIVESTRONG.com. To decrease the chances of quitting and abandoning your exercise goals, Marks says to be realistic about the end result.
That's why she recommends starting at a comfortable pace and slowly working your way up to the next level or mini-goal. And the best part about Marks's advice is that it applies to everything from fitness goals for beginners all the way up to elite athletes.
To get an idea of what an exercise goal looks like, Roentved shares an example of a common fitness goal using the SMART method.
Goal: Improve overall fitness
- Specific: You will improve fitness levels so you can finish a 5k.
- Measurable: by exercising at 40 to 60 percent of your HRR
- Attainable of action-oriented: for 30 minutes, five days a week
- Realistic or relevant: so that you can keep up with your 8-year-old daughter
- Time-bound: at the 5k walk registered for 60 days from now
Other Goal-Setting Strategies
When it comes to one suggestion for both beginners and experienced exercisers, Bean says to prepare for obstacles by setting WOOP goals. "WOOP is an acronym developed by Gabrielle Oettigen, and it combines two powerful tools called mental contrasting and implementation intentions," he explains. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan.
In her research, Bean says that Gabrielle found that merely focusing on your wish, such as winning a 10k race, decreases the likelihood of you accomplishing your goal. And in order to be successful, you need to apply the other principles of WOOP: outcome, obstacle and plan.
For example, Bean says your wish might be to win a 10k race by the end of the July. After you determine that, the next step is to identify the outcome in terms of how you would feel, what the benefits would be of achieving this goal, and then visualize that outcome in your mind.
Next, Bean says to identify potential obstacles that would prevent you from achieving your goal such as being unmotivated to exercise in the morning, traveling a lot for work or disliking running outside in the winter.
And finally, Bean says you need to come up with a plan. He recommends using if/then statements to identify how you will overcome the obstacle if you're faced with them.
For example, if you have to travel for work, you will bring your running shoes and identify good running routes prior to leaving. "After creating a plan, visualize yourself executing each if/then plan," Bean adds.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Physical Activity-Healthy People 2020"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Simply Moving Benefits Your Mental Health"
- Association for Applied Sports Psychology: "Eric Bean, PhD, CMPC: Personal Interview"
- POUND: "Shannon Roentved, CSCS, Director of Education: Personal Interview"
- Peak Physique: "Dempsey Marks, AFAA Certified Fitness Trainer: Personal Interview"
- WOOPMyLife: "WOOP Goals"
- POUND: "Rockout. Workout."
- Dempsey Marks: "Fast Facts"