How Do I Choose a Fitness Goal That’s Right for Me?

Q: I would feel more motivated to exercise if I set a particular goal. How do I figure out the right one for me?

A: You’re right, working toward a specific goal may be the mental boost you need to stick to your workouts—and give them all you’ve got—whether you’re just starting to exercise, getting back into shape or pushing your fitness to the next level.

Though it’s easy to say that you’re going to run a 5K three months from now or lose 10 pounds before the holidays, it’s important to really think about which end goal is doable for you both physically and mentally. After all, there’s a good chance you’ll lose steam if you’re aiming for something unrealistic, which can leave you feeling discouraged and tempted to abandon your exercise routine altogether.

When working with our guests, we recommend setting a goal using the American Council on Exercise’s SMART approach:

Specific. Saying you’re going to “work out more” or “lose weight” is too general. Instead, ask yourself questions that can help direct you toward a clear, definitive goal. Here are some examples:

  • What would like you to improve about your fitness?
  • What kinds of exercise do you like doing the most?
  • What goals are you currently able to reach when doing those activities?
  • What would be the next level of success for those activities?
  • How would you classify your fitness level: beginner, immediate or advanced?
  • Do you prefer indoor or outdoor activities?

Your answers will, hopefully, lead you to a specific mission, like: I like running and prefer to be outdoors, and I’m of a moderate fitness level, so my specific goal will be to run for 20 extra minutes each day outside in the neighborhood with all the hills.

Measurable. Getting fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is first and foremost about being well and feeling good from day to day, but coming up with measurable goals (losing a certain number of pounds or inches from your waistline) can help you track your progress and stay motivated, even when faced with challenges.

So, if you’ve decided to start walking more often with a specific goal of losing two inches from your waist at the end of three months, commit to measuring your waistline every week to track your progress. Or if you’re aiming to add a quarter-mile to your run, mark down your distance each week. Keep in mind, however, that this approach is not for everyone—if meeting certain measurements is causing you stress, you may want to just track your progress based on how you feel.

Attainable. Setting big goals in life (open a business, travel abroad, buy a house) is important, but realizing them usually means reaching some smaller goals first. The same goes for fitness: You may dream about finishing a marathon, but you have to succeed at the shorter distances in order to prepare for that big challenge.

Be honest with yourself about where to start based on your fitness level and aim for one of those smaller, more realistic goals (which are worthy of their own celebration) first; meeting it will give you the confidence to set another (and another) while keeping that bigger goal, which you’re slowly getting closer to, in the back of your mind.

Relevant. Your fitness goal should be something that applies to your needs and feels important to you. If you have less time to work out, maybe you want to aim to burn more calories in a shorter period of time. If you want to be able to perform daily tasks with more ease, your goal might be to fit in more functional strength training.

Whatever the case, focus on the best course of action for your body, your schedule, your lifestyle and your interests. Choose exercises and training programs that match your abilities and are tailored to helping you achieve your desired end result. The more of a fit they are for you all around, the more likely you are to enjoy the journey and stick with it.

Time-bound. Once you’ve decided on a specific goal that feels appropriate and realistic, and you’ve come up with a game plan to measure your progress, set a time frame for you to achieve it. This will help keep you accountable and less likely to fall off track.

While you might love to drop 20 pounds before a big event that’s just one month away or run a big race two weeks from now, you need to consider the smartest, healthiest way to succeed. Speak with a doctor, personal trainer and/or other health or fitness professional to help you come up with a reasonable timeline for your goal.

Now that you’re ready to set and start working towards your fitness goal, remember that it’s important to pay attention to how you feel along the way. Some signs that you’re on the right path include improved sleep, increased energy and less stress. On the flip side, if you constantly feel exhausted or experience excessive soreness and/or injury, you may be pushing yourself too hard; it’s time to stop and reassess.

Some hurdles, like healing a sprained ankle or going on a vacation that wasn’t as active as you may have hoped it would be, can feel like setbacks. Think of these situations as a stall—not a complete stop—in the journey. When you’re ready, begin working toward your goal again, adjusting your path as needed.

More: The Traveler’s Guide to Fitness

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