Fitness goals can be incredibly motivating, but without well-planned and realistic objectives, you may end up frustrated by a lack of expected results.
“Goal setting is a simple yet very powerful sport psychology tool,” says Joseph Galasso, Psy.D., a sports psychologist at Baker Street Behavioral Health in New Jersey. “Goal setting helps you improve motivation and commitment, stay focused on what to accomplish and track your performance,” he adds.
Read on to learn how to set realistic fitness goals, along with expert tips for designing your own goal-supporting plan and putting it in motion.
Setting Realistic Fitness Goals: Criteria to Consider
When setting fitness goals, we often accidentally muddy our paths by being too eager or too ambitious in our goal setting, according to Dr. Galasso. Taking a calm, confident approach to goal setting is best when setting individual goals.
“Really think about what you want to achieve and the resources that you’re able to dedicate to your workouts, your diet and your recovery [between exercise sessions],” says Dr. Galasso. For instance, the biggest obstacle that prevents most people from creating healthy habits is not the desire to be healthier, but the “time” to do so, according to Galasso. “When setting goals, being open, honest and nonjudgmental about your resources is crucial,” he says.
For example, if you find your schedule is packed with work, parenting and other commitments, then instead of immediately committing to working out at the gym for an hour four times per week, consider your schedule, priorities and time constraints first.
Setting SMART Goals
The SMART goal-setting strategy is a popular method for setting and obtaining all sorts of goals, and it works particularly well for fitness. Life Time master personal trainer Danny King breaks down the components of a SMART goal below.
- Specific: Is your goal clear and defined?
- Measurable: Can it be tracked? How will you know if you’re making progress?
- Achievable: Is your goal challenging yet doable?
- Realistic: Is your goal relevant to your life purpose?
- Timely: Can you assign a date to hold yourself more accountable?
“Done correctly, SMART goals can be super effective, but most people don’t do it quite right,” explains King. He says SMART goals work best with process-oriented goals rather than outcome goals. Process goals are focused on the actual steps it takes to reach a specific outcome rather than focusing solely on the outcome itself.
For example, a process-oriented goal would be completing a specific number of workouts per week. Meanwhile, an outcome goal would be to lose a specific amount of weight. “The problem with using SMART goal setting for outcome-oriented goals like weight loss is that they are messy and hard to control,” explains King. “It’s not always easy to know what’s realistic or the exact timeframe it will take to achieve the goal.”
Not meeting a big outcome-oriented goal can lead to discouragement—even if you’re making significant progress—simply because it didn’t happen on your expected timeline. “I encourage [my clients] to make a big, exciting outcome-oriented goal and then a series of SMART process goals under that goal that will help them achieve the overall desired goal,” says King.
6 Expert Tips for Designing Realistic Fitness Goals Right Now
Use the guidance below to craft and accomplish achievable fitness goals that suit you and your lifestyle.
Use Visualization to Find Your ‘Why’
Visualizing your goals gets you started on your journey, according to Louisa Nicola, director of Neuro Athletics in Australia. Visualization is a popular psychological technique that can help program the mind and body to support successful goals. In fact, research suggests that visualizing yourself as successful can lead to improvements in performance, exercise frequency, focus and confidence.
Whatever you visualize, it should be something you feel passionate about and aligns with your personal values. “It’s important to visualize and have a bigger desire when you’re setting goals,” says King. Ask yourself what gets you excited and lights a fire in you. Why do you want this particular thing, and how important is it to you?
“This style of goal doesn’t always fit well into the SMART framework, but it’s the thing that will help push you outside your comfort zone to make a change, and it will be the thing to come back to when motivation runs low,” says King. “Your SMART goals should support this big passionate ‘why.’”
Break Big Goals Down Into Smaller Parts
Nicola suggests keeping your goals in sight to avoid a phenomenon called delayed discounting. “The farther away your goal, the less the reward motivates behavior and the less dopamine [your brain] secretes in pursuit of that goal,” she says. She suggests creating “set points” on the way to achieving your big goal that keep your mind and brain on track in pursuit of that goal.
For instance, if you have a substantial weight loss goal, set your sights on achieving incremental success rather than focusing on the total weight you want to lose. “Sometimes, losing 20 pounds is a great long-term goal, but it can be too long for us to wait to feel successful,” says Galasso, who suggests focusing on one pound of weight loss at a time instead.
Create Daily Goal-Supporting Habits
Nicola suggests breaking down set points into habits, or tasks you perform each day that support your goal’s success. For instance, increasing your step count by 200 steps each day or ensuring you pack a high-protein and high-fiber snack for work each day can support an overarching training goal.
“When you have clear tasks written out each day to achieve your monthly set points, it reminds you to stay focused,” says Nicola. Practicing focus exercises can help, too. Consider deep breathing, meditation and leaving your phone idle for at least two hours a day to help you achieve your set points, she recommends.
Create Challenging But Achievable Goals
One reason people don’t achieve their goals is because they’re either too easy or unachievable—so it’s essential to find a balance, says Nicola. In fact, research suggests that when people have goals that are just barely out of reach, they’re more motivated and excited to work toward them, while goals that are entirely out of reach or too easy are dismissed before they even start working toward them.
Gabrielle Lyon, D.O., a functional medicine physician specializing in the concept of muscle-centric medicine, suggests choosing exercises that meet your current fitness level and ensuring you’re not ignoring other aspects of your health, such as sleep and nutrition. Maintain a diet log to identify areas of improvement, and continuously track your workouts and progressions. “It’s important to understand your body type, your fitness level, your lifestyle and why you want to achieve [your goal]. Base your goals off your personal needs—not outside influences,” she says. By doing so, you can avoid overshooting or underestimating your abilities.
Enjoy the Process
“In order to set a realistic goal, find something that interests you and brings you joy,” suggests Morit Summers, a certified personal trainer in New York. “There’s no reason to train for a marathon if you hate running.” Finding something you enjoy increases the likelihood of you sticking to it because you’re intrinsically motivated to keep going.
Research in the journal Psychology & Health confirms that people tend to feel more confident and perform better if they enjoy what they’re doing, and they’re more likely to keep building additional skills that support their goals.
“I would encourage people to think about the activities they love, and incorporate them into their fitness goals and routine,” says Keke Lyles, director of performance at Uplift Labs in California. For example, someone who loves golf could set a goal of doing a cardio workout four times a week so they can ultimately walk 36 holes comfortably in one day. “If you’re able to incorporate your fitness goals into the activities you naturally enjoy doing daily, weekly or monthly, then you have a much higher chance of success,” adds Lyles.
Stay upbeat about hitting your goal—even if it takes longer than you’d like. “Nothing happens overnight, no plan is perfect, and there will always be bumps in the road,” says Summers. “Remember that your timeframe is arbitrary, and you will hit the goal at some point as long as you keep working for it.”
Dr. Galasso agrees. “There may be moments when you feel as if you fall short or if the journey is hard, but don’t take the opportunity to be judgmental,” he says. “Encourage yourself to continue moving forward toward the completion of your goal.”