One of the first steps you should take when starting an exercise program is to set a few goals for yourself. Simply stated, you must be clear about what you want to accomplish. For example, you might want to lose weight, improve your athletic performance, improve your general health, reduce your risk for disease, feel better or some combination of these. Whatever you want to achieve, I suggest you use the SMART Goal process to improve your chances for success. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
Make sure your goals are precise and stated in performance terms. For instance, if you want to lose weight, your goal might be “to lose 10 pounds in the next 8 weeks.” If you want to improve your athletic performance, your goal might be “to run a sub 20-min 5K race by the end of the season.” If you want to improve your body composition, your goal can be “to reduce my body fat percentage to 20% in the next 6 months.”
A goal is measurable when it is easy to determine if it has been accomplished. The weight loss goal listed above is easily measured. 8 weeks from now you will either weigh 10 pounds less or not. Likewise, with the performance and body composition goals, it will be easy to determine if you are successful. Conversely, a goal to “reduce my risk of disease” is not very measurable. A better goal is to “reduce my LDL cholesterol by 20 points in the next 6 months.”
One of the biggest mistakes people make in the goal-setting process is to set unattainable goals. Your goals should be set high, but they must also be realistic. A goal to lose 20 pounds in 4 weeks is both unrealistic and unhealthy. Likewise, if you are new to running and set a goal to finish a marathon 3 months from now, you are setting yourself up for both failure and pain. Make your goals challenging but attainable.
Your goals should be important to you as an individual. Don’t set a goal just because your friends, family members or exercise partners have set that goal. Remember, your goals will be your primary motivation to keep up your exercise program so make sure they are important to you.
Make sure each goal has a specific time frame for completion. This allows you to easily determine if it has been achieved. It also increases the likelihood that you will accomplish each goal since you know the clock is ticking! For example, if you want to lose weight, an effective time-based goal might be “By January 1, I will lose 15 pounds and decrease my body fat percentage to 18%.” Of course, this assumes you don’t set this goal on Christmas day! Labor Day would provide a more realistic time-frame.