Setting Realistic Fitness Goals
Fitness goals are important on several counts. They hold us accountable, expand our definition of possible, and encourage us to push through temporary discomfort for longer-lasting change. But figuring out how to set fitness goals you’ll actually want to attain can be part art, part science.
1. Focus on one goal at a time.
When it comes to setting a fitness goal, what is the biggest mistake? People try to do too much at one time. Perhaps you want to hit the gym every day? Maybe cut out added sugar, and get at least eight hours of sleep a night? Trying to tackle that much at once is essentially just setting yourself up for failure. With so many things to achieve, people get anxious, and if they didn’t do one thing, they feel like a failure. This can lead to negative self-talk that lowers your chances of achieving any of the goals. Instead, pick one thing you want to crush—like, doing a pull-up, or completing your first-ever 5K—and channel your efforts into achieving that before exploring another goal.
2. Make it your own.
It can be easy to scroll through the ‘gram and feel inspired-yet-envious by images of the super fit. Yet basing your own goals off of what you see others achieving is neither productive nor practical. When we are bombarded by images of what fitness should look like and how we should do XYZ, it can be hard to identify what’s good for you. Certain things that top athletes can do—run a marathon, do 100 push-ups, master the most challenging yoga poses. May be great for them, but it’s not metric that everyone should be measured by,” says Vidal. In other words, your goal should be your goal—something that you personally are excited about and realistically able to achieve—not someone else’s.
3. Make it measurable, specific, and time-bound.
Having a measurable goal allows your to track your progress, and the more specific your goal, the clearer the path to achieving it becomes. Wanting to “be stronger,” for example, is a great place to start, but what does that mean to you? Saying you want to increase the number of push-ups you can do makes the goal measurable, and saying you want to be able to do 20 push-ups in one minute makes it specific.
On top of that, the goal should be time-bound, as this helps you focus your efforts. Develop a more structured plan for actually achieving the goal, and creates a sense of urgency that can be motivating. Examples of measurable, specific, and time-bound goals include being able to deadlift 10 repetitions with 50 pounds in three months, running a 5K nonstop by the end of the year, and correctly performing a pull-up by the start of summer.
4. Set the bar low—at least, at first.
Speaking of attainable. Your goal should seem relatively easy or within reach of what you are doing. Why? If you think it’s easy, you have likely already worked through any mental obstacles that could thwart your progress. On the confidence scale, you should be at a 9 out of 10 when it comes to your belief that you’ll actually achieve your goal. The less confident you are, the less likely you will adhere to the steps needed to make it happen, says Clancy.
Plus, attainable goals help ensure that you start out with some all-important wins. The more success you have in your fitness journey, the more you will stay with it. Having this success early on is especially important as it builds confidence that can snowball into long-term results.
5. Play the long game.
We all want instant gratification, but it’s important to be realistic with the time frame you develop for achieving your. Know that you are never going to make an overhaul in one week. Instead, pick a goal that can be achieved over the course of several months or even a year. A long-term mentality will help you see your goal as a lifestyle change, rather than quick fix, and you’ll be much more likely to adhere to it.
6. Develop micro goals on the way to your big goal.
Within your larger goal you should schedule in smaller, confidence-building goals that are achievable in a shorter time period. For example, say you want to run a nine-minute mile. During your training, you should make a smaller goal, like running a half mile in five minutes, to both show yourself how much you’ve accomplished and assess where you currently are. It’s all about those little victories. You want to be able to reward yourself mentally. Having to wait too long to feel like you’ve accomplished anything can diminish your motivation and pull you off track entirely.
In general, it’s good to set micro fitness goals that can be achieved every two to three weeks. That amount of time can help you determine if you’re macro goal is realistic and provide the chance to scale things back if needed.
7. Be honest about your prior and current habits.
Asking yourself the tough questions can help you honestly evaluate what’s most appropriate for you. Have you been somebody who in the past has crushed several fitness goals and just wants to take it to the next level? If that’s the case, you could likely tackle a more complex goal. Like running a long distance race at a certain pace.
But if you’re new to fitness, which of course is totally okay, you may want to focus on more simple behavior modifications, like going to the gym a certain number of days a week.
If you want to see measurable progression, you have to be realistic with what you are currently doing. If your routine doesn’t involve any form of exercise, suddenly getting yourself to the gym five days a week—while certainly possible—may not be the most practical or realistic goal.
On top of that, it’s helpful to consider what has stopped you from achieving goals in the past. If you have a chronically hard time getting up the morning, for example, sign up for evening workout classes rather than aiming for those 6 a.m. sessions. Being honest with yourself will help you identify and eliminate barriers before you get started.
8. Plan for a support system.
When thinking about your goal, you should also think about who in your life could encourage, motivate, and hold you accountable to it. Then recruit them whenever you’re in need of support. If people you spend the most time with are supportive of your goals, it will make a huge difference.