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Whether you want to run a marathon or just start exercising regularly, having a goal is an important tool.
“Fitness goals help focus your attention, increase your motivation, channel your energy, and provide checks and balances so you’re accountable,” says Judy Van Raalte, Ph.D., a psychologist in Springfield, Mass. “But unless they’re carefully crafted and reassessed regularly, they can backfire.”
To help you formulate exercise objectives that work for—not against—you, Dr. Van Raalte offers these specific goal-setting recommendations, which form the acronym SMART.
The best exercise goals are specific. A goal such as “I will exercise for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week by the end of June” fits the bill. A goal such as “I want to exercise to look and feel better” is too vague to be useful.
If you have a big exercise goal, such as running in a 10K, break it down into specific performance goals that will help you get there.
For example, strive to train five days a week for at least several months before the race date, and include rest days so you can recover. Give yourself credit for all you do by recording what you’ve done each day, or crossing it off your calendar.
Success Rx: Record your exercise goal, such as “I will exercise three times this week,” and post it where you can see it often. By making your goals visible, they become more real and increase your commitment.
The most helpful goals are those where you can measure your progress, whether it’s crossing your exercise sessions off your to-do list, or measuring a specific outcome, such as improving your running time or being able to lift more weight.
Success Rx: Go public with your goal by telling family and friends about it. When you’re accountable to others it’s more difficult to not do what you said you would.
Your goals also should be challenging enough to inspire you, but not so difficult that you feel like dropping them after a week or two.
Trying to lose 30 pounds a month isn’t realistic or achievable, but losing six to eight pounds might be—if you have the time and energy to focus on exercising and cutting calories.
Success Rx: Be prepared for setbacks, such as injury or days when you just don’t have time to do what you said you would. Instead of giving up, develop alternative plans and be ready to act on them.
Your goals should have a clear endpoint, a benchmark at which you know you’ve accomplished them. If you’re training for a marathon, participating in the race and getting to the finish line is the objective. After you’ve reached that marker, you can set a new time-specific goal to get you to the next endpoint, and so on.
Success Rx: Reassess your exercise goals weekly and feel free to scale them up or down, if necessary, to make them more or less challenging.
“When you’re sick of it and you want to stop, just keep going,” Dr. Van Raalte says. “Goal-setting can help you get to the finish line, but at some point, you just have to do the exercise and persist.”