Beginner's Guide to How to Set Exercise and Weight Loss Goals

Get SMART About Your Fitness Goals

Happy woman with a measuring tape
Getty Images/Jamie Grill

If you're trying to lose weight, improve your health, build muscle or get better at sports, you probably know the first thing you need to do: Set some goals. That sounds easy enough. But too often, people set a goal that ends up demotivating them when it's not reached. Rarely is the goal itself ever examined or rethought, though doing so often reveals it wasn't realistic in the first place.

Think about losing weight. While many focus on a certain weight they'd like to reach, that isn't always the best approach. People often pick an arbitrary number, maybe a weight they used to or always wanted to be. But the number on a scale is never going to tell the entire story and the process isn't always linear. Weight fluctuates from day to day, even from hour to hour.

Goals are important. They can keep you going day after day and give you a measuring stick against which you can track your progress. Goals should push you, but they should also be reasonable.

Choose Your Fitness Goals

To get results, you need goals that will actually work for you: SMART goals. That means goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Weight-loss goals are fine, especially if they are long-term. Keep your eye on the finish line, but day to day, strive to focus on what you're actually doing to lose the weight, rather than on the end result. That might mean:

  • Completing all your planned workouts for the week
  • Doing something active every day
  • Using a tracker and trying to get a certain number of steps
  • Standing up and stretching or walking every hour
  • Taking a walk after dinner instead of watching TV

Sometimes just one healthy choice can lead to more healthy choices. Keeping them simple makes them easier to stick with.

Put Goals in Perspective

As you determine your goals, take some time to answer the following questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish with this program?
  • Is my goal realistic and attainable?
  • Do I know how to reach my goal?
  • Do I have a timeline for reaching my goal?
  • How will I reward myself when I get there?

For example, is it reasonable to want to lose 50 pounds in six months? It's possible, but may not be reasonable unless you eat well and exercise every single day of those six months.

Weight loss is often harder than many think, and it's usually slower as well. Many people find they actually lose about one half to one pound on a good week. So be thoughtful about your weight loss goals, and remember:

  • The more weight you lose, the harder it will be to lose more. The less weight your body has to move around, the fewer calories it will burn doing so.
  • The closer you get to your goal, the harder it is to reach it. There may be several reasons why you're not losing weight and being aware of those pitfalls can help you avoid them, or manage them when they happen.
  • The weight you can maintain may not be the weight you want to be. We all have an exercise threshold (the amount of exercise we can comfortably fit into our lives). We can often stretch that threshold, but it's important to know exactly where it is so you can decide if that's realistic for you.
  • The scale isn't always the best way to track progress. The scale won't tell you what you've lost and/or gained and, sometimes, it can even lie to you. Be sure to use other tools to track your progress.
  • Weight loss isn't the only goal you can have, and it may not even be the most motivating. Giving up on a weight-loss obsession may be your first step to success.

    Stick With Your Plans

    After you set your goals, your next step is to find out how to reach them. You may be surprised at the daily effort it takes to reach your goals. And your body may not yet be ready for the amount of exercise you need.

    It takes time to build strength, endurance, and coordination, and it also takes time to get used to making exercise a part of your life. Part of sticking with it is making it as easy as possible to do your workouts. Set short-term goals you can reach and recommit to them every day.

    Do the advance prep you need: packing your lunch, keeping your workout clothes with you, etc. Plan workouts you know you can complete, and give yourself some incentive to keep going, such as working out with friends or family and giving yourself rewards (like time to read a magazine or take a leisurely bath).

    Starter Workouts That Help You Reach Your Goals

    When you're ready to get started, the simplest first step is a walking program. There's no learning curve, and most people can find a place and some time to walk every day.

    Explore one-week workouts for absolute beginners, which are focused on pacing you through the basics of cardio, strength, and stretching. You can also try "jumpstart" programs that focus on workouts, rather than weight loss, as well as longer-term quick start guides.

    The best thing you can do for yourself as a beginner or someone restarting an exercise program is to give yourself simplicity and time. Focus on the healthy behaviors you need to do today and try not to worry about how much weight you're losing.

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