How to Set Exercise and Weight Loss Goals for Beginners

Get SMART About Your Fitness Goals

Getty Images/Jamie Grill

If you're trying to lose weight, get healthy, 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 when you get down to it setting the right kinds of goals may be harder than you think.  Too often, we set a goal and it stays there, hanging over us if we don't reach it. Rather than look at that goal and think of a different one, we end up punishing ourselves for not reach it in the first place.

Think about losing weight. While many of us focus on a certain weight we'd like to get to, that isn't always the best approach. We often pick an arbitrary number, maybe a weight we used to be or a weight we've always wanted to be, leaving us frustrated when we end up failing.

The number on a scale is never going to tell the entire story and, if you've ever lost weight before, you've probably figured out that the process isn't always linear. Your weight fluctuates from day to day, even from hour to hour.

So, if that's the case, what do you do? If you really want to get results, you need goals that will actually work for you.


If you've done any kind of goal-setting, you've probably run across the acronym SMART goals. That term stands for goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

When you don't have a specific goal, it's difficult to keep exercising and to track your progress to see how far you've come.

Similarly, if you have a goal that's out of reach - Say getting back to the weight you were 20 years ago or fitting into a clothing size you wore in high school, there's nothing to keep you going day after day.

If your weight doesn't change or that clothing size just isn't fitting right, you may even quit altogether. That's why it's good to have a variety of goals so you always have something tangible to track.

Choosing Your Goals

A lot of us talk about weight loss goals and that's fine, especially if that's a long-term goal. You can keep your eye on the finish line but it helps to keep your focus on what you're actually doing to lose the weight rather than on the end result.

Other goals to consider include:

  • Completing all your workouts for the week
  • Trying to do something active every day
  • Use a tracker and try to get a certain number of steps
  • Set a goal to stand up and stretch or walk every hour
  • Take a walk after dinner instead of watching TV

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

Checking Your Goals

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

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

For example, is it reasonable to want to lose 50 pounds in 6 months? It's possible, but may not be reasonable unless you eat well and exercise every single day for the next 6 months.

Weight loss is often harder than we think and it's usually slower as well. Experts recommend that you lose no more than 1-2 pounds per week, but it isn't likely that you'll lose 2 pounds every single week and many people find they actually lose about .5 to 1 pound on a good week. More about How to Set Weight Loss Goals.

Facts to Consider About Weight Loss Goals

  • The more weight you lose, the harder it will be to lose weight. 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 may not even be the most motivating. Giving up the Weight Loss Obsession may be your first step to success.

    After you set your goal, your next step is to find out how to reach it. If you want to lose weight or become better at a sport, you need to do some research to figure out where to start

    It's helpful to know what you have to do before you get started. You may be surprised at the daily effort it takes to reach your goals and you may not realize that your body isn't ready for the amount of exercise you need to reach your goals.

    It takes time to build strength, endurance, coordination and it also takes time to get used to making exercise a part of your life.

    How to Stick With Your Goals

    Once you settle on realistic goals, you'll need a few tricks up your sleeve to make your exercise routine a habit.

    Part of sticking with exercise is making it as easy as possible to do your workouts. That means setting goals you can reach, doing workouts you know you can complete, and giving yourself some incentive to keep going.

    Some tips:

    • Schedule your workouts
    • Set weekly goals and reward yourself each time you succeed - Give yourself time to read a magazine, guilt-free TV time, or take a leisurely bath or shower
    • Work out with friends or family for added motivation
    • Recommit to your goals every day
    • Be prepared by always having your workout bag with you, bringing your lunch to work, etc.
    • Be prepared for those times when you feel like skipping your workout
    • Keep a food and workout journal to stay on track and measure your progress
    • Take your measurements regularly

    Getting Started

    Setting goals is all well and good, but what kinds of workouts should you actually do? The simplest way is to start a walking program. Walking is usually an accessible activity, there's no learning curve and most of us can find a place and some time to walk every day.

    Beyond that, try a simple program such as:

    The best thing you can do for yourself as a beginner or someone restarting an exercise program is 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.

    If you make those healthy choices every day, focus on those SMART goals, the weight loss will come.

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