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

Get SMART About Your Fitness Goals

Woman measuring hips with tape measure

Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images 

If you're trying to lose weight, improve your health, build muscle or get better at sports, the first thing to do is set some goals. 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. People often pick an arbitrary goal weight, maybe a weight they used to be or always wanted to be. But the number on a scale doesn't tell the entire story and the process isn't always linear. Weight fluctuates from day to day, even from hour to hour.

Choose Your Fitness Goals

To get results, you need goals that will actually work for you: SMART goals. This means setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant (and reasonable), and timely.

Weight-loss goals are fine, but you can also set functional goals that can improve your life. For example, if you struggle to walk up the stairs, you might set a goal to do so without getting winded. Or you might set a goal to lower your cholesterol by making specific changes to your diet.

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?

Goals should push you. They should keep you going day after day and give you a measuring stick against which you can track your progress.

Put Your Goals In Perspective

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

Weight loss is often harder than many think, and it's usually slower as well. Many people find that they 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 these 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, or 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 it's realistic for you.
  • The scale isn't always the best way to track progress. The scale won't tell you how much fat 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.

Create a Plan

After you set your goals, your next step is to decide 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.

Do advance prep. Pack your lunch, keep 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).

Go One Day at a Time

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. This might mean:

  • Completing all your planned workouts for the week
  • Doing something active every day
  • Drinking more water each day
  • Consuming more vegetables
  • Decreasing your intake of added sugar
  • Using a tracker and trying to get a certain number of steps
  • Standing up and stretching or walking every hour
  • Getting adequate sleep most nights of the week
  • 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.

It takes time to build strength, endurance, and coordination. 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.

Take the First Step

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.

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

A Word From Verywell

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

Most importantly, be patient and kind to yourself. Weight loss (or any behavioral change) is tough. The reason most people do not succeed with their goals is that they are not patient and give up too soon. Instead of looking for quick results, give yourself credit for daily efforts. Small changes make lasting changes!

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nelis SM, Thom JM, Jones IR, Hindle JV, Clare L. Goal-setting to Promote a Healthier Lifestyle in Later Life: Qualitative Evaluation of the AgeWell Trial. Clin Gerontol. 2018;41(4):335-345. doi:10.1080/07317115.2017.1416509

  2. Aghera A, Emery M, Bounds R, et al. A Randomized Trial of SMART Goal Enhanced Debriefing after Simulation to Promote Educational Actions. West J Emerg Med. 2018;19(1):112-120. doi:10.5811/westjem.2017.11.36524

  3. Montesi L, El ghoch M, Brodosi L, Calugi S, Marchesini G, Dalle Grave R. Long-term weight loss maintenance for obesity: a multidisciplinary approach. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2016;9:37-46. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S89836

  4. Evert AB, Franz MJ. Why Weight Loss Maintenance Is Difficult. Diabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):153-156. doi:10.2337/ds017-0025

  5. Mann T, Lamberts RP, Lambert MI. Methods of prescribing relative exercise intensity: physiological and practical considerations. Sports Med. 2013;43(7):613-25. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0045-x

  6. Bassett DR, Toth LP, Lamunion SR, Crouter SE. Step Counting: A Review of Measurement Considerations and Health-Related Applications. Sports Med. 2017;47(7):1303-1315. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0663-1

  7. Reynolds AN, Venn BJ. The Timing of Activity after Eating Affects the Glycaemic Response of Healthy Adults: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2018;10(11). doi:10.3390/nu10111743

  8. Thomas MH, Burns SP. Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(2):159-167.

  9. Cleo G, Hersch J, Thomas R. Participant experiences of two successful habit-based weight-loss interventions in Australia: a qualitative study. BMJ Open. 2018;8(5):e020146. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020146