Motivation and Goal-Setting for Exercise

How to stick with your fitness program

Friends jogging at sunset
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Finding motivation to train or stick with exercise on a regular basis isn't always easy. Demanding schedules, burn-out, and illness are just a few of the things that may interrupt your fitness routine. However, sometimes motivation can be found by following a very simple formula.

Goal setting based upon the S.M.A.R.T. approach is a simple technique that provides structure for your training program.

Many athletes and coaches successfully use this formula to set both short and long-term training goals.

The S.M.A.R.T. principle

  1. Set Specific Goals. Research shows that specific goals are the most motivating. A specific goal is to reduce your 5K time by 30 seconds within 6 months. Many people just say they want to get faster. This goal is far too general to really motivate you in your training.
  2. Set Measurable Goals. Simply saying that you want to get faster is not enough detail. You need to be able to chart and document progress toward your goal. One way to measure your progress is to document your performance at set intervals. In the above example, you may want to time your 5K performance once a month so you have a good measurement.
  3. Set Attainable Goals. This means your goals are realistic. You're setting goals that you are likely to reach based on your past history. You want to increase the challenge slightly, but not so much that you are setting yourself up for failure.
    You definitely want your goals to be attainable but the "A" in SMART goals can also stand for other things, if you choose. For example, it can stand for "adjustable." That is, your goal should be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected challenges without becoming obsolete. An injury may force you to modify your goal. If you goal is to run a certain marathon and you are injured, you may need to change your goal to do the half marathon or some other event. An injury doesn't need to mean you abandon all your plans. At the same time, you may find you are progressing quickly and need to raise your goal.
    Lastly, your "A" might stand for "action-oriented." Another important aspect of goal-setting to keep them focused on personal action. Don't forget to consider not only what you want to achieve, but how you plan to achieve it. Consider reading How to Design a Personal Exercise Program and The Principles of Sports Conditioning for tips on fitness training plans.
  • Set Realistic Goals. Start where you are, and increase your goals accordingly. If you haven't ever run a 5K it's probably not a wise goal to say you want to run a marathon. While that may be your long-term goal, in the short-term you may want to shoot for the 5K and 10K and half marathon on the way to your marathon goal. This sort of progression is healthy and realistic. Also, keep in mind that as you become more and more fit and near your full potential the room for continued improvement gets smaller. Similarly, if your goals are too simple, you won't feel much satisfaction by attaining them. Only you truly know what is realistic for you.
  • Set Time-based Goals. Look again at first example: reduce your 5K time by 30 seconds within 6 months. This is specific and time-based. Without a timeline, there is a tendency to procrastinate or get bored. You may also need to set interim goals with shorter timelines to keep you on track. Consider the previous example of working up to a marathon by completing shorter distances first. Each of those becomes a separate goal with a shorter timeline. In general, goals that stretch out beyond 6 months are too long to keep you interested and motivated. Try to re-evaluate your goals every 2-3 months.

Goal setting is an art as well as a science, but if you make sure your goals follow the S.M.A.R.T. formula, you will find you are more likely to stay motivated and reach goal after goal.

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.