If your new year has featured a Google search along the lines of “how to get in shape”, “how to get healthy”, or “how to lose weight”, then you’re not alone. 48% of participants in the annual New Year’s Resolutions study by Forbes Health/OnePoll cited “improve fitness” as their top New Year’s resolution for 2024.
When it comes to our health, many of us start the year with the best of intentions – and set our New Year’s resolutions accordingly. And yet, research suggests that just 9% of us keep our New Year’s resolutions for a full year, and 43% of us have forgotten or abandoned our resolutions by February.
Why do New Year’s resolutions fail?
Despite a high initial commitment, many resolutions fail due to a lapse in motivation, excessive personal stress, an inability to predict obstacles and setbacks, and negative emotional states – often evoked by goals not going as planned. This can create a negative cycle where failing to meet one goal decreases our motivation to work towards another.
So, what can we do instead?
SMART goals offer a structured framework for realistic, impactful goal-setting that builds towards long-term change. SMART fitness goals can be a great way to harness that New Year energy and keep it going strong as you progress on your fitness journey.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what SMART goals are, what the benefits of using them are, and how to set a SMART fitness goal. Whatever your health and fitness resolutions are this year, here’s how to help make sure they stick.
What are SMART goals?
So, what is a SMART goal?
A SMART goal has five specific traits that form the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. First coined in 1981 by George T. Doran – and designed to increase the impact of business goals – SMART goals form a framework for meaningful, well-articulated goal setting.
A SMART goal is well-defined – it states within the goal itself what the outcome of the goal is, when it will be completed, and how you will know it has been achieved. This is important, as research shows that the intention to make a behaviour change isn’t often enough for us to actually make the change. This is known as the “intention-behaviour gap” – a “failure to translate intentions into action.”
Research has demonstrated that SMART goals “help individuals focus their desires and intentions and create a standard by which success can be measured.” How does this work? SMART goals help increase the chances of attaining a given goal by:
- Ensuring the choice of a goal that is relevant and attainable
- Specifying what the goal is and how it will be completed
- Generating focus and motivation to work towards a specific goal
Let’s break down what this looks like by addressing each of the attributes of a SMART goal in turn.
SMART goals are specific. This means that when setting the goal, you specify the who, what, where, and how of the objective. This specificity is crucial, as it allows you to know when you have completed the goal.
For example, if your goal for the new year was to “be more active”, there are various ways that you might choose to add specificity to that overarching intention:
- I will go on a run in my local area 3 times per week
- I will complete at least 1 30-minute session of physical activity per day, 5 days a week
- I will increase my training from 2 workouts/week to 4 workouts/week
If we take the first goal, we can see that it specifies:
- Who will complete the action: “I”
- What the action will be: “Run”
- Where it will be completed: “In my local area”
- How it will be completed: “3 times per week”
All of the listed suggestions would hit the original goal of “be more active” – and the added specifics make it much easier to gauge whether you have hit the criteria of your goal.
Similarly to being specific, SMART goals are also measurable – they’re quantifiable, and you’ll know when you’ve met them.
Let’s take our previous example goal: “I will go on a run in my local area 3 times per week”. We can measure our progress towards this goal by tracking how many running sessions we go on each week.
If we wanted to make this goal even more measurable, we could add a sense of duration by stating “for at least 30 mins” and “during January, February, and March of 2024”. This helps to avoid the situation where a 5-minute run, for example, “counts” towards the goal!
Different types of health and fitness SMART goals will have different measurable outcomes. For example, a goal to “improve cardiovascular endurance” could be measured by scheduling a VO2 Max test to assess your current aerobic capacity, and again after a period of dedicated training. A measurable outcome could also take the form of a personal best, consistent event time, increased mileage, body composition shift, a specific step count, or anything else that quantifies your efforts towards your fitness goals.
The third characteristic of a SMART goal is that the goal is attainable. This is sometimes used interchangeably with “achievable”, and the sentiment is similar – SMART goals are goals that you can successfully complete.
Unlike overly optimistic New Year’s resolutions or quick-fix challenges, SMART goals are designed to be manageable. They’re realistic goals that balance a sense of challenge with sustainability.
Incremental change is key to creating sustainable, long-term change. This means making small changes, repeatedly, rather than going all out for the first week or month of the year, burning out, and then giving up.
As you build your fitness SMART goal, ask yourself what you can realistically ask of yourself – in terms of time commitment, energy, and effort – and craft a goal that honestly reflects your current capacity. And remember – it’s okay to adapt your goal as you go along.
Next, SMART goals are relevant. They relate directly to our life, health, values, capacities, and fitness levels.
Unlike generalised goals or training plans, a SMART fitness goal can be designed to take into account your circumstances, any health conditions or injuries, and the amount of time and energy you have to work towards your goal. This might mean that your SMART goal looks very different to someone else’s – and that’s okay.
Finally, SMART goals are time-bound, or time-limited. This means that they include a statement about the timeframe within which you will work towards – and complete – the goal.
This could look like:
- Working up to – and completing – a 10k on a specific date
- Committing to working out for 45 mins, 3 times a week, in 2024
- Completing a 1-hour yoga class once a week from January-March
- Being able to run a 5k without stopping by June
- Completing a 1x bodyweight barbell squat this year
As you can see, the duration you choose in which to complete your goal can be as short or long as you need it to be. Often, choosing short-term goals can help us to build towards those long-term “resolution-style” goals that so many of us set in the New Year.
What are the benefits of setting SMART goals for health and fitness?
If you’re considering setting a SMART goal for health or fitness this New Year, here are some of the benefits of SMART goals you can expect.
Quantifiable progress tracking
One of the main benefits of setting SMART-style goals is that they present an in-built method for quantifying your progress. As you work towards your goal, a SMART goal makes it easy to check in, assess how you’re progressing, and make any adjustments as needed.
Build confidence through successful goal completion
Because of the characteristics we outlined earlier, SMART goals lend themselves to more successful goal completion. When we specify what we want to achieve, and by when, we’re more likely to complete it – and this can feel great!
SMART goals have been shown to increase intrinsic motivation, confidence, and self-determination – all factors that further future goal completion.
SMART goals can also be oriented towards either performance- or mastery-type goals.
- Performance goals: tend to focus on evaluating ability at a given task (e.g., “I want to beat my personal best in the next marathon I run”)
- Mastery goals: tend to focus on learning or skill improvement (e.g., “I want to build up better lactate tolerance through anaerobic-specific training”)
Research has demonstrated that, of the two types, mastery goals are associated with greater improvements in self-efficacy, confidence, performance, and knowledge. As you choose your SMART fitness goals for the new year, it’s worth considering a mastery-style goal.
Adapt as you go
Finally, SMART goals have the benefit of being easily updated!
Unlike resolutions, which can feel too “fixed” to adapt if plans change, SMART goals can be easily adapted in response to any obstacles that might arise.
This can encourage persistence towards goal completion, and remind us to adapt, not quit.
How to set a SMART fitness goal – and stick to it!
Now that you know what a SMART goal is and what the benefits are of setting one, here’s how to get started:
Step 1: Reflect on the last year
Before you start brainstorming new fitness goals, take a moment to assess where you’re at. Did you have fitness goals for the year before? If so, did you complete these? Where did you make progress? Where did you struggle?
Consider reviewing or writing down any goals you had for the last year, how they went, and how you feel about them now.
Step 2: Make a list of possible goal areas
Next, make a list of goals you’d like to consider for the year ahead. These can be as broad (“get fit!”) or specific (“run a sub 9-min mile”) as you like at this stage. The main idea is to transfer any goals, needs, or priorities for your health and fitness into a written format, so you can take a good look at it.
Step 3: Choose 3 goals from your list to focus on
Then, you’re going to want to hone in on which goals are most important to you. If you’ve included goals from several categories, you might want to choose one from each.
You might want to ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is this goal important to me?
- What do I hope to achieve?
- What will be different in a year if I take on this goal?
- What will stay the same if I don’t take on this goal?
- Is this a good time for me to take on this goal?
Once you’ve selected your top goal/s, it’s time to apply the SMART formula.
Step 4: Apply the SMART formula to your goals
The next step is to take your goals or goal areas and transform them into SMART goals. This involves making sure that they hit each of the criteria we outlined earlier: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
Let’s take an example goal, to “get stronger”.
To turn this goal into a SMART goal, consider why strength is important to you, what it would look like, and how you would quantify it.
Depending on your current fitness level, personal goals, access to equipment, and time commitment you’re able to make, you might choose to transform “get stronger” into one of the following example SMART goals:
- By the end of this year I’ll be able to complete 50 consecutive standard press-ups with good form and no breaks.
- In the next 3 months, I’ll be able to complete 10 consecutive pull-ups.
- I will attend 2 strength-based gym classes per week.
The exact details will be highly variable depending on your situation – this is the beauty of SMART goals.
Step 5: Commit to your SMART goal/s
Once you’ve decided on your SMART goal/s, take a moment to commit to them.
This could look like writing them down, sticking them in a visible location in your home, or asking a close friend or family member to keep you accountable.
Step 6: Plan a review
When you set your goal, decide in advance when you’ll review it.
If you’ve set a goal for the next 6 months, for example, you might choose to schedule a 3-month check-in to assess your progress and make any necessary adaptations to your original goal. If you think you might struggle to stick to your goal, scheduling more frequent check-ins – monthly, or even weekly – can help to keep you motivated and provide a space to recognise and celebrate your progress, however small.
Embracing flexible thinking around your goal-setting can help pave the road to success, while rigidity (“I failed today so I might as well not try tomorrow”) can make achieving goals more difficult. If you don’t meet your goal, adapt it, and try again.
Questions to ask when setting a SMART goal
As you choose a SMART goal (or several!) this New Year, consider asking yourself the following questions:
- Specific: What do I want to achieve? What would I like to be different in 3 months? What about my current health and/or fitness am I unhappy with? Where is there room for improvement? Are there milestones I want to achieve?
- Measurable: What would success look like? How will I know when I’ve achieved this goal? Is this goal something I can measure/track, or could I reframe it to be measurable?
- Attainable/Achievable: What is realistic for me right now? What kind of time commitment can I make towards this goal? How does this goal align with my existing commitments?
- Relevant: Is this goal important to me right now? Does this goal align with my values? Why am I choosing this goal?
- Time-bound: When do I want to start working towards this goal? When do I want to have accomplished it? Is this goal ongoing – and, if so, are there ways I can break it down? What is a realistic time frame to achieve this?
Taking the time to reflect on these questions can offer some guidance as you work to create an impactful SMART goal to kickstart the new year!
Make your goals even SMARTER
One proposed addition to the SMART acronym is the inclusion of two additional letters: E (Evaluate) and R (Readjust) to form the acronym SMARTER. Both of these additions speak to the same need: to evaluate your progress and make adjustments as needed.
- Evaluate: How is my goal going? Have any obstacles have prevented me from completing my goal? How do I feel? Have I seen the progress I expected? Is this goal still important to me?
- Readjust: How could I adjust my goal to suit my needs better right now?
As you get started with your SMART goal, it’s natural to encounter obstacles. You might get sick, experience an injury, or find your goal too hard/easy. When this happens, you can use these two extra steps to evaluate your progress and readjust your goal.
Kickstart your SMART fitness goals with quantifiable progress tracking at My Vital Metrics
Long-term change starts with knowing where you’re at.
At the specialist health and human performance lab at My Vital Metrics, our specialist health and fitness testing services offer a concrete method to quantify your progress. From DEXA scans for body composition and bone density to RMR testing to calculate your caloric needs, VO2 testing to assess your aerobic endurance to a functional movement assessment to identify muscular balances, our services put the “measurable” into your SMART goal!
Whether you’ve got SMART fitness goals you’re already working towards, or don’t know where to start, My Vital Metrics can help you progress towards your fitness goals this year.
To get started, book your free fitness and nutritional consultation at My Vital Metrics today!