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How to Set Your First Fitness Goal

In the first part of this beginner Getting Started series we gave you four basic tests to help you determine your current fitness level. Using this baseline you're ready to start planning how you're going to improve your physical fitness.

The first step in this process is setting a goal.

Talk to any coach or elite athlete and they'll tell you that the most important thing you can do is set a  goal. This goal could be to exercise every day, complete a marathon, or just lose 10 pounds.

It's your fitness goal so you decide. But there are some guidelines you need to follow to make sure its the right goal.

Why Set a Fitness Goal

Whatever you settle on, the idea is to pave a path to your success.

A study published by the American Psychological Association found that setting specific and challenging goals leads to higher performance 90% more often than setting easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals at all.

Long story short, if you don't set a fitness goal you're setting yourself up for failure.

If you want an additional 42% chance of success write down your goal and put it somewhere you'll see it all the time. Good intentions can sabotage decisive action and out of sign out of mind.

Why is this the case? Because goals improve performance by directing your attention, mobilizing your effort, increasing your persistence, and motivating your strategy development. Setting goals gives you long term vision and short term motivation.

So how do you come up with a goal? Do you just wake up one day and decide “I want X."?  You could but you're more likely NOT to follow through on it if there's no careful consideration.

What you can do instead is create a SMART goal.

SMART is an acronym standing for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. 

The power of the SMART formula is its clarity. It hones the idea of what you want into a precise and identifiable object. It trims the fat. It cuts the diamond. It gives you focus and something to aim for.

You can't hit the bulls-eye if you can't see the target. And by putting greater effort into setting the goal you'll be more committed to it as well. Anything less and it's just a dream.

More over this formula won't just help shape the goal itself but the whole process to achieve it. As Michael Hyatt says, "Dreams may be imaginable but goals are actionable."

To show you how this works, let's start with the common goal of "I want to get in shape" and re-work it into something that will actually help you achieve what you want.


Recall that study.  The key point was that specific goals were the ones that led to higher performance.  A specific goal has a much higher chance of being accomplished than a general one.

A specific fitness goal will try to answer the six “W’s”: who, what, where, which, and why.  All of these might not apply directly to your situation but the more you can answer, the stronger the goal will become.

Let's go back to our original fitness goal: "I want to get in shape." That may sound great but its ambiguous and unclear. It answers the who and what but not the rest. You've not really set a clear expectation of yourself.

This is a great example of a "do your best" goal. But you want and need greater focus on your action plan. Does this mean you want to add muscle mass or lose weight? Those are both "getting in shape" but they lead you in vastly different directions.

Instead of "I want to get in shape", how about "I want to lose weight."

That fitness goal isn't perfect yet but it at least points you in the direction you want to go.


A goal is no good if you don’t know when you achieved it.  When you run a race you know when you've crossed the finish line, right? Your fitness goal must have a particular criteria that lets you track your progress.

Basically you need a yes/no button. Did I do that particular thing? Yes or no. Measurability answers the "how": either how much, how many, or how far.

Measuring your progress keeps you on track. You can tell how close you are to achieving your goal. Plus you'll gain confidence looking back at how far you've come. The excitement of achievement will keep you moving forward.

"I want to lose weight" is specific but doesn't give you anything to measure against. Sure, you can count the pounds you lose but you don't know whether you've lost too little or too much weight.

So, lets improve our fitness goal a bit more. Instead of "I want to lose weight" upgrade it to "I want to lose 15 pounds".

You now have a specific action and a precise point against which to measure your progress.


Your fitness goal is specific and measurable but can you actually do it? Is your goal reasonably attainable?

For example, "I want to climb Mount Everest." Specific and measurable. But can I reasonably expect to do that? No matter how highly I think of myself the answer is a resounding NO.

When setting your first fitness goal you have to weigh all the obstacles that lay ahead of you. You have to look at your current fitness level and understand what your body is up for. This doesn't mean your goal shouldn't be a stretch for you. It absolutely should otherwise it won't have any value. But don't go for the extreme which is equally useless.

Not to be Johnny Raincloud here, but there are some things you're just not ready for.  There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the stars but if the goal is unattainable it leaves you discouraged and begins to work against you.

So, how can we improve on our fitness goal with this? Well, it brings us back to measurability.

We've settled on "I want to lose 15 pounds" as the goal. Why? Probably because losing 25 or 30 pounds isn't reasonably attainable. So we pulled back to a level that we can achieve.


This is a really important one. Is your new fitness goal even related to what you want to achieve? Why do you want to reach this goal?  What is the objective behind the goal and will this goal really achieve that objective?

If your objective is “get in shape” then the goal “save $1,000” doesn’t help you achieve that objective.  A goal that is relevant helps keep focus on the objective ahead.

And when you meet a relevant goal it helps drive you forward. So, even if you did save $1,000 it doesn't do much for you.

I think we can easily say that "I want to lose 15 pounds" is relevant to your general fitness goal of getting in shape.


What does it matter how hard you worked on defining your goal if it never actually happens. Goals must also have a target date for completion. This final element of a SMART goal answers the sixth 'W': when.

As a general rule, goals that are longer than 6 months are too long to keep you motivated and interested. Having a deadline creates a sense of urgency.  Without it you may tend to procrastinate and eventually abandon the goal altogether.

It also protects you from being overwhelmed by the day-to-day distractions that we know come up.

If a goal stretches longer than a few months, you should create smaller goals to help you along the way.  This allows you to routinely measure your progress, maintain focus, and adjust your overall goal if needed. So it's not just "what can I do in 6 months", you can break it down further to monthly or even daily steps.

Being time-bound, however, relates back to attainability. Can you reasonably meet your deadline? If you can't then you just set a goal that's impossible to achieve.

With that, "I want to lose 15 pounds" should then become "I want to lose 15 pounds in 3 months." That's only 5 pounds a month, which is perfectly doable. Compare that to losing 15 pounds in 1 week, which may be possible but incredibly unhealthy!

S + M + A + R + T = Your Goal

We've gone through the five steps of developing your first fitness goal. To maximize your chance of success your goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. You now know how each of those elements contributes to and shapes your first fitness goal.

Now lets bring this formula together. We began with the basic and nebulous goal of "I want to get in shape." As we now know this is a "d-u-m-b" goal. But we've now made it "s-m-a-r-t" with "I want to lose 15 pounds in 3 months".

Your new goal is specific as it answers who, what, where, which, and why.

It’s measurable because you can tell how far you have come.

It's certainly something you can reasonably expect to accomplish

It’s relevant to your objective because the exercise helps us get in shape.

And the deadline makes the fitness goal time-bound.

If you're really keen on setting the best fitness goal you can take it a step farther and have a SMARTER goal. In addition to the five elements you know you add Evaluated and Reviewed. These are helpful for developing your next goal but we'll save those for another article.

Let's recap. First you established your current fitness level. You then developed a clear fitness goal. The next step is to craft the plan that will lead you towards that goal and raise your fitness level.

Are you ready?