Fitness Articles

Are Your Fitness Goals Realistic?

Forget Failure. Set Yourself Up for Success!

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In life, we're told to dream big. Reach for the stars. Go for the gold. While I think everyone would agree that having big aspirations is admirable not to mention inspiring, you should take a more calculated approach when setting fitness goals. It may seem counterintuitive to start small, but remember that you want to set yourself up for success not burnout or injury.

Think about it. How many times have you or someone you know set a huge goal to lose 50 or more pounds, or exercise for an hour six days a week, only to fall off the wagon a few weeks (or days) later? The truth is that even when people have the best of intentions and the willpower to set out and do something grand, without a plan and a smart goal, they stumble—and are more likely to fail.

When you first set a goal, you're full of energy and completely motivated, but over time those feelings can wane and your overzealousness can push you to do too much too soon. The fix is to define a progressive set of fitness goals that build on one another to help propel you toward that big dream or aspiration. Breaking a big goal into smaller, realistic goals can help you both mentally and physically. This method can also help you improve your fitness level gradually and safely, which helps to build confidence.

The first step to setting realistic goals is to really think about your goal and write it down.

Then, ask yourself these three questions: 
    1. How big is the goal? Is your goal only attainable in three months or more? If so, make a or goals to get you to that long-term goal. Ideally, you should be able to reach the smaller goal in two to six weeks.

    2. What does it take to achieve the goal? This question addresses your goal's frequency. If reaching your goal requires five workouts a week, but you can only get a babysitter two days a week, then you need to scale back your goal. Be realistic about what time you have to devote to the goal and be honest about your fitness level. Building your fitness base takes time, and being smart about increasing it will help you stay injury-free. As a general rule, never increase your weight lifted or your minutes exercised by more than 10 percent in any given week. Slow and steady really does win the race!

    3. Can you see yourself reaching the goal? You want a program that you can stick with for the long haul—not just this week. Be completely honest with yourself and ask if you can realistically see yourself doing what it takes to achieve the goal at hand. If you can and it meets the above criteria, then you probably have a goal !
Take a look at these common situations (and fixes) that I've encountered as a personal trainer:

Unrealistic Goal for a Non-Competitive Exerciser: I want to complete an endurance event in two weeks. Competitive events are an excellent way to stay motivated and a great goal, but many triathlons and running races put a lot of wear and tear on the body, and if you do too much too soon (or without proper form or footwear), you can get injured, which really puts a damper on your dreams and is just plain painful!
Realistic Goal: I will complete a shorter distance endurance event like a 5K or sprint triathlon in three to six months. If you want to begin participating in endurance events, it's important to start building your fitness base slowly and really listen to your body. If you can walk comfortably for at least 20 minutes and can commit to working out four to five times a week for 20 to 40 minutes, then a 5K training program is a great place to start. A run/walk program is flexible and lets you see results over the course of just a few weeks, which is both exciting and motivational. Plus, if you get into it and find that you really despise running or it makes your knees hurt, you can walk and still reach your goal instead of giving up after the first week. Additionally, the time frame of two months is long enough—and the 5K itself is challenging enough—so reaching the goal is big enough to result in one of the best rewards of all: bragging rights!
Unrealistic Goal for a Sedentary Person: I want to go to the gym every day. There are two main issues with this goal. First, it's not specific—what activities do you want to do and for how long? After all, just showing up at the gym doesn't accomplish anything unless you get your body moving. Second, it's not realistic. I love to work out and even I don't want to go to the gym every day. Plus, taking a day off here and there helps give your muscles time to repair and rest, and it gives you a break mentally.
Realistic Goal: I will be active for at least 10 minutes each day. While this goal isn't specific when it comes to the activity, it is specific and realistic with the time constraint. While going to an hourlong Spinning class every day would be impossible, not to mention not very healthy for you (cross-training is important so that no specific groups of muscles get overused), doing something active for 10 minutes a day, whether it's a walk after work, some push-ups or sit-ups over lunch, or a full session at the gym or with a workout DVD, is very doable. Also, note the addition of "at least" in this goal, which helps to emphasize that 10 minutes is just a minimum. Over time, this goal could progress to have a minimum of 15, then 20, then 30 minutes.
Unrealistic Goal for a Novice Exerciser: I want to do the workout I did in high school. If you used to play a sport competitively when you were younger and are itching to get back into it, beware. Most sports require explosive and powerful movement that can give your body a rude awakening—such as extreme soreness or injury—especially when you try to do something that you haven't done in years. Even if you were the high school team captain, if you haven't practiced it in many years, start slowly and be cautious.
Realistic Goal: I will meet with a personal trainer once a week for a month and follow his or her strength routine two times a week. Even if you were MVP of your team back in the day, a lot has changed in sports performance and workouts over the last few years. Instead of going out and doing the same old workout that you remember from high school, take the time to meet with a personal trainer who specializes in your sport or regularly works with athletes. He or she can get you back in the sport saddle with a strength routine that prepares your body for competition and will help you prevent injury. A qualified personal trainer will also help you set other realistic goals once you've built your foundation to play. (If you're not sure how to look for a personal trainer or what else you need to ask, read this.)

Don't Forget to Reward Yourself
Perhaps the most important component of setting an effective and realistic fitness goal is rewarding yourself when you reach your goals, even the small ones! From buying yourself a new magazine to read, enjoying a long bath, or buying a new pair of workout shorts, the reward should be a time where you compliment yourself for your hard work and revel in your success.

Also, don't be afraid to tweak a goal as time goes by. Life happens! Remember, the key to setting yourself up for success is to be realistic. Now, start setting those goals!

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Member Comments

  • DOLPHINSONGS91
    I had a problem with this line: "If reaching your goal requires five workouts a week, but you can only get a babysitter two days a week, then you need to scale back your goal." Bad example. I've been active on Sparkpeople for a few months now, and have seen myriads of articles and tips, even a challenge about finding time for workouts at home. You don't need a babysitter to workout! I get the gist of the article, but this poor example ruined the rest of the article for me.
  • A good article...providi
    ng great advice along with solid tips and information. So often we forget that a journey has a beginning, most would start if we honestly had a clue where to begin. This article provides that. I have evolved into a workout warrior, yet I fumbled along in the beginning as a morbidly obese person with two fake knees and high cholesterol. If someone had told me that ten minutes a day could change my life?! No words, but it can, it does, it will...time for me now to set some fitness goals. Long overdue...
  • Good advice. I slipped out of my exercise and fitness routine several months ago and put on a few pounds. I was in a mind set where I thought I should be working out at least an hour a day. Instead of varying my workout or shortening it by 15 minutes or half an hour or so, I just stopped. Then I visited my younger sister and did intense 30 minute workouts online by a woman named Rumi. They were cardio with calisthenics. I enjoyed them and returned home and did more. Oct. 1, I joined the SPARK program and by combining different videos and challenges I generally workout between 30-45 minutes a day. I intensify my workouts with 5lb. weights in each hand. I look forward to my daily workouts and healthy eating with much more energy than before. I didn't think I could do this and feel so great at the same time! Thanks, SPARK and fellow members for the great inspiration and good tips on setting realistic goals.
  • Great article. That's what I really like about SP. They teach you to take baby steps. Woohoo!! Thanks SP for all the great information!!
  • One thing that I love and appreciate about Spark People is to make small goals and add. Thank you for reminding me again.
  • I think that there's a difference between setting unreasonable goals with a short time frame and shooting for the stars... eventually.

    My weight loss goal is 110 pounds. Some may think that's unreasonable. I don't think that it is though, because I've realized that it might take years, perhaps decades, to get there. I don't plan on giving up on this goal though.

    I have shorter-term goals, like running a 5k next month (I've been training for it for a couple of months already) and hiking a 14er, perhaps next year, but if I can't get there next summer, then I'll shoot for the summer after that. I take steps to reach these other goals regularly. The road to health is a marathon, not a sprint... although I may choose to sprint on occasion along the way.
  • I like to workout every day. It helps with your metabolism. Mine is on fire!
  • too bad there is no example about food.
  • I am going to rejoin a gym that I used to use and love.
  • The suggestion to "never increase your weight lifted...by more than 10 percent in any given week" is unreasonable for those of us who are lifting any weights less than 50 pounds, or for those machines that only go up in 10 pound increments when we lift under 100 pounds.
  • NANCY_SH
    I have been exercising consistently 5 to 6 days a week for 13 months. I started with two goals: Goal #1: Move More. According to the article this isn't specific enough--the goal doesn't say how much to move or in what ways to move. However, it worked for me because I began to think about how to incorporate more movement in my daily routines. I parked farther away from my destinations, took the stairs instead of the elevator for 1, 2, or 3 flights, did squats while waiting for the microwave to heat my lunch. Goal #2: Make Appointment with Wellness Coach This Week. Fortunately, my health provider offers this benefit. I knew I had to set a time for this or I would put it off. The coach helped me define why I wanted to exercise more, which were lifestyle goals, especially to have more energy to keep up with grandkids and to develop new interests. She helped me set some early goals week by week that I was certain I could achieve. And she helped me focus on accomplishments (how I was feeling, for instance.) My first goal was to take two 20 minute walks in the week. Now I've worked up to a goal of at least 180 minutes of moderate to high intensity (though mostly low-impact) exercise per week, which I regularly exceed. I also mix up exercise activities to keep it interesting and challenging. I've added golf, water aerobics, and yoga into the mix, along with a variety videos for strength training and cardio workouts. BTW: I'm feeling pretty great.
  • LCERTUCHE
    Realistic goals is what got me where I am today. I began with 10 fitness minutes a day and I felt a great accomplishment when I made it through 10 minutes. It might not seem like much but when going from the couch to working out, it was huge for me. I kept telling myself I can do for 10 even if its just walking in place.
  • I disagree with you about the spinning classes. I think they could be safe enough to do every day. If you want to add to that and work out your abs and your arms, great. But stationary bikes are pretty safe! Let's give out true advice, please!
  • I am pretty new here but I set a goal of joining the YMCA and trying Aqua-fit classes! I hope to go 3 times a week.
  • A good article that gives realistic steps. I've just started back going to the gym, and hope to be able to go 3 times a week. I'm my own worst enemy and have a tendency to self-sabotage. Don't know why.
    The only thing I don't agree with in the article is rewarding yourself. I don't believe in rewarding myself for something I should be doing. That's like rewarding myself for cooking dinner or cleaning the house.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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