SMART goals – do you really need them?

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If you’ve ever had a fitness assessment at a gym or with a personal trainer, chances are they’ve told you how important it is for you to have SMART goals. On the other hand, if you’ve turned up for a group exercise class, the instructor will probably have welcomed you into the class without grilling you on what specifically your objectives are and how you will know when you have achieved them. Likewise, public health initiatives just encourage us to get active any way we can, not to set out defined goals. So do we need SMART goals or not?

What SMART goals are

SMART goals are widely used, both in sport and fitness training and elsewhere. As the popularity of the acronym has grown, so has the number of alternatives the letters stand for! The following is a version that has been around for many years, but there are several others around.

S is for specific: You should clearly define your goals.
M is for measurable: The goal must contain a measurable quantity, such as body weight, girth measurement, distance, weight lifted etc.
A is for achievable: The goal has to take into account the physical limitations of the person. Most people are never going to run a 4 minute mile, however hard they train, for example.
R is for realistic: Similar to achievable but more concerned with how you are going to do it, rather than whether it is theoretically possible. So for example you may have the physical potential to run a 4 minute mile but if you only have 30 minutes a week to train this goal isn’t realistic.
T is for time-bound: The goal should have a specific date by which you will achieve it.

SMART goals do have their place in sport and fitness of course. Sports professionals have to work very rigidly to goals and anyone who is training for competition or who has a specific objective in mind could benefit from them. For example, if you want to do a marathon is 6 months time, you need a very defined training schedule. But if you’re currently inactive and/or overweight, the first step should be to establish better habits. It takes time to get used to healthier lifestyle habits and rigid goals can be counter-productive.

It’s OK to just want to be “fitter”

Never mind smart goals - just get active | cycling in the park

The most common reasons people start a fitness program are to:

  • Lose weight
  • Improve body definition
  • Be more healthy
  • Have more energy

People often sum this up by saying they want to “be a bit fitter”. There is nothing wrong with this. They don’t need someone telling them that this isn’t a proper goal.  Neither should they be expected to define what they mean by “fitter”, how they are going to measure “fitter” and when they want to be “fitter” by.

The same goes for weight control. If a person is overweight, the first step should be to establish long term healthy eating habits, not to set a target of losing x number of pounds in y number of weeks. Losing weight can be difficult and unpredictable and lasting weight loss is usually a slow process. Setting goals can be counter-productive because it adds pressure and can make the person feel she is failing if she doesn’t achieve them.  A better initial approach would be to assess the current diet and identify some healthy changes to make to it. It’s not just about calories, it’s about what sort of food and drink you have and when you have it.   See more about this here.

Getting fit without SMART goals.

Even though rigid goals aren’t essential, it’s good to have some sort of a plan.  It’s also good to have a bit of flexibility, to allow for missed exercise sessions and diet “cheats”. If you want to be more active, there are two ways of going about it.  You can aim to get more activity into your everyday life or you can do organised exercise sessions.  Or, ideally, you can do both.

Including more activity in your life

According to the World Health Organisation, if we spend 150 minutes a week being active, this is as good as spending 75 minutes exercising.  Being active includes:

  • Walking
  • Taking the stairs
  • Cleaning the house or car
  • Gardening
  • Playing with children in the park
  • Dancing
  • Home DIY

Read more about the physical activity guidelines here.

Starting a fitness program

If you want to do more than general day to day activity, the options for starting a fitness program are almost endless.  It’s best to start slowly and focus on establishing a regular routine.  The first step is to decide what type of exercise you want to do.  Cardio exercise is best for health benefits, but strength is better for body shaping.  Core based programs like Pilates and stability ball workouts will strengthen the abs and back, providing a good foundation for all exercise.  Stretch workouts improve flexibility and reduce the risk of muscle and joint injury.  You might want to try several different styles of workout to see what you prefer, or find a fitness class which includes a bit of everything.  Alternatively, fitness walking is a good start.  See here for a roundup of beginners workouts on this site.

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Starting a fitness program can be daunting, especially if you go to a gym and are told you need to set clearly defined SMART goals. This isn't always the best approach, often for beginners, it's better to focus on increasing activity and establishing a new routine. Goals can come later #fitnessmotivation #beginnerworkout #smartgoals #healthylifestyle

Other posts you might like on getting started with a healthier lifestyle:

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