Reviewed by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD
Clear and realistic goals are essential to success.
These kinds of goals should provide you with a sense of empowerment and control.
In short, they should make you feel good.
However, if you choose the wrong kind of goals, they can actually make you feel ashamed, demotivated, and unfocused.
So, how can you set the “right” kinds of goals—and help your clients do the same?
Let’s look at what realistic fitness goals actually look like, how to set them, and how to stay motivated as you go about achieving them.
Why is it important to set fitness goals?
Setting constructive health goals is the first step on the path to progress.
That’s because the right kind of goals will help you develop the skills needed to achieve your desired health objectives.
When done correctly, your goals should instill a sense of readiness, determination, and capability. This helps you stay motivated, so you can sustain progress.
Different types of goals to support your fitness progress
Instead of obsessing and overanalyzing about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do, these kinds of goals will help you determine what actions to take—so you can start making progress now.
Effective goal type #1: Short-term goals
Short-term goals are achievable within a shorter timeframe, whether it’s by the end of the day, week, or month. Despite their short timeline, they’re just as important as long-term objectives—because they’re what will add up to those long-term objectives.
For instance, a short-term goal might be to engage in 30 minutes of exercise on most days this week or to include at least one serving of vegetables to each of your meals today.
As you accomplish short-term goals, they’ll accumulate to significant long-term progress.
Effective goal type #2: Long-term goals
Long-term goals are the ultimate destination.
They’re the endpoint you envision for yourself.
These objectives encompass positive lifestyle changes, such as gaining muscle or sustaining a more nutritious diet.
Long-term goals aren’t the best at telling you what to do today, but they should influence your short-term goals. After all, a long-term goal is only achieved after a series of short-term goals are achieved.
Effective goal type #3: Mastery-based goals
Adopting mastery-based goals requires a mindset shift, particularly for those accustomed to performance-based objectives.
▶ Performance goals, like outcome goals, often depend on external confirmation, like winning a competition or seeing a certain number on the scale. However, they can be hindered by factors beyond your control. For example, you can’t control who else shows up to your triathlon, or how much weight your body can safely shed (or how quickly).
While performance goals can offer initial motivation, they can also be discouraging when expectations aren’t met. The pursuit of external validation can take away your agency over your progress.
▶ Mastery goals focus on gradual skill improvement over time. They center on the joy of learning and intrinsic fulfillment gained from the process of change and skill development. Regardless of external factors or outcomes, the satisfaction of personal growth remains constant.
Mastery-driven individuals find motivation in the daily pursuit of improvement and view setbacks or losses as valuable learning opportunities rather than indications of failure.
Some examples of turning performance-based goals into mastery goals include:
- Instead of beating a personal record in your next 5K, focus on running elegantly, efficiently, and pain-free.
- Instead of dropping body fat to 11 percent, focus on building your ability to consistently prepare and enjoy healthy, well-balanced meals.
Effective goal type #4: Behavior-based goals
Behavior-based goals shift the focus from desired outcomes to actionable steps you can control.
Unlike outcome goals, which describe the result you want, behavior goals center on the actions and tasks you can take consistently and regularly.
Behavior goals also provide a tangible path to progress. They transform abstract aspirations into concrete actions that you can track and implement every day. This approach increases the likelihood of sustained success.
Some examples of turning outcome goals into behavior-based goals include:
- Instead of saying you want to lose 10 pounds, focus on eating until you’re satisfied (instead of stuffed) at each meal.
- Instead of focusing on sleeping 8 hours a night, aim to create and follow a calming bedtime routine.
Effective goal type #5: “Approach” or inclusion goals
“Approach” or inclusion goals offer positive and achievable alternatives to “avoid” goals, which can be counterproductive.
▶ “Avoid” goals—like, “Don’t do X” or “Stop Y”—often lead to resistance and rebellion. (No one likes to be told not to do something.) Furthermore, with “avoid” goals, even the slightest slip-up can feel like a major setback. It creates a sense of failure, which can be discouraging.
▶ “Approach” goals emphasize what actions you can take to make positive changes that contribute to your well-being and growth. This shift in mindset not only feels more attainable but also leads to a more positive and productive outlook.
By concentrating on what you can do to improve, “approach” goals are more proactive—and practical. They also free up mental and emotional space that might otherwise be consumed by thoughts of restriction or denial. This makes them a more sustainable—and enjoyable—approach.
Some examples of turning “avoid” goals into approach goals include:
- Go from “don’t snack on junk food” to “prepare cut-up fruits and veggies in advance for a quick snack.”
- Go from “stop stress eating” to “make a list of stress-relieving activities to try when I feel stressed out.”
Tips for setting fitness goals
These tips are designed to help you learn how to create goals that are flexible, measurable, and align with your personal values.
Goal setting tip #1: Use the SMART goals framework
SMART goals are an excellent way to achieve your fitness goals. It stands for:
- Specific: Clearly define what you want to accomplish. Instead of a vague goal like “get in shape,” specify “exercise four days a week.”
- Measurable: Establish concrete metrics to track progress. This could involve tracking your workouts, your daily food intake, or your weekly run mileage.
- Achievable: Keep your goal realistic and attainable. Setting an overly ambitious goal can lead to discouragement.
- Relevant: Align your fitness goals with your overall objectives and lifestyle. Consider how achieving this goal contributes to your long term well-being.
- Timely: Set a clear timeline for your goal. Rather than aiming to “run a marathon someday,” specify “complete a half-marathon in six months.” This provides a sense of urgency and helps you stay on track.
Goal setting tip #2: Leave room for flexibility and adaptation
Setbacks or unforeseen circumstances are a natural part of any journey. Try to see them as opportunities to recalibrate your approach. Consider alternative routes to your objective and be open to modifying timelines or adjusting expectations.
Goal setting tip #3: Choose goals that are meaningful and important to you
When your goals align with what truly matters to you, you’re more likely to invest the time, effort, and dedication needed to attain them.
Meaningful goals also drive you beyond superficial desires. They serve as a powerful source of inspiration, fueling your determination even when faced with challenges.
What aspects of fitness hold genuine importance for you? Whether it’s improving your overall health, gaining strength, or boosting your mental well-being, choose ones that genuinely resonate.
Goal setting tip #4: Tap into your “why”
Is it to feel more energized, to be a role model for your children, or to gain confidence in your own skin?
Your “why” serves as the fuel for your goals.
For instance, if your dream is to run a marathon, your “why” might be to prove to yourself that you can conquer any challenge, no matter how daunting. This internal drive will be a constant source of inspiration on your journey.
Take a few minutes to write 1-2 sentences about what drives you. Remember, your “why” guides you toward the fitness goals that genuinely matter to you.
How to keep yourself motivated to reach your goals
It’s easy to set goals, but it can be challenging to stick with them.
Here are five strategies to stay the course.
Motivation strategy #1: Monitor your activity and track your progress
Regularly monitoring your fitness activities and tracking your progress provides tangible evidence of your consistency, growth, and accomplishments.
Try journaling each day or use a fitness app to keep track. This record serves as a visual reminder of your dedication and determination—and keeps you honest about how you’re showing up.
Motivation strategy #2: Go easy on yourself
Slip-ups and off days are a natural part of any fitness journey. One mistake doesn’t erase all the progress you’ve made.
Take a moment to revisit your “why,” reminding yourself of the deeper purpose behind your goals. This perspective shift can help you let go of minor (and normal) slip-ups, regain focus on the “big picture,” and allow you to move forward with renewed determination.
Motivation strategy #3: Break big goals down into smaller ones
This approach transforms large, intimidating outcomes into practical, and more manageable steps.
For instance, rather than fixating on losing 50 pounds, focus on smaller, strategic behavior goals like meeting daily nutritional targets or committing to regular exercise. This method not only makes the process feel less overwhelming but also boosts your confidence as you steadily accomplish each component of your goal.
Motivation strategy #4: Work with a coach to keep you accountable
A coach provides accountability by keeping you on track and motivated. Among other things, they offer guidance and tailored plans for your specific needs.
Whether you’re trying to learn how to eat healthier or want to run your first marathon, they’ll help you set both long-term and short-term goals to get there in a healthy, positive, and efficient way.
Examples of fitness goals (Ideas of places to start)
If you want to get healthier but don’t know where to start, these examples can serve as inspiration.
Not that these are goals you need to follow. Rather, think of them as a starting point for figuring out your personal fitness destination and how you can get there. (Modify as needed!)
Goal example #1: Workout X days during the month
A specific fitness goal could be committing to working out a certain number of days each month. For example, setting a goal to workout 15 days out of the month.
This provides a clear and measurable target, with progress made each day you exercise.
Goal example #2: Try one new type of workout a week/month
Setting a goal to try one new type of workout each week or month brings diversity—and a sense of fun and adventure—to your fitness routine.
It also doesn’t demand a drastic shift in your schedule or resources and is an opportunity to explore different activities. You may even find new ones that make your fitness more enjoyable.
Goal example #3: Average X steps per day for a month
Perhaps your goal is to average a specific number of steps per day for a month, tailored to your current fitness level.
(Perks: This goal is super accessible. It can be done almost anywhere, at any time, and doesn’t require any specialized equipment.)
Goal example #1: Stretch for X minutes after every workout
Allocate a specific amount of time—say, 10-15 minutes—after each workout to focus on stretching various muscle groups. This will enhance flexibility, aid recovery, and reduce the risk of injury.
Goal example #1: Perform X push-ups in succession
Start with a number that’s challenging but achievable based on your current fitness level.
As you gradually increase your strength, you can adjust the target number accordingly until you reach your desired number of push-ups in a row.
We’re here to help you reach your goals
You don’t have to tackle your fitness journey alone.
At Precision Nutrition, our elite health coaches are committed to helping you feel your healthiest, most thriving self. They have expertise in helping clients succeed, so they can help you set realistic goals—and reach them at a pace that works for you.
Explore our 1:1 Coaching Program today to get started!