How many exercise goals should I set?

The number of exercise goals you should set is very personal. There are no set limits, however, it is important to start with a few realistic (realistic means doing enough exercise but not too much exercise) goals out of the gates. Initially it's good to start off with 2-3 goals and add as you go along and feel more comfortable and confident. Experience has shown, starting off with a realistic number of attainable (you can see yourself reaching it) goals will help gain the momentum and confidence for adherence to exercise. Jumping in and doing too much leads to dropping out.
To begin start with a few, small exercise goals. You can always add more exercise goals but first find some success. Success comes from having one or two realistic goals that you are able to meet.

Start by thinking about what your one main goal is. For example, to lose weight, to be more functional throughout the day, or to be able to be more active with your kids. Write down your long-term goal. From there write down 3-4 short-term goals. Because you are just starting out write them for one week. In one week, what 3-4 short-term, realistic goals can you set for yourself, for example, to start losing weight? Here are some examples:
  • add 2 days of walking for 20 minutes
  • reduce your dessert intake from 5 days to 3 days
  • add 4-8 oz glasses of water daily
These need to be realistic so that you can actually achieve them, build confidence and build self-esteem. The more you can actually reach goals the more motivated you'll be to continue and to add to these goals.

Each week re-evaluate your goals. Did you reach your goals? If you didn't it's OK but try and find your successes and set goals for the next week. What do you need to do differently the next week? Can you add another goal? How do you set goals so that you WILL be successful? 

Setting too many goals and goals that are too lofty decreases self-esteem and leads to drop out and disappointment. 
The number of exercise goals you set should be determined by what you want to accomplish. Keep in mind that by setting a lot of exercise goals you may be putting a lot of pressure on yourself. Instead of setting a lot of goals at once think about prioritizing the things you want to achieve. Once you have an idea of what achievements are most important to you then you can decide how you want to proceed with setting a goal for that item. Remember that breaking your end goals down into smaller, more manageable steps or mini-goals can be a good way to stay on the path to success.
Darren Treasure, PhD
Sports Medicine
Goal setting has been shown to have a positive influence on personal development and performance. Specifically, it has been shown to influence a person’s focus, effort levels, and persistence particularly in the face of adversity. Goal setting tends to be most successful when a person sets a goal that is specific, measurable, adjustable, realistic, and is time based. Often time the acronym SMART is used to help people remember the keys to successful goal setting. Although appropriate goal setting can help in behavior change, inappropriate goal setting will not only be time consuming and frustrating but actually delay the very behavioral change a person so desperately desires. One of the most common mistakes people make when goal setting is to set too many goals. When a person sets too many goals it becomes very difficult to remain focused and to direct effort levels at the most important aspects of behavior that needs to change. In many ways setting too many goals is the equivalent of not setting any goals at all as you really do not know what to do and when to  do it. In terms of exercise, set one or two goals and focus all of your effort on these goals. As soon as you are able to maintain the behavior change that was the focus of the first two goals look to create one or two new goals designed to continue the process of behavioral change.         

If the old saying "success breeds success" is true, then don't set yourself up for failure.

Too often I have seen people come to me with all these crazy goals that no one, even an experienced professional trainer could accomplish all at once. I always appreciate and encourage the "go get 'em" attitude but I stress temperance and patience. There is no quick fix in fitness so remember starting smart means starting small and then building up you momentum of success from there. If you are making a new commitment to a healthy lifestyle you may feel overwhelmed if you take on too much at once. So keep your attention on a few actions that will have the most impact your fitness goals and eventual success. Your attention is necessary for change and if it is fragmented you could fail so stay focused on 3 or less small goals to start.

“You are where your attention takes you. In fact, you are your attention.”

 –Deepak Chopra


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.