What is the "SMART" approach to lifestyle changes?

The SMART approach focuses on the behavioral goals to get to the lifestyle outcome you desire, not on the outcome itself.

Those behavioral goals need to be SMART. Effective goals are:

Specific: describe the how & when
Measurable: what needs to happen to know when you've done it
Action-Based: YOU need to do it
Realistic: small manageable steps that push (move?) you a bit (forward?)
Time-lined: put it on your calendar; now, you've made a commitment, not just when you get around to it

For example, if your goal is “I will eat better to feel better”, that's not very SMART (although admirable). Instead break it into several SMART goals:

Starting this week, I will eat 2 fruits five days a week.
Starting next week, I will eat 3 vegetables five days a week.
Starting today, four days a week I will eat whole wheat instead of white bread.
Each week, I will cut down one diet soda and drink 8 glasses of water a day.

Robert DeVito
Fitness Specialist


Specific: A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal. 

EXAMPLE:  A general goal would be, “Get in shape.” But a specific goal would say, “I will eat a healthy breakfast every day” or "I will make the best possible choice available for my health and performance"

Measurable - Establish concrete criteria for measuring progress toward the attainment of each goal you set.

When you measure your progress, you stay on track and experience the exhilaration of achievement that spurs you on to continued effort required to reach your goal.

To determine if your goal is measurable, ask questions such as……

How many times per day will I eat?

How many "cheat meals" or treats will I allow myself this week?

How many servings of vegetables will I consume each day?

How much water will I drink each day?

How will I know when it is accomplished?

Attainable – When you identify goals that are most important to you, you begin to figure out ways you can make them come true. You develop the attitudes, abilities and skills to reach them. You begin seeing previously overlooked opportunities to bring yourself closer to the achievement of your goals.

You can attain most any goal you set when you plan your steps wisely and establish a time frame that allows you to carry out those steps. Goals that may have seemed far away and out of reach eventually move closer and become attainable, not because your goals shrink, but because you grow and expand to match them. When you list your goals you build your self-image. 

Realistic- To be realistic, a goal must represent an objective toward which you are both willing and able to work. A goal can be both high and realistic; you are the only one who can decide just how high your goal should be. But be sure that every goal represents progress.

Timely – A goal should be grounded within a time frame. With no time frame tied to it there’s no sense of urgency. If you want to lose 10 lbs, when do you want to lose it by? “Someday” won’t work. But if you anchor it within a timeframe, “by May 1st”, then you’ve set your mind into motion to begin working on the goal.

Your goal is probably realistic if you truly believe that it can be accomplished.

If not, then rework your goals.

When you start making changes, try using the "SMART" approach.

Whether it's reducing saturated fat, adding more fruits and vegetables to your meals, losing excess weight, or becoming more physically active - it's hard to change behaviors. But knowing how to approach a change helps make the change possible. And that's what the "SMART" approach does. It sets you up for success.

Using this method, you set goals that are Specific, Measured, Appropriate, Realistic, and Time-bound.

Start by setting specific goals. For instance, if you need to increase your physical activity, saying you'll "do more now and then" is vague. It's hard to achieve a vague goal. But be sure the goal is also appropriate and realistic. For example, if you're not physically active, saying you'll walk 3 miles a day may be too much just yet. Instead, saying you'll walk an extra 2,000 steps a day gives you a specific aim - one that can be measured (using a pedometer), so you know when you succeed - and one that is also realistic. Nothing succeeds like success - so program yourself to be a winner.

Another key aspect of the SMART approach is to use those realistic, smaller steps to lead you toward your larger goal. For instance, if you're trying to switch from whole milk to fat-free milk, start by drinking 2-percent milk. Then, when you've achieved that change, move to 1-percent milk, and finally to fat-free milk. With this approach, you should stay motivated to make the entire journey.

This answer from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. Robert S. Kaufmann.

Jay Morgan, NASM Elite Trainer
Fitness Specialist

You now have your vision; you have laid down the law on how you will achieve them through your values. So what is the next step? The answer is clear and concise goals that have measurable results. Some of the best plans I have personally seen and utilized are setting short, mid and long term goals. It is very important not to look at goals as "to do lists". Generally "to do lists" fail to look at the results and fail to ask a key question, why? Why is it so vital that you accomplish your goal? Will accomplishing your goal bring you closer to your ultimate vision? What is the expected outcome? What can you learn from the result? Table 1.5 illustrates a to do list, Table 1.6 utilizes the S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal setting.

Table 1.5 goals for monday

Go to grocery store

Visit Mom after work

Clean kitchen and bathrooms

• Set up team meeting at work

• Play outside with kids

Table 1.6 S.M.A.R.T. Goal Setting Questions


Can you articulate more clearly what you are trying to do?

Can you summarize this in one thought?

Refine that thought. Can you summarize a bottom line?


How will you know that you attained your goal?

Can you quantify or put numbers too your outcome?

What affect will your goal have on your life/effectiveness?


Is this goal dependent on someone else?

Can you rephrase the goal so it only depends on you and not others?

Are there any things that would prevent you from accomplishing your



What would you like to do?

Of the items you mentioned, what things would you like to change most?


When will you reach this goal?

Can you give a time limit?

How long would it take to create a sustainable habit in this area?

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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.