How to Set Successful Exercise Goals

goals 3This time of year it is common to see all kinds of advice on goal setting.  As I read through the articles though, I realize there are some unique aspects of setting physical activity goals for weight loss.Goal setting is important.  There is a science to goal setting that increases the chances of success:

A study conducted by Gail Matthews, Ph.D., at the Dominican University, found three factors that increased success:
1. Written Goals:  Those who wrote their goals accomplished 50% more of their goals than those who did not write their goals.  Use the format below to write down your goals.
2. Shared Goals: those who told a friend about their goal accomplished more.
3. Accountability:    A regular check in with another person increased rates of success .  This does not need to be complicated, a simple text to an accountability buddy would work.

This is also supported by a recent study by our own Sherry Pagoto, PhD on using social media for support and accountability.

In the last support group meeting we chatted about the SMARTER acronym for goal setting.  The SMARTER system is a very useful formula for increasing the chances of success.  While there are several variations of this method, I find there are specific ways to make it most powerful for exercise and weight loss goals.
Specific – The more specifics in the way the goal is stated, the more chance your mind will stay focused on the goal. Goals that are vague are difficult for the mind to maintain focus on.   The nice part about exercise goals is we can get very specific.  What is one thing you can start doing regularly right now for physical activity that will have an impact on your weight goal?  Now make it as specific as possible, including the when, where, how’s.  IE:  I will walk every day for 15 minutes after work, I will do these three  stretches for my back every morning before breakfast, I will do these 6 strength training exercises every other day at 7pm after dinner, one set of 15 repetitions each.  Include in these specifics who will be your accountability buddy.What will I specifically start doing for physical activity?  Is this measurable?  Who will keep me accountable on this goal?
Meaningful – Why are you setting this goal?  Why do you want to do strength training, walk, stretch?   State what is important about it more that just to lose weight.    Make the connection between why you are exercising and the real underlying reason you want to be at a certain weight.  This taps into your natural lasting motivation.   I want to be able to play with my kids, be more independent, be around for my grand-kids, be more effective at my job, keep my home clean, feel good about myself when I get dressed.   The more important the “why” is to you, the more motivation you will have for the specific actions you need to take to reach your goals.Why is this goal important to me?
Achievable – Success is motivating.  Setting goals that are just within reach creates enough of a challenge to keep interest in them, but not too overwhelming to drain motivation.  I find most people set an exercise goal that is way to big to start.  We tend to need more practice with setting the small goals.    If you have a big goal,  set it as a long-term goal for one to five years from now.  Chip away a  much smaller version of that for a very short term 3 month goal.  Three months is long enough to achieve something but short enough to make it urgent.
How confident are you that you can achieve this goal?  If your confidence is low, go back and chip away some more until you come up with a goal you feel confident about achieving.
Relevant – This step reminds us to look at our goals in terms of what is important to us.  When our goals match with what we really want more of in life, the motivation to stick with them is easier.   Make your exercise program very specific to what you want to be able to do in the future.  Create a program that is training you for what you want to do in the future – kayak, ski, dance, climb stairs, get up and down off the floor.   When you are in training for your healthy future, you are as motivated as an athlete with his eye on the goal medal.How will this exercise plan train me for what I really want to do more of in life?
Time-Bound –  Start today!  Not on Monday or the first of the month.    Motivation will not be stronger later.  Waiting only reinforces the procrastination habit.  If you set goals with meaning and relevance, you won’t want to wait to start . So if you are tempted to put it off, it is a sure sign it is too overwhelming or not meaningful enough. Go back to the first steps and create a goal you cannot wait to start.   If there is some prep work like joining a gym or getting new sneakers make those the first goals, but still make your actual start date today.    Write the three-month end date on your calendar as well as on the top of your written goals.  This will be a reminder each time you look at them. My three-month goal date is______________?  In order to get there, today I will __________________________.
Evaluate Every Day – This daily check in will keep you close to your goal.  Again, goals that are set on meaning and relevance to your life are a tool for maintaining motivation. Review your goal every day to keep you focused on why you are making efforts.  With exercise goals especially it is easy to let a week or two go by without exercise.  Daily reminder will prevent them from becoming an after thought thgoals 4at just leaves you feeling guilty.  Evaluate in a way that you are observing  what works and what gets in the way without judging.  Simply notice what is going well and where you need some extra support. Keep it quick and easy so you can stick with this important step in the process.How will I evaluate this goal each day?  How will I include my accountability buddy in this evaluation process?
Readjust – The evaluating step leads into this.  As you learn what is working and what is not, re-adjusting will be needed.  We take our best guess on goals.  Learning only lets us be more specific and realistic.  Reworking the goal based upon what you learn is not a cop-out, it is a “smarter” way to achieve your true goals.


Wishing you a Happy, Healthy New Year!

Keep Moving, Be Well


If you know someone interested in weight loss surgery, forward this link to the Weight Center website and online orientation video

If you’re in the process of preparing for weight loss surgery at the Weight Center and have questions about your status or next steps, call 774-443-3886

If you’ve had weight loss surgery at the Weight Center and you’re due for a follow up appointment with one of our providers, call 774-443-3886 or email to

These weekly blogs are general guidelines. These guidelines apply to patients who are cleared by a physician for the type of exercise described. Please contact your physician with any concerns or questions. Always report any symptoms associated with exercise, such as pain, irregular heartbeats, and dizziness or fainting, to your physician.

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Filed under Barriers, Goals, Holidays, Inspiration, Motivation, Success, support, Weight Loss

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