How to set fitness goals

In this article I'm going to run through the essentials of goal setting and at the end I'll give some advice on common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Step 1: Begin by choosing your outcome

Let's start by defining the different types of goals:


Outcome goals

Which are goals describing a specific outcome

  • Lose 10lbs

  • Get bigger arms

  • Drop a dress size

Behaviour Goals

Which are goals concerning a behaviour

  • Go to the gym three times per week

  • Eat vegetables every day

  • Drink water every morning when I wake up

The key difference between the two is that you don't have direct control over your outcomes but you do have direct control over your behaviours. It's a bad idea to judge yourself on things which are outside of your direct control.


For the purpose of this article let's say my client's (Joe) outcome goal is to drop a trouser size.


Step 2: Determine the kind of skills and routines you'll need to achieve that outcome

In order to drop a trouser size Joe needs to lose fat. The best way to do this is to find a way to reduce the number of calories he's consuming, increase the number of calories he's burning or a combination of the two.


For him to reduce his trouser size and maintain it he'll need to be

  • Walking >8000 steps per day

  • Exercising a 2/3 times per week

  • Cooking when eating at home

  • Drinking moderately

  • Making healthy lunch choices while at work

These are his behaviour goals


Step 2: Break those goals down into segments

Now he has his behaviour goals he needs to break them down and make them more immediately actionable.


Take the first goal of walking >8000 steps per day, let's say he's currently managing 4000. What can he do make this goal more specific and achievable?

  • Get off a stop or two earlier on the tube in the morning and walk to work

  • Walk to the supermarket down the road rather than drive

  • Opt to go for a longer walk at the weekend with his family

  • Walk up the stairs on the tube

  • Take regular breaks to walk around the office during the day

All of these are single actions that are easy to do, and they'll add up to fat loss. If he does this to all of his behaviour goals he'll soon have a long list of easy, actionable steps that he can take to improve his health.


Step 3: Start by ticking off all the easy ones

Where to start? I say start with whichever looks the easiest to you. Our friend Joe might decide that actually he'd enjoy getting off the tube earlier in the morning and walk, especially when it's nicer weather.


This is something he'll happily include in his routine every day, for the long term.


Pick one small habit and stick to it until it becomes second nature, then revisit your list and go for the next easiest and so on.

Appendix: Common pitfalls

Overshooting behaviours

This mistake comes from short term thinking, where the person makes changes which are unsustainable in an attempt speed up progress. This approach is problematic for two main reasons:

  1. Putting in more effort has diminishing returns, which can be very demotivating

  2. It massively increases the chance of rebounding after having achieved the goal

Not being specific enough about behaviour goals

Often people will say they want to 'eat better' or 'exercise more'. While this is well-meaning it's also far too vague to action.


Instead of aiming to eating better, it would be more productive to aim to include two portions of veg with lunch at work.


Getting frustrated with slow progress in the short term

In the short term they may well be no obvious progress, but I beg you not to lose focus. The easy metaphor is that fitness progress is like melting an ice cube.


Ice melts above 0, if you raise the temperature of your room from -10 to -5 you don't see any progress. That doesn't mean that the effort has been in vain, it just means that you haven't yet reached the critical threshold.

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