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Columns: Enhancing Your Behavioral Toolkit

Setting Strategic Goals

Buckworth, Janet Ph.D., FACSM

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doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000248
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Understanding how to help someone define and use goals to live a healthier life and achieve enhanced levels of fitness is a skill to keep at the top of your toolbox. Goals provide direction, mobilize effort, and foster persistence in the search for strategies to accomplish tasks that support goal achievement. Goals arise from a need for change, which can be stimulated by a variety of experiences and events such as feedback from a health assessment (elevated blood glucose) or self-motivated change in personal performance benchmarks (desire to run the Boston Marathon). We set goals based on internal standards that we compare with our performance and to our physical, psychological, and personal attributes. When there is a discrepancy between standards and performance, for example, action to reduce the incongruity is triggered. Negative feedback gives information about what should be modified to meet the goal. An older client who can no longer lift a full gallon of milk and wants to regain this ability would be advised how to strengthen corresponding muscles. A regular cyclist who has trouble completing the run training for his first triathlon would be given a personalized training program to increase his endurance and ability to pace.

We set goals to reduce or eliminate the discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be according to our standards and values.

Most clients come to fitness professionals because they are experiencing a discrepancy between where they are and where they want to be, or think they should be. Certainly, health-related goals can be assigned by others, such as a health care provider telling a client he or she needs to lose 5% of his or her body weight to improve his or her metabolic profile, but getting fit, losing weight, toning up, and increasing muscles are some of the self-generated goals clients want help to achieve. Some of the best help fitness professionals can provide these clients is help to make these SMART goals.

My hat is off to the folks who conceived of SMART goals and promoted this useful concept to practitioners and clients. There are many different characteristics of good goals that SMART is used to represent, typically specific, measureable, achievable, reasonable/realistic, and time bound (1). My students are challenged to come up with and justify other concepts to apply, some of which are listed below. I am sure you can think of others. We usually start with making the goal specific and behavioral. Digging deeper to discover what someone who wants to get fit means, for example, will enable a clear definition of a behavioral outcome and associated strategies. Asking a client to complete the sentence, “If I am fit I will be able to” reveals a place to start with a specific motivating target that can be measured and tracked. For example, if being fit means running a mile without stopping, you can use SMART criteria to craft this as a long-term goal within a reasonable time frame and to develop necessary short-term goals. This process should be collaborative because goals that are set by the client or with others are more likely to be met than goals that are set by others. Developing the goal with your client also allows you to help make the goal realistic and reasonable.

Helping a client in the goal-setting process involves applying several different behavior change skills. Identifying a goal that meets SMART criteria can be fostered through decision-making strategies, education about characteristics of effective goals, and guidance in weighing the short- and long-term pros and cons of different goal options. Determining sensible, personalized goal-supportive strategies and using self-monitoring to track progress puts the plan in place. Keeping the plan going requires short- and long-term goals. The importance of short-term or process goals was demonstrated in a study of 60 recreational exercisers. Participants were randomized to one of three groups, and aspects of intrinsic motivation were measured before and after a 6-week intervention and 3 and 6 months after the intervention was over (2). One treatment group set an outcome goal, a second treatment group set weekly behavioral process goals, and a third group had no formal goal setting. The participants who set process goals had greater increases in enjoyment and other measures of intrinsic motivation and better adherence at each time point. As demonstrated in this study, including short-term goals improves the goal-setting process and outcome. An added value in setting and evaluating short-term goals is the information gained when a short-term goal is not met or is met partially. This allows you to determine if the problem is with an unrealistic goal that should be adjusted, such as increasing weights out of proportion to gains in strength, or with the client not putting in the effort because of lack of motivation, low self-efficacy, and other personal barriers. Evaluation of short-term goals also gives the fitness professional opportunities to provide timely, specific feedback and reinforce progress. For example, if a client is discouraged because he accumulated more than 10,000 steps on 4 instead of 5 days, you can help identify barriers he encountered and how to manage them as well as pointing out that he was successful 80% of the time.

An added value in setting and evaluating short-term goals is the information gained when a short-term goal is not met or is met partially. This allows you to determine if the problem is with an unrealistic goal that should be adjusted, such as increasing weights out of proportion to gains in strength, or with the client not putting in the effort because of lack of motivation, low self-efficacy, and other personal barriers. Evaluation of short-term goals also gives the fitness professional opportunities to provide timely, specific feedback and reinforce progress.

Most people focus on aiming for task or performance goals, such as increasing one-repetition maximum by a certain percentage or learning how to swim. However, performance goals may make some people feel pressure to succeed, and they rush to discover goal-supporting strategies and fail to learn what will work the best for them. Learning goals are designed to support the efforts to achieve a task/performance goal. The target of these goals contributes to mastering the task or performance goal. For example, a short-term task goal would be, “I will accumulate at least 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 or more days this week” with a corresponding learning goal, “to identify at least three different ways to get in 30 or more minutes of walking on the days I work.” Other examples of learning goals are to “meet with a dietitian to find the best weight loss program for me,” “monitor my schedule for 1 week to determine the best times to go to the gym,” and “research fitness apps to use on my smartphone.”

What about enhancing commitment to the goal? A self-generated or collaborative SMART goal can engender greater commitment than a goal assigned by someone else. However, there are other factors that significantly contribute to goal commitment and can be influenced by the health fitness professional. The importance of the goal attainment to the client, the expectations about the outcome of reaching the goal, the client’s barriers and supports, and the level of self-efficacy for goal-supporting strategies can be valuable topics for a goal-setting session. Commitment also can be fostered by helping the client identify multiple motives for achieving the goal. Having several reasons for reaching a goal will enhance adherence.

Finally, a practical goal includes an action plan in which you and your client define what, when, and how he or she will do what he or she plans to do. For example, a long-term goal could be, “I will complete a 5 K race (what) in less than 25 minutes on April 15 (when) by following my training plan for the next 3 months (how).” A corresponding short-term task goal of “running two to three times next week for at least 30 minutes at a moderate pace in my neighborhood before work” would be supported by a learning goal of “finding what an appropriate training pace is for me by scheduling a fitness assessment at the recreation center this week.”

For clients seeking help from a fitness professional, disequilibrium from where they are and where they want to be prompts the desire for change, but figuring out how to make the change can be daunting. Applying goal-setting strategies will set them on the path to success. Keeping them on the path requires understanding how to sustain motivation, which will be covered next time!

Summary of Guidelines for Goal Setting:

  • Assess each goal using the SMART criteria
  • Establish quantitative methods to measure goals and to define criteria for success
  • Address physiological factors by considering fitness and health
  • Make the goal challenging but achievable
  • Make sure necessary behavioral skills are in place
  • Include flexibility in goal parameters
  • Identify multiple motives for the goal to enhance adherence
  • Include short-term and long-term goals
  • Identify potential barriers in the physical and social environment and within the person
  • Identify the support needed to achieve the goal, including knowledge, skills, resources, and people

References

1. Bowman J, Mogensen L, Marsland E, Lannin N. The development, content validity and inter-rater reliability of the SMART-Goal Evaluation Method: a standardised method for evaluating clinical goals. Aust Occup Ther J. 2015;62(6):420–7.
2. Wilson K, Brookfield D. Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. Int J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2009;7:89–100.
© 2016 American College of Sports Medicine.