Step 1: Set a SMART goal
(Note: Download the interactive workbook and complete the SMART goal setting exercise in it)
The first step in moving towards better health is to identify what you wish to achieve. In other words, you have to set a goal for the behaviours you want to adopt.
Effective goals share 5 characteristics that can be remembered using the acronym SMART. A goal should be:
Specific: The goal is precisely defined, such as “I will be physically active at a moderate intensity for 150 minutes a week”. Don't set vague goals such as "I want to eat better" or “I want to exercise more”.
Measurable: You have to be able to measure your progress toward the goal in order to be able to identify whether or not you've achieved it. A clue that a goal is measurable is that it has a number in it.
Action-oriented: The goal needs to relate to things that you do, rather than the outcome of those behaviours. For example, if you wish to lose weight — which is a final outcome — you need to set nutrition and physical activity goals, which are the behaviours that lead to weight loss.
Realistic: You must be able to achieve the goal, taking into consideration such factors as time, energy, the impact on your health etc. "Exercising 3 hours a day, every day," is not realistic. Eating "less than 1,200 calories a day" can negatively affect health. These goals are not appropriate.
Examples of SMART health goals
Physical activity: Each week I will engage in a total of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity above and beyond my activities of daily living.
Sleep: Every night I will get 6-8 hours of uninterrupted, restful sleep.
Nutrition: Every day I will have:
- 8 servings of vegetables and fruit
- 4 servings of grain foods
- 4 servings of protein foods
- 3 servings of oils/fats, and
- other foods totalling no more than 200 calories
Besides these characteristics, there are other considerations about goal setting to keep in mind:
- The goal should be your own. Not because someone else wants you to do it. Not because you think it's the right thing to do. Not because everyone else is doing it
- The goal shouldn’t be too easy. Easy goals don’t present a challenge and require very little investment of time and energy to achieve. A goal should be something challenging that requires effort.
- Be careful not to confuse a strategy for achieving a goal with the goal itself. For example, “Go to the gym four days a week” is one of the strategies to achieve the goal of being “physically active for 150 minutes a week”. It is not the goal. You can tell the difference between a goal and a strategy by the level of specificity. A goal has many paths to get there, while a strategy is one of those paths.
- The goal should not contradict other goals. Fortunately, health goals are usually consistent with other goals.
- The goal should be worded in a positive manner whenever possible. State what you will do rather than what you won’t do. For example, “50% of my meals will consist of vegetables and fruits...” is worded positively; whereas “I won’t eat chocolate” refers to what you won’t do.
Sometimes the goal you want to achieve and maintain requires a significant amount of change, so it can seem daunting and overwhelming. In such a case, it is best to set intermediate goals that progressively get you closer to the final goal. For example, if your final goal is to be physically active for 150 minutes week but you currently aren’t physically active, an intermediate goal could be to engage in physical activity for 60 minutes a week. Once you are consistently achieving your intermediate goal you can set another intermediate goal that is more challenging (e.g. 100 minutes a week) and so forth, until you progress to working on your final goal.