How to Effectively Set, Achieve and Maintain Your Health Goals
Your health is your greatest resource. If you don’t believe this, imagine going through the day with a health problem (e.g. a broken leg, diarrhea, a high level of stress) and then imagine repeating the exact same day without the health problem. Which of these two experiences would you prefer? Undoubtedly, it would be the experience of the day without the health problem.
Many people desire to improve their health and reap the benefits of healthy living. Unfortunately, making lasting changes can be challenging. We have developed this section of the website—based on what research shows is effective in making lasting changes—to help you successfully set and achieve your health goals, whether they be to eat better, exercise more, gain/lose weight and more. (Note: If you goal is to quit smoking, consult "Your Guide to Quitting for Good".)
This information presented here is also available as a workbook that you can download.
If you would like to work with a professional to help you achieve your health goals contact one of our Health Promotion Specialists. This service is free of charge to Concordia students, staff and faculty.
Setting and achieving health goals require changing the things that you currently do. Research tells us that health behaviour change takes place in stages.
The first of the stages, called precontemplation, happens when a person is not thinking about making changes. Examples include a person who uses tobacco and is not interested in quitting or a sedentary person who is not thinking about becoming physically active. If you are in this stage then the following information is NOT for you. However, you may want to ask yourself "What would it take for me to change?" Weight gain? A heart attack? Consistent low energy? Chronic pain? A diagnosis of diabetes? At one point in their life, most of those who engage in unhealthy behaviours think about changing what they do, often because they don’t feel well. Changing sooner—rather than later—means that you can spend more time reaping the benefits of healthy living. Get informed. Learn about the fantastic benefits associated with adopting positive health behaviours. You can also consider what it is you want, what is important to you, and how the behaviour you are engaging in helps you achieve them or not.
In the second stage, called contemplation, a person thinks about changing but is not yet taking steps to make changes. There is some thinking, but no action yet. If you are in this stage then the following information is NOT for you. You can move along the stages towards readiness to change by learning more about the benefits of healthy living and by giving serious thought to how much better your life can be when you protect and enhance your health.
The third stage, called preparation, is one where a person is actually preparing to make a change. They plan to change soon and are taking steps to make that change. Examples include gathering information or making an appointment to meet with a health professional. If you are in this stage, then the following information is DEFINITELY for you. The exercises proposed will guide you through the change process and give you the tools you need to effectively set and achieve your health goals.
In the fourth stage, called action, a person is doing what is recommended to improve as well as maintain good health, such as exercising for 150 minutes each week at a moderate to vigorous level.
In the fifth stage, called maintenance, a person maintains the changes they have made in the action stage. If you are in either of these last two stages then the following information is for you.
Research has identified several factors that are associated with effective behaviour change. Studies confirm that success can be greatly enhanced by approaching change in a systematic way: with a plan. This lends support to the adage “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.
Effective behaviour change can be summarized in 4 steps:
Step 1: Set a SMART goal
Step 2: Build commitment to the goal
Step 3: Make a plan
Step 4: Monitor
Our intention is to guide you through these steps. If you TRULY want to make changes in your health behaviours, complete all the exercises and be as detailed as possible. Including more detail may seem time consuming; however, the time and energy you invest in working on the details will greatly enhance your chance of success.
This is not something you can complete in a weekend. It is an active process, just as behaviour change is an active process. Keep reviewing the exercises and add more information so that you can gain greater depth and insight—and add richness to the experience.
With these points in mind, move to Step 1 and start your journey towards better health and a better life experience!
4 Steps to Effective Behaviour Change
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.
Time-bound: The goal must include a time frame, such as daily, weekly etc.
Check out a few examples of SMART health goals
More information on goal setting
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 4 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, “Each day I will eat 9 servings of fruit and vegetables, 6 servings of grains...” is worded positively; whereas “I won’t eat chocolate” refers to what you won’t do.
A Final Note on Setting Goals
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.
Complete Exercise 1.1 and write down your health goal.
A crucial factor that separates those who successfully achieve and maintain health goals from those who don’t is commitment. Commitment helps you stick to your goals during the good times and the bad times—when barriers get in the way.
Two factors contribute to commitment: importance and ability. For a person to commit to a goal they need to see it as important and they need to believe that they are able to carry out the behaviours/tasks that are necessary to achieve it.
The exercises that follow are geared to help you:
a) identify how important you see your goal, and
b) identify how capable you believe you are at achieving it
How important is your goal?
The exercises that follow are designed to help you identify and/or build the importance of your health goal.
Exercise 2.1: Tie the health goal to your values. A value is something that is important to you; something that has worth. A health goal that is consistent with the values you hold is more important than one that doesn’t fit with your values. Healthy goals are consistent with many values. For example, setting a goal to engage in regular physical activity fits well with the value of adventure since regular physical activity increases fitness, and fitter people are better prepared to be adventurous. Setting a goal to get 8 hours of quality sleep each night fits well with the value of energy, since a regular sleep schedule is associated with more energy. Setting a goal to eat according to the Canada Food Guide is consistent with valuing the environment since a healthy diet is a plant-based diet, which is better for the environment.
Complete Exercise 2.1 to identify how you goal fits with your values. To identify your values you can review a list of values.
Exercise 2.2: Tie the health goal to your other goals. We all have goals in life. These include such things as being financially secure, working in a rewarding job, meeting a partner, having children, living a long and healthy life, travelling to Europe, starting a business etc. If you identify that achieving your health goal will help you achieve other life goals, then you are more likely to see your health goal as important and commit to it.
Complete Exercise 2.2 to identify how achieving your health goal will help you achieve your other life goals.
Exercise 2.3: Examine the pros and cons of changing. A person is more likely to evaluate a goal as important if the benefits (i.e. the “pros”) they expect from making changes outweigh the consequences (i.e. the “cons”). For example, the benefits of engaging in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week include: more energy; more stamina; greater muscle tone; greater flexibility; better balance; better mood; better sleep; better sex and a reduced risk of many illness including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and some cancers. On the other side of the balance sheet, some of the “not-so-good” things (i.e. cons) to becoming more physically active may include: less time for rest and relaxation; getting up one hour earlier and, therefore, going to bed earlier; experiencing soreness; and costs associated with a gym membership, shoes, workout clothes or a new bike.
Complete Exercise 2.3 to identify the pros and cons of working towards your goal.
How confident are you in your ability to do what it takes to achieve your goal?
Although a firm belief in the importance of achieving a health goal is necessary, it is not enough to ensure success. A person must also believe that they are able to make the change. In fact, research in the area of behaviour change has identified that self-efficacy—the belief a person has in their ability to do what it takes to achieve a goal—is a powerful predictor of success in behaviour change.
Several factors contribute to a person’s belief in their ability to make a change. The exercises that follow will help you explore your belief in your ability to do what it takes to achieve the goal you have set in Exercise 1.1.
Exercise 2.4: Identify and use your strengths and skills. We all have strengths and skills. These are the positive qualities, assets or attributes that help us achieve our goals. By identifying the strengths and skills you have and how you can use them to achieve your goal, you increase your belief in your ability to achieve the goal, which in turn increases the chances that you will be successful.
Complete Exercise 2.4 to identify your strengths and skills and how you can use them to achieve your health goal. To help you along with this exercise we have provided a checklist of some strengths and skills.
Exercise 2.5: Identify competing priorities. Commitment to a goal requires dedicating time, energy and other resources to achieving it. This means making the goal one of your priorities. However, each of us has many priorities in life including sleep, family, work, school, relationships, leisure, hobbies, volunteering, entertainment etc. The higher up on the priority list your health goal is, the more resources you will dedicate to it. If your other priorities consume all your time and energy, there will be no resources left to dedicate to your health goal.
Complete Exercise 2.5 and write down the things that take up your time, energy, money and other resources. Review these priorities and identify if you have enough time, energy and other resources to dedicate to your health goal.
Exercise 2.6 Identify other barriers. Another strategy to enhance your belief in your ability to achieve your goal is to identify potential barriers that you may encounter and to plan for what you will do in case you encounter them. By problem-solving ahead of time you will likely realize that the barriers are not as insurmountable as you may think. You will also be prepared the next time they arise and you will be able to overcome them more easily.
Complete Exercise 2.6 and write down any potential barriers and what you can do to overcome them.
Are you ready to start working on your goal?
At the beginning of this section we pointed out that commitment to the goal is critical to success. Your heart has to be in it. You have to reach a point where you see the behaviour as a gift, not a deprivation—where nothing will get in the way of achieving this important goal.
Examine the final ratings you have given to the questions of importance and your belief in the ability to make changes. If you rated both importance and ability as high you are ready to move on to the next step. You don’t need to score a “10” on each to be ready to move on. In fact, as you begin making changes and start reaping the benefits, you likely will see your goal as even more important than you did at first, and also confirm that you have what it takes to make your goal a reality.
If you score low on either importance or your belief in your ability (or both) and choose not to work to build either of these, then you are not ready to change. Continuing with the exercises would likely lead to failure, which would further undermine your belief in your ability to change in the future.
If you are not willing—or not able—to commit to the work and effort required to achieve your goal, then you have two choices. The first is that you can return to Step 1and set a more realistic goal. Continue working through the exercises with this new, more realistic goal in mind.
The second choice is to realize and accept that you are not ready to make the necessary changes to achieve the goal. This includes accepting that you will not reap the benefits that achieving your goal would bring. Many people wish to lose weight, yet they are not willing to do the work it takes to do it. They often feel bad for not changing their exercise and/or nutrition behaviours. This is not helpful. Instead of feeling bad, a person should just accept that losing weight is not a priority. They need to be honest with them self and accept that other things are more important.
Change does not happen by accident: It takes meaningful, intentional action. If you don’t want to commit to the work, be honest with yourself and move on to other interests, pursuits and priorities.
Achieving a goal can be a complex process that involves completing many individual tasks. For example, the tasks involved in achieving a nutritional goal might include learning more about the various nutrients, learning how to plan a day of healthy eating, generating a shopping list, learning how to read a food label, finding and preparing healthy recipes, buying food storage containers, identifying shops that sell produce at good value in the neighbourhood, scheduling time every evening or every weekend to prepare meals, developing a repertoire of quick, easy-to-make meals...and the list goes on.
In this third step of the change process you will identify the tasks that you need to do to achieve the goal you have written in Exercise 1.1. Some goals require just a few tasks; others require many. We have divided this section into several different categories of tasks to make this process easier.
Before you continue, take some time to think about the strategies you will use to achieve your goal. What changes do you think you can make? For example, if you have a nutrition goal you may see yourself cooking at home more often, bringing your lunch to work/school or going grocery shopping more often. If you have a physical activity goal you might see yourself going to the gym 3 days a week and playing basketball with friends twice a week. Visualizing the things you will do to achieve your goal can greatly help you with the exercises in this section.
Complete exercise 3.1 and write down some things you plan to do to achieve your goal.
Exercise 3.2: Build Skills. A skill can be defined as the ability to do something well. Skills are learned; often through training. Since a skill refers to knowing how to do something, the word “how” often introduces a skill. Examples of skills include: how to read a food label, how to use a condom correctly, how to negotiate effectively, how to check your heart rate, how to identify the number of calories in a food, how to say “no”, how to correctly lift weights, or how to recognize hunger and satiety cues. Some of the tasks involved in reaching your goal may require building skills.
Complete Exercise 3.2 to identify the skills you need to build and how you will build them.
Exercise 3.3: Gather information. Making changes usually requires gathering information and building knowledge related to the change. A person who has set a physical activity goal may need to gather information about the services, equipment, and monthly fees of local gyms; learn about recommended number of sets and reps in weight lifting; or learn about the best clothing for walking outdoors in winter conditions. A person with a nutrition goal may need to learn more about proteins, fats and carbohydrates; learn about healthy cooking techniques such as broiling and grilling; or learn which foods are high in fiber. Some of the tasks involved in reaching your goal may require gathering information.
Complete exercise 3.3 to identify the information you need gather and how you will obtain it.
Exercise 3.4: Get support from others. Research reveals that social support is an important factor in successful behaviour change. Social support refers to the network of family, friends, co-workers, neighbours and others who can offer encouragement or assistance. Some of the tasks involved in reaching your goal may include garnering the support of others.
People can provide practical, emotional, financial or other types of help. Some examples of social support include:
- a person who has set a nutrition goal asks a good friend to teach him how to prepare a few healthful dishes or he asks his parents (who shop for, and prepare, the food at home) to include plenty of fruit and vegetables in the weekly shopping and to include extra vegetables and less meat in his servings;
- a person who has set a physical activity goal asks a friend to be her walking partner or asks her parents to be encouraging;
- a person who has set a sleep goal asks his roommates to turn down the sound on the television in the evenings after he has gone to bed.
Complete Exercise 3.4 to identify who can support you and how they can support you.
Exercise 3.5: Change your environment. Healthy behaviours are much easier to carry out if the environment supports it. For example, being physically active is easier if there are bike paths and safe walking trails in the area; eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is easier if there are several stores in the neighbourhood that sell quality produce at good prices. These are examples where the environment is already shaped for us. However, there are things a person can do to shape their environment so that it encourages and supports the actions needed to reach a health goal. For example, a person who wishes to achieve a nutrition goal can fill his pantry and refrigerator with healthy foods, remove unhealthy ones from the house or buy equipment that makes healthy cooking easier—such as a slow cooker or food processor. A person with a physical activity goal can clear a spot in her living room for doing exercises or buy exercise DVDs.
Complete Exercise 3.5 to identify the changes you can make in your environment to support your goal.
Exercise 3.6: Identify other tasks and strategies. The previous exercises in this step have prompted you to identify tasks in several categories that included skills, information, and support from others. There may be other tasks or strategies that don’t fit neatly into these categories. For example, if part of your goal is to eat 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, some tasks and strategies to achieve that might include:
- I will make a grocery shopping list every week.
- My grocery shopping list will include at least 4 types of vegetables and 4 types of fruit.
- When I go shopping I will head first to the fruit and vegetable aisle.
- I will include a piece of fruit or a serving of vegetables in at least 2 of my 3 snacks each day.
- Each week I will seek out and prepare one new vegetable dish or side dish.
- I will buy a cookbook with healthy recipes.
- I will have at least two different vegetables with supper.
- I will buy a slow cooker to make cooking easier.
Complete Exercise 3.6 to identify the other tasks and strategies that can help you reach your goal.
Exercise 3.7: Identify possible barriers and how you will address them. Another important consideration in developing a plan is to identify any possible barriers you may encounter that will prevent you from putting the plan in place. Once you have identified a possible barrier, brainstorm ways to overcome it. These barriers could be conditions that already exist or situations that you may encounter in the future.
One example of a condition that already exists is a distaste for vegetables in a woman whose goal is to eat 9 servings of fruit and vegetables each day. In this case she may choose to experiment with some of her favourite spices to enhance the flavour of vegetables. She may decide to try curry when stir-frying vegetables, or create a spicy dip for vegetables using fat-free sour cream and a few drops of hot chili sauce.
Complete Exercise 3.7 to identify any possible barriers and how you will address them. You have already given some thought to this in Exercise 2.6, when you identified things that could prevent you from working on achieving your goal. You might get some ideas for this exercise by reviewing that exercise.
Exercise 3.8: Identify and implement rewards. The final part of the plan that will increase the chances of successfully achieving your health goal is to identify and implement rewards. Rewards can act as incentives and encourage attainment of your goal because they provide immediate and tangible feedback.
Some tips for identifying rewards:
- A reward should be something you truly enjoy.
- A reward should be good for you (having a cigarette after doing a yoga class is not a valid reward).
- Rewards can be monetary (e.g. paying yourself or giving to charity), non-monetary (e.g. clothes, electronics), activities/social (e.g. going to the movies, having friends over for dinner), relaxation (e.g a hot bath, a massage) etc.
- Some should be quick and easy to implement (e.g. buying a CD); others can be more intensive (e.g. putting away money for a trip to Europe).
Complete exercise 3.8 to identify rewards that would encourage you to reach your goal.
Now that you have set a S.M.A.R.T. goal, have built commitment to achieving and maintaining it, and have broken it down into specific tasks that you are presently carrying out, what remains is to make sure that you are on track. This is where monitoring comes in.
Research is clear about this fact: those who monitor are much more likely to achieve and maintain their goal than those who don’t. This makes sense. If you are tracking your progress you will know whether or not you are on track. If you are not on track, you can take steps to get back on track. If you are on track, you can note what is helpful and continue those behaviours.
Monitoring involves documenting the behaviours that contribute to the goal. The most important thing to monitor is your S.M.A.R.T. goal. Since one of the characteristics of a S.M.A.R.T. goal is that it is “measurable” (i.e. it has numbers in it), it should be easy to monitor. For example, if your goal is to engage in moderate physically activity for 150 minutes a week, you can use a calendar to document how many minutes of moderate physical activity you did each day during the week and add them up at the end of the week. If that total is 150 minutes, you have achieved your goal.
As another example, if you have a nutrition goal, then you can create a monitoring sheet. Here is an example of a monitoring sheet for a nutrition goal based on the Canada's Food Guide (2007-2019).
Besides monitoring your S.M.A.R.T goal you can also monitor the tasks that you have identified in Step 3. We have already provided boxes in several of the activities where you can check off a task once you have completed it. This is a form of monitoring. Beyond these, you can develop a way to monitor other tasks you have identified. It is imperative that you monitor your S.M.A.R.T. goal, but you don’t have to monitor the tasks and strategies from Step 3.
Monitoring is an extremely effective tool to help you achieve your goals. However, you only get out of it as much as you put in. The more aspects of your goal you monitor, and the more often you monitor, the greater your chances of achieving your goal. You don’t have to monitor for the rest of your life, but until the health behaviours identified in your goal become part of your lifestyle, monitoring helps you stay on track.
After monitoring, you still have work to do! You don’t monitor for the sake of monitoring. Rather, you must review your monitoring sheet every day—or every week in the case of weekly health goals such as physical activity goals—and then ask yourself “Did I achieve my goal today (or this week)?” If the answer is “yes”...GREAT! Think about the things you did that helped you reach your goal and repeat them on other days. If the answer to the question is “no” then you need to ask yourself: “Why didn’t I achieve my goal today?” After you have given that question some thought, answer the question: “What can I do tomorrow (or next week) so that I will be back on track?” Then you do some problem solving and put things in place that will get you back on track. Write down these questions and the answers to them on your monitoring sheet so you don’t lose track of these ideas.