Fitness: Is setting SMART exercise goals really all that smart?

Not everyone benefits equally from exercise goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

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For years, fitness professionals have been advocating for goal-setting in order to improve exercise motivation and adherence. Be it taking 10,000 steps a day, running 5K without stopping, bench-pressing 10 per cent more weight or meeting the exercise targets set on your smartwatch, the sense of purpose provided by goals is thought to inspire action.

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For goals to be truly effective, experts in behaviour change suggest it takes more than writing down a few generalized ones on paper. They recommend exercisers set SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. In short, the best goals focus on an explicit outcome, like accumulating 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, rather than a vague promise to be more active.  

But with stats suggesting that over 50 per cent of Canadians are inactive, and dropout rates for those new to exercise also exceeding that benchmark, there’s reason to believe the process of setting goals could use some tweaking — especially for novice exercisers. Could it be that SMART goals aren’t the smartest choice after all?

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Australian researchers Christian Swann and Simon Rosenbaum first questioned the effectiveness of SMART goals in a paper published in 2018. They reported there was little in the way of research proving that specific goals are any more effective at getting people to exercise regularly than those that are more vaguely defined. In fact, specific goals may have the opposite effect, causing more stress and frustration than satisfaction. The problem with achievement-based targets is that novice exercisers may not have the ability or resources to be successful, despite following all the tenets of effective goal-setting.  

There’s a complexity to exercise that can make it difficult, if not impossible, for those just off the couch to reach their goals. Not only do they need to find the time and motivation to exercise, they also have to learn the basics, like how to lift weights, operate a treadmill or navigate a masters swim practice. Then there’s the issue of determining exercise intensity: just how fast do you need to walk for your workout to qualify as moderate intensity? It can be confounding to those who are new to working up a sweat.  

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Keep in mind, too, that the purpose of setting goals isn’t just to reach a specific target. It’s the action taken to accomplish the goal that makes the real difference in overall health, wellness and fitness. In a couch-to-5K running program, the stated goal is to run 5K without stopping. But the real benefits come from all the training runs that occur before reaching that mark. The gradual improvement in endurance, instilling an exercise routine and mastery of the mechanics of running happen long before the goal is achieved, and it can be argued that’s where the emphasis should be.  

Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals are more suitable for committed exercisers hoping to realize a well-defined, performance-based outcome — finish a marathon, achieve a personal best in the pool — than for those struggling to add more physical activity to their daily life. Swann and Rosenbaum make the argument that when it comes to physical activity, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all model of goal-setting.

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“The stage of one’s development in becoming physically active needs to be considered,” said Swann and Rosenbaum, who joined with four other researchers to advocate for updating current goal-setting theories and practices within the realm of physical activity.

What does that mean for someone who’s struggling to make exercise a regular thing? Feel free to focus more on how far you’ve come, rather than how close you are to achieving an arbitrary outcome that may or may not spur you into action. Or consider “learning” goals — less quantitative and more qualitative in nature — that concentrate on mastering a specific skill or developing strategies for becoming active. Examples include identifying three strategies to add more movement to your day, rather than the goal of performing 30 minutes of physical activity daily, or setting out to master the front crawl instead of swimming 2,000 metres in a single workout.

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Less specific doesn’t mean less ambitious. All goals should require purpose and commitment, with the main difference being that some are more focused on process and others on outcomes. The best goals are ones that are challenging enough to inspire action, but not so challenging that they promote a fear of failure.

So be smart when setting exercise goals, making sure they’re not only specific to your experience but also lead to accomplishment and satisfaction, not disappointment.

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