A Quick Guide to Successful Goal Setting

I think I can safely say we are now in the realm of new year’s resolutions and, aptly, this article looks at goal setting for clients.

Guiding your clients to set health and fitness goals that are specific, measurable, achievable (and appealing), realistic and targeted (aka S.M.A.R.T.) will increase their likelihood of adherence and success.

Helping a client to set clear, attainable goals is essential for them to:

  • Make progress with their training;
  • Improve their health and fitness; and
  • Achieve long-lasting behaviour change.

In fact, goal setting is one of the first things many exercise professionals will do with a new client, and research affirms that it supports healthy behaviours, with one study showing that women who set exercise-related goals are four times as likely to report high activity levels. Two strategies that are effective for behaviour change are:

  • Goal setting; and
  • Monitoring.

Now I will take a closer look at what makes an effective exercise-related goal, and how exercise professionals can guide their clients to build better goals.

1. Understanding the Client

The first step to helping a client set goals that they will actually want to achieve is by:

  • Understanding where they are coming from; and
  • What drives or motivates them.

Simply put, the more time you spend at the beginning building rapport with the client the better. It will be difficult to understand what they have tried before (veterans) or willing to try (newbies) if one does not ask. Further, it often takes multiple attempts for people to make actual changes in behaviour that are sustainable and maintained over the long term.

Questions to ask include:

  • What physical activity goals they have attempted in the past;
  • What worked and why; and
  • What did not work and why.

The answers to these questions can aid the exercise professional to uncover any barriers the client has previously encountered and, thereby, set more targeted goals. Frequently, this process will involve digging a bit deeper to find out the client’s true motivational drivers for getting fit and active.

You can ask them to picture themselves where they want to be and what their life would look like, and it may be that it is actually about changing their relationship with their family, or having more energy, rather than exercise per se.

2. Grounding the Big Picture

Often, a client may start out with a ‘big picture’ goal in mind, for example:

  • A certain weight loss or muscle gain target;
  • A clothing size they want to fit into; or
  • A fitness challenge they want to accomplish.

While having a big, long-term goal to aspire to is beneficial, exercise professionals should help clients break goals down into small, incremental steps.

It is not uncommon for clients to set goals around an outcome, like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to get fitter’, but that does not tell anyone how you are going to achieve that goal.

Therefore, the focus should be less on ‘outcome’ goals and more on ‘process’ goals, which are the goals that help someone achieve the right behaviours.

Research suggests that exercisers who set process goals have significantly greater adherence and higher interest and enjoyment levels than those who set outcome goals. Setting goals around specific exercise-related behaviours or action steps sets clients up for eventually achieving their desired outcomes. In other words, unless the person is doing something today, they are not contributing towards reaching their medium- or long-term goal.

3. Providing Ongoing Support

As well as helping a client set effective goals, an important part of an exercise professional’s role is encouraging them to keep striving towards those goals.

Research suggests that prompting people to monitor their progress toward a goal increases the likelihood of them achieving that goal, and the more frequent the monitoring, the greater the likelihood of success.

To help marry outcome-focused, long-term goals and shorter-term process goals together, it helps to have a monthly check-in with a client, to see if they are on the right path to achieving their big, overarching goals.

However, it is also important to note that goals are not set in stone. Check in with the client frequently and ask them whether the goals are still relevant for them, or if they need to change them.

In instances where a client does not achieve a goal, a supportive attitude is also vital. If they have just failed to hit their target by a small amount, then celebrate that success with them, and ask what would need to happen to reach the final goal, for instance losing the last two kg, and if they really want to do that.

If they had not made much (significant rather than minor) progress, then the chances are you have not properly identified the goal, or there are competing commitments getting in the way. Where a client needs additional support and guidance, referring them on to a psychologist is useful.

Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals

The SMART theory of goal setting is one that many people are familiar with.

While there are variations to the theory, the acronym essentially refers to goals that are:

  • Specific;
  • Measurable;
  • Achievable;
  • Relevant; and
  • Time-related.

In the following model, each letter of the acronym has two words associated with it:

  1. Specific and Stretching:
    • An effective fitness goal should be specific, rather than overly vague or general, but it should also have some ‘stretch’ or an element of challenge in it.
    • Doing something that is too easy (or too hard) is unlikely to lead to good goal attainment.
  2. Measurable and Monitored:
    • You need to be able to identify when a goal has been achieved, and you need a process for monitoring progress towards that goal.
    • The process of monitoring should itself be motivational.
    • For example:
      • If a client sets a goal to walk or run a certain distance per week, they could plot their progress over time on a map of the local area; or
      • For every workout completed, they could add a coloured bead to a glass jar.
  3. Attractive and Authentic:
    • The goal has to relate to something that’s enjoyable, for example:
      • The social element of group fitness classes, and it needs to be authentic and fit with the person’s values.
    • What we like and dislike drives a lot of our behaviour, so find out what is palatable to the client.
  4. Realistic and Resourced:
    • It has to be within the person’s skillset to achieve, but it also needs to be appropriately resourced, and usually the resource that is most important is time.
    • If a client simply does not have time to achieve a certain exercise goal, it will not happen.
  5. Time-Trained and Tracked:
    • Goals should have a time limit on them, and should be tracked by the client and exercise professional.
    • This is where you check in and ask the client ‘How are you going with your goals? Where are you up to? What can we improve?’.

Overcoming the Goal-Action Gap

While a client may have the best of intentions to achieve their goals, this does not always translate into them taking action.

One strategy that can help reduce this ‘goal-action gap’ is helping the client to formulate ‘implementation intentions’ – A concept pioneered by Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of psychology at New York University.

Implementation intentions set out in advance the when, where and how of achieving a goal.

For example, it could be ‘Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, I head to the gym before work for a session with my personal trainer’. The more specific these statements are, the better.

Ideally, a client should elaborate on not just how frequently they are exercising, but:

  • How long for;
  • What time of day; and
  • What it is that they are doing.

Implementation intentions can also be thought of as intentional action, or committed action, where a client actually commits to whatever they have chosen to do.

Incorporating an element of routine is particularly beneficial. In practice, this means the more we can do things at the same time and in the same place, the more likely they are to become habitual.

According to research, the implementation intentions strategy helps in:

  • Promoting the initiation of goal striving;
  • The shielding of ongoing goal pursuit from unwanted influences;
  • Disengagement from failing courses of action; and
  • Conservation of capability for future goal striving.

In practice, it helps people combat procrastination, distraction and loss of motivation on the way to achieving their goals. Further, when an implementation intention is achieved, it builds positive emotions in a client such as satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, leading to further exercise adherence.


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