Setting Health Goals

setting health goals
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How do I make a resolution that lasts?

The winter holidays are typically a time of overindulgence and lack of routine, and many of us get around our guilt of gluttony by making health goals a “new year’s resolution”: promising to change our behavior once the holidays are over. 

The start of a new calendar year is the most popular time to set health goals such as exercising more, choosing a healthier diet, quitting unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking, etc.), or reducing stress. Unfortunately, these goals can be difficult to achieve and are often forgotten soon after they are set. If you’ve ever visited a gym in January and observed a surge of enthusiastic newcomers, you may also have noticed the crowd dwindle by early spring. 

This may sound pessimistic, but it doesn’t mean your resolution is doomed. Failure has less to do with a lack of willpower and more to do with a lack of planning and support. Here we will discuss some of the best ways proven to help you set realistic health goals and make a plan to reach them in healthy ways.

Defining the Goal

Big dreams, small steps. It’s okay to make big, fantastic, lofty goals. In fact, the bigger the dream, the more likely you are to fight for it. You may also inspire others around you because of the value you place on the outcome. Making a smaller goal that you see as more attainable may not inspire the same motivational push because you don’t value the outcome as much [1]. 

It is important, however, to know what small changes you can make to help you reach that big goal. If reaching the big goal requires you to immediately change everything about your lifestyle and behavior, you’ll be less likely to stick to the changes and attain your goal [2,3]. 

Plan out the small changes you can make over time that will contribute to the overall, big dream. Then think of a way you can measure and track your progress over time. Plan certain time points to evaluate whether the small steps are working and adjust your plan as needed without losing sight of the goal itself.

Set Intentions, Not Parameters 

While it is recommended to make measurable, specific goals, try to phrase what it is you want as a positive intention rather than a strict and specific measurement to be reached [4]. 

For example, if your goal is to lose 50 pounds in five months and you only lose 30, you are likely to feel disappointment. On the other hand, if your intention is to move your body towards a healthier size for your frame and you lose 30 pounds in five months, you are likely to feel accomplished. 

In both scenarios, what you are doing is working! Your body is changing in a way that is moving towards your goal, but the feeling of accomplishment is more likely to reinforce the healthy habits that will keep you on track to shed the remaining pounds. 

Consider the “Why”

Consider the reason for your goal. Why do you value the change you want to make? 

If your goal is in fact attaining a healthy weight, is it because you are comparing yourself to others? Has your doctor warned you of the potential health consequences of maintaining your current lifestyle? Or, do you value the idea of a more active lifestyle and wholesome diet to increase your energy, well-being, and longevity? 

Make sure you are setting goals to benefit you and your personal values [4]. If the value is not intrinsic and the desired outcome isn’t aligned with your core values, rethink your goal. Choose a goal that makes you feel positive and excited.

Approach vs. Avoid

Choose “Approach Goals” over “Avoidance Goals”. Goal achievement data shows that goals are more likely to be attained when they are phrased as something to reach towards rather than something to be avoided [1]. For example, if a more healthful diet is part of your goal, try making your motto “I will choose healthy foods that make my body feel good” rather than “Stop eating junk food”. 

Approach Goals help you think positively about proactivity toward your goal. Avoidance Goals cause stress or make you feel like you’re constantly running away from something that is tempting or difficult to avoid. If you do end up eating food that makes you feel bad or guilty, you can just remember your goal was to make better choices and learn from the experience. 

What’s the Best Way to Start?

Dive in head-first! While you may be tempted to ease into goal attainment, a strong start is actually the best predictor of whether or not you will reach your goal [5]. Even for difficult long-term goals, behavior within the first seven days predicts those who ultimately achieve their goals, including factors like sticking to your plan, self-monitoring motivation, and maintaining a positive attitude towards the goal. 

Don’t Go It Alone

Stay accountable from the jump. Just thinking about a health goal might not be enough to keep you motivated down the line. Write it down! Tell your friends! Be positive and proud that you have decided to make a healthy change and gather your cheerleaders and support system. If people in your household who can help support your new healthy habits, try joining an online forum of others working towards a similar goal. 

If on your goal-attainment journey you start to feel hopeless, these people may be able to give you hints for getting back on track [2,3]. Sometimes hearing “you can do it!” from a loved one is all you need to believe in yourself again.

Small Attainable Steps

One behavior at a time. Change is hard and can be overwhelming. When planning how you will reach your goal, make a list of things that will need to change. If we return to the example of a healthy weight goal, your plan may include eating a more nutritious diet, eating smaller quantities, exercising more often or more intensely, sleeping more, drinking more water, meditating, etc. Trying to change all of those things at once is probably unrealistic. It would likely require a complete overhaul of your schedule and lifestyle. Keep all of those factors on your list of positive changes to make, but pick one to start with. Give yourself some time to work that new habit into your life before adding another behavior change [2]. These are the small steps that contribute to a big dream.

What will help me stay motivated?

1. Practice gratitude 

Looking forward to a brighter future is great, but the present is pretty great too. Part of tracking your progress along your goal-attainment journey is noticing all the little things that are already going well. Your present reality may not look exactly like the life you see for yourself once you have reached your goal. But, there are probably at least a few positive things that are present in your reality. These good things can contribute to your sense of well-being, state of positivity, and continued motivation when you take note of them. 

Scientific studies have found that people feel motivated and energized when they experience gratitude [6]. And, gratitude encourages people to make progress toward their goals [6].

2. Use a tracking app 

Activity tracking devices or smartphone apps are a great way to keep track of your progress toward an activity, fitness level, or efforts towards a healthy weight [5]. 

Even better, many of them also have a way to input an end goal to work towards. They make your progress shareable for the sake of accountability, and even give you notifications and positive feedback when you reach a milestone along your journey. Feedback is also a predictor of success when it comes to progress towards a goal. The better and more frequent the feedback, the faster the progress [1].

3. Reward yourself 

Yes, reaching the goal will be the greatest reward. But, if it’s big and far away, you may need some small rewards to help you feel good about the progress you make along the way. When planning your journey to goal attainment, give yourself specific points in time when you will evaluate your own progress. Note any changes in your motivation and attitude. These evaluations should include a small reward if you’re staying on track [7]!

Beware: it can be tempting to use a small bad behavior as a reward for a lot of good behavior. An example of this is the infamous “cheat day”, allowing yourself junk food after a week of eating well. Instead, after a week of eating nutritious food, reward yourself with a new piece of athletic attire. Maybe buy a book you’ve been looking forward to reading, or give yourself an extra hour of sleeping in. You might get your partner or a supportive family member to reward you. Ask them to take over one of your household chores so you can have an hour of free time. 

Try choosing rewards that will support your progress, not cause a step back, no matter how tiny. 

What if I fail?

When it comes to goals, there really is no “failure” point; your goal is still waiting to be met. 

Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t blame your willpower and try not to get into a pattern of negative self-talk. And please, don’t let negative beliefs about your behavior patterns sabotage your ability to change. Think about what specific behaviors or obstacles are standing in between you and your goal. Brainstorm new strategies to use to get around them. 

You might not need to change your goal, just your plan for how you will reach it.

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