Why It Makes Sense to Set SMART Goals for Health | Chris Kresser
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Why It Makes Sense to Set SMART Goals for Health

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Are you ready to take your health goals to the next level—to set and smash new objectives that have felt out of reach?

SMART Goals for Health
Whether you want to increase your activity levels or adopt a new diet, setting SMART health goals can bring you closer to success. iStock/kovaciclea

This article originally appeared in Paleo Magazine

Do you want to better understand exactly how goal setting helps people shift their behaviors so that you can share the information with others who are looking to make lifestyle changes? Read on for a little motivation and discover how to use SMART goals for health.

SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound—and they can take your health to the next level. Check out this article to find out how. #healthylifestyle #paleo #chriskresser

Change Is Difficult: Here’s Why—And What You Can Do About It

Let’s face it—change can be hard, especially when it comes to transforming unhealthy habits into healthy ones. If it weren’t, the chronic disease epidemic wouldn’t exist. We’d all eat a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet, get enough sleep, manage stress levels, and embrace other aspects of a healthy, ancestral lifestyle.

And yet, as a population, it’s clear we don’t do that. Only about 6 percent of Americans practice all of the following five basic healthy habits—not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy BMI, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. (1) Just how important is engaging in healthier daily habits? Harvard researchers found that men who followed five low-risk lifestyle behaviors could add an average of 12 years to their lives; for women, that number jumped to 14. Study participants of both genders experienced a decrease in mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease in particular. (2)

Even though there’s a clear motivator to live a healthy life, many of us don’t do so. Is there something fundamentally wrong with us that causes us to behave in ways that aren’t in our best interests? Not at all. The fact is, we’re not always ready to change and, even once we are, many of us don’t know how to do it.

In the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we look at change as a process with multiple stages. At the beginning, we’re not ready to take a new action. We may feel doubtful or uncertain about whether we really need to change, we may not feel prepared, and we’re not all that motivated to make any big shifts in our lifestyles.

Eventually, as we progress through the stages of change, that ambivalence dissolves. We make a decision and we feel motivated to follow through. This is the stage where goal setting can help the most—and it’s a great time to try out the SMART methodology.

Moving through the stages of change takes time, and it’s not always clear which stage you’re really in. Having the support of a health coach who understands how this process works can empower you to achieve successful, lasting change.

How to Set SMART Goals for Your Health

How we define and articulate our goals plays a role in whether we achieve them. SMART methodology aims to help you establish and express your goals by ensuring that they’re:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Specific means you’ve targeted a precise area for improvement. If your goal isn’t clear-cut, you won’t be able to focus on it. A good way to specify your goal is to answer the Five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why.

Examples:

  • General goal: I want to feel less stressed.
  • Specific SMART goal: To decrease my stress levels, this month I will practice a breathing exercise every Monday and Wednesday at 9 a.m.
  • General goal: I want to get more sleep.
  • Specific SMART goal: To feel more rested, I’ll get in bed by 10 p.m. four nights this week.
  • General goal: I want to try a gluten-free diet.
  • Specific SMART goal: To start changing my diet, I will eat one gluten-free Paleo dinner at home three evenings this week.

Measurable means you can quantify and track your progress towards your goal. When setting your SMART goal, identify how you’ll monitor your headway. Ask yourself, “How will I know when I have accomplished my goal?”

The examples above are specific and measurable. To track the sleep goal, you could write down what time you got in bed each night in a journal on your nightstand; then you could look periodically to see how you’re doing and, at week’s end, check if you hit your goal.

Attainable means it’s a realistic goal that’s possible for you to achieve. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. SMART goals encourage big thinking, yet they also keep you tethered to reality. They help you stay motivated to make major changes while avoiding the frustration that comes from trying to meet a goal that can’t be achieved at the moment. Ask yourself what tools and skills you need to accomplish your goal; do you have them? Can you attain them in the timeframe you’ve given yourself?

Examples:

  • Unattainable goal: I want to meditate for 20 minutes every morning, but mornings in my house are total chaos between getting the kids up, fed, and on the bus with lunches in hand.
  • Attainable SMART goal: Using the quiet time in the evenings, once the kids are asleep and my tasks are done, I will destress by meditating for 20 minutes every night this week.
  • Unattainable goal: I want to exercise more frequently, but I’m worried about overtraining and injury.
  • Attainable SMART goal: To increase my physical activity without overtraining, I’ll replace a CrossFit or HIIT routine with yoga twice a week this month.

Relevant means it’s a worthwhile goal that matches what you want from your life. The best goals align with your values and purpose.

Examples: 

  • Non-relevant goal: I want to eat fish five days a week for the next month, but seafood makes my stomach turn.
  • Relevant SMART goal: To eat better and because I love gardening, I’ll make five meals a week this month using my own homegrown produce and herbs.
  • Non-relevant goal: I want to complete a marathon in the next six months, but I hate running.
  • Relevant SMART goal: Because I’m avid about supporting entrepreneurs in my community, I’ll exercise more by working out three days a week this month at the local personal training studio.

Time-bound means that you’ve set a deadline for your goal. Without a cutoff date for completion, you’re more likely to procrastinate. The examples above all include clear timelines that orient the goal in the present, not some distant time in the future. Research Says SMART Goals Can Make for Successful Goals

A variety of studies support the methodology behind SMART goal setting for use in health behavior change and maintenance. (3)

  • Ninety percent of studies on goal setting and performance showed that specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals; broad, nonquantitative, “do your best” goals; or no goals at all. (4)
  • Long, far-off deadlines sabotaged goal achievement. When deadlines were in what study participants perceived as the present and not the future, they were more likely to get started on working toward the goal they set. (5, 6)
  • How attractive a goal was to a goal setter, meaning how much they wanted it and how relevant it was to their life, influenced how committed they remained to that goal and thus how likely they were to accomplish it. (7)
  • Specific goals yielded higher group performance than nonspecific goals, particularly those that were more difficult than easy to achieve. (8)

It’s important to note that the SMART approach isn’t a perfect fit for everyone. For around 40 percent of people, having objective-oriented goals (like SMART goals) is very helpful, while the remaining 60 percent would benefit from a more directional, less specific approach. (9) The SMART approach also leaves out other important aspects to goal setting, like:

  • Goal theme: Is the goal a healthy one, or is it detrimental?
  • Goal orientation: Is the goal focused on approaching a positive outcome or avoiding a negative one?
  • Goal hierarchy: How does the goal fit in with your other goals? If this goal conflicts with another, which one would you choose to prioritize?

That said, for those of you who do prefer objective-oriented goals and have reached a stage of change where you’re ready to take action, SMART goals could help you arrive at your ambition. That’s key, because brain cells change in response to success, which improves behavior and leads to further gains. (10, 11) What’s more, by setting specific, time-bound objectives, you turn your goal into a habit: You shift your behavior for the long term.

Embracing a SMART Approach to Goal Setting

If you’re ready to set SMART goals, consider health coaching. A health coach can offer you one-on-one support to create and sustain consistent, and even dramatic, change in your life using SMART goals and other strategies, such as shrinking the change.

If you’re a personal trainer, nutritionist, or other wellness practitioner, you’ll likely find the SMART approach a smart fit with the work you do. The SMART methodology can help you support and empower the people around you as they’re accomplishing their own objectives and learning to master the art of goal setting.

Health coaches are agents of change. They empower their clients to set their own health goals, discover the “why” behind their desired change, and navigate challenges that arise. No other health professional has this skill set, which is why health coaches are so crucial in the fight against chronic disease.

In the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we offer robust, evidence-based instruction on health coaching and Functional Health. We teach our students the skills and competencies they need to become Functional health coaches. Find out more about our program and discover if it’s the right fit for you.