How to set effective fitness goals when you are new to exercise

image of eyes with writing hashtag goals in pink

If we are interested in improving our health and fitness, should we set ourselves some fitness goals? It seems obvious.  You decide to take on a new challenge, you set fitness goals and you work towards it. All the conventional wisdom says: yes, we should set fitness goals to keep us on track!

But, how effective are fitness goals in helping us improve our health and well-being? And what sort of goals should we be setting?

I’ve been pondering this question today and debating whether to set some fitness goals for myself during this sportsing adventure. The aim of the adventure, and this blog, is to find some fun in fitness.

Will goal setting limit this vibe of experimentation and turn it from enjoyable into a chore?

Fitness Goals in the Blogosphere

There are some brilliant blog posts about goal setting in the fitness blogosphere.  Steve, from Nerd Fitness, has a great take on goal setting.  His key takeaways?

  • Be specific
  • Don’t repeat past mistakes
  • Track your progress
  • Adjust and adapt
  • Get motivated; and
  • Go public!

I love this approach.

Both Charlie at The Runner Beans and Tara at a Daily Dose of Fitness have also written about fitness goal-setting.  They both use one of the more commonly recognised goal-setting frameworks: SMART.  This is a framework that you are probably familiar with from work or school, which makes it easy to apply to your fitness life. SMART says that goals should be:

Agreed upon
Time bound

So, while goal-setting is practiced in the fitness sphere as a tool for making progress.  I still wonder: how effective is fitness goal setting?


Image from fitness magazine of girl swinging kettle-bell
Fitness magazines think we should set goals…

Goal setting for Physical Activity

The majority of academic studies on goal-setting and its efficacy have been performed in workplace settings.  There is rigorous evidence that shows the positive effects of goal setting on individual and group performance (see, for example, Locke & Latham 2006). There have also been plenty of studies about goal-setting for athletes.

But, the picture is not so clear for us average Joes and Janes.  There have been fewer studies than you might think that that explore goal-setting specific to physical exercise and healthy eating behaviour change.

In 2004, Mical Kay Shilts and her colleagues published a paper called: “Goal Setting as a Strategy for Dietary and Physical Activity Behavior Change: A Review of the Literature”.  In this paper they summarised the existing literature on this issue.

They found only 13 peer-reviewed studies that discussed the effectiveness of goal-setting for physical activity and dietary behavior change.  And, of these 13 studies, just 8 showed goal setting had a statistically significant positive effect on either dietary or physical activity behaviours.

Shilts and her colleagues agreed that this provided “moderate evidence” to indicate that fitness goal setting was effective for adults who were undertaking behaviour change in either diet or physical activity levels.  And they concluded:

On the basis of these findings, practitioners should apply goal-setting strategies fully when promoting dietary and physical activity behaviour change with adults (Shiltz 2004: 92).

It seems that there is value in me setting specific fitness goals for my sportsing adventure.  But, what sort of goals?

Image of fitness competitor from magazine and her fitness goals
What were her fitness goals, I wonder?

What are Outcome Goals?

Outcome goals are the type of goals that probably spring to mind when you think of goal-setting.  Some examples might be: lose 10lbs or beat your husband at badminton.

Studies have shown the effectiveness of outcome goals on motivation levels.  But, do outcome goals always work to motivate us?  Not necessarily.  In fact, setting challenging outcome goals will only motivate if the individual has the existing ability and knowledge on how to complete the task (see Winters and Latham).

Whether you are motivated to complete a challenging goal is related to your existing knowledge and ability to do it.

According to Locke and Latham:

Focusing on reaching a specific performance outcome on a new, complex task can lead to ‘‘tunnel vision’’— a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it

What are Learning Goals?

If setting a challenging goal can be detrimental to both performance and motivation, then what should we do?  Instead of looking at specific outcomes, as beginners we should be adopting a “learning” state when setting and working towards goals.

A learning goal is one where we set ourselves the challenge of skills improvement before goal attainment.

To take the example of beating your husband at badminton: instead of focusing on beating him, why not focus first on task mastery? Ask yourself honestly: how’s that backhand? Let’s focus on learning some skills first.

Pile of fitness magazine covers discussing fitness goals
Fitness magazines like to discuss fitness goals

What skills should I seek to learn?

So my core aim for the sportsing journey is to “love exercise”.  This was always a rather large and complex goal!  But, even breaking it down I found myself coming up with goals like “deadlift 60kg” and “run 5km in 30minutes”.  These specific fitness goals have a part to play in motivating and encouraging a fitness journey, I’ve no doubt of that. But, they are not for now.  I am a beginner.  To all intents and purposes, I am pretty brand-new at this exercise lark.

For the next 12 weeks I will be adopting a “learning state” and trying not to focus on outcome goals.   I’m going to work on my skills.  But, what skills?

Thanks to a great article by Dick Talens (Fitness is a Skill, not a Talent), I have been able to identify three skills for fitness that I am going to focus on for my first 12 weeks of sportsing adventure:

  • Knowledge
  • Mindfulness
  • Discipline and Habit Building

What are my goals?

With developing these skills in mind, I have come up with a list of fitness goals that I am committing to  between now and the 9th of June 2017 (12 weeks).


Skill:       Knowledge

Goal:     Plan and complete 3 sportsing adventures where I try a new form of exercise.


Skill:       Mindfulness

Goal:     I will commit to the following two simple tasks and use “mindfulness” to examine any cheating!

  • I will always choose the stairs over the lift when given the choice
  • I will always walk to and from home to the train station instead of taking the bus


Skill:       Discipline and Habit Building

Goal:     I will learn about the importance of consistency by committing to participating in 9 out of 12 parkruns in the next 12 weeks.


What do you think? Do you think fitness goal-setting is a good idea?  Do you think outcome goals may be de-motivating? Will you be setting learning goals?

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