Goal Setting for Long-term Wellness

Setting goals can help you achieve long-term, positive changes in your health and well-being.

By Diana Price

At my local gym, there is a bulletin board mounted on a wall on the fitness floor, onto which gym-goers tack notes that describe their exercise, weight loss, or other well­ness goals: “Run a marathon this year!”; “Get to the gym three days a week”; and “Getting in shape to keep up with my daughter!” are just a few of the affirma­tions I noticed on my most recent visit.

But what does it take to move beyond the bulletin board and make a commit­ment to health and well-being? How do we take the initial enthusiasm for a fitness or nutrition goal and carry it through long term to make lasting lifestyle change?

Why Set a Goal?

Jessica Matthews, a certified health coach through the American Council on Exer­cise, says that goal setting enables a de­fined focus for those who want to improve their health and wellness. “Goal setting is a critical component of achieving change,” she says.

If making general resolutions to improve health or fitness has failed in the past, set­ting a goal can establish a measurable tar­get, which, when supported by a realistic, systematic approach, can help a person achieve success. Jessica says that, ideally, setting a health or wellness goal will result in long-term behavior change to ensure on­going benefit.

Get SMART about Goal Setting

Raise your hand if you have ever set a pie-in-the-sky goal: a New Year’s resolution to “get skinny,” “be more fit,” or “never eat another bite of chocolate” (oh, the terror!). If your hand is in the air, consider a differ­ent approach to goal setting: the SMART way. SMART goals are those that are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound. This approach is ideal for those making wellness goals because they inspire you to think critically about the de­sired result and set a target that is realistic and meaningful for your unique lifestyle.

As a health coach, Jessica says that she col­laborates with clients to help them develop goals that fit the SMART criteria. As a first step, she says, goal setters should consider their personal history with meeting health and wellness objec­tives and what they really want to achieve: “One of the main things I do is really listen to what the person’s experiences have been with health and fitness in the past (where they’ve had successes and challenges), what their lifestyle is like, and what they are interested in doing.”

After establishing this essential background, specific attainable goals can be set on a realis­tic time line. For instance, if you can currently jog about a mile but want to run more regularly to increase fitness, you might choose to register for an organized local 5K race, which provides a reasonable target date and allows you to mea­sure your progress.

Consider the Big Picture

Considering all of these elements that contribute to your individual wellness profile can allow you to discover the motivations behind health hab­its, which can help identify the behavior changes that will have a long-term impact.

For instance, Jessica says, if you have tried and failed to meet goals in the past, you may not have confidence in your ability to succeed; work­ing through that mental roadblock to change is an important step in reaching a desired out­come. “People are so quick to engage in negative self-talk,” Jessica says. “Dissecting that inter­nal monologue and learning to recognize when those distorted patterns of thinking get in the way allow us to reprogram the conversation to overcome that block and create lasting change.”

Strive for Sustainable Success

You have done the work to think through your goals and make a plan. Next up: showing up and doing the work for the long haul—and knowing it won’t happen overnight.

Acknowledging the value of this long-term commitment to your goal is essential. Restric­tive diets and extreme fitness routines are not sustainable and can be dangerous. Jessica works with her clients to debunk the myth of the quick fix and to implement lifelong healthy habits. “Managing expectations is important when you’re trying to create lasting behavior change and set yourself up for success,” she says.

Got A Goal?

Set yourself up for success.

Integrate these practical steps for success into your daily routine for long-term change.

Schedule Your Workout. Jessica says that sched­uling exercise is one way to reprogram the way you think about fitness and health: “Changing the mind-set to treat workouts like you would any other appointment or meeting is key. If you have a doctor’s appointment, you don’t miss it; but often the workout doesn’t have the same priority. Shift your mind-set about the priority value you attach to exercise.”

Be Flexible. Rigid rules and restrictive programs are not sustainable. Recognize that you are going to encoun­ter situations that require flexibility and that occasional detours from your regular routine will not keep you from meeting your goal. “If you go to a party and have a piece of cake, don’t consider the day a loss,” Jessica says. “Don’t be hung up on a rigid schedule—just strive to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.”

Establish Cues. While making the mental commitment to a healthy lifestyle lays the groundwork for achieving your goals, integrating visual reminders into your daily life can help spur success. “Environmental cues go a long way toward creating long-lasting change,” Jessica says. “Especially helpful: put your gym bag right next to the door so it’s ready to go in the morning; if you know a food is a trigger food, don’t keep that food in the house; use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate to encourage smaller portions.” All of these cues can help support ongoing behavior change.

Rethinking Wellness:  Joanne’s Story

Joanne knew she needed to make significant lifestyle changes to improve her health and well-being. Having struggled in the past to achieve nutrition and weight-loss goals, the 58-year-old—who was managing diabetes and heart health challenges—wanted to “get her well-being on track.”

“I wanted to establish a regular routine of physical activi­ty and an easy-to-follow system for making healthier food choices that would support my health and well-being,” Jo­anne says. But with a history of emotional issues related to her weight and food habits, and confused about conflict­ing information about the best diet and exercise plans, Joanne felt she needed some expert help.

Enter Jessica, who, as a health coach, worked with Jo­anne to help her define her goals and devise a strategy for success. The first step, Joanne says, was a thorough discussion about the various factors affecting her health: “Jessica asked me questions about my past experiences with exercise, about emotional issues I struggle with re­lated to my weight and nutritional habits, as well as other questions pertaining to my lifestyle, preferences, habits, and bigger personal life goals.” With a thorough under­standing of Joanne’s history, Jessica was able to collabo­rate with her to develop a plan that was personalized and reasonable and would effect lasting change.

Joanne says that working to understand and revise her mind-set around food and exercise has been essential to her success: “I no longer let my emotions get in the way of making good choices around eating and exercise. I’ve re­alized just how much my mind-set has negatively impact­ed my health and well-being over the years.”

This understanding of the power of the mind-body con­nection, together with the expert insight into nutrition and fitness that Jessica has provided, has set the stage for success. “My overall wellness has changed dramatically,” Joanne says. “I look and feel healthier, and I am getting mentally stronger each and every day.”