Fad diets don’t work. Research proves they are not realistic, manageable, or sustainable for the long term. Thanks to an increased awareness of the importance of following a healthy lifestyle, coupled with the growing number of health practitioners (dietitians, nutritionists, doctors and fitness professionals) available, individuals are seeking support and guidance to achieve their health goals. As fitness professionals, you can guide clients to set personal health goals that are realistic and achievable, thus influencing a long-term shift in dietary and exercise habits.
- Understand the characteristics of realistic health goals.
- Learn how to set realistic health goals with clients to ensure their success.
- Recognize the most common pitfalls to achieving realistic health goals.
With the number of obese and overweight individuals, coupled with associated health problems on the rise (Center for Disease Control, 2014), as well as an ever-present media awareness of this health crisis, people are becoming increasingly aware of the critical importance of maintaining a healthy weight. As a fitness professional, you’re likely seeing more clients who are looking for a quick-fix diet when motivated to make a health change. Studies continue to prove that fad diets are not realistic, manageable, nor sustainable for any meaningful duration of time (Bacon & Aphramor, 2011). In order for the client to keep their weight from creeping back up, long-term lifestyle changes are required. By setting dietary goals with your client that are not focused on weight loss and “dieting” but rather on successfully practicing healthy eating habits and healthy body image, long-term health can be achieved.
Why Goals Fail
“I will not eat dessert for the month of February.” “I want to be slimmer.” “I will exercise more.” These statements are a common claim that an individual looking to overhaul their diet and eating habits might make. However, statements of this kind can lead the individual into goal-setting pitfalls. These goals do not have a concrete plan and do not set your client up for success.
When one proclaims that dessert is banned from our diet for an entire month, dessert is suddenly a temptation looming everywhere we turn. And when attending a good friend’s birthday five days into the desert-free month, your client is suddenly faced with a challenge, likely followed by an “exception” to the goal. “I’ll let myself have cake just for this one night.” Once the goal is broken, their focus shifts and the goal becomes that much harder to follow. Discouragement and disappointment in oneself becomes the focus, rather than the other positive work that has been done (eating well for 5 days up until that slice of cake)—and that feeling of having failed even once can lead to a complete unraveling of their goal.
While “I will not eat dessert for the month” is a goal with a set time limit, “I will exercise more” is an example of a pitfall of a non-specific timed goal. The individual has a goal in mind, but there is no plan on how to get there. How much exercise are they currently doing? What result do they want to achieve by exercising more? A plan to build strength looks different from one to build muscle definition, increase stamina, or lose weight. Without a plan there can be no accountability, no follow through and no way to measure achievement of the goal. And that makes it easier to walk away from the goal all together.
Characteristics of Successful Goals
Goal setting can be used effectively to manipulate change in health behaviors of your client when they are able to: accept and understand the goal; reference the goal in the periphery of their mind as they make decisions throughout their day; have positive control over the outcome; achieve the goal; and set an extension of the goal to continue to work towards. In order to attain the aforementioned goals, the goals themselves must be written successfully (Locke & Latham, 2006).
Goals including, “I will do 30 – 45 minutes of cardiovascular activity 6 days per week,” “ 50% of my lunch will consist of leafy green vegetables,” “I will reach for a piece of fruit instead of a packaged cookie/chip/cracker when I feel hungry and need a snack,” are goals that are specific, realistic and achievable. When faced with goals outlined in detail like this, your client is not only able to achieve them, but feels empowered to continue to make positive, small changes towards a greater health goal. The goal of losing 25 pounds that once seemed daunting and unachievable, is suddenly viewed as not quite so overwhelming. The focus shifts away from losing weight to shifting habits in daily lifestyle that will eventually lead to the weight loss.
1. Goals that are S.M.A.R.T. are goals that work
S.M.A.R.T. goals are ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, relevant and timed. When goals that are not “S.M.A.R.T.” are set, failure to attain desired outcome can occur, leading to discouragement, frustration and general feeling of failure. Rather than saying, “I will eat more fruit,” “I will eat a piece of fruit with my breakfast every day,” will lead to greater success because it is S.M.A.R.T.
This notion relates to a goal being realistic. When your client sits down and thinks of everything they cannot have, the task at hand seems even more daunting than it already is. They dwell on the forbidden—and in turn crave it more. A more successful approach would be to make a list of everything that should be brought into the diet. For example, a non-restrictive list could include healthful foods, which must make up the basis of every meal, or a list of all the different types of exercises that can be done to meet the 30 minute per day goal. Have your client focus on what they are adding to their diet or routine (such as more leafy green vegetables, fiber, healthy fats), rather than what they are subtracting.
3. Reinforced and quantifiable
Quantifiable elements are important to achieve goals. Seeing an increase in the number of minutes of continuous running they are able to complete, or going down a size in clothing reinforces positive behavior by your client—help them set up elements within their goal that can be quantified, and define how (and when) they’ll be measured. Along the way, it’s equally important for your client to receive your praise and acknowledgement for work completed to reinforce good behavior (Shilts, Horowitz, & Townsend, 2004).
Reinforcement also relates to a goal being measurable. When your client is able to measure their actions, they are able to see themselves attaining their goal. Bringing back the example of adding a piece of fruit to breakfast, if they are asked to record their breakfasts they are adding another level of accountability to following their set goals. They are able to look back and see if they did in fact follow they goal and then able to build off that goal and set a new one.
Interventions with goal setting allow long-term health plans to be met in realistic and reachable ways. Goals set by your client and guided by you, a fitness professional, ensures the goal will be able to be successfully attained and empowers your client to create a goal that works for them. Writing down the goals, tracking progress, and having continuous support helps reinforce good behaviors, and instills long-term motivation and confidence in their ability to make lifelong changes to their health.
Center for Disease Control. (2014). Overweight and Obesity. Accessed on 1/9/14 from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
Bacon L, Aphramor L. (2011). Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal. 10:9. Accessed from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3041737/
Locke E, Latham G. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Association for Psychological Science. 15 (5): 265–268
Shilts MK, Horowitz M, Townsend MS. (2004). Goal Setting as a Strategy for Dietary and Physical Activity Behavior Change: A Review of the Literature. Science of Health Promotion. 19 (2). 81-93 Accessed from: http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/shiltsm/pdf/Goal%20setting%20review%20PDF.pdf