Secrets for Setting Realistic Fitness Goals, And Sticking with Them

Expert advice for setting and sticking to effective goals that get results

Flickr/ex_magician CC by 2.0

It’s a fitness tip we hear time and time again: make sure your fitness goals are realistic.

For example, don’t expect to lose 10 pounds in one week (it’s more realistic to lose about one or two pounds per week) or bet on drastically cutting your marathon time down after only a few weeks of training.

The theory absolutely makes sense and it’s advice we should all follow, but since we all have varying starting points and, of course, different goals, how exactly can we tell the difference between a goal that’s manageable and one that’s extremely out of reach?  

To help shed some light on the subject, we asked fitness expert Jeana Anderson Cohen, an ACE certified personal trainer and founder of to weigh in.

The Active Times: What are some of the issues that arise when we set fitness goals that are “too lofty”?
Jeana Anderson Cohen: The key to achieving your goals is setting “SMART” goals, or goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-boxed. Forgetting any one of these key components will make a goal feel much less possible. If you can’t visualize yourself completing what you’ve set out to do, it’s hard to get yourself to put in the work to get there.

What are a few good ways to gauge how realistic your goal is?
When a big goal is realistic, it can be broken into smaller pieces and chipped away at over time.

When it comes to weight loss, a good gauge to understand whether your goal to lose a certain number of pounds in a certain amount of time is attainable is to create a weekly weight loss goal that is healthy and sustainable—generally speaking, two pounds each week. Once you have that number, you can divide the pounds you want to lose by your weekly weight loss goal and arrive at an amount of time it will take to feasibly achieve that goal. After that, achieving the weight loss goal comes down to putting in the work at the gym and making the right choices in the kitchen.

If you have your sight set on a goal that’s not immediately attainable, what steps can you take to work your way towards it?
A goal that isn’t immediately attainable, but is eventually achievable is a great goal to have, as it allows you to set your sights on a bright horizon. First, understand your ultimate objective. Next it’s important to figure out the time it will take your body to do what you want it to do. Finally, make a feasible plan to get you to your goal.

When it comes to something like running a marathon, your body is unlikely to go from running your very first 5k today to running a full marathon injury-free next week. But with a program like Hanson Running or Nike+ Run Club, you can go from running a 5k to a marathon in four months if you follow the plan and put in the work.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest mistake that people make when setting fitness goals?
I hear a lot of, “I really want to …” followed by things like “… lose 10 pounds” or “… be able to do a pull-up” or “… get to the gym more.” The biggest mistake in goal setting is stating your goal without making a plan, which is as effective as making a wish.

In your opinion what’s the most important factor to consider when setting fitness goals?
The plan to get to the goal is the biggest factor in the achievement of that goal. If you know that you want to work out more, write down an achievable plan for how you’ll do that. That might mean starting by going to the gym three days each week and taking a class then increasing that number to four days each week and working with a trainer for two of those four days. Understanding how you’re going to get where you want to go is just as important as knowing where you want to be.

What are some of your top tips for sticking to a plan once you’ve set a goal and a start working towards it?
Allow yourself to make some mistakes and learn from them. If you’re not forgiving of yourself when you don’t make one of your workouts because a work deadline interferes, you may not approach that as an opportunity to learn. Instead of beating yourself up and falling entirely off track, ask yourself, “How can I avoid this in the future?” and adjust your plan accordingly. 

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