How to set (and achieve) realistic fitness goals


When I was in 6th grade, I made a burger costume for Halloween by myself. I planned the whole thing out; I made sketches, listed out all of the materials I needed, and set a budget. In my original plan, my costume was going to be 7 feet wide, even though I was only 4 ½ feet tall at the time, and I was going to spend $200 on materials. Then, I showed my plan to my parents. To make a long story short, I did not end up spending $200 to make a 7-foot wide hamburger costume. As ridiculous as that sounds now, when I was 11, I thought it was totally realistic. I hadn’t gone to college, had a job, done taxes, paid bills, or learned the value of money yet. I also hadn’t been aware of the fact that most 11 year-olds are incapable of building enormous, mascot-sized costumes by themselves. In all fairness, nobody had told me that truth, so I thought it was still possible. Ultimately, I ended up wearing a 2 ½ foot wide hamburger costume on Halloween that year, and I think I only spent about $30 or $40 on materials for it (all paid for by my parents, of course).

Though this is a silly example of unrealistic goal setting from my past, it is all too common for people to set goals like these for fitness, especially if they are new to fitness in general. For instance, imagine a girl who had previously been a couch-potato her entire life, but has all of a sudden gotten really into running. Now, let’s imagine that she can currently run a mile in 10 minutes. However, she has recently set a goal, and it is to get her mile time down to 7:30 in a month. Realistically, will she be able to drop a whole 2 ½ minutes on her mile time in a month? If you are already a runner, you would probably not think that it is realistic. However, if you are not a runner, you may not have been sure if it was an attainable goal or not. Why? Because people who call themselves regular runners are familiar with how the training works, and how their bodies respond to it. If you don’t know what it’s like to run regularly, you may not have an accurate sense of how much training and time it takes for you to improve by that much. If you do run regularly though, you are familiar with the true rate at which you can improve because you have already experienced the training firsthand, which is why you won’t think dropping 2 ½ minutes on your mile time in a month is realistic.

Of course, if you are a newcomer to any area of fitness, you might be wondering how you can set the most realistic goals. You might be wondering, “What is a realistic fitness goal for me, and what isn’t?” As someone who has set far too many UNrealistic fitness goals in her life before, here are some tips I’ve learned over the years on how to set goals that are realistic, no matter what the area of fitness is.

Set “micro” goals. Let’s say your long-term goal is to run 10 miles straight without stopping. This goal is engrained in your mind, and you think about it every single time you run. Right now, though, you can only run ¾ of a mile without stopping. However, if the only goal you are thinking about is running TEN miles straight, don’t you think that’s going to spur some negative thinking. “Shoot, I can only run THREE-QUARTERS of a MILE, but I want to run TEN miles without stopping! I suck!” Nope, wrong, you don’t suck. In order to keep these negative thoughts out, you need to break your long-term goal into smaller goals first. Before you can run 10 miles straight, you need to be able to run 5 miles straight, and before you can do that you need to be able to run 3 miles straight, and before you do that you need to be able to run 2 miles, and so forth. Instead of thinking about how you want to run 10 miles straight, you should first set a goal to run 1 mile without stopping. You can set as many “micro” goals as you want on the way to achieving your big goal. Attaining lots of small goals will keep you more motivated.

Give yourself as much time as possible to train, or don’t set a time limit at all. This one is more difficult if you’re a high school athlete doing off season conditioning, or if you’ve already signed up for a race or other competition that will be happening soon. If this is the case for you, try to give yourself as much time as possible to train. Why? So you will have enough time to adjust to the intensity of training you will be doing. Even for low intensity sports, such as yoga, your body needs time to get used to doing it. Having experienced this phenomenon more than enough times myself, if you set a short time limit for yourself to accomplish a certain fitness goal, no matter what that goal is, there’s a good chance you’re going to injure yourself. Taking the time to build up your strength will be completely worth it, and it is much better to do that than to risk injuring yourself.

Don’t forget about the rest of your life. As exciting as it may be to start working towards a new fitness goal, there are also certain times in our (busy) lives where it may not be ideal to train as hard as we possibly can. Let’s say you are taking a full course load in school, but it is especially important for you to keep your grades up this semester so you can raise your GPA. Having been in this situation before (more times than I would have liked to), I’ve learned that sometimes you have to work your fitness goals around your lifestyle. There were times where as much as I would have wanted to train for a 5k, I had to accept the fact that I only had time to do a few light workouts a week. While some people may be able to handle it, I’m sure that if I’d done intense training every day during some of my tougher semesters, I probably wouldn’t have had enough energy to study or do my homework (I know this because often times I barely had enough energy to do these things without a workout on top…..typical college student). In short, work towards your goals, but don’t feel bad if there are times where you can’t make it your first priority.

When in doubt, always ask for advice from someone who is more experienced at the area of fitness you want to improve at. I would always recommend asking for an honest opinion on your goals. To go back to my costume example when I was in 6th grade, I had a goal and a plan for it, but when I shared it with my parents, they gave me (brutally) honest feedback on it (“There is no way you are going to spend TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS on a Halloween costume! There is also no WAY you will be able to build a 7-foot wide costume yourself! You are 11 years old!”). I won’t lie, it did suck at the time to have my parents tell me that my goal was foolish. However, imagine if I had my own money, no obligation to listen to my parents, and a driver’s license at that age. If my parents had not voiced their honest opinion on that costume, I probably would have blown a ton of money on materials AND attempted to actually build a 7-foot costume. Something tells me that it probably would not have turned out incredibly well. This same reason, though, is why you should always ask for an opinion on your fitness goals, especially because if you over-train, you could injure yourself (not fun, trust me). If you go to a gym regularly, seek out a personal trainer or someone who specializes in the area of fitness (such as running, swimming, weight lifting, yoga, basketball, tennis, etc.) you are trying to get better at.


Have you ever set an unrealistic fitness goal? How did you learn to make your goals more realistic? Have you tried any of these tips before and have they helped? Let me know in the comments below!


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