Setting SMART Goals for Weight Loss

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Have you resolved to lose weight in the New Year? You're not alone. Weight loss is one of the most popular resolutions we make at the beginning of January. But by February, many of us will already have quit our programs. So what's the difference between a successful resolution and one that is doomed to fail? The way you define your goal might hold the key to success.

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Watch Now: How to Set S.M.A.R.T. Weight Loss Goals

Why Goals Matter

No diet or weight loss program will work until you set a goal for success. A solid goal serves as a roadmap for the entire weight loss journey. Without this guide, you're like a driver who hops in her car and starts driving without any idea of where she is going. You're not likely to go far until you quit and go home.

So how do you set a goal that keeps your program on track? Many coaches, trainers and lifestyle experts use a process called S.M.A.R.T. goal setting to set up programs for their clients. The system is used often in corporate settings because it helps workers to define clear strategies and outcomes for their success. But it can be useful for accomplishing any goals, including weight loss goals.

How to Set a SMART Goal

Let's walk through a typical weight loss resolution and apply the S.M.A.R.T. goal strategy. As an example, we'll use a common weight loss-related resolution:"I want to lose weight in the new year." Now let's adjust this goal using S.M.A.R.T. guidelines. Each letter stands for a different element. 

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Use this process as an example, then tailor your own goal using the same principles. Notice how the starting goal is adjusted for each element until the final goal is a S.M.A.R.T goal.

Specific

Avoid setting goals that are too broad. The first step in your goal-setting process is to refine your goal into a specific accomplishment or milestone that you'd like to reach. One way to help refine your goal is to speak to your doctor. If you are considering weight loss, your doctor may be able to tell you how losing a certain amount of weight will improve your health.

You may be able to reduce your risk for disease or reduce dependence on medications if you slim down to a specific goal weight or BMI. If your weight does not affect your health, you may set a specific goal to lose the amount of weight that you gained over the past few years or during the holidays. 

Keep in mind, however, that setting a goal to lose a certain amount of weight is specific, but it may not be realistic.

Even with consistent and reasonable efforts you may not be able to achieve a certain weight goal. So setting a specific behavioral goal may be a better approach. A weight-loss related behavioral goal might include specific dietary changes or changes to your daily activity.

Adjusted resolution: "I will increase my daily activity by walking for 20–30 minutes every morning."

Measurable

In order to track your progress during the weight loss journey, the goal you set needs to be measurable. Define how you will measure your success as you move through your journey.

For example, some people who are trying to lose weight may choose to monitor their BMI (body mass index). People who have access to body composition tools may choose to monitor body fat percent.

If you've chosen a behavioral goal (such as our example goal) you can track your progress on a calendar or spreadsheet.

Many fitness apps and activity trackers also offer different ways to measure your daily habits. Be specific about which measurement you will use.

Adjusted resolution: "I will increase my daily activity by walking for 20–30 minutes every morning. I will track my progress by using my Fitbit tracker and check my dashboard once each week."

Attainable

To make your weight loss goal attainable, you should evaluate your past history with weight loss or habit changes. For example, if you've never been able to lose more than ten pounds, then a weight loss goal of 30 pounds might not be reasonable. Or if you've set a goal to exercise every day and you've never hit that goal for more than a few days, then a daily exercise goal is probably not attainable.

Remember that once you reach a goal, you can always set a new one.

All goals should be challenging but they shouldn't be so difficult that they are overwhelming. Cut yourself some slack and adjust your goal so that it is reasonable. 

Adjusted resolution: "I will increase my daily activity by walking for 20–30 minutes at least 4 days each week. I will track my progress by using my Fitbit tracker and check my dashboard once each week."

Relevant

Your goal needs to matter in your life. Defining why the goal matters may help you stay motivated when complacency sets in. For example, if you visited your doctor at the beginning of your weight loss process, write down how weight loss will affect your health.

You might want to slim down to fit more comfortably in your clothes. Or you may want to reach a healthy weight in order to stay more active with your children or grandchildren.

Define how your goal is relevant in your life and remind yourself of these reasons when you are tempted to quit.

Adjusted resolution: "I will increase my daily activity by walking for 20–30 minutes at least 4 days each week. I will track my progress by using my Fitbit tracker and check my dashboard once each week. Increasing my activity level may help me to lose weight and reduce my risk for diabetes. It will also help me to move more comfortably when I go hiking with my friends."

Time-Bound

Each resolution should have a time limit. That is, you should decide on a reasonable amount of time that you'll take to reach your goal. If you've set a goal that is weight-related, keep in mind that a 1-2 pound weight loss per week is generally considered healthy weight loss, although at the beginning of any change, people tend to lose quicker.

If you've set a behavioral goal, designate an end-date when you will check in with your progress and make adjustments or add challenges as needed.

Adjusted resolution"I will increase my daily activity by walking for 20–30 minutes at least 4 days each week. I will track my progress by using my Fitbit tracker and check my dashboard once each week. Increasing my activity level may help me to lose weight and reduce my risk for diabetes. It will also help me to move more comfortably when I go hiking with my friends. I will re-evaluate my goal in 8 weeks and increase my walking time or make adjustments so that physical activity on most days of the week gradually becomes a lifestyle habit."

A Word From Verywell

Even though S.M.A.R.T goal setting is a critical step in your weight loss journey, it is not the only step in your weight loss process. Once your goal is in place, create a plan and then put your plan into action to start accomplishing your goals. Find a diet that works best for you to start a program at home.

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Article Sources
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  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Setting goals for weight loss.

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Setting goals and developing specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound objectives.

  3. US Department of Health and Human Services. Aim for a healthy weight.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Losing weight. Updated February 2020.