In order to successfully lose weight and keep it off, you need to set goals to make sustainable lifestyle changes a reality. But goal-setting is an art in itself, and vague pie-in-the-sky resolutions like “get in shape” or “lose 30 pounds this year” are rarely enough to keep your motivation up for the long haul. They also don’t give you the framework you need to take action.
That’s where SMART goals, or goals which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, give you the roadmap you need to be successful. “SMART goals are motivating because they provide a clear timeline and performance standards which can be challenging, yet attainable, for you to work toward,” explains Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology master’s program at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. “Because they’re specific and measurable, they also allow you to monitor your progress and adjust your goals accordingly along the way.”
HOW TO SET AND TRACK SMART GOALS
1. CHOOSE A GOAL TRACKER
First, you’ll need to create a visual reminder of your goals and progress such as a habit-tracking chart or app, says Chu. Apps like MyFitnessPal help you track your eating habits, hydration, step count and more. You can also try HabitShare, an app that allows you to share goals with friends (a research-backed motivation boost), or Habitica, which gamifies good habits with a magical avatar.
2. MAKE TIME FOR GOAL TRACKING
“The key here is consistency,” says Ryan Maciel, RD, certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition Level 2 Coach at Catalyst Fitness & Performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If you don’t make an appointment to focus on your health, fitness, and nutrition, you will put it off.” Take a look at your calendar and schedule a time to sit and reflect on short- and long-term goals daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Even if it’s only a 5-minute block, you can build up to 10 minutes and more over time, he says.
3. BE FLEXIBLE
After setting goals, “you should also track your thoughts and feelings because some actionable steps may need to be changed if you don’t enjoy them,” says Chu. Don’t be afraid to adjust your approach as needed. For instance, if you find yourself repeatedly skipping solo sweat sessions, you may need to change up your exercise routine, find a workout buddy, or join a group fitness class to reboot your motivation to show up.
4. SET SMARTER GOALS
As you review your progress, set SMARTER goals (aka new goals after evaluating and revising your initial SMART goals) to help you set a goal that’s more achievable if you failed to reach the original goal or to continue progressing if you were successful.
Chu recommends checking on short-term goals at least once a week and revisiting medium- or long-term goals at least once a month. “Reviewing goals at the end of the week, month, quarter or year is a good habit because psychologically it signifies the end of something, which can give you more motivation for what’s next,” he says.
6 SMART GOALS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Now that you have the tools you need to set goals and track your progress, try adding one or two of these slim-down goals to your list each week.
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: “Tracking what you eat can help you learn about the calorie and macronutrient content of your typical diet and help point out excesses and deficiencies in an objective way,” says Liz Wyosnick, RD, a private-practice registered dietitian and owner of Equilibriyum in Seattle, Washington. Ultimately, you want to learn what meals and snacks can help you reach your calorie goal without feeling hungry all the time.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Use the MyFitnessPal app and take notes on how you feel after meals, such as: “I felt hungry after lunch, so I’ll add more fiber and protein to my meal tomorrow” or “1-cup serving of nuts put me way over my target, so I’ll try 1/2 a cup next time.”
WHAT TO DO NEXT: Use what you’ve learned as a guide to hit calorie goals as you move forward, whether by continuing to use a food journal or adopting intuitive or mindful eating practices.
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: “Often, low-level dehydration can be the culprit for low energy and can be confused for food cravings, causing unnecessary snacking,” says Wyosnick. Staying hydrated can help you avoid this problem and keep your energy up for workouts.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Find a reusable water bottle and figure out how much water it can hold. Then, place as many rubber bands around the bottle as it would take to reach your daily hydration goal (Think: A 24-ounce bottle = 3 rubber bands for 3 refills to reach 72 ounces). You can also track hydration on MyFitnessPal.
WHAT TO DO NEXT: “After you’ve created a habit around your daily water intake, look at other beverages,” suggests Wyosnick. Are you getting too many liquid calories from a doctored-up coffee drink, juice or alcohol? Experiment with changes to drink fewer calories, such as using a smaller cup or reaching for bubbly water instead of soda.
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: “The more fiber and water your meals contain, the more likely you are to become full and still meet calorie targets,” says Wyosnick. Non-starchy veggies like leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli and carrots are low in calories and high in fiber as well as health-protective nutrients that can keep your digestive system moving.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Use a meal-tracking app like MyFitnessPal or keep a photo diary of your meals.
WHAT TO DO NEXT: Expand your vegetable repertoire. Buy one new-to-you veggie per week, choose a different mix of salad greens or experiment with different cooking methods like roasting or grilling. “The more confident and adventurous you get with vegetables, the more of a mainstay they become,” says Wyosnick.
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: “People tend to skip lunch, which often leads to overeating at dinner or snacking on unhealthy convenience foods throughout the day,” says Tamar Samuels, RD. Batch-cooking over the weekend (or at a specific time that suits your schedule) can help ensure you eat nutritious lunches and hit your calorie goal. As a bonus, leave the weekend free to eat out for lunch.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Use a weekly self-care list or habit-tracking app to schedule meal planning for a specific date and time. To make it fun and stay accountable, Samuels recommends doing virtual batch-cooking with friends and cooking the same recipe together.
WHAT TO DO NEXT: If you struggle to hit this goal, try playing around with scheduling or cooking fewer meals, such as lunches for Monday and Tuesday, suggests Samuels. If you’re successful, set another goal to try a new recipe each week and experiment with new flavor profiles.
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: Walking more is a prime way to increase your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), or the calories you burn through living and day-to-day activities, says Max Grossman, a certified personal trainer and founder and director of Health Engineered. This is especially valuable for weight loss since you could be unconsciously reducing your NEAT — fidgeting less, spending more time on the couch — as your body attempts to preserve energy.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Use MyFitnessPal as a step counter or use a wearable device, such as a watch to record your steps. Each time you hit a daily or weekly goal, give yourself a gold star or sticker on a chart (Remember: Visual reminders are essential to keep your motivation up.) or mark your progress on a habit-tracking app.
WHAT TO DO NEXT: If you hit your weekly step goal, continue to level up by aiming to log 1,000 more steps per day the next week or adding a weekly exercise schedule. To ensure you’re adding steps, break this goal into walking goals such as a regular weekend hike in nature or morning walk. If you’re struggling to reach a step goal, give yourself some grace and make a SMARTER, more achievable goal (Think: Add 500 more steps per day rather than 1,000).
WHY IT HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT: “Using food occasionally for comfort is normal,” says Maciel. “However, if it becomes your primary coping mechanism, this can negatively impact your health and goals.” Having a list of go-to stress-management activities can help you learn how to better manage emotional eating and stick with a calorie goal for weight loss.
HOW TO TRACK IT: Using a habit-tracking app, schedule a specific time to make a list of activities to help break the cycle of emotional eating. During the week, each time you opt for an alternative stress reliever such as cleaning the house, reading a book or calling a friend to vent, record it. When you don’t, journal out why you turned to food for comfort, how you felt about it, and how you might make a different decision next time.
WHAT TO DO NEXT: If your initial list didn’t work, ask yourself what you’re feeling and what you need to do to come up with better coping strategies for the next week, suggests Maciel. If you were successful, set a new goal to develop a regular self-care routine.
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