I didn’t want to gain or lose 10 pounds. I didn’t want to work out X number of times per week. I wanted to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
When you’re thinking about good fitness goals and New Year’s resolutions, it’s easy to get locked in by what you think a goal “should” be. People set weight loss goals, right? People try to work out a set number of times per week, right? It’s easy to focus on those things.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Goals are important. Setting goals is proven to help you achieve more  because goals help you strategically pick the right actions, help you put in more effort, and keep you motivated over time .
Having good fitness goals can help you push through feeling too tired to go to the gym or feeling uncomfortable because you aren’t sure what to do.
But goal setting isn’t actually about the goal. Coming up with random numbers or ideas is one place where goal setting can go wrong. It’s more important to know your vision: the way you want your goal to change your life.
I wanted to be ripped and confident. Say what you will about Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club; he was both of those things.
Trying to set good fitness goals without understanding how they are meaningful to you personally is a great way to set weak goals.
But do it right and you can use goal setting to lose weight, increase physical activity, and increase motivation.
Good fitness goals are about how you want to live
Let’s use the goal “lose 10 pounds” as an example.
Even though it sounds specific, losing 10 pounds is actually super vague. Are you losing 10 pounds of fat? Losing 20 but gaining 10 pounds of muscle? How are you losing it? If you lost 5 pounds of fat but gained 20 pounds of muscles, would that be the same?
And the real question: how will this make your life better?
In training, training other people, and helping people work out better, I’ve heard a lot of reasons that people want to work out. There are common exercise goals, but they don’t always relate directly to exercise. Some examples are:
- People that feel uncomfortable in their bodies, who have never looked in the mirror and liked what they saw
- People who have aches and pains that are finally becoming too much to deal with
- People that want to be better with women
- People that have unhealthy family members, and don’t want to go the same way
- People that just want to push themselves to be better
Those are the things that matter. Those are good fitness goals. To get motivation through goal setting, focus on them.
It isn’t about chasing a number on the scale. It’s about the first time you turn around and catch someone shyly looking away because they were checking you out.
It’s about realizing that carrying groceries the 6 blocks back to your apartment isn’t as hard as it used to be.
It’s about the newfound confidence you carry with you in everyday life.
Your answer to the question “how will this make my life better” might be different, and that’s a good thing. It should be different because it should be yours.
So ask yourself: what are your fitness goals, and how do they relate to the life you want to lead?
You should never need to look somewhere else for fitness goal ideas. If you have to ask “what should my fitness goal be,” take a step back and ask what’s important to you.
As always, there’s some research about this.
The Psychology Behind Good Fitness Goals
I already mentioned some research showing that goal setting helps you do things better. But not all goal setting is created equal.
In order for a goal to be good, you need to be committed to it (kinda duh). And you commitment goes up when you think your goal is important .
Another way to increase your commitment is to make your goal your own . If you have a role in shaping your own goal, you’re more likely to be committed to it and follow through.
That’s one reason I advise people not to blindly follow cookie-cutter programs: your goals are more effective when they are yours.
Reminding yourself of why your goal is important can make it yours, increase your commitment, and improve your results
But be careful
When I talk about knowing your personal vision, I don’t mean blindly fantasizing.
Somehow the self-help community got the idea that “visualization” is a great thing. You’ll hear people recommend spending some time every day imagining your ideal self in front of a mirror.
And that does not work. In fact visualizing has actually been shown to make you LESS likely to achieve your goals .
Habits expert James Clear argues against goals and in favor of systems:
If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?
The idea behind understanding your personal vision is to have something to work towards and strive towards. It helps you understand where you want to go so you can set up a system to get there.
The idea behind visualization is to make you feel good for a few moments. That doesn’t help you actually do stuff.
If you do want to visualize, focus on the process instead of the outcome. People that imagine themselves working towards their goals do better than people that imagine achieving their goals .
In the same research people with negative fantasies actually can do better! Imagining the challenges you’re likely to face makes you less likely to crumble when you actually face them.
What You Can Do Right Now
There are two things you can do to start developing good fitness goals.
- Write down three ways your life will be better if you achieve your exercise goal.
- Write down three challenges you’re likely to encounter (bonus points if you include ways to deal with them).
The more specific the better. “Be more confident” isn’t as good as “be more confident so that I can bring up my ideas at work meetings.” “I don’t have time” isn’t as good as “I’m tired after work and it feels like I have million things to do before I even think about working out.”
And if you want to know more about how to achieve your fitness goals, check out these two:
- Why Do You Set Unrealistic Goals?
- Don’t Just Do It – A 5 Step Technique to Consistently Go to the Gym
 Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 663-676.
 Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5, 117-124.
 Latham, G. P., Winters, D. C., & Locke, E. A. (1994). Cognitive and motivational effects of participation: A mediator study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 49-63.
 Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 167-175.
 Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198.