Setting S.M.A.R.T. Fitness Goals to Overcome Mental Hurdles

Cherilyn McLester, PhD
Cherilyn McLester, PhD
| Stay Updated with NASM!

Exercise is often associated with physical exertion and adaptations such as weight loss, improved athletic performance, and increased strength. However, one thing that these variables all have in common is that they are not mindless.

In other words, there is a significant psychological aspect of participating in frequent physical activity.

People often take part because they value the countless benefits of regular exercise and other factors such as feeling a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when they reach expected outcomes.

The Goal Setting process

Many times the desired result is defined by having a goal to reach. Therefore, goal setting is considered a psychological tool that active individuals use. The goal-setting process involves identifying something you want to accomplish and then establishing a plan for how that will happen.

This process helps individuals prioritize the behaviors that will help them achieve a goal and can result in exercise becoming a part of their regular schedule.

In fact, a review of studies that utilized multiple aspects of goal setting in physical activity interventions found that, in general, setting goals and providing regular feedback about progress were effective for increasing overall physical activity (McEwan et al., 2016).

3 Different types of goals: Outcome, Process, Performance

The effectiveness of striving for goals has been known for decades, where people tend to perform better or achieve more when goal setting has been implemented. There are several types of goals that people can set, which include Outcome Goals, Process Goals, and Performance Goals.

  1. Outcome Goals refer to the result that someone is ultimately working towards.
  2. Process Goals are the daily behaviors that need to take place to reach said goal.
  3. Performance Goals are the standards that someone needs to reach along the way to achieve the outcome goal. In other words, they serve as checkpoints to assess progress towards the outcome goal (be it cutting weight or lifting more).

While each type of goal is necessary when people have process goals in addition to an outcome goal, they tend to adhere to an exercise plan better than those who focus only on outcome goals. Process goals are associated with greater exercise enjoyment (Wilson & Brookfield, 2009).

Overall, these goals are inter-related as they collectively help shape the plan that ultimately meets a specific objective.

Examples of Outcome, Process, and Performance Goals

Let’s take the example of running a 5K race in under 24 minutes within three months.

  • The Outcome Goal is the long-term goal of completing a 5K in less than 24 minutes within three months.
  • The Process Goals refer to the behaviors that need to happen daily, including how often and how far to run, and what the pace should be. These goals should be flexible based on how the training progresses and allows for adjustments to be made when unforeseeable circumstances arise, such as travel or illness.
  • Performance Goals refer to milestones along the way, such as running a 5K each month to track progress towards completing that distance in under 24 minutes, for example, running a 5K in 28 minutes after one month and 26 minutes after two months, leading up to the 5K in under 24 minutes at three months. Performance goals are helpful to gauge if the appropriate plan is in place, and if the outcome goal is feasible.

These different types of goals help establish what someone wants to accomplish and what the necessary steps are to ensure success.

People can apply these three types of plans to nearly any fitness goal, including weight loss, performance during athletic events, and increasing strength or function.

What are S.M.A.R.T. Fitness Goals?

Once the different types of goals are understood, the next step is to set appropriate goals systematically. Many individuals use the SMART acronym for goal setting, which stands for:

  • Specific: The goal should be clear and precise while also serving as a personal motivator.
  • Measurable: The goal should be something that can be objectively measured so that you can accurately track progress.
  • Achievable: The goal should be realistic enough to obtain yet challenging enough to push someone beyond their regular routine.
  • Relevant: The goal needs to feel important to a person and align with other fitness-related aspirations.
  • Time-bound: This provides a deadline and will help people stay on task and keep the outcome goal a priority.

S.M.A.R.T Fitness Goal Examples

For example, wanting to increase strength is a rather vague goal that is not attached to something specific that can be measured over a period of time.

So, while becoming stronger may be an important goal, the SMART goal acronym can help define the goal(s) so that the appropriate steps are taken to ensure success. Expanding to improve strength for a recreational exerciser, increasing a 10-repetition maximum bench press by 10lbs in 6 weeks would fit the SMART goal setting technique.

It’s a highly specific goal, it can be easily measured, you can realistically achieve it in the specified amount of time, it's relevant to someone who wants to increase strength, and it’s time-bound.

While there is not a clear consensus about exactly how challenging goals should be, it has been observed that having moderate to challenging fitness goals tend to produce better results (Moon, Yun, & McNamee, 2016).

However, it should be noted that there also needs to be a desire to accomplish the goal. A person must have the necessary skills to increase intensity or initiate a new behavior. By establishing an outcome goal to strive for, it becomes possible to create a plan that includes process and performance goals that will support the likelihood of success.

setting Realistic Goals requires thought

Goal setting is a genuinely cognitive process, meaning it is something people need to think about, and the goal needs to be something they value. The process provides an opportunity to strategize and determine which behaviors you need to add, remove, or adjust to achieve the goal.

Once goals are set, actions need to happen, and this is where the reality of barriers, motivation, and self-regulation becomes evident.

Fitness goals are often challenging due to the time that needs to be invested and the physical exertion required. Therefore barriers to exercise can easily cause frustration and delay results. Even those with the best intentions run into obstacles when it comes to achieving fitness-related goals.

Common Challenges for SEtting Effective Fitness Goals

Some of the most common barriers to exercise for which individuals have some control include but are not limited to:

  • Lack of time (not having enough time between work, family, and social obligations)
  • Lack of energy (due to busy schedules and not getting proper rest)
  • Lack of motivation (difficulty prioritizing physical training above other leisure time activities)

One way to overcome these hurdles is to revisit the goal and adjust as necessary. First, make sure that the goal is specific, but not overly complicated, and that it’s a reasonable outcome to expect based on the work that can be accomplished in the time frame that has been set.

When in doubt, consulting with a certified fitness professional can provide an objective opinion regarding the feasibility of individual fitness goals.

How to Find Time for Fitness

When lack of time is a barrier, try the following:

  • Evaluate how time is spent throughout the day and rearrange the schedule so that exercise has a designated slot.
  • Combine or delegate errands when possible to free up some time.
  • Exercise early in the day so that unexpected schedule conflicts are less likely to cause a missed workout.  

Fighting Through a lack of energy

When lack of energy is a barrier, try the following:

  • Attempt to get proper rest each night by sticking to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Make sure food and beverage intake consist of healthy and balanced choices.
  • Exercise early in the day before exhaustion sets in.

Finding Motivation

When lack of motivation is a barrier, try the following:

  • Reassess the importance and relevance of the goal.
  • Confirm that the outcome goal is meaningful, and achieving it will have a positive impact.
  • Make sure the process goals consist of activities and exercises that are enjoyable.

Motivation refers to the direction and intensity a person puts into a given task, making it a crucial component to achieving goals. Inspiration comes in many forms where some people are intrinsically motivated and enjoy the process of reaching a goal.

In contrast, others are extrinsically motivated by earning rewards or external recognition for accomplishing a goal, and many individuals have both types of motivation.

The bottom line is that motivation comes from within, and while others can provide information and encouragement, they cannot establish the motivation for someone else. Therefore fitness goals must be personal and meaningful to each individual.

See also: 5 Fitness Motivation TIps to Get and Stay Motivated

The importance of self-regulation

While motivation often takes center stage, another essential consideration is self-regulation, which refers to how much control someone has over their emotions and behaviors to achieve goals.

For example, there is evidence that individuals who are more effective at self-regulation tend to put difficult tasks earlier in the day (Delose, vanDellen, & Hoyle, 2015).

This suggests that people who have good self-control recognize that specific tasks, which are perceived to be difficult, should occur first so that other competing interests don’t interfere.

For individuals who do not effectively self-regulate and find it challenging to accomplish a regular physical activity, one solution is to tackle that task early in the day to ensure that it happens.

In conclusion

Overall, goal setting is an excellent tool for novice and experienced exercisers alike as it can provide the necessary structure that will lead to success.

Even when goals prove to be more challenging than anticipated, several cognitive considerations can help reprioritize daily responsibilities or influence adjustments to the current outcome, process, or performance goals.

One of the main things to remember is that goal setting is a fluid process where the result should be that something meaningful has been accomplished.


  1. Delose, J. E., vanDellen, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (2015). First on the list: Effectiveness at self-regulation and prioritizing difficult exercise goal pursuit. Self and Identity, 14(3), 271-289. doi:10.1080/15298868.2014.983442
  2. McEwan, D., Harden, S. M., Zumbo, B. D., Sylvester, B. D., Kaulius, M., Ruissen, G. R., . . . Beauchamp, M. R. (2016). The effectiveness of multi-component goal setting interventions for changing physical activity behaviour: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 10(1), 67-88. doi:10.1080/17437199.2015.1104258
  3. Moon, D.-H., Yun, J., & McNamee, J. (2016). The effects of goal variation on adult physical activity behaviour. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(19), 1816-1821. doi:10.1080/02640414.2016.1140218
  4. Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 89-100. doi:10.1080/1612197X.2009.9671894

The Author

Cherilyn McLester, PhD

Cherilyn McLester, PhD

Cherilyn McLester is Professor of Exercise Science at Kennesaw State University with over two decades of experience in the fitness industry. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from San Diego State University and her MS and PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of Tennessee. Her current teaching and research interests include the physiological and psychological aspects of exercise participation.


Start Your Fitness Career Today

Become A Top-Notch Certified Personal Trainer

A NASM advisor will contact you to help you get started.

Get Started