Smart Habits
When setting diet and exercise goals, be SMART

When setting diet and exercise goals, be SMART

You’ve made the decision to improve your health through nutrition and exercise. Now what?

To be successful, our experts say you should start by setting specific and attainable goals.

“Having a vague goal like ‘eat healthy’ or ‘exercise more’ can end in frustration, because there is no clear starting point, no way to evaluate the feasibility of the goal, and no way to know if you’ve succeeded,” says Andrea Murray, health education specialist in the Cancer Prevention Center.

A good goal-setting strategy is the SMART goal checklist. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.

“Having a SMART goal allows you to define what you want to do and how you will measure your progress,” says Murray. As you develop your goal, ask yourself the following questions.

Is your goal specific? The first step in developing a good habit is to describe exactly what that new habit will be. Instead of saying you will eat more vegetables and fruits, your goal might be to fill 2/3 of your plate with non-starchy vegetables and fruits at each meal.

Is your goal measurable? Measuring your progress and holding yourself accountable along the way will help keep you on track. An online or paper journal is a great way to monitor your progress.

If you want to be more active, you might set out to walk for at least a half hour, five days a week, and write down your activity each day to track your progress. If you want to increase your daily steps, a simple pedometer can tell you how you are doing.

Is your goal attainable? Make sure you have the tools, information and resources you need to reach your goal. If a gym membership is out of your budget, a walking program like the one described above may be a better option for a fitness goal.

Is your goal realistic? Setting a goal that is realistic can help avoid setbacks and false starts. For example, if you know you hate to run, training for a marathon may not be realistic.

Aim for something challenging but not impossible. You can always adjust the goal later if it’s too easy. Long-term behavior change is more likely if you start small.

Is your goal time-bound? Goals without starting points and deadlines are easier to put off. Spell out when you are going to begin your new behavior or activity and how often you are going to do it. If you want to improve your diet, a goal could be to substitute plant-based protein for meat three meals a week beginning this Sunday. 

It’s not just eating healthy or exercising in the short term, but making long-term changes that may reduce cancer risk.

— Andrea Murray

health education specialist

It is important to evaluate your goals often and adjust them as needed to maintain your healthy lifestyle. Even if your goals are SMART, you may hit obstacles or fall back into old habits. Murray says just get back on track and focus on your successes.

“We encourage lifestyle changes,” she says. “It’s not just eating healthy or exercising in the short term, but making long-term changes that may reduce cancer risk. The SMART goals play into helping make those long-term changes.” 



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