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How often have you set out to achieve a health and wellness goal, only to run into roadblocks, stumbles, and missteps with the need to start over again? How many times have you said you’ll start again on Monday? Or next month? Or next year? It can be frustrating, but with the right goals in place from the start, it doesn’t have to be.

Most of the barriers that are likely to make someone give up on a program actually stem from a goal that was out of reach in the first place. I’ve always told my clients that appropriate, realistic goal setting is the very crux of your fitness and nutrition plan — and the secret to making sure you can stick with it for the long haul. Your goal is how we decide the intensity of your program, what it entails, and how to adapt it as we go along to ensure success.

Here’s how to set a realistic goal that you won’t abandon.

Let go of the most common unrealistic goals.

Whether you’re new to fitness or have been trying to go after the same goal for years, there are a few common pitfalls to look out for as you set forward on your path, including focusing and judging your progress on goals that aren’t practical. Below are the unrealistic goals we hear from clients most often:

I want defined abs.

Why it’s unrealistic: There are a few body types and shapes that allow more leanness in the midsection, but for most, the belly area tends to hold stubborn fat. While it’s important for overall health to keep belly fat in check (since it’s tied to metabolic disorders and negative health outcomes), seeing ab muscles directly underneath the skin often requires an unhealthy low level of body fat.

I want to lose 1 to 2 pounds every week for the next few months.

Why it’s unrealistic: When it comes to the scale, your weight can lie, and the number you see might not be the best reflection of how you look or feel. The composition of your weight (fat, muscle, fluid, and more) matters more than the weight itself for most — if not all — health and wellness goals. Plus, our metabolism changes as our body’s change, and the rate of weight shifts can vary week to week and certainly month to month. There’s no formulaic approach to results, and every single journey has ups and downs.

I want to lose weight right here.

Why it’s unrealistic: Targeted spot reduction will always be evasive. While certain hormones can cause weight in some areas to be more stubborn, focusing on overall body composition, muscle gain, and fat loss will yield better results that are more attainable. There’s no such thing as losing weight in just one area, such as the thighs, upper arms, or other common areas people tend to focus on. Instead, prioritize the big picture of overall health to support a healthy body composition, and then use your lab results to make specific tweaks to build upon that foundation.

Get specific and measurable.

Out of the hundreds of clients I’ve had the opportunity to coach and train, most of them came to me for the same reasons: They want to tone up, get rid of belly fat, and feel better.

These are great starting places, but without a bit more specificity, you’re unlikely to achieve those goals. How will you track progress? How will you know if your program is working? When are you “there”? Whether you use a tape measurer for circumference measurements, a body-fat assessment, or how your clothing fits as an indicator of progress, be sure you have an outcome measure that is more objective.

Instead of generally aiming to tone up, think “I want to achieve a healthy body composition.” (This can range from as low as 8 percent in a 20-year-old male to the mid-20 percent range for a female in her 60s.) Or, instead of wanting to simply feel better, consider shifting your goal to be “I’d like my energy in the mid-afternoon to be a 10/10 without relying on caffeine or sugar.”

Ditch the “one pound per week” mentality.

If you’re trying to lose fat, let this sink in: Weight loss will never be linear.

You’ll have weeks where you feel dialed in with all of your healthy habits, but when you check in on the scale, it either didn’t move or went in a direction you didn’t expect. That’s normal.

Physiology and metabolism are complex, and your body is not a math problem. Hormones, fluid shifts, and digestion can all impact what the scale says. As mentally challenging as it might feel at first, remember that the scale is not always an accurate barometer of your efforts.

This goal-setting technique also applies to athletic pursuits and personal bests with exercise: Your run times might not get faster every week. Your bench press might not get stronger every week. Sleep, recovery, stress, and illness can all cause temporary plateaus or occasional setbacks.

Keep your timelines flexible and instead, focus on tracking weekly and monthly progress and celebrating how far you’ve come (instead of how far you think you have to go) to stay motivated. Plotting it visually on a chart or graph is a great way to check your progress at a glance.

Focus on habits. Monitor outcomes.

We all know consistent habits ultimately drive outcomes, yet it’s common to see people hyper-focused on the outcomes alone.

In goal setting with clients, I like to work with them at different stages of their program to build out a list of habits to focus on next. At the start of a program, the habits might be around a few key areas, such as cups of water per day, inclusion of protein at each meal, number of daily steps, or amount of weekly resistance-training workouts. As the program advances, we might focus more on advanced strategies, such as total training volume and amount of weight lifted, carbohydrate timing, and specific foods tailored to their hormone profile.

We focus on physically tracking consistency in these outcome-driving habits, whether that be on paper or through an app such as the Life Time Training app. With regular habits, we’ll then also monitor the objective outcomes.

I find that this is refreshing for those who have tried to achieve the same goal year after year, but feel as though they’re failing at it. If your habits are consistent and your desired outcome isn’t happening, it’s a program failure, not a person failure.

And the good news? Programs can (and should) be tweaked and changed as time goes on to support results.

Consider the trade-offs.

The initial goals I hear clients report are usually pretty aggressive. Perhaps they want to run a mile faster than they did in their 20s, or fit into a size of clothes they’ve never worn during their adult life. At times, the goal sounds impossible. But in most cases, the goal is possible, but what it takes to achieve it hasn’t been fully thought out.

I often like to review what trade offs would have to happen for an aggressive goal to be hit. Most people don’t realize the sweeping changes in lifestyle or significant sacrifices required for a desired outcome. Something like washboard abs might sound great — that is until the requirements to get them involve missing out on important social events to ensure your workout program is completed, or forgoing dinner dates with your spouse because your plan might never allow for restaurant food or alcohol.

This is the reason that the best coaches break large goals down into smaller ones. It allows you to assess each stage of change and the habits it took to get to an outcome, allowing for the flexibility to decide if you’re willing to make more change for more outcome.

Essentially, this route helps you assess whether or not what you’re doing is maintainable in the long run, and allows the end goal to be a moving target based on the trade offs needed to get there.

Find your “why.”

Your “why” is your meaningful driver of the change you want to make. Having it built into your goal setting will make you more likely to stick with your program when motivation feels low.

Whether or not we’re consciously aware of it, there’s always an emotional force of some sort behind any goal. It often can be an insecurity we’re trying to address, a fear stemming from either our own or a loved one’s health issues, or a strong desire to perform or win.

Let’s take weight loss as an example. Three different people can have the same weight loss goal, but one person may be getting ready for a vacation and want more confidence at the beach. Another may want to get leaner in an effort to avoid the diabetes complications they saw their parent suffer through. And yet another may be a former high school athlete who felt more winded than expected when playing hoops with their teenager.

It takes time and vulnerability to determine your “why,” and you might need to dig deep to question the reason you’re wanting to change. However, it’s time well spent. Once you identify your “why” (if you haven’t yet), write it on the same sheet of paper as your goal as a visual reminder.

Wrapping Up

As we head into the holiday season and New Year, it’s common to start thinking through and setting goals to go after. If you’re like most, the challenges of this year have thrown a wrench into your health and fitness plan. As a result, there may be some tanking energy levels, unwanted changes in how clothing fits, and levels of stress that you’re anxious to address.

Realistic goal setting might not be as grandiose and glamorous as the out-of-this-world imagery you might initially have in mind about what you’d like to achieve. But if you’re in tune with your “why,” dialed in with controllable habits, regularly monitoring your outcomes, and adjusting your program as needed, it’s guaranteed to be life changing.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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