Setting Realistic Health Goals

It’s finally 2021. And with every New Year comes resolutions and goals for the year ahead. But do you know how to set an achievable goal for you or your family?

I recently asked a teenage patient what goals they would like to work on and got the response: “to lose weight.” It’s not an uncommon goal, but unfortunately it’s also not a realistic way to approach said goal. So we continued to dive into this during our visit.

I asked questions like: What specific steps would you have to take to lose weight? What do we feel is manageable at this time? Why is this goal important to you? What are realistic and age-appropriate weight-loss goals?

[Read: How to Reset Your Healthy Diet.]

It’s important to note that sometimes in a child or teen, weight maintenance alone is an appropriate goal. I find that those who make broad goals and then don’t achieve them (specifically weight loss) end up frustrated and discouraged, which affects their long-term success. Setting too high of a goal (like losing 10 pounds in a month) can hinder you from ever reaching your long-term desires. Instead, I guide my patients toward manageable goals that they can reach and feel proud and accomplished about. This leads to more long-term success and increased goal meeting.

So how do we make these goals? Well, be SMART. That stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely.

Specific. A specific goal is simple, sensible, and strategic. Something you can easily conceptualize and put a name to. Among other things you will ask yourself, what do I want to accomplish and why is this important to me?

Measurable. A measurable goal can be just that, measured. You’ll be able to see if you’re making progress as you go, and then you’ll know when you’ve accomplished your goal. It’s good to have numerous measurements along the way.

Achievable. An achievable goal is realistic and attainable. It’s something genuine that you can accomplish in a timely manner.

Relevant. Ask yourself: Is this goal relevant to me? Is this the right time, and will it help me meet my needs to move forward in life?

Timely. A timely goal is one that can be accomplished within a certain time frame. You can adjust this time frame as needed and make new goals when you accomplish the first. But if you don’t have a timeline on a goal, it’s more likely it will not be reached.

[See: The 10 Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

As an example, let’s consider my patient as a case study: a 13-year-old girl who would like to lose weight. We need to assess where she is to start. She’s likely still getting taller and going through puberty. If her BMI is within the overweight range, she may only need to lose a few pounds over three to six months, or even just slow down the weight gain progression that’s been occurring.

If her BMI is higher, and she’s having medical complications, we may set a different goal. But if this patient wants to lose 30 pounds and it’s not where her body should be, meeting that goal will never make her feel good (mentally and physically).

The next step is to figure out: What steps will lead to the desired weight loss? We’ll talk through a few, such as:

— Eating 1 to 2 cups of vegetables with dinner every night.

— Replacing sugary beverages with water, flavored water or unsweetened tea.

— Scheduling meals and snacks.

— Setting a realistic exercise goal.

Small goals such as these are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant, and they can be accomplished in a timely manner. After my patient worked on these for a month, I would help her reassess, which is a necessary part of the process.

SMART goal setting can apply to anything, not just weight loss. For example: goals to gain weight and grow for pediatric patients; goals to work through disordered eating behaviors; goals to improve sports performance; and goals to improve diabetes management or take care of a specific disease.

Your goals in the New Year may not even be health related. Maybe you want to find a new job, explore a passion or care for your friends and family differently. Whatever it is, be sure to make smaller more attainable goals to start. Setting all of your goals for the entire year at one time isn’t realistic and hasn’t been shown to work.

[READ: Healthy Travel Snacks for Car and Road Trips.]

Instead, take it day by day, and goal by goal, and you’ll find more happiness and fulfillment long term. You can still look toward the bigger picture while setting smaller stepping-stone goals to get there.

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