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Why SMART Goals Might Not Be Smart for Exercise

What science and experience tell us about this popular approach to sustainable behavior change.

The Joy Choice book

Let’s take a step back and consider whether SMART goals are what we or our clients need.

SMART goals are all about, well, setting goals. And goal setting is important because we need to know where we’re headed if we intend to get there. Widely promoted change strategies like SMART goals can be great for some things, such as in business settings. But they can easily misguide many of us who care about adopting complex lifestyle behaviors like healthy eating and regular exercise. Let me explain.

Like many change strategies, SMART goals assume we do things in logical ways—that our goals are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-sensitive—but as decades of research shows, in real life many of us, including our clients, typically don’t.

We now know that our memories and past experiences with exercise fundamentally influence our future choices. These below-the-surface forces are the powerhouse when it comes to influencing our actions in the moment, and they easily overpower our neatly organized and logical intentions and plans.

Because we are human, we tend to avoid pain and reach out for what feels good. SMART goals are admirable, but they have nothing to do with whether we experience certain behaviors as a chore or a gift on a gut level. Getting specific can help in some situations, but it won’t change the problematic relationship with exercise that our clients often have. Converting eating and exercise into allies for life is more central to creating sustainable change than trying to plan— and then execute—specific goals.

Here’s another problem: SMART goals don’t set our clients up to think flexibly when their exercise plans need to change—something that is thought to be important for creating lasting change. SMART goals get everyone so focused on a specific goal that it is all too easy to do nothing when life upsets their plans. (And let’s be honest, how often doesn’t this happen?)

So, despite their extreme popularity, I don’t believe SMART goals will help most of our clients achieve lasting changes in behavior. And I’m not alone! Others have been talking about this too. Recently, I came across a newly published paper critiquing the value of SMART goals for physical activity. Although the authors discussed eight separate problems with SMART goals, I will only highlight three of them here:

The SMART approach is not based on scientific theory. Parts of SMART are actually not consistent with what research shows is needed when it comes to physical activity goal setting.

The traditional SMART approach omits any focus on people’s “why” for being active. If you’re familiar with my earlier work described in my first book, No Sweat, our “why” is our motivational North Star. A “why” that guides us to pick activities that feel good and resonate with our core values keeps us on track. But a “why” that feels controlling or obligatory leaves us (or the people we work with) seeking reasons to skip it altogether. Consider the ways in which a single SMART goal can easily transform into another “should.”

Finally, and importantly, some research finds that SMART goals actually undermine physical activity participation among less active individuals—the very individuals who tend to be our clients and are most in need of effective strategies!

On the surface, the story of behavior change we have been taught, including setting SMART goals, seems to make a lot of sense. But once we begin to think more critically about the assumptions that underlie this story and the popular change strategies that are its protagonists, we can begin to see that these logical goals may be actually endangering our clients’ success. If we over-focus on the goal-setting tip of the iceberg, we will inevitably collide—again and again—with the much larger forces lying just beneath the surface.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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