How to set and achieve fitness goals

By setting a larger goal, and then breaking that down into smaller achievements you can check off as you do them, you'll hit your fitness stride in no time.
By James S. Fell, CSCS
How to set and achieve fitness goals Getty Images

Vanity is not a bad thing. When it's used properly, a little bit of vanity can be good for your health. For example, a number of women have been prompted to quit smoking not because it destroys them on the inside, but because it causes wrinkles.

Some people take it too far, like bodybuilders who focus solely on achieving what they perceive as an aesthetic ideal, health and physical performance be damned. So feel free to embrace a bit of vanity. Just don’t go overboard.

Personally, this is where my fitness motivation comes from:

  • One-third vanity focused (looking good)
  • One-third health focused (things like cholesterol, decreasing cancer risk, blood pressure, etc.)
  • One-third physical performance focused (how fast I can run, how much I can lift, how much energy I have, etc.)

I think this is a good approach, and the three motivations are mutually inclusive. Although I (and my wife) like being able to see my abs, I won’t do something stupid like take ephedra to burn a few more pounds off my midsection. But I will cut back on junk food and beer to stay slim, and this is beneficial to my health.

So think about what you want to achieve in terms of vanity, health, and physical performance. Get this idea in your mind. Write it down, even. This is your “outcome goal.”


Set outcome goals
Outcome goals can be motivating. They keep you reaching towards achieving something. Personally, I believe in aiming high, so that if you only achieve 80 percent of your goal you still feel like you’ve done something awesome. I also like pushing outcome goals. This means that if you achieve them, then don’t just focus on sustaining it, but reach for a higher level. The best way to do something like sustain fitness is trying to achieve a higher level of fitness.

But to achieve the outcome, you need to focus on the process. In other words, you need to make sure you achieve your process goals.

Set process goals
Process goals are things like a weekly workout schedule. For example, you can create a list of exercises that you plan to achieve this week. It can be two Pilates classes, a 10K run, and an hour of karate. If that’s on your list for this week, this is the process you go through to help achieve your ultimate outcome. To achieve the outcome, you must go through the process. You must tick off these process goals as “done” each week, week after week, month after month.


And the process goals should be progressive.

How incremental changes add up
I’m a big believer in the power of increments. For example, I spend a lot of time exercising, and I go hard too. This was not always the case. When I started running just a few kilometres would make me hurt from the eyebrows down, so I gradually pushed my distances in small increments over time to the point where I run about 50km a week in the winter, and 30km in the summer (I run less in the summer because I add in lots of cycling once the snow is gone). I also spend lots of time lifting weights now — far more than what I did when I started. I also do it at a much higher intensity that when I started.


It’s okay to start small and slow, as long as you focus on incrementally pushing the following:

  • The length of time spent exercising
  • The frequency with which you exercise
  • The intensity at which you exercise
  • The difficulty level of the types of exercises you engage in

Just to give you an idea of the power of increments, consider this: If you start off with just 30 minutes of exercise a week, and then add only five minutes of exercise each week, in a year you will be up to exercising almost five hours a week, and that’s awesome.


Put your fridge to work
So, how do you make sure you achieve the process goals? Well, there are a few motivational tips you can get from this article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, but you can also use the power of the fridge.

Right now you may think, What the hell is he talking about?

Allow me to tell you a short story. I’m training to run a 10km race in under 40 minutes and writing about it for the LA Times. It’s going to be a near thing, and the training is brutal. My coach (who used to coach the Canadian Forces cross-country team and once ran a 10km in 31:18), gave me an Excel spreadsheet of a running schedule and I winced when I saw it. Still, I knew I had to follow it closely to achieve the under-40-minutes time (an outcome goal), so I printed that schedule of process goals off and stuck it to the fridge so I would see it several times every day. And I made a vow that I would tick off each of those scheduled runs.


My family got involved too. My young daughter would push me out the door so she could tick off the process goals on my running list.

In conclusion, figure out what your outcome is, then get a plan for the process you need to follow and create monthly calendars of activities that you stick to the fridge. Then relish in ticking each of the process goals off, and you’ll hit that desired outcome.


James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Email James at


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