Aging; Diet and Nutrition; Prevention

Be SMART about setting health-related goals

Aging; Diet and Nutrition; Prevention

Health goals and new year's resolutions written in a date book.
Health-related New Year’s resolutions often fail because they're too big, too vague, or there are simply too many of them to achieve all at once.

It’s that time of year when we all start making (and breaking) our New Year’s resolutions – more than half of which are health related.

There are many reasons people don’t follow through on the goals they set on Jan. 1, but most often it’s because they’re just too big and overwhelming, or too vague to achieve.

A common example: “I want to lose weight.”

While the intention is commendable, weight loss is actually a result of a series of smaller, more self-contained goals that involve many factors.

Big goals like reducing your stress may be best achieved by focusing on one area at a time – setting and building on sustainable SMART goals:

  • Specific: Describe exactly what you are going to do.
  • Measurable: Provide a way to evaluate success.
  • Attainable: Make sure you have the time and resources you need.
  • Realistic: Make sure it is an achievable, sustainable goal.
  • Time-bound: Set a start date, frequency, and deadline.

The SMART concept was developed in the early 1980s by a management consultant as a simple and effective way for companies to define objectives and measure their success. The framework is easily adapted to goal setting in other areas, such as personal health.

Each time you set and achieve a smaller SMART goal, you build the confidence and skills to take the next step, attaining bigger, yet sustainable health changes.

Talking with a Lifestyle Medicine specialist can help you get started on the right path when setting SMART health goals. UT Southwestern’s team includes experts in exercise science, internal medicine, and culinary medicine. We’re always here to help you along the journey.

Let’s discuss a few common goals we hear from our patients and how SMART goals can help you reach them.

Exercising Eating Sleeping Drinking Meditating
Specific Walk more every day. Add more fruit to my diet. Get 1 more hour of sleep nightly. Drink less alcohol or sugary beverages. Begin a daily meditation practice.
Measurable Walk 15 minutes after work on weekdays. Add a serving of fruit to breakfast daily. Go to sleep 15 minutes earlier each night. Consumer no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per week or replace one soda a day with water or tea. Try a meditation app for 5 minutes each weekday morning.
Attainable Set reminders on my calendar. Add variety of fruits to grocery list. Turn off TV or put down my phone an hour earlier and read a book instead. Trying other drinks will be fun. Many guided meditation programs and apps are free.
Realistic I can find 15 extra minutes daily to walk. Cut up and store fruit so it's easy to add to breakfast. Changing bedtime gradually is easier than doing it all at once. I'm not eliminating alcohol or soda, so it's doable. Set a reminder on my phone or calendar.
Time-bound Start tomorrow, re-evaluate in 6 weeks. Start tomorrow, re-evaluate in 3 weeks. Start tonight, see how I feel in 4 weeks. Start tomorrow, see how I feel in 4 weeks. Start tomorrow, assess progress in 4 weeks.

'I want to be more physically active'

We all know that moving more is better for our health. Study after study shows that living a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, some cancers, and obesity.

You don’t need to be able to run a marathon to gain the benefits of exercise, although if you do run a marathon, good for you! Studies show that “movement snacks” – bite-sized bursts of exercise throughout the day – can be just as effective as lengthy workouts.

Your SMART goal could be: I will walk for 15 minutes after work every weekday for one month.

SMART goals can easily be scaled to your current health and fitness level. If you are not confident in your ability to walk 15 minutes each day, you could start with five minutes. If you’re already walking 15 minutes each day, move it up to 25 or 30 minutes. After the month is over, you can evaluate your progress, add on to your goal, and increase the time or intensity of the walk.

'I want to eat healthier’

A healthy diet has many benefits, such as reducing your risk of diabetes and heart disease. And there are a lot of paths you can take to change your eating habits:

It’s tempting to make drastic changes to your lifestyle, but lasting success will come when you resolve to make gradual changes.

Your SMART goal could be: I will add a serving of fruit to my breakfast every day for the next three weeks. The fruit could be an apple in the morning, a smoothie made with frozen blueberries, or topping your cereal with sliced bananas. After three weeks, evaluate how successful you were in this goal. You may want to continue working on it, or you may be ready to add on another healthy change. Either way, you’ve made a step toward eating healthier.

‘I want to get more sleep’

Every year, new studies emerge emphasizing how important sleep is to all aspects of our health. For example, sleep deprivation has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and mental illness. Adults should get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Your SMART goal could be: I will get an extra hour of sleep each night by going to sleep 15 minutes earlier each week for one month. You can start small, by turning off the TV or putting down the phone earlier each night to make it easier to fall sleep.

Alter or add to the goal after the month is up to help you get to the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Related reading: Get more sleep with good sleep hygiene

‘I want to drink less (alcohol or soda)’

“Dry January” has become an annual tradition for some people over the past decade. The concept is that with the holiday revelry behind us, we start the new year by reining in alcohol consumption. You could apply the same idea to sugary drinks such as soda or sweet tea.

If Dry January isn’t your thing, just try reducing the amount of alcohol or sugary beverages you consume for a month.

Your SMART goal could be: I will have no more than one alcoholic drink each week for four weeks. Or, I will replace one soda a day with water or herbal tea.

Again, this is an adaptable goal based on how much you usually drink, and you may find a healthier substitute – even a non-alcoholic or light beer or a sugar-free energy drink.

‘I want to reduce my stress’

Life can be full of stressful moments, but chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease.

One tool that has proven effective for managing stress is meditation. However, meditation cannot be learned or mastered in a few days. It needs to be practiced regularly until it becomes an innate part of your daily health routine.

Your SMART goal could be: I will use a meditation app for five minutes when I wake up each weekday for four weeks.

There are hundreds of free guided meditation apps and websites to choose from. If one doesn’t work for you, try another until you find one that suits you best.

Related reading: Making meditation work for you

A few final thoughts on healthy SMART goals

I like to think of goals as experiments. Experiments don’t always work, but you learn from them, and adjust the next experiment.

As you work through any SMART goal, try thinking of it as an experiment – not a task to be achieved. Continually evaluate your experiment, modify and improve it as needed, with the ultimate outcome being a healthier and manageable lifestyle.

There will always be obstacles. Making long-lasting change is difficult. But having the courage to make even a small change is the first step. And those small steps can add up to big, positive changes in your health.

Don’t forget, we’re here to help. To learn more about how you can make and reach your SMART health goals, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online