ARSE Objectives: A Smarter Way To Set Health And Fitness Goals

February 26, 2018


No doubt goal setting is something you’ve already done before, either in project management, performance management or personal development? Then you might also be familiar with SMART goals. The acronym SMART was originally introduced to aid management processes in business. However, it’s been widely adopted for use in the fitness industry too:


Specific – your goal must be detailed rather than vague;


Measurable – you must be able to quantify your progress;


Assignable – you must be able to assign the process or parts of the process to an individual;


Realistic – your goal must be something you can achieve, given the access you have to relevant resources;


Timely – you need to put a time limit on your goal; when do you want to have achieved it by?


Now depending on your motives for training, there may be very good reason to follow the SMART goal setting approach. For example, you’re getting married in 3 months’ time and you want to loose 5kg before the big day. Or you’re competing in your first bodybuilding competition in 12 months time and you need to build muscle and drop your body fat to 10%. Or you need to be able to do 20 push-ups by the time you and your friends compete in the next ‘push-up challenge’ in a month… In other words, if your goal is easy to measure and there’s a fixed timeframe in which you want to achieve your goal by, then go right ahead and follow the SMART approach.


But what SMART goal setting doesn’t take into consideration is what happens afterwards. Great, you nailed it: You look smokin’ hot in that wedding dress, but when you look back at the photos again in 6 months time, will you still be going to the gym? Will you still feel full of energy? Will you still weigh the same if you hop back on the scales?


While this approach might work in business (you needed to get that report written and handed in on time, but it doesn’t matter what happens now it’s done), in my opinion it’s this short-sighted approach to our health and fitness that is responsible for all the failed diet attempts, the weight re-gain and the general dissatisfaction with nutrition and exercise that so many people experience... Did you know that only about 20% of overweight individuals that successfully lose weight then maintain that weight loss for at least 1 year?[1},[2] As an industry we’re failing the very people we claim to care about… and who pay our bills. Rather than feeding you ‘quick-fix’ diet and exercise plans with zero consideration to the sustainability of our recommendations, we need to take more responsibility to ensure the long-term success of our clients.


Introducing my ARSE approach to establishing training objectives:


Adaptable – are your plans adaptable, do they take into consideration that there might be setbacks along the way? There’s nothing quite like time-bound expectations that you fail to deliver on to make you feel like giving up altogether. Appreciating and accounting for the fact that life can throw the unexpected will help you weather the setbacks and encourage you to focus on the progress that has been made so far.


Recognition – why flog yourself continually for x number of months, only to have a blow out right at the end? The reality is that you’re in this for the long haul. You’ll be making small achievements right the way along your fitness journey, so notice these and celebrate them spontaneously as they occur.


Sustainable – unless you really don’t care about what happens after you’ve achieved a specific goal, you’re going to have to come up with a health plan that lasts. Rather than that top-down, crash-diet, daily-10km-run routine you’ve tried before, this means a bottom-up, habit breaking and habit reforming process where you steadily introduce new practices that you can maintain for life. 


Enhancing – the health objectives you set need to enrich your life. This could be through improving your self-esteem, your confidence, your wellbeing or your happiness for example. At its core, your objective must be something that comes from inside you. In other words, what you’re doing should be governed by intrinsic motivation; you’re not doing this for somebody or something else, you’re doing this for you.


Hopefully now you can see the differences between the two styles of ‘goal’ setting, and how each might be suited to a particular scenario. I’ll leave it up to you to think about how you might like to set your own intention for training.



[1] Wing, R. R., & Hill, J. O. (2001). Successful weight loss maintenance. Annual Review of Nutrition, 21, 323-41.


[2] Wing, R. R., & Phelan, S. (2005). Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 82(1), 222S-225S


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