How To Start Exercising For Beginners – Setting SMART Goals

Lightbulb with thought bubbles

Why Are Goals Important, Anyway?


One of the biggest questions people have when they finally decide to begin their fitness journey is, “Where do I start?” With so many options available, it can be tough to choose the direction in which to head.

However, when dealing with the issue of how to start exercising for beginners, my time as a personal trainer taught me that putting some thought into the process before even beginning to move is crucial to making fitness a lifelong experience.

Without goals, it will be difficult to achieve anything resembling results in your fitness journey. Goals help to keep motivation up, while also giving you something to target along the way.

There are several important things to keep in mind when setting your fitness goals, and I like to use the popular acronym SMART to zero in on what I want to achieve.

SMART stands for setting Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals.

Before getting to our SMART goals, I do want to give a word of caution to the beginning exerciser:

Go Big Or Go Home? Not So Much!

Sometimes beginning exercisers, especially those who may be overweight, set goals to get results fast and lean toward choosing more extreme methods of exercise.

However, getting too intense, too quickly is a mistake that is often made when starting to work out.

Insane, 90 minute workouts that promise to torch calories and torch fat in record time, can also torch your goals for getting healthy and staying healthy long-term.

To be fair, this type of training works for some people and it may even work for you. Yet, for the majority, there are several reasons why this path can be detrimental to your fitness journey.

  1. Too hard too early can sap motivation: Exercise is hard. Exercise is supposed to be challenging. However, for someone who is just starting out, their bodies most likely are not prepared for the stress of vigorous exercise.

I’ve used the example of a beginner walking into a gym for the first time and trying to lift heavy weights.

Because their body has not been given the chance to progress and work up to that point, the chances for failure are incredibly high. If you know you are going to fail, there is not much point in continuing the activity.

The frustration builds and not only can that lead to quitting your current program, but it can leave such a bad taste in your mouth that you are hesitant to make fitness a part of your life when presented the opportunity in the future.

  1. Higher risk of injury: Muscles need time and effort to get to the point where they are ready for more intense exercise.

Marathon runners are a good example of this. Were you to attempt stepping out of your door to run a marathon having not prepared yourself properly, there’s a pretty good bet you are going to sustain an injury of some kind.

In fact, in the story of where the modern marathon comes from, the guy who ran the twenty-six plus miles arrived at the end, shouted “Nike!” (the word for victory), and then promptly collapsed and died. Certainly not a “Nike” for him.

Additionally, proper form and technique is essential for not only getting the best results, but also protecting your body from being injured, whether weight training or not.

We need to slow down and be patient with ourselves, making goals that will lead of a “fit life” instead of a “fit week”.

Sustaining an injury in the early days of exercise, for the beginner, can make them overly cautious or avoid fitness altogether rather than risk another injury.

With that in mind, let’s get to our SMART goals!

S – Specific Goals For Hitting Your Target

If you were an archer, would you aim somewhere in the general direction of the target and hope for the best as you release your arrow?

Not even close!

You are going for the bullseye! You are laser-forcused on the center of the target to achieve the best shot you possibly can.

The same can be said for setting fitness goals. If yours are vague and generalized, you don’t have a target to aim for.

This can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible to know whether you have accomplished anything.

  • For example, instead of saying, “My goal is to start walking to get healthy”, get specific with it.

How many days a week are you going to walk and on which days?

Are you going to walk for ten minutes to start or shoot for half an hour?

Are you looking to reach a specific amount of miles, calories burned, or steps during your walk?

All of these things give you a specific goal to reach, which leads us to our next letter:

M – Measurable Goals For Staying On Target

In order to see if you are progressing in your fitness, you should also be able to measure your success. Going back to our walking example, fitness watches and apps have made measuring your goals more accessible than ever before with the ability to track distance, heart rate, calories burned, steps, etc.

I have also made use of spreadsheets to keep myself organized and track my progress.

  • As you get deeper into exercise, goals can be measured in many ways to see if you are progressing.

Changes in body composition, how someone feels, resting heart rate, as well as the amount of work your muscles can take and how long they can work, are only a few of the ways in which you can measure your fitness goals.

Testing your limits is also another way to measure your progress. Timing yourself on how long it takes you to complete a mile walk is a good example and I’m sure you may have heard the term “max out” with lifting weights.

A – Attainable Goals To Motivate Further Progression

We have talked about this a little before, but in more general terms. You want your goals to be realistic. Someone should not go out there and say, “In the first month of exercise, I want to lose 50 pounds of fat.”

Not only is that not healthy (as 1-2 pounds a week is much more attainable and safe mindset to have. Sorry, extreme diet pills!) but it sets you up for failure that could cause you to give up too quickly on fitness.


  • One positive of giving yourself attainable goals is that it will encourage you to keep going and keep progressing. If I set a goal to walk at least ten minutes a day, three days a week for the next two weeks, not only will that be easily measured, but I know I can do it.

It is within reach and the feeling that will come with accomplishing it can encourage met to maybe bump up my time to fifteen minutes after the two weeks is over.

R – Relevant Goals To Maximize Results

If you want to up your game in basketball, your goal probably won’t involve lacing up a pair of figure skates and hitting the ice rink five days a week for an hour. You can do as many Triple Salchows as you want, but it’s not going to increase your dribbling or shooting skills.

While that example is a little ridiculous, I hope you see my point. The goals you make should fit what you are trying to do for your body.


  • For example, an aspiring basketball player may be looking to specifically increase his ball-handling skills. The SMART way of going about it would be to set a goal to incorporate a set time for including ball-handling drills into practices.

His/her progress will be measured based on how well he completes a certain drill. Perhaps it is an obstacle course designed for the player to weave through cones while dribbling.

Someone just starting out will have a more attainable goal of a simple cone layout, while getting progressively more difficult and complicated as they improve.

In the same way, make your goals relevant to what you are trying to achieve.

T – Time-Bound Goals To Keep You On Schedule

Lastly, you want to give yourself a realistic time period for achieving the goals you set. I say realistic, because you don’t want to give yourself too short or too long a time period.

Going too short can lead to unrealistic expectations and frustration at failure. Too long can lead to you either getting bored before the time is up or may not motivate you to challenge yourself enough to reach the goal.

Additionally, you want to set some short-term and long-term goals. Think of the short-term goals as trail markers on a hike to your ultimate destination.


  • Let’s put this into practical terms. My wife’s family is from the Cape May, NJ area and every year there is a special event called the Cape May Point 5-Mile run and I want to participate.

If it takes place in June and I’m sitting on the couch in April having not run all winter, I have to set some goals if I want to avoid collapsing in the middle of the race.

My ultimate, long-term goal is to be able to complete the five miles on the day of the race, maybe even in a specific amount of time. However, my short-term goals will build me up to running that amount.

Therefore, my first short-term goal may be to run a mile at race pace at the end of two weeks training and then increasing from there (If there is interest, future articles can deal with specific exercise plans for this type or any other fitness goal you may have).

SMART Goals For A Fit Future

Setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable (yet challenging!), Relevant to what you are trying to accomplish, and Time-bound will get you off on the right foot when it comes to your fitness journey.

Starting small can lead to big results if you stick with it.

By all means, please let me know in the comments if you have any questions about setting SMART goals, if you need some help, or if you have a success story that could help someone else!

God Bless and be SMART out there!