SMART Goals May Not Be as Helpful as You Think, Study Suggests

New research finds that this type of goal setting may even be harmful for meeting your exercise milestones.

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When it comes to creating a training plan, many experts and coaches create goals that are defined as SMART—which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. However, a recent research review published in Health Psychology Review argues that this formula may not be as helpful as it seems for physical activity. In some cases, it may even sabotage your goals, researchers suggest.

Looking at 147 studies that used SMART goals in physical activity promotion, researchers found that the formula wasn’t as effective as an exercise tool as previously believed.

One problem was that the term itself isn’t standardized, which means there’s a breadth of variations, said lead researcher Christian Swann, Ph.D., associate professor in the faculty of health at Southern Cross University in Australia.

“There’s huge inconsistency in how SMART goals are being set,” he told Runner's World. “Indeed there were eight different terms used just for the ‘A’ in SMART.”

The bigger issue is that these goals may have potentially harmful effects, he added. For example, some studies found that SMART goals can cause heightened pressure and tension, and that there are high rates of failure—in some of the studies, up to 50 percent of participants failed to reach their goals—and that can impact confidence and self-esteem.

“One study found that sufficiently active people completed less physical activity when pursuing SMART goals compared to more exploratory open goals,” said Swann. “For those who are insufficiently active, these type of goals could lead to dropout.”

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Open goals are non-specific and exploratory, Swann added. For example, a mountain climber wouldn’t aim for the peak, she would simply say, “I’ll see how far I get.” And a runner looking to increase consistency might say, “Let’s see how many days in a row I can run,” rather than being rigid about maintaining a streak. Without a highly specific goal, failure isn’t possible because it’s more about being open to the experience of what you’re doing, said Swann.

Another difficulty with SMART goals may be a tendency to aim too low because of the “realistic” part of the formula, according to Karen Sutton, M.D., sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in Connecticut. Although she wasn’t part of the recent study, she told Runner's World that she’s observed incidence of undertraining when these goals are used.

“SMART goals may lead an athlete toward what they consider realistic and achievable, but in terms of progress, they may need to set their sights higher,” she said.

Lack of progress is one way to tell when your SMART goals aren’t working, she added, and another is when you’re simply not enjoying your activity because it’s become too data-heavy and goal-oriented.

“A mantra in our office is to pursue what puts a smile on your face,” said Sutton. “Someone should not be ruled by a step count or a generically technical or objective training program. A customized training program with room for enjoyment and reflection is my recommendation.”

With all of this in mind, it doesn’t mean SMART goals don’t work for anyone, Swann added. If you’re already meeting physical activity guidelines, then getting SMART might be beneficial for you, depending on how well you use them. But if you’re just getting started with running, he said that setting more open goals—such as simply seeing how far you can go today—may be a better option.

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