updated 10/5/2007 8:25:23 PM ET 2007-10-06T00:25:23

If you've ever tried to set a fitness goal, you know it can be tricky business.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Set the bar too low and you may find you're lacking motivation. Aim too high — think a four-minute mile — and you're bound for disappointment.

So how do you set goals that are right for you? One way to go, fitness experts say, is to assess and record your baseline fitness scores for such yardsticks as your body mass index or how many sit-ups you can do in a minute. These benchmarks, and others like them, can help you figure out what to shoot for and measure your progress along the way.

Jeff Padovan, president of Polar Americas, the heart-rate monitor maker, likens not setting condition goals or measuring your progress to driving a car without a speedometer. With so many people struggling to find an hour to workout, it only makes sense that they should want to maximize their results.

"If you're only able to devote two days a week, 20 minutes a day to exercise, you want to get the most out of that," Jeff Padovan says. "If you're not getting value out of the time you're spending there, it's a waste."

If you have a history as a couch potato, before you get caught up in the numbers you can evaluate your fitness level simply by determining how much time you spend breaking a sweat each week, says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine's latest physical activity guidelines recommend that all healthy adults ages 18 to 65 perform moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week.

Once you're meeting those minimums you can measure your physical abilities and use them as personal benchmarks or starting points for an exercise program. Try testing, for example, how many push-ups you can complete without rest. To set a goal for improving your results, experts suggest following the S.M.A.R.T. formula, making them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Fitness norms, such as general population mile times, also can help you figure out where you stand and pick a long-term objective. Just don't aim too high right away.

"People look at norms and tables and they want to be excellent, even if they haven't been doing anything," Bryant says. "That's not realistic."

Instead, shoot for average fitness levels. For push-ups, the average 30- to 39-year-old man can perform 17 to 21, while women can do 13 to 19, according to data from the American Council on Exercise. The Web site also has a variety of fitness test calculators to see how your results compare to others'.

If you want to evaluate a physical ability that affects how you move day in and day out, test your balance. Bill Sonnemaker, 2007 IDEA Health & Fitness Personal Trainer of the Year and owner and founder of the Atlanta-based personal-training facility Catalyst Fitness, has clients time how long they can balance on one leg while slightly elevating their other leg. If there is more than a 10% discrepancy between legs, you need to address the weaker side, Sonnemaker says. Try balancing on your weaker leg in the elevator or while you're waiting in line at the grocery store, or practice single leg squats.

Once you've determined a personal benchmark and set a goal, don't go too long without measuring your progress. Neal Pire, president of the health, performance and fitness training company Inspire Training Systems, says weekly checkups should help you focus and give you lots of chances to modify your routine or behavior.

And remember that you're much more likely to achieve fitness goals with meaning or a direct benefit, such as being able to regularly play 18 holes of golf or just keeping up with your kids or grandchildren.

"Make it make sense," Pire says, "and make it emotional for you."

© 2012


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments