At first glance, walking is a simple habit. Walk at least 30 minutes a day, most days. Easy, right? But anyone who’s tried to start that habit knows even one walk a day can be a challenge if you lead a busy life. Furthermore, once you do finally establish walking as a daily habit, it can be hard to stay motivated to continue.
Maybe at first, the walks made you feel great and you could see noticeable changes to your health and fitness, but a few weeks or months in, you feel like you’re walking nowhere. When you hit that point, having a goal tied to your walking can be a huge boost for your motivation — and that goal doesn’t have to relate to calories burned or pounds lost. Rather, consider seeing your walking as a form of training. Regular, daily exercise like this means you are an athlete, and it’s time to set goals like one. Here’s how:
Goal number 1 is simple: If you haven’t already become an established walker, hitting that 30 minutes a day of walk time should be a priority. You can borrow a page from Jerry Seinfeld’s playbook here and use a calendar to gauge your progress — in addition to recording it in MyFitnessPal. For every day you go for a walk, give yourself a check mark or a gold star on your calendar (digital or IRL). The goal is to not break your streak, which is why a physical calendar can make this a more effective strategy. It’s easier to see a date without a check mark or X on it when it’s hanging on your wall.
Once you have the habit going, let’s turn to the old classic: Creating a SMART goal. This means any goal you set should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Here’s how to use this framework with a walking goal:
Specific: Decide what you want to do with your walking. Do you want to increase your speed, walk or hike a certain distance in a single day, or lose a certain amount of weight by walking? Try to make your goal as specific as possible (for example, “getting faster” isn’t specific, but “walk at an 18-minute mile pace for five miles” is).
Measurable: Obviously, a goal like losing weight can be measured on a scale, but often, fitness-based walking goals are left fairly open-ended. The measurement for walking can be pace or distance, but make sure you have a method for keeping track of the metric you set. There are plenty of apps that do this, or you can get a fitness watch to wear on walks where you’ve left your phone at home. If weight is your goal, make sure you’re checking it at a designated time weekly or monthly, not just guessing at if you’re getting closer to your objective.
Achievable: Climbing Mount Everest or hiking the entire Appalachian Trail are great goals eventually, but if you just started walking last month, you may want to set a goal that’s a little less intense. A good goal is one that stretches beyond your current abilities, but one you can imagine yourself achieving. If your initial reaction to your goal is “I’ll never be able to do that,” then you may want to try for a smaller goal first and gradually build up. Achievable also means you should be able to see the steps it will take to get to your goal, and those steps should be doable in your current life situation. If you can’t move to altitude and start hiking mountains regularly, Everest might not be on this year’s goal list — but hiking up your local mountain could be. You’ll get to Everest eventually!
Relevant: Does your walking goal actually work with your life right now? A goal of walking for 15 hours per week might be impossible if you currently work a full-time job, have three kids in eight different activities and are also working on writing a novel. Many of us fall into the trap of picking a fitness goal that sounds great and feels good, but it doesn’t actually work with our current lives. Ask yourself, “Can I train for the goal I’ve set?”
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Time-Bound: You can set a ‘date to do X by’ or you can look for something more official. For someone who prefers a hard deadline, you may want to consider booking something that forces you to be in top walking form, and work back from that date. This could be a long walking tour of a city (preferably self-guided, so you’re not at the mercy of a tour group’s pace) or deciding on a date to do a longer hike than you’ve ever done before and asking a friend to put in on the calendar to do together.
Once you have your SMART goal in mind, you can start to plan your walks to prepare for whatever goal you’ve set. Once you have your date-based goal, look at what it will include. If it’s going to take five hours or cover 15 miles, you now have your goal time or distance. Consider terrain as well (a tough hike is going to take much longer than a walk across a flat city). Then, think about how you should train to accomplish this goal. For example, that might include adding walks on more challenging terrain, doing a longer walk on the weekends or adding a short bonus walk in the morning a couple of times each week.
Lastly, if you’re someone who needs milestones along the way, or if your goal is far in the future, you might benefit from an incentive system that you create. This means setting specific rewards — like a new walking outfit or new walking shoes — for every month (or whatever time frame you choose) where you meet your training objectives.
Setting goals reminds you to keep reaching for the finish line every day, but setting SMART goals like our recommendations above could increase your chances of accomplishing things you didn’t think were possible. While the results of generic goals can be objective, there’s no question whether SMART goals were achieved (or not). Set yourself up for success, and the (walking) path will be more clear than ever!
Make progress every day while you work on fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.