How To Set & Measure Healthy Fitness Goals, From A Body-Neutral Trainer
As soon as the first glimmers of warm weather appear, so does messaging around achieving that optimal "summer body"—whether that's through advertisements, on social media, or other places. And there are endless resources claiming to help you achieve said ideal body—maybe you've even had a personal trainer give you a meal plan, take progress photos, and track your weight.
However, with the growing anti-diet culture movement and rising awareness of eating disorders and disordered eating prevalence, more and more people are examining their relationship with their body image1 and eating habits.
Now, you may wonder how setting workout goals might fit into this new, evolving culture—after all, is it possible to measure fitness progress beyond aesthetic results? In short, yes! For starters, there's a growing body of research that shows doing exercise from intrinsic motivation2—aka the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of it—may actually be the key to consistency.
So how do you turn up the dial on your intrinsic motivation and start to challenge the weight loss narrative? As a body-neutral personal trainer and intuitive eater, I'm here to share some ways you can set weight-neutral fitness goals so you can get all the benefits of exercise (more energy! healthier joints! better quality of life!) without the mental health toll:
Track your performance.
If you love to hit progress milestones along the journey, this one is for you. Try picking one exercise you'd like to improve or accomplish, like running a 5K. Consider your ability level now and use that info to set a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goal. Break it down into smaller parts that you can work on each week, to eventually increase your run time. Then, mark your progress along the way.
Tracking small, incremental victories in a plan you set for yourself—and only focusing on one goal at a time—can serve to build your self-efficacy, increasing your overall intrinsic motivation. That means more consistent, fulfilling workouts for you.
Learn a skill.
Competitors will love this one. If you're craving more motivation, dedicate yourself to learning a new skill. Whether it's weight lifting, roller skating, or jumping rope, making yourself a beginner puts you in a highly receptive state. This might be especially useful if you're trying to break the pattern of punishing workouts.
Learning a new skill simply because you're interested in it can help reframe the way you think about movement—it can make your exercise time way more fun and joyful. Plus, noticing as you get better along the way can serve as inspiration to keep going.
Maybe you'll even start to consider yourself a yogi/weightlifter/swimmer! As some suggest, identifying as an exerciser can even predict regular physical activity. So the more you associate activity as a positive part of your identity, the more likely you are to stick with your routine.
Monitor your mood.
Sure, you know that exercise can be good for your mood, but if you're one of millions of Americans suffering from exercise addiction (which is four times as common in people with an eating disorder), you may be used to ignoring your mental health for the sake of your workouts.
This is where I like to bring in mood tracking. It can be as simple as noting your mood before, during, and after exercise using a scale of unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral. You can apply the strategy to hunger level, body image, and energy.
Taking multiple moments throughout the day to check in with your physical and emotional state—and writing it down—can not only serve as evidence of improvements over time but can also signal when something is off. For example, if you are often feeling unpleasant after your workouts, you may need to switch up your routine by resting more, eating more, or changing your workout type.
Celebrate your skip days.
As much as we prioritize consistency, we should also celebrate the days when we choose not to work out. High levels of stress, poor sleep, elevated anxiety, seasonal depression, illness, and many other factors can negatively affect our workouts, and vice versa.
So if you are used to feeling guilty for missing a workout, try reframing it as a choice by asking, "Is there something I need more than this workout?" Tuning in to what your body needs is never a bad thing. Choosing to get extra sleep, family time, or recovery can help you skip the guilt and make the days when you do hit the gym feel more energized, productive, and rewarding.
There are so many reasons to move your body, and there's no reason that weight loss has to be one of them. Moving for the pleasure of moving, progressing toward performance-related goals, learning new skills, and using exercise to support your mental health are all weight-neutral ways to build consistency in your fitness routine.
Kristie is a certified personal trainer, intuitive eating coach, and creator of the Feel Good Bunch, an online community of women building supportive and sustainable fitness habits.
After working in NYC boutique fitness for 4 years, now she helps women and nonbinary individuals find fulfilling fitness habits through prioritizing mental health, devaluing the hustle narrative, and cultivating intuitive body awareness. She specializes in strength training for beginners.
Kristie practices with sensitivity to body dysmorphia and eating disorders and is HAES-aligned.