July 12, 2023

Set SMART goals to take better care of your health

By Andrée-Anne Guénette

Want to make healthier lifestyle choices to help prevent chronic illnesses and feel better? Break down your goals and make them SMART.

Have you been meaning to take better care of yourself, but life keeps getting in the way? You might be dealing with workplace, home or money stress. You might just be too busy. But whatever the reason, many of us don’t take sufficiently good care of ourselves. That’s part of why, according to health experts, serious illnesses are becoming all too common:

What do these illnesses have in common besides being worrisome? They are often preventable. Making healthy life choices can help Canadians avoid chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And in fact, even some types of cancer are preventable.

What are the best ways to prevent chronic illness?

The Centers for Disease Control says the best choices you can make to help prevent chronic illnesses are:

  • quit smoking,
  • eat a balanced diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products,
  • get regular exercise,
  • limit your alcohol consumption,
  • get screened for cancer and diabetes,
  • get enough sleep, and
  • know your family health history.

Helping Canadians live healthier lives is part of Sun Life’s mission. We proudly support Canada’s Children’s Hospital Foundations through Meant2Prevent, a type 2 diabetes prevention initiative for children and youth. The program gives healthy living tips and information to health professionals and families. In this way, Meant2Prevent aims to ensure healthy habits start early and last a lifetime.

Why is it so hard to change unhealthy habits?

We probably don’t need to convince you that helping prevent type 2 diabetes is a good thing. Or that building healthy habits make it more likely you’ll age well. But some changes are more challenging than others.

Think back to the last time you promised yourself you’d adopt a healthier lifestyle. Maybe you aimed to start exercising by going to the gym 5 times a week. Or you vowed to cut out all junk food. But making such drastic changes can be tough. Motivation alone is often not enough to sustain these changes. If you’ve found it hard to stick to a plan, don’t beat yourself up for not having enough willpower. What you likely need is clearer goals to work towards – goals you have a better chance of sticking to.

Set SMART goals to build a healthier lifestyle

An easy way to help yourself set and reach your goals is by making them SMART. That means they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. You may have heard of these types of goals in your workplace. But they work well for personal goals, too.

Say, for example, you want to lead a more active family life. What could that goal look like if you make it SMART? Let’s break it down by each letter:

S: Specific Put as much detail as you can on your goal. For example, "3 nights a week, we’ll plan a long family walk after dinner." This is more specific than "Get more exercise". 
M: Measurable

It’s hard to know if you’ve reached your goal if you can’t track your progress. Consider putting a number on your goal. For example: 3 times a week, or 15 minutes a day, or every second weekend. Whatever your goal, make sure you can count it.

Try adding checkmarks to the family calendar after every walk. Or print this one created by Meant2Prevent. Putting goals in a place where everyone sees them makes everyone accountable. 

A: Attainable 

Make your goal realistic. Remember that life can get busy or unpredictable. Aiming too high almost always leads to disappointment. Maybe your goal to walk after dinner 3 days a week sounds like a lot. Try starting with one day a week and work up to 3.

Be prepared if circumstances change. For example, those family walks: Supposed you set your goal in the summer, when the weather is nice and nobody has homework. Be ready for busier winter schedules or cold and snowy weather by building alternative activities into your plan.

R: Relevant

It’s harder to work toward your goal if it doesn’t fit in with your values. For example, think about why you want to walk together as a family after dinner. Maybe it’s about more than just getting your steps in. It’s also about spending more quality time together. Enjoying time in nature. Hearing more about how your kids are doing.

Make your goal make sense to you and align with the way you want to live. That way, you improve your chances of sticking with it.

T: Timely

When will you reach your goal? Think about ways you can organize your schedule to fit it in. Make a plan for how you will work up to your goal. Then, build a workback schedule to break it down. For example, “We will walk as a family after dinner 3 days per week by [date]. To achieve this, we will aim to increase our family walks by 1 each week until we reach our goal.”

What if you’re working towards something time-specific, like a 5k run? Build a workback schedule and break down your goals. For example, aim to run 1k by June 1, 2k by July 1, and so on.

This might sound a bit extreme for a personal goal. But think of this: If a workback schedule can help you at work, why not at home?

Where can you get help to reach your goal?

Start by downloading your free SMART goal worksheet. It helps make goal-setting easier.

Is one of your goals to kickstart your journey to a healthier lifestyle? A dietitian could point you towards healthier food choices. A personal trainer could help you with an exercise program. You can find these and more health-care professionals near you by using the Lumino Health Provider Search tool. Anyone can use it to find a variety of helpful health resources.

For a playbook for living a healthy and balanced life, created by the Toronto Raptors training staff, visit Sun Life Healthy You.

This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical advice, or a substitute for that advice.

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