Keep It Going: Turning Health Goals into Lifelong Habits

January 17, 2023

Every year, millions of Americans look to January as a time for a fresh start for their health and wellness goals. While the act of setting resolutions is easy, successfully implementing meaningful changes to one’s routine over the long run can be challenging.  From exercising more to reducing stress and eating better, these common resolutions are often designed to be too lofty and unrealistic – leaving individuals ditching their commitment within weeks of setting it. Comprehensive research and analysis tool, Statistic Brain, reported that 1/3 of people who set New Year’s resolutions abandon them by the second Friday in January, aptly named Quitter’s Day.1 With more people taking a holistic approach to food and health and seeking ways to improve their well-being2, healthcare professionals have the opportunity to help individuals better define their health goals and create them in a way that will lead to lifelong healthy habits.

What’s the Difference Between Resolutions, Goals, and Intentions?

By definition, a resolution is “a promise to yourself to do or not do something.”3 This all or nothing mindset can set people up for failure, especially as they work toward establishing a healthy relationship with their body. Conversely, goals are tangible, specific, measurable, and action-oriented, which makes them easier to create and achieve. An intention is something you want or plan to do and typically takes place more immediately.  Often, intentions support the achievement of goals. To put this into perspective, an intention may be “I will go for a peaceful walk today” and a goal would be “I will walk for 30 minutes, 3 times per week for the next 4 weeks”.

Setting SMART Goals for Long-Term Success

Under the guidance of a clinician, individuals can learn how to set SMART health goals, put them into action, and adopt strategies to turn them into lifelong habits. SMART criteria, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound is a framework commonly used in educational settings to optimize learning and as part of action plans to foster health behavior change. In addition to setting clearly defined goals, research suggests two strategies that can aid setting and achieving goals for health behavior change. The first is to consider key characteristics of goals, such as performance versus mastery goals and level of difficulty. Second, develop an action plan that can put goals into action.4 Putting an action plan in place can specify where, when and how a goal will be implemented, and help individuals plan the specific actions that will take place to achieve the goal.

Ample data has supported the successful implementation and outcome of SMART goals in the healthcare setting. One study evaluated the impact of SMART goal setting on diet quality for patients with chronic kidney disease. This evaluation of 41 participants in a dietitian-led telehealth intervention led to significantly improved diet quality and vegetable and fiber intake over the course of 3 months. 5 In a separate study, the SMART framework was implemented to help improve hemoglobin A1c (HgB A1c) in 100 patients with type 2 diabetes. Overall, patients that set SMART goals led to clinically meaningful lowering of A1c levels, further supporting the use of this specific goal setting as a way to improve diabetes control.6

The Role of Healthcare Professionals in Setting Sustainable Health Goals

Clearly defining each of the five SMART characteristics can help to define a pathway toward reaching a goal.  For example, setting a goal to lose weight or exercise more is too broad and should be more specific while considering ways to measure progress and determine outcome. As a first step when counseling patients, clinicians can help to recognize objectives or define intentions that will shape the goals – which could be related to numerous areas of health and well-being such as exercise, nutritional intake, or mental health. Next, SMART goals are developed with the patients’ personal medical history and lifestyle in mind.  In order to guide patients in setting these detailed goals, it’s important for clinicians to understand exactly how each criterion is defined, as follows:

Specific: The first step in SMART goal setting is to determine specific goals and avoid those that are too broad.  For example, instead of “I will exercise”, this could be “I will walk on the treadmill for 15-20 minutes every morning”.

Measurable: Goals should be those where progress could be tracked.  Some people choose to use certain fitness apps to support with this while others prefer to use methods such as tracking weight loss or muscle mass with body composition tools such as special calipers that measure the subcutaneous fat on different parts of the body.

Attainable: All goals should be created so that they are achievable, realistic and not overwhelming.  Evaluating a patient’s past history with weight loss or fitness could help to determine how attainable the new or reinstated goal may be.

Relevant: Goals should be those that have meaning to an individual’s life and specific to their own health.  For example, losing weight to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease is a more relevant goal and will lead to better adherence as it’s tailored to a specific health outcome.

Time-Bound: Each goal should have a time limit. These goal “end-dates” serve as a way to check in on progress and re-evaluate the goal and make adjustments, if needed.

Orgain Nutrition Advisor and Sports Dietitian, Scott Sehnert, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, also shared his top three strategies for healthcare professionals (HCPs) to consider when counseling clients on setting and maintaining attainable health goals.

  1. Meet clients where they are. Start by agreeing on 1-2 small steps they can make toward improving their health. Then, build upon initial changes after they have become regular habits.
  1. Set realistic goals. Naturally adding ten pounds of lean body mass in a month is simply not realistic. Ensure goals, and the timeframe to achieve them, are attainable.
  2. Establish regular communication. If possible, touch base with clients’ multiple times a week for encouragement or trouble shooting, as needed. They’ll appreciate the support, and those frequent check-ins help with accountability and motivation.

To turn health goals in to healthy, lifelong habits, it’s important to set individuals up for success from the very start. Understanding their willingness to make change and follow through on goals is important. Writing down goals is also a great way to keep them top of mind journaling is a great way to keep track of progress, which could also be beneficial for follow ups in patient care.

Learn More with Orgain!

For more education and information on goal setting, check out Episode 21 of The Good Clean Nutrition Podcast, Meditation & Mindful Goal Setting with physician and meditation instructor, Jill Wener, MD.


  1. Vozza, S. (2018, January 12). This is When Your New Year’s Resolution Will Fail. Fast Company. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from
  2. International Food Information Council. 2022 Food & Health Survey. 18 May 2022.
  3. Cambridge Dictionary. Resolution | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from
  4. Bailey RR. Goal setting and action planning for health behavior change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017;13(6):615-618. doi:10.1177/1559827617729634
  5. Chan, C. H., Conley, M., Reeves, M. M., Campbell, K. L., & Kelly, J. T. (2021, March 12). Evaluating the impact of goal setting on improving diet quality in chronic kidney disease. Frontiers in nutrition. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from
  6. Cook, H. E., & Garris, L. A. (2022, September 2). Impact of smart goals on diabetes management in a pharmacist-led …Sage Journals. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from

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