The Physician and Sportsmedicine
Menubar Home Journal Personal Health Resource Center CME Advertiser Services About Us

Weight Loss Success

Small Steps to Reach Your Goals

Susan J. Bartlett, PhD
with Patricia D. Mees


Deciding to start a new diet and exercise plan can seem overwhelming if you try to change everything at once. By starting slowly and making gradual changes, you can build on your successes to reach your goals.

Q. Where do I start?

A. Begin by setting clear goals. Setting goals can be broken down into smaller, easier steps. The best goals are attainable (you honestly feel, "Yes, I can do that"), measurable (how often, how far, how long), and leave a little "wiggle room" so you don't feel too confined. Choose foods you enjoy so you'll want to stick to your diet, and pick activities you like to do.

First, you'll need to set your weekly goals. Some examples of weekly goals are:

  • Walk 10 to 15 minutes a day at lunchtime, 5 days a week.
  • Walk up one flight of stairs, then take the elevator the rest of the way, every day at work.
  • Read food package labels and be careful about portion sizes.

Then look at your goals and see if you need to do anything else this week to help meet these goals. A typical weekly "to do" list might be:

  • Buy new walking shoes on Saturday.
  • Buy a pocket calendar to record my progress each day.
  • Use a set of dishes that has small plates and small bowls, so servings seem larger.

Next, choose an appropriate reward and make a firm commitment to yourself that you will do what it takes to achieve the reward. An example would be "If I walk up three extra flights of stairs every day this week, I can go to a movie on Friday night. " You might want to tell a trusted friend about the goal and have him or her hold you to it. Avoid rewards that sabotage your progress, like a dinner out.

Q. What if I don't feel like sticking with the program?

A. It's important to set realistic goals and make a firm commitment to work toward your goals every day. You will naturally feel more motivated on some days, less on others. Avoiding the temptation to give in to excuses will make you successful in the long run. For extra motivation:

  • Picture yourself enjoying the reward as you are doing the activity. Imagine how good you will feel when you know you have met your goal.
  • Keep a simple record of progress and setbacks. Focus on all the positive changes you have made. Do you see a pattern? Would making a change in your routine help you get past a stumbling block?
  • Plan alternatives ahead of time. Whenever possible, eat meals at home or bring them with you. If it's raining, walk at the shopping mall. If you work through lunch, walk off the tension after work.
  • Use stick-on notes to post inspirational messages on the refrigerator door handle, for example, "Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."
  • Don't let minor setbacks stop you cold. Plan to resume your healthy eating habits at the next meal and resume activity if you miss a day. Give yourself permission to make a new start tomorrow.
  • Ask a spouse, friend, coworker, or child to join you! Having a buddy will help you both get moving when you don't feel like it, and you'll have someone to share your goals and rewards with.

Q. What's the next step?

A. Pretty soon, your weekly goals will seem like part of your lifestyle. That's when it's time to make your goal just a little bit harder, so your program remains energizing, productive, and enjoyable.

  • Add a little distance when walking 10 to 15 minutes is no longer challenging. A pedometer (available at department or sporting goods stores) is an easy way to keep track of how many steps you take and how far you go.
  • If you can't walk up a whole flight of stairs, walk up half a flight and down again. Add a few more steps each time until you are able to do a whole flight. Then make the goal a flight plus two steps and down again. How many can you do? Enjoy the challenge!
  • Weight loss isn't the only marker of success, but consistently weighing yourself once a week helps you know if you are making enough changes to meet your goals. If you begin to regain weight, check your food portion sizes. You may not notice a gradual increase until your weight loss stops.

Q. What about over the long term?

A. Meeting your weekly goals will help you reach your longer-term goals. Midrange goals (things you can do in 4 to 6 months) will help you stay on track. Examples of midrange goals are:

  • Walk 30 to 60 minutes a day .
  • Have more energy to play with the grandchildren.
  • Learn to cook great-tasting healthy meals and snacks.

Then, set long-range goals—something you can do in 6 months to a year. Some examples of long-range goals are:

  • Buy a smaller belt. Buy stylish clothes that fit and feel comfortable!
  • Take a vacation that includes hiking or biking through beautiful terrain.
  • Lose 10 pounds before the next class reunion.

By using small goals as building blocks to larger goals, lifestyle changes become manageable. You can expect to lose about 10% of your initial body weight in the first 6 months. Even if you don't lose much weight, the health benefits of a more active lifestyle are worth the effort. When you look back a year from now, you'll be amazed how far you've come!


  1. Set realistic goals.
  2. Make gradual changes and build on your successes.
  3. Choose rewards that will not sabotage your progress.
  4. Don't let a minor setback stop you. Begin again tomorrow.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Consult a physician before beginning a diet or exercise program.

Dr Bartlett is a clinical psychologist and faculty member in the division of rheumatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Ms Mees is the assistant editor of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.

© 2003, by the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Permission to photocopy is granted for educational purposes.