• Setting Goals and Starting a Heart-Healthy Physical Activity Plan


    PA Disclaimer


    Hopefully you are visualizing all the benefits of physical activity that can be yours if you only get started. If so, you are probably wondering, where should you begin?  Start by setting small, attainable physical activity goals. Be gentle on yourself and do the best you can. Just as you don’t need to go on and off a diet, you also don’t want to get on and off the exercise band wagon. Simply set small goals you can stick with to move more and lead an overall heart-healthy lifestyle.

    Only you know where your fitness level is now, and only you can decide for yourself which changes to make first. These will be your goals, so make them changes you can maintain. Give yourself some time and don’t expect to drastically change your level of physical fitness overnight—every bit helps and there’s no hurry. Just be sure to take extra precautions if you have special considerations such as heart failure and mobility challenges.

    Keep in mind that new behaviors take up to a month to become habit. Then when these initial changes become second nature, you can move on to achieve a couple more goals.  Literally, every step helps, but the more physically active you are able to be, the healthier your heart will be. And why not also enjoy the many benefits of exercise

    But don’t wait until you get through the next day, the next weekend, or the next month before you begin to set some physical activity goals.  Start today. There is no reason to wait because SecondsCount can show you the steps to get started:

    1. Check Your Weight and Consider Your Long-Term, Heart-Related Goals.

    There are many benefits of regular physical activity.  Before you begin to exercise, SecondsCount can help you learn how regular physical activity helps keep your heart healthy.

    • Inactivity increases your risk of developing heart disease.  It also contributes to other heart disease risk factors such as obesity. If you are overweight or obese, physical activity can help to lower your risk of heart disease by managing your weight.  Calculate your Body Mass Index. If your BMI is greater than 25, you may need to balance your food intake with increased physical activity to lose weight. SecondsCount can help you learn more about heart-healthy nutrition and setting goals and starting a heart-healthy eating plan. 
    • You may also want to exercise to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness, improve your cholesterol levels, lower your blood pressure, and manage stress, all of which can improve your heart health.

    2. Learn How to Monitor the Intensity of Your Activity.

    Your doctor can help you determine the appropriate intensity of your physical activity—that is, how hard your heart is able to work. To do this, it may be suggested that you first undergo a test, such as an Exercise Tolerance Test (ETT), or stress test, to determine how much exercise your heart can tolerate.

    Monitoring your heart rate means periodically counting the beats per minute while you are physically active.  Then your target heart rate zone can be calculated based on age. The idea is to keep your heart rate within this zone during all exercise sessions.  This is one way to monitor the intensity of your physical activity each time you are active.

    However, it has not been proven that it is necessary to reach your target heart rate zone while being physically active to improve your fitness. Rather, the following symptoms appear to be adequate indications that you are working hard enough:

    • Breathlessness
    • Fatigue
    • Sweating

    Consider using the Talk Test to determine if the intensity of your exercise is appropriate for your current fitness level.

    This is good news for adults who are 65 and older, or anyone with chronic conditions or limited mobility. You need the same amount of exercise as younger people—but the activity can be less intense and not raise your heart rate as much. For example, walking is less intense than running, meaning it doesn’t raise your heart rate as much. Use good judgment and follow your doctor’s advice. Plan to gradually increase activities to improve your physical fitness.

    3. Set Short-term SMART Goals for Increasing Physical Activity and Decreasing Sedentary Behaviors.

    Every small step helps keep you moving—both literally and figuratively. Setting small, achievable goals helps keep you on the road to improved physical fitness.

    The best way to make sure you are starting a physical activity plan that will be successful is to make sure your goals are SMART. SMART is an acronym that stands for:


    What do you plan to do? You may plan to walk more. But be even more specific so the plan is clear. For example, you plan to walk 20 minutes at lunchtime Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


    You need to be able to measure your goals to see your progress. If you can mark it on your calendar or a chart, you can measure it at the end of the week to see how successful you were. Try using the Monthly Physical Activity Tracker to keep track of the number of 10-minute cardio exercise sessions and the number of strength training sessions you’ve completed in a week.


    Don’t make your goals too hard to reach. Make your goals a series of small steps so that the end goal is easier to achieve. For example, you may want to follow the physical activity recommendations and get 30 minutes of exercise, 5 times a week. But you may get discouraged if you are not able to do this right away because you are not used to exercising that much. Instead, you might set an attainable goal of being physically active for one 10-minute increment a day, three times a week.  Then work up to 5 days a week. Then either increase to two or three 10-minute sessions per day, or any combination of 30 minutes.


    Only set goals you know you will be able to achieve. That makes them realistic. For example, you may want to run a marathon, but that’s not a realistic goal for everyone. And even if it is possible with clearance from your doctor, it takes a long time to train for a marathon. Instead, slowly build up the amount of exercise you do. Aim for one mile at first. You might even consider walking it, instead of running, depending on your current physical activity level.


    Pick a time frame for completing your goal. It helps to have an end in sight, and preferably a relatively short one, maybe a week or two. Knowing it’s a manageable amount of time may help you see it through. Perhaps it would even keep you motivated to enter a short race such as a 3K (1.86 miles) or 5K (3.1 miles). Sometimes setting a particular time frame to complete your goal helps hold yourself accountable to the goal. And once you complete the goal, you may find it was easier than you thought and set out to do it again and again, thereby making it a healthy habit.

    Here are examples of simple, heart-healthy physical activity changes you can use to set SMART goals:

    • Keep track of your weekly physical activity. This is a great first change to make because it doesn’t require you to do anything different yet. But simply recording your physical activity to see where you are can be extremely helpful for figuring out which changes to make next. And sometimes simply recording the activity makes you want to do it more.

    Sample Goal: I will use the Monthly Physical Activity Tracker to record 10-minute increments of physical activity for one week before setting any other physical activity goals.

    • Reduce your sedentary behaviors, such as television viewing, video gaming, or computer use. This is another great first change to make because it is a baby step. Simply reducing behaviors that keep you sitting and immobile will make you move around more than usual. Maybe you’ll take a walk to get some fresh air, clean out a closet in your house, vacuum, or do the laundry—any of which is more physical activity than you would’ve done while performing a sedentary behavior.

    Sample Goal: I will only watch 30 minutes of television each day for one week.

    Sample Goal: I will only watch TV while walking on the treadmill for two weeks (then you can watch as much as you want as long as you are walking!)

    Sample Goal: I will limit personal computer use to 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening for two weeks.

    • Look at your current lifestyle for ways to get more physical activity while performing everyday tasks and errands. Consider walking or biking wherever you might usually drive. Make it a habit to take the stairs instead of elevators or escalators. These are small ways to fit physical activity into your day, which means you’ll be on your way to getting the recommended amounts of physical activity.

    Sample Goal: I will park at the farthest parking spot possible when going to any store for two weeks.

    Sample Goal: I will walk or ride my bike to the grocery store when I need less than 10 things (so I can carry them) for one month.

    Sample Goal: I will only use the stairs at work when I have 3 or fewer flights of stairs to climb for two weeks.

    • Improve your physical fitness slowly, depending on what your current level is now.

    Use the FITT Principle and change one thing at a time:

    • Frequency—how often you are physically active in a week
    • Intensity—how hard you are working each time you are physically active
    • Time—the duration or how long your physical activity lasts
    • Type—the kind of physical activity you are doing

    Sample Goal: I will increase the frequency of my 20-minute walking sessions from two days to 3 days, and I will do this for two weeks.

    Sample Goal: I will increase the intensity of my 20-minute walking sessions, two times per week by walking faster or walking on a hilly trail, and I will do this for two weeks.

    Sample Goal: I will increase the duration of my walking sessions two times per week to 30 minutes, and I will do this for two weeks.

    Sample Goal: I will change the type of physical activity from walking to swimming for 20-minutes, two times per week, and I will do this for two weeks.

     4. Reward Yourself.

    Reward yourself for achieving your physical activity goals. You deserve it and will look forward to receiving something tangible for your efforts. It is best if the reward is not something you would’ve treated yourself to anyway, even if you hadn’t completed your goals. And it’s a good idea not to use food, which might cancel out your calorie-burning efforts! Try using rewards that encourage you to keep moving.  You could shop for some comfortable new exercise clothes. Or pick out a new piece of exercise equipment, possibly a resistance band, an exercise ball, or an exercise video. Or sign up for an exercise class you’ve wanted to try, such as yoga, kick boxing, rumba, or another kind of dancing. Ask a friend to join you for even more fun and support.

    5. Get Help.

    Changing your lifestyle can seem overwhelming, even when you know to make only one or two changes at a time. It can be especially difficult to determine how to get started, or which change to make first. If you’ve had a recent heart event, ask your doctor if you are a candidate for cardiac rehab, which would help you begin a physical activity plan. If you are not a candidate for cardiac rehab but still need more help getting started, you may benefit from working with an exercise physiologist, physical therapist, or a qualified certified personal trainer at a gym.