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How to set goals that work when you have arthritis

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person writing a goal list in a notebook

First published Sept 15, 2021. Most recent update Jan 12, 2024

We all have goals in our life. For many of us with arthritis, these include health-related goals. What are good health goals? And how can you set goals when you don’t know what your capacity will be in the future?

Today we’ll go over what makes a good goal and how to set your goals that are flexible enough to work with your life.

Table of Contents

What are good health goals?

Health is a weak link problem. Weak link problems are best improved by strengthening the weakest link. (As opposed to a strong link problem which is solved with incremental improvements to the strongest link.)

This is why I look at the big picture and focus on 4 pillars: Sleep, Movement, Eating, and Mindset. They all affect your health and wellness and it’s important to assess all areas to determine the best goals for you.

It would be overwhelming to try to improve all areas of your life, especially if you think you need to do it all at once. But since health is a weak link problem, small changes can have a big impact. Choosing the area of your life that can use the most help will let you get the most out of a small change.

Most of the benefits of light to moderate physical activity occur in the first 150 minutes per week or 22 minutes per day. This is where that recommendation comes from. And you don’t need to do even that at one time.

For example, one study showed that 3 minutes of movement (either walking or a series of short resistance activities) every 30 minutes reduced blood sugar by 39% (in people with Type 2 Diabetes). This made the difference between high blood sugar and normal near the end of the day.

The extra effort to get to “perfect” is wasted because perfect isn’t the point, and it doesn’t exist anyway. And worse, it leads to negative effects in another aspect of health – at the very least stress and obsessive thought patterns. 

Weight Loss is Not a Good Goal

Although weight loss is commonly recommended to help with joint pain, specifically knee pain, it is not a good goal. For one thing, weight loss is an outcome, not an action. The fact that weight loss is an outcome would otherwise mean that it is the start of goal setting, not the actual goal BUT there are 2 huge caveats. 

  1. You have less control than you think and
  2. It’s not as important as you think. 

This is an area of research where personal beliefs (biases) play a large role in how the results of a study are interpreted. There is a lot of disagreement among and within different specialities because of this. It is easy to unintentionally design an experiment that “proves” that weight loss improves health when the improvements actually came from a better diet, exercise, or additional access to health care.

Weight is influenced by what we do but that influence is filtered through our genetics. This is why people respond differently to the same way of eating and moving.

Finally, there has never been a diet, pill, or exercise plan that has shown to be successful for weight loss, in the long term, for a majority of the people following that plan. They might show “results” in the first 6 months but by 1-2 years, the results have vanished. 

HOWEVER, interventions for improving blood pressure, blood sugar, or other health outcomes are successful in the long term. This is the whole basis of my profession – that what and how we eat affects our health.

And at the end of the day, what are we really aiming at when we say we want to lose weight? Improved fitness, more confidence, better health? You can get all those things even if your weight doesn’t change. 

In fact, in my experience, you are more likely to reach those goals if you work to set aside weight loss as a goal. Without trying to lose weight, you can be more connected to your body, your intuition, and make changes that will work for you long term. And THAT is a goal worth pursuing.

3 Steps to Setting Goals Successfully

  1. Dream a little, be aspirational, have a vision – most importantly figure out what you are aiming for and WHY. This is the outcome you are hoping for.
  2. Set action goals that will help you move towards your vision.
  3. Create habits and routines that support the actions you need to take to be successful.

Step 1. What do you want? And why?

Before we get into the weeds of deciding what to do, it is helpful to take a step back and look at what you want.

Are you trying to be healthier? Why? Is it for your kids? To be able to travel? To be able to enjoy experiences?

Knowing WHY you want a particular outcome helps you to keep trying when you come across challenges. The challenge with outcome-based goals is that sometimes you do everything “right” and don’t get the outcome you wanted. That’s life. But if you have a strong enough reason for why you want that outcome, you will keep trying until you reach it.

The trick is knowing what exactly you are aiming at and why. 

Knowing what you want and accurately targeting that is a big part of what makes a goal effective or not.

Step 2. Action Goals

SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Time-Bound

The best health-related goals are connected to actions, not outcomes. You might have a particular outcome in mind – lower blood pressure, lower inflammation, improved strength, or better sleep. But none of those are a ‘thing’ that you do. 

Setting ACTION-BASED goals is motivating because to hit the goals, you just have to do the thing. Setting SMART goals are one way to ensure that your goals are action-oriented.


Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. (Note, there are many versions out there for what SMART stands for, but this is the definition that has always made the most sense to me.)

A goal to “workout every day” is action-based but it isn’t specific or measurable. So many people, attempting to make the goal SMART, will say that they will “walk 30 minutes every day for the next month” or they will follow a particular program. 

That goal is SMART – assuming that it is achievable and relevant – but may not be ‘smart’ for those of us with arthritis.

Adapting SMART Goals for Arthritis

When you are setting action goals, you have to account for your arthritis. How will your day-to-day fluctuations in energy, stiffness, and soreness affect your goals? What will you do when you have a flare? 

Here are 2 options to consider. 

  1. Have 2 sets of goals – Regular and Flare goals
  2. Have “levels” for each goal
Option 1: Have 2 different sets of goals

In this option, you might have a goal to walk every day when things are going well. But then have a backup “flare” goal to gently stretch mid-afternoon. Depending on the goal, you might even put it entirely on hold during a flare to reduce your stress levels.

Option 2: Have “levels” for each goal

This idea comes from Stephen Guise. He describes a method of having 3 levels of intensity for each habit. Basically, you have a mini-habit, your usual level, and an “elite” level.

The smallest level is a mini-habit. It’s a mini-habit that you can do even on your worst days. I like to think of the mini-habit as a placeholder habit. 1 dumbbell curl a day won’t do much on its own, but something is better than nothing. And, more importantly, by doing it every day, you remind yourself that movement is important. 

Most days, you’ll probably do more than the mini-habit. The hardest part is usually starting. But by having a tiny “good-enough” level of your goal, you can still check off that you did the thing.

R is for Relevant

So many people set a goal to run a marathon or learn to play an instrument when they don’t even really want to do either. Most of the time, these goals are things we think we should want or something that others want us to do.

Setting a goal that we don’t even want to reach is a sure-fire recipe for failure. And even though we don’t want it, when we don’t get it, it reinforces a belief that we can’t follow through.

Set goals that YOU want to accomplish.

Step 3. Using habits and routines

Finally, step 3 of setting goals successfully is to lean on the power of habits and routines. As evidenced by the numerous good books on the topic, there is a lot to say about habits and routines. So today let’s just talk about implementation intentions.

Implementation Intentions

Implementation intentions are a fancy name for making a detailed plan. You state specifically when and how you plan to work towards your goals. Set a day, time, and place for your habit or routine.

An example of an implementation intention is:

I will walk every day after supper.

This is a step up from most goals that people make, but you can take it a few steps even further by considering:

  • What will you do if the weather is poor?
    • Go any way?
    • Make the walk shorter?
    • Have an alternative activity?
  • What will you do if you have a flare or injury?
    • What alternative activity can you do?
  • What will you do on vacation?
    • If you’ll be active during the vacation, remember that it “counts” as your walk
    • Pause the goal (but make sure you do it the very first day back)

When you miss a day…

As the old saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Reset and restart the next day.

It is worth considering if there is something you can learn. But as you consider what tweaks you can make to your plan, get back up, dust yourself off and try again. 

Keeping a journal can be helpful to track what you are trying and whether the goals are working for you. Keeping track of your self-talk around the goal is also helpful for self-coaching. 

Bottom Line

Everyone has challenges in trying to reach their goals. Arthritis is just one challenge we need to account for when we are planning how we will reach our goals. For inspiration for how you can keep the wheels turning when you are exhausted or in pain, sign up to get the free Bare Minimum Health Plan ebook. Or if you’re ready for more support, check out the Anti-Inflammatory Path to Wellness

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