Set Your Exercise Goals High, but Not Too High

Inactive people started moving more if they received daily step targets that exceeded their usual number by about 500 steps.

Want to exercise more this year? Then adopt workout goals that are challenging but not too challenging, tough but doable, individualized but evolving. Or maybe just plan to walk at least an extra 500 steps most days.

Those are the broad conclusions of a timely new study of goal setting and exercise. It finds that inactive people start moving more if they receive daily step targets on their phone that exceed their usual number of steps — but only up to a point. If the exercise goals become too daunting, people typically start failing to meet them, denting motivation.

So, the best exercise goals are those that remain just a little out of reach, the study suggests. The issue is discovering what that idea means, in practice, for you.

With the arrival of the new year, tradition demands that we set exercise resolutions that, if tradition holds, we will abandon in the coming weeks, months or maybe tomorrow. Scientific studies and lived experience indicate that few people stick with their workout resolutions over the long term. Gym memberships and visits climb during January (or did, before the pandemic) but typically plummet by March.

The reasons for our exercise inconstancy are many and complex, according to behavioral scientists, and involve an intricate mix of the psychological and practical. But one of the most common and fundamental obstacles to sticking with a resolution is the resolution itself.

“In the scientific literature, goals that are tailored, precise and set in short time scales are more likely to be achieved” than those that are none of those, says Guillaume Chevance, an assistant research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and lead author of the new study. The goals also need to balance challenge and discouragement, he says.

But how to find that Goldilocks, just-right-for-you workout resolution has remained uncertain. In many past studies of exercise compliance, researchers have set exercise goals for people that ranged from quite tough to quite easy and then watched to see whether participants met the goals and for how long. Not surprisingly, people succeeded at meeting unchallenging movement goals more often than hard ones, but that success did not necessarily translate into much more activity, over all. At the same time, substantially higher goals produced substantially more failures to meet the goal and, often, a falloff in activity in general.

These studies tended to be binary, though. People met goals or they did not. The studies rarely examined whether getting close to a difficult goal might encourage or dishearten people.

So, for the new study, which was published in January in Health Psychology, Dr. Chevance, who at the time was affiliated with the University of California in San Diego, and his colleagues decided to ask people to take a varying number of extra steps each day and see how long and well they might stick to the program.

They began by recruiting 20 overweight, adult men and women who were, at the start, inactive but healthy enough to walk. They outfitted the volunteers with activity trackers and asked them to continue their normal lives for two weeks, while the researchers established their baseline step counts, which turned out to average about 5,000 steps a day.

Then the researchers had the volunteers download a phone app that sent them individualized step-count goals every day. The goals ranged, at random, from the same number of steps someone took at baseline up to 2.6 times as many. So, one day, participants might be aiming for their normal 5,000 steps and, the next day, 13,000.

The experiment continued for 80 days, after which researchers compared people’s daily goals, achievements and resulting, overall activity levels. And they found that people clearly walked more on days when they were asked to walk more; whenever goals exceeded people’s baseline step counts, they were more active, even if the goals were quite ambitious.

But few people achieved the highest step-count goals, often falling far short and, in general, walking little more than — or even less — than on days when the goals were more moderate. In essence, goals that people almost reached seemed the most effective at getting and keeping them moving.

Of course, this was a small, short-term study and did not directly ask about people’s exercise motivations or whether they felt demoralized by failing to finish those 13,000 steps. It also looked at walking, which is not everyone’s preferred exercise, and steps, which some people may not have the desire or technological wherewithal to count. (Almost all mobile phones contain accelerometers, which will count steps for you, or you can purchase inexpensive pedometers.)

But the results contain useful advice for anyone hoping to be more active this year. “Set precise, dynamic goals that are not too easy but realistic,” Dr. Chevance says. Maybe check the activity app on your phone for the past month, he says, to see how much you already walk and “add 10 percent” as this week’s goal, a plan that would have you increasing by about 500 steps a day if your current life resembles that of the study volunteers.

Update this goal “at least every week,” he says, upping steps — or time or distance — once you easily exceed your target and dropping the bar a bit if you remain far below. “If you are close,” he says, with the goal still a little distant, “you are on the right track.”

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