Encouraging people to achieve specific fitness goals when they first start exercising can be ineffective. In fact, it can even make it harder to get active, according to an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Every time I join a gym I have to write down a goal, when I just want to exercise a few times a week. And I often feel like a failure if I’m not closer to my goal after a few months, so I stop going altogether.
This is the experience a friend shared with me after I told him about our last article. And it makes sense. Exercise practitioners and personal trainers learn to help us set goals, and we often try to set our own exercise goals — like New Year’s resolutions.
But what if the way we set those goals isn’t actually helpful, or worse, makes it harder for us to become more active?
Why do we set specific goals?
Specific and challenging goals are widely accepted and recommended as the most effective for increasing performance, based on over 50 years of experience. to research. That’s why a personal trainer can encourage us to set a goal like losing 10 pounds in the next 12 weeks by committing to a program that includes at least three gym visits per week.
Indeed, leading exercise organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, advise practitioners that to be effective, goals must follow the SMART principle. This means they should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
Even the World Health Organization the guidelines include specific goals for physical activity, such as participating in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week.
However, important aspects of the theory surrounding goal setting seem to have been oversimplified, neglected or misunderstood. Specific goals are often used in unique ways, where it is assumed that they are equally effective for people of different skill levels.
If we’re already proficient or, in this case, physically active, specific goals are great for getting the most out of ourselves. Alternatively, if the task is not complex – such as simply trying to increase a daily number of steps – then specific goals can work well.
Yet increasing and maintaining physical activity over the long term is a complex process, so this question is highly relevant to our attempts at exercise and fitness. the the theory also says that when we’re in the early stages of learning complex new tasks, specific goals aren’t as effective as goals like doing your best – and might even be harmful to our attempts. Just imagine setting yourself a specific goal of cycling 100 meters the very first time you get on a bike.
There is also good evidence of this. For example, a great review of studies examined interventions that used goal setting to increase physical activity. He found that specific goals were no more effective in increasing physical activity than vague goals such as simply “be more active.”
See how active you can be
Problems with the current approach to goal setting include focusing on immediate or short-term results (like losing 1kg this week), shifting focus away from strategy development (aiming to complete a 20-minute run rather than figuring out how to pace yourself), and inhibiting learning (getting less knowledge about how to exercise appropriately).
Specific goals can be off-putting if we think they are unrealistic, hence the terms Achievable and Realistic in SMART. So we might even think “I won’t be able to do 150 minutes of physical activity this week – why bother trying?”
Specific goals also introduce the possibility of failure, which is a negative feeling and can be extremely demotivating. For example, you might think:
I wanted to run for half an hour but only managed 15 minutes – I’m so bad at that!
In this way, specific goals can distract you from your accomplishments:
I ran 15 minutes today even though I was busy – not bad.
Instead of automatically relying on specific, challenging goals when we try to become more active, we need to rethink how we set goals and explore other options. According to theory and based on the promising results of the first studiesopen-ended goals like “see how active you can be” seem like a great way to start.
After that, you could focus on going beyond what you achieved last time and on incremental improvements rather than ambitious goals planned in advance.
You can also focus on developing strategies to become more active, like trying different times and days you can go to the gym, or different gym equipment. And you can focus on the process of learning physical activity, like learning to pace yourself if you’re going for a run.
By simply changing the way your goals are worded, it might become easier to get active and stay active longer.